Redo was a wreck, but that was nothing new.
Even before our battle with Thor’s followers, the city had squatted in the ruins. Foot traffic meandered down blocked streets, through cracked buildings and around toppled edifices. Remover’s ancient work, or so I’d been told. The ruins of the old world, repurposed to serve the new.
With such a warped foundation, even the present devastation didn’t really present a huge difference. Prevailer’s explosions had left craters, tossing rubble onto other rubble. My other self’s wrath had melted down a scar of material across the heart of the city, leaving a broad thoroughfare that slashed across the existing lines. Thor’s forces had done their level best to destroy one another, without a thought for collateral damage. And yet, for all that, we hadn’t left much of an impression.
The silence, the absence of life, then, drove home to me how fragile and easily forged the testimony of my senses was.
To an outsider, like myself, the city might look essentially identical to how it appeared before the struggle. To the inhabitants, the change had apparently been severe enough to drive them to set out for greener pastures.
We held a brief discussion. Preventer was explaining why we wouldn’t find anyone right about the time when Indulger told us that his powers had located a remnant populace. Haunter seemed to perk up a bit at that news, but in a way that seemed somehow ominous.
Preventer led the way into the inhabited segment of the city, Indulger using his gift to clear her path. Something about the way that she walked made me realize that despite being invincible Preventer didn’t have a lot of experience with people standing behind her. It seemed to make her nervous, so I moved up alongside her.
“Nirav, get back,” she told me. “You aren’t bulletproof.”
She looked at me curiously.
“Betty and Dale have died. They told me that it isn’t a big deal. I’m not afraid.”
Preventer bought that, and let me lead the way alongside her. The rest followed a good distance back.
We walked for a time in silence. The only sound was the strangely liquid ‘crack’ that accompanied Indulger’s manipulations of the terrain. Rubble parted before us as we traveled, and I noticed that he wasn’t bothering to put it back into place afterwards.
That meant that we were basically building a road through this city, or a path at least. I resolved to consider the matter a bit more when we had a better understanding of who was going to be living where, but my first impression was that Indulger’s gift would make the construction part of this effort a cinch.
One of Haunter’s shades dashed up.
“Dale says it is right ahead,” he told us.
I recognized Joey from a few conversations on the bus. He was one of Jane’s more important passengers. I was surprised that after what had happened to the Colonel she was letting her friends out in anything but the most controlled of circumstances.
“I want that one…”
I ignored Condemner’s gibe, and fixed my Sigil firmly in place. The message meant that we were starting to get close enough that first contact was imminent. The plan had been for Preventer to get a clear understanding of who was still in the city before the rest of us moved in and introduced ourselves. I guessed that my involvement hadn’t materially affected anything.
Our first sight of the people of Redo was a big fat guy with a gun trained on Preventer.
I dropped back a pace, let her out in front. For all my big talk it was still awfully intimidating to stare down the barrel of that kind of hardware, even though it looked like it had seen better days.
Preventer, by contrast, didn’t so much as slow, simply walking towards the man as though she hadn’t a care in the world.
“Halt!” he shouted, getting his gun ready to shoot in the cool way that makes that ‘Chuh-Chak’ noise. I’d seen some of Jane’s passengers do similar things when they acted out old movies for us. It was very intimidating.
Preventer kept walking, and the guy pulled the trigger.
I dived behind cover as the shotgun fired, my Ultra speed giving me the instant’s warning that let me get out of the neighborhood of his target. I scrambled ten feet and took refuge behind a toppled wall.
I heard Preventer’s laconic “Waste of bullets”, before I heard another enormous blast. This was followed by a few smaller, sharper bangs. It sounded like there were at least three or four guns firing. I clutched the ruin and waited for the shooting to stop.
It didn’t take long.
I hadn’t really seen Preventer’s Ultra toughness in action before. I didn’t know exactly what our attackers were seeing, bullets bouncing off or just stopping and falling to the ground. They certainly weren’t seeing what they’d hoped for.
I poked my head out once the gunfire died down.
Preventer was standing right where I’d left her. The fat guy and another smaller guy had both taken the Posture in front of her. It seemed safe to come out.
“What were you thinking?” asked Preventer, indicating her Sigil. “Attacking ME?”
The fat guy answered without looking up.
“This city has been held by enemy forces for a long time, Boss. We forgot that hats meant Ultras and…”
At the same time his buddy was saying, “We had to make certain that you were really Ultras, you wouldn’t want us falling for imposters and…”
I wasn’t sure that Preventer had made out what they were both saying, but she didn’t seem to care all that much.
“What are your names?”
I had the powerful impression that Preventer had run through roughly this scenario a few times before. Ordering around humans wasn’t as foreign to her as it was to the rest of us.
“Earl,” said the fat one. He relaxed the Posture as he spoke, wiping his forehead with the back of one hand.
“Deng” said the smaller of the pair. He didn’t relax an inch.
I could tell from their body language that these weren’t real names, but I didn’t press. This wasn’t a lie important enough to reveal that I could see right through them.
We began to question them, get the story of the survivor encampment. It wasn’t anything terribly surprising.
After the battle had gone down, and the fires had died away, the people of Redo had no leadership. The Ultras on the Pantheon’s side had bailed, heading south and west in order to regroup. Prevailer had warped back east, and we’d trailed along behind her. The humans had been the only ones left.
It was a bit sobering to think of that. After all of the fury that my other self had wrought. After Prevailer’s assault, and the grotesque collateral damage, there had still been people left. I felt like I was at the edge of a revelation there.
Lacking Utlra power to keep them together, and with the Company driven out of town, the humans of Redo had splintered.
Most of the families were broken up, Earl and Deng told us, because of the horrible fire. Everyone who remained had lost someone. Some left to find KEM. Some left to find a village or another city, anywhere that wasn’t exactly on the fault line between the Regime and the Pantheon.
I felt a pang at that.
I’d been trying not to think about what Condemner had done in Redo. I had let myself believe that, because we had delayed a few days for Jane to forge her pacts with everyone in the city, it had somehow been ok that Condemner had run amok. Their words were like hammer blows in that artifice.
“Everyone who remained had lost someone.”
When it was said so nakedly, all of my sophistry was powerless. Yes, the souls might have survived, trapped in Haunter’s reserve. Yes, it had led us to Linker, and immortality. We could theoretically do something now that would make up for it. Yes to all of that, and still.
“Everyone who remained had lost someone.”
I had done that. My weakness, my truer self. I had slaughtered these folks, looking for energy to use in a pointless fight, waged at the behest of a woman I was too afraid to stand up to.
It was a sobering moment. I fixed my mind to the present and pushed it aside. There’d be plenty of time for dwelling on my actions when we weren’t in the midst of anything. It mostly worked.
“Who went where?” asked Preventer, even as she tapped one heel twice on the ground, which was the signal for the remainder of our group to join us.
If they had seemed cowed before Preventer, they practically groveled when they saw that a Fist was here. Earl and Deng fell over themselves to tell us anything they knew, anything they suspected, just please don’t hurt them.
It was my first time really experiencing the whole ‘near-worship’ thing. Back in Bany I’d been undercover, and in Shington people were pretty jaded by the Inner Circle’s immediate presence. But watching these random trigger men grovel finally made it click for me.
They literally thought of us as Gods or Demons, as mythic creatures. We weren’t Dale, Betty, Jane, Nirav and Rebeccah to them. We weren’t even our Ultra names. We were Fourth Fist, which made us of a piece with Her, with the Pantheon, and with all of the other capital name concepts that they’d made up their mind were too big for them to deal with.
It was a heady experience, and I was already dealing with too much other stuff. I felt myself sliding, not exactly into Condemner’s grasp, but more into a fugue state. I couldn’t deal with what I was feeling, so I tried to blank it all out. I simply observed for a moment.
At least with the humans in such a cooperative state of mind it was easy to get information out of them. Jane took care of the questioning.
While she was doing that, the Hook came up behind me and wrapped a tendril around my shoulders. I reached up and stroked it with the edge of my thumb, lightly and briskly. I knew that Fisher liked for the Hook to be touched sometimes, but I didn’t think that’s what this was about.
This was about her knowing that I was upset, and trying to cheer me up.
Ordinary people might be scared of me. I might have done terrible things. But I would try not to do them anymore, and the person who knew me best loved me. Simple reassurances, but they seemed effective. I stroked the Hook’s tendril, and centered myself again.
Preventer approached me, offering a slight smile. I managed to grin back, carefully rebuilding my sense of self.
“Just mate with the bitch.”
“Not used to ordering people around?” she asked.
I hadn’t mastered myself entirely. Speaking seemed a bad idea. I settled for a slight nod.
“It gets to be routine.” she told me. “When you’ve done one interrogation you’ve done them all.”
She paused, examining me a little more closely.
“Or was it the gun?”
I shook my head, relying on the coordination that came with my Ultra speed to help me keep everything on an even keel.
“It wasn’t the gun. I just hadn’t really put together how all of this was playing out before. That guy thinks of us like he thinks of Remover.”
Preventer nodded once, then pursed her lips and shook her head. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant.
Haunter pulled us back to the main group before we could talk further, and started sharing the stuff that she’d gotten from the survivor community’s guards.
“We are looking at basically three kinds of survivors. Two of them can probably be retrieved.”
“What’s the third?” asked Fisher, immediately. She was always alert for things that could get us in trouble with Her.
“Some people lost everything in this tragedy. They left without direction. Told no one where they were going. Just drifted away. Some of them might have killed themselves. Others might still be moving. In either case, we aren’t going to get them back here.”
Preventer nodded, slowly.
“It’s the rational course of action, after all. I’m perpetually surprised that ANYONE lives in these border mudholes.”
None of the rest of us said anything, but I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only one remembering our nights out drinking in this mudhole. It hadn’t been the cleanest town, but life under the Pantheon didn’t seem particularly awful.
This thought led, obviously, to another thought, about whether our visit had been particularly awful, with a special emphasis on what the people that Condemner had devoured had thought. I cringed away from it, refocused my attention on the present.
“Uh, ok,” said Dale. “What about the two types that we can probably get back?”
Jane nodded, plainly expecting this question.
“The first are the easiest. A large contingent of the survivors have decamped a few miles down the road. They are basically squatting in a suburb until the survivors here give them the go/no go sign. As long as we make strides to repair the damage caused during the incident they should drift back in over time. We’ll have a Company Facility, and they won’t, after all.”
“We can just round them up,” said Fisher. “No need to wait for them to drift back in.”
My hand tightened for a second on the Hook’s tendril, and I spoke up.
“I’d like to avoid coercing the humans if we can. The city will be nicer if the only people in it are the ones who want to be here, yes?”
There was general nodding at my words, but I understood that this wasn’t really a point we could hold on indefinitely. If people didn’t begin coming back in a decent period of time we’d have to head over to their refuge and shanghai them. It didn’t sit well with us, but we all understood that showing weakness to Third Fist was not an option.
“The other…” said Jane, “is more complicated.”
“Pantheon loyalists?” asked Preventer.
Jane shook her head.
“Not…precisely. I mean, kind of yes, but also kind of no. It is hard to describe, exactly.”
I made a ‘give it a try anyway’ gesture with my hand.
“A number of Ultras survived the battle with Thor on the Panthon side, but didn’t get evacuated with Krishna when she escaped. They weren’t important enough for Her to track down, so they ended up idling in the city.”
I could see where this was going.
“And they’ve taken command of another sizable set of refugees and are ruling the roost out in another suburb.” Jane finished.
Preventer shook her head, sourly.
“I’d been hoping to avoid another Ultra fight for a while. Do some social engineering, get in touch with some contacts.”
Dale gave a philosophical shrug.
“Who is the lead Ultra that we have to deal with?”
Jane gave him a strange look.
“That’s just it. This group was gathered by Ultras in the aftermath of the fall, just like I said…but the leader is a human.”