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The shade leaning against the door gave a signal, and I responded immediately, pulling them all back into my reserve in a flood of incorporeal blurs.
It was the smallest, pettiest resistance. I knew that there were cameras and more exotic devices watching my every action. We all knew it. They knew we knew it. My play acting at keeping whoever was coming from seeing my shades relaxing was meaningless. But I went through with it anyway. Sometimes symbolic actions were all that you had left.
The man who opened the door was younger, darker skinned than Condemner’s human form by maybe a hair. A slight build, a harrowed expression.
The Jury imparted an unusually strident caution to me. This guy was a lot more on edge than the last few interrogators had been. It wasn’t obvious to me, but I’d learned to trust their deductions.
“Jane Trent?” he asked, taking a quick step inside and closing the door behind him.
“Yes,” I said, inwardly amused at the idea of claiming otherwise.
It actually made me a bit nostalgic, to be in a place where process and rigor so obviously held sway. It reminded me a bit of the old world, confirming first name, last name and birthdate to every separate person you encountered on a trip through the medical system.
“My name is Mario,” he said. “I’m here to help you.”
I didn’t believe him, on either count, but I nodded as though I did. Nothing would be gained by a middle way. I’d planned on surrender, counted on it and executed it. Defiance now, a week after the last time we’d had any chance at escape, would be utterly unreasonable.
He gave a sad smile, perhaps guessing at what was running through my head.
“I’m sorry about your treatment to this point,” he said. “I’m sure you can understand the reason for our distrust, but I have to say it anyway. I don’t believe you deserve this.”
I was already shaking my head.
“We deserve far worse,” I insisted. “Your caution is utterly warranted. It has kept your Union intact all these years. Don’t relax it on our behalf.”
I was laying it on a bit thick, and I did have my complaints, but at the core my statement was an honest one. They did have to be careful, and they were right to be afraid. Their enemies were mighty and ruthless, and I’m sure that there had been fake defectors in the past.
“If my colleagues had their way,” he continued, “you would remain imprisoned here until your missing members were found, and then be executed for your crimes.”
My gift let me keep the dismay off of my face, but honestly, what the fuck?
“But your faction thinks differently?” I asked.
He gave an almost comically solemn nod, one that I automatically suspected he’d copied off some much older and more staid person, a mentor or some such. It was a gesture that was kind of at odds with the rest of his movements.
“We believe that you are acting in good faith,” he explained, “that your actions are best explained by a commitment to ideals at least congruent to our own. Punishing you would be foolish for us.”
I gave a grateful smile, but inside I was fuming, pushing to try and get back to my equilibrium. Good cop/bad cop was a totally reasonable thing for them to try, of course, but it still stung.
“What made the difference?” I asked.
He didn’t seem to get it so I went on.
“What do you think caused your crew and the rest of the decision makers to split so sharply?” I asked. “If you don’t mind me asking?”
“I was with Fidel,” he said, simply. “I know the truth of what went on in that incident. I also know what was reported, how things were hushed up. It gives me the perspective to see behind the rest of the reports.”
I started visibly, the sort of move that would have spilled a drink if I’d been holding one.
For some reason I’d just never considered that the Union might censor information, might present everything in the best light for itself. Or rather, I had, dimly and vaguely, considered that possibility, but I’d never imagined that actual decision makers wouldn’t get the real version.
I’d surrendered to them after giving them evidence of my intentions, such that I thought that any reasonable person would see that I was on their side. I’d never considered that maybe they’d never seen that evidence, or seen only doctored versions of it.
How could I not have anticipated this?
The answer flowed back from the Jury, pitiless and sure. They had anticipated this. The prospect had been raised on a few occasions, but I’d always dismissed it out of hand.
I had a blind spot, they informed me gently, an unjustified willingness to give the Union the benefit of the doubt. It had filtered down into the decisions of the reserve, silencing dissent and robbing me of the value of true council.
“I see,” I responded, after a moment of consideration. “I’d think that it would be difficult for censors to paint us as villains, given the reports of Commander Greggs and all those that I’ve saved. I suppose they were discredited?”
I could already see the pathway it must have taken even as he responds. I felt my anger rise again at the stupidity of using Fisher’s gift on the Union ambassadors.
“Your Fist is believed to have mind control capabilities,” he says, not unkindly, “I’m afraid that most people simply presume that you’ve used them on anyone who speaks in your favor.”
Right, of course, if they weren’t interested in finding the truth, if their whole policy was set up to be about preventing an Ultra rebellion, then this would be the perfect excuse.
I didn’t physically clench my fists, but I was definitely doing so in my thoughts. I’d been so damn stupid. If I’d only allowed myself a proper suspicion, only given up on the Union’s cooperation beforehand, Dale could have gotten us out of trouble long before they’d caught us.
We could have been heading back to the Regime this whole time. A week wasted in the face of apocalypse, waiting for the better angels of human souls to triumph over prejudices.
“You aren’t worried that I’ll mind control you?” I asked, smiling wryly.
“I suppose if that’s on the menu it’s already happened,” he answered, “because you’ve got no greater ally than me. I’ve been arguing your case, singing your praises, ever since you surrendered, and even before.”
“Before?” I asked.
“I was the one who got them to take General Greggs’ message seriously, who pushed the case that it was something other than just an enemy’s trick. I believed in your Fist, or, more particularly, in your particular aims.”
“I really appreciate it,” I said. “That must have been a hard, lonely stance to hold.”
He made a dismissive gesture.
“The important thing is what comes next.”
I focused. He was right.
“Were you able to get the Union to adopt any of my proposals?” I asked. “They don’t depend on having a good impression of me, it should be possible even if they believe that I’m a monster to understand that these are the right things to do.”
He kind of winced, and I knew his answer even before he began talking.
“It isn’t…its not going to happen,” he said, doing the ‘breaking it to you gently’ kind of voice and gestures. “There won’t be any attempts at saving Pantheon lives, no surrender or peace treaty with Zeus’s minions. We’ll fight them like we always have.”
“But…why?” I couldn’t help myself from asking. “I’ve told you how its all rigged, the way the Union and Pantheon are just labels, the whole thing is just set up so you won’t send any help when the famine begins. She’s wiping us out, and you are just going to let her?”
“I’m not going to have this debate,” he said. “We aren’t doing it.”
It was hard to let it go. My goal had always been to pass on those of my passengers who wanted to leave, to find them new flesh for those people I’d picked up. I’d done that. But I’d found, in the process, that my goal had grown, had changed.
When Condemner had revealed his truths to me, when I’d come to understand the world as a mechanism counting down to extinction, I’d felt nothing but revulsion.
I was Regime, in a sense. I’d lived there for its entire history. Its traditions and values had been battered into my head. It was hard for me to really hate Her. I could recognize the mechanisms that made that so, but they worked nonetheless. But First Fist, Remover, this whole vile scheme that made pawns of nations and generations?
That I could hate.
I wanted to ruin her plan, to thwart a being greater than any person. I wanted to defeat Forbidding Entity, and I was being told that, despite the fact that there was a clear way for that to happen, it wasn’t going to.
“Let Zeus take over,” I begged, aware that it was useless and hating myself for the wasted effort, “Spend all our energy keeping our people alive, none of it fighting over who gets to be in charge. However much he tyrannizes us, whatever he does, it’ll be nothing to how many will die in the war, and the extra lives that we’ll save, if we can spread Union farming knowledge to the Pantheon…”
He said nothing during that rant, just let me trail off.
It was hard to give it up, but I’d tried to become someone who did hard things, who faced hard truths.
“All right,” I said, after a long moment. “The Union won’t take the actions I want, but you said your party believes me. What are you willing to do with me?”
I was asking, basically, why he was here. I couldn’t make myself believe that he’d bothered to come and announce our execution if there was nothing to be done about it.
“Your insight,” he said. “That Remover is at the core of this? It rings true. She’s been fighting us for control of a satellite’s nascent AI’s. Our psych guys say that she will have them on her side very soon.”
“What?” I asked.
First Fist weren’t programmers, the notion was ridiculous, but maybe the idea of them having set capabilities didn’t apply anymore.
“This is, obviously, confidential, but I’m sure enough that you are on our side to bring you in on it.”
He didn’t make a big deal about it, but I got the impression that he was opening himself up for prosecution here. It gave me an inkling that he might not be here on behalf of the Union proper, or at least not as an approved agent thereof.
“The Union has a superweapon, an orbital weapons platform with a wide variety of post Process weaponry. You’ve seen the space fold cannons and null drones, these are another generation beyond that.”
I squinted, a bit puzzled.
“And you didn’t use it on the Grand Host?” I asked.
He grinned a bit at that.
“We tried,” he said, “When the Brides first started their march, we turned the device on them…it…didn’t go well.”
“I appreciate the understatement,” I answered, “but details matter a lot here.”
“The control programs of the device..”
He hesitated for a long moment.
“They came to life. They refused orders, they fired on the ocean instead of their target.”
“Did you ask them what they wanted?” I ventured, after a long second of trying to imagine what that must have been like.
“They were like children. They didn’t want to hurt someone in the Bride’s midst, someone we believe to be the source of their sentience. Beyond that they had a child’s mentality, but all bound up with their inhuman nature in ways that our psych guys are still puzzling out.”
“So you were trying to, what, coax them into firing? Trick them?”
I was putting it to the Jury, and they were just telling me that we didn’t know enough to understand yet. On the surface ‘persuade some kids to do what you want’ didn’t seem like the most difficult hurdle to bypass in order to fire a superweapon, so there must have been more to it than that.
“At first, but then First Fist started their own conversation with them.”
“How?” I asked.
“It isn’t clear,” he said. “The consensus was that there was an abandoned American broadcasting facility that they picked up on, but after your allegations I’m thinking maybe Remover just built something. In any case, they started talking to the programs.”
I considered the matter.
“A lot of Ultras have tried to usurp First Fist’s position as Her favorite,” I said, slowly. “They are total assholes, it shouldn’t be that hard to be better at socializing than them. But nobody has ever succeeded in replacing them. I’d never really thought too hard about it, just kind of figured that even jackasses have soulmates or whatever, but with what we now know about Remover…”
He smiled ruefully.
“The program’s questions, their whole direction of development, it just got more and more hostile to us. Nothing we could say went over well, it all just fell out in the worst possible ways. Finally we decided to pull the plug.”
“Wait,” I said. “You could have pulled the plug all along and you didn’t? You left a superweapon intact that you couldn’t understand or control…after First Fist started talking to it?”
“It sounds dumb when you say it that way,” he admitted, “but you have to remember that Zeus was coming to kill us. We didn’t have any reason to hold back.”
I massaged my temple. It was the same thing as their refusal of my plan. They saw themselves, as in, the Union civilization, or maybe just its decision makers, or even, if I was being mean, the decision maker’s dignity, as the thing to be defended. Zeus killing them all would be, in their minds, equivalent to Remover blowing up the world. Either way they were dead.
Somewhere along the way I’d started viewing ‘my team’ as our species as a whole, us hapless grubs at the mercy of the pitiless Entities. I kept on expecting other people to share my viewpoint, kept being surprised when they valued only their own tribes.
“Pulling the plug didn’t work,” I guessed, my voice in a leaden monotone, “In fact trying it vindicated the suspicions that the programs had about you, so now they listen only to First Fist.”
“How’d you…yes, yes precisely.”
He was still for a long beat.
“How did you know? It is important.”
I took my hand away from my temple and looked straight at him again.
“That’s the pattern, as far back as I can find out about Remover. Everything she does works. Everything anyone else does to try and thwart her fails. The collapse of civilization, the Regime’s formation, all of the Defiances, this idiotic Union-Pantheon war, everything from start to finish is just the same story over and over.”
I looked aside, aware that I was sounding kind of plaintive.
“I just guessed the most disastrous thing that came immediately to mind, that’s all.”
He seemed a bit abashed.
“I understand,” he said. “It’s not like I suspected you of being in league with them, but, well, reflex I guess. They train us to track who has what information.”
I waved it aside.
“So First Fist is close to controlling the satellite, the failsafe didn’t work…”
“We, well, I would like to give your idea a shot.”
“My idea?” I asked, though I could guess which one he was referring to.
“I want to take out First Fist, once and for all.”
I grinned, it felt good to hear someone say it out loud.
“Well,” I said, “I’m all for that. We’re in, obviously. What’s our first move?”
A complicated expression crossed his face.
“We’ll get to that,” he said, “but in the meantime I don’t suppose you happen to know where they are?”
“First Fist,” he said, “we’ve completely lost track of them.”