I stood up quickly from the chair I’d been resting in. What on earth were those three doing together? I walked over to greet them, making myself smile as I nodded to Seth.
“Haunter, I hear you got into it with the leader of the Towers gang.” Said Reverter, cutting off Seth and Tom as they both tried to speak. “Guess you paid her back for Kicker.”
“Yeah.” I said, letting the word linger. Should I press her about the inconsistencies between what she’d told me and the reality I’d found? What would that do? Either she’d be contrite, and I’d have to pretend to buy it, or she’d be defiant, and I’d have another Ultra fight on my hands.
“Her buddy backed down after I killed Biter. Stepper probably won’t be a problem for you once you are the Boss.”
Behind the stocking Dawn’s face fell in a scowl. Good. Reminding her that Stepper would be her issue to deal with was petty, but it made me feel a little better.
“Careful, Boss.” Joe broke in. “You don’t get anything out of pissing Reverter off or scaring her. We are going to be driving with her for a long trip. Maybe it would be nicer if she was friendly?”
He was right, of course, which made it harder to do what he said. I’d been done anyway, now I looked like I was…No, focus.
“Anyway” I said, ending the minor pause, “it’s late, and I’m not interested in camping out in the Facility all night. You put us up?”
It wasn’t really a question. She nodded, looking slightly relieved if the Jury was to be believed.
“Sure, Troubleshooter.” She said. “You can crash with me. Mi casa Her casa.”
I nodded and walked away from her, heading over to the Knights. I pulled Tom back into the reserve as I did so.
“Seth”, I said. “Give me a brief report. In particular, how did you end up with Reverter?”
“Can’t your ghost boy tell you?” he asked.
I clenched my fists at my side, hard enough to make my arms tremble to their elbows. He started slightly.
“Apologies. We left your company and moved through several streets before being surrounded by belligerent Lantans. They shouted and threw some things, but I held em off by pretending to threaten your shade. A big one took charge and came up and told me to let your shade go, but I didn’t think that doing that was wise. It asked him to bring some specific people, I guess Lantans it had known, and they were brought. That took a while. I stepped back when they showed up, things had sort of calmed down, and they talked for a bit. One lady was crying, but I stayed far back enough not to overhear what they were talking about. When they left Reverter showed up and told us to go with her. I wasn’t sure if she was the Boss or not, and if talking to her was part of your shade’s mission, so I went along with it. We went back to her place for a while, then came here.”
I looked away, implicitly dismissing him, and went back to Reverter.
“Lead the way”.
We left the Facility and walked out into the plaza. Reverter and I walked side by side, wordless for the most part. The Knights trailed along behind us, with Corey and Seth having a heated discussion and Caitlyn keeping her silence. I lengthened my stride to put distance between us. I didn’t want to deal with the Knights right now.
I wasn’t in any mood to talk to my reserve, so I had the Colonel start giving Tom the full details of his new situation. He explained about the Rotation, how only one shade would talk at a time, in sequence, so that we could manage the thousands of voices with just one channel. He told Tom about how shades who I deployed were allowed to move in the rotation, about how I would manifest them, in order, during down times. Most of all he let him in on the fact that this was all supposed to be temporary. Just a way to keep their souls in this world until we figured out some way to give everyone bodies again.
He finished up the explanation before we got to Reverter’s, leaving me to ponder how much of it was true. I’d been at this a long time. I’d never seen any particular sign that technology was getting any closer to creating bodies that my shades could possess. No one was working on it. No one even really could work on it. Science had mostly stopped advancing when She crushed the old world, at least in America. Copyer had duplicated Dr. Chen before he vanished, and duplicated those duplicates over and over down to today, but they probably weren’t working on my issues.
I’d asked Adder about it, once, maybe ten years ago. He told me he’d have the Company look into it. Were they still doing so? Would it be safe to ask? She had certainly killed minions for less, and I’d seen Her do it. It was safer, as always, to keep doing what I was doing. To do the Regime’s bidding, passing intel and taking minor action for the resistance when I could.
What if that was just cowardice though? The Union had better technology than the Regime did, by a long shot. Their civilization had never collapsed to the same extent as ours had. If I went overseas, would I discover that they’d had the ability to help me out for a decade or more?
Pipe dream, of course. Snitcher had his leash on me. Running would be almost impossible when my pursuers could look out of my eyes any time they wished. More, it would be irresponsible. Thousands of lives lost because I was stupid and impatient.
Lost in thought as I was, I still noticed when we entered Reverter’s district. The soft, cool Lantan night gave way to electric lighting shining from shattered windows and through ruined arches. Reverter’s friends, or subjects, called greetings to her as we moved into the lighted streets, and she returned them with every indication of warmth. Either she was beloved in this part of town, or she scared folks enough that they were putting on a damn good show.
Her own place was modest, a house built post Toppling, in pretty good repair. Guards, or folks doing that job, opened the door as we approached. We stepped into a comfortable and fully powered residence. A video player was showing an old program on one of the walls, although one of her people immediately turned it off as we entered.
“Guest bedrooms on the first floor for your Knights”, Reverter said. “And there’s an extra main room upstairs that you can use if you like.”
“Sounds fine to me, Boss” I responded.
We split up and headed to our respective sleeping areas. I noticed without much shock that Corey and Caitlyn were sharing a room. I climbed the stairs with none of the aches and pains someone of my advanced age might expect, thanks to the strength of the shades that I was wearing, but I moved gingerly and carefully anyway. I retired to the sleeping area without exchanging further words with Reverter.
Before setting down to sleep I manifested a pair of Vets to watch over me, and asked for whoever was due a night turn in the rotation. Irene gave me the names and I brought out a dozen or so of them. They could talk quietly in here, or take their chances outside. I lay down on the bed and was asleep in moments.
I awoke the next morning, bright and early.
“Jane Trent, in Lanta, Guest of the city’s new Boss”. I did my orientation, then lay quietly for a moment. The Vets still stood their vigil. A few of the Tourists were playing cards, the rest must have wandered off somewhere. Some had undoubtedly spent the night screwing, which was pretty unsafe for shades, but which I couldn’t stop them from doing.
I lay for a moment in quiet contemplation. It was a pleasant thought that I could probably literally lie here all day and no one would bug me. The Knights would keep. Reverter would be too unsure to come up and bother me. Snitcher wouldn’t bother to look if I kept my eyes closed. I could spend a few hours doing nothing at all, if I was so inclined.
I stood up, retracting all of my shades, and smiled. Last night I’d gone to bed wondering if I was squandering my time, and here I was tempted by the idea. The human condition, unchanged by the Process.
I put my sigil back on. It had fallen off somewhere during the night, and walked to the door. I went down and found Reverter eating breakfast, her stocking rolled up at her forehead to let her shovel the nutrient chunks into her mouth. She was wolfing it down, just tearing into the stuff. It made her look even younger than she really was.
I walked over and wordlessly handed her my sigil. She used her gift on, fixing the big hole in the top where Biter had taken a chunk from it, and I put it back on, nodding in approval.
“I’d like to spend a day or so in Lanta before we head back to Shington. See the sights, stretch my legs, you know?”
It wasn’t really a question, and I was happy when Reverter nodded.
“I don’t mind. I hoped you’d say that, actually. I’ve got to let everyone know that I’ll be leaving for a while. I need to set things in order with Presser and Stepper and the rest, and kick the gangs around a bit to make sure they know not to act up while I’m gone.”
“Want to borrow some Knights?” I asked. “I don’t really need them, and for a new Boss with no Tally they’ll lend you some intimidation factor.”
“Sure”, she grinned. “Can’t hurt, right?”
I spent the remainder of the day, and all of the next, doing my usual stuff. Each time I visit a town I like to spend some time waking its streets, letting my Shades have whole days of life, and making certain that everything was in order.
I visited each of the city’s dagger gangs. I told them about my ark of the future, let those who were sick or just wanted the insurance get pacted. Most people didn’t want anything to do with it. They were stupid or afraid, and so death would have them when their bodies failed. I was used to it.
The shades walked the city streets in packs, spreading the word of my presence and striving to accumulate experiences, to do and say things that they’d remember once they were trapped in an old woman’s body. They sought to rediscover their lives. By and large they would fail, but it was all I could do for them.
The Knights brought me word each evening of what Reverter was up to. I barely needed their reports, however. It was pretty much what she’d told me. She visited the city’s Ultras, told them I was backing her claim to be Boss, got their acknowledgement. She visited the gangs, told them to behave or else. She went to the Company helped them with their equipment in ways that the Knights didn’t really understand.
Two days after I’d arrived at her house, we were ready to go. We walked back through the city streets, got to the Bus.
It was time to broach a subject I’d been curious about since I met her. While the Knights got onboard I put a hand on her shoulder. She jumped a bit, then settled.
“Dawn” I asked. “Does your power work on people?”
She stepped forward, turned back to look squarely at me.
“Not well” she said. “Not like you might think.”
“But it works a little? This could be pretty important.”
I was leaving unsaid that she’d be questioned fiercely about this in Shington. Aging wasn’t a problem for Her, and some of her oldest had their own jury rigged solutions that seemed to be keeping them vital, but none the less there were a lot of aging scumbags in the Regime.
“I can fix injuries, damages to the form. I can revert that. My gift…sort of tells me when a form is incomplete, lets me revert it to the entirety. Also, it does the opposite. I can make injuries reopen, that sort of thing.”
“So, if someone chopped my arm off, you could make me grow a new one?”
“Not…precisely. I could give you back the old one. It would vanish from wherever it had fallen when I unhappened the injury. Can people chop your arms off though? Wouldn’t that just kill a ghost?”
She had a point there. Not the best example I could have picked. I waved the question aside. The Jury and I weren’t really interested in talking about my own gift.
“So, you can fix things, or break them if they’ve already broken…That’s useful. But diseases, aging?”
She shook her head.
“Those are more like changes to the form than pieces pulled out of it. I can’t do anything about that.”
“Can you ‘revert’ a container that is emptied back to being full? Just zap the material back from wherever it ended up?”
She looked pensive at that.
“Sometimes. Mostly no. The container is one form, the stuff in it has its own forms. But, like, batteries, I can put the charge back in. Or if the container is made of the stuff inside it, I could restore that.”
“Could you feed someone from an animal for months, then later revert it and starve them in an instant?”
This time she looked positively shocked. I was once again struck by how youthful she was. Forget knowing the old world herself, I wasn’t sure her parents had even known it.
“Uh…I don’t know? I guess? I’m not sure…” She trailed off.
“Just a thought. In Shington, they will try and figure out where you can be most useful to the Regime. Odds are you can be a Boss like you want, most everyone can, but if someone else wants you for a particular task…”
“I should accept?”
“Depends. If its Adder, probably. If its Subtracter, ask what it is.”
I left unstated that it might be a Her. If Reverter couldn’t figure out that she should indulge Prevailer then there was no helping the girl.
We moved on to the Bus.
Reverter delayed us a bit, crawled around on the bottom and opened up the engine, using her gift on every bit of the vehicle that she could manage. We certainly weren’t complaining. Once she pronounced herself satisfied we all boarded up and Seth drove us out of town.
It wasn’t the worst visit I’d made. Not a Decimation, and I didn’t end up in an Ultra fight where I ended up fleeing for my life. I’d killed twice, lost 20 shades. I’d also pacted about that many, and if I could get Reverter set up as Atlanta’s boss things would probably get better around here.
I’d tolerated the Knights, which should buy me some clout with Refiner. If Eriko was right, that meant that I’d be tapped for something bigger soon enough. I’d heard rumors that they were reforming the Fourth Fist, maybe I’d be part of that. That would be one way to stop getting older.
I leaned back in my seat, adjusted my ‘reverted’ sigil and slid down. The rotation filled my mind, shades murmuring to one another in a perpetual cycle, thousands of lives in my charge. Irene murmured names and I let a bunch of them out, they could take some bus time.
As they filled the bus, filing past the Knights and the young, frightened Ultra I was bringing back to the Lair, I felt a surge of contentment. Another job done, and I hadn’t fucked up so badly that my world was in ruins. That was enough for me. For now.
I fell asleep quickly, lulled by the sway of the bus and the drone of the rotation.