“You the guy in charge around here?” I asked.
I tried to put some real menace in my voice. I didn’t know what these guys had heard, exactly. About the Regime, about Fists, about how Death had ended up. But it had to be frightening. There was groundwork for a heel run here, if I could build on it.
The horned fellow shook his head, muttered something in a language that I didn’t understand.
“Nuts,” I said.
I looked up.
It had turned out that the Gods of the Pantheon’s central fort didn’t actually get to stay in it. They had their own little city area on the ground beneath it, looking up at the glowing boxes where Arena kept the Goddesses in comfort.
That suited me fine, of course. I wasn’t about to go up into the main fort, not if I didn’t have to. I had had more than enough of fights breaking out where I wasn’t able to use my gift.
“Where is the guy in charge?” I asked.
The guy with the horns had been my best guess for the local boss. I was hoping that he was at least a step on the way, because I really didn’t want to start looking around again. It had taken long enough to find this guy.
He said something again, pointed up at where Arena’s conjuration twined about Zilla’s vast form.
“Not the women,” I clarified. “I know that the giant lady is the main boss. I’m wondering if there are any Overseers who are dudes. Like Ragnarok at the other fort. Do you know where I could find someone like that?”
He shook his head.
“No speak Regime,” he said. “Hard trouble understand.”
His voice was thick, deep. It made me think that he had more alterations from his gift than just the horns.
“Ok,” I said. “Can you point to a guy who does speak English? Um… Where English?”
Mercifully, I didn’t raise my voice as I asked this. I’d done that a few times in the past, and with my new gold potion induced smartness it was kind of a shameful memory. Talking louder did not, it turned out, make other people suddenly know your language better.
This time he pointed to another one of the Gods in this plaza, one who was presently leaning against the side of a Company Facility.
“Thanks,” I said.
I walked over to that dude, making sure to step such that one of my feet was in contact with the ground at all times. My bro was stony here, a thick slab of rock held up the plaza.
The guy I was approaching was sitting up against the Facility, hands in his pockets. He had on a surprisingly put together outfit, jeans and a tee shirt. There were characters drawn on the shirt that I couldn’t read.
“Hey man,” I said as I came over. “I hear you can speak my language.”
“That’s right,” he said, his tone even and bored. “I understand you.”
He hadn’t looked up, was still just sort of contemplating the world in front of him, which at this point was basically just my lower torso, since I was kind of standing right there.
For some reason I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of talking first, not if he wasn’t gonna look up at me, so I just kind of leaned against the wall right next to him.
His mouth opened as I settled in beside him, then closed again. He still didn’t look up from the place where his gaze was kind of fixed.
He didn’t say anything.
That was fine by me. I didn’t have any particular rush to be about here. I sank my awareness into my gift, let my brah tell me all about the city around me.
There were a lot more people hear than I’d realized. Thousands of them. Way more than there probably were Gods. Plus some of them were kids, and I hadn’t ever heard of anyone doing the Process on babies.
I thought about it, and decided that they probably kept the humans who hadn’t been Processed down here. It made sense. If the Gods weren’t worthy to go up into the main fortress, then the humans were lucky they weren’t being kept in caves. They probably got to go up when they were needed for serving and stuff, but otherwise would stay below.
The guy kept leaning against the wall, too cool to talk to the foreign Fist leader first, but I could feel his reserve kind of draining away. I was gonna win this.
I started using my gift a little, taking hold of the edges of the cities foundations, sliding rubble aside from places where it seemed like it might impede folks. Strengthening walls that seemed like they might not be super well built. I might as well get some stuff done while I waited for Mr. Cool Guy to crack.
“What?” he asked, after about ten minutes.
“What?” I answered, pleased with myself.
“What do you want?” he asked.
I patted him on one shoulder, and he flinched away before he could control himself. He finally looked up at me.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Vin,” he said.
“Are you an Overseer, Vin?”
He shook his head, looking a bit annoyed.
“Of course not,” he said. “Do I look like I’m the boss of anyone? Do you think bosses eat protein paste?”
“I do,” I told him.
I left it up in the air whether I was saying that I thought that bosses ate protein paste, or that I (despite being a boss) ate protein paste. Both of those things were true, so it didn’t really matter which one he took it as.
“Well, I’m not.”
“Ok,” I said.
I leaned back against the wall again.
“Look,” he said. “Do you want something in particular?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’d like to find some Overseers.”
He stepped away from the wall, turned squarely to face me.
“Then you should probably go up into the fort,” he said. “That’s where they tend to hang out.”
“I mean Overseers that are dudes,” I clarified. “Or maybe not even Overseers, I’m looking for the Gods who are on top of things around here, just below the ladies. The leaders who have dicks.”
He finally seemed to get it.
“There are a few of those,” he said. “If I point you to one, will you tell no one that it was me?”
I didn’t point out that lots of people had already seen us together.
“Nah, man. I need someone to interpret. If you don’t want to be part of this you are going to need to find me someone else for that.”
I saw it, then. The momentary tensing of his muscles, the way his gaze sharpened all of a sudden. He was thinking about making a go of it.
It was surprisingly intimidating. I tensed right along with him, mind racing. The only thing I could think of, all of a sudden, was that the Link was gone. If he killed me right now, I’d be dead, for good.
“Alright,” he said. “Can I just get lunch first?”
I didn’t look away or drop my guard any, but just nodded.
I was suddenly aghast at how up front and in this guy’s face I’d been. I’d patted him on the shoulder with no clue what his gift was. For plenty of Ultras skin contact was all it took to end a fight, and I’d initiated it.
I didn’t say anything as we headed into the facility.
Company Facilities didn’t really differ much, no matter where you went. The same guy behind the same desk would greet you anywhere on the planet.
This one had something odd about it, though. Noise washed over us as soon as we entered the room.
There was a small crowd clumped up around the Company Man. They were all talking very rapidly, their voices rising up to the edge of shouting.
“Vin,” I said. “What are they yelling about? Don’t they know that there is no point in trying to flex on a Company Man? They don’t have a soul to get frightened with.”
“They are saying…that can’t be right!”
Before I could stop him he lurched forward, pushing through the mob.
Painfully aware of the basement between me and my gift, I followed cautiously. How did I keep ending up in these situations?
The crowd fell silent as I approached, unfriendly faces turning towards me. Sometimes it did not pay to be so big and imposing. I could never just kind of join a crowd like Vin had. I always stood out.
They weren’t just the ordinary level of mad, either. I saw eyes with white showing all the way round, lips drawn back to expose teeth, people barking curses I was suddenly very glad that I couldn’t understand.
“What’s going on, C man?” I asked.
I let my voice boom as I said it, using all the tricks that I’d leaned from Ultra Fight. I thought of it as the Hero’s voice. Mine was patterned after Greater Gator’s.
It did the trick. The other voices fell silent, momentarily cowed by my size and loudness, and by their desire to see how the Company Man would react to me.
“Ah,” he said. “Mr. Pitts. A delight as always to process your requests. What business brings you to this establishment?”
I stopped for a moment. Huh?
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“I’m sorry,” he responded. “I don’t know how to respond to that request. Would you like to undergo the Process?’
“No,” I said.
That was more like how a Company man ought to sound. Before it had been like he was a real person for a second.
“Would you like an allotment of protein paste?” he asked.
“Not right now,” I said.
“I understand,” he said. “Is there a broken or damaged Company product that requires replacement?”
“Forget all that for a second,” I said. “Why are all of these people so angry?”
I was getting really nervous. Vin seemed to be translating what was going on here, and it wasn’t making the crowd any happier. I was getting really close to where I would just bolt for the door and try to make it back to where my gift would work.
“I couldn’t speculate as to the motives of all of these combatants, Mr. Pitts.”
I looked away from the C man and back to Vin.
“What is going on here?” I asked him.
“He won’t give out the paste,” he responded. “He stopped like ten minutes ago, hasn’t given anyone any food since.”
“Is that true?” I asked the Company Man. “Are you not giving anyone food anymore?”
I’d never heard of such a thing. The Company Facilities were the ways that most food got to all the cities in the Regime. If they stopped giving out paste people would get mad hungry real quick.
“Company personnel have been directed to modify the requirements to take advantage of our one hundred percent discount on the Company’s protein powder. This has resulted in a number of dissatisfied customers at this and other locations.”
“Ok,” I said, slowly. “But, you just offered some to me.”
“You are still eligible for the program, due to your association with our Honorary Vice President of Operations Martin’s operation.”
“You mean, because I am in the Regime?” I asked.
“Yes,” he confirmed.
“And,” I guessed, getting a little sick at the thought, “people who aren’t part of the Regime don’t get food anymore, huh?”
“Customers not associated with this discount program would need to remit full payment.”
“Out of curiosity,” I asked. “What is the full price?”
“Two point five Company Coins,” he answered. “Children 8 and younger eat free with any adult purchase, and in Minnesota firefighters and members of the armed forces in uniform are only required to pay one point six Company Coins.”
Company Coins, shit. I’d never even heard of those. That meant that basically nobody else would have heard of them either. Which meant that a LOT of people were going to be totally not able to make the Company Men give them food any more.
“What is a Company Coin?” I asked.
“A cryptographic currency token,” he explained. “The Company’s official net feed has more details on their nature, as well as how they can be acquired. If you have any further inquiries on the subject, you should direct them to the Company’s help line.”
I didn’t really understand any of that, except that it seemed like they weren’t things that would just be lying around.
“Ok,” I said. “Well…”
I looked around, at all of the hungry, angry faces. I wasn’t really seeing them, though. I was seeing the folks we’d shepherded out of the war and back to the fort. The ones we’d saved from the Union’s attack.
I had tried so hard to make the Hosts not get killed. I’d pushed us into all this stupidity, got our Link broken. I had tried to tell myself that it was all worth it if they survived, but looking at this situation it was pretty obvious to me that it was all gonna go wrong.
The newcomers would be the first ones to go hungry, as the Gods tried to figure out a new solution to the supply problem. Maybe they’d have someone with a farming gift. Maybe not.
Haunter would chide me that I was being dumb, getting worked up about just these few kids, when there were so many more out there who would be suffering just as bad. I mean, at least they were Gods. I was probably being ridiculous thinking about them, when the cities of the Pantheon mainland had so many more who were gonna have so much trouble.
“Company Man,” I said.
My thoughts were running along, the Gold stretching and driving them, giving me inspiration and determination even as I talked.
“Yes Mr. Pitts,” he said.
“Only people in the Regime can get fed, right?” I asked.
“I mean, with the discount and all. Everyone else has to pay, right?”
“Precisely,” he said. “I’m gratified that-“
“I have some information for you,” I told him. “I want you to listen to me real good.”
He stood silent, a cool half smile frozen on his face.
“I have captured this facility,” I told him. “In the name of the Regime. Everyone in it is now a Regime asset, under my direct control.”
I looked to Vin, to the crowd.
This was really risky. Someone might not get what I was going for here, might just blast me. It was a dumb thing to do.
Nobody did anything. I wasn’t sure if that was just Vin not translating that part, or whether they understood it and were backing my play.
“Congratulations,” he said. “An impressive-“
“I also captured the fort just west of here,” I said. “We beat Death, a big enemy, and the fort surrendered to Preventer and me. They are also Regime now.”
“Congratulations,” he said again. “An impressive achievement.”
I breathed out. Did I dare claim the whole earth? Could I do that? Would that get reported? I’d never seen Her check up on the Company while we were together, but She must, since they were getting new orders.
I opened my mouth, closed it again.
I chickened out. I bid a silent apology to all the people out there, in the Union and the Pantheon. It would just be too obviously against Her to lie about that.
I could make the case, if She appeared right now, that I had captured these two forts. But I couldn’t do the same for the rest of the planet. We would be outed as against Her, and we would die. I couldn’t do it.
A tear trickled down my face, behind my mask. I paid it no mind, stepping away from the Company Man.
“I fixed it,” I told Vin. “Tell everyone that they can get their food.”
“They heard,” he said, pulling me back away from the counter. “Lots of them understand your words. Everyone will know what you did.”