The woman, the girl, who was framed in the door was several things. She was slight, Asian, and her hair was apparently shaved like a pre-Awakening military recruit. She was wearing a nylon over her head like a bank robber. She was pointing a gun at Seth, and she was utterly, heart stoppingly, young. If she was 18 then so was I.
Seth, for his part, looked over at her and didn’t move. He wasn’t in any danger from her gun, not in robes with Refiner’s blessing, but if she was an Ultra he had a few problems to work through. When Seth was confused or uncertain of himself he reacted either with stunned immobility or by blustering and attempting to seize control of the situation. I was grateful that he was going with the former.
“Back off, Ser Prix” I told him. I emphasized his title to remind him of the realities of the situation. “It looks like we’ve found the person we were looking for.”
I was pleased to see Seth take his foot off of the chair and walk back to the table the Knights were at. I was much more pleased to see the other people in the facility finding their way out. I motioned, and the Knights followed after them. I couldn’t do anything about Snitcher, but I didn’t need any other witnesses to whatever was about to go down.
The girl, Reverter, sat down across from me, holstering her gun as she did so. I drank in more details, leaned back in my chair. She was wearing a battered brown military coat, and despite the heat a long sleeved T shirt under it, and strangest of all she had on stained surgical gloves.
“No exposed skin” whispered the Jury. I hadn’t needed to call for the rotation to cease, we had a long standing protocol for important conversations. The most observant and socially adept among my shadows looked out from behind my eyes and took in everything, feeding me details as needed.
“Reverter, I presume.” I said, by way of an opening line. I’d have gone with Dr. Reverter, but she wouldn’t get the reference. No one watched old movies anymore.
“Not officially, yet. Call me Dawn. Or Boss.” She spoke with such assurance that I knew she’d rehearsed this a few times in her mind. She drummed her fingers on the counter, and the Jury let me know that she was a piano player. Where had she found one of those still working?
‘What happened to Kicker?” I asked, playing along. “I liked her.”
“Same thing that happens to everyone, I guess.” She said, trying very hard to act like she didn’t care. “Don’t we all ‘revert’ to dust in the end?”
Just like that, I stopped finding her my-little-menace act adorable and started getting annoyed. I hadn’t been joking, Kicker was a kind woman who had kept things stable around here. A good Boss, if such a thing existed.
“Is she…” I spoke flatly, without affect. “Dead?” I looked into her eyes during the pause, giving her nothing.
“She had-“ I cut her off before she could go on.
“Yes or No, or I kill you.”
Even without the Jury I would have seen her eyes widen. She probably hadn’t been around other Ultras very often, certainly not Regime. Kicker really had kept things stable here, and Dawn had grown up without facing the world’s true nature. Her world had been a safe place, for her at least. Perhaps she’d seen human violence. Few had not. The world of Ultras, however, was something you had to get used to.
“Yes.” She said, not audibly shaken. The Jury let me know that she would go left if I moved suddenly. I’d have bet on back out the door, so there was something I was missing.
“Did you do it? Did you order it done?” I asked the questions rapidly, not giving her time to answer. I didn’t move a muscle beyond my mouth, and continued to gaze into her eyes without expression. She’d backed down once, the pattern should hold until I deviated.
“No and No.” she said. Then, daring, “But if I had it wouldn’t have been any business of yours, right, Troubleshooter?”
The Jury didn’t have any insight into whether she was lying. You can’t actually tell whether someone is telling the truth by looking really hard at their face, unless they are very bad at lying.
I shook my head dismissively. “Not really. New Boss is fine, long as you are actually an Ultra.”
She looked incredulously at me. She’d gotten over my threat remarkably fast. Perhaps she was coping by pretending it hadn’t happened, or perhaps she simply had an unusual degree of composure.
“It happens, you’d be surprised. But I don’t think that’s the case with you.” I wasn’t lying there, a surprising number of people thought it would be a great idea to put on a sigil they found scavenging in a sporting goods store and invent a gift terrifying enough that they didn’t think anyone would test them. It didn’t generally go well, although, I suppose that if it did I wouldn’t have heard about it.
We did the ‘getting something out of a pocket in a tense situation’ dance for a bit, as she carefully removing a melted candy bar from her coat. She tore open a corner and pressed it against the inside of her hand. The Jury spotted a tear in the glove there, presumably there would be one on the other glove to match, and likely a few around the knuckles, if her power had offensive application and actually required skin contact.
The candy bar unmelted, that’s the best way I can put it. It solidified and reshaped itself, like watching a film in reverse. It seemed to grow a little as well, perhaps it had lost some mass in the melting process. Dawn looked at me expectantly.
“Lame” I said, twisting my lips to accent it. “You are going to be a Boss with that as your gift?”
Inwardly I wasn’t nearly so dismissive. The Jury had instantly started coming up with nonsense you could do with her that gift and a lot of it was horrifying. Gifts with skin contact limitations tended to work on people, and if Dawn could revert an Ultra to their pre-process state she was legitimately dangerous.
She shrugged. “Tougher than I look.” Drawled it out, another movie moment she’d built in her mind ahead of time. She was going somewhere with this conversation. She wanted something.
“Look, Haunter”, she said. Fully recovered from the threat, I guessed. Youth. “You want to shoot trouble, right? That’s your thing? I can tell you where the guys that got Kicker are. Kill em if you like.”
I nodded, slowly. I wasn’t about to jump anyone on her unsupported say so, but ultimately it’s hard to turn down information. Even if she lied knowing what she wanted me to believe would tell me something.
She gave brief directions, I tuned her out. The Jury would remember for me. While they were using my senses I took a brief internal consultation.
“Probably same as you. She wants to use us to dispose of some local rival, be Boss of this shit town.” She sounded disappointed.
Joe chimed in. “Typical. She has a power that probably lets her REVERSE AGING, and she wants to be a warlord. Dumb bitch.”
The Jury did the mental equivalent of a throat clear and I snapped back to full awareness. Mental speech is just a bit faster than the real thing, letting me get a quick back and forth in while she pointed me at the targets.
“So” I said. “This gang that took down Kicker, they rebels, KEMers, or just local troublemakers?” Kicker had been super tough to at least the first degree. Killing her must have been a fairly serious production.
“Nothing well defined. Tough guys that defended their territory. Gang fits as well as anything. I wasn’t there, but I hear that she was hassling them, and they had a bomb she didn’t know about.” Reverter stood as she said this, clearly just about done talking with me.
“Uh huh.” I said. I hadn’t stood up. “Well, I’ll pay them a visit, sort em out. Afterwards, if you want a ride back to Shington you can have a seat on my bus.”
A moment of silence. I made the ‘run along’ gesture, keeping it out of my own line of sight so Snitcher wouldn’t get pissed if he saw her taking directions. I wasn’t wildly positive on her, but that was no call to mess with her chances with the Regime.
She gave me what kids imagine is the hard stare, looking into my eyes and squinting through the stocking. Then she turned and walked out, side walking so I was never fully out of her peripheral. She left by the same entrance she came in, hopefully my Knights had not crept around to that side of the building.
“Not a lightning user. No need to keep her away from the Regime.” The Colonel’s voice rasped through my mind. “What’s your next move?”
I shrugged. The shades feel what I do, so some gestures work with them. “I’ll go to the Company facility, try and talk to some of the Ultras doing guard duty.”
A clamor arose from outside, voices raised, shouting indistinctly. I jumped to my feat, dashed quickly to the door that Seth and his cronies had exited through. I manifested a pair of Vets as I did, and gestured. One of them wrenched the door open.
On the street outside, the Knights were surrounded by a small mob, maybe ten to fifteen. Lantans in dingy coats shouted imprecations and shook their fists, working up their courage to try something. The Knights swung their scythes in warning arcs, silent for the most part. In the midst of them a body lay on the ground in a spreading red puddle.
I stalked through the door, Vets following. As eyes started to turn to me I raised up my hands as though I was going to shoot something at them, and folks in the direct line cringed and ducked aside. No one threw anything or shot me as I stalked up to Seth.
“What the fuck is going on here?” I asked him, not exactly shouting to be heard, but speaking loudly. I didn’t stop at Seth as I waited his response, continuing on to his victim.
“This bitch” and he used a head motion to indicate the man lying on the ground. “He-“ whatever else Seth was going to say was drowned in a roar of anger from the folks around us, someone was grabbing Corey’s scythe by the handle, and more were converging on them.
A series of loud bangs announced that the Vets had had enough of this shit, and people began running. Their shots were warning shots, aimed high. I can’t take credit for that. Some of these guys are old American military, and they used to spend like a million dollars training each guy. They knew how to disperse a crowd.
The guy who had grabbed Corey’s scythe held on a second longer, then fled with the rest. I grabbed ahold of Seth’s shoulder in the confusion, keeping him from lunging into the mob and swinging the blessed scythe. Barn door after the cow was gone, of course, but maybe this didn’t need to escalate anymore.
“He spoke to-“ this time it was me who cut Seth off, shaking him violently and turning away to loom over the guy who he’d cut.
I didn’t need the Jury to tell me that he was done for. The scythe had gutted him, cutting through a broad belly nearly to the backbone. He was breathing rapidly, teeth clamped in a rictus of pain, hands trying to hold his life in.
I knelt down over him, put my hand to his forehead. He wasn’t much darker skinned than I, but it must have been enough to set Seth off. His eyes focused on mine for a moment, holding my gaze even as he twitched convulsively.
“That guy did this?” I asked, indicating Seth with a jerk of my head. I felt his agreement through my gift even before he nodded. It was enough.
In order to contract with someone I need to make bodily contact and we need to be in agreement. I felt a brief sensation of warmth without heat as my gift took ahold of him. It faded in moments.
I stood again. I never knew what to say to the dying, and I’d have all the time in the world to talk to this guy soon enough. I turned away from him, and also away from the knights. Faced nothing for no reason like a dolt.
The Colonel spoke, somberly. “He’s in agony, Jane. Do it.”
I clenched a fist, as a shadow he would feel that, and said nothing. This sucked.
Still I just stood there. If I could run and get Reverter…who I couldn’t reveal that I gave a shit about this to while Snitcher was watching. Not without endangering all of my shadows. I could write…I could.
The first choked scream rose up as the guy on the ground’s self control slipped.
Knowing the Vets were watching, I crooked a finger like I was shooting a gun.
I walked over to Seth. “Ser Prix,” I ground out. “Why the fuck did you slash some random dagger? You trying to fuck with my investigation?”
A gunshot from behind me, I didn’t turn as I felt the reserve swell by one. I scowled into Seth’s skull mask, daring him to quote Refiner’s White Book at me.
Seth shrugged expansively. “Figured you’d need someone to question. You took him, right?”
Oh, that was a total crock. They had no idea how I contracted shades. Or, I didn’t think they did. These three had been with me for a couple cities. Maybe he…
Joe spoke up. “Don’t blame yourself for this, boss. Seth’s a shit. He had no way to know you’d get out before this guy died. He killed him because he’s tired and angry.”
I hesitated a moment. I could just manifest a few shades, they’d grab him, throw his hood back and shoot him in the head. It would be so easy.
The new shade started trying to speak, once, then several more times rapidly. I recognized the panic spiral, and I held up my hand to Seth in a “hold it” gesture. He wasn’t going anywhere, and I could get to him any time if I decided to.
I muted all of the shades except the Colonel, and let him speak. His rasp filled my head.
“What’s your name?” he asked. I removed the mute from the new shade.
“Tom” he answered. “Tom Bell.” He tried to say more but I muted him again.
“Tom” grated the Colonel “you have been partnered with Jane Trent, sometimes called Haunter. She is an Ultrahuman under my command. We are an American force, working to carry these souls into the future. Our hope is that as technology advances the souls she carries will one day once again be clothed in flesh.”
I eased up on his mute, and he answered. “ America, that’s the old world. Y’all from way back then?”
“Jane is, and a few of us are, but most of us she’s gathered over time. Whenever she meets someone who is sick or hurt, she makes a partnership.”
“You fuckers shot me!” Tom said, as his mind spun back up. I winced inwardly. This wouldn’t be a fun conversation. I turned my attention back to the real world as the Colonel tried to explain why Tom should help us.
“Ser Prix, Dame Red, Ser Hobbes” I said. “I hope that Seth’s actions won’t result in us having to fight this fucking city, but if they do y’all are on your own. For now we’re going to the main Company Facility.” I started walking, certain that they would follow.
We set off down the street, and before we’d gone half a block people had emerged and started to gather over Tom’s corpse. I quickened our pace a bit, not in any way Snitcher would be able to pinpoint as fleeing, but just in a businesslike, purposeful stalk. The Knights followed, staffs beating out a rapid rhythm on the ground as we walked.
I delegated movement to Irene and switched my attention to the reservoir again. Good timing, Tom was telling the Colonel what he knew.
“Kicker, she was sick of the Towers crew. They were always making trouble, talking shit. They were fucking up everything. She went in and sorted them out, took out the leaders, let the rest know she weren’t going to take any more of their bullshit.”
I spoke up. “Sorted em out? Like how?” I asked.
“Just beat them down, broke the bosses a bit, didn’t kill nobody. Kicker never killed nobody, at least not most of the time. After they got fucked up by her, the Nightside crew started talk about how they were gonna fuck em up too. Called em bitches, you know. They were gonna get killed, everyone knew it.”
I let him wait a sec before prompting him. “And…”
“Bunch of em went to the Company, yo, told em to do the Process. Said they were dead anyway, ya know? Marched like a parade, their Last Ride. Must’a been a couple dozen or a hundred or two hundred.”
Shit, they must have been desperate. Only about one out of 30 women survived the Process and became an Ultra. The numbers for men were much worse.
“3 of em made it, Reverter, Biter and Stepper they call themselves now. When Kicker rolled up to the Red Tower I hear that Biter took her out. She’s the strongest of em. She took the Nightside crew and brought em into the Towers, started leading em with Stepper as her second. Reverter split from that crew and has been hiding from em since. Presser and Taker have been staying out of it, and the Company guards don’t care what goes on outside their building.”
Fantastic. There wasn’t one more would-be Boss in the city, there were two.