We had a bit of a respite before the next meeting. The Sixth Fist trooped out, with a cheery wave from Fader, and we were left standing alone in the same faded office we’d been stuck in all morning.
“That’s one,” said Preventer.
“If they go in order,” I responded, “we’ll have to deal with Predictor’s fist next. Anyone ever met him?”
Silence for a moment, as each of us looked to one another. Then Nirav raised his hand.
“This guy knows him?” asked Joe. “The guy who doesn’t control his own powers is the guy who Predictor will be thinking of when he pictures us?”
I shushed Joe, looking over at Nirav. The Jury read his body language as a bit sad or frightened, but bearing up well. It didn’t seem like asking further would be a problem.
“You mentioned that the Fifth Fist captured you earlier,” I said. “Is that when you met Predictor? Can you tell us anything about him?”
Nirav nodded. Preventer took out a small notebook and began to jot things down as he spoke. I didn’t bother. Someone in the reserve would remind me if I seemed to be missing out on anything.
“He captured me, us. His Fist doesn’t have anyone who can take on Condemner, but somehow he got me in a position where I was blinded and drenched, wandering out into the middle of his crew to take a beatdown. It was eerie.”
Nirav looked around, noting our reactions. He seemed to be trying to stress his story, make sure that it sank in. I’m not sure that he needed to bother. I, at least, wasn’t about to underestimate an Ultra with precognitive abilities.
“We would talk, after. While he had me restrained, neck deep in a barrel of water they were hauling back. We’d talk about stuff, just random things. He liked to show off, I think. He was always ready with those goddamn cards, whenever it was a dramatic moment.”
Our puzzlement must have showed, as Nirav stopped talking for a second. It was Indulger who puts words to the obvious question.
“Cards? Like, what do you mean by cards?”
“He’d write down, word for word, what I was going to say in response to a question, or an exclamation that I’d make, or whatever. He did this shit ahead of time, just for kicks I think. When we got to that part of the conversation he’d pull out the card and show it to me. Just to rub my face in how easily he could predict me, I guess.”
I frowned. Taunting didn’t sound like Fifth Fist’s MO. Maybe, if Predictor’s talents could guarantee that it would be effective. Still, you’d think it wouldn’t be worth bothering to taunt Nirav. He wasn’t going to be in charge if there was any fighting in any case. Was Predictor trying to intimidate Condemner through his human host? Could that even happen?
“Training” said Preventer, nodding sagely. I hadn’t thought of that. It made a lot of sense though.
“He is probably always training. I’ve done a little of it myself, guiding more barriers and such. My understanding is that our gifts are like anything else. Practice makes perfect. Since his Fist is so dependent on his gift for their successful operation it would make sense for him to be constantly striving to better himself.”
“Little of column A, little of column B” guessed Fisher.
Before we could do much more talking, we heard the approach of footsteps, and returned our attention to the door.
Predictor stepped in smoothly, showing no hesitation or uncertainty, despite allowing himself to be surrounded by potentially hostile Ultras. He wore the same tuxedo that he was known for, the apparel of an old world tv secret agent. It looked pretty good on him, to be honest.
Slicer, coming in behind him, wasn’t someone that I could use the words ‘pretty good’ to describe. She was a hard faced woman, muscular and compact. The famous spurs that jutted from her forearms and shins reflected light oddly from their edges. It was like bug’s compound eyes, or the sort of smooth jumbles you see at the edge of obsidian formations.
The rest of their Fist didn’t show, which didn’t surprise me. Even among Fists, famously dominated as they tend to be by their leaders, Fifth Fist was an exceptional case. Predictor basically WAS the fist. Slicer would be working as his bodyguard. If he wasn’t planning on fighting, then he didn’t bring the rest. Gardener, Pitcher and Tamer were basically just muscle.
Indulger reached out his arm for the warrior forearm clasp, but Predictor just looked at him, and Slicer actually shifted like she was ready to interpose herself between them. He pulled his arm back in confusion, and then Predictor spoke.
“So, you spoke with Fader. I imagine that she did her usual ‘everyone gets to answer one question’ song and dance routine?”
We all nodded. Nirav and Indulger had slight frowns on their faces at that description. They seemed affronted on Fader’s behalf.
“We don’t need to spend anything like that much time,” he continued. “My abilities tell me what you’d answer anyway. I have something a little more fun in mind.”
Immediately the Jury set to work trying to figure out what was coming next. The consensus that emerged was that he wanted us to ask the questions.
“I’ll be doing the answering. Each of you will pick one question and put it to me. I’ll base my assessment of your intelligence on the quality of these questions, so think carefully.”
Right away, before I could stop him, Indulger blurted his question out.
“What’s the next thing that I’m going to say?” he asked.
Predictor’s smile bloomed across his narrow face, nearly splitting his head. I hadn’t noticed before, but his eyes were the distinctive white on white that blind people used to have. Was it an Ultra mutation, or just some contacts that he’d scrounged up?
“It depends on what I tell you now,” responded Predictor, evenly.
Indulger pumped his arm in a ‘victory’ motion.
“Ha! I knew you’d bitch out. You can’t see the future at all, you fraud.”
Even as he was speaking, Predictor was reaching for a pocket on the inside of his vest. He pulled out an index card, and I didn’t even need to look closely to know that Indulger’s statement had been written there, probably word for word.
I’d heard a lot about Predictor, during my time as Troubleshooter. He was kind of our inspiration, the only leader of a Fist who did anything like what we did. In the process, I’d heard a lot of stories about his powers. There was room to doubt how exactly it worked, but he’d demonstrated its effectiveness on too many occasions for me to think it could be disproved with a simple question.
Preventer was the next to go. Her even delivery made me think that she’d rehearsed this question. If she knew about the interviews in advance, then she probably had. With the foreknowledge that she’d had, I’d probably have done the same.
“Where will the next Defiance come from?” she asked. “Pantheon or Union?”
I tensed up for a moment, then relaxed. I’d done nothing objectionable thus far. If Predictor could reach out and pluck hypotheticals from the future and finger their perpetrators in the present, then this was a fate that could never be avoided. I stood limp and motionless as he considered, waiting for him to pronounce my fate.
“Neither,” he said. “And a very good question. It signals your patriotism to Snitcher, your bravery to Her and also nets you useful information. You learn who the enemy will be, should you be called upon to quell a Defiance, as well as the outcome of your difficulties this day. One question, that is every question. Well asked.”
Preventer preened a little bit. It wasn’t visible to most of the team, I imagined, but she stood just a bit straighter, and her scowl wasn’t quite so pronounced. I made a note that flattery, specifically focused on how smart she was, would be useful when dealing with my most difficult teammate.
“The Fifth Defiance shall come from within,” said Predictor. “It will be a rebel affair, orchestrated by traitors within our midst. We will crush it in short order.”
I wasn’t sure exactly how to take that. I’d been fatalistic about him accusing me, but I didn’t exactly know how to feel about a prophet foretelling my failure, without the slightest hint that he knew that he was condemning me.
Then I got a lot more confused, as he looked over and gave me a big stage wink.
What on earth did that mean? Was he lying for Preventers benefit, and intending to join up when the time came? Was he winking to get plausible deniability if the Pantheon was actually the ones who attacked next? Questions churned through my mind.
As I got my mental footing back, Nirav took the chance to ask the question that everyone could tell was burning a hole right through im.
“Predictor, you know the future. I’ve got to know. Will I ever be free of Condemner? Is there any way that I can get this devil to let me alone?”
Using the word ‘devil’ was a bit risky, if you assumed that She would eventually hear of all this. She wasn’t big on religion. Maybe the devil got a pass, as long as you didn’t talk about God? Nothing I could do about it now at any rate.
“Sooner than you think, little shell,” responded Predictor. “He’ll dissolve you into his soul before the month is out.”
Nirav started, eyes widening. Mine did too.
“Do you mean-“ I began.
“Condemner is, fundamentally, a cowardly, stupid Ultra,” continued Predictor. “You are a reminder of how easily I bested him. A living, breathing testament to his weakness and predictability. He doesn’t have the mental strength to bear you for long. You wear on his overweening ego too much. He’ll drop you the next time he comes out.”
Predictor delivered the speech easily, in a smooth, casual tone. The insults almost went past before you noticed them, delivered as they were with a casual air and a kindly smile.
Slicer stepped forward, watching Nirav carefully. On our side Preventer was also stepping into some kind of combat posture, although if Condemner came forth in the middle of the Lair I wasn’t sure what anyone could do.
What on earth had Predictor been thinking. If I took it as read that he’d forseen Condemner’s reaction, then he had nothing to fear, but what possible motive could he have for antagonizing the new fist in this way. Why put us down?
He wasn’t the typical bullying Regime Ultra, or at least not entirely. He’d have an objective for this kind of thing. What could it be?
The reserve thought it over and came back with a surprising answer. They thought, by a decent majority, that Predictor was actually trying to protect Nirav, using reverse psychology to get Condemner to keep him around. The bait of proving Predictor wrong would be tempting indeed to the vain, stupid creature that they were depicting Condemner as.
Before things could escalate further, Fisher took her turn.
“Will I ever see the facility where She held me again?” asked Fisher. Despite the fact that she was talking to a man she hadn’t broken out the succubus act. No breathy lilt or bedroom eyes. Instead she seemed curiously intent upon his response, almost waiting on it.
“You sure that’s exactly what you want to ask me?” said Predictor, this time with a hint of cruelty to his voice. “There isn’t a more exact question that you’d like to ask? Perhaps something about Torturer?”
Fisher subsided, slightly. She sank back down on the couch, but her eyes hadn’t left his face. She gave a smile that held no warmth.
“Well, if you already know, then yes. What I want to know, explicitly, is whether or not I will ever experience whatever Torturer does again.”
Predictor shook his head, his smile not flickering for a second.
“You are safe, Fisher. Honestly, it didn’t take prophecy to know that that’s what you would ask. Everyone who has been near her asks that question when I give them the option, without exception.”
That was ominous. How many times had he had variations on this conversation? Had none of those groups been found worthy to be Fists?
Predictor looked over at me as I thought that. Oddly, his smile went away when he looked at me. In its face, an expressionless mien. He looked…concerned, might be the best word.
“Predictor. My question is a simple one. What will cause the end of the Regime?”
I’d considered a bunch of questions, but this was my favorite. It combined a lot of different useful ideas into one simple one. I couldn’t even credit the Jury with it. I’d come up with this one on my own.
How do you stump a prophet? Ask him an easy question, and make the correct answer illegal. The smartest computer couldn’t tell you what 2+2 was, if you didn’t let it say 4.
The Regime will end when Prevailer dies, obviously. But bringing this up, in the context of predicting the future, would be suicidal. She’d probably warp in and kill him, but even if She didn’t, it would be a landmine in any future conversation that he had with Her, or with Subtracter.
Predictor spoke then. He displayed none of the glee that he had in his earlier responses, no snide smiles or index cards.
“The Regime will end when there are none left to rule. We will meet our fate, when She kills us all. She will stand alone on an earth devoid of life, and then She will use her gift to cross the void to another world, another earth, there to repeat this cycle.”
That… hadn’t been what I was expecting. Could his gift possibly be so powerful? I’d heard that Answerer was better at prophecy, surely that meant that there were some things he could not foretell, among which the fate of the earth and Her subsequent actions must surely fall.
I simply stood there, mind awhirl with an inner clamor that for once I did nothing to quell. The reserve, read a sentence of universal extinction, reacted with outrage, clamor and discord overwhelming the cycle of carefully maintained speaking times.
Predictor also stood still, also did nothing. Even for him, it can’t have been easy to say that out loud. To predict, in no uncertain terms, the world’s end.
“You said, ‘We’” said Fisher. She didn’t seem affected by the monumental announcement in the slightest.
“What of it?” asked Preventer.
It was my turn to smile then, a fierce smile. The man who sees the future had erred.
“ ‘We will meet our fate’ you said.” I went on.
Preventer chuckled ruefully.
“I suppose I did. Way to give the game away.”
We let his mirth die out. Slicer seemed to get a quiet satisfaction from her bosses surprising comeuppance.
“I’d been intending to string you along a little while longer. But yeah, fair cop. You will be a Fist. The Fifth Fist approves you. Welcome to the fight.”
Two down, three to go.