“Nirav,” said Stinker, “Get your lazy ass back to work!” She punctuated the statement by cracking her whip.
I had to give her credit. She didn’t crack a smile. It couldn’t have been easy. She was dressed like a cowboy, but more like the sort of outfit you’d wear to a Halloween party than an actual cowboy. She didn’t even have a cowboy hat, instead her sigil was an old civil war army cap, Confederate grey.
It was the whip that pushed the whole thing into the comical, however. I’d been expecting her to complete her outfit with n accessory of some sort ever since she’d come up with this whole farming scheme, but what she’d got was exactly the sort of thing you’d give a kid of ten or twelve. It was a tiny thing, good for making a loud crack and not much else.
I didn’t let my amusement show on my face, of course, simply giving a grunt of assent and returning to the meaningless churning of dirt. In all honesty I was grateful. Anything to break up the monotony.
There was about three dozen of us ‘farming’ this patch of frozen ground in northern Nectady. Maybe one or two of us actually had any idea of what we were doing. The rest of us simply buried the seeds we’d been given as slowly as we could. If anything ever grew out of this arrangement it would be a complete surprise to me.
As she moved on down the row I unbent myself and stretched my back for a moment. I’m not a big guy, not muscular, and my gift means that I get stiff much faster than most people. I put my arms back, then rotated myself from side to side, like an old man doing radio exercises.
I had to pace myself in this. I had to pace myself in everything, but being the only one stretching in everyone’s field of motion I had to be absolutely careful. It would be easy to use just a little Utra speed, let myself move as I was capable for one blurring second, and undo my entire masquerade.
Truth be told, I’d almost certainly messed this up a time or two in the few months since I’d been brought to Nectady. I had Ultra speed of the first degree, which meant that I experienced each instant about twice as long as everyone else. Someone must have seen me jerk reflexively or hop over something at some point. But almost everyone I interacted with in any serious way was one of the Righteous, and they wouldn’t give me away.
Stinker was Righteous, of course. As far as the Boss of Nectady knew she was just another Ultra, keeping order in this section of the city. The truth was that despite her sigil she was a member of our church, one of Elder Tanya’s flock. The torments she invented for us were all for show, nothing compared to what the other Ultras got up with in their sections of town.
I bent back to work and turned up some more ground, burying a seed either too deeply or too shallowly. It passed the time.
We were nearly done for the day, so I didn’t have to keep at it for long. When Stinker got to the end of the field, rather than turning around or launching into one of her long winded stories she simply stomped off towards the Company facility. We kept working till she went around a corner, then straightened up again, a buzz of conversation springing up.
“Did you see her whip her own fingers?” said Daphne, miming the frantic flicking motions of the Ultra. I had, in fact, and had been forced to smother a frantic chuckling fit.
Daphne was a chubby, cherubic sort, bubbly and giggly. I liked her in a ‘little sister’ sort of way. I fell into stride with her as the crowd started to split up, nodding to folks I recognized if our eyes happened to cross.
“Did you smell her must?” I asked. Daphne shook her head.
“Then it didn’t hurt her,” I continued.
Larry was a KEMer, though Righteous, and he’d let me read Stinker’s KEM sheet. She had Ultra toughness one, and whenever she took harm she emitted a gas. The sheet speculated that it could range from pepper spray to mustard gas in effect, but I had no idea how they had come up with that.
“We’re outside,” she objected, “it could’ve dissipated into the wind or something.”
It wasn’t important enough to argue about. I nodded, conceding the point.
“Do you know if anything is going on this evening?” I asked, not really expecting to learn anything new. She wasn’t terribly plugged in, no large network of allies to compare to the Righteous. She probably wouldn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know.
“Sandy’s gone to the Company facility to have her baby,” she said. “And Bowden has been talking about being Processed again. His mother is beside herself with worry, but I think he’s just saying that in order to get attention. Penny knows where…”
I didn’t exactly tune her out, but I let my mind roam as she rambled on, murmuring assents whenever her flow of verbiage seemed to be in danger of ceasing. That wasn’t often, however, as Daphne had a marvelous ability to carry an entire conversation, given at least a half interested partner.
We got to Ralph’s house, where I was rooming, and stayed by the door for a moment. The conversation turned to more important subjects. I assured her that I wasn’t about to go and be Processed. Daphne wasn’t Righteous, hadn’t been there when they found me, didn’t know my secret. She knew that I was restless, somehow intuited that crawling before Ultras wasn’t normal for me, but lacked the context to come to the correct conclusion. If I wasn’t already an Ultra her worry would probably be right on the money.
Ralph opened the door just as Daphne was getting ready to leave.
“Daph, Nirav,” he said.
I just nodded, Daphne managed to make ‘Hello’ into about four sentences.
“I need your help with something,” he said to me. “Window needs fixing.”
“I won’t keep you from it,” Daphne said. “I think it’s simply wonderful how handy you are with the sort of fixing and attaching that people do with hand tools. My mother used to do just the same kind of…”
She was still talking as she waved herself out, walking off down the street. Somehow I knew that the story was playing out in her mind, replacing the daily tedium with a happy memory as she took the well-worn street back to her family’s house.
“What’s up, Ralph?” I asked him.
Ralph was more muscular than I am, but that’s not saying much. He had a bushy mustache that he pulled on as he mulled over how to respond to that.
I’m sure another un-Processed person would see Ralph as terse, laconic. With Ultra speed it was practically a chore to listen to him.
He looked both ways before speaking, I shifted my weight from foot to foot in an effort not to preempt him.
“There’s…we’ve got to-“
“Ralph, no one is listening. We are all Righteous here. What’s going on?” I said, patience momentarily expended.
I said nothing this time, letting it come. In my mind my fingers turned the ground over again back at the faux farm.
“Elder Tanya has called a meeting. Soon as we can get there,” he said. “Larry has heard something from his contacts. Trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” I asked.
“Trouble,” he said, in a grim tone. Spectacularly unhelpful, but it would have to do.
We didn’t even go inside for a bite to eat. Instead, we set off down the street, mingling with the flow of townsfolk returning from there daily activities. The evening traffic is one of the best times to move around unobserved. It was fortunate for us that the message had found us at dusk.
Elder Tanya didn’t have a bigger house than anyone else. If I hadn’t been there before I couldn’t have picked it out. There were more shoes outside than you’d expect, but as far as anyone who wasn’t Righteous knew there was a poker game, invitation only.
I knocked twice. Bruce opened the door.
Bruce was a big tough looking black guy. In an old world movie he’d get the role where he’d try to hold up the main character and get beat up to demonstrate how tough the romantic lead was. He held up a fist. Ralph and I bumped it as we stepped in.
I saw Tanya smoking by the window and nodded respectfully. I numbered among the Righteous, but I had never really believed as they did. I didn’t think that the Elder had a particularly close connection with God, or that she saw the future in her dreams. What I did have was a sense of gratitude to the woman who’d found me amnesiac and bewildered in the wake of an Ultra battle.
We headed down into the cellar, where the rest of the Righteous waited. A few dozen, all told. Townsfolk, looking just like any other. No crosses, no symbols to give the church away. The days when faith could announce itself were gone, and wouldn’t come back as long as She reigned.
Larry motioned me over and I went to sit beside him, losing Ralph in the process. Larry was a fast talking twitchy little guy, with a birthmark climbing all over one cheek and a habit of turning his head from side to side while he talked. I was as fond of him as an Ultra could be of a KEMer.
“It’s bad,” he said as a greeting. “We’ve got a Shooter on the way, with a whole crew of Knights.”
That was bad. About as bad as news could be, actually. From what I was told, Troubleshooters came through towns like hurricanes, typically leaving folks mangled or dead as the evidence that they’d been there. Troubleshooters who crewed up with Knights were, on the whole worse than average. The way Ralph told it, Refiner’s scum seemed to seek out the shittiest Ultras to toady up to.
We were cut off before he could go into any more detail when Tanya came down the stairs.
She’d put out her cigarette before heading down, but there was still something about her that said that this was a person who could get cigarettes in the wasteland economy of the Regime. The way she carried herself, perhaps, or the flinty look in her eyes. Tanya was old, but it was her weakness, her softness, which had wasted away. She was like an old knife you’d find in a museum. Still capable of gutting a bear.
She murmured a blessing, and we gave the response. If I didn’t believe what the Righteous believed, I still didn’t have any reason to think they were wrong. It couldn’t hurt, right? Maybe someone was watching over us, present circumstances aside.
“We’ve got a Troubleshooter coming in,” she said, when the ritual observances were done. “Word from Bany is that there’s to be a Decimation.”
There was a low groan somewhere in the chamber, and I didn’t blame whoever it was. Decimation didn’t mean what you might think, with one out of every ten killed. She didn’t know any latin. It ‘only’ meant ten execuctions. Just ten of my fellow citizens would be tortured and executed in front of the city, all because some brave soul had dared to stand up to Her.
For a few unlucky people, a Decimation meant the end. For the rest of us, it meant a long day spent watching our kind die. It meant an endless afternoon under the inspection of a Regime Ultra of the worst sort, with her robed bullies wandering the lines of spectators kicking six shades of hell out of anyone they saw fit, Snitcher peering from behind the Shooter’s eyes for any sign of disobedience.
It was frustrating, knowing this. I didn’t know where I’d learned it, couldn’t recall a single instance of someone explaining it to me. I knew it like I knew English, or how to tie my shoes. I’d lost my memories of concrete events in the accident, but general knowledge had made it through ok.
“Word is this Shooter is an especially bad sort. Queller. Supposedly hung out with the Fists back when they were fighting the Pantheon. Supposed to have been considered for one. Not a team player though.”
That was not encouraging. The Ultras who served in Fists were markedly stronger than Stinker’s lot. I wasn’t enthused to see what kind of Ultra was too unruly for a Fist, either, considering they were basically roving packs of mass murderers.
“Stretcher will be on her best behavior, trying to suck up to the Shington Ultra, and that’ll filter down to the rest of ‘em. Stinker won’t be able to save us if we screw up.”
‘Screw up’, meaning do anything other than sit still and take their abuse. I swallowed, repressing the urge to spit.
“If any of us get picked for the Decimation, especially me, I want no dimwitted notions to be raised.” Tanya raised her voice as she said this, looking at each of us in turn. “The Lord calls us home in His time, in His way. I haven’t heard a single thing that makes me think that He wants the rest of us to die trying anything foolish.”
Larry spoke up.
“KEM might be making a player for Queller. We want her, bad.”
The words lay there for a moment, no one reacting.
“That would be unfortunate,” said Elder Tanya, biting off each word. “I’ve read the file on Queller, and heard about some folks who saw her fighting back during the war. The only thing that KEM could do to her would be to piss her off.”
“I’m not in charge,” said Larry, twisting uneasily under the Elder’s gaze. “I’m just telling you the chatter that’s going around. She’s one of the worst, a cannibal, a rapist. KEM exists to stop Ultras like Queller.”
“If KEM wants to fight Ultras like Queller it isn’t going to exist for much longer.” She turned her gaze to the rest of us, voice softening from its usual preaching tone to more of a conversational sound. “Listen, everyone, you all know what’s at stake.”
There were nods all around.
“Our lives, our faith, they’ll be tested. This Decimation, it’s a storm, it’ll pass.”
More nodding, a whispered “Amen” from someone off to my left.
“We’ll get through it. Maybe not all of us, but the church will endure. As long as we don’t provoke Queller’s wrath.”
Tanya raised a hand, as though to emphasize a point.
“We all know what happens when a really powerful Ultra cuts lose. We’ve all seen the carnage that a thoroughly evil Ultra, unrestrained by conscience or the physics that govern the rest of the world, can wreak.
Ultra speed, when you aren’t in a fight, is of limited use. One thing that it does help a lot with is that you have time to pick up on everyone’s expression, all the time. It was extremely disconcerting, therefore, to note that when Elder Tanya stressed ‘really powerful Ultra’, and ‘thoroughly evil’, the rest of them weren’t quite so fixated on her.
A lot of them, a majority, stole glances at me.