“Why would we agree to that?”
Preventer’s question wasn’t exactly what I would have lead off with, but it was a start.
“Agree to talking? Because communication is good?” said Fisher.
“Communication is good?” I asked. “That’s all we have as a defense of our species’ great strengths? It’s ‘good’?”
She had the grace to look a bit ashamed.
“Come on, I was on the spot.”
I turned to face Preventer, who’d been nodding tolerantly along to our back and forth. She caught my eye, raised an eyebrow.
“She’s right, you know.” I said. “Communication IS good. It helps people find common ground. It allows negotiations to happen. If people talked more, fought less, the world wouldn’t be such a shit hole.”
“I like the world fine. I even like talking fine. Look at me, I’m doing it right now! But I don’t see what we have to talk about with the Pantheon, with whoever Krishna sent.”
“Turn the question around,” advised Nirav. “Ask what we have to lose.”
“Our lives,” said Preventer, flatly.
Indulger looked a bit startled at that. He opened his mouth as though to say something. Nirav and I caught one another’s eyes, but neither of us stopped him.
“Preventer,” he said slowly, “you are invincible.”
The words had an odd effect on her. She started to respond, cut herself off, and then repeated the process.
“I know, of course, I mean, you don’t have to tell me about my own gift. I’m just saying that there’s no reason to take a chance when we don’t have to take the chance. I mean leave it to chance. I mean…”
She trailed off.
“Preventer, you were ok with attacking Redo, when we didn’t have the Link, and now you are not ok with talking to less people than that? I don’t get it.”
I’d never seen someone literally sputter before, and I still didn’t now, but Preventer came close. Her eyes shot from one of us to the next, her hands made little spasm motions, and she closed her mouth for about twenty seconds.
“Preventer…” said Fisher, softly and gently.
“Fine, let’s go talk to the enemy. Whatever.”
The rest of us exchanged looks. Preventer was usually more stubborn than that, and plainly there was something up with her, but now wasn’t the time to go into it. I gave Indulger a nod, and he began the process of platforming us out of the city.
Indulger’s platforms could cover ground very rapidly when he felt like it, but this wasn’t one of those times. The stone slab crept along at a pace somewhere between ten and thirty miles per hour. We swept out of the city’s rubble and into the dusty outlands, towards the waiting convoy.
Indulger had said 8 or 9 trucks, and it turned out to be eight. One was larger than the others and had another load attached, which explained the discrepancy. Indulger had told me that his gift was somehow foreign to him, prone to conveying information as though he was interrogating a separate personality rather than simply allowing him to perceive the information himself. Naturally he’d have trouble with a set of inputs where one was demonstrably different than the rest.
To the eye, however, there was little mystery to these vehicles. I’d seen them every day on the highways of my youth. They were big rigs, built for hauling cargo long distance. I could even see an old department store logo on the sides of a few, faded with the passage of decades.
The contrast to the Union’s transport, that strange flying building, was profound. I could only hope that the negotiation to come would not end the same way.
Strike that, I’d do more than hope.
“When we stop, I want two squads out and on our flanks, draw a bead on anyone on the other side who looks like a juicy target.”
Murmured assents came through as I let the squad leaders respond. The rotation had paused when the alarm was raised, and hadn’t resumed since. I didn’t need that distraction. The Jury was the only ones who needed to speak in a situation as tense as this.
“What do you think they want?” asked Indulger.
The truck that had been doing donuts and such in front of the rest had stopped, clearly seeing us and realizing that there was no further need to ‘write’ on the ground.
“Hard to say.” I responded. “But, as Betty so ably pointed out earlier, conversation is good. We’ll let them tell us why they are here.”
We pulled to a stop before the trucks, eyeing them nervously. They were stopped, engines still and cold. A lady was sitting on the hood of one of the trucks, waving us over.
After the fiasco up north, that fucking catastrophe, we’d had some long talks about how we’d go about negotiating if it ever came up again. I headed over to speak to our visitors, shades spreading out from my sides. Nirav and Preventer came with me, leaving Indulger and Fisher in the back.
In case of trouble Indulger could sling us about with his ground manipulation abilities, and in case of catastrophe I was supposed to feed Nirav from my reserve, providing him with the brute power necessary to see us through any conflict.
I wasn’t actually sure that I could bring myself to do that again, mind. Only the Colonel’s sacrifice had driven me to it the first time. Even thinking about it was painful. They’d given up their lives for our temporary tactical advantage.
“Hey Jane!” called out the woman on the hood. “Over here!”
I strode up, stopping about ten feet from the front fender of her vehicle. I looked up at her, taking her measure.
The woman who was talking was slim, almost boyish. Dark complexion, Indian most likely. Short too. She had a haircut like Remover’s, long bangs, but instead of the fiend’s green dyed hue her hair was a strange translucent grey color. She had piercings in her nose and lip.
I recognized her from descriptions that I’d overheard in Redo. This was Krishna herself.
“Krishna,” I greeted her. “To what do we owe the honor?”
I put some sarcasm into my voice, but I was actually pretty curious. She had a reputation as a tactician, as an organizer. Heck, some stories made her out to have Ultra Wisdom or something similar. I wouldn’t have imagined that talking to a fist face to face was in her wheelhouse.
“Oh, you know, just thought I’d drop by.”
On ‘drop’ she pushed herself off the hood, landing in front of us. She strutted up, extending a hand.
Our eyes went, almost involuntarily, to Preventer. Krishna could offer to shake our hands, presumably thanks to a dossier or something similar telling her our powers. But to reciprocate would be to risk falling under whatever her gift might do with flesh contact. My own power constituted an ever present reminder that many gifts required flesh to flesh contact.
Preventer extended her hand, confident in her gift, or just not worried that the Pantheon warlord would try anything. The two women were almost of a height, though Krishna was a bit taller. They shook for a moment, then let go.
Krishna looked around at the shades, then back to me.
“Haunter, Jane, whatever you want to call yourself, I’ve wanted to meet you for quite a while. Your gift is one of the most fascinating that I’ve even heard of, and I spend a considerable amount of effort chasing down rumors of intriguing gifts. To command the dead must be quite an experience.”
“You might learn what it feels like, soon enough” I answered. “You’ve got to know that She will be watching soon, if She isn’t already.”
Krishna clapped hands to her face in mock dismay.
“You mean, out of your eyes? With Snitcher’s power? Then you haven’t heard the news?”
I glanced to Preventer, who shrugged. She seemed to be more calm now that the meeting was actually taking place than she had been when we’d been considering it.
“News?” I asked.
Krishna made a ‘cross your heart’ gesture over the left side of your chest.
“We got Snitcher, he’s snitched his last. Shot through the head.”
“What?!” shouted Nirav.
It was easy to forget just how young he was. I’d been thinking the same thing though.
“Snitcher is gone?” I asked.
Had the news that I’d given out to the Union about Snitcher’s double identity made it into the hands of someone with the wherewithal to act? Or had this just been a coincidence of timing.
Preventer started to speak and I looked right at her face, consciously fighting back the reflex to avoid seeing anyone’s lips move.
“When you say that you ‘got’ him, are you claiming responsibility for this action for the Pantheon at large?”
Krishna was already shaking her head.
“No no no, I didn’t mean ‘we’ the Pantheon. I meant ‘We’, as in everyone else. The ‘we’ that you refer to when you say ‘we’ hate Her. That’s the ‘we’ I meant.”
It was strange to hear a woman from the Pantheon using the capitalized pronouns, even stranger that we were watching someone mock Her without fear that She’d warp in and kill them.
“I don’t hate Her,” said Nirav, audibly nervous at the direction this conversation was going. “She rules our nation, protects us from our enemies.”
I put a hand on his shoulder, reassuringly.
“She doesn’t really care what people say, Nirav. As long as we obey Her when it matters, She’ll forgive a lot of griping.”
“Does telling yourself that make it easier to be a slave?” asked Krishna, in a voice full of false innocence. “Is it really comforting to know that your master doesn’t care what you say?”
I was stung, but before I could answer Preventer spoke up.
“Thanks for telling us about Snitcher, Krishna. But I’m sure that’s not why you came.”
Krishna pointed to her nose with one hand, to Preventer with the other.
“Right, yes. Sorry. I got distracted. Anyway, the reason for my visit is simple. A lot of my gals wanted to visit Redo, see what you’ve done with the place. I was hoping we could arrange something along those lines.”
“What?” I asked.
“We were here for a long time before you kicked us out. A lot of my people know people in Redo, or have loved ones there. Heck, a few of em got kids. We were hoping to work something out, where one or two of us could roll up to visit every once in a while. If any bigwigs are in town just pass my gals off as Regime.”
The Jury hastened to assure me that, yes, that checked out a bit. At least to the extent that a number of the souls that I’d pacted in Redo had spoken fondly of Pantheon members who hadn’t ended up with Andy it checked out.
“What do you get out of this?” asked Preventer. She didn’t seem mad, just…incredulous. I felt like most of her attention was still on processing Snitcher’s passing. To be honest, I could hardly get my mind round the news myself.
Snitcher was dead. Linker was dead. The Regime couldn’t make any new Fists. It couldn’t spy on the Fists that it had. A pillar of the system had fallen, and I felt like I was looking up at that roof, hoping that it wouldn’t collapse one me, but also kind of hoping that it would.
A brief flash of panic swept through me at the thought that since Snitcher was Linker perhaps our Link was gone, but I could feel it as strongly as ever. I had the same instinctive knowledge of my Fist’s position that I’d had when I woke up that morning in the Castle. We were still Linked.
“Nothing much,” Krishna replied. “Just happy to help out my rank and file. Key to a long career you know. Got to keep the grunts happy.”
I didn’t believe that for a second. Krishna would have spent every life under her command in a heartbeat if she had to. No one without that kind of ruthlessness could have risen to command dozens of Ultras with a power that didn’t help her in combat.
“The Colonel often said similar things,” said Joe. “She might be on the level, or at least invoking something that is real.”
Krishna looked straight at me and winked. It was very much a ‘listen to him’ kind of wink. She could hear my reserve.
“What’s in it for us?” asked Preventer, sullenly.
“Nod if you can hear me.” I sent, broadband, to the whole reserve.
The Jury was feverishly debating whether the wink had meant what I thought it did. The verdict was presently split, but I knew what I saw.
Krishna showed no sign of nodding.
“What do you want? Honest question here, not being snide. What would you like from the Pantheon, that you can’t get from the Company Men or your masters?”
“Nod if you can hear me!” yelled Joe, internally. Still no response, nod or otherwise.
I muted the whole reserve, Jury included. I wasn’t about to risk my communications with them being intercepted.
“Not a lot from you. Just don’t attack us, and we are pretty much fine,” said Nirav.
I indicated my agreement with a shake of the head.
“Now that’s one thing I can’t exactly promise, for a reason that I’m sure you are familiar with.”
We waited quietly for a moment, and she realized that she had to continue the explanation a bit more than that.
“Just like in the Regime, Pantheon units aren’t exactly in charge of our own missions profiles. If Zeus gives us the Go command…”
She trailed off.
“So, if you can’t offer us peace, and you have nothing material to offer us, what is the point of all this? You showed up to negotiate, and you expected us too…”
I trailed off, not really sure how to end that statement. What was she playing at?
“Oh, I’ve got something to offer you. I’m pretty sure that you’ll get a kick out of it. It isn’t that big of a deal, really, but it is something that you don’t have here, and I’m pretty sure you don’t mind my people visiting anyway.”
“What is it?” asked Preventer after a moment.
Krishna pointed at Indulger where he hung back, prompting a friendly wave from our leader.
“That big guy, that’s Dale, right? The guy who beat down Pursuer?”
“It’s Dale, sure. But I can’t speak to who is in his Tally. The subject hasn’t really come up.”
“I don’t care about his Tally. I’m sure you are all deadly fighters. I’m interested in him as an Ultra Fight aficionado. And I’m not the only one.”
“Where are you going with-“
Krishna cut me off.
“He’s not the only luchador around. I’ve got a bunch of people in my crew who’d love to put their masks up against his, pro graps style.”
“Wrestling?” asked Nirav, a bit dumbfounded.
“You got it. If you let our people tie up some lose ends with the citizens of Redo, no one getting hurt or nothing, just say some goodbyes and the like, then we’ll work with your man Dale to put on the best damn Ultra Fight you’ve ever seen.”