I paused, looking around the table. To my annoyance, none of them asked any kind of leading ‘how will we do that’ kind of questions. Instead, they were mostly nodding their heads. Indulger looked flummoxed, but that wasn’t necessarily in response to anything going on. He often looked that way.
“Interesting…” said Haunter, making a ‘go on’ gesture with one hand. That would have to do.
“Look, it is common knowledge that Krishna and Thor are on the outs with one another. Common knowledge to the point that we knew about it in Shington. Obviously, their forces know about it too.”
“Yeah,” said Indulger “Everyone is on edge.”
“So, we just need to provide the spark, set everything off.”
“It won’t be quite that easy,” said Haunter. “The Pantheon has been at this for a while. If getting their units to fight one another was that easy the Union would be doing it already. They are going to be alert for this kind of thing.”
I shook my head.
“On the Union front, you’d be correct. But can you imagine a Fist trying what I’m describing? Can you imagine Her stooping to intrigue?”
Somber nodding. It felt a little strange to be using Prevailer’s obtuseness as a point in my favor.
“I’d wager that the Regime has, in point of fact, NEVER tried to pull off the kind of false flag approach that I’m suggesting here. I’ve certainly never heard of it.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that it hasn’t happened, “ Nirav spoke up. “I mean, fundamentally, if this works, it would look really bad for them. The Pantheon would probably brush it under the rug with some kind of cover story.”
Before I could respond Haunter fielded that one.
“Without endorsing Preventer’s plan, I can say that we can’t go around assuming that we don’t know what has happened with regards to the Pantheon. If we start doubting our knowledge, presuming some kind of elaborate conspiracy, then we’ll never get anywhere. I’m not necessarily agreeing with Preventer, again, but ‘maybe there is a whole class of historical events that we don’t know the truth of’ isn’t a fair objection.”
I wished that she hadn’t emphasized so hard that she wasn’t on board, but that was basically what I’d been about to say as well.
“Can you elaborate, spell out exactly how this would go down?” asked Nirav, looking significantly at Indulger. “I’m not sure that we all have the same thing in mind.”
I seized upon the question.
“I haven’t set anything in stone yet.” I pointed out. “But the fundamental idea would be to approach someone in the Pantheon forces and tell them something that gets them to start fighting the other side. The fighting spreads and in the confusion we hit Thor’s hq cadre. After killing our main targets we get out of town, go home and tell Her that we killed Thor and all his gals.”
“But…” Haunter used a hand to head off everyone else’s objections, get hers out first. “Thor’s unit wouldn’t all be dead. There would almost certainly be survivors.”
“Yeah, but She is more of a creature of narratives than details. Thor gone, his unit gone. Those are the beats She cares about. The fact that we didn’t personally kill them all, that some of them ended up in Krishna’s unit…those will be less important.”
“Are you sure?” asked Fisher, dubiously.
“I’m sure that we can’t kill them all, so we need to proceed as though I’m right.” I shot back.
Everyone was silent for a moment.
“Is there,” said Haunter, rubbing her chin and not so coincidentally covering her mouth. “something that you’d like to tell us, Preventer?”
I’d actually been hoping not to, save it a bit, but there was really no way to get them on board with this plan but to let them in on it. Haunter’s appallingly accurate guesses didn’t really surprise me anymore. Anyone could do as well when they could crowd source their thoughts.
Carefully, I brought my barriers out. Everyone scampered back, but I just used them to form a glittering map of Redo in the center of the room, over the table. It wasn’t very good, but it didn’t have to be.
“Everyone, look at the map, look straight at it.” I said.
There was a chorus of agreement, followed by murmured corrections, mostly from Indulger and Fisher. I ignored them for the moment, spoke over them.
“As long as we all look at the map, keeping each other out of our field of vision, Snitcher won’t be able to see anything that we are about to say.”
This was mostly theatrics. I was 99% sure that Snitcher wouldn’t even be up now, much less watching boring people standing around in a circle talking. He had hundreds of people he could watch, and some of them would have to be fighting, fucking, or doing something else he cared about.
“Why do you care what he sees?” asked Indulger, guilelessly. “I thought that we were on his side?”
“As some of you may have guessed.” I began, not directly answering that. “I have had prior contact with non Regime elements. All of you have too.”
A chorus of denials, none particularly vehement.
“I more or less put this team together. I influenced Adder and Subtracter, got you all picked. The key element, alongside power, that I was looking for was rebellious tendencies.”
“What would make the Regime think that any of us would be against it?” asked Haunter. I hoped that was rhetorical.
“The Regime knows a lot more than it lets on.” I responded. “She doesn’t care about what you think, as long as you kill in Her name. But some of us do care, and we’ve tracked risk factors for each of you.”
“Haunter, I’d be amazed if you aren’t a rebel. You have the minds of survivors from the old world trapped in there, right? You want me to believe that they are cool with you working for the ones that killed them? You are Adder’s favorite Troubleshooter, but you are a Regime loyalist? Come on.”
Haunter didn’t respond to that, and I pivoted.
“Indulger, you spend your time helping people. Road construction, building repair, the list goes on. No way are you ok with being a part of something that kills them.”
“Well….” He drew out the word. I forged on before he could finish.
“Condemner, you aren’t willing to be subordinate to anyone. A chance to take on Her, and have a shot at winning? You’d be in in a heartbeat. Your file has multiple examples of you exploding rather than letting someone get one over on you.”
Nirav seemed nonplussed at hearing me address his master so bluntly, but hopefully last night had taught him that Condemner was always watching and listening, even if it wasn’t making its presence felt.
“I get the picture.” She cut me off. That was for the best, because all I had on her was that most of the Ultras who came up out of the Pit weren’t terrifically stable.
“And for me? Well, I’m a bit of a coward.”
“The woman who is trying to lead a Fist in revolt against the Regime is a coward? Pull the other one.”
“Prevailer is the only one who can kill me. One day, She will. Whether because we mess up on a mission, or just because She finishes messing around and kills everyone. Prevailer is my death. So I’ve been thinking, as one does, of ways to avert this fate.”
A long period of silence. Even though I’d picked them, pretty specifically, for having had thoughts like these before, it was still sobering to air sedition. Then again, no one was really pushing back.
“The reason that I’m bringing this up NOW,” I stressed, “rather than at some future time is because of one of the precautions that I’ve taken.”
Now I had their attention. Or at least, I thought I did. It was hard to read people with a barrier map between us.
“I’ve been in contact with the Leadership Council of the Pantheon.”
There, it was out. My treason, aired and shared.
“Do you mean…” Indulger trailed off.
“Yes, Zeus and his crew. I’ve spoken to Valkry, their representative. I met her on a hill outside of Shington.”
“Thrilling, to be sure,” said Nirav, diffidently, “but I’m still not certain that I see the relevance to the immediate situation.”
“I have been in direct contact with an emissary from the Pantheon’s leadership. I know their recognition codes, or at least one, and I know more generally how they act. I think I could do a decent impression of one.”
That got their attention. I could see shoulders hunch forward, silhouettes nodding along.
“THAT has some potential,” said Haunter. “If we can impersonate an emissary from their bosses we could probably kick off the fighting without too much trouble.”
“And that’s GOT to be better than trying to kill them all ourselves.” I chimed in.
Murmurs of appreciation and agreement went around the map. I soft of zoomed it in on Thor’s fortress, mainly to give the impression that we were still talking about it, provide cover in case Snitcher was getting suspicious.
“So, all that’s left is figuring out the details. Who do we contact, what do we tell them, and when does this all go down?”
“I think you are forgetting something,” said Haunter. She spoke in a kindly, grandma-has-candy kind of way. Much less abrasive than I was used to from her. Maybe I was worth something in her eyes now that I’d admitted my rebel sympathies.
“I’m sure I am, what is it?”
“You are probably not the best person to impersonate anyone.”
I was a bit affronted at that.
“I’ll have you know that I can act a part when needed. I was able to fool Her high command into letting me choose all of you, wasn’t I?”
“It’s not that, Pre. It’s…well, you are so tiny.” Indulger’s rumbling voice distracted me for a moment.
“What does that have to-“ I started to snap at him, before realizing what he was getting at.
“Like, a lot of people probably know about the tiny woman who sparkles and is invincible, right? I mean, I’d heard of you, and I spent most of my time out in the woods.”
The big guy had a point. And one that applied to more than me.
“Haunter is a Troubleshooter. If the Redo forces have even a little bit of intel they’ll know about here. She’s got a very distinctive gift, and it’s the sort of thing that sticks in your mind.”
Haunter nodded, conceding the point.
“If nothing else works I can probably try and get a shade to do something,“ Haunter said. I must’ve looked as confused as I felt because she went on. “Just because we know that a translucent person is a soul that I’ve brought back with my gift doesn’t mean that everyone does. I’ve got some actors in here, some spies. They could pass themselves off as an Ultra with a projection ability, or the power to go mostly intangible, or something.”
“Let’s keep that in reserve.”
I looked around the room.
“Nirav, I don’t want to offend you when I say that Condemner, while certainly powerful enough to represent the Pantheon’s leadership, isn’t exactly the most social of beings. I don’t think you are exactly right for this.”
Indulger spoke up.
“I could do it. I’m strong, so they would think I work for their leaders, who are also strong. I could make rock monsters if that would help.”
I mentally marked ‘find out all about Indulger’s gift’ up several notches on my schedule. Rock monsters?
“I’m afraid that ever since you beat Pursuer in that fighting league thing, people have been talking about you. You are, I’m afraid, at least as physically distinctive as I am.”
He was probably more, in fact. There were a few other short Ultras around, but I didn’t know of any other body builders. Even Thor, every inch the barbarian warlord, would look miniscule next to Indulger.
“Oh, ok,” he said.
“That just leaves me,” said Fisher. “No reason that I can’t do it, right?”
I signaled assent uneasily, making my motions exaggerated enough that they could see it through the translucent map.
I hadn’t wanted Fisher to do this, or anything else that split her off from the group, until after we were Linked. My best guess at her motivation was that she’d do anything not to be returned to Prevailer’s custody. It seemed to be a common thread with folks who had been in the Pit. But I didn’t know any more details than that, and if she just up and joined the Pantheon we’d all be entirely out of luck. I didn’t know if that would fulfill her goals or not.
Asking was pretty much out of the question, because I didn’t have any way to tell whether or not she would tell the truth.
While I was thinking, Haunter spoke up.
“That’s a great idea, Fisher. You aren’t famous, or at least I hadn’t heard of you until I met you. You have that gift that lets you know what people want, which should be exceptionally useful in a situation like this. You are the obvious choice.”
I squirmed. There wasn’t really any objection that I could make to this.
“Alright, so Fisher will be carrying the message. Let’s-“
We all looked over Nirav’s way. His interruption had been very close to a shout.
“I mean…maybe I ought to go with her?” he said, sort of hopefully.
Sweet, of course, but…
“I don’t think that would be a very good idea.” I said.
He’d only known her for a few days, and he was ready to risk his life for her? Did she have some sort of gift which allowed her to influence people? That couldn’t happen, according to my understanding of Essence Theory. People’s thoughts, their souls for lack of a better term, or at least Ultras, weren’t something that a gift could affect. I was pretty sure.
“We need you with us, Nirav. You are a big part of our combat power.”
Ah! Haunter had, no doubt aided by some shrinks among her captive souls, grasped the key point. Nirav could risk his life because he didn’t value it, barely believed in it. He needed to be mollified, reassured.
“Haunter is quite correct.” I said. “Without your power, and I’m not just talking about Condemner now, we will be at a crushing disadvantage. Nirav, with Fisher gone you are the only member of this team who can react at Ultra speed. We are entirely reliant on you to intercept any enemies who have that power set, and it is a pretty common one.”
I was laying it on a bit thick. All of us could handle foes with Ultra speed one in one way or another. But it was what he needed to hear. A way that he could contribute. Most importantly, a way that he could contribute that wasn’t Condemner related.
He relented, lapsing back into his seat with a sullen nod. I’d take it.
“Alright, now let’s figure out who Fisher will approach, and what line she’ll use.”