Later on that night, Mario came back to my cell and motioned for me to follow him. The jailbreak was, apparently, on.
I kept up easily, walking with the brisk stride of someone who knew what they were doing, and had an absolute right to be here. There were enough intelligence operatives in the reserve for me to understand that creeping along like a ninja would be actively counterproductive.
I was utterly in my benefactor’s hands, in truth. Our escape would succeed or fail based on how well he’d planned it out. My part in things could have been played equally well by an animatronic manikin.
We arrived at another door, which my benefactor opened up, whisking a keycard across a scanner.
Dale sprawled within, lounging across the table in the middle of the room, with his feet resting on one of the chairs.
“What’s-“ he started.
“Hurry up and come on,” I told him. “We’re getting out of here. No time for questions.”
He swung his legs down, grabbed up a bundle that he’d set down on the ground and trooped along after us.
I winced a bit, on the inside, as the Jury confirmed what I’d glimpsed. The bundle was full to the brim with those accursed potions that Lotus had hooked him on.
I’d hoped we’d seen the last of New Dale when we parted with the Pantheon. I’d managed to get Lotus killed during the battle in Istanbul, and it had seemed reasonable to expect that the Union would have confiscated the glowing liquids that their new captive carried around, particularly since my reports had stressed that they should do exactly that.
We got to another cell, opened this one up in the same way.
Preventer, unsurprisingly, was inside, sitting at the table and writing something in a notebook. She started when we arrived.
“Come on,” I told her. “We’re leaving.”
I’d honestly given thought to leaving Preventer behind. Her general moral failings went a long way towards negating her combat potential, and ending up stuck in a cell forever was pretty much exactly how I hoped things would turn out for her.
But we were going back to the Regime, and the task at hand demanded our utmost. Benching the woman who’d killed Death just felt stupid, when we might end up fighting First Fist directly.
I still hoped we’d have copious Union backup, of course. Mario had given me the impression that there wouldn’t be a lot of that available, but it was just impossible to entirely throw away the hope that common sense would prevail. Maybe, if nothing else, the obstinate fools who were determined to get us all killed would have the good grace to go first.
I checked that thought process before it could go any further. I’d been getting angrier and angrier of late, and it wasn’t useful. It certainly wasn’t something I should be indulging in while we were in danger, and despite Mario’s assurances I had no illusions that that was not the case.
Mario took us down a hallway, then a ways down another hallway and into a side room. Waiting within were a set of three Union uniforms.
We didn’t need any instructions, quickly changing the rags we’d been wearing since Istanbul for the clothes provided. Maybe Mario expected that we would be a bit more modest, turn around for each other or something, but that’s not what happened.
We’d shared the Fist bond for months, we all knew, in a very basic and almost instinctive way, what it felt like to be in one another’s skin. We might no longer have such an advantage, but even its memory was enough to make us entirely unconscious of one another’s forms.
“What’s the plan?” asked Dale as we finished up dressing.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Mario, brushing him off. “You just need to follow me and look confident.”
I didn’t miss the minute twitching of Dale’s fist in response to that, and I made ready to deploy some shades in case he did anything stupid. I’d have to find a moment to point out to Mario that any files he had on Indulger were probably out of date, and right now his temper needed to be carefully stepped around.
Mario led us off again after that, without any further discussion. We stepped out of the door and went to the end of the hall, where there was a larger, more serious door.
This was presumably the edge of the detention part of this facility, and it was the first real test of whatever Mario had done to the system.
We each, in turn, stepped up to the door and swiped the badges attached to our uniform. It made a small buzz and we stepped through, no muss, no fuss.
The badges didn’t have pictures or anything to identify them, they were just small plastic squares, so the Jury couldn’t tell if he spoofed us as someone else, or actually added us into the system as new Union personnel. There was a bit of a holy war going on about which was more likely.
It was strange what the reserve got passionate about and what they didn’t. My current working theory was that the bitterest disputes were those where you could sort of round off the other side’s position to one that was transparently stupid, and then hold forth on exactly why they were dumb. The old ‘airplane on a treadmill’ kind of question.
The hallway that followed wasn’t really any less sterile than the portion of the base for prisoners, which I put down to the Union’s overall ‘function over form’ aesthetics rather than to any particular desire to do right by their confined enemies.
We quickly navigated several turns, then moved out into a sort of foyer area, where a functionary stood off to the side behind a kind of a desk.
We marched quickly towards the door, doing the old ‘act like we have a right to be here’ thing, when I saw the clerk’s eyes widen. She’d recognized us.
I could almost see the dots connecting in her mind, recognizing the prisoners, then the man who was leading them, then the fact that we were in Union uniforms rather than the scrubs we’d be in for a prisoner transfer or anything else legitimate.
She’d just made the leap to taking action when a shade stepped out of me and shot her with a stun gun. Anna had never shared the story of why her zapper had been important enough to her to become an accessory of her spirit, but I had grim suspicions.
Mario cursed quietly, looking over at the woman slumping against her podium, but only motioned for us to continue after him and picked up the pace a bit. I fervently hoped she’d be ok. Stun guns weren’t nearly as safe as people used to believe them to be.
We strode out onto a Union street at what was basically a power walk.
We definitely weren’t in Berlin anymore, as the buildings here were intact and didn’t twine around one another like snakes nearly as much. I didn’t think we’d been moved after our initial capture, which meant we were probably in one of its satellite cities.
Our destination, fortunately, was extremely close. Mario’s skiff, or the one assigned to him, however that worked, was hovering in a sort of holding area across the street, alongside a huge number of others. There were attendants and people constantly coming and going. It reminded me of an old world parking lot.
It took everything I had not to break into a sprint. I felt like any moment would see the clerk wake up and set off the alarm, or someone happen upon her and jump to the conclusion that there was an escape in progress. But I resisted the temptation.
We boarded the skiff without incident, though Preventer needed a hand up from Dale in order to climb up into it.
Mario tapped a series of commands into his phone and off we went, lithnetics purring along as the vehicle shot out into the sky.
“Whew,” he said, visibly deflating a bit. “Made it.”
I let myself relax a hair at that, and I could see from her shoulders that Preventer was doing likewise. Dale still seemed tense, and I expected he wouldn’t relax again until his skin was in contact with the ground.
“Is there any possibility of pursuit?” I asked. “I’m sorry about-“
He cut me off.
“There’ll be pursuit,” he said quickly. “Always going to be pursuit, no way around that. But they’ll be after a false lead, and then another. They’ll be looking for someone who is officially no one, while we are officially someone else. It’s fine.”
I carefully ignored the roar of triumph as Team Spoof us As Someone Else claimed victory in the depths of the reserve.
“How sure are you?” asked Preventer.
She looked to me, as though I would have something useful to add. I just nodded along. He was either right or he wasn’t, nothing we could do.
“Where are we going?” asked Dale, his voice guarded and tense in a way that would have alarmed anyone who knew him well.
“I’ve left a plane waiting,” answered Mario. “We’ll take it back to the Regime.”
We looked to one another.
“Is a plane a choke point?” I asked. “Is there any chance your government could know which one we are going to, or intercept it mid-flight, something like that?”
He shook his head.
“It’s intelligence, black budget. Officially it doesn’t exist, and the people in charge of tracking the things that don’t exist don’t talk to the people in charge of tracking prisoners. We’ll be good for a few weeks. Long enough to get the job done, and more than long enough to ditch the plane.”
He looked somber for a moment.
“That is, if we even have a few weeks. I am only cooperating with you people because I’ve become convinced about this imminent apocalypse. If we don’t stop First Fist, then we may not need to worry about being tracked at all.”
“What’s this?” asked Dale.
“Mario knows,” I responded, quickly, “what Condemner said, about how the Entities are the source of Ultra gifts and about how they are acting through First Fist in order to put a stop to gift granting.”
The reserve had fed me that line in record time, letting me speak naturally and without tension, but it still felt a bit like an obvious exposition.
“I’ve got a question,” said Dale. “Not to change the subject too much.”
I grimaced a bit. New Dale was not exactly subtle.
“Yeah?” asked Mario, warily.
“You said we are going to the Regime, and then a bit later that we were going to stop Remover’s crew. Where exactly are they?”
“That’s what we are trying to figure out,” he said, repeating the line he’d used with me. “They left Shington some time ago, and they are known to be transmitting to an orbital device. We are trying to narrow down their whereabouts.”
“I could feel for underground stuff,” said Dale, “like in a big range around myself, a few miles. If they have a bunker or whatever I’ll know about it, and I can travel pretty quick. We could do the cave thing again, zoom around and try and look for them.”
I knew him well enough to know this wasn’t a serious suggestion, he was just trying to say what he needed to say to get us back into a situation where we were safe. For Dale safe meant on the ground.
“That might take too long,” said Preventer. “I’m sure the Union has already tried sweeping the most likely areas with their sensors. You might pick up something they missed, with your gift and all, but it doesn’t seem like anything to bet on. We’d be committing serious time before we could call it off, after all.”
“I don’t see the alternative,” said Dale. “If dude is saying not Shington, and you are saying not anywhere else…”
“I’m not saying not, I mean, we don’t think they are in the Lair,” said Mario, hastily. “But I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t go to Shington.”
I grinned to myself, glad he was sharp enough, at least, to catch that. What were we here for? What could we do that the Union couldn’t on its own? Why had Mario taken this chance on us? The answer was simple.
“We are going to Shington,” I said, calmly.
The other two looked back to me.
“Remover can’t leave Her without means to get ahold of that crew, not unless this is really absolutely the end of her endgame. Even if she has cut off all contact, which I doubt, Answerer can still tell us where they are. The answers are in Shington, and we’re the only ones who can go in after them.”
They were quiet for a moment after that, thinking on their own demons.
Dale’s was simple, of course, and shared by our entire species. We would be going uncomfortably close to Her.
Preventer’s was harder to diagnose, but my mind went back to First Fist’s attack, and the man they’d had Copied and taken as hostage. Would he still be alive? Did Preventer actually care?
“Where should we pick up the other two up?” asked Mario.
I looked at Preventer, then over to Dale.
The message I’d been trying to send was ‘let me take this one’, but apparently what New Dale got was ‘you got this’.
“We don’t trust you yet,” he said, dismissively. “They are going to stay in their refuge until we know whether you are messing with us.”
Mario’s face tightened incredulously.
“I’ve put my life on the line for you,” he said. “I’m an outlaw now. What more could I possibly do in order to prove that I’m not some kind of secret enemy?”
I played good cop.
“Try to see it from our point of view,” I asked him. “An hour ago you had us locked in rooms. Now we are in a flying room. I’m not saying that we exactly believe that this is a complicated interrogation technique, but it isn’t exactly out of the question. We lack the ability to verify your claims, and we have no guarantee that if we have Fisher and Condemner manifest themselves with us tonight you won’t just call for the executioners.”
He frowned, presumably trying to work up a counter. I pressed on.
“Give it some time,” I told him. “We’ll bring them in once we are back in the Regime, once we’ve satisfied ourselves that you are on our side. We’ve been backstabbed more than once, so we are a bit skittish about extending trust. I hope you can understand.”
When Fisher and Condemner hadn’t been locked up with us we’d been at a bit of a loss. They might be hiding somewhere or they might be dead.
If they were in hiding, we were safe as long as they stayed put. If they were dead we’d be in the shit as soon as the Union found their bodies.
“I understand,” he said, slowly, “I asked you for your understanding, earlier, about some decisions being made that you didn’t agree with. I can’t very well fault you for doing the same.”
I smiled, and settled in for the ride.