I wished, with all my heart, that I could make myself believe that Haunter had been making it all up.
I could get most of the way there. She had a huge host of collaborators, and she could call upon really good actors to drive her form. Regardless of the plausibility of something, Haunter could sell herself as sincerely believing it.
So it was possible. She could have seen Nirav/Condemner’s bizarre behavior and leapt to take advantage, painting a picture of a dark future where everything she wanted came about and my gift was taken away. It would have been an effective lever to use to control me.
But if I posited that flavor of Jane, there were a lot of other levers lying around. She could have invented a prophecy from Answerer, or a way to tattle to Her on me. A Haunter without scruples could have come up with something a lot more plausible than this tale of weird reality bending creatures as the source of our gifts.
Not that I was letting her pull the ‘it is so implausible it must be true!’ trick on me. I knew that evidence against couldn’t become evidence for or you could reason yourself into anything. But it was a supporting thing, a bit of weight for the idea that she was sincere.
So I maybe believed her, I kinda believed her. If I had to put it at a number it would be like nine out of ten she believe it herself, three out of ten Condemner was telling the truth. I still thought it wasn’t the most likely thing, but it was likely enough for me to take precautions.
“She’s almost ready,” said Ouro.
I contented myself with a nod in reply.
I’d been the go between for our group and the Grand Host’s leadership ever since the beginning. The reason I’d given for it was that my gift likely protected me from her foresight, but of course that wasn’t the primary reason. The main purpose of positioning myself like this was simply politics.
If I wanted to be part of the Leadership Council after all of this, then I had to gain the respect of these women, and that meant interacting with them, doing the sordid work, day in and day out.
It wasn’t a natural fit for my skillset. I was most comfortable alone, or surrounded only by my inferiors. I wasn’t the best at sucking up.
But I wasn’t the worst, either, and it wasn’t like the Brides had been selected for their political acumen. By my own reckoning I’d done very well since my arrival, made the best I could of these fleeting weeks of travel and battle.
The glances that came my way from the rest of the Brides, up here on the leadership’s platform, were no longer envious or scornful. Indulger had proven our worth by killing off Manus, and he’d proven our value by scouting out Union ambushes and speeding our journey. Jane’s own contribution with the scouts was also something that most people had heard of vaguely, and would be another point in our favor.
I let my gaze wander around, looking past the Brides to the remnants of the old leadership, to Zilla and Legion’s cronies. Arena, Lotus, all those girls. They had become our staunchest supporters, clinging to us as a sane counterweight to Vampire’s arbitrary fancies.
I looked at the woman in line ahead of me, cringing before Vampire as she stuttered out some plea or other. A front liner, maybe an old Overseer, no doubt asking for protection from the bullying of the Brides. She’d be leaving disappointed, if she didn’t just disappear entirely.
That could happen, of course. I’d seen it. Vampire’s gift was awe inspiringly powerful. She could teleport anything that lay in shadow, bringing it back into the world anywhere but inside another person.
At this time of night that meant that she could warp anyone and anything. The woman taking up her time could suddenly find herself in deep space. Ultra toughness might delay the effect, but not for very long.
Whispers put her as the third or fourth strongest in the Pantheon, a woman who only Zeus and Prevailer stood conclusively above, and who would contest the second of those statements.
With her patronage, my future would be assured, but only if Haunter was wrong.
If Haunter was right, however, then very soon her influence would simply be that of one young woman, not terribly bright. She’d be irrelevant, a refugee or the victim of a drone strike, depending on fortune’s decisions.
What Jane didn’t seem to get was that the same was true of me.
If Ultra gifts were going to go away, if the Union were fated to seize back control of the world, then where would I end up? Where could I?
Jane’s path, leaping to the Union for a safe landing, or to wage her solo mission, that couldn’t be mine.
Everybody knew that the Union knew everything. My time in the Regime, as a leading light in Shington, would be utterly damning. I’d be marched up against a wall and shot.
Jane had made noises about herself and her shades testifying on my behalf, assuming that her scheme with giving her shades bodies and thus keeping them once gifts went away even worked, but that was immensely dubious.
Another quick set of odds. If this all happened, and gifts vanished, and Jane survived, call it five out of ten, and her shadows survived in their new forms, call that another five out of ten, then what were the odds that they wouldn’t betray me? What were the odds that the Union would listen to their testimony, and allow ex Regimer-ers to tell them what other ex Regimer-ers they could or could not execute?
How many gates, and none of them very far in my favor? Sum them all up and the possibility was vanishingly small.
I’d make a gesture, a motion in her direction. Maybe it would save my life. But for the most part I still had to place my faith in Ultra gifts.
Maybe they had had these doomsayers back in the old world. People waving signs or shouting from corners that the end was coming. Presumably they’d ignored them then just about as much as I was ignoring Jane now. What else could you do? How could it be rational to bet on the apocalypse?
The woman before me bowed her head and wandered off, leaving me to step up and face Vampire.
I took a second to marvel at how well rested and relaxed she looked. She was leading an army into enemy territory, on the verge of what she thought would be a huge battle. She’d broken the Intervention Groups, pushed into the Union proper and was about to sack one of their cities.
She just looked bored. No lines under her eyes, no dirt on her skin. Dull, narrow eyes squinted at me as she picked her nose.
“Vampire,” I said. “Can we get some privacy?”
This had come to be something of a calling card for us. Very few others bothered with it, putting their faith in the shield, but Fourth Fist invariably attempted to use what countermeasures we could.
“Ok,” she said.
I liked to think that it added to our mystique. It certainly meant that I didn’t have to let people watch me cringe before her like the last woman had.
Without the slightest sign or gesture a steel square appeared around us, four great walls wrenched from some house somewhere, leaning against one another. A split second later a roof appeared, then dirt and grime to clog up the intersections.
All told it took about two seconds, maybe less, for her to entomb us, leave us in utter darkness.
“I want to talk about the upcoming battle,” I said. “Are you up for that?”
“Sure,” she said.
I’d come around to believe that her laconic manner was something of a front. She was aware that she wasn’t the smartest, so she didn’t talk much, just kind of loomed menacingly and let other people dance around her temper.
The important thing was that she could tell the difference between people trying to help and people trying to bullshit her, or at least she thought she could. I’d always been careful to be as sincere and helpful as I could, trying to stay on the right side of that divide.
“What do you think is going to happen?” I asked her, carefully.
I was spending our social capital on this, turning her usual method around and making her talk first. She wouldn’t tolerate it from most, but I was betting that here, with no bystanders, she’d level with me.
“The Union are finally going to fight here,” she said. “No more of this picking at us from a distance. We’ll take on their big defending army and break it.”
I knew that Jane had broached this topic with her back when we first joined the Host, but I didn’t have the details on exactly how that had gone. I had to be careful.
“I don’t…” I said, choosing my words carefully, “think that they will do that. It doesn’t fit with what I understand of their mindset.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
There was no hostility in her tone, which was no guarantee of course, but was at least an encouraging sign.
“The Union doesn’t think like us,” I explained, “I mean their leaders. They don’t understand about glory, don’t know how shameful it is for an enemy to take one of their cities. They are like the idiots in the world that died, and they war like it. They won’t defend a city, they’ll defend its people.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” she asked.
I shook my head, which was of course useless in the blackness, but I expected she could sense my position through her gift.
“The people can move. We’ve been marching towards this place for two weeks now, ever since your victory over the Intervention Groups. I think they’ve likely evacuated the city by now, it will just be like the areas we’ve been trudging through, maybe with more traps.”
“Bullshit,” she said. “They having no gift that can do that!”
“Remember that they are different,” I cautioned. “They don’t rely on gifts. Remember all those little flying things that they attacked with. They could use those to carry their people away. Why wouldn’t they do that? If you were in their shoes, you’d do that, right?”
She didn’t say anything then, but I could feel her suspicion and skepticism like living things in the darkness. I heard a sound that might have been a fist striking a wall.
“Think of it this way,” I said, “They haven’t tried a big fight since the one you won, right? So they must prefer to pick away at us. If that’s the case, why would they change that now? If they move the people they can keep right on picking at us, even though we may be in one of their cities. They can just rebuild it later.”
“Then how can we make them fight!” she snarled. “How do we fulfill Zeus’ orders if these heathen weaklings keep on hiding?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “But I think the way we are trying isn’t going to do it. We can’t sneak up on them with the shield on us, and they are much faster than Indulger’s top rock moving speed with their little ships, so I don’t think we can catch their units even if we race straight at them.”
“There HAS to be a way!” she insisted, more naked emotion in her tone than I’d ever heard before.
She wouldn’t have spoken that way in public, and it indicated, to me, that she at least mostly believed what I’d told her about the plausible evacuation. It added up to me having become something of a confidant, so that was a private victory, but this still needed to be managed very carefully.
“Sacking a Union city is something,” I said. “Just because they don’t have the wit to know their shame doesn’t mean Zeus won’t see it. We can probably just smash everything and then move on from here, the main host will catch up with us in a few months, right? Maybe we can make it to another city.”
From my understanding of our rate of attrition we could weather that time pretty well. We were losing a few Ultras a day and killing less than that with the current situation. We might be able to make some progress in stopping their raids, too, so that number had some room to improve.”
“I’m not looking for ‘something’!” she snarled. “I’m looking for glory, I’m looking to put those other bitches in their places, make myself Zeus’s true partner, fuck Isis. I want to kill these Union assholes by thousands, by thousands of thousands!”
“They aren’t going to attack you,” I told her, plainly. “There is no way they haven’t found out what your gift does by now, with how spied on our column is. Some of the people who disappeared in the first fight must have been snatched away, they would talk, they won’t cluster up for you to get them.”
“Then we attack them!” she said. “Fuck the shield, rush them down, break them!”
“I don’t think that’ll work,” I said.
I didn’t think she was actually serious about abandoning the shield and charging across the countryside, this was more of a reaction or a test kind of thing.
“They will see us coming with their drones, fly away from anyone who isn’t fast enough to catch them, mob anyone who does manage to catch up once they break away from the rest. The shield is a huge help, we can’t just abandon it.”
“There must be a way to get them,” she insisted. “What do you suggest?”
“They will defend their people,” I said. “If they can’t get them away in time the army will come and put itself in the way of the ones who can’t fight.”
She was quiet once again.
“Remember it is all backwards there,” I said. “They don’t fight for their leader’s glory, they fight because they get money from all the ones who don’t have to fight, or something like that. The bottom line is that if we can get to a city that isn’t evacuating, their army will fly over to rescue them.”
“But Istanbul is probably empty?” she said.
“I’ll bet on it,” I said, “if you like. Nothing but some bombs or other inventive traps. Maybe poison.”
“Do you think they have emptied their other cities?” she asked.
I shook my head, marveling at how well Jane had anticipated this line of conversation.
“I do not,” I said. “They’ll only evacuate a place we are drawing near to. They can’t, or they wouldn’t, just do it for everywhere.”
“I’m getting an idea…” she said.
“I think I had the same idea, I said, we strike another one of their cities!” I said. “I think Berlin is probably the best-“
This was my gesture to Jane, a suggestion that she’d carefully considered, and one that she’d leaked to the Union a week and a half ago. I doubted it would actually buy me anything from a victorious Union, but covering my bases was probably worth it.
“Why just one?”