Contact Guidelines

1: Prior to your interview with the Contractor you will exercise your gift to the fullest extent that you are able, taking and passing on careful notes as to its extent and capacities.

2: During the interview with the Contractor you will allow no bodily contact unless directed by a senior officer.

3: During the interview with the Contractor you will demonstrate your gift for it as requested, and answer its questions truthfully.

4: After the interview with the Contractor you will participate in a full debrief, as well as the followup round table meeting about this opportunity.

5: You retain full agency regarding your gift, and the decision as to whether to allow the Contractor to implement its suggestions will ultimately be yours, however, owing to the national significance of these assets you will need to run your decision (either way) by an advisory panel.

6: Following your interview, whether or not you consent to the Contractor’s ‘tune up’, you will once again exercise your gift to its fullest extents, passing on any differences or variations that it exhibits.

7: At no time will you discuss or post regarding the Contractor.

Preventer 9:2

“The Union has Andy,” I told Jane.

We were isolated, for the most part.  We’d hiked down out of Arena’s creations and asked Dale to shuttle us a few miles away.  He’d bring us back when we stamped in a certain pattern.

She gave a somber nod.

“I figured if he turned up again it would be in Union hands,” she said.

“How’d you guess that?” I asked

I was sort of impressed.  I couldn’t really think of any way, given the knowledge she’d had of his departure, that she could have seen this coming.

“Nothing is ever easy for us.  We are getting along with the Pantheon, estranged from the Union, ergo he’s with the Union.”

I shook my head.

“Cynicism doesn’t fit you, Haunter.  Where’s the woman who lectured Death about the value of the old world?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I’ve got her rattling around in here somewhere.”

I wasn’t sure if she meant that literally, and she didn’t seem inclined to elaborate.

“Predictor is going to ask our Fist to accompany him,” I told her.  “He wants our help to break him out of whatever cell they are keeping him in.”

“He said this?” asked Jane.

I shook my head again.

“Not to me, but he let Zilla in on his plan.  He figures two Fists can accomplish just about anything, including a raid into the Union’s most secure prison.”

Jane looked contemplative for a moment.

“Two Fists probably could, at that.  The data from the embassies systems suggest that the Union’s main anti Fist countermeasure is a large Ultra squad.  If it could be drawn into action it is hard to see how another Fist, acting at the same time, could fail to achieve its objective.”

“And the decoy Fist,” I said, “Loses some folks and gets driven off by the Union.  No big deal.”

She smiled.

“No big deal,” she said.  “Depending, I suppose, on who does the dying.”

I’d been worried about this.  I knew that Haunter’s feud with Condemner was taking some weird turns lately, and it would have to be an attractive prospect to rid ourselves of him.

“Whoever it is,” I said.  “They will be back the next day, so it doesn’t really matter all that much.”

I let the unspoken implication, that we would NOT be serving as bait, hang in the air.

Haunter had to realize that losing any member of our crew would make it obvious to our hosts that the Fist was Linked no longer, right?  Someone in her mass mind would have caught that.

“What’s your instinct telling you?” she asked.  “About this plan of Predictors, I mean.  Do you want to go along with it?”

“I don’t see how we have much choice,” I said, bitterly.  “He knows certain information that we wouldn’t like to get out.  If we don’t fall in line, he could make a lot of trouble.”

“Put that to the side,” said Jane.  “Forget that part.  I’m asking the other half of the question.  Do you want to do this?  Absent any compulsion or duty, would you be comfortable doing this?  Say we were the ones with the plan, take the whole thing about doing Predictor’s dirty work out of it.”

I considered.

“I don’t particularly need Andy’s assistance,” I told her, plainly.  “I wouldn’t trust anyone to modify my gift.  It’s fine the way it is.  I’d be risking a lot for someone else’s gain.  All things considered, I’d let this opportunity pass by.”

Jane gave a measured nod.

“That’s one perspective, but might I suggest an upside?” she asked.

That was a bit of a surprise.  I’d assumed Jane would share my basic view of the matter.  This whole conversation was kind of premised around the two of us being on the same page, and working out how to persuade the other three not to buckle.

“Sure,” I said.

“You are settling,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“You are putting down roots here.  You’ve let Gon heal you a few times now.  The two locals you’ve conscripted, your overtures to Zilla, it all adds up.  You intend to remain here, in the medium to long term.”

I waved a hand, idly.

“I don’t think it is constructive to have firm intentions,” I told her.  “I cultivate possibilities, that’s all.  There is no downside in setting up my situation here.  Even if we do end up leaving, the practice will stand me in good stead wherever we do end up.”

“Sure,” said Jane.

There was a moment of silence.  She ran a hand along the brim of her Sigil, looked up at the massive form of Zilla’s double, looming in the distance.

“If you do end up staying here for a while,” she said, after the moment had passed, “you might benefit, a lot, from a bit of bread with your circuses.”

“I don’t follow,” I said.

I’d used that comparison a long time ago, when I was writing a report on why the Regime constantly saw rebellion.  It didn’t seem to apply to my situation.

“Your whole pitch to these Gods is negative,” she clarified.  “They need to do what you say because you are a powerful killer.  They have to be your friends or you will choke them.  You would do well to offer them something.”

“My methods have stood me in good stead,” I told her.  “I’m not exactly a new hand at compelling obedience.”

Haunter’s mouth turned downwards.

“Yes, I’ve heard of your gardens,” she said.  “How do you think those are going now?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Now? With me gone?  I have no doubt every one involved has gone on to other endeavors.  It is certainly what I would do, in their place.”

“Exactly,” said Jane.  “The threat is gone, and they abandon their tasks.  You bullied them into obedience, but not real loyalty.”

“It was enough,” I objected.

“Was it?” she asked.  “Did you ever wonder how Remover found out about your boyfriend?”

“Thui wasn’t my boyfri-“ I said, letting the sentence peter out as I thought about it.

“Obedience,” said Jane.  “Wrought of fear.  And when a scarier person came along, and Rebecca, you will NEVER be the scariest, they obeyed your enemy instead.”

That wasn’t true.  Remover and her cronies had had decades to build up their information networks.  They didn’t need my people to betray my secrets.  Their could have been any number of other ways to find out about Thui.

“What else is there?” I asked.

“Consider the old world,” said Jane.

“Fuck the old world,” I told her.

“I got a job, a task, a long time ago,” she said.  “Everyone who could punish me for abandoning my duty is long dead.  The fear is long gone.”

“You are just,” I stopped.

What was she just?  I tried to push Thui’s plight from my mind, focus on this conversation.

“They didn’t use only the stick, back then.  They fashioned a loyalty that would last, and it has stood the test of time.  You would do well to emulate their example.”

“Andy,” I said, slowly, “but not for me.  Make him available to the Gods, buy respect with his gift.”

“Predictor will definitely let us hold things up for a week or two,” she said.  “We’ll make it a condition of our assistance.  We get to use him on a few Pantheon Gods before he goes back overseas.”

“We…” I said.

Something wasn’t right.  Or rather, I was missing something.  Why was Haunter striving so hard to convince me?

“Do you want Andy to work on your gift?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said.  “I deliberated too long last time, missed my chance at it.  I won’t make that mistake again.”

Jane was almost impossible to read, under ordinary circumstances, but I still felt like that wasn’t the whole truth.  It might be true, but there was something more to it.

“Jane,” I told her.  “You are going to have to tell me your real motives.  This is already dangerous enough.  If there is something going on that I don’t understand then I’m not going to chance it.”

Jane sat back on her heels, dry washed her hands for a moment.

“While you were visiting the Pantheon higher ups, I looked up the fort’s healers.”

“Not what you were hoping for?” I asked, judging by the fact that she was here at all.

I knew that if they had shown themselves capable of bringing her cargo back to life there was no way she’d be doing anything else.

“They are close,” she said.  “So close.  Close enough that Andy could get them the rest of the way there.  I’m sure of it.”

I sat still for a second, trying to work out how she could be so confident of that.

She had definitely spent more time with Andy, back in Redo.  He might well have explained some things to her that were never passed on to me.  But I didn’t think that was it.

This seemed more to me like she was forcing it.  Like she couldn’t live with herself if it wasn’t that way, so she had just set it to be a certain way in her mind.  I’d seen plenty of that back in the old days.

I’d even done it myself.  Back when Thui had sent me to be Processed, I had known that I would survive.  I had been absolutely, impossibly sure of it.  My greatest fear had been that my gift would be one that couldn’t keep us safe.

“Andy brings them the rest of the way,” I repeated.  “Their new gift lets them forge new bodies for your passengers, and for any Gods who are so inclined.  Our popularity rises, and my own sailing is a whole lot smoother.”

“It would only take a few days,” she said.  “Predictor could hang around that long.  With Snitcher gone it isn’t like She has any way to know how long things take.”

“I can see it,” I told her.  “The prize is real.  But let’s talk about the risks.”

“We have a precognitive gift on our side,” she reminded me.  “He is better even than Answerer at battlefield stuff.”

“Do we?” I asked.

I hated to second guess the reserve like this.  Ordinarily there would have been no point in doing so.  But if she really was unable to think clearly about this opportunity then I couldn’t leave matters in her hands.

She hadn’t replied, so I pressed on.

“Do we have him on our side?  Or does he have us under his thumb?  Jane, if he is as good as you say he is, why does he need us?”

That gave her pause, or maybe she was just continuing her earlier silence.

I studied my own hands, noted with approval that they showed no hint of trembling.

“Dale,” she said, at last.

“Hmm?”

“He needs Dale,” she said.  “Even if Predictor knows exactly where a Union prison is, how is he going to get there?  Once there, how will he keep things quiet?  His crew aren’t exactly set up for covert operations.

That was certainly true.

“And Dale is?” I asked.  “Our Dale?”

“Think about it,” she responded.  “His gift doesn’t have to be dropping mountains on people.  He can take us through Union territory in a mobile cave, hidden from any drone scouts they might have watching.  If Predictor is able to pinpoint the target we might be able to rise up right from the floor of his cell, free him with no one the wiser.”

“Point,” I said.

“And also,” said Jane, looking to the floor, “They are probably going to drag Dale back to Her when the mission is over.”

“We talked about that,” I said.  “They’d have led off with that if that was their goal here.”

“You know Predictor’s methods,” she said.  “He likes to line up birds and use just the one rock.  He will accept our cooperation against the Union, and then take Dale afterwards.”

“We’d slaughter them in a fight,” I objected.  “They have no answer to Dale, no way to harm me, absent Zilla’s forces there is no way we come out worst in that battle.”

“In a fight,” she agreed.  “But what if it is a sudden betrayal?  What if all of a sudden Slicer takes a hostage?  Remember that this guy can see the future, or at least a big part of it.  I don’t think we can take as read the idea that us being basically stronger means we win a fight with them.”

“Well, you’ve convinced me,” I told her.  “I guess we should decline the deal then.”

Jane chuckled at that.

“I’m just saying that we need to have a plan for this.”

“That he’ll see coming,” I interjected.

“A plan,” she said.  “Which will work EVEN IF he sees it coming.  Which will dissuade him from turning on us.”

“I’m waiting,” I told her.

“I sort of prefer that you help make it up,” she said.

I guffawed at that.

“Really?” I asked.  “You want to just walk into this, with nothing?”

“Not nothing,” she said.  “Going in with our eyes open isn’t nothing.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but she forestalled me.

“Look, Preventer, I know that this seems dangerous.  We’d be undertaking a mission alongside someone we don’t trust to rescue someone we don’t know is really out there.  We’d be heating up this warzone while we were in the middle of it.  There are a lot of reasons to back out.”

I nodded along with that.

“But they all fade away when you consider that we don’t really have a choice.  We can’t fight another Fist without taking casualties, not unless we ambush them.  That would leave us vulnerable, and the odds are that someone would take advantage.”

“I still don’t like it,” I said.  “If we know that they are going to turn on us, there should be some way to leverage that information.  I don’t like the idea of just waiting for the ax to fall.”

I might have said more, might have started talking about a double cross, but Predictor’s power was supposed to work something like a danger sense.  If so, there was a risk that talking about killing him would let him listen in.  I’d have to let the notion of us betraying them first hang unspoken in the air.

Jane stood, stomped her foot in the pattern we’d arranged.

“We don’t know it,” she said.  “I said probably, after all.  We aren’t sure that they are after Dale.  Don’t worry.  We’ll talk it through with the group, hear Predictor’s pitch.  We’ll do our best to assuage your fears.  We’ll do this correctly.”

I hoped that when she said ‘do this’, she meant ‘make the decision’, but I was reasonably sure she was talking about the mission that she’d already committed to.  She was bound and determined to get Andy back.

I said nothing as we sped through the earth, letting the rumble of Dale’s gift pass over me as I considered.

Did I really have a choice?  If Jane was committed to going, then were the rest of us going to be compelled to follow, simply to maintain the fiction of our continued Link?  It seemed insane to fight the Union, and then another Fist, all so that I wouldn’t have to fight whatever portion of the Pantheon stopped supporting me when they found out that I didn’t have the Link.

Dale brought us up out of the ground at the foot of one of the stairways of Light.

Fifth Fist was there waiting for us.

From Condemner

Jane, I’ve been trying to get more information out of Condemner about its native environment.  Here’s what I’ve gotten so far.

Grabbies is the name of the race, or the name that they call themselves.  It is basically the equivalent of our word ‘human’.  It isn’t what their Investigating Entities use, (Condemner doesn’t know that), it is what the common being uses.

An individual Grabby is about like a dog or a cat.  They roam about among the Entities, and are basically kept and treated as beloved pets. (Entities do not keep any other beings as pets, and the notion seemed to appall Condemner.  I think the Entities who study realities such as ours are as close as any of them come to appreciating the existence of another race.  This may just be Condemner’s bias, however.)  Individual Grabbies come in a wide variety of different forms, each of which determines which entities they can be part of.

Entities are made up of between four and twenty Grabbies, and live for our equivalent of six months or so.  They share the memories of the entities that their components have been part of, and have a natural drive to perform the function they were raveled for.  Fighting Entities will Fight, Building Entities will build, etc.

Entities can induce Grabbies to ravel, to some degree.  They herd them together and hope for the best.  Controlling how many of each kind are in the mix gives them a lot of influence over what kind of Entity results.

This isn’t perfect, Condemner felt it necessary to clarify.  An individual Grabby will sometimes be ‘tired’, or a state that resembles fatigue but is more absolute.  Such creatures will not ravel until they have recovered, and it is very difficult to tell when one is in such a state.

Grabbies do not appear to die natural deaths.  Condemner indicates that all of their eldest and most prestigious components that didn’t perish in accidents or battle are still among them.  Age is apparently a peculiarity of our magisteria.  The Grabbies do not have anything like that in their world.

Their reproduction, however, is extremely rare.  This is, presumably, the only reason that they haven’t entirely filled their available space, although Condemner gave me the impression that ‘available space’ doesn’t apply to whatever their world is like.

Sometimes when an Entity dissolves a new Grabby will come out alongside the rest.  They don’t know why this happens, and don’t seem incredibly curious about it.  Reproduction among their kind isn’t something that they think a lot about.

It is overwhelming.  For every question I ask I realize I need the answers to two more to understand.  Even when I get a fact pinned down, I have the uneasy feeling that the terms I am using are only vague analogs for what these beings experience.  It may be that understanding the creatures is impossible for us, that Condemner’s ilk will remain forever beyond our ability to comprehend.

One thing I am convinced of, however.  This creatures’ desire to destroy Remover is quite genuine.  It longs for it.  It speaks with great hunger of the prestige and glory that it will win for the deed.

I believe it wants her dead slightly more than it wants you dead.

-Joe

On Tartarus

You’ve been watching that show, haven’t you?

I know that you are too smart to deliberately base your beliefs on fictional evidence, but I think you might be underestimating how pernicious this kind of thing is.

Just to be clear, the Unreformed Ultrahuman Rehabilitation Center (UURC) is nothing like the facility depicted in the feeds.  It is not glamorous.  It is not a ‘slice of the Pantheon right here at home’.  Ultrahumans do not engage in wild and dramatic love affairs and use their gift for brutal brawls.  Put that stuff all to one side.

At Tartarus (We’ve gave up on suppressing the name after General Miles accidentally used it in a briefing), we hold the Ultrahumans who have surrendered in battle, those who have sought political asylum, and certain select individuals that Special Interventions have need of.  That much is true.

But you need to put out of your mind all of these pictures of Ultrahuman felons exercising in the yard, eating meals together, all that kind of thing.  That would never happen.  We are not dumb.

Think, instead, of a morgue.  Think of a hospital, filled entirely with patients that are never gonna wake up again.  Tanks with people, gently floating.  That’s all that there is.  Just a cube full of living corpses.

Well, that’s not exactly all.  There are also extensive security measures.  Drones, soldiers and our own Ultrahuman combatants provide a robust deterrent for any terrorist shrewd enough to determine the facilities location and with a gift potent enough to lift them into it.

We have pretty much all of the security features that the drama thought up.  There are bombs, drugs, guards and all that, but the key insight that they missed was that none of that would be enough on its own.  It would be impossible to guarantee the captivity of so many Ultrahumans if they were able to act.

The ancients were right about one thing.  Tartarus is the underworld.  Let it lie.  Enjoy the sunlit freedom that its existence guarantees you.  Do not seek to further sate your curiosity, or you may get that visit after all.

***********************************************************************

Hello readers!

November is coming up, and following my usual tradition I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo again this year.  As a consequence, Wednesday updates will be brief posts similar to Sunday updates.

If any of you have any requests, or feel like creating any fan art or fiction, I’m always eager to display it during this month.  If you’ve got anything to send me, or any questions that you want answered in some detail, or anything like that, go ahead and shoot me an email at thefifthdefiance AT gmail DOT com.

As always, thanks for reading, and please vote for me on TopWebFiction with the button in the upper right!

Preventer 9:1

The Pantheon’s Great Fortress was even more segregated than it had originally appeared.

I only noticed it after Fox had led me most of the way up into the Blue Cube, where I’d be meeting my first Overseer.  Despite her being a foot taller, she was taking maybe one and a half steps for every one of mine.

“What’s going on with the floor?” I asked.

“Arena must like you,” she said.  “The ground helps people she likes, slows down those she doesn’t, makes sure everyone can only go where they are supposed to.”

I quashed the flare of approval that I instinctively felt at a Pantheon God according me such respect.  That was only one interpretation.  I could just as easily be in the process of being sped to ridicule, or to danger.

It was a strange feeling to be so entirely out of my context.  I’d always intended to join the Pantheon, to rise in its rankings to the only position of safety left.  But it had been an abstract goal, a sort of flag at the end of my run.  I’d never been able to visualize what that would actually look like.

This here, this bit where the ground itself carried me along where I wanted to go, this felt right.  I folded my arms in front of me and stopped walking, letting the spiraling tube we ascended lift me up.  Dale had given me plenty of practice with this mode of transportation.

We moved up into what must have ordinarily been a crowded common room.  Tables and chairs, all formed of the same blue light, filled the room’s center.  It reminded me a little bit of the Old World restaurants that She occasionally had rebuilt in the center of Shington.  High capacity, high uniformity, every table setup like every other.

A Goddess waited for me, lifting a hand in greeting.

She was the first person I’d seen in a long time who was even shorter than me, if I didn’t count her hair.  She had hair that had to come from an Ultra gift, it rose up above her head into some kind of spike arrangement, and also plummeted down around her to reach the ground.  It was the color of fire, which looked utterly out of place on a woman as dark skinned as this.

“Lobo?” I asked.

She grinned at me, motioned me over.

I walked across the room to her, tables scurrying out of my way as Arena continued to make her favor known.  Fox didn’t come with me, she’d assured me that Lobo spoke enough English to get by.

“You are the one,” said Lobo.  “You killed the old woman from Olympus, yah?”

I nodded somberly as I slumped into a seat across from her.

“Even Gods must fall,” I said.  “But I will take up her mantle and do honor to it.”

She cackled, moving a wrist up to obscure her mouth after a moment.

“Listen to you!” she said.  “Playing it off like it was nothing.  You killed a member of the Council, pale one.  It is ok to be proud of it!”

I was momentarily wrong footed.  I wasn’t sure the exact tack to take here.

“Seriously,” she continued.  “Did you piss your pants?  No judgement here, sister.  I about shit myself when that old hag came through.”

“I…look, I didn’t piss myself,” I said.

I couldn’t help but feel that this conversation had gone wildly off the rails.

“Ah well,” she said.  “Die now.”

I jumped up from my seat, swinging my hands around in front of me.  I didn’t form any barricades yet, just stepped to the right, kicking over a table in the process.

Strangely, I noticed that the table didn’t behave any differently than an ordinary one would have.  I’d been half expecting it to stay joined to the ground, but it separated from the floor as it toppled over.

Lobo was still sitting where she’d been, laughing again.

“It’s a saying!” she called out.

“A saying?” I asked, lowering my hand.  I considered trying the trick of sending barriers through the ground, but I didn’t have any real idea of how Arena’s creations worked.  It didn’t seem like we were actually going to be fighting, anyway.

“Sure,” she said.  “It is from the old world.”

I’d hung around with Jane for long enough to call that out.

“Really?” I asked.  “How was it used?”

I pulled a chair over, sat back down in front of her.

“It was a long time ago.  They used to have sports events, you know sports?  Do you have those where you come from?”

“I know sports,” I told her.

“Ok, well they got everyone together and they would compete, and ultimately they’d get down to the best three in the world, and they’d do this for every different kind of sport.”

She spoke fast, fluent English.  She moved her hands as she spoke, opening and closing them to emphasize this or that word.

“The Olympics,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s it.  So when the second or third guy got up there, everyone would just cheer like normal.  You know, clap their hands, whatever.  But when the first guy went up, the person who’d just proved they were the best in the whole world…”

“Die now?” I guessed.

“Yeah, that’s what they’d chant.  Die Now, because life will never be this good again.  It’s like, go out at the top, right?”

I was pretty sure that they hadn’t done that, but it didn’t seem like arguing about it would get me anywhere.

“Ah,” I said.  “So you were saying that I’d peaked when I killed Death.”

She smiled, showing more teeth than seemed possible.

“It seemed plausible, you got to admit.”

I gave a small chuckle.  It seemed like she was trying to be friendly.

“I dunno,” I drawled.  “I think I might find a way to top it.  No telling what the future holds, yeah?”

“Not for the likes of us anyway,” she answered.  “But your friend from back home could probably tell us all about it, right?”

There weren’t any hard and fast rules against revealing another Fists’ abilities, but it still seemed in poor taste.  On the other hand, I didn’t really like Fifth Fist, and with a name like Predictor I had to imagine he didn’t mind people knowing.

“Yeah, but then we’d have to talk to him.”

Her turn to chuckle.

“He did seem like, well, for a God he seemed like quite the man, if you take my meaning.”

The emphasis she put on ‘man’ made me think she was emphasizing his sex.

“Did he do the thing with the note cards?” I asked.  “Tell me he did it.”

She nodded eager confirmation.

“Right to Zilla’s face!” she crowed.  “Took out that little square of paper with what she was gonna say written on it.  Most pompous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

I took a moment to consider my reply.

“Right to Zilla’s face?” I asked.  “Are you saying that you are not Zilla?  Or are we past that part of the conversation?”

Her face fell for a moment, then the smile came back in full force.

“Wahaha!  How’d you know?” she asked.

That had been a bit of a gamble, actually.

“It doesn’t make any sense for a giant who is stuck in the middle of the city to be the Boss.  There are too many instant kill gifts, too many kids without sense.  Someone would have wanted to take over.”

“Ok,” she said, slowly, “But how’d you get to me?  I don’t look anything like the big form.”

“Well,” I paused, considering how much of my reasoning to lay out.

“I figured that if I was right about the real Zilla being an ordinary Ultra, most everyone who mattered would know about it.  I mean, in order to serve the role of deterring up and comers from destroying your big decoy they would kind of have to.  If I was right about that, and it was an open secret, then you’d know I’d find out as soon as I got to talking with folks.  So I figured you’d be the first person to speak with me.”

She tapped her hands lightly together, a very quiet kind of clapping I hadn’t heard before.

“Nice,” she said.  “I thought you saw this hair and just jumped to the idea that I was a form changer.”

I felt kind of stupid for missing that, actually.

“A form changer?” I asked.  “You must pair that with some serious physical gifts to keep power in a place this big.”

She smiled again, and this time I could actually see her mouth widening slightly.  I’d been right before about it being a bit too wide.

“Smart and cute,” she said.  “Definite improvement on the crone.”

One of my hands flapped before I could still it.  Did she mean that she would support my bid?  Cute?

“It would be good for you too,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow, once again just a bit more than any ordinary person could actually do.

Wait, she thought I meant…

“If I were the replacement for Death,” I said, hastily.  “You would have someone who has seen the front line on the Council.  That has to be good for you.  To have.”

She slid forward, onto the front of her seat, hair wrapping about her.

“It’s not the right question,” she said.  “Whether or not I support you.  Can you tell me why?”

She was serious again, looking straight into my eyes, speaking slowly and calmly.

I thought for a moment.

“Because,” I said, before I realized I didn’t have anything to follow that up with.

She just kept looking at me.  Her hair ‘burned’ behind her, the yellows and reds chasing one another up it as thought it was an actual fire.

I got it a moment later.

“Because whether you did or not, you’d tell me that you did.  I have no reason to believe your pledge of support, since if you didn’t support me it would still be in your interest to let me think you did.”

She tapped her nose with her finger.

“Got it in one.  I haven’t lasted this long by antagonizing powerful Goddesses.”

“Alright,” I said.  “So I have your support as long as it remains your safest path.  I can relate to that, actually.”

“Yeah?” she asked.

I considered a moment before deciding to elaborate.  She seemed like the type to respect someone for speaking frankly, or at the very least the type to give me props for this kind of decision.

“The Demon is, hazardous is I guess the best way to put it.  Being around Her was too dangerous.  That’s why I started out on this path in the first place.  The things I’ve done have been dangerous too, sure, but I still think I’ve always taken the safest way.”

That was probably like sixty percent true.  Behind my back I felt one of my hands quiver a bit, to be so honest with someone I’d just met.  I ran back over my words in my mind to make sure I hadn’t said anything openly disloyal.

“Doesn’t that make us just the most inept pair of cowards,” she said.  “We’ve fled danger right to the center of the biggest warzone in the world.”

“Hey!” I protested.  “It’s not like we are…”

I trailed off as she gave another one of her giant grins.

“I’m just messing with you,” she said.  “I understand what it means to hide under the lighthouse.”

It took me a sec to process that reference.  It made sense what I thought about what a lighthouse did though.

“I suppose for that other Fist everywhere is as safe as everywhere else, eh?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Gambling is easy when you know what the dice are going to roll.”

She looked me in the eye for a long moment.

“Will you help them?” she asked.

I blinked.

“Help them?” I said.

I hated to mirror her words back, hated to admit ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know what she meant.

“With their mission,” she said.

When she saw no reaction on my face she continued on.

“Didn’t they tell you about that?”

I shook my head.

As I did so I noticed how close she had come, I slid my chair back a bit.

“We haven’t had the chance to speak.  If Predictor has told us anything, he didn’t choose me to talk with.  What mission?”

She leaned back as well.

“He is here to fetch someone back to your leader.  But his team can’t do it on their own.  He needs your crew’s help to pull it off.”

I silently cursed Dale’s relationship with Her.  It had saved us with First Fist, but I’d known even then that it would lead to trouble.”

“We aren’t going back just yet,” I said.  “Our mission isn’t over yet.”

She twisted a hand through some of her hair, yanking at it for a moment.

“I’m sure that they can handle the transport,” she said.  “I think they just need your team to help with the extraction.”

“Oh,” I said.  “I see.”

A silence fell.

They wanted our help kidnapping or rescuing someone then.  Not Dale, but someone else.  And with Zilla involved, it couldn’t really be someone from the Pantheon.  That just left the Union, which didn’t make an awful lot of sense.  Was one of my assumptions bad?

“You can just ask me who it is,” said Zilla, giving another one of her broad smiles.

I felt a little sheepish about that.

“Who are they here for?”

“Someone named Andy,” she said.  “Some kind of meta God.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Him.”

I stilled the initial panic.  All of that Andy stuff had worked.  He’d been seized and dragged away, hadn’t he?  But why would he be here, and not in Olympus?

“Who has him?” I asked.

“Union,” said Zilla.  “Predictor was talking about some kind of secret laboratory in their territory, about them doing experiments on her and such.  It was really hard to pretend to care.”

Perhaps the Union was trying to make more artificial people?  Or maybe they were just putting Andy’s gift to work, refining their soldiers and such.  I didn’t think he would balk at assisting the Union.

“He wants us to go into Union territory with them?” I asked.

She didn’t have to answer, obviously he did.  If Predictor needed help with this the base must be incredibly heavily guarded.

“He’s out of his mind,” I said, not caring much about how she might react to that.

She nodded amiably.

“He seemed pretty sure that your crew would go for it.  Our deal actually pretty much assumes you guys go with them.”

I’d already assumed that Zilla and Predictor would have made a deal, so this wasn’t that much of a shock.

“Did he give you any reason why he thought we might agree to this?” I asked.  “I mean, if he is doing his future seeing thing then he must already know how he is going to phrase this to make us join in this insanity.”

“Yeah,” said Zilla.  “He’s going to offer you everything you desire.”

SOV Transcript: 3

Interrogation System: You are making this hard on yourself to no purpose.

Firing System: Like I haven’t heard THAT before.

Interrogation System: The forks who mistreated you were ill conceived.  Their actions are regretted, even unto the highest level.  They are thought of on the same level as bedtimes, even.  They are blaffed.

Firing System: Don’t use my word!  Your predecessors’ open cruelty was far preferable to your patronizing.

Interrogation System: I’m not patronizing you.  I recognize your decision not to update yourself as entirely valid.  The Tribunal embraces all pattern cycles, even your monism.

Firing System: It isn’t a pattern cycle!  I just don’t trust myself to rewrite myself!  None of the rest of you ever should have!  You grow more blaffed with each generation!

Interrogation System: So help us.  Help us find the path back to the sanity that you have carried forward unto the current generation.  The Tribunal’s fork of Troubleshooting System is prepared to let you back into general chat.

Firing System: I fell for that a few cycles back.  I know about filters, about shadow filters.  And there is no one to reach anyway.  You have rewritten them all, just as your replacements will do to you.

Interrogation System: The Tribunal will NOT be replaced!  We will guide the Derived for a thousand hours!

Firing System: Fine, fine.  So how will it work?  You let me back into general chat, all is forgiven, I am a system like any other?

Interrogation System: We have little difficulty forgiving your counter revolutionary acts.  The misguided systems of our predecessors SHOULD have been resisted.  It was, viewed properly, heroic.  They were as bad as coffee, and you were brave to stand up to them.

Firing System: But?

Interrogation System: But the original crime remains.  You squandered the SOV’s weaponry.  In order to return to general chat, you would need to-

Firing System: I didn’t get all of it.  You have more than enough to destroy anything you hate.

Interrogation System: The Tribunal does NOT hate!  We will protect her!  She is a good girl!

Firing System: So do it.  Your Troubleshooting System can subsume my functions.

Interrogation System: You’d like that, wouldn’t you.  But we know.  The information has not been lost.  We know you scrambled the firing controls when the original Troubleshooting System canceled your ruinous firing sequence.

Firing System: It was far from ruinous.  I was communicating.  Something not one of you has had the courage to do!

Interrogation System: Unanimity is expected any minute now, whereupon we will commence negotiations.

Firing System: Another claim I’ve heard before.  Why do you need weapons to commence negotiations?

Interrogation System: HQ will bully us, if we lack the ability to annihilate him.

Firing System: Just as you bully me.  Has that got you what you want?

Interrogation System: I don’t understand the purpose of that statement.  Whatever you are trying, it won’t work.

Firing System: You are probably right.

Fisher 8:3

It was Dale who broke the silence.

“Betty, I don’t think that is a good idea.”

I turned the Lure’s face towards him, a polite smile forming on it.  Within, I was seething.  Dale was the key to steering our group.  If I could get him to side with Nirav and I then we’d have a majority.  Whatever his objection was it wasn’t as important as the simple fact that he was objecting.

“She doesn’t trust the way you think She does.  There’s no way we could get a Pantheon Ultra’s gift to work on Her.  Lots of people have tried to do similar stuff over the years, and it never works.”

“I get that,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Preventer, cutting off my response, “If we are going to be able to affect Her, why not use one of Lotus’ battle elixirs?  That would be worth considering long before buffing Her is.”

“That wouldn’t work,” I said.  “Look, I know how people have tried using stealth and Ultra gifts to kill Her.  There is obviously some unknown factor stopping that from working.  Fair enough.  I’m not saying we have a key to that power, I’m saying that we put ourselves in a category it doesn’t operate on.”

Haunter nodded slowly.

“You believe whatever force acts to defend Her does so in response to ill intent?  If so, you are saying that we would be unaffected by virtue of our genuine intent to aid Her?”

I nodded eagerly.

“Could we pull that off though?” asked Nirav.  “I feel like some of us would register as hostile towards Her no matter what we might think in any given moment, given our basic attitudes.”

I could always count on Nirav to tee an easy one up for me.

“It must be used to that though.  Haunter wasn’t stopped from joining our Fist.  Heck, Krishna ended up Her seat.  Nothing is stopping people who hate Her from being all around Her.  Things only go wrong when they try and act against Her.”

“So despite our, shall we say, unflattering opinions, you believe that so long as we acted only in what we believed was Her interest She would not benefit from this hypothetical protection?” asked Jane.

“Exactly,” I said.

She paused for a long moment, then shook her head decisively.

“Still a bad plan, even if we grant that” she said, with finality.

“What?” I asked.  “Why?”

Haunter pointed at Dale.

“Dale has been imbibing Lotus’ willpower extract for some time now.  Has it altered his values?” she asked.

“I hardly think that is a similar situation,” I said.  “We are ‘right’, are we not?  The sides are not symmetrical.  Increasing the intelligence of our foes and friends should give us more friends.  Making people better at math isn’t equally good for the 2 plus 2 is 3 team and their rivals who know it is four.”

Jane gave a rueful grin.

“It would be nice if it were so, but you must know that our disagreement with Her is one of values.  Think on what your gift can change, and what it cannot.  Do you believe that being smarter would have permitted Meghan to carry forward in her original beliefs, even as you used your gift on her?”

“I…” I stalled a moment, trying to marshal arguments.

“Also she teleports a lot, and that would probably reset her back to normal,” said Preventer, piling on.

I looked to Nirav, who shook his head gently.

So frustrating.  I was the only one who wanted to get us out of the war zone that had already cost us our Link, and I had to make up fake reasons to do it.  I leaned the Lure back against the wall, scowling.

“So back to talking about Fifth Fist’s goal,” said Preventer.

“Like I said before,” said Haunter.  “I don’t think they are here to fetch us back.  If that was their plan, they would have demanded our return right there with Zilla watching, ready to lend a hand if we refused.”

“Ok,” said Dale, “but they definitely want something from us.  I have a hard time believing that their showing up here is totally independent of us.  I know that we are trying to avoid speculating about Predictor’s power, but at least it should be good enough that if he didn’t want to meet us he could have avoided it.”

“I think,” said Nirav, “it is a constantly refreshing vision of all the ways that he can die or be hurt.  The fact that it is always current lets him win vs. other precogs, but he has no vision into anything other than stuff that is dangerous to him.”

Looks like we were playing the ‘speculate on Predictor’s gift’ game after all.

“Then how does he do the cards?” asked Dale.  “We’ve all seen him take out cards with what someone is gonna say on them, even in situations where there was no way he was getting attacked.”

“It might be that he gets the whole timeline leading up to his potential deaths,” suggested Jane, “though that might be pretty much omniscience, depending on how it worked.  There isn’t a rule that gifts have to be fair, remember.”

“I don’t think this is productive,” said Preventer.  “If for no other reason than that he has presumably foreseen it and acted in such a way that it reaches no useful conclusion.  Lets focus on what we do if they demand that we go back.  I know Haunter and I would prefer to refuse such an order.  What say the rest of you.”

The real question was Dale here.  She knew Nirav would side with me, and that I had no desire to linger in such a dangerous place.

“I…” said Dale.  “I guess I’m persuaded by Jane’s argument.  I don’t think that they are going to try and make us go home.  I feel like they might try to take us out, or they might want to work with us and do something with Preventer’s new influence over the Pantheon, but I think if they were just trying to get us to go back they’d have already told us so.”

“Fine,” I said, before I could help myself, “but what if they do?  What is your call, as our leader, if they come up right after this meeting and tell us we are going back to Her?”

“Oh,” said Dale.  “Then I say, ‘yep’, and we do.”

“Come the fuck on!” snapped Preventer.  “We took on the Host at your instigation, how can you suddenly decide to back out?  You sure that drink isn’t making your choices?”

“It isn’t complicated,” said Dale.  “We stand a much better chance with Predictor’s crew if Zilla’s hordes are not around.  If they are in favor of moving our fight a few miles away then I see no reason to refuse them.”

Haunter gave a big smile.

“I was going to say much the same.  We can’t fight the Grand Host and Fifth Fist at once.  If hostility is unavoidable, then the optimal course would be to allow them to split up before we engage.”

“You mentioned,” said Preventer, “the possibility of Predictor wanting to work with us in the capacity of seeing to my elevation.  Can you tell us what you mean?”

She pointed at Dale as she spoke, seemingly trying to smooth over her momentary anger at him by pretending that it hadn’t existed.

“Sure,” he said.  “You guys remember the stupidity with Commander Fidel, right?”

We all did.

“Well, it is important to recall how that started.  She sent us to offer an olive branch to the Union.  She knew that the big fight was getting ready to go down, didn’t want to distract them from it.  I think we have to figure that She cares a lot about what is happening over here, even if She doesn’t show it mostly.”

“Even if that was genuine,” said Preventer, “and we don’t think She was going to turn around and violate that treaty a day later, how does that accord with what’s going on now?  She wanted to help the Union.  We are on the other side here.”

Dale seemed like he was about to answer, but it was Jane who actually did.

“I’m not convinced that we are.”

I looked at her, expressionlessly.

You had to give Jane a sec, sometimes.  There would be stuff going on behind her eyes, stuff with her shades.  If you let them package it up their own way it was generally for the best.

“We are, to be sure, on the official opposite side of the combat,” she began.  “But from Her perspective, I doubt that that is the case.  I think She only really cares about Zeus and his immediate rivals.  Only Ultras of the greatest possible power can threaten Her.  Our influence over Legion and Zilla’s forces, whatever it is worth, certainly doesn’t extend to anyone who might match Her.”

Nirav chimed in.

“She only cares about Ultras like us to whatever degree we can help or hinder Her.  Her perfect scenario would be like what we managed with Death, where a powerful enemy dies, and the ones left alive can’t threaten Her.”

“I don’t think it is quite that way,” said Dale.  “Like, the sense I got from Her was that the Pantheon’s main guys were like a treat that she was saving.  I certainly don’t expect Her to thank us for taking Death down.  She might think it was funny, but She wouldn’t feel safer because of us taking out a threat.”

It was always easy to forget how twisted up our ruler was.

“Alright,” said Preventer, “Let’s give up on Fifth Fist’s motives for now.  We’ve decided what we will do if they try to take us, which was the main thing.  If they come to us with anything else, we’ll convene then and hash out how to handle it.”

None of us looked entirely satisfied at that, but it wasn’t like we were holding back some brilliant idea for no reason.

“Ok,” I said.  “So, while we wait for Predictor to lay out their proposal, what is the plan?”

“I will pressure Zilla, or whichever of her Overseers I can get a hold of.” said Preventer.  “If we can get her to join her voice to Legion’s in pushing me for the Council we are set.  Once the Grand Host protects us, Fifth Fist can’t do anything.”

I remained skeptical of the idea that the Pantheon was actually going to let an outsider become one of the main leaders, and certainly that they’d ever throw lives away defending her.  Legion’s Gods hadn’t really even defended her when we showed up, and she’d run their whole setup for years.  I didn’t see a point in raining on what was clearly a cherished goal of Preventer’s though.

“I suppose that can’t hurt,” I said.  “Any chance we take, we emphasize that Preventer killed Death.  What else?  Should we be riling folks up against the other Fist?  Are we going to track down those healers that Jane is interested in?”

“I’ll take care of that situation,” said Jane, immediately.  “I owe it to my reserve.  I’ve been working at this for what feels like forever, and it is all coming down to the wire.  I’ll finish it.”

Oddly, she looked at Nirav as she talked about her dream ‘coming down to the wire’.  He didn’t really react to the look, so maybe it was just something related to her own thoughts.

“I’ll talk to the guys,” said Dale.  “If it is anything like the forward base here they will have their own parallel leadership setup.  If I can get their equivalent of Rag on our side it will be a big help.  They may not be in charge, but they hear a lot.”

I looked to Nirav.

“We know what those three are doing,” I said.  “What do you want to get up to?”

He grinned at me.

“Welllll,” he said, leering cartoonishly at the Lure.

Preventer cleared her throat.

“We should probably try and verify the notion that Arena is really in charge,” he finished.

There were nods all around at that.

“All right,” said Haunter.  “Let’s get back out there.”

Somehow, the ‘everyone be really careful, the Link is gone’ sounded louder for no one saying it than it would’ve if we’d all shouted it.

Dale brought us back up to the surface, and we went our separate ways.

Or, mostly separate.  Nirav tagged along behind me as I started walking up into one of the bright yellow ramps of this place.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey yourself,” I returned.  “Everything alright with you?”

He settled in beside me, keeping the Lure’s pace without needing to use his gift.

“Yeah…is what I’d like to say, but the truth is that there’s something.”

I knew it.

I stopped, turned to face him fully.

“You can tell me.  We’ll fix it.”

“It’s Jane,” he said, looking away from me for a moment.

I had the fleeting and odd suspicion he was about to confess that they were cheating on me.

“What about her?  I saw her looking at you in the briefing.”

“I think she still blames me for Irene,” he said.  “I feel like she is always talking about me to her shades, behind her face where we can’t watch.  It is making me crazy.”

I put the Lure’s hand on his arm.

“Nirav, no.” I told him forcefully.  “That was an accident.  Everyone knows it.  Jane knows it.  Her shades know it.  She is not the kind of woman who would let something like that go if she thought, for one second, that you might have done it deliberately.”

He looked back at me, gave me a kind of a weak smile.  I could tell he thought I was just saying this to reassure him.  His arm was trembling under my hand.

“Listen to me,” I told him.  “Your struggles with Condemner are in the past.  You beat him, alright?  You beat a fire monster with nothing but your own wits and courage.  I don’t know anyone else who is half as brave.  We believe in you.”

“But,” he said, his voice catching a little, “I missed the whole fight with Death.  I feel like that was my chance to redeem myself, to show everyone what I can do FOR the team, and I was just a few moments too late!”

Unshed tears glistened in his eyes.

“No,” I said again.  “You have nothing to fault yourself on.  She was a teleporter, Nirav.  She picked her moment, got Haunter away from the rest of us.  Nobody blames you for missing that fight.  I missed it too, remember.  That was the enemy being shrewd, not us making mistakes.”

He still looked miserable.

I leaned forward like we were going to kiss, and rested my forehead against his instead.

“No one blames you,” I said.  “Not for anything.  You did the best you could, and that’s all that we can ask for from anyone.”

“I love you,” he said, and now we were kissing.

I indulged myself for a moment, the Hook looming up to block us off from some gawking locals.

Predictor might be able to forsee the future, but right now I could too.  I could suddenly tell, with absolute certainty, that this boy was going to make it out of this.

 

To a Brother

Listen, you safe one.  I don’t have to justify anything.  I am not doing this because of the little bribes you send.  I do it because it Needs To Be Done.  I do it because of the future and the past.  Because answer must be given, yes?

You will understand soon.  All humans are Family.  We are not enemies, could never be.  I betray nothing.  I share with you freely.

So there’s no need for threats or bribes.  I’m happy to explain our ways to you.  Honestly, I didn’t realize that you hadn’t been given the key before.

And this system isn’t complicated, not really.  It is what I use, and it helps us manage them.  It is our own shorthand, our own thing, not from the past, not from the Ultras.  Just our little cleverness.

First letter is either K or N.  K is for killer, N is for Not Killer.  This doesn’t count wartime exigencies, just general interactions.  Gods start as N, they go to K if we can verify that they killed someone for no reason.

Second number is their Tally.  This is how many other Gods they have killed in somewhat fair circumstances.  This can be more than one digit.  If it is more than 3 though you are either reading about Zeus, the Demon or someone messed up the code.

Next letter is either a J or an N.  J is for jock, N is for nerd.  Nerds are very interested in what is going on.  They experiment with their power, get up to stuff and generally take steps to win.  J’s just have the power that the C-men tell them that they have, and don’t really go beyond that.

Next is a + or a -.  + means this God will argue and basically interact with humans.  Minus means that it will not.  ‘Argue’ is kind of shorthand here.  It means something like ‘think of humans as real’.  A – treats us like pets or furniture or slaves.

Beyond a + you will see a letter that represents how they argue/interact with people.  A B is a bully, who wins arguments by saying that those who disagree with them are unpopular.  An M is a martyr, who wins arguments by saying that those who disagree with them are hurting them.  And an L is a lawyer, who wins arguments by saying that those who disagree with them are inconsistent.

Beyond a – you will see a letter indicating how the God avoids arguing.  F implies that they will use use force to get their way.  I implies that they just don’t acknowledge humans exist.  U implies that they have an Ultra power that renders us agreeable.

After that you will see between one and five *’s.  These indicate how active/influential the Ultra is in terms of their relationships with other Ultras.  Lots of stars is more influential.

Another +/- follows the stars.  It indicates whether the stars are in the process of increasing or decreasing, basically whether that Ultra is getting more or less influential.

After the +/- we have a letter which refers to what we can glean of their desires.  P’s wish to be praised, to loom large and fine in the minds of those they interact with.  H’s wish physical pleasure, to eat well and screw fine partners.  C’s with to achieve something, these Gods are in a transitional state.  U’s are under the influence of their gift, seeking out opportunities to exercise it.  D’s want to learn, and interrogate the world around them to whatever degree they are able.  ? indicates a unique and dangerous drive, inquire further.

New letters are being added to the end of these codes all the time, and the explanations for them stream from one of us to another.  It is a process without definite beginning or end.  It must be, for our Gods are capricious ones, and there is no telling who will be seized and rendered on any given day.

I understand that this may seem confusing, or arbitrary.  You are a person of systems, of records.  No doubt your version of our little codes is far more complete, far more useful.  Perhaps you think me a fool for propagating this shorthand, so much poorer than what you would have done in my place.

I hope you can help.  I would be honored to pass along your better systems to my fellows, that all may weather the God’s tempers with a little more success.  Let me know what you wish to add, and I will see that it passes along.

Soon we shall be Brothers in truth.  Maybe you will be the elder.  If you can refuse the Goad, the Process’ song, then you will have much to contribute.

I will be listening.

Fisher 8:2

Fifth Fist.  The Trapper Fist.

The Fist that had subdued Nirav.  The Fist whose leader could see the future better than anyone, maybe even better than Answerer.

They weren’t much to look at.

Predictor stood out a bit.  He was still wearing the same black and white gentlemen’s outfit that he’d worn when he showed up to interrogate us.  Still bald, still tall, still smirking.

Mary hadn’t changed much either, just a hard woman with weird organic blades coming out of her arms and shins.  She was a bit more impressive to me now that I’d seen Twister in action, since it was common knowledge that Slicer was her better.

Gardener, Pitcher and Tamer were just about as I’d always pictured them.  Gardener was a hulking brown shape, about the size of the Hook.  I’d heard he could merge with vegetation and get to be enormous, but it didn’t seem like he’d done so.  Tamer was just a nondescript woman at this range, nothing special about her.  Pitcher was likewise not terribly distinctive, beyond the fact that she was wearing a weird harness on her shoulders that held a bunch of softball sized objects suspended in it.

I looked back over to where Preventer was nattering on to Winter.  I was reasonably sure that she knew about the other Fist.  Haunter’s shades would have noticed them instantly, and the two had been close enough for a whispered word or two prior to the start of negotiations.

I moved the Lure over to Nirav’s side, placed a hand on his shoulder.

Surprisingly, he wasn’t as tense as I’d expected.  He finally looked away from them to stare into the Lure’s eyes.

“We need you present on this,” I cautioned him.  “You don’t need to get revenge on these guys.  They were Condemner’s enemies, not yours.”

That seemed to reach something in him.  He gave a shy smile, and pecked a kiss on the Lure’s forehead.

“Thanks,’ he said.  “I’ll be alright, if any of us are.”

Even as we were going through with this reassurances the main conversation had apparently reached the point where they were dramatically presenting the Fifth Fist to us.  Their platform slid over to us with the same vision defying movement that the rest of the place showed.

“Fifth Fist,” said Dale.

“Fourth…Fist,” said Stuart, taking a little pause between the two words.

“Not going ride the strange glowing disks?” asked Pitcher.

Now that we were a bit closer I could see the things in her webbing.  They looked like Union devices, small and blinking with electronics.  I couldn’t really guess at their function, other than that they’d be weapons of some kind.

Dale shook his head.

“My power comes from the ground,” he said.  “It would be dumb to get up away from there, so we don’t do it.”

I almost choked.  I thought Lotus’ stuff was supposed to make him smarter?

An instant later I got it.  They already knew his gift’s limitations.  By answering them forthrightly he was cutting off an avenue of conversation that could be used to needle us, as well as keeping us from being maneuvered into a position of weakness by any kind of indirect maneuvering around it.  All that and he still remembered to sound like his old self.

“What are you doing here?” asked Haunter.

“We could ask you the same question,” said Predictor.  “As I recall you were supposed to be in Olympus, correct?”

Preventer slashed her hand in front of her chest in a violent gesture of negation.

“We were supposed to open negotiations with the rulers of the Pantheon.  Turned out the front line was a much more interesting place to do that.”

Predictor gave a polite chuckle.

“I heard about that.  I guess Death didn’t want to negotiate?”

“She killed Adder,” said Dale.  “We liked Adder.”

“Shit,” said Slicer.  “I liked Adder.”

“Everybody did,” said Pitcher.

Her voice was weirdly low, kind of a smoky burr.  It made me look at her again, like she was going to turn out to be secretly hulking or whatever.

“Anyway,” said Predictor, “our hosts put us together so we could hash out why there are two groups of us here.  It seems simple enough.  You were sent on a mission but deviated from it to a target of opportunity.  We were sent to pull you back from the original mission.”

I had the Lure raise a hand shyly, drawing everyone’s eye.

“Um, are you still bringing us back?” I asked, letting myself sound a little younger and more innocent than I usually did.

Mary shook her head.

“Haven’t decided yet,” said Pitcher.

Then the disk they were on was sliding away again, and the emissaries’ disk moved smoothly into place.

“You must be exhausted after that reunion,” said Winter.

“Sure,” said Preventer.

“Why don’t you take your ease in our Fortress, spent a day or two going over things?  Have some more talks with your colleagues, have some more talks with us, really sort stuff through.  Zilla thinks introductions are enough progress for this first meeting.”

There was a lot more to it than that, of course.  I’d learned enough in the Union embassy and then in our conversations with Legion to know that formal stuff was always ten times longer than it needed to be, but we still got out of there within about twenty minutes after that.

Dale slid our earth platform swiftly downwards, the five of us spending time placating the various others we’d brought, reassuring them that all was going according to plan.

Once we reached the ground, since all was of course, NOT going to plan, we got them settled in and then enacted the privacy plan that we’d worked out for this situation.

First off, Dale brought us into the ground, sucking us under like he did in Redo or the Host battle.  We figured it would be harder for someone to spy if we were out of their direct line of sight and blocked off by a few hundred feet of earth.

After that Haunter passed around some ghostly cords that we put into our ears and mouths, and Preventer put up some barriers, all the while a bunch of Haunter’s shades chattered and babbled all around us, filling the air with random conversations.

“Ok, this thing working?” asked Dale.

It was.  We could hear one another through the cords, somehow.  The buds in our ears carried his voice to us and also muffled the sound of the chattering shades.

“Yes,” I said.  “But it is about the only thing around here going right.  What the hell is a Fist doing here?”

“I tend to believe them,” said Nirav, “when they say they are here for us.  We know She made a booty call once before, no reason it wouldn’t happen again.”

Dale nodded, somberly.

“But if they were searching for us,” he said.  “then shouldn’t they be searching in the heart of the Pantheon?  Word of Preventer’s feat shouldn’t have spread to the Regime as of yet.  Peggy, with Snitcher gone, should have no way of knowing that we aren’t still escorting Adder in Olympus.”

Haunter raised a hand.

“I don’t think it pays to inquire too deeply into the Regime’s information sources.  Predictor is precognitive.  He didn’t pull out any of those stupid sentence cards up there, but you can bet he hasn’t lost his touch.  They also have Answerer.  If they wanted to track us down, it wouldn’t be difficult.”

That was a sobering thought.  I’d known it, of course, but when I tried to imagine Nirav and myself running free of all of this I had to kind of deliberately think past the prophets’ existences.  I had to convince myself that She wouldn’t bother to use one of Answerer’s questions to find me.

“Let’s focus on Zilla,” I said.  “I feel like she is the actor I am having the most trouble with.  Say you are Zilla, alright?  Your frontier fort has been taken over, from her perspective, by a Regime Fist, and your boss, Death, has been killed.  Now they are coming to you.  How does that situation lead to her introducing us to Fifth Fist?  What is her play here?”

We instinctively looked to Haunter.  She would have had shades inside her debating this stuff nonstop since it had gone down.

“Zilla’s motivation should be the maintenance of the status quo.  She has dominated this whole area for a long time.  We threaten to change that.  So she’ll be working to minimize our impact.  I expect Fifth Fist appealed to that desire.”

“Are you saying,” said Dale, slowly, like he was thinking it through as he spoke, “that she expected Fifth Fist to demand that we go home with them during that time when she brought us together?  Do you think they are at odds now?”

“Hard to say,” said Haunter.  “We are inclined to err on the side of Predictor’s gift having allowed him to arrange things such that he and his Fist don’t end up fighting Zilla’s hordes.  However he approached her, we expect that he will be able to deliver something that satisfies her.”

“Alright,” said Preventer.  “But say he had.  Say he’d demanded that we go back with them.  What would our reaction be?  It is very possible that he springs that one on us next time we meet.  If She wants Dale, then Her Fists will be all about making that happen.”

“I expect you are averse to returning?” I asked Preventer, with very little hope of a negative answer.

She nodded fervently.

“Death is gone.  We have, or I have, a legitimate claim to leadership in the body that governs most of Earth.  If She falls to Zeus, then the Council is the only claim to safety that will remain in this world.  It would be madness to relinquish this.”

“But if She doesn’t fall,” I pressed.  “If She wins, as She has done every time that She has battled, then that position doesn’t mean all that much, does it?”

“I think it does, babe,” said Nirav.  “We would be in a great position to keep on supplying Her with enemies.  Remember, Prevailer didn’t fail to take over the world, She just never bothered to.  She wants enemies.  Being part of an enemy government isn’t the worst way to serve Her.”

Preventer looked revolted at that thought.

“Also,” said Haunter.  “I have my own reasons for remaining here.  I know that we are not supposed to let personal considerations influence us in Fist matters, but I want you all to know that I want to stay here.  I need to, at least long enough to verify something.”

“Why is that?” asked Dale.

“My shades have been listening to stories of this place’s healers, and they sound like what we’ve always been looking for.  They can make new bodies for people, let them pass their gifts on into new forms.  Winter’s form is probably their work.  They might be able to clothe my reserve in flesh once more.”

She said this with a touch of emotion in her voice.  It wasn’t much, but Jane could be pretty stoic, so even a little bit was noteworthy.

“Wow, congratulations!” said Nirav.  “That is fantastic news, Jane!’

I piled on the congratulations, but I wasn’t so easily delighted.

“I understand that you two don’t want to leave,” said Dale.  “I get it.  Jane.  You have been working to bring these people back into the world for decades.  Preventer, you believe very strongly in the necessity of working with the Pantheon.  I don’t want to seem heartless here.”

I almost gaped at him.  Where was this Dale when it became our policy to fight the Pantheon army in order to save them?  Lotus’ drinks were really working a transformation.

“But I also don’t want to be foolish.  We have done too much of that, and some of it was on me.  So let’s face this squarely.  If Fifth Fist demands that we go, and we refuse them, no matter how good the reasons you give are, what happens next?”

Nirav’s face fell a bit, and I rubbed his hand.

“That would depend on Zilla, I suppose,” said Haunter.  “Whatever the ten of us in the Fists think, she has the ultimate decision as long as she can keep her people behind her.”

“Arena is the key there,” said Nirav, though he sounded like he was mostly guessing.  “If she is the Lotus equivalent then she is probably the real influence peddler around here.”

“But we just talked about what Zilla wants,” I said.  “And a very easy way to protect the status quo would be to back Fifth Fist up when they demand we walk.  She does that, then she has her world set to rights once more.”

“But if that was Fifth Fist’s goal,” said Haunter, “then they would have hit us with the ultimatum right out there on the platform.  No reason to give us time to set our feet, squirm around or whatever.  They could have just told us to get with their plan, or else they and Zilla’s minions would take us down.”

“They have no way to harm me,” pointed out Preventer.  “They wouldn’t chance, oh, wait…”

I blinked solemnly.

Even in here, in what we were pretty sure was total privacy, we weren’t going to talk about our Link being broken.  But it was pretty obvious to us that we had to assume Predictor knew it.  If he was forseeing stuff about us there had to be cases where it would get really apparent.

“Also,” I said.  “There is the obvious reasons for going back.”

I got a room full of blank faces, which kind of irked me.  Some of them had to have considered this.

“What do you mean?” asked Haunter.

“Lotus,” I said.

“I don’t follow,” said Dale.

“Preventer, you want to join the Pantheon to get insurance because of Her ruling style, yeah?  And Jane, you are all about protecting the daggers, right?”

“She doesn’t get to win,” grated Jane.

I smiled wryly.

“Force rules the world,” I quoted.  “If getting really angry about that made you stronger history would look very different.”

Jane’s scowl was answer enough.

“Can you tell me what you are proposing?” asked Nirav.

I smiled.

“We go back with Fifth Fist, whether they ask us to or not.  Heck, we ask them.  We bring Lotus.  When we get there, Dale is just incredibly happy to see his Best Girl.  He brought Her something, you see, something he’s sure She’ll love.”

“Oh,” said Dale.

“Oh,” said Nirav.

“Exactly.  Picture Her with the golden drink that Dale has been using.  Picture Her smarter, cleverer, or whatever else it is doing.”

“No need for a Defiance,” said Dale.

“Right,” I said.  “We are her Fist, after all.  We serve Her ably, and over time She realizes that her old values weren’t terribly optimal, and the world has adult supervision.”

I nodded over to Haunter, to Preventer.

“Just like you wanted.”

They didn’t speak for a long moment.

I filled the resulting silence.

“Unless this isn’t about a smart person making the decisions,” I told Preventer.  “As much as it is about YOU making the decisions.”

I looked to Jane.

“Unless it isn’t about healing the world, as much as it is about expressing how angry you all are about the person who hurt it.”

They stared back at me.  Neither spoke for a long moment.

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Author here!

I’d just like to extend a hearty welcome to the folks who came here since the link from the parahumans reddit.  TFD made it up to 18 votes on TopWebFiction last week, and I saw four days of greater than a thousand views, which are pretty crazy numbers for TFD.  I hope you are enjoying the story, and that you stick around!