In the morning, I got up and went to see the old bitch.
In the wake of our ‘ha ha not really’ promotion to being a Fist I’d brought my new comrades back to my place. I told Thui to scram, sent the Knights away and let everyone get some sleep. The house was big enough for five to settle down comfortably. I’d planned for this. Just, in my plan, I was sleeping in the big room that I’d mentally termed the ‘Leader’s Room’. Instead I’d spent the night next door to it in my usual room, rigid with rage and terror at how my plan had gone awry.
Haunter was easy enough to find. A stream of chattering spectres milled about on the ground floor of the building, translucent copies of insignificant humans babbling about meaningless subjects. What was wrong with the woman? Just because you could manifest something didn’t mean you had to do it constantly. I didn’t leave barriers all over the place. Was a little consideration too much to ask for?
The crone was sitting in the kitchen, calmly eating one of my protein packets. She was already looking my way when I stormed in, lined face spreading into a placid smile that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Adder.
“I’m sorry for eating your supplies,” she said, before I could get a word in. “I was just so hungry.”
“I don’t eat.”
“Ah, well, no harm done then.”
She lapsed back into a placid silence. As I watched, a translucent streak snapped into her, emerging from the ceiling and vanishing into her form. An instant later another shadow stepped out, nodded to me and walked on past, a broad grin on its ill defined face.
“Must you litter our house with these…things?” I asked, seizing upon the easy source of annoyance before getting to what really mattered, the question of leadership. I hated confrontation. I’d tried to train myself to be better at it, but I still found myself reflexively backing down, like I had yesterday.
“They are people, Preventer. Just like us.”
That was a bit rich. Her shadows didn’t have powers. They were nothing like us. I couldn’t make myself press the point though. Something about her stance hinted that she wouldn’t take well to it, and like it or not this hag would be in my Fist for the rest of what I very strongly hoped would be an eternal life.
“Ok, people then. But, can you just, like, keep them inside of you? I mean, you do that most of the time, right?”
She sighed deeply, took another bite of the powder.
“Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. In my storage they can’t sense anything but what I sense. They can’t do anything but speak on ONE channel, which they ALL share. There’s a strict rotation, let’s each of them have their turn getting a few sentences out. That’s their life. You want me to cram them back in just because you think they are underfoot?”
“No … of course not.” I tried to still my wringing hands. Focus Rebeccah!
“I guess it’s alright if they are around, as long as they don’t get in our way.” I said. It wasn’t important, after all, and I’d bank some goodwill by giving in on this. Heck, I was probably also getting some from putting her up in more style than the bus that she’d be used to.
“That’s very kind of you,” she said, and ate another bite of my property.
“Anyway,” I pushed past the anger. “We need to talk about this whole Thor situation.”
Haunter put down her the packet with startling alacrity and reached up to rub her mouth.
“You are staring right at my face! Snitcher will read our lips.”
“Snitcher’s asleep right now. Even if he was awake, he isn’t about to spend his time watching two women talk over breakfast. Have you met the guy?”
I knew Snitcher pretty well. I wasn’t even part of his network and I’d learned all about him. Haunter had no idea what was up with the guy and she was linked to him? How dumb was this woman?
“Once,” she said, as though she was making some kind of point.
“He basically never watches people who aren’t doing anything exciting. He’s got a rotation of humans who watch old world tv and porn that he watches whenever he can get away with it. Trust me, there is no way he is watching us.”
I didn’t add ‘duh’, because that wouldn’t have helped anything, but I think she got it from my tone.
The weird thing was this seemed to have a big impact on her. Haunter sort of slumped in her seat for a moment, eyes going glassy. Then she sat up and gave me a much more genuine smile.
“Thank you so much for telling me that. I can’t tell you how much better that makes me feel.”
What the actual heck? We were friends now? I would never understand people.
“Ok, well, you are welcome of course. Uh…let’s talk about this Thor situation.”
I wrenched the conversation back on track.
“Let’s. What do we know about him?”
Her voice changed slightly on this line. Or the way she spoke did. Slightly different cadence, a military, clipped way of talking. Was she letting one of her human shadows talk? That would be crazy, right?
“Well, the public information is pretty simple. He’s a warlord, leading a Pantheon force against us in the south. Officially has about a hundred Ultras, the usual statistics would mean that maybe ten of these ladies are as tough as a given member of our crew.”
She nodded attentively as I talked, but it didn’t seem that what I was saying was sinking in. Surely that should have prompted some reaction. I tried to make things clearer.
“We are basically going to be fighting ourselves twice, plus ninety other somewhat weaker Ultras. We are dead.”
At this she chuckled.
“Haven’t been in a lot of fights, have you ‘Venter?”
“Just a few, but I bet my Tally is as high as yours.”
I actually wouldn’t make that bet, but no one who lived in the Regime could back down when a question like that came up.
“These fights you were in, they were just you and the other Ultra, yeah?”
“And none of those Ultras could hurt you, right? That Ultra Toughness Three kept you safe and sound no matter what?”
“Obviously.” I couldn’t see where she was going.
“Well I’ve been in in fights that were a lot bigger. A dozen Ultras to a side. Rode with Third Fist when they hit Athena’s army outside of Cago. Retreated alongside First Fist when Zeus burned the South.”
“Oh, wow, you’ve fought in the Defiances?” I asked, before I could catch myself. I hadn’t been able to find out much about Haunter when I researched her, but the little that I did know painted a picture of a sort of beaten down drifter, working in the TroubleShooters for decades without the least notion of advancement.
“I have,” she said. “And I will again.”
Then she looked right into my eyes and winked.
Had Haunter, of all people, the decrepit grandma, figured out my plan? Did she know? There was no way that she could, right? I’d been too careful. We’d known one another for a day. This had to be unrelated.
“Well, did you ever see Ultras win at odds like these?” I asked, passing by that conversational landmine entirely. She MUST have been referring to a belief that she would one day defend the Regime against another defiance. There was simply no way for her to know that I’d formed this group in order to carry out the Fifth Defiance, and join the Pantheon. I wasn’t being arrogant. The evidence didn’t exist in any space time segment that she could reach.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t exactly a ‘fight’, per se.”
She did air quotes around ‘fight’. She had the mannerisms of a much younger woman sometimes, was another one of her ghostly passengers driving her arms? How did that even work?
“I’m not sure that I’m following you.”
“A Union force hit one of our garrisons while they were sleeping. Killed a few dozen Ultras, didn’t lose a single soul. Afterwards, from what the Troubleshooters could figure out, it turned out that there were just 8 or so of the Union guys, plus human spies guiding them in.”
“Are you suggesting a sneak attack?” I was a bit flummoxed. She had to know that that wasn’t on the table. The Regime didn’t do that. She disapproved.
“Only way we have any kind of shot at making it through this. Prevailer didn’t tell us to have a duel with these clowns or anything. We are just supposed to take care of them. Everyone knows that Fists never try to get surprise, so they won’t see this one coming. Also, we are new, so their scouts, if the Pantheon bothers with scouts in their own territory, won’t know us from random strangers. We’ll take our Sigils off, blend in with the humans, and hit them when their guard is down.”
I barely knew where to begin with this.
“Haunter, Jane, look. You know that Prevailer likes to get Snitcher to show her Fist battles from the Fist’s perspective. If we take out a hundred Ultras without letting her peep she’ll kill us.”
Haunter gave a small smile, just exactly at the moment where I saw the flaw in that logic myself.
“So …. die instead of risking Prevailer’s anger, the punishment for which would be death? How does that make any kind of sense at all?”
“Wait … wait.”
I took a second. This was a trick that I’d learned a long time ago. Never decide anything important without giving the matter some serious uninterrupted concentration. I sat down against a wall, closed my eyes and started thinking it through.
Ok, so our alibi would have to be that we didn’t know about Prevailer’s rules. Normally, that wouldn’t fly, but she’d made it clear that gathering a Fist was a big hassle. Would she really kill us off immediately after we’d proven ourselves and start the process over? Even for the Regime that was self-sabotage of an impressive degree.
For the rest of the Fist, this would make sense. For me it was a little dicier. No matter how badly the fight with Thor went, I wasn’t going to die there. No one in Thor’s unit could harm me. But Prevailer could, so Haunter was asking me to risk my life.
Then again, the only reason I’d started this plan was my certainty that Prevailer would kill me. With her speech confirming that apocalypse was explicitly part of her desired future, could I afford to start again with another Fist? Would Subtracter and the others even let me? Would She?
While I was thinking I became aware, through a thudding sound and vibrations in the floor, that our hulking leader was approaching.
Indulger! Just thinking his name made me angry. The leader of our Fist was a giant dolt, someone beyond easy for the other Fist commanders to manipulate and mold. I’d been saddled with a figurehead who lacked even the wit to realize that he was one.
“What’s Pre doing sitting down on the ground with her eyes closed?” he asked. Everyone was doing nicknames this morning!
“She’s trying to think,” said Haunter.
“She can’t do that with her eyes open?” he asked, guilelessly. Haunter stifled a guffaw.
That would be quite enough of that. I got to my feet.
“Indulger, what do you think we ought to do about Thor? About our mission?”
“Oh, well,” he scratched his head, “I figured I’d ask you two about that. How should we set up the battle?”
Haunter spoke up.
“Basically, the question is whether we go on defense or attack them first.”
She gave me a hard look, asking me to play along. Plainly she’d realized what I had, which was that there was a high possibility that Indulger’s infantile morals wouldn’t allow an unfair play like a sneak attack. She was also assuming that I’d come around on her idea. All told, she was placing a lot of faith in me by asking me to back her play with Indulger. Maybe she’d begun to understand how smart I was.
“I think that we should attack.” I tried to gauge my language to be easy for Indulger to understand, without being too obviously patronizing. “We’ll go to where they are staying and take them out.”
“I like the idea, you two. If we go to them there will be the smallest chance that humans get caught up in our match. We can fight them in the Pantheon instead of our country, and we won’t have to deal with hostages or rebuild stuff.”
I always had to keep in mind that this man, this great brute lump of a man, had bested Pursuer in personal combat. The dog man who stalked my nightmares had been soundly thumped by Indulger. It was a comforting thought, and one that tided me through the greatest surges of my profound disappointment in my Fist’s leader.
After a moment Indulger spoke again.
“That settles it. We’ll go to the Pantheon and fight them at home. I love an away match.”
“I’ll tell Fisher and Nirav,” I volunteered. It would be interesting to see their reactions to the news. My guess was that Nirav wouldn’t care, and Fisher wouldn’t reveal anything, but it would still be worth it to double check.
“We can take my bus,” said Haunter. “We’ll make great time.”
This was all going a bit fast, but more details could wait until we’d gathered everyone together to chew it over. I nodded to the two of them and started back into the upstairs. They ought to be up by now.
Fisher was apparently up, or, at least, she wasn’t in her bedroom.
A momentary pang of panic came over me. Had she run off? Snitcher had her linked up, so she couldn’t get away without blinding herself or something, but even the attempt would be fatal to me.
I kicked myself for not setting some kind of guard. Normally there’d be the Knights, of course, but I’d sent them home when the Fist got here.
I swept across the hall in high panic and pounded on the door to the guest room I’d put Nirav in. The door wasn’t latched, and it swung open at my knock.
Conflicting feelings washed over me. Relief, because I’d found Fisher. Embarrassment, at what I’d interrupted. Anger, they’d broken my bed.
I stood in the door for a moment, hand still raised up in the knocking position. They looked over and gave me a pair of sheepish, but very satisfied looks.
Slowly, without saying even one word, I put my hand down and pulled the door shut.