Relief was a long time coming. I knelt on the soiled floor of the Garden’s best room, breathing heavily. The magnitude of what I had done seemed to oppress me, grind me into the floor. I’d confronted the First Fist. I’d threatened Remover, of all people. The woman who had toppled the old world, who had literally crushed its populace beneath its buildings. I’d backed her down. She and her posse had walked away.
I’d planned for their enmity. There was no way around it, or none that I could conceive. If I wanted to be a player, and I very much did, in the Regime’s affairs then I’d draw the ire of the existing power structure. Planning it, however, was very different from experiencing it.
I tried to calm myself. Knowledge is never bad, after all. Their enmity wasn’t new, only my knowledge of it. While I’d been walking here they’d already been planning on giving me to Pursuer. I’d been ignorant. To bemoan the alleviation of my ignorance was worse than illogical, it was ridiculous.
Gradually, I regained mastery of myself. I stood again, stretched my hands out in front of me and stared at them until their trembling ceased. I made myself look at the human remains crushed into the bed and accepted my fault. She’d died because I’d brought her here. The instinct to moan and apologize was absurd. The dead did not hear. Even if she could, she had no reason to forgive me. I wasn’t about to set the rest free, or cease my efforts. Repentance without a change in behavior is self-serving twaddle.
When I was calm once again, I left the room, stepping over the toppled door. I overcame the absurd suspicion that the Fist was waiting for me downstairs and made my way down to the ground floor.
The Knights were all there, crouching on couches and footrests, awaiting my return. I envied them the full face masks for a moment. I couldn’t see how they’d taken the First Fist’s passing. Were they affected by the Ultras they served? Were we all the same to them, or did they have a special dread for warlike bastards?
“Kirsten,” I said. “Stay here until Gary gets back. Observe everything carefully, write up what you see and give it to Knight Commander Percy when you get back this evening.”
She saluted, crossing fists in front of her. I’d picked her because she was the smallest of the four. Irrationally, this made me think that she was probably the smartest. I’d caught myself doing this before, and it’s a weakness. Just because I’m tiny, and smarter than those around me, doesn’t indicate that the two qualities are somehow correlated. It wasn’t important enough to correct.
“The rest of you, with me,” I said. We headed out into the street.
With only 3 Knights we changed our formation slightly. A pair of them walked diagonally in front of me, and one walked directly behind me. As before, it was mostly pro forma. My gift would ward me, or I would die. Knights couldn’t hurt, so I had them, but I put no stock in their obedience. Refiner was a patron of mine, but his men were only nominally loyal to him. There was no way to know how many Ultras had been betrayed by their Knights, but it wouldn’t surprise me to know that it was a lot.
Shington’s streets remained quiet, just a passerby trotting here or there. They dropped into the Posture at the sight of my sigil and escort. I headed straight for the Lair, paying them little mind aside from scrutinizing them to make certain that they weren’t assassins.
It took a few hours to make our way downtown, we had to cross a split in the earth from a recent battle on a bridge made out of an old school bus, and there were a few checkpoints that impeded things a little. All in all we made good time.
Actual scrutiny didn’t begin until we reached the boundary of the Lair. It takes up most of the middle of Shington, the ruins of the government center and a swathe of ruined residential zones where the politicians and their support staffs used to live. It was surrounded by an improvised wall, and at the opening we were met by a fairly serious inspection.
Ultras in the service of the Regime manned the gates, alongside a bunch of Knights and some Copied drones with guns. I didn’t recognize the sigils, but these Ultras would be combat capable and dedicated to their task, if unimaginative. All had been brought near to Torturer’s pit, and the entire purpose of their lives was to avoid being brought back.
They inspected me and my Knights. I had to brush off some of my skin sludge and let them see the sparkles to verify my identity. The Knights had their masks taken off and their faces compared with photographs kept in a book. Daniel had put on some weight since his was taken and for an instant I thought they were going to kill him, but they eventually let us pass.
We threaded our way through the rubble of the Lair, heading for Adder’s residence. Weirdly, the Lair is much more ruined and decrepit than the greater Shington area. Prevailer’s preference. Wreckage suited Her.
Adder lived in an old apartment building. He didn’t have any Knights or servants around, and I knew from experience that if I brought mine up with me he’d talk to them as much to me. I left them outside and headed in to meet him. I took the stairs up to his floor, knocked on his door. After a moment I heard the door unlatch and he opened it up.
Adder was a preposterously old black man, shriveled up like a raisin. His teeth shone out from behind lips that twisted with an old wound. He smiled broadly though, and the wrinkles changed and deepened as he did. It was strange, like an old Santa video, how totally a smile could transform a face.
I stepped on the heels of my shoes and got them off before coming in. He was fussy about the little stuff like that. As I stepped into the apartment he was heading over to a breadbox, taking out a plate and loading it up with cheeses and things.
While he bustled about I looked him up and down. He was spry as ever, moving like a man merely old, not the ancient creature that he was. The lines on Adder’s body weren’t all wrinkles. There was lot of scar tissue, from an appalling number of operations.
Adder had no way to deny the years, no link or gift like Prevailer’s to cheat the reaper. Instead, he had the diligent efforts of a surgical team and Prevailer’s promise that the day he died she’d kill half the human race. He and Copier remade the parts of him that started to fail, and every time things wore out they patched him back together. It couldn’t last, but it was impossible not to be moved by the effort.
“Little ‘Venter” he said, his voice incongruously deep despite his advanced age “how nice to see you again.”
“Mark” I responded. He hated his Ultra name, despite the fact that it was in my opinion one of the cooler ones. “You are looking well.”
He chuckled quietly.
“I’d hate to see what you’d think looking ill would be like, if this is what you call well.”
“Flattery,” I admitted. “Would you take ‘unchanged’ at face value?”
“Well then, you are looking unchanged,” I said.
He nodded in response, nibbling on one of his cheese and cracker snacks. I picked up some puzzle boxes for Thui and then put them down again. No purse. I’d have one of the Knights carry them on the way back.
We small talked for a little bit, back and forth about this and that. I didn’t have a particularly close relationship with Adder, but my understanding was that he did this with everyone. I’d put it down to trying to bore Snitcher out of watching him, except for the fact that Snitcher had told me that Prevailer had given him standing orders never to so much as glimpse the old man. Maybe it was an old world thing.
Eventually, after bringing him up to date on every Knight I knew (whose names he all remembered), and hearing in return about a dog he’d been raising, his operations and the new computer games he was making for Prevailer we got down to the purpose of my visit.
“You asked me to look into why humans rise against us, in such numbers, despite all that we do to them. I’ve got the answer.”
He smiled delicately.
“An answer, perhaps. I’m sure that it is too complicated of a topic for there to be one, singular, absolute answer.”
I forged on ahead.
“Well, the main answer. Like I said in my report. They rebel because there is nothing else to do.”
“I thought it would be because we mistreat them,” he said.
I rolled over that.
“It is utterly unrealistic to expect them to do nothing. It is entirely against human nature. Basic psychology tells us this. We aren’t giving them a choice between compliance and rebellion, it is a choice between stasis and action. No wonder they rebel!”
His smile became a trifle sad. I might have been imagining it. He had a bit of a hangdog, grandfatherly face at the best of times. It would be easy to project wry sadness onto it at the best of times.
“Granting your premise,” he said. “What do you think that we should do about it?”
“I’ve already got a plan.” I said. “We’ll take our inspiration directly from the old world. Chariot races kept the ancient Romans peaceful. Football worked for the Americans. There’s no reason at all that we can’t do something similar.”
“Sports?” he asked. “You propose we bring peace back to America by bringing back, what, some kind of tournament?”
“Exactly. Football, soccer, rugby, baseball…there were dozens of games back in the day. We bring one of them back. We put the humans in teams and assign the teams to represent the cities. You make the gear, Knights guard the festivities, humans have something to talk about, something to think about, that isn’t how hard it is to walk past the Company Facility and stay unprocessed one more day.”
I was kind of carried away, speaking with a kind of passion that I didn’t usually display. It wasn’t that I had any kind of passion for ball games, of course. I just liked showing off how smart I was. Adder was better able to appreciate it than most, and winning him over would be an achievement.”
“Well, it hardly seems like it can hurt,” he temporized. “But you must have already thought about why this won’t work.”
I nodded, slowly.
“Picture it, the first game of your league, everyone’s there. There are players, an audience, referees…”
His eyes got a sort of faraway look as he talked. It was hard to keep in mind, but he’d actually lived through things like this. No doubt his father or someone had brought him to ball games in his youth.
“And then, Subtracter kills everyone,” he finished flatly. “Do you think the next game will be so well attended?”
There it was. The sticking point. This was what I’d have to get past.
“She wouldn’t, if I got her to promise not to. Prevailer frowns on liars.”
He nodded, slowly.
“The objection was more general, as you well know. Subtracter is far from the only Ultra who occasionally dabbles with ordering humans about.”
He arched his eyebrows while he said this. I thought about the Garden and shifted uneasily.
“Granted. What I’m thinking isn’t exactly that kind of a promise. I want to be, officially, in charge of these leagues. I want it known that anyone messing with these leagues would be messing with me, and more importantly, with you.”
“So, you want Her to confirm this,” he said. His voice fell a little bit as he brought Her up, his gaze dimming and the wrinkles on his face seemed to deepen.
“If I speak up for it, and you back me, I don’t see why She’d refuse.”
“You will speak with Her,” he spelled out. “In public, you will ask Her this, and you want me to support you. We will say that letting the humans have their games will, what?”
“Keep them out of our hair,” I finished, eagerly. “You know Her very well. You must know that She couldn’t care less about what the humans do.”
He didn’t move for a long moment. When he spoke his voice was tentative, careful.
“I do know Her very well,” he mused. “I wonder, however, if you do?”
I didn’t really know how to respond to that, so I stayed quiet while he continued. His gift manifested as he rubbed his hands together, forming bubble wrap which he absently popped for a long moment.
“Very well, little ‘Venter,” he said. “I’ll support your request to be placed in charge of human sporting events.”
I grinned and held out a hand to shake, the feeling of relief unknotting a clench I hadn’t even noticed in my belly.
“If, you do me a simple favor.”
I just stood, hand out. Adder wouldn’t ask anything difficult. He wouldn’t hurt anyone.
“These poor athletes. These men and women you bring to the Regime’s attention. They must participate of their own free will.”
“What do you-“ I got out before he cut me off.
“No hostages, no threats. Anyone who gets involved in this knows what they are getting into.”
I thought for a moment. This would be burdensome, but ultimately, it didn’t really matter. I extended my hand again.
He seized it and shook it carefully. His skin was surprisingly warm, as though his body was kept at a higher temperature than mine for some reason. He kept a hold of it a moment longer than I’d intended to shake it, and looked right in my eyes.
“I mean it, Rebeccah,” he said.
I nodded. He released my grip.
“Then would this afternoon be too soon?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“No reason to delay, I suppose. Let’s hammer out the details of our proposal over lunch. We’ll visit Her at the hearing this evening and see what She has to say.”
We chatted of trivialities again. It was his way. The beginning and ending of any conversation must be smothered in the banal, the inessential.
I didn’t try and interrupt him. Experience had taught me that this time was useful to him. He was thinking through the notion, fiddling with it and turning it round in his mind. He might come up with something that I hadn’t thought of. He probably wouldn’t but he might.
Anyway, there was no danger that we’d miss the hearing. Adder couldn’t be late, not really. She would wait for him.