I was vulnerable, for the first time in years.
I hung blinking from the frame, cursing myself inwardly for this unfixable blunder. A decade of holding back my gift, leaving my reservoir untapped, pasting my skin daily so the world wouldn’t even know there WAS a reservoir, and I had flung it away in a few minutes.
I strove frantically to dredge up anything from the void in my awareness where the barriers should be. Nothing. Not the slightest sparkle, not the merest glimpse of a barrier. My hand hung empty before me.
A strong hand grasped me, turned my shoulders away from the sky and towards a towering woman. She’d been one of the most energetic of the close ranged attackers that Dale had thrown me into. Ultra Strength at 1, Ultra Speed at 1, at the very minimum.
I’d laughed off her strikes, but I wasn’t laughing now. Even her casual grip, where she was held me to turn me, pulsed with a fierce ache. My barriers were expended, and I was as mortal as any other human.
Her other hand reached across me, parted the ropes binding my legs to the rough frame. I’d have dropped to the floor like a sack if she hadn’t been holding onto me.
It took every ounce of my willpower not to let my relief and amazement show on my face. I forced a commanding scowl onto my visage, wincing as the gouge She had torn in my lips protested.
“Thank you, thank you!” gushed another Ultra, speaking from beside me. I turned my head so I could keep them both in view, even as another Pantheon member behind me added their gratitude to the first speaker’s.
What had possessed me to squander my power this way? I’d never done so before, and the gain from seizing control of these children paled in comparison to the risk.
I turned my scowl into a tight smile, raising a hand to accept their thanks.
I could see Haunter’s ghosts circulating among the Ultras, bands of them spreading out to see if any of the Host outside of this pocket had survived the Union strike. The Ultras didn’t seem to object to the shadows, conversing excitedly with them in a dozen languages.
I wasn’t quite so adrift as Dale, of course. My contact with the Valkyrie, back before I set the Fist up, had taught me basic Pantheon battle cant. That was how I’d understood that the mob around me were expressing their appreciation, rather than speculating on how best to resume our battle.
It was also how I’d understood their insults, their battle cries, when I’d been flung into their midst just a few minutes ago, when they’d done their level best to slaughter me.
“Go see to the others,” I told them, using English. “I’ll confer with my associates.”
They seemed to understand, dispersing and wandering away, though what ‘see to’ meant to them was up in the air. I made my way over to Dale and Jane.
Value drift. It had to be. Fist members, according to my research, demonstrated a strong tendency to align their moral systems to one another. I’d presumed that my gift would shield me from it, but that might have been wishful thinking.
My gift had allowed Linker’s gift to bind me to the other four, after all. Presumably the Link could still bring me back, though I’d had nightmares of being trapped in the Link forever, my own gift stubbornly ‘defending’ me from being recalled to life.
Haunter’s moral beliefs, or Indulger’s, must have infected me. They’d fed into my own hatred of failure and caused me to misjudge priorities at a critical moment.
Jane had a broad smile on her face as I reached her, stretched out a hand to shake mine.
“Preventer, Rebecca, you were magnificent. Dale is just telling me how you saved our new charges from the Union attack.”
I kept my smile in place.
“Thanks for the praise, Jane, I see your comrades are hard at work.”
I gestured to the shades around us.
“Are you still unhurtable?” asked Dale. “No sparkles on your face, right?”
From anyone else I would immediately start calculating whether this was an attempt to alert our surrounding enemies to my weakness or a gambit aimed at gathering information about my gift in order to perform an assassination at a later date, but Dale really was just that dumb.
“They are,” I lowered my voice, “accepting our authority now? I didn’t see your part of the battle, but it seems like you must have gotten the Overseers if no one is attacking us now.”
Dale looked at me like I’d grown a second head.
“Preventer, we just saved their lives,” said Jane. “The vast majority of these young women would be dead right now if we hadn’t, very visibly, stepped up to wall off the Union’s attack.”
I knew that, of course.
“Yes, Haunter, I was there for that. What does that have to do with our takeover?”
Haunter shot me the strangest look, I didn’t know how to interpret it.
“They aren’t about to fight the people who just fought for them, Preventer. That’s why you used your glowing walls to stop the missiles, right?” asked Dale.
“Whatever,” I said. “You killed the Overseers”?
“Yeah,” said Dale. “They are dead. But they got Nirav.”
I held my head very still as another jolt of pain crossed my face.
“Excellent. It looks like the remaining Ultras are accepting our authority,” I said. “Or at least not attacking. Can we do anything about getting their information? I want to know what our gamble has gained us.”
I was talking a little fast, maybe subconsciously trying to hurry my gift along. The enemy could probably kill us, right now, if they knew to strike. Assuming they could find Fisher, anyway. That was intolerable.
“Already on it,” said Haunter.
I left them to it, moving off a ways to the edge of the ridge, and taking a seat on a stone.
It had been easy to dismiss the peril of value drift back in Shington, before the Fist was real. I had told myself that my beliefs were based on logic, that I could resist any mental pressure that could be brought to bear, and that my gift would protect me anyway.
But it was hard to hold on to that certainty after watching Betty sway the Union officials to our cause. They’d been professionals, who’d lived lives with at least some strain, some training, all of which had lead up to our embassy. They had no doubt thought carefully on the beliefs that brought them there, had at least a nominal patriotism to the cause that they had professed.
And none of it had mattered. Their conviction had melted away like ice chips in piss. Meghan had been practically eating out of our hand by the end, and I had no reason to think I was substantially smarter than her.
I focused on my reasons, thought it through.
I wanted to live on. Above all else. Everything else was subordinate to this goal. I’d started a Defiance for it. Linked myself to brutes and gulls for it. I would continue.
I felt no shame, no abhorrence as I contemplated this goal. Whatever drift might be occurring, I was still myself, at the core.
I quashed the traitorous notion that Meghan would say the exact same thing, that she had sought to save the Union before, and was merely continuing to do so by serving us.
Her semantic games had been transparent, but would they have been so if I couldn’t see the puppeteer?
An approaching pair distracted me from my musings.
The girl in front was probably in her late teens, more mature looking than the rest. She had on the usual old world leftover outfit, and carried a truly ancient firearm stuck into her belt. She wore a bandana with some Chinese letters on it.
She was leading a boy along behind her. He seemed to be blind, with a milky white glaze over both eyes. He was younger, or less mature at least. Maybe retarded, from the way his face was distorted, but that might also have been a side effect of the Process.
“Hello Preventer,” she said, without much of an accent. “I am Aroha, I have brought you a healer.”
She indicated the guy, who groped the air before him with the hand that she wasn’t holding on to.
The edge of my lip curled. Making one mistake didn’t suddenly turn me stupid.
“Your comrades were unable to harm me,” I told Aroha. “and who told you my name?”
I thought she might bow her head, or look away, but she just stared straight back at me.
“You are a Fist,” she said. “Everyone knows your name.”
It still felt like something Haunter would get up to. Sending someone back here to make it clear to the Pantheon troops that I no longer had my invulnerability, leave me dependent on her for protection.
“I’m fine,” I said.
She pointed at my mouth with her free hand, but didn’t shove the healer towards me again.
“She did that,” I said. “Not your Host.”
“Why did she hit you?” asked Aroha. “You serve her, correct?”
“Why did She hit you?” I corrected.
It would be a ridiculous reason to go for Prevailer to snap over one of our new assets messing up Her pronouns, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. The world had a way of weaving snares for those who didn’t bother to check.
She flushed, turning her gaze down this time.
“I’m sorry. The big man also corrected that. She is your leader. She. Her. Sh-”
I kicked the guy, right in the balls.
He crumpled over with a cry of pain.
“I don’t need healing,” I told her. “But I am sure that many of your friends do. Please lead him back to those in need.”
She had a gratifying look of alarm on her face, but didn’t argue with me, leading the alleged healer back down to the camp.
Naturally my jaw took that as a signal to send another stab of pain into my face.
I clenched my teeth. If I could still muster the appropriate caution for a temptation such as this, then I was still ‘me’. I had no doubt any of the rest of the group would have allowed the ‘healer’ to touch them, allowing our enemies information about the state of my gift in return for nothing but an insignificant freedom from pain.
But anyone a healer could heal, they could presumably kill. It meant that they had the ability to affect that person’s form, and most changes you could make to someone were fatal.
The corollary to my single minded focus on survival was, must be, an ability to disregard pain, or fear, or anything else other than reason. I needed to be, once again, the person I had been back in Shington, who had bound her Fate with an untested Fist for no reason other than my deduction of Her instability.
I mused for a while longer in such a manner, striving to once again enshrine calm reason in the center of my soul, before I saw Irene waving to me from among the other shades, beckoning me over to where Indulger sat.
I walked over, taking the time to look around. Haunter was giving some kind of speech, her shades translating her words in real time to the Host as they sat arrayed upon the slope of the ridge. Fisher was still presumably in hiding, which was a huge boon to my calm with my gift expended. The Link let me know she was crouched somewhere, and gave a general direction, but the last thing I wanted to do was seek her out.
Let her be the Anchor until I recovered my gift.
As I walked up Irene began to speak, addressing both Indulger and myself.
“As far as we can tell, there are seven hundred and eight survivors of the attack.”
We’d been careful not to kill any, of course, but the Union’s attack must have been more successful in its early stages than I’d realized.
“Wow,” said Dale. “Seven hundred Ultras. That might be more than there are in Shington.”
It was a sobering reminder of the Pantheon’s massive size and power. Yet another piece of evidence to support my contention that our only route forward was to join with them, with the rest of Mankind, once She was taken care of.
“How useful will they be?” I asked.
Irene looked over a ghostly pad at her side.
“Against the Union, almost worthless. There are maybe a couple dozen who would probably have survived a drone attack or conventional Union strike unaided. Out of them, we’ve found two who would have likely survived the Union’s Ultras to become Overseers.”
“Is one of them that girl who keeps hitting me?” asked Dale.
“Dang?” asked Irene, “No, we think she’d have made it through the conventional attacks, due to Ultra toughness on the border between one and two, but she didn’t have any particular trick. She’d have been dogpiled by Union Ultras.”
“Can you tell us about the Overseer potentials?” I asked. “Would they have successfully fled, like Angel, or was it more like a Mireuk situation, where the Union would eventually have to leave them?”
“One of each,” said Irene. “There is a girl who can return herself to any position she has occupied previously, and do the same to things she touches. So bullets or shrapnel would be back in their guns, and if anyone got close she could hop back along her trail.”
“They might have gotten her with a formless attack,” I noted. “The Union has got to have that kind of thing on hand.”
Irene nodded an easy agreement.
“Might have, but Her example makes us want to err on the side of people with teleportation winning.”
“What about the other?” asked Dale. “The one who could have stood up to the kind of attack we saw in the video.”
Irene pointed over to one of the girls listening to Jane’s speech. She had a trio of orb like gift effects orbiting around her head.
“She apparently turned down a lot of offers from Pantheon Warlords on the way here, was considered a cinch to get her Name.”
She consulted the pad again, flipping a sheaf of spectral paper back.
“Those orbs each have their own power, and she has a few more of them. They can take instructions, and even act of their own initiatie.”
“Huh?” I asked. “Forget being a Warlord’s guard, that kind of power should have gotten her a ticket to that super Host they are supposedly assembling. In the Regime she’d be in a Fist.”
“One of the Orbs makes things insubstantial, as long as it shines its beam on it. Another copies things, though the copies only last as long as the orb keeps the beam on the original. The third apparently controls gravity, though only in terms of pushing or pulling towards/from the orb.”
She made a ‘the list goes on’ gesture.
“Why the fuck did she end up on the Pilgrimage?” I asked. “No one could possibly think that being an Overseer, if she survived, was the best job for someone with that gift.”
“Apparently her brother was blinded by his Process, and she wouldn’t abandon him.”