Haunter, Indulger and I finally got together on the last day before we were to reach Istanbul.
I was actually surprised. At first I’d been expecting Jane to call me up on the carpet basically the minute we started working with the Pantheon in earnest. When she let it slide I figured that whatever was going down with the healers was her endgame, and she’d let us do as we liked forever.
Split the difference, as it turned out.
“Should we invite the other two?” asked Dale, looking nervously around.
I shrugged, shot a quick look to Jane.
She shook her head.
“They don’t care,” I told Dale. “Fisher is ok with whatever as long as she gets to moon around Nirav, and he’s so weird nowadays I have no idea what his take on things will be. Easier to hash things out ourselves, then put it to them as a thing we all three agree on.”
“If we can reach agreement,” temporized Haunter.
“Sure,” said Dale, and he gave an unnecessary ‘scooping’ motion.
His gift kicked in a moment later, and it was as unsettling as always. No matter how many times the world had collapsed away beneath me, I’d never be quite used to it. We were hardwired to fear the darkness and the deeps. It made me think of graves.
It made us all think of graves, I suspect.
But morbid thoughts couldn’t cancel out the obvious privacy advantage of conducting our meetings inside of Dale’s gifts. We’d simply have to put up with it.
“How have things been going with your plan?” I asked, seizing the opportunity to speak first as the cave subsided.
I didn’t really think that it was possible to put Jane in a better or worse mood, she listened mostly to her inner voices, but if we were going to have to have a fight it would be best to have it after we got all the useful information out.
“Excellent,” she said. “The gifts work together like Andy suspected they would. I’ve embodied several hundred scouts for our hosts, with more to come.”
“Monster bodies?” I asked.
“Some,” she allowed. “Monsters based on animals and old stories on the outside, with their inner parts made up to be as human as possible. They don’t know anything about biology, fortunately, so they have to make every form human on the inside, it’s the only way their creations stay alive.”
“Some?” asked Dale. “What are the rest?”
Even through the darkness I could sense Haunter’s smile.
“Dogs,” she said, “And people. Things that can blend in and bring back useful information from the Union refugees.”
Zero points for guessing whether any of them had done so, or would be doing so. Jane’s passengers had worked hard to bring this about, and I didn’t begrudge as many of them as wanted to take it their precious escape hatch. Her capacities didn’t really change if she had a dozen shades or a few thousand, it wasn’t like anyone under us was going to be counting them.
“Congratulations, “ I said. “I know you’ve been working for this for a long time. There must have been days where it seemed like it would never happen.”
“That describes your own ambitions as well,” she responded. “Have you enjoyed your time atop the Pantheon? I know you wanted to be a part of their peacetime leadership, but I hope that the present situation is an adequate substitute.”
“It is amazing!” I told her, deliberately acting as enthusiastic as I could, “The Goddesses here have gifts I never could have imagined, back in Shington. This is the center of the world, here with the Brides. We are at the fulcrum, the core of it all. The decisions that we make here will shape everything.”
“Except Her,” said Dale, his dour tone an instant antidote to my own energy.
“Even Her,” I insisted. “She’ll react to what we are doing here. We are creating reality, Zeus and Prevailer will own what comes next, but our choices right now set the stage that they’ll act on. Will they come forth to a Union dominated by Ultrahumans, by Zeus’ Brides, or to yet another Union victory?”
“I know which one you’d prefer,” said Jane. “I’ve heard things, even closeted with the healers. You’ve been giving genuine advice to their warriors, helping them out as much as you could.”
She didn’t make it sound like an accusation, but of course it was.
“Yeah,” said Dale. “I have.”
The darkness hid my shock. I’d been prepared to answer that directly, been expecting a two on one situation. I’d never seriously considered that Dale might take my side.
“May I ask why?” asked Haunter, her voice cold and formal.
“Well,” said Dale, “I got to know the Pantheon people. They are just people, you know? Like, all the talk about Gods or whatever is just talk, these are people. I like them, so I’m helping them.”
“These ‘people’,” said Haunter, “intend to bring ruin and war to a civilization, Dale. They will kill the Union citizens wholesale, conjure rape and ruin in the midst of the last bastions of human culture left in the world.”
“I get that they are fighting some other people,” said Dale. “And I get that you want to be on the other people’s side, but I guess I don’t really get why you want that. Like, the time we were with the Union we just had Fisher do her mind control stuff on them. Why do you like the people from back when we were in the embassy and not the people who are marching with us?”
I felt my lips curl up in a smile. I could never, in my wildest dreams, have imagined such a reversal. Watching Haunter defend her nonsense against Dale’s questioning was something I’d have cashed in serious favors to experience.
“It isn’t about ‘liking’, Dale,” said Haunter, exasperated, “Its about choosing between barbarism and reason, between a culture which reveres a God King and a pluralistic democracy.”
“Ok,” said Dale, “So why do you like one of those better than the other? Like, what’s so great about democracy?”
“It’s fair, Dale,” she responded, “It lets us avoid corrupt maniacs abusing their power, and the people are governed by the policies that their chosen representatives enact. Quality of life improves under it, no one is forced to worship a false God. There are less rapes and murders!”
I controlled a chuckle. Haunter could be far more articulate, of course, but it looked as though she’d been taken as off guard by this as I was, and she’d defaulted to a sort of ‘open mic’ state, where her shades just kind of rattled off facts without organizing them into a centralized argument. It was rare, but we’d seen it a few times.
“Ok,” said Dale, “But wasn’t Fidel a maniac who abused his power? And, like, I feel like the Brides are under the policies that they choose to be under, because they are so powerful that no one could tell them what to do.”
She trailed off.
“Fidel was not representative,” I allowed. “Guys like him are going to happen in any system, I don’t think he is a good place to look for the overall character of Union leadership.”
“Thank you, Preventer,” said Haunter, obviously distrusting me but unable to rebut a generous concession without looking like an utter asshole. “The point is that he was an outlier. Vampire is not. She is the point of their system, a powerful Goddess who thinks the world belongs to her.”
“Doesn’t it though?” asked Dale.
“Well, like, what’s going to be better about pretending that she isn’t in charge? There are two people in the world who are more powerful than her. You want to give her one vote among millions and see if that makes things better? How is a lie going to make things better?”
“The idea of ‘powerful’ being defined by Ultra powers is inherently toxic,” snapped Jane. “In the old world we didn’t have weight lifting competitions to pick who decided public policy. It is just as easy for assholes to get strong, or, in this case, fortunate in the Process, as it is for virtuous people. The point of reasoned debate is that the only ones who can win it are the ones who are correct. Logic is a blade that only the righteous can wield. Both sides can agree on letting the one who turns out to be correct win, and you can decide major social issues without enormous bloodbaths.”
“So you should be fine with this,” I interrupted. “We are picking what to do by talking about it, no fighting or anything like that. Just like you like, right? And at the end of this, if Dale and I say ‘Pantheon’, and you say ‘Union’ you’ll let yourself be bound by majority rule?”
I kept the sneer out of my voice with effort.
“That’s not..” said Jane, before stopping her sentence to compose herself, “You aren’t debating in good faith. Your positions were determined before you began, and no matter how good my points are you aren’t about to shift them.”
Was this actually the real persona of Haunter at last? I couldn’t imagine that that line had come from her mass mind, it was a gross mistake on at least two levels. The only thing I could think was that I’d offended her so much that her people were giving her the reins, letting her run wild for a bit so that they wouldn’t snap off entirely.
“Jane,” said Dale, hurt obvious in his voice, “That doesn’t make sense. I used to agree with you and now I’m on the other side. How can you say that I don’t change my mind? I think you are the one who can’t change their mind.”
My hands flapped gleefully before me, and I did nothing to quiet them. How long had I waited for someone else to have to answer this sort of nonsense? How sweet was it to be in the clique that got to win in our little Fist? After so many times where Haunter had gotten her way?
“Dale,” she said, desperation coloring her voice, “I answered hastily, accepted false pretenses, the majority would have to be calculated with all of my passengers, in order for this to be truly democratic, and I was referring to Preventer as the one whose interests were fixed. I know that you’ve swung recently, and I was hoping to talk to you about why that might be.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, disregarding the nonsense about her gift giving her the final say in our conversation. “About Dale I mean.”
“Yeah,” he echoed. “What did you want to ask about? We could use some talk that isn’t fighting, let us all cool down a bit.”
“Ok,” said Haunter. “How many of Lotus’ potions have you used today, so far? My shades have reported you drinking a lot more of them than-“
“You are spying on me?” he asked, the hurt returning to his tone.
“I’m concerned about you,” she said, which I thought was a solid dodge, “I know that your gift heals you up when you touch the ground, but I don’t think it affects these potions. I’m worried that you might be changing, becoming more like Lotus and less like the rest of us.”
“You don’t like me smarter?” he asked. “I guess maybe I would have been okay with that before, but it kind of feels insulting.”
Dale cut her off.
“No, sorry, let me work through this. It isn’t that you don’t like when I’m smart, being smart lets me understand that. What you have a problem with is that I’m choosing my own things now, not just doing what you say. That’s really…I hate that.”
“Dale, you don’t-“ said Haunter.
This time he didn’t cut her off by speaking, but with his gift. The cave rose up beneath him, bearing him back out into the camp.
I stood in the darkness for a few seconds, not trusting myself to say anything, for fear of laughter unbalancing my tone.
“This,” she said after a moment, “This is bad for both of us. You understand that, right? Dale’s subversion can’t possibly be any use in either of our endgames.”
“I don’t think he’s subverted,” I said, “I think he’s become a different person, but I think he is still the boss of him.”
“It’s the same thing,” she insisted. “Like someone with a drinking habit or an addiction to a dangerous drug. The new person he’s becoming is one midwifed by Lotus. Her gift is carving new grooves into his soul. She doesn’t need to control him explicitly in order to wield tremendous influence over him.”
“Like Blisser,” I said.
“Who?” she asked.
“Back in Shington there’s an Ultra who just makes people super happy. It doesn’t do mind control or anything, she just makes you happy. But people get addicted to her, hang around, do favors and stuff.”
“Then yes,” she answered, “Just like that. Dale is clinging to Lotus’ gift, he likes what it brings him, and it is making him do things he wouldn’t otherwise.”
“Alright,” I said, “But what if I like the new Indulger better than the old one?”
“Nobody forced him, right?” I asked. “He chose to get smarter, and now he agrees with me that the Pantheon is the way forward. Why should I want him to go back? What’s so great about dumb Dale’s old decision? Isn’t it ok to change your mind?”
“Think about what you are saying!” she snapped. “He isn’t ‘changing his mind’ in the sense of making a different decision, he is literally ‘changing his mind’. He is embracing a despotic and cruel culture despite the kindness of his nature, entirely because he couldn’t stand to lose his augmentations!”
“What’s your evidence of that?” I asked.
I didn’t particularly care, mind. I wasn’t infected by Jane’s particular mania for everything following some unwritten set of rules. But I was interested, and as long as we were down in a hole I figured we might as well get some talking in.
“What else could it be?” she asked.
I shrugged, which was a wasted gesture in the darkness.
“Dale’s gotten some experience now with Pantheon culture, at the fort and now with the Host. What if he finds it to his liking, entirely aside from whatever the drinks are doing to him?”
“Constant jockeying for leadership? A perpetual war? Life and death struggles every week? What could anyone find appealing about this?”
“Comradery?” I suggested, “Other people looking up to him, a context for where his gift makes him a figure of power and influence, rather than a humble builder of roads? Remember that he was an Ultra Fight-er before.”
“That’s not Dale,” she said, certainty rock solid in her voice, “He chose to build roads instead of working for Her for most of his life. He chooses to leave his opponents alive, when possible. He is the furthest thing from these people.”
“Was,” I corrected her.
She was quiet for a long moment after that.
“Jane,” I said, “What would it hurt, for us to back the Pantheon? You are intelligent. You have to understand that whatever happens with this attack, the Union is doomed. Zeus is coming, along with the rest of the Brides. The Union will follow the old world into ruin, and from it will rise a renewed Pantheon. We have a chance to be part of that.”
She was silent again, and I was about to keep talking when she spoke up.
“I’ll have to share something with you,” she said. “Something I hadn’t planned to. I’d always nursed the fantasy of letting you get your happy ending, letting reality do the rug pulling there. In a perfect world you get torn apart by the women you had raped in your Gardens. But I shouldn’t let poetic justice obstruct the real thing.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “You shouldn’t be stupid enough to think a threat from you matters to someone who is invincible.”
“Reality,” she said. “I’m going to have to give you a broader picture, bring you inside a secret that almost no one else knows about.”
“As tricks go, this is a pretty shitty one.” I told her.
I could sense her shaking her head.
“Your argument for the Pantheon, for Ultra dominance, it is entirely based on the rule by the strongest, right? We shouldn’t fight fate, it wouldn’t work. Since Zeus will win we should be on his side, regardless of which side would be better for the future.”
“Force rules the world,” I agreed, not sure where she was going with this.
“Well,” she said. “Condemner let me in on some truths about Force, and about the World, and you aren’t backing a winner. The Pantheon is doomed, and so is the Regime. The only thing that’s left is trying to make sure Humanity doesn’t go down with them.”
“Come again?” I asked.
“Condemner, all gifts really, are extradimensional entities, they provide their benefits in exchange for our experiences. It’s a game for them, and the most important thing is that that game is about to be over.”
“Let me explain in more detail…”