I spent the next few days trying to figure out how to get Andy to the Pantheon, while making sure that they knew what use to make of him, and that they should credit me for the gift. It proved an almost insoluble logic puzzle.
The impediments were numerous.
Krishna, the only local Pantheon leader that I had any knowledge of, was reputedly extremely sharp. Thus, she would be likely to regard with immense suspicion any gift from a Fist, particularly one which had previously attacked her position using subterfuge.
Beyond this, the meetings that I’d previously carried out had been in Shington, with a Valkyrie. They were specialists in covert meetings and intelligence. Here, I’d be dealing with military personnel, specialized in the same kind of instinctive violence that we’d encountered in the Redo battle.
It was an ironic turn of events. The very distrust and aggression that we’d exploited to turn Thor’s cohort against Krishna’s now stood in the way of my endeavors. I found I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it.
These issues, however, were not the crux of the problem. The core of my difficulties was that there was no way that the rest of the Fist would go along with me.
It would have been easy to fool myself. I’d been getting on better with them recently, and a number of the crew were nursing one trauma or another after the battle with the Union. I could have told myself that Haunter was a shambling wreck, one who barely perceived the world outside of her gift, that Indulger’s insecurities would leave him ripe to embrace a bold strategy such as this, and so on.
But I’d always been poor at lying to myself. From an earlier age I had striven, above all other considerations, to maintain a rigorous honesty within the privacy of my thoughts, if nowhere else. The factors on my side of the scale fell away before the simple truth of our Fist.
Haunter and Indulger wouldn’t do anything that felt ‘bad’ to them, and betraying someone who had never harmed us would meet that facile criteria.
Never mind that Andy was a stranger, a moral equivalent to the Pantheon members they’d taken out in our assault on Redo. Never mind that we owed him nothing. Forget even that ‘he’ was some kind of artificial thing, not even a person at all. None of that would matter. Jane would see a smiling face, hear friendly words from another mind that remembered the old world, and that would be that. Dale wouldn’t even think that hard. He’d just picture a wrestling match and, yep, it would be the heel who would be bundling off poor Andy to the tender mercies of Zeus.
Fisher and Nirav, by contrast, probably wouldn’t care too much. They were both, in their own way, very young. Nirav only had a few months of life experience, and Fisher’s trauma had led to her acting in much the same way. They’d found one another, and basically it was them against all. Or that’s how I read them. But they’d follow Haunter and Dale before backing me.
Deliberately escalating the discord within the Fist was unthinkable. Ergo, I had to take care of this on my own. Worse yet, I had to do so in a way that wouldn’t be traced back to me.
Initially, it seemed insoluble. Contact someone who was, justifiably, hostile to me, without letting anyone around me know, and then deliver them an uncooperative third party? My gut feeling was that it couldn’t be done, particularly not with the skills that I brought to the table.
I was invincible, which didn’t make me any stealthier. I had an experimental mind, and, if it wasn’t flattering myself too much, a scientific discipline, which helped not at all in rendering people unconscious, and I had my doubts as to whether I could even carry Andy’s body if he fell over and hit his head in front of me.
But I had a rule. I couldn’t give up on a course of action until I’d spent a whole day, 24 hours in total, thinking something through. Too many people, in my experience, abandoned worthwhile pursuits before giving them an honest effort. Long ago I’d vowed that if hardships were to deter me they would have to be substantial enough to withstand a day’s consideration.
Consequently, as the days slipped slowly by, I spent an hour every day pondering my problem.
The best solution was to recruit a confederate, and, depending on their identity, possibly dispatch or discredit them afterwards. Even this plan, however, had its snags.
I couldn’t recruit anyone in the Fist without bringing on the very confrontation I dreaded, as Nirav or Fisher would confer with the others before deciding. I couldn’t recruit a random dagger, because they’d probably be unable to gain access to Krishna. That left the Dover Ultras.
They SHOULD have been ideal for this prospect. Transmitter, in particular, had a gift that was practically built for long distance negotiations, but even here snags abounded.
First off, they’d turned their coats. The Pantheon would be just about as loathe to trust them as it would be to one of us. Next off, I had no way to measure whether their loyalty was still with their old leaders, or whether the gratitude that they expressed towards Andy for tuning their gifts would render them unwilling to act against him.
It was immensely vexing. No one with the capabilities that I required would take my suggestions and those that I could command the obedience of lacked the capacity.
I hung on the horns of this dilemma for three days, as the Doverites reintegrated into our restored Redo.
During this time we got more details on Andy’s powers. He could, in general terms, alter an Ultra’s gift by reducing its overall power and stacking on more useful side abilities, or do the reverse. I could be slightly less invincible and have more useful barriers, or lose the barriers entirely and increase my durability.
None of us had proven, as of yet, willing to allow him to use his abilities on us. I encouraged this decision, citing his unknown credibility, his generally sinister demeanor and the general familiarity that each of us had with our own gifts. I certainly wasn’t about to let him tamper with mine.
Annoyingly, it wasn’t my careful consideration that yielded the secret to my dilemma. It was a late-night conversation with Nirav.
“It’s so tempting,” he said. “How fucking amazing would it be if Andy could get rid of Condemner? I could finally be free of that creature.”
It didn’t seem likely. If anything, Andy could do probably do the reverse, since Condemner was the ‘real’ expression of whatever soul was lodged in that form.
“Maybe,” I said.
“But, would I lose the power? I mean, naturally HE says that I would, but is that just to scare me? Am I just suffering this because I can’t bring myself to just die and test the Link?”
“Mmm” I said.
Something about the way that Nirav is talking jogged something loose in my mental model, and all of a sudden I had a new candidate to consider.
Condemner, rather than Nirav.
“I’m just…listen, Preventer, can I tell you something, privately?”
I felt a pang of irritation. I’d told him my name, not that he’d ever use it.
“When I tell you that Condemner is talking to me, telling me things…I’m not just describing feelings or impressions or anything. I mean he actually puts words in my thoughts, actually communicates with me.”
He was whispering, despite the fact that no one else was around. We were in an old housing unit, just sitting around shooting the shit about the temptation that Andy presented.
I’d been eager to get Nirav alone, eager to spend some quality time with him.
I hadn’t wanted to break up what he had going on with Fisher. No one could compete with a form like hers, after all, but there was nothing wrong with enjoying the company of a charming, handsome fellow. It hadn’t been a hard decision to have a private conversation.
The invitation had been flattering, actually. I’d actually thought that I’d been misreading his signals, that maybe the hesitation he’d betrayed in the Castle had been something he’d gotten over.
Wishful thinking. The whispers betrayed it. He’d brought me here to murmur secrets to, because I wasn’t ‘real’ enough, emotionally speaking, for it to count. Telling Preventer wasn’t really telling, the little woman doesn’t matter.
“What does he say?”
I kept my voice noncommittal, pitched low and calm. I strove to remain emotionless, even as I frantically considered the viability of the plan that was taking shape in my mind.
“Just, like, jagged comments, vile stuff. He casts doubts on plans, insults people that I see, that sort of thing.”
“Mmhmm, terrible.” I muttered, still sizing up the plan.
Condemner wouldn’t reveal my intentions to Jane or Dale. He wouldn’t say a word to anyone, in point of fact. He was the only member of the team more isolated than I was. Imprisoned by the Link behind a mask that’d he forged for himself. The only one of us who could die.
Nirav reached down, took my wrist. I looked up into his eyes.
“Preventer, I know what I’m asking ain’t easy. But you backed him down once. I got to know, do you think you can do it again?”
“What would you like me to get him to do?” I asked.
“Just, like, STOP interfering with me. I know, he gets to drive when I call forth the fire, I get that. I’m not asking to do the killing. But these snide comments, this whispering, when I am out in public. It needs to stop. I can’t have him reaching into my mind when we are dealing with something as slippery as Andy.”
I circled my own hand around his wrist, took the other, holding it like you would a beloved pet. It was a grip that was more about anchoring him, emotionally, than it was in actually holding him in place.
“I can try,” I told him.
Relief shown forth from his face, breaking in an instant through the clouds of his distress. I’d always liked how expressive Nirav’s features were.
“Condemner” I said, in the same soft tone.
There wasn’t an immediate change. He didn’t start sneering suddenly, or go up in a burst of fire. His wrists fell still in my grip, and he looked at me without an expression.
“Condemner” I said, again.
In his eyes, I saw the flicker of flame. Not actual fire, he wouldn’t burn that kind of power just to make a point, but the reflection of it. I’d seen this a similar effect once before, looking into Thui’s eyes across a bonfire.
“You called?” he asked, in a tone that Nirav would never use.
It was oily, familiar. It reminded me of First Fist.
“I did. I assume you got all of that stuff that Nirav just said?”
He worked his neck, like he was stretching out kinks.
“I do good work, got to say. This form is just fire, molded and bent, just life force held in place by my gift, but damn if it doesn’t feel real.”
I waited patiently as he rambled on.
“It’s nothing like my true form, of course. Nothing like the joy that comes from scorching my way across the world, bringing all before me into the holy communion of the flames. Nothing like leveling my righteous Condemnation across them. Nothing like burning them, one after another, consuming their souls until naught but ash is left of them, in this world, or any other.”
I said nothing, merely held his wrists. That monologue had been long even for a being as vain as Condemner. He had wanted me to interrupt. I saw no reason to indulge him.
“Perhaps you wanted to talk about something else? Did you call me forth just to hold my flesh? Did your lust for my creation grow to such an extent that you’d put aside the semblance I’ve placed in charge of it to ravish it? Do you long to experience the defilements that he and Fisher practice with one another?”
I tightened my grip, clutching his wrists painfully tightly.
“Ah, I see that I’ve hit the mark. This IS a booty call. How very naughty of you, Rebeccah. What would Fisher do, if she but knew?”
“There’s nothing to know, Condemner. Fisher and your puppet are free to do as they like.”
Condemner cocked Nirav’s head to one side, the reflected flames in his eyes growing slightly brighter.
“So you conced that Nirav is naught but my vessel? An admirable feat of rationality, for a fleshbound mind. Despite designing one, I am constantly alarmed at how little thinking you creatures are capable of. It’s nice to see one of you facing reality.”
“We think with our souls, Condemner, exactly like you do. You’d know this, if you paid attention to anything aside from your appetites.”
He gave a laugh, or attempted an impression of one. Condemner’s version of a laugh was low on humor, high on menace. I got the feeling that this was the first time he’d tried to make the sound using a living person’s voice, rather than however he communicated when he was in his true form.
“Condemner. Do you remember what Nirav was asking for?” I asked again.
“Yes, yes, you pint sized annoyance. Unsatisfied with simply denying me the free access to my gift that is my birthright, you now wish to curtail my interactions with my own misbehaving guise. The gormless peon has requested that I give him some quiet time.”
“Yes,” I said.
I hesitated a long moment, before speaking again. Honestly, I WAS fond of Nirav. But this was actually important, and a cute boy didn’t weigh as much as an opportunity like this.
“That’s what Nirav wants.” I told him, emphasizing the name, just a bit.
“Oh, ho?” he asked. “But not what you want? Goodness, I’m simply scandalized.”
I let go of one wrist as he brought it up to his face, cupping it in front of his mouth as though to keep a whisper quiet from someone else in the room.
“You are really willing to go behind his back? To abuse his trust like this? That poor boy believes in you absolutely, you know. He won’t question, for even a second, when I bring him back that you told me exactly what you implied to him that you would. It quite literally won’t even occur to him.”
“Referring to Nirav as a guise when you were insulting him, and as a person when you want me to feel bad about it, isn’t terribly consistent,” I observed.
“Quite right, quite right,” he agreed. “You are much too smart to fall for such a thing, to have feelings for a mere mask. A paragon of rationalism, no doubt. A tower, a very very short tower, of intellect.”
The sarcasm washed over me, without affect me. I had stood up to Pursuer. I’d called challenge in the Sniper Court. Condemner would have to do a lot more than this to phase me.
“Here is what you are going to do,” I told him.