We drew nearer to the Company’s facility. The streets were clearer here, and we saw the occasional passerby. Every place had folks who didn’t take notice of distant noises, you’d see the same trickle of people in Ston or Lotte, under roughly the same circumstances.
Within, the Colonel’s interrogation of Tom continued. A picture emerged, of a city subdivided into smaller fiefdoms, some overseen by an Ultra, others run by Human gangs. Kicker had been hands-off to the extreme. According to Tom, you could barely tell that she’d been in charge. She’d kept to herself, let the humans do as they like. If I’d had to be a Boss I like to think I’d do it similarly.
I let the Colonel handle it, keeping the rest muted and keeping my attention firmly focused on the real world. If I was a hostile Ultra I’d be tempted to ambush the Troubleshooter before she made it to the Company. Once I was there, I could ask the local Director to let me look at the records of the Process, and get a rough estimate of their powers. No reason to let me do that.
The Knights wouldn’t see it coming, masks and hoods cut down on their vision to a shocking extent. My own power was mostly public knowledge, if they knew that I was the one in town, and they had a countermeasure, they could….
I quashed my paranoia. We had walked into town, brief conversation, one gunshot. No reason to assume these two had any idea that we were on the way, if they were even hostile. Rumors would be flying, people would think this was going to be a Decimation. They’d think I was here to take over. A hundred stories and the truth just one. My mind was running away with me. Reverter wanted me to take care of them for her, she had no incentive to tell them what I was up to.
“Haunter” said Corey, stepping close, voice pitched low such that the others wouldn’t hear. “Ser Prix’s account of the altercation was not entirely…”
I cut him off with a raised hand, continued walking. I fumed. As though I didn’t know that Seth had started whatever had gone down. I just had to figure out a way to deal with him, one that didn’t get Snitcher’s attention, one that kept me in Refiner’s good graces…
“Sir Prix” I said, as a revelation struck. “I’ve got a job for you. My newest shade has an assignment. I want you to make certain he makes it back without getting popped. Don’t fuck up.”
“Tom” I sent. “How would you like a chance to say goodbye? There must be someone…”
“I got bros, a sister, you wanna go talk to my people?”
“Nah, I’ll let you go instead. I’m going to manifest you, let you walk around as a shade. You got to be careful out there, one sharp blow and you are gone, but if you still want to go…”
“Yeah, no question. I just…I…. Can I talk, can I touch people?”
“Sure, but if someone hits you, it’s all over. Be gentle, you are like a bubble person.”
I raised a hand, forestalling Seth’s questions. The Knights clustered around me. I push my gift, moments later I manifested Tom, a translucent, wavering version of the man who’d died on the street.
“Go” I said. “Seth, make sure he makes it back.”
He hesitated a moment, and Tom took off at a jog. Seth groaned and headed after him at a faltering jog. He’d been marching all day, and the robes were cumbersome. Hopefully, Tom took him somewhere that he wouldn’t come back from. If God was good, that was the last I’d see of Ser Seth Prix.
Corey and Caitlyn looked at one another as he set off, but neither asked to go with him, or where I’d sent him. Just as well, as I wasn’t sure what answer I’d give. I beckoned and set off, and they followed once again.
It wasn’t much further before we arrived at the Company’s plaza. People milled about before it, some running, some walking, a few standing and talking. This was the toppled city’s hub, Lanta’s beating heart. If they’d even heard the gunshot all the way over here, they hadn’t paid it any mind. People swirled around the Company like ants around a mound. Some heading in for protein, or to beg for tech. Others departing, their requests fielded by the Copied personnel.
The Jury called my attention to her before I noticed. A woman with a football helmet for a Sigil was walking towards me. Big fat lady, no grill on the helmet. Her name was on the tip of my tongue. She shot fire, Burner, Toaster, Fryer? Shit.
“Sizzler” Joe sent. “You’ve heard of her when Kicker told you about her dumb Sigil. Kicker said she’s impatient and angry.”
Sizzler is a crap name. I’ve always felt bad about Haunter, but at least I didn’t sound like a ride in an old amusement park.
“Troubleshooter” she opened with. “What are you doing in town?”
“Looking around, Adder told me that something interesting might be going on. I hadn’t been down this way in a while, figured I’d take a look.”
“So, you aren’t here for a Decimation then?” she asked. “That’s kinda surprising. Been months since anyone’s tried to take Her down. Bet She’s getting restless.”
“You are probably right, Sizzler. But I hadn’t heard anything when I left. She’ll probably send a Fist to go fuck up the Patheon if she gets bored, kill some daggers, drag their bosses into a fight. Not really my business anyway. I’m more interested in what’s going on in Lanta. Talked to your Boss, didn’t clear things up much.”
She chuckled knowingly, nodded.
“Which Boss? Reverter and Biter both want the big sigil.”
“Reverter, and she tried to point me towards Biter’s crew, didn’t give me a word of warning about 2 ultras being part of it.”
“I was on duty when she came out of the Process.” Sizzler said. “Scrawny little thing. She was the old leader’s main squeeze. When he didn’t make it, and 2 of the grunts did, she wasn’t going to fit in.”
“Why is she handing out tech? A Company Man told me there’s been some electronic music playing, Adder’s brief said some folks were using old world lights. I could see making her own life better, but giving tech to daggers?”
“Building up support.” Sizzler nodded, as though to emphasize what she was saying. “Lots of people felt good about Kicker. By giving out some toys and talking up how Biter offed her, Reverter wants to get some human goodwill. I don’t know what she thinks that’ll do for her, but that’s the only reason I can come up with.”
It sort of said everything you needed to know about Sizzler that hearing that someone was handing out quality of life improvements made her think that she was buying goodwill. She might be right, but Reverter also might just be trying to help out. She was awfully young.
I started walking past Sizzler towards the facility. She fell into step beside me. Despite me looking old enough to be her mother I had to slow my pace for her. Sizzler sort of waddled when she walked, not a thin woman.
“Big day when they came around.” She said. “Whole Towers crew, a hundred or more. Walked in and asked for the Process. Took most of the day, and I had to burn the losers out on the edge of town so we wouldn’t have to deal with the stink.”
“Is that a normal thing?” I asked. “Losing gang in a squabble rolls up full force to get Processed? Seems like it can’t be.”
“It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve seen it once or twice. It is much more common when the problem is the city’s Boss. No one would back you when Kicker said you were done.”
We had reached the doors. They whisked open with old world efficiency and we stepped through into what amounted to another world.
While the plaza was hot and dusty, baking beneath the southern sun, the lobby of the Company Facility was immaculately cleaned and air conditioned to the point of chilliness. The walls and floor were tiled in a white ceramic of some kind, and a soft blue glow emanated from small gaps between them. No matter where I went in the domain, the Company buildings were always the same.
Lines of civilians meandered across the floor, but no one seemed anxious to bar our path as Sizzler and I, with the Knights in tow, strode over to meet with a Company Man. Sizzler stopped a discreet distance away and let me talk with him alone, but the Jury was pretty sure she could overhear from there.
“Greetings Haunter, have you come for a refreshing protein paste?
“No,” I said. “I’m here to inquire into the abilities displayed by the last 3 Ultras you Processed. Tell me what they can do.”
“Certainly, Troubleshooter. One moment.” He stood still for a long moment, long enough to be awkward, and then he spoke in a rapid monolog, broken only by the occasional pause to draw breathe.
“Reverter possesses an ability to cause any form she comes in contact with to return to an earlier state. Doing so removes damage which does not consist of the removal of any discrete sub forms. Further, she demonstrated improved resilience to the first degree. Biter gained the ability to cause large chunks of forms she comes into contact with to disappear, and her form to take on their affinities. This ability works on living forms as well, leaving a jagged wound resembling a large bite mark. She gains increased durability and power by consuming matter in this manner, and can hear echoes of the thoughts of people ‘bitten’ by this process. Additionally, she has demonstrated improved strength and resilience to the first degree. Stepper can leave behind a trail of light on the ground, and pass without transition to any point along the trail. She can also cause any other individual standing on the trail to vanish and appear at another point along it. In addition, she possesses super speed to the first degree.”
The Company Man returned to his default posture, hands at his side and face cover by a broad smile. I considered what I’d heard.
“Not sure we can take Stepper. She probably can’t take us, but super speed and a mobility power? We won’t hit her.” Sarah spoke up, interrupting the rotation. She, Joe, the Colonel and Irene had blanket permissions to do so. “Biter’s probably not such a problem for your particular skill set, though super tough one means you’ll need to use the Knights, or Jim. Reverter’s a soft target, if you want to take the easy out. She’s probably counting on constantly repairing that stuff she covers up with to defend her, shouldn’t be an issue.”
That was roughly what I’d been thinking. I’d gotten lucky this time, nobody had been Processed into anything I couldn’t deal with. Stepper might be a problem, but I’d killed someone with first level superspeed before. Besides, she wasn’t even claiming to be Boss. If she was smart enough to back someone else’s play I could probably talk with her.
I walked over to Sizzler. I needed a local’s opinion.
“For Boss, Reverter or Biter?” I asked. “Got a preference?”
“I dunno.” She shrugged expansively. “ Reverter’s been giving shit out, might keep the daggers in line better. Biter’s probably stronger. Really, it ought to be Presser, but he’s staying out of it. I don’t really care… Reverter I guess?”
I nodded, slowly. I needed to see Biter, feel her out. I turned to the Knights.
“Ser Hobbes, Dame Red, go find Biter and let her know that a Regime Troubleshooter wants to talk to her. Ask her to come see me in front of the Company Facility this evening.”
They hesitated, then turned away. As they started off Caitlyn looked back over her shoulder at me. I relented a bit.
“Tell her my name, I’ve got a bit of a rep for being straight up. Might inspire her to let y’all come back.”
She nodded once, and they walked out of the lobby into the heat and the dust. Good riddance. The Knights were convenient at times. I hoped that Corey and Caitlyn would be safe, but whether they were or not it would be useful information.
“Any idea why Presser’s standing down?” I asked Sizzler. “He’d be a cinch to walk over these three.”
“Just doesn’t want the job. I was drinking with him a while back, he went on a rant about how being a Boss wasn’t worth it, have to spend all your time kicking the daggers’ asses, might get killed by Her if you suck at it. And what do you get? First pick of sigil and you get to tell folks what to do? Ain’t worth it, not by a long shot.”
Those were pretty much my thoughts on the matter, so it was hard to blame Presser for that attitude, but it made my job a bit harder.
Thinking it through, Reverter, fundamentally, had a useful power for a Boss. She could fix parts of the town each day, give people back little conveniences of the Old World. Having her in power would probably be better for the city than Biter, who was an Ultra with nothing but fighting powers. If I could just pick, I’d go with Reverter, even after the stunt she pulled. The problem was the interview.
To become Boss, an Ultra had to visit Shington and talk with Adder or another Inner Circle member, get hooked up to Snitcher. I could easily imagine Adder realizing that Reverter could be a lot more valuable to the Regime using her gift on things they cared about than she could as a Boss. She could fix Old World weapons, nukes or computers or something. I might have to play along with them to keep my repository intact, but I didn’t have any interest in helping them out to that extent.
By contrast, if I chose Biter as boss, there wouldn’t be much of an issue, except that she’d probably kill Reverter. My ideal endgame had Reverter hanging around in Atlanta, helping out with day to day stuff. Was that achievable, or did I need to kill her so she didn’t end up drawn to Shington?
I’ll say one thing for the old world. Air conditioning was a great achievement. The loss of universal A.C. is as symptomatic as anything else of our decline as a nation, as a race. After a day spent trudging through the Lantan heat the chance to rest my feet and think was a great luxury. I moved away from Sizzler, planted myself behind one of the counters in a well upholstered chair, rested my feet on a pile of paper, and sank back into the cushions, heaving a sigh of blissful relief.
Outside, the Knights would be scurrying to the tasks I set them on. Seth would be, hopefully, breathing his last, killed by the dark skinned humans he so loathed. Biter would be getting word of my presence, as well as any information her contacts could tell her about me. Reverter would be hearing reports, that I’d come to the facility and talked to Sizzler. Everyone scurrying about in the heat, while I sat my old bones in this chair and luxuriated in the cool of the Facility. It was a pleasant thought.
“Jane, what’s the plan?” she asked, dragging me back from pleasant daydreams. “You going to take down Biter and Stepper, or get rid of Reverter, or do you want to try and play peacemaker?”
Sarah liked there to be a plan.
“I don’t know yet. Next thing I want to do is talk to Biter, if she responds to my invitation. I’m hoping I can sell her on coming to Shington, talk up the Troubleshooters as the right place for someone of her newfound talents. If she goes for that, I’ll tell Reverter to find her own ride, and that’ll be that. I’ll take Biter into the Troubleshooters, Dawn will make her own way up to be sworn in as Boss of Lanta, and things will work out.”
“Ok, so why might that not work out? Talk me through everyone’s motivations and what you think they’ll want.”
I scratched my forehead, gave it a moment’s careful thought.
“Ok, I’m Biter. My gang ran afoul of Kicker, things got so bad that we went to the Facility and asked to be Processed. So, more or less, we asked to die. I asked to die. I was at the end. Then, bang, I become an Ultra. Beat the odds, walk away from death. I’m relieved, euphoric.”
It was hard to put myself in her shoes. It had been a long time since I’d felt anything other than a sort of weary resignation about my gifts. But I remembered the chamber, the apparatus. The feel of the joining, of transcending, wasn’t something I could completely forget, no matter how many decades passed.
“A friend also survives, and also one of my old gang leader’s bitches. We fight together, we take down the Boss. So I’ve had my revenge, now I want to be in charge. I’ve got a new gang, I’ve got respect, fear…I’m euphoric, doubling down every day because I’m on a roll, God damn it.”
Was that right? It sort of fit. Biter could have just walked away from her Towers affiliation after becoming an Ultra, but she’d taken on Kicker anyway. So, would she bite at anything? At anything that resembled winning?
“I’m Reverter. Joe interjected. “ I’m used to being close to power, if not wielding it. My friends are dead, the other 2 who survived don’t like me much. I try and point the Regime troubleshooter at them, but I don’t really have a way to ensure that works. I’m…grasping? I’m flailing. My life has sort of collapsed, and I’m trying to forge a new one, grabbing everything I can find and hoping it sticks. Fastest way out is through, safety beneath the lighthouse, yadda yadda.”
Alright, so if Biter wanted to win, and Reverter wanted to get some stability, could that work out? If I pitched it as a big deal to get to join the troubleshooters, Biter might snap at It, leave aside entirely the question of who becomes Boss. Leave with Biter, once we’re gone, Reverter fixes things up? It felt like it might work.
I’d decided on an approach. When Biter showed I’d try and recruit her. Perfect outcome? We’d leave town before Reverter heard anything more of it. With that decided I set it aside. I had a plan, when Biter showed up, if she showed up, I’d put it in motion. Nothing left to do but sit and relax in the cool atmosphere of the Facility.