Distinctive scrubland greeted us upon disembarking from the travel station, my legs sinking ankle-deep into a swamp. Torrential rain poured from the heavens, not quite able to mask a musky scent in the air that had me mentally placing us somewhere in Southern Africa. Between the pre-dawn darkness and the heavy downpour it was hard to see far in any one direction even with my vision enhanced, though we appeared to be standing on the banks of two rivers at the point they converged.
Shitface splashed down after me, closing the gate behind us. Within seconds of coming through his hair was flattened to his skull in sodden tangles, much like his clothes clung fast to the body underneath. He did not look happy. Light flared around us, but subdued, as if trying not to attract undue attention.
At a temperature comparable to Singapore, it was too hot for a wetsuit. I changed my sari into a red crop top and comfortable beach shorts, not bothering with shoes, which vastly improved the experience.
Apollo eyed me for a brief moment and raised his voice enough to be heard above the rain. “Good start. We’re going swimming.”
I ignored him and gazed around at the visible scenery, which for now at least seemed uninhabited. “At risk of asking the obvious, what does any of this have to do with Janus? I can understand how someone’s initial reaction to receiving an immortal disembodied face might be to chuck it in the nearest river, but why here?”
“The face isn’t here,” he replied, setting off in the direction of the wider river. He made it a few steps in before pausing to discard his shoes and socks, which he left wedged in the mud, and began rolling up the hems of his trousers. “This is just where we talk to Janus, since you and Mayari botched it the last time.”
“Well, we can’t all be perfect,” I said, and thought about shifting back into the trousers I’d shoved the beacon into. While my ability created matter from nothing, it was limited to what I perceived as an extension of myself. No matter how I tried to connive my way around it, I’d yet to find a way to surmount that restriction.
A cheat that did work was that existing objects I’d placed into pockets or looped into jewellery could be absorbed and summoned again when needed. I couldn’t make myself a weapon, but I could stick a knife into a boot and get it back later. Before Providence, I’d kept a number of those tricks up my sleeve, but it had been so long since I’d been able to access them I’d forgotten what most of them were and which forms they were hiding in. Not that it bothered me, since three hundred-year-old craftsmanship didn’t hold a candle to its modern equivalent most of the time. I tried to remember if I’d been carrying anything magical around with me when I got caught, but nothing sprang to mind.
In the end I decided it was probably better to keep the beacon out of the rain for as long as possible. “Interesting choice, diving into a river,” I observed. “Not where you’d normally hold a conversation.”
“It has to be here. By the time Janus has recovered enough to be contacted again, it’ll be too late. So we need to give him a boost.” He stood up and nodded towards the rain-scrambled surface of the water. “The Zambezi River. In the middle is a place of power. Not used much for obvious reasons, not least because Nyaminyami has a possessive streak.”
I knew of Nyaminyami mainly through his connection to serpents, in which I had a vested interest. He’d managed to avoid being relegated to Helpdesk, having spent some time in Security before being reassigned to Legal for allegedly undermining Shitface’s authority. Fiery fellow. The first time I’d met him he’d been angry, same as the last time and all the others in between. I was surprised he hadn’t managed to get himself depowered yet. Like Mayari, much of his power was tied to location. Which, in his case, happened to be here.
I squelched my way to the water’s edge, stopping when my legs sank up to the knees. Now that I knew it was there, I could feel it, just – a snag in the air, long, starting in the middle of the river and extending some distance to either side along the path of the current.
“Quadripoint,” said Apollo, coming to stand beside me. “The only space where four national borders intersect, with all the spiritual weight of their populations behind them. Janus’ power is strong here. It should be enough to summon him.”
“What about me?” The new voice spoke straight into my ear, close enough for me to feel the speaker’s cool breath on my neck. “One might ask the same of you.” It circled round to my other ear, too close for comfort. “What is Providence doing poking around where it’s not wanted, hmm?”
“We own this jurisdiction, like anywhere else,” Shitface answered, looking over my shoulder as I turned to face the newcomer. “Obstructionism doesn’t become you, so why don’t you let us do what we came to do?”
Nyami’s tall frame backed away from me and moved towards Apollo instead. He was dressed in a tailored suit similar to the one Themis had been wearing when I’d seen her last, pitch black with a white shirt and dark tie. The ends of his trousers trailed in the water without clinging to his ankles, and his movements through the swamp were silent. In contrast to Shitface’s dishevelled state, wiping the rain out of his eyes every few seconds in vain, the river god appeared as sharp as ever. Human for now, though his irises were less so: ringed in gold, with rounded teardrop pupils in the centre like a fish.
“Co-own,” Nyami corrected him in a tone full of flint. “Though I’ll grant you, half a thief is still a thief. You do not get to come sticking your grubby fingers in my property without an explanation.”
“Explaining it to you is worthless,” Apollo snuffled, water streaming down his face. “You’re just going to argue about it, then say no and waste our time demanding to see paperwork.”
Nyami’s eyes narrowed, and he looked between the two of us once more. “Maybe. Whatever you’re up to, it must be important for one of you sun spirits to come snooping around before first light. And with backup. Tell me that doesn’t warrant a glimpse of the official record.”
I had to be careful here, I thought, watching the flicker of irritation pass across Shitface’s features. Durga and Nyami had worked in the same department for a couple of hundred years at least. They had to be fairly well-acquainted, and I had no idea about the status of relations between them. Knowing Durga, it was likely more amiable than not, but I couldn’t afford to get it wrong.
“We’re not here to make trouble,” I offered. “But it is confidential. You know the drill.”
“So I do,” he said. “And I know I have a right to see that record. I don’t give two shits about the inconvenience. I’m playing by your rules, after all. You’re here for my quadripoint, that much is obvious. Either you cooperate in return, or you won’t be getting anywhere near it.”
“Given the urgency of the situation, I’m willing to cut you a deal this one time,” said Apollo. “Get out of our way and I’ll remove the thorn in your side.”
“Thorn?” Nyami frowned and glanced downriver. I followed the gesture but couldn’t make out anything different. “You mean -”
“I do. I know how much it means to you. So here’s your chance. Take it or leave it - you won’t get this offer again.”
The river god’s eyes glinted in the dim light. “So brazen of you to make that claim. You think I haven’t heard such promises before? You invaders are all the same. Oh, Nyaminyami. don’t hurt us, and we will do right by you. Nyaminyami, don’t side against Providence, and we’ll leave you alone. All of them empty.” He sneered, wagging a finger at the seer. “Still. Anyone else, and I’d call them a liar. But you? What’s high and mighty Apollo doing making deals with the small fry, hmm? An urgent mission? Or something your superiors aren’t meant to know about?”
Shitface only stared at him, thin-lipped.
“So it’s like that,” he said. “You realise if you tear down that wall, people will die, don’t you?”
“I’ll relocate them.”
“All of them? That’s a lot of ground to cover. Even for you.”
“Not if you tell me where they are.”
“There is that,” Nyami conceded, rubbing a finger across his lips. “Better get started, then, hadn’t you?”
The conversation had left me behind by this point, but I could follow enough to see we were about to get bogged down in yet another detour, and one that left a trail of evidence behind at that. “Hold on, boss,” I cut in, stepping between them. “Remember the last HR review? You need to stop pushing yourself in these conditions. They’re going to come down hard if they see it affecting your performance. At least wait until we aren’t in the middle of a monsoon.” I turned to Nyaminyami and folded my arms. “If Apollo says he’ll do it, he’ll do it. His word is enough.”
“Stay out of it, Durga. He’s not worth your loyalty.”
“No one is,” I replied, thinking on my feet. “And it doesn’t matter. If we don’t make this deadline, all of us will end up being towed in front of Vishnu, or -”
“Or,” I continued, poking a vaguely threatening finger towards his chest, “you get to deal with the backup.”
Nyami’s eyes glittered as he glanced from me to Apollo. “I want to hear it from his mouth,” he said after a moment. “No vagueries, no evasion. Swear you’ll tear down that specific dam beyond repair, magical or otherwise, and prevent another from being constructed in its place. It must be done within a week, or my whole department will hear of this.”
“They’ll hear you tried to demand a bribe,” said Apollo, rolling his shoulders.
“Oh, I don’t think so, chief. You will not hold me accountable for your failings. You must promise.”
“Great! Let’s end it there while we’re all capable of remaining civil.” I clasped one decisive pair of hands together in front of me, and brushed a few saturated clumps of hair out of my face with another. “We’ll relocate the masses. No one will be hurt, I get to break something, and everyone goes home happy. Or at least goes home.” I reached for Apollo’s wrist and maneuvered it towards Nyami, then did the same for the river god, poking their arms into each other until they shook hands.
“Say it,” Nyami hissed, not taking his eyes off the Head of Security, and a moment later Shitface recited the oath.
I let out the breath I’d been holding and relaxed.
Too soon; when I turned back a moment later, I found myself being watched by a pair of golden eyes. You’ve been spending too much time around him, Nyami said. Don’t let him mould you into his puppet.
I settled for a smile and a raised hand in a gesture I’d seen Durga make from time to time; an abhaya mudra, if I remembered the name correctly. ‘Everything would be fine.’
It seemed to satisfy him for the moment. He shot Apollo one more dirty look, then descended straight down into the knee-high swamp, plunging out of sight in less than a second.
Well, that was one way to do it.
I kicked at the water where he’d been and felt nothing but reeds catching in my toes.
“He’s gone,” said Apollo. “Pact, litmus test, etc. We can speak freely.” He began wading further out into the river, stopping briefly to pull off his shirt and send it into the aether. Somewhere on Helpdesk, there would be a sprinkling of tickets out there that action alone could have fulfilled. I’d caught Lofn writing fanfiction for one once. I was pretty sure at least a couple of them had come from staff. Even I wasn’t entirely immune, though Shitface’s winning personality ensured any such ideas were shut down as fast as they arrived.
“So are you really going to do it?” I wheedled, following along. The riverbank dropped away just as I was about to overtake, sending me stumbling off-balance. I let it happen, transforming my legs into an eel’s tail mid-fall, salvaging the remainder of the dive as I pitched into the warm water. Everything was so much easier when you had powers.
Though, I reflected, watching a glimmer of what looked suspiciously akin to envy pass across Apollo’s features, it depended on which ones were suited to the occasion. Not for the millionth time, I wondered why they manifested so differently from person to person.
“I have to,” he answered, testing the drop before sliding all the way into the river, head and shoulders bobbing just above the surface. His summoned light still dogged us, illuminating the clouded water enough for me to make out the long shadow of my tail. I swished it in an experimental motion, but the rain broke up the image too much for more than vague sinuous impressions.
“See, that’s what I don’t get,” I mused, staring into the hypnotic currents. “It’s not a lie if you change your mind after the fact. There’s nothing forcing you to keep your promises. And believe me, Providence won’t give two hoots about some petty tiff between you and the snake. Lucy could probably pluck it right out of his head for you if you ask nicely.”
Shitface only glowered at me and began heading off in the direction of the snag. For all that he resembled the archetypal Olympic swimmer, he was no match for me.
“Pretend all you like,” I called after him, catching up a moment later. “You’re not dodging the conversation, so some part of you must want to talk.”
No response, only the splashing of arms and legs.
“I mean, from a Shitface standpoint, this should all be cut and dry. Time spent dealing with the dam and relocations is time not spent rescuing vulnerable civilians from whatever latest calamity is trying to kill them. So what is it? Honour? Does it have a measurable value in lives these days? Maybe with a flexible exchange rate?”
Apollo stopped swimming as I circled ahead of him. “I told you not to call me that.”
I ignored him. “You don’t get to have both,” I said in a more serious tone. “And I assume you know that, since you joined the revolution in the first place. You’ve already crapped all over the big oath. It should be easy to do the same for the smaller ones.”
Silence hung heavy across the Zambezi, ruptured only by the hail of watery bullets slamming themselves into its surface.
“Don’t make me ‘wake up sheeple’ you,” I said, breaking it. “What are you even going to do if we win? Push on with your overloaded schedule? Are we just going to end up back on opposing agendas as though all this was an inconvenient blip on your radar?”
“Things would be different. The leaders would be different.”
“Different? Sure. Better? You must be kidding.” I studied his face, trying to make out something beyond the obvious veneer of indifference. “Even you can’t say it. You’re not under a geas, are you?”
“I’m not under a geas,” he repeated with a sigh, treading water. I noticed he didn’t try to resume swimming. He was waiting for something. I looked over my shoulder, but it seemed to be just us and the rain.
I frowned. He’d volunteered the both of us for this mission, which had seemed to make sense at the time, and insisted on going for a swim when we could have just warped into the heart of things from the beginning. He did want to talk.
Except he wasn’t.
“What do you want from me?” I asked, growing twitchy. “I’m cooperating, aren’t I? Spit it out.”
Another hesitation. “It’s a matter of conscience,” he said eventually. “Something you wouldn’t understand.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “I don’t. Is that what you wanted to tell me?”
“I know I’ve done terrible things, Loki. I’m not blind.”
“Boo hoo, join the club. Don’t expect sympathy from me just because you happen to be feeling guilty for once.”
“Sympathy? From you?” He snorted. “Other than being a continual pest, you’ve done things because you were forced into it. That or you just didn’t care. I don’t have that luxury.”
Luxury? Was that his definition of the word? What a joke.
“I made a choice a long time ago,” he continued, staring out over the water. “And it was the right choice. The moral choice. My pantheon was spiralling out of control and they would have taken the world with them. Supporting Yahweh saved –” he made a vague gesture at nothing in particular, “- everything.”
“Pfft,” I uttered. “There are more worlds than Earth. Were. They could have migrated.”
“Regardless, it was the correct thing to do. There weren’t as many seers back then. I could look further. Civilisation hit some bumps, but survived. Thrived, even.”
“Oh, how lovely for you.”
“You don’t believe me, but every distasteful act was in service to the greater benefit. Remove a few people from the equation to protect many. You have no idea how much worse things could have been. The end does justify the means.”
“But I’m responsible for the current state of affairs,” he said. “I owe it to people to make it up to them when I get the chance.”
“Touching,” I said, folding my arms. “You’ve got it all figured out, haven’t you? And I’m sure humanity is grateful for your efforts, though personally I find myself with serious questions regarding your definition of utopia.”
“I know,” he spat. “This wasn’t what I wanted. On their own, all those small cruelties were immaculate, always better than the alternative. And then at some point, you come to realise the weight of them has added up over time to be greater than the original consequence you were trying to prevent in the first place.”
I shot him a skeptical look. “Greater than the destruction of the planet?”
“You’re the one who wants to see it unmade. You tell me.”
He couldn’t bring himself to say it, but I knew. I stared at him for a long moment. “You utter imbecile,” I finally croaked, half-giggling. “You’ve locked yourself in, haven’t you? Thanks to you, Providence has become so powerful there’s literally no way out for you anymore. You can’t even get yourself demoted because it’s a big empty hole you can’t see into. And eight hours of future-blindness is nothing compared to that.”
“It was the restructure,” he pronounced in a quiet voice. “No matter what I tried, I couldn’t chart a way out. For all I did, divination is a short-term solution. The futures I worked towards three thousand years ago were utopias. Even as they became less idyllic over time, they were still worthy goals. But fate died and futures change. Other seers, other powers. Time constraints and an inability to do multiple things at once. Changes so subtle and frequent I didn’t notice the best case scenario had become merely mediocre until it was too late.”
“I’m assuming it isn’t, though. Otherwise this whole exercise would be pointless.”
“I’m not locked into Providence,” he explained. “I’m locked into prophecy. Despite knowing it ultimately led me down the wrong path, I still need it. I don’t know how to make decisions without it.” His face twisted. “I don’t know how the rest of you do it.”
This was awkward. I wasn’t used to Apollo not being an arrogant asshole. “You’re Apollo,” I reminded him, not quite sure why he’d apparently chosen me to be his therapist. “It’s natural you’d be afraid of chaos.”
“Hardly. I am Head of Security. Not a day goes by where I don’t end up wading through a sea of trouble. Chaos is a problem, but it’s familiar and it’s fixable, and it certainly doesn’t scare me.” He swallowed. “What worries me is not knowing.”
It occurred to me we were holding a counselling session in the middle of a dark and crocodile-infested flood plain while being pelted by a monsoon, and conceded he had a point.
“I always hated you,” he admitted. “And not just because it took forever to track you down, or the constant meddling afterwards. Though those were definitely factors. Something about you interferes with my predictions. Not like a seer. Subtle. Indirect. Just being in your vicinity opens up more possibilities, for better or worse, working against my efforts. It’s like you managed to find a piece of the primordial chaos they say is out there and stick your finger in it somehow. I know it, Odin knows it, and I’d wager every seer who’s ever come into contact with you knows it as well.”
Instinct wanted me to dismiss the claim, but it was harder to do when it came from someone whose lies had been snipped out with their umbilical cord. “If they do, then no one’s ever given me any indication that’s the case,” I said, furrowing my brow.
The look he gave me was withering enough to be composed of industrial weed killer. “Of course they haven’t. Why would any of the seers in your life expose to you such a glaring weakness? Ever wonder why it took so long for you to find one willing to help you break into a secure facility?”
“Then why are you?” I shot back.
“Because like it or not, I think you’re the best chance this plan has at succeeding, and withholding information is a tactic for enemies, not allies.”
It was a good thing Lucy wasn’t here, second part of the statement notwithstanding. I doubted he’d take kindly to hearing Apollo rate some vague effect I had zero control over higher than the solid preparation efforts of an entire team.
This whole conversation had the mark of a calculated move to win my support, and it irritated me to think it might be working. Which was presumably why he was doing it.
“You’re a fool, Apollo. But you tried. I’ll give you that much.” I didn’t voice the thought niggling at me in the back of my mind – that I hadn’t. While he’d been out conquering the world, I’d been hiding away waiting for it to all blow over. Every time I’d ever stuck my neck out for the nine worlds, it had ended up blowing up in my face – it was only fair someone else take a turn.
And they did, and they failed, one by one. Until I was the only one left.
And, finally, not even me.