I was the only one who opted out of the orgy.
A side effect of my gift was that, with every one of my shades feeling everything I did, I was basically forced to be chaste. Sex with anyone would squick thousands of people. It was an unacceptable price to pay for a momentary pleasure.
Also, if I was being honest with myself, I was much too old.
I liked to think that even if I hadn’t been burdened by being the only window to the world for a small city, and even if I’d been younger, I wouldn’t have been willing to fuck prisoners. It’s easy to explain after the fact how you’d definitely have conquered temptation that didn’t apply, of course, but I still felt certain that rape would have been off the table.
That’s what this was, really. Mangler hadn’t said anything about forcing these people to be here, but I wasn’t born yesterday. Attractive humans in a Regime facility, eager bedmates for her favored Ultras? No points for guessing that they weren’t volunteers.
I was actually a bit disappointed in the rest of my team. Preventer, of course, was unsurprising, but I’d have bet money that Indulger wouldn’t be down for this sort of thing. Presumably he didn’t fully understand the situation. Dim as he was, he probably didn’t question why people wanted to fuck. I had to admit that I’d misjudged Fisher and Condemner, however.
The night had been long, and not especially restful. My own internal contemplation was at a fever pitch, trying to drown out my awareness of what was going on one room over. Tomorrow I’d be face to face with Linker. If I was going to take the suicide plunge, this would be my last night. I didn’t really intend to, but the thought still just sort of hung there. Recurring. Disturbingly real.
I could do it. I could really do it. I could walk up to Linker, wear all of my shades and tear her head off. I felt little at the idea. Not really reluctance to take life, or fear of the consequences, I was apathetic.
There in the night, tossing and turning on the Castle’s luxurious finery, the thought was as humdrum and ordinary as realizing that I could go without shoes on the next day. Just a sort of idle awareness, entirely out of tune with the gravity of the speculation.
I woke in the morning, still in that same fugue.
I didn’t look forward to the moment, didn’t dread it. I let the minute by minute cares of the morning surround me. I changed my socks, packing the dirty ones away in a plastic bag. I stretched out, carefully limbering up my rigid muscles. I let a few shades out to have a conversation that they’d been looking forward to. I checked my clothes for tears, put on my sigil.
Ultimately, I couldn’t think of any other way to delay it, and I entered the other half of the suite, where the rest had been entertained by the Castle’s personnel.
The humans had left some time in the night, leaving the room full up with my team. I felt an odd pang of affection as I looked at them, which I quickly squashed. We’d been through a lot together in Redo, but that didn’t erase what they’d done last night.
It was hard, however, to make myself believe that. The morning light, sliding through a window, illuminated a peaceful scene. Dale was sprawled on a couch, feet hanging over an arm. The picture of an intoxicated frat boy. Nirav and Fisher were sleeping together on another couch, clutching one another even in their slumber. Fisher’s beast, or other form, hunched over the back of their couch, watching me with wide and unblinking eyes.
Preventer was awake, sitting cross legged. She looked away as I gazed at her. Guilt? That would be odd from her. I’d heard stories of Preventer, of dozens butchered so she could play at being a scientist. There should be no human feeling there, no chinks in her iron heart.
She nodded to me, and began waking everyone up.
I let more shades out as we rousted the other members of the team. By two’s and threes they scurried back into the adjoining suite that I’d slept in, carrying on conversations that they’d been waiting days to have.
It was a little risky, letting so many out at once. They could make a lot of trouble here. One might attack a Castle employee, mad for revenge on the Regime that had ruined them, one and all. They might betray my purpose, gambling that the Regime might show mercy on my passengers if it was warned of the threat that I posed. There was probably a dozen other things that they could do. The smart play was to keep them all inside, interrupt the rotation for this visit like I did for a battle.
That had been the plan, but I just didn’t feel like it now. The vagueness of the night before still clung to me, coloring my world with greys. Breaking my routine, acknowledging the importance of today…it was just too much work. I let my shades out, stood woodenly in the midst of the rapists that would soon be linked to me, and felt nothing.
No one spoke to me, or looked me in the face. They woke and carried out their morning rituals in companionable silence. Dale did a series of exercises entirely different in character from the ones that I had done, pumping iron with brutal strength. Fisher climbed on her other body, scratching away at the creature’s back with her human form’s hands. Nirav quietly repeated a series of affirmations, mumbling to himself and looking out a window.
Preventer alone seemed aware that all was not right with me. She glanced at me a few times, once opening her mouth to speak. She didn’t actually say anything though. She just put that white paste all over her exposed skin, and prepared the rest of them for our interview with destiny.
It took a few hours to get us all revved up and pointed in the right direction. A servant came by with food at some point, and we ate. The rest of them spoke, but they seemed to understand that I wasn’t ok to talk just now. Dale asked me if I was ok, but I just looked at him, and he turned back to his meal.
“Jane,” said the Colonel. “I’m ordering you to retract the other shades.”
For a moment, I didn’t do anything. The Colonel didn’t actually command my obedience. The army that he was a part of was generations gone. The idea that I was under his command was suddenly absurd, a ridiculous fiction.
I muted him, clamping down on him with my gift, with just shy of the force that I’d need to expel him, send him to join his men and his world.
He didn’t try and speak, however. He couldn’t know that I was, for the first time in my life, silencing him. He couldn’t know that I was ready to lay him to rest, that his ancient mission would end in failure at this ordinary table, as idiots chattered over their shitty breakfast.
A tear dripped down my face.
I was startled. Where had that come from? I felt nothing. I used the heel of my wrist to brush unshed tears from my eyes, aware that the others were turning to regard me now.
”I’m fine,” I assured them. “Fine.”
They nodded, saying nothing.
I relaxed my grip on the Colonel’s channel. Where had that come from? HIS ancient mission? It was OUR mission. I had long since made it my own.
I didn’t say anything to him, but I retracted the shades that were chatting in the little side room. Dale started at bit as the blurs streaked into me, but no one said anything to me about it. They were used to my shades by now.
“Shall we?” asked Preventer.
Everyone got up, and at a prompt from the Colonel I got up too. I had been just about to anyway. He didn’t need to order me around.
It was a childish resentment, but it was something. I was breaking out of this fog. Color crept back into my world as we trooped out the door and met up with a Knight.
By the time we got downstairs I was feeling almost ordinary again. I wasn’t, by any means, ok with what had gone down last night. There would be a reckoning. But I was once again present. I had agency, for lack of a better term. The Colonel receded as I began to respond to the world once again.
Knights escorted us through a few rooms, until we eventually met up with Mangler, who was leaning against the wall near a heavily armored door.
The door was a child’s idea of a prison door. Plates nailed into it, a series of padlocks running up the side without the hinges. There was a sort of mail slot in the middle that you could look through, but it was too low. More like a real mail slot than a prison window. If you wanted to look in you’d have to stoop way over, or be Preventer’s height.
“It’s time,” said Mangler. She started undoing the locks.
I took a firm grip on my shades, grasping the entire reserve in a lock. I’d never had a shade escape when I didn’t dispatch them, but now was hardly the time for firsts.
“No one try anything. You will get your revenge, but this is NOT the time,” I told them. I wasn’t actually entirely sure that I wouldn’t do anything, but If I was, then it would be my idea, not one of my passenger’s.
Mangler pushed the door aside, and we trooped into Linker’s room.
It was a cell, no question about that. There was a bare cot, where she was sitting, as well as a small writing table. Illumination came from a single lightbulb. One of Adder and Copyer’s creations.
I felt a small pang to realize that he knew of this place, or probably did. It hurt to imagine Mark occupying the same moral universe as this room.
Linker was savagely abused, a wisp of a woman who’d been taken to the edge and back one too many times. I felt a great surge of pity as I looked upon the Ultra that I had sworn to bring down.
She was of average height, but prison camp thin. Her arms were knobby sticks, riddled with burn marks. Her face had the sunken and battered look of a pro boxer’s, which contrasted grotesquely with the frailty of her frame. Her eyes flinched away from our gazes, her hands rising in front of her in a reflexive defense movement, cut short by her certain knowledge that trying to defend herself only made things worse.
“All five of them, and don’t be all day about it,” Mangler yelled in.
She shut the door behind us with a deafening clang, locking us into this cell with this ill-treated creature.
I was fully awake now. Something about Linker’s predicament pushed my earlier concerns aside. I was in the moment again, entirely present.
“Are you guys a Fist?” she asked.
Linker had a quavering, tinny little voice. It sounded like she was afraid to make any noise. She probably was.
“We are gonna be,” said Dale. He seemed a bit aghast at Linker’s condition, mouth hanging open a little. It wouldn’t inspire him to actually DO anything about it, of course, and I wasn’t about to fool myself that he was any kind of ally again, but it was still nice to see that I wasn’t the only one of us who had something resembling morals.
“Are you really Linker?” asked Preventer, utterly unphazed by the disgusting setup.
She shrank away, as though afraid that she was about to be struck.
“I’m sorry!” she said, cringing down away from us.
“I don’t care that you are sorry. I didn’t ask that. I asked whether you are Linker.”
Preventer’s tone was even, her posture unchanged. Nothing about her said that giving the third degree to someone who looked like they were desperately in need gave her the slightest concern.
“Yes. That’s what they call me,” said the woman. “I’m Linker.”
Preventer caught my eye, gave a chin tilt, indicating a corner of the room. I walked aside with her. Any privacy that this created was entirely illusionary, but I went along with it to put a pause on the bullying.
“There’s no way that this is legit,” said Preventer.
“How so?” I asked.
I was honestly curious about where she was going with this. Did she think that the Castle was revealing its enmity…by wasting our time? What purpose would a fake Linker serve?
“All of Her enemies. The Union. The Pantheon. All of their agents. They can’t find Linker. Nobody can. And yet we get brought right to her…and she’s just some girl?”
“What else would she be?” I asked.
“There’s got to be more to it,” Preventer went on. “Like Linker is really an extra power that Snitcher has, and we got Linked earlier when he attached his view to us. Or Linker is one of the boys we had last night, and we got Linked then. Or it is one of the guards, who has touched each of us in passing. There are a hundred possibilities, but the idea that the Union can’t find a woman inside a fort guarded by three Ultras and some Knights isn’t one of them.”
I looked back to Linker, as she shivered and twitched. She DID seem kind of frail to be an essential component of the Regime’s survival.
“So, let’s just say for a moment that this is true. What do you think we are supposed to do now?” I asked.
I noticed, as I did, that the rest of the group wasn’t even pretending to look away. Well, Fisher kind of was, but I’d seen enough of her by now to know that with two bodies in action she was basically aware of everything around her.
“Say this…look, I can prove it is true, alright?” Preventer was fuming a little. Being doubted seemed to be a button of hers. I made a note for future reference.
“For any Fist, the moment that they are linked is a big deal. We’ve never really talked about it, but there’s a way to avoid aging that is tied up in exactly what moment you get linked. There are security considerations. It is really important.”
There was silence as she finished speaking. We all sort of just considered what she had said. I wasn’t certain exactly what she was talking about, but if this was a snow job then Preventer was far more devious than I gave her credit for.
“And this important time, this critical fact…They leave the timing of it up to us? And it is just randomly in the morning? eggs-immortality-sandwiches? From a group that has a specific posture for ‘don’t murder me”?
She seemed to run out of passion, then. The umbrage or whatever that had spurred her to talk had run out.
“It’s not real. Trust me on this. Whoever this is, she isn’t Linker.”
For whatever reason, I believed her. Preventer had a lot of faults, but flights of fancy weren’t among them.
“So, what is she?” asked Nirav.
“Impressed,” said ‘Linker’.