The decision was too important to make on my own.
Andy’s session had gone surprisingly similarly to how I’d envisioned it. We’d held hands while I talked about my gift, explained the uses that I put it to and such. I’d felt a sensation that was hard to describe, kind of like an inner warmth that shifted within my flesh? It never got all the way to burning, but I could definitely feel that his gift was doing something.
From what he said, however, he hadn’t actually made any changes. Our interview had been all about him discovering what capability for change was available, and making that information known to me.
It had been a lot like what I’d speculated, actually. He could increase the amount that I could manifest, or the solidity of my manifestations. He wasn’t actually able to extend the ease with which I made connections, for reasons that he couldn’t explain in any manner that made any sense. There was also another ability that he could give me, one that I hadn’t really given any thought to.
In the same way that he could improve my ability to manifest shades, he could also upgrade my ability to let them possess me. He could make it faster, letting me put them on and off as fast as I could think it, and he could increase the total amount of shades that I could wear.
A tempting offer, to be sure.
Andy had made it clear, without that ghastly smile for once, that there was a price to this. I’d need to pick another trait to weaken in order to compensate for the one that would grow stronger. I could manifest more shades, but lose the ability to wear them at all. I could make my shades more solid, but manifest less of them. And so on.
I’d decided to sleep on it, and, the morning after, found myself daunted by the responsibility.
The Colonel was gone. The mission was mine. There was no reason to think that Andy would always be around to fix this if I messed it up. Using Andy would, in all probability, factor heavily into whether I was ultimately able to save my passengers or not.
They deserved a say.
Looking out over Redo from our barracks, watching the sun come up, I addressed the reserve directly.
“Go back to the start of the Rotation, and tell me what you think about this. You all heard what Andy said, you’ve all lived this misbegotten life with me. If you were me, if you were the one who was responsible for all this, what would you do?”
I kept them hushed for a second after that, thinking about my next words carefully.
“This isn’t a vote. I’m not trying to pass the responsibility onto you. I’m done with that. My gift, my choice, is ultimately how this is going to go down. Whatever I decide, it will be on me. But I believe in democracy. I believe, fundamentally, that the wisdom of the masses is a real thing. This pertains to your futures, so your domain expertise is something that I’d like to avail myself of.”
Another hush. Outside, a kid was playing a makeshift bowling game with a round rock and a bunch of suspiciously regular rock pins. Indulger’s work, almost certainly.
“Don’t use your time to tell the people who went before you what to do. This isn’t about you arguing with one another. Don’t expect me to respond, there are too many of you. Speak your peace and let the next one go. Irene will be tallying your input, taking note of any particularly eloquent arguments that anyone comes up with. You will be counted, heard, if you speak. Go.”
With that, I relaxed the restrictions and let the rotation commence. I listened long enough to hear that things were going smoothly, then pulled my attention away from it with the ease of long practice.
The day wore on.
I spent it in a leisurely fashion, bumming about. I manifested shades as requested by the people of Redo, making certain that I didn’t choose any that would interrupt the rotation. The former inhabitants of the town were clustered at the end of the order, so that wasn’t terribly hard.
Truthfully, this was the lot of the mighty Ultras of the Regime. We were beings of fear to the rest of the world, often imagined or portrayed as malevolent demons or Gods, and yet on any given day we were likely to be amusing ourselves in idleness, the same as the privileged of every land.
I’d long since gotten used to it. The world of my birth would regard an aristocracy determined by a medical process as obscene, indecent. The Ultra Force had felt a genuine obligation, an onus to make the deaths of their fellows in the Process count for something. We had channeled that fervor into public service, into defense of country, into anything that came at hand.
Our children’s children had none of that. I’d never seen Preventer betray any sign that She was conscious that the world didn’t owe Her absolute comfort at all times. Indulger, well, he might be excused on grounds of general inability, but Fisher and Nirav were similarly heedless.
I headed down to lunch, bemoaning the fate of the present. I was aware that I was fulfilling a very particular stereotype about old women, namely that we are dissatisfied crones grousing relentlessly at those who replaced us , but I didn’t particularly care. It was something to distract myself from the rotation’s deliberation.
Indulger called me over as I arrived at the ground floor. I took a seat beside him and Shover.
“Jane, are you doing all right?” she asked.
Shover looked a bit scandalized at a Fist using human names. Or rather, since she had been Pantheon up until recently, Gods using mortal names. She didn’t say anything though.
“Not really,” I told Indulger. “I’m…”
I thought for a second about how to phrase my dilemma in a way that Indulger would understand. Ennui? Angst? A growing realization that I might have been fooling myself for half of my life?
“Sad. I’m really sad.”
Shover spoke up.
“That’s awful. It’s like the famous story about the guy who went to see a shrink, and the shrink told him to go to a clown, but he WAS the clown.”
I was a little surprised that she knew that one, actually. Or what a shrink was.
“What do you mean?” asked Dale.
“Haunter made everybody happy by bringing back the people who got burned up, but now she’s sad and there is no one to bring someone back to make her happy.”
From the way she phrased things, I suspected that Dale had met a kindred spirit, or at least someone who shared his rather limited vocabulary.
“Can’t you just bring them back yourself?” she asked.
“Shover,” I said. “I’m not sad about any particular person dying. I’m sad…. I guess I’d say I’m sad that people die, in general. Not that we don’t have one person still with us, but that I don’t have a lot of people still here. I’ve lived for a long time, and a lot of people are missing that I wish, very much, were around right now.”
Dale nodded his understanding.
“That has got to suck. It’s too bad that you couldn’t bring them back. Are you blaming yourself about that?”
That was unusually perceptive for the big man.
“Maybe a little. I mean, not really. I’m not holding myself responsible for not putting everyone who died into my reserve. I’m just…I just wish that things could be different, you know? My gift proves that there isn’t some grand purpose to death. It’s just an accident of the way things are. If She had gotten my power instead of Her strength, maybe we’d be in a deathless world by now?”
Shover shook her head.
“I think She would just use it to bring dead people back and torture them again or something.”
“I meant the first Ultra having a gift like mine, not Prevailer in specific. I guess, I mean…”
I was having trouble saying it in a way that they would understand.
“Do you wish that you were the first Ultra, instead of Her?” asked Shover.
“Well, obviously, but that’s not the core of what I’m saying. What I mean is this. My gift exists, so it might have been the first one. It might have been what set the stage, what changed the world. Not brute strength, not the power to kill, but the power to prolong our existence. This could have been a golden age. It isn’t, and it isn’t because of any profound reason. I don’t suffer like this for any profound reason.”
I moderated my tone, kept myself from breaking into a shout.
“It’s just bad luck. All of it. The world is a ruin, half of everyone is dead, and we live under the thumb of a madwoman, all because of one tiny piece of bad luck. And that makes me sad. I’m numb to the facts, but talking to Andy reminded me of how meaningless it all is, so I’m sad. You get me?”
Shover nodded, got up and scurried away. I couldn’t blame her. If I’d run into a Fist raving about how unfair the world was in public I’d have had to walk off too.
Dale didn’t go anywhere, but he sat silent for a long time. His brow was furrowed in thought.
I didn’t mind the silence. I stuffed some rations in my mouth, enjoyed the quiet. Venting was cathartic, but it didn’t really change anything.
Nirav approached us, wearing shades he’d swiped from some old gas station or other.
“Dale, come outside for a sec. Some people said that they saw some trucks coming into town.”
Indulger was out of his chair in a heartbeat, striding towards the exit. I followed right along with, introspection momentarily banished. Trucks meant one of two things.
“Regime,” he said.
I put my hand out, grabbed him by the arm. He looked down at me.
“Are you sure? We have to be more careful. What makes you think they are with us?”
“Company trucks, and coming from the Northeast. But mostly the Company trucks thing. They use a particular one, just duplicated over and over. One of the wheels is not aligned right. I learned that a long time ago.”
“That’s evidence,” I said. “But not conclusive. I wouldn’t put it past Krishna to circle around and have some of her goons hijack a Pantheon truck or two.”
The rest of the Fist had gathered round as we spoke. We’d all been at headquarters, and we’d arranged a ‘meet out front’ system in response to any kind of trouble.
“It is almost certainly the Company” asserted Preventer, “but Haunter has a point. No reason to be anything less than safe. Let’s meet them in force, shall we?”
Indulger took us through the city on one of his platforms, skimming the stone across the surface of the old roads, merging it through the rubble. The novelty of this kind of thing had long since worn off, and we simply clutched at the surface beneath us and prepared to meet our guests.
It didn’t take long to intercept the Company trucks. There was only one navigable path into Redo for a wheeled vehicle, and we met on it. They stopped, by fell coincidence, near the building we’d sheltered beneath while we planned Thor’s ruin.
Company Men climbed out, recognizable anywhere by their uniformity and our long familiarity. One of them walked over.
“Hi” said Dale.
“Greetings Indulger. We’ve been dispatched to reoccupy this city’s Company Facility. Honorary Vice President of Operations Martin has tasked us, by proxy, with resuming Processing operations.”
“Ok.” Said Dale.
The Company Man stood silently before us, content to let us lead the conversation.
“I’d like to inspect your vehicles.” I said, before I could stop myself.
I didn’t really suspect that anything was wrong in a Company vehicle. It was something else.
From the moment that my session with Andy had ended I’d been haunted by a vague suspicion that the world would find a way to strike at me before I could consummate my intentions. I wasn’t sure if, at my very core, there wasn’t part of me that hoped for an interruption. But that part of me would never gain ascendancy.
After the ambush with the Union no one accused me of being too careful. The Company Men stepped aside and let us check over their trucks.
Nothing untoward seemed to be present. They had some protein powder, a bunch of what the Jury told me were authentic equipment that biologists would find useful. Nothing was amiss.
We waved them on, huddled up as they passed.
“I’m actually glad that we double checked,” said Preventer.
I’d expected her to take the opportunity to make a dig at me about jumping at shadows. Even the worst people will occasionally surprise you.
“No reason to take chances,” said Fisher. “We weren’t doing anything important anyway.”
That provoked general agreement, then suddenly Indulger held up a hand.
“More trucks, Southwest. Probably Pantheon.”
I didn’t even feel surprised. Somehow I’d known. If Andy raised to my lips the cup of salvation, then of course it would be dashed away. My burden was not one that I could ever set down.
“How many?” asked Fisher.
“Just 8, 9. Sorry, they are far away, I don’t have very good sense at that distance.”
“Just wait a second,” I said. “They’ll be closer soon enough.
This black mood was different than the blankness that had enveloped me after the incident up north. I wasn’t numb now, I was angry. The ire that I’d been trying to communicate to Dale and Shover was still in me, and now it found its utterance.
“I’d like to say that I don’t know what possible reason would drive Krishna to send her forces against us, but that’s too kind. I know the reason. It is the same damnable reason that set us against Thor. The orders of her master. Well they’ve-“
Indulger’s hand descended on my head, patting the top of it like I was a pet. I fell silent, startled out of my gathering monologue.
It is easy to forget just how big Dale is.
“They’ve stopped,” he said, giving me a quick, apologetic look. “Except for one truck the rest have stopped.”
“Some kind of stratagem?” asked Preventer.
Indulger shook his head, frowning furiously, all of his concentration bent upon his gift, trying to decipher something that only he could sense.
“The lead truck is out of control? I’m not sure…” he paused a second. “No, wait. I’ve got it.”
When Dale realizes something the smile which crosses his face actually transcends that stupid mask. You can actually SEE the idea take hold, the pieces come together.
“It is spelling out words. They are trying to talk to me. They want to talk!”