“Don’t answer that,” I told Fox.
She nodded and, ignoring the pounding on the door, continued to carefully apply my makeup.
I’d commandeered one of what seemed like the better rooms in the fort. It was dry, had just one window, and a beehive. Shofo had assured me that the Bee Room was some kind of status symbol, and my current read on her was that she was too cowed to try and put anything over on me.
No one had bothered us over the course of the night. I hadn’t exactly been surprised. If Legion and her girls had the kind of organization necessary to put together an attempt on taking a Fist out in one night they would never have succumbed to our little coup in the first place. Tomorrow night they might try something, but I was very confident that they’d spent last night shouting at one another in pointless recrimination.
The knock came again, and Jane’s voice along with it.
I looked over at the door, gestured to Shofo.
As she walked over to open it I assessed my appearance. I was mostly decent, as far as I could tell. They’d pressed the gore out of my clothes as well as they could manage, and Fox had been applying my paste long enough that I should be mostly covered.
It was a pity there was no mirror in here. I’d have to remedy that today.
Shofo opened the door, Haunter strolled in.
I’d been Linked to her long enough that I could tell when she was angry, and this was definitely one of those times. There was no visual cue, however. It must be nice to have a gift that let you control your form as perfectly as hers did.
“We agreed to meet this morning,” she told me. “That would have been an hour ago.”
I looked over at my new minions.
“Go get me a mirror,” I told them, “then find me something to replace my face powder. I’m running out.”
They gave agreeable nods and set to pulling on clothes and preparing for departure.
Haunter just stared at me. I knew she was getting ready to let me have it, but there was no way she was going to talk about anything important in front of these two.
“Fill me in on what I missed?” I asked her, feigning innocence.
She smiled back with equally false sweetness.
“Nothing at all,” she said. “We figured we could reschedule for your convenience.”
Shofo and Fox walked out, and Haunter manifested a shade who closed the door behind them. I didn’t recognize him as being one of her more important ones.
“What the fuck?” she asked.
I waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.
“I don’t have a clock,” I reminded her. “I didn’t know you all were up and around yet.”
“Bullshit,” she responded, crisply. “You could have felt our motion through the Link, or you could have just, you know, stayed with the rest of us.”
I rolled my eyes, and felt as I did so that I’d be doing a lot of that in this conversation.
“Jane, when you conquer a place you have to let them know they are conquered. If we hide ourselves away in a little sanctuary it looks like we are afraid of them. Going out and sleeping among them was a power move.”
“A power move,” she repeated, dubiously.
I gave a short nod.
“I’m not going to talk any further on that topic, other than to note that if you wanted advice on that sort of things you should maybe have consulted with me. My reserve has a lot of corporate movers and shakers, we could…no, I’m not getting distracted here.”
She paused for a short moment, took a deep breathe.
“We haven’t ‘conquered’ this place, Preventer. We are their guests, advisors and ambassadors.”
I scoffed at that.
“Jane, for someone so old you sure seem young at times. That was just some words that got said. It doesn’t have anything to do with the truth of the situation.”
I stood as tall as I could, put my hands out in front of me, parallel to one another. This was how Thui had looked when he’d broken things down to our gang.
“Between any pair of people, or any group of people, there are two roles. One is the boss, the other is the bitch. When Legion and her crew backed down, and instead of fighting us they agreed that what we said was right, that made them the bitches. Everyone, except you apparently, gets that.”
It was her turn to silently boggle.
“Preventer,” she said, talking slowly “that is…insane. It’s an enormous simplification of a terribly complicated field of study. I…you…”
She trailed off.
I was content to wait for her to put her thoughts in order, or poll her reserve, or do whatever she was doing. This had been coming for a long time, but I was hopeful that when I set her straight this time we would finally be on the same page.
“I forget sometimes,” she said, “just how isolated you are, were, whatever. I know you fancy yourself a scientist, and it is so easy to just relate to you that way. In a sense, of course, you are. But yours is a scientific tradition of exactly one person. You have these vast gaps in your knowledge, not because you are dumb or anything, but because you are just one isolated individual. And every once in a while one of them shows up and blindsides me. I forget that you didn’t go to school, never cracked a text book, and learned everything you know about people from talking to others just as traumatized as you.”
I could practically taste the condescension on that little speech, and it was a little tempting to just push a barrier through her, pop a ghost or two and see if she talked down to me then. I pushed the impulse down.
“That’s not quite right,” I corrected her. “I read a few old books. It is very hard to understand the people of your era, but I have some exposure to the stuff you are talking about.”
“I know,” she said. “I know that you try. You are doing your best to find out the things that we discovered, and I can help you with that. If you’d like to talk about how to influence people, I can help you with that. I have some actual professionals in my gift, and they would love, and I use that term unironically, the chance to help out a new practitioner. I can get you as many tutors as you want.”
I shook my head, chuckling.
“I don’t exactly need coaching from a bunch of fuck ups,” I told her. “I’ve had plenty of practice being weak before I gained my gift, so I’m sure I know all your daggers could teach me.”
I’d never really managed to offend Haunter before, but this time I might have finally done it.
“A bunch of fuck ups?” she repeated. “Preventer, your ancestors brought about the greatest age of peace and prosperity that the world has ever known. Our loss, the loss of the world that we built…it is a tragedy. It is the worst thing that has ever happened. That’s, that’s why we are doing all this. I thought you, at least, understood that.”
“I’m not really entirely sure what you mean.” I said. “I know the Regime is poorly managed, and that She is a danger to me, so I am fighting back against it. But are you saying that you thought that what I wanted was to put the daggers back into leadership positions? To extend the Union’s silliness across the rest of the world?”
“Silliness?” she said, or more like gasped. “Preventer, the principle that how strong you are, how strong the gift that the Process gives you is, determines how valid what you have to say is going to be is transparently stupid. I’ve thought, at times, that you might not share the same moral foundation as I do, but this shouldn’t be something we disagree about. You are bright enough to see that Her way, Zeus’ way, is idiotic.”
I shrugged again.
“I don’t see anything wrong with admitting that the ones in charge are the most powerful ones. That is still going to be true no matter how you lie about it. You can tell that, because She rolled your whole system up as soon as She felt like it. I know you guys had a lot of trouble working that out, back in the day. I’ve always chalked it up to your religions. Freedom versus Jesus versus Accessibility versus whoever else. I never got the details, but I understood that you spent a lot of energy worrying about fake stuff. But, just to be clear, I am mostly with Zeus as far as my notions of what should go down is concerned.”
Offended might not be the right word. It wasn’t that I was making her mad, it was that I was making her disappointed. Like she’d thought I’d fallen for whatever delusion she’d worked herself into.
I’d actually thought a lot about how smart Haunter was, the way it seemed to click on and off. My current read was that she was really good at knowing facts, due to her slave army, but that she could get dumb notions in her head and not be able to get rid of them the same way as everyone else.
“Preventer,” she said, after a moment. “Why are you risking yourself, your own life, to get rid of Her, if it isn’t to make a better world? I know that you value your life above everything. I know you don’t see other people as quite real, that’s the only way you could do all the Nazi shit you get up to, but I’m not trying to appeal to your empathy here. I’m honestly wondering why you joined the Fist, why you are participating in our Defiance, if all you want is an Ultra tyranny. We already have one of those.”
I gaped at her for a moment. Nonsense words aside it seemed like we had a real gap in understanding here.
This wasn’t a time for clever debating tactics or anything. Only the plain truth would serve me.
“Because She can kill me, and Zeus can’t?” I told her. I’d honestly presumed that that was plain all along.
She gave a nod, and a weak smile.
There was a long moment of silence. I searched frantically for something else we could talk about. I could feel that she was teetering on the edge of one of her inner abysses again, and it would be bad for our position if she snapped or something.
“What are you going to do about Nirav,” I asked her.
That should get her going again, if anything could. She’d been studiously ignoring Condemner’s return ever since he fried her favorite shade, and the longer it went the more worried I got about the inevitable retaliation.
“About Nirav,” she repeated.
“He killed Irene,” I reminded her. “You don’t for a second believe that story about an accident, do you?”
She shook her head, very slowly.
“I don’t,” she said. “But I’d thought you might. I suppose the same cynicism that blinds you to the merits of cooperation ensures that you give proper doubt to implausible stories like the one that Condemner put forward.”
“Sure,” I said. “He accidentally pops her just at the instant that no one is able to verify it? There’s no way that would happen. If he’d actually done this on accident the odds are that one of us would have seen it. Also, the real Nirav would have been way more broken up about it. He’d probably still be apologizing today.”
“I agree,” she said. “Condemner is in charge again, somehow. It’s the only explanation for this kind of pointless malice. Do you think Fisher knows?”
I’d been giving that a lot of thought.
“On some level she has to,” I said. “Her secret gift should have let her know, if she used it on him.”
We had a general rule that the mind control aspects of Betty’s power were not to discussed in detail except under the most strenuously guarded conditions, which a room in the middle of enemy territory definitely didn’t meet, regardless of how many bees were here.
“I think that her subconscious knows,” said Haunter,” but she is refusing to believe it. Or just not thinking about it. I think she’s deep in denial.”
“A river in Egypt?” I joked.
I’d read that one in an old book, figured it wouldn’t hurt to remind her that I actually did know some things about her old world.
I was rewarded with a faint smile.
“Condemner is back, and we are Linked to him. To it. It is a terrifying truth to face. But as Irene found out, we won’t be shielded by hiding from it.”
I could appreciate that kind of wisdom. A lot of people acted like if they kept themselves from finding out about dangerous things they couldn’t be hurt by them, and whatever my differences with Jane were it was nice to know that we both knew that was nonsense.
“Do you think he’ll keep taking out your shadows?” I asked.
“He might try,” she answered, “but they’ve got orders not to get that close to him again, even if it means returning to the reserve. At the very least if he kills another one of those I protect he won’t be able to claim it was some kind of accident.”
“Are you really considering letting him get away with what he’s done?” I asked.
It would be the reasonable thing to do, of course. Condemner was a large part of our combat strength, when he got serious, and Jane was the only truly vulnerable member of our Fist, as the Link didn’t protect her shades.
“Of course not,” she said.
Of course not.
“I trust you’ll be delicate in whatever you do,” I said, which was a lie. “That whole bitch/boss thing I was talking about can flip in an awful hurry if we aren’t united.”
She gave a grim sort of chuckle.
“I’m not sure ‘delicate’ is the right word for what I’m going to do. But if it works out right we should be free of the threat of Death, and Condemner will be…less of a going concern.”
I probably wouldn’t be able to get anything more clear out of her. If it had been useful to her plan for me to know about it she would already have enlisted my cooperation. For all my griping about her odd qualms, I’d never nursed any real doubts about Haunter’s brute competency.
“Jane,” I said. “This thing that we are doing. Dale’s decision to protect these young Gods. It isn’t for nothing. It isn’t for the Union. We are starting the future, right here and right now. This is where it all turns around for us.”
I gave her a broad smile, and let her see my newly healed front teeth.