We pushed our way back into the world, a little before morning. Both of my forms toppled forward into the dirt.
I sat the Lure up, bounded the Hook off into the predawn gloom. Dale and Nirav had died too, at some point, and they were similarly getting themselves situated. Preventer was sitting by a fire, while Haunter had just sat bolt upright from a kind of makeshift bedroll.
She was wearing mismatched stuff, all of it worn away. Probably scavenged off a few other people who wouldn’t be needing it, if I had to guess. The only change to Preventer’s clothing was that she had a new Sigil.
“What killed me?” I asked. Dale echoed me an instant later.
Haunter and Preventer looked at one another, then Preventer responded.
“Nuclear explosion. Took down everybody but us and Fader. She’s in the ground somewhere around here.”
“No she’s not,” said Dale.
“She doesn’t mean that Fader is dead and buried,” I corrected, “She means that she is in her image form, floating around down there.”
Haunter confirmed my guess with a nod.
“No reason to show all our cards, if we have any eyes on us,” guessed Nirav.
“Eyes?” I asked.
“We are on Crete,” said Haunter. “We have preliminary contact with the Union, so they know we are here. No reason that they wouldn’t have some drones spying on us.”
The Lure didn’t twitch, but I started to move the Hook around the outskirts of our little camp, seeking evidence to suggest that they were watching.
“Crete, huh,” I said, looking around. For some reason I’d thought that when we moved overseas things would somehow look quantifiably foreign, but this countryside could have been just about anywhere. There were some hills, some trees, a ruined road…
Maybe it would look more exotic by day.
“When you say…contact with the Union…” said Nirav.
Haunter looked to Preventer, then back to us.
Preventer cut her off, raising a hand for silence.
A moment later she sent barriers shooting off of that hand, swelling in size as they swiftly boxed us in. Another layer of barriers followed, sliding between the inner ones to form an outer shell around us. They rotated, such that the gaps on one layer didn’t lead to the gaps on the next.
“Sorry, just wanted to make sure no one was listening in.”
I was a little surprised she was willing to use her gift so much, actually. I’d never seen her manifest so many constructs at a time.
“Thank you,” said Haunter.
Perhaps they were getting on a bit better after spending a night without the three of us. It would be nice, if true.
“Okay so… contact with the Union,” said Nirav.
“She sent us to talk with the Pantheon’s Ruling Council. That Council just tried to kill us, and they got Adder and most of Sixth Fist,” said Haunter.
No one answered, we all just kind of sat there and let that sink in.
“So, we can’t go on to Olympus. They still have the gift that broke the Link, we’d be slaughtered. So we have to disobey Her.”
“Uh…” said Dale. “I don’t know how good of an idea that is. She really doesn’t like it when people do that. She likes it a lot better if they do what She said.”
Haunter looked like she was about to respond, but Preventer preempted her.
“If it’s death either way, then I’d rather risk the Pantheon. We only ‘think’ that they can take us, but we ‘know’ that She can. Fortunately, there’s another way.”
“The Union,” said Haunter. “They are fighting the Pantheon, not too far from here. She will want us to hit back at the guys who took Sixth Fist from her. We can do that. If we have the Union on our side we might even survive it.”
“It is still not doing what She said to do,” said Dale. “She gave us a boat. If we don’t do what She said it is gonna make her sad, and then mad.”
“I think She’ll be angry no matter what,” I ventured. “You know Her better than the rest of us, but is She ever not angry for long periods of time? I think the most important thing is to focus Her anger on someone else. Anyone else. The Pantheon will do fine.”
Indulger looked kind of dubious, but didn’t say anything.
I took over for a bit.
“Bottom line, even if we are disobeying Her in this one case, I think we need to be very clear on the fact that we are still, in the larger sense, on Her side. I mean, Remover and her goons go off mission all the time to kill people that annoy them. We are basically just doing that. We got sidetracked on our way to Australia by these people who didn’t respect Her, and we are killing them. That’s it. That’s the safest way to pitch this situation, if it comes to that.”
“If it comes to that,” echoed Dale, solemnly.
“She might not even warp out here. Snitcher is dead. She doesn’t know what is going on outside of her immediate environs for now,” said Haunter. “We may not see Her again for a good long time.”
Jane was too smart to have forgotten about Answerer. She was just trying to set Dale’s mind at ease.
“So, another problem. I’m not sure the Union will want to work with us, after what happened the last time we tried to talk with them about working with them,” said Nirav.
“They’ve already agreed to talks with us,” said Jane. “Preventer established contact last night. I’m sorry for acting while you three were down, but we felt like it was important to head off the possibility of a Union strike, and I was pretty sure you’d be on board.”
“Talks is one thing,” Nirav said. “But I’m pretty sure that what they’ll say in those talks is ‘Go back home to your Boss.’”
“Maybe, but we have to try,” said Haunter.
“I doubt that they’d act so flagrantly against their interests,” responded Preventer. “We are offering the services of a Fist on the battlefield, for nothing. They’d be utter fools to turn us down.”
“Wait,” I said. “Did I never share my power with you?”
Their heads turned as one.
“Uh, we don’t need to worry about humans making decisions that we don’t like. I’ll seduce their leader and he’ll go along with whatever. I’m still kind of worried about Her reaction though.”
Now they looked at one another.
“Fisher, Betty, your human form is lovely,” said Haunter, “but we are going to be dealing with people who are hardened professionals. They aren’t going to be interested in an affair, or whatever you had in mind.”
I hadn’t shared my power with them. Right. Blame it on the Link mucking up my memories.
“I’m not…look, ok, I haven’t told you guys about this before, and I don’t like to share this information, because it is a lot less effective once people know about it. So what I’m going to tell you doesn’t go beyond our Fist, ok?”
They all nodded.
“I can change the priorities of daggers, muck around with them like I want. I’ve given some hints to a few of you, but trust me, the gift is a lot stronger than I’ve let on.”
They kind of digested that for a moment. All of them looked concerned, but it wasn’t about the same things. Haunter was probably having trouble reconciling this gift with her whole way of doing things. Preventer was likely mad at herself that she hadn’t known about it before. Dale was trying to work out what I meant, and Nirav was worried that people would turn against me now that they knew.
“Betty…gifts can’t do mind control,” said Haunter. She said it in a tone like she was sorry to break it to me. Very soft and gentle.
“I know people think that. I’m very happy to let them go on thinking it, honestly. It makes things way easier for me. But basically my gift can.”
Haunter looked a little upset.
“Souls don’t touch or interact with one another,” she said. “In the kite metaphor the kites themselves never touch. Linker’s gift works on the strings, not the kites. The bodies connection to the souls, not the souls themselves. To change someone’s decisions you’d need to work with the soul. That is impossible.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Ok, so no one ever changes their mind, ever? People still just drink breast milk and lay on the ground like babies?”
“Of course not.”
“But I thought you just said that souls can never be altered or some such. So we should all be ga ga and goo goo-ing still.”
Haunter did NOT like being talked down to. She was getting a little heated. Preventer seemed to be enjoying the show at least.
“No, the soul updates on the evidence provided by the body’s senses. It is still making the decisions. If someone wanted to act like a baby, they could.”
“Yeah, the sense thing,” I made a snag gesture. “Make that the hand part of the usual kite setup. Now, after your senses do their work, there is a part where the body weights good vs. bad. That’s what I hack.”
Haunter made an ‘elaborate’ gesture.
“Ok, so you pet a soft dog, or you put your hand on a fire. Both give you sense data, but one you want more of, one you want less of, right? The soul’s decision comes with the goal of less fire, more dog.”
“I see,” said Haunter. “So when you mentioned priorities before…you interfere with the weighting of sensory information, rather than making the decision yourself you alter the human’s criteria.”
That was a bit of a simplification, but I could live with it.
“Yeah. So these Union stiffs are going to have stuff like , ‘Serve my country”, and ‘Don’t let anyone notice that I am a fraud’ as their main desires. I’ll just ratchet ‘score with the hot Regime chick’ up above that. They will be the ones to choose what comes next.”
“A fascinating ability,” said Preventer, breaking into our conversation. “Not so useful in the Regime or the Pantheon, where everyone of consequences is an Ultra, but in the Union…”
“Yeah, I can’t remember most of my past, but I’d be surprised if I’d never thought about coming here. Only place in the world where I can fish for the leaders.”
“That, uh, that seems kind of rapey,” said Dale.
I didn’t roll my eyes at Dale. This needed to be handled right.
“Not at all,” I said. “People get together all the time. These guys will get to make the same choices that anyone else does.”
“After you’ve messed with their underlying urges,” said Haunter, her voice hard.
I spread my hands in the universal ‘you got me’ gesture.
“It is kind of hard to explain why you are wrong here. Will you just take it from me that your picture of things isn’t right?”
Dale nodded, still looking troubled.
“Try me,” she said.
“Ok…you are expecting me to say the usual New World thing, laugh off your ideas as old school prudery. That’s not what this is. I’m hoping you won’t just automatically round what I’m saying off to the nearest thing you’ve heard before. I’d like you to really listen. Ok?”
Haunter narrowed her eyes.
“Thousands of people are listening to you right now, Betty. You may be assured that your notions will receive a fair hearing.”
“Ok. Let me start with your shades, since you brought them up.”
That was a good wedge to set into this situation, actually. I saw the path open ahead of me.
I leaned the Lure forward, pointed at Haunter’s gut.
“I’ve used my gift on lots of them, since we’ve been together. You might have noticed that I never once echoed Preventer’s line on them not being real. I’ve always known that your shades are people.”
Haunter looked a little introspective at that, probably polling her minions to make sure I hadn’t been attempting to sway her by influencing the people she heard from most. I actually hadn’t, though I’d considered it.
“What would you say is the most common priority that I saw, at the head of their lists? The thing that they prize above all others. The one idea that is most important to their worldviews?”
“Revive America?” asked Haunter.
I shook my head.
“I don’t get proper nouns, actually. There is a kind of unique identifier that I have to match up. So if I told you that their main goal was something like ‘Protect/Please/Defend/Revere X’, what would you say the X was. America?”
I kept my handed pointed at her.
“That’s different,” she said. “I don’t force them. It is just a natural consequence of the fact that they live ninety percent of their lives through my senses.”
I dropped my hands to my sides.
“You used your gift on them, and made them worship you. Thousands of them.”
I looked to Indulger.
“Still seem rapey?”
He didn’t say anything.
Haunter struggled for a moment, no doubt martialing arguments from her mass mind.
“I’m not wedded to the comparison, to be honest”, I said. “My main argument is that we need to stop having our asses thrashed at all times. I am sick of keeping our hands behind our backs, and it has to stop. Stop getting into fights without Indulger touching the ground. Stop negotiating with daggers without me working their shadows.”
I saw Dale come around, something about the way he set his jaw. He’d been thinking the thing about not having fights without him, and twinning the two ideas had sold him on my own gift.
Haunter martialed her arguments.
“Betty. I’m not trying to argue semantics here. I am trying to speak to the core of you, to the best part. The part that saw Nirav’s pain and joined your future with his. The person who went into the Process, not the thing She dragged out of her Lair. If we are to join our fate to that of the Union, it MUST be through their willing consent. It MUST be done properly. It will blow up in our face, otherwise.”
I’d tried to be nice. She was too wrapped up in her own story. Time to take the gloves off.
“Jane.” I said, and looked her straight in the eyes.
“You old worlders liked science, right?” I asked.
She narrowed her gaze, saying nothing.
“Do an experiment, write down the result, then try again, see what happens. Bit by bit you find out the best ways to do stuff? That was your main deal, yeah?”
She gave a sullen nod.
“Ok. We have tried negotiating with the Union without using my gift once before. I let ‘the best part of me’ have its chance. You gave your pretty speeches to that maniac. What was the outcome?”
“Stop,” she said, softly.
“That’s right. They all BURNED TO DEATH. They died in hideous agony. Condemner ate their souls, or whatever it does.”
She flinched, as though I’d punched her in the face.
“So this time we are going to do things my way. I might screw a guy or two. You got a problem with that?”
She looked back into my face, and I could still see something there in her eyes. She hadn’t come around to agreeing with me, exactly, but she wasn’t able to martial any arguments against me.
I looked around at the rest of the group.
No one spoke up.