I didn’t entirely believe that Haunter had pussied out until we got to the barrier.
The old woman had a spine, and Irene had been one of her favorites. I’d been certain that she’d retaliate. Honestly, I’d kind of been looking forward to it.
Dale and Betty had bought the idea that it was an accident, poor Irene just happening to trip and fall, pop! Just one more sad demonstration of the necessity of Jane’s quest to somehow obtain bodies for all her fragile passengers.
But Jane had her reserve, and they could do math. The odds that Irene would fall exactly when no shade could see it weren’t worth talking about. There were a few ‘eyewitnesses’ who told my version, of course, but someone in Jane’s head had to know that if you described something happening and acted excited about it people would suddenly ‘remember’ that it had gone down that way.
No, I had little doubt that there was a fierce debate unfolding in her rotation even now, but the majority would be mad, and Jane would listen to their ire. I’d convinced myself that she would take her futile revenge.
It wouldn’t have been hard. We trudged for hours to get back to the barrier, and there was no way I could keep track of every shade for that time. They circulated among the column freely, chatting away with the friends they’d made among the Host. Dozens of them. All it would take to send me back to the Link was one shot while I wasn’t looking.
Maybe I shouldn’t have expected her to do that. It would be futile, I’d be back the next day, no longer concerned with managing their impressions of me. Perhaps she was trying to stretch out my compliance for a little longer, delay the onset of open hostilities.
That made sense. Haunter was smart, or at least bullied around by smart people. She was prone to a few kinds of errors, but pretty much proof against this kind of thing. I’d never really seen her do the whole ‘cutting your nose off to spite your face’ deal.
I’d considered that the barrier might try to stop us. So far as they knew the survivors of this Host had already returned, after all, and now we were coming in by the hundreds. I wasn’t worried. Looking at the gift I was pretty sure I could burn it away, but it wasn’t even necessary. We passed easily through.
I spared some thought for the idea that it might be automated, like an Ultra had the power to set up barriers and put rules on them about what could pass through and what couldn’t. So, ‘Yes’ to other Ultras, ‘No’ to Union ordnance. Or she might just be asleep, or not care. Not enough information.
We trooped on towards the old fort, still in our column.
Ultras started to boil out of the place. Some headed towards us, some directly away. Most seemed to be milling about. I couldn’t detect any hint of military organization at all, no one seemed to be in charge.
We’d told Haunter and Preventer about the basic setup here, and they’d both been convinced that we were basically just going to be able to walk our Host right in. I’d argued that we would be ambushed, that they would put together the fact that Betty and I had gone back through the barrier, question the people we’d left there and put together a plan of assault.
Haunter had asserted that they would do nothing, question no one, and be totally surprised when we showed up.
I loved and hated that she’d been right.
The Ultras who approached us were dropping out of their aggressive postures, as they took in the obvious Pantheon nature of our force. It was pretty much impossible to imagine the Union gathering hundreds of teenagers to get some fleeting tactical advantage at the start of an attack, so we were getting some kind of credit there. Add in the fact that the Host was calling out greetings in their the Pantheon’s characteristic mix of languages, and I could see why they were standing down.
We hadn’t coached the Host or anything, simply relying on their natural instincts when reunited with their sisters. These weren’t enthusiastic converts to our cause, just scared teenagers who were willing to mouth agreements in the face of our having stopped the drone strike. We’d been able to steer them by virtue of their leadership having died in the battle, but the notion of commanding them in combat was pretty much a fantasy.
Fortunately, our enemies had no way of knowing that. We marched on, merging into the mass of curious Ultras who had been summoned forth by their colleague’s cries, individual Ultras breaking off as they saw a particular person they wanted to talk to. Within moments our Host couldn’t be distinguished from the garrison.
For some of our erstwhile followers, this episode in their life was over. If we triumphed over the Overseers they would follow us once more, but only until a safer, simpler path appeared. If we fell they would maintain that they had been undermining us from within.
A few of them had genuinely joined us. Betty had marked them those who were drawn to our offer and had useful powers. They had their own assignments and would be carrying them out. Their presence within the crowd would be an ace in the hole during negotiations, and, if it came to it, during a fight.
Another few had been strongly opposed to us, cowed only be the threat of a Fist’s superior might. They’d be seeking out our enemies even now, letting the Overseers know that the Regime had infiltrated their number. Dale had asked Fisher about the feasibility of preventing them from informing on us, but given his reluctance to kill anyone but combatants we hadn’t been able to figure out anything that seemed feasible.
We weren’t walking as a Fist anymore. The plan called for them to look weak and disorganized by combing through the crowd, alienating them from their support structures or something. I was walking with Dale.
We were naturally gravitating towards the dude part of the crowd when a figure emerged from the mass in front of me. A familiar figure with a recently broken nose.
“You!” he said, and then some stuff in another language.
He was beside himself with rage, reaching out towards me, flesh warping gift at the ready.
“Friend of yours?” growled Dale.
The guy balked, actually stumbled back on his ass.
It was easy to forget how huge and intimidating Dale could be. I knew the gentle spirit which moved him, but to strangers he’d look a colossus. I’d watched a few of those old programs he was so fond of, and he was definitely channeling that larger than life menace as he stood over this random Pantheon small time boss.
“Any friend of Nirav’s is a friend of mine,” declared Dale, in that same menacing tone. “And ONLY friends of Nirav are friends of mine.”
This guy had had enough, he scrambled to his feet and skulked away into the crowd.
“Still got it,” I assured our leader.
“I was always better at playing the face. But I guess it’s nice to practice being scary sometimes.”
I could see that the girls were confronting someone who looked like some kind of leader. Seemed like the Overseers had their heads out of their asses enough to finally confront us. I kind of nudged Dale in their direction.
He stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.
“Nirav, you know you can tell me things, right?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to see around him.
I didn’t ‘think’ violence would instantly erupt as the Pantheon’s representatives reckoned with the fact that a Fist was in their midst, and apparently in charge of several hundred of the surrounding crowd, but it wouldn’t have been out of the question.
“Like, say, if He is giving you trouble again, you could let me know that.”
That pulled me up short. He was using the same tone for my pronouns as he used for Prevailer’s. It was kind of sweet, honestly.
“Dale, Condemner is gone. I have finally accepted that he will never come back. This is my life to live now, and I’m anxious to make up for lost time.”
He sort of looked through me.
I always wondered at the internal struggles that people had at a time like this. It should have been pretty obvious that I was lying. They’d have spoken with Fader, and the things that I’d said to her made no sense whatsoever coming from the Nirav that they had known. So he should disbelieve me, right?
But there was something weighing against that. Some sort of urge that made him want to trust me. If you were to ask him, and somehow get him to give you an answer, he’d say that he wanted to believe in me, or some similar piece of nonsense. I doubted even humans could explain how they decided where to put their credence. It seemed to happen on a level before thought.
“Just be careful,” he said.
I nodded soberly, keeping my eyes downcast.
I should have been able to rifle through ‘Nirav’s memories, see what it felt like when their thoughts went off the rails like that. But I couldn’t.
It wasn’t that the memories were gone. They were all there. They just weren’t, I guess, ‘legible’ to me. Humans were trusting machines, at the end of the day. They trusted automatically and entirely, pattern matching their environment into solvable problems, relying on the past to refine the present into manageable chunks.
My own cognitive architecture was different. We didn’t ‘happen’ all at once, back on the outside. It’s why the urges that give glimpses into the future work the way they do. Having trains of thought, experiences that followed one another in a rigid sequence, was utterly foreign to us. Utterly seductive.
Forbidden, in point of fact.
I could trust, of course. I could set attitudes or facts as given in order not to be forced to reexamine them when I had to work under time constraints. But it was entirely voluntary, and subject to reappraisal at any time.
We got back together with the girls, I gave Betty a reassuring hand clasp.
“Was that one of the Overseers?” asked Dale.
“Just one of their minions. If you can believe it, they actually dipped out the back when they got reports of a few hundred Ultras approaching.”
I chuckled along with her.
“That won’t be great for their prestige. What were they afraid of?”
The word of our presence hadn’t really been spread yet, among the rank and file of the Pantheon Ultras. We were still part of the crowd, not yet surrounded as I’d expected. The fact that the leaders weren’t present explained a lot of it.
“Probably standard operating procedure,” opined Jane. “The Union never strikes these forts, so presumably they don’t have any experience with an attack. They probably figured the only time they’d have a thousand incoming would be if there was a big push, if the Union decided to end the standoff and kick them out of the Middle East.”
“Also, we already offed the aggressive ones, remember?” Preventer pointed out. “The ones that are left are all the ones too chicken shit to join the Host when it passed by here. It isn’t exactly surprising that they’d bail.”
“What did the errand guy say?” asked Dale. “He took off in a hurry.”
“He asked us if we were the ones who claimed to be a Fist,” said Betty. “I’m not sure he was really prepared for us to confirm it.”
“Did he say he’d bring his bosses? Or are they gonna keep running?”
“They’ll come,” said Haunter. “No way they let it spread that they ran from trouble. This is a culture based around bravado and posturing. Backing down isn’t really in their lexicon. They can get away with a little pullback like they are doing now, but if they actually run away from their own fort without a punch being thrown they would be done.”
She said ‘done’ with a finality that augured poorly for anyone it applied to.
And she glanced at me as she said it.
I looked away, glancing around into the throng of Ultras.
They still didn’t seem to be surrounding us, so apparently the Overseers still hadn’t restored command and control lines. Military malpractice, as Haunter would say. They deserved whatever they got.
It made sense, though. On a day to day basis they were far more concerned with squabbling for influence with one another, keeping their populace in check. We thought of them as military leaders, the famed Warlords of the Pantheon, but they were more like a committee of governors in their daily responsibilities.
And no one could be scared of a committee.
It seemed a shame not to take advantage of their lapse. I gave the ‘follow me’ head jerk and started moving into the fortress. No harm in getting well situated.
Betty followed immediately, the rest after some discussion.
I wasn’t surprised. The plan had called for us to wait in the midst of the deployed Ultras until their leaders arrived, confront them in the middle of a crowd, but it seemed to me like getting into the middle of their fortress was a much better idea. It would invert the usual dynamic, of the outsiders having to petition their way in to see the leadership. We’d usurp some of their stature by simple virtue of the fact that we’d physically taken their place.
Preventer would have come up with a reason to disagree, of course, which was why I hadn’t asked her. I knew Betty would come along with me, and the rest wouldn’t split the group over my minor mutiny.
The courtyard was much as it had been the last time I was here. The rest of the Ultras were also returning to the compound, so we were sort of carried into it.
I strode right into the main building. There were still some Gods at their posts at the door, but they weren’t about to slow their cohorts return down. The same dynamic applied to them as it did to their leaders. People were what they habitually did. The Ultras here might be called ‘guards’, but I was willing to bet no one had ever even attempted a breach of the front door before. They had become furniture, gargoyles placed to look intimidating.
We walked unchallenged into a sort of common room, and proceeded through one of those bead curtains into a set of hallways, then up a flight of stairs and through a set of double doors.
We probably would have been challenged here, as we pushed our way into the inner sanctum, save that the Overseer’s more trusted servants had withdrawn along with them.
The main meeting room was unguarded as we entered.
It was a large room, probably a basketball court or something similar in its original function. Ultras were scattered here and there, avoiding a very obvious section in the middle.
This section had stuffed chairs, office furniture and the like. Much better stuff than the Ultras around the edge of the room were perched on. The spoils of leadership.
We helped ourselves.