“Ok, so this is obviously a trap, right?”
I looked around at the others, anticipating nodding heads. I was unpleasantly surprised.
“What makes you think that this is a trap, Jane?” asked Dale. He had a sort of a hurt look on his face, so far as I could tell behind the mask.
“What makes me…” I trailed off, unsure where to start.
“Jane, I understand that you lost someone dear to you when our negotiations with Commander Fidel went south,” said Preventer. “But you can’t let that disable your ability to trust entirely. Surely the world contains SOME sincere individuals. We can’t just go on thinking that everyone is trying to get one over on us.”
I gaped, looking to Nirav and Fisher for support. Nirav stared back, expressionless behind those stupid sunglasses.
“What would they gain from a trap?” he asked, with deceptive innocence.
“I’m not…I don’t…”
I sputtered for a moment, then held up a finger to buy a second.
When I’d pulled the Fist in for a huddle to relay Krishna’s insane proposal I’d anticipated spending most of the time we’d be talking trying to figure out what her agenda could have possibly been. I hadn’t spent any mental cycles actually working out justifications for WHY we would reject the idea of a sports match that resembled combat with our mortal enemies. It hadn’t, frankly, seemed like it would be necessary.
“I’m not sure what they would gain from a trap,” I told Nirav. “It could be any number of things. Or the real goal could be that we do as Krishna asks, and let them mingle with their former subjects. But I shouldn’t have to know the enemies plans in detail in order to get your assent on foiling them.”
Preventer spoke again, still with that same patronizing false empathy.
“When we are betrayed there is an impulse, an entirely understandable human impulse, to close ourselves off, to hide behind a cynicism. But, Jane, that’s not you, is it?”
I looked her straight in the eyes.
“I’m not hiding from anything. I’m not letting the Union situation cloud my judgement. I’m applying cold logic to this situation, with the aid of a cast of thousands, including a few experts on game theory.”
Preventer gestured at me to go on.
“Look. We gain nothing from this, nothing at all. Say that they are entirely on the level. Say, for just one minute, that Krishna has lost what little mind she has and wants to get together with the enemy army, with us, for a wargame, in the middle of an ACTUAL WAR. Let’s stipulate that that’s so.”
I had their attention, at least. Their gazes were locked on me, intent.
When Preventer was outvoted she tried to shout everyone down, browbeat us. It never worked. We were an obstinate crew, hard to turn once we set our minds. I’d always known that if I ever found myself the lone voice of reason in our group that I’d have to use a different tactic. Talking them through the implications of what they were proposing seemed like the best one.
“So, since they are being truthful, nothing crazy goes down at this Ultra Fight. We build an arena, Dale scuffles with some Pantheon warriors, and we head on home at the end of the day. Nothing gained.”
Dale opened his mouth, but I continued speaking before he could interrupt.
“But think what we’ve lost. They have detailed knowledge of Dale’s power, which they would otherwise lack. They have observed every one of us at close proximity, which will prevent us from using the infiltration strategy from last time on them ever again. They’ve regained contact with their Redo personnel, and potentially profited from that meeting. That’s three serious consequences, and we haven’t even started talking about what might occur if this is a ruse.”
Dale looked to Preventer, who took up the verbal gauntlet that I’d put down.
“Haunter, I think we have to consider that Dale’s power is public knowledge at this point. He attacked Krishna’s forces with it during the battle, and now he’s used it to rebuild the city. They’ve got to know what he can do.”
She looked away from Dale then, focusing on me.
“As for getting to know us? I’m gonna call bullshit on that one. If you cared about protecting our anonymity you would never have agreed to this meeting in the first place. We’d have used Transmitter or something. That’s not a sincere objection, and you know it.”
“Jane, I feel like maybe you aren’t an Ultra Fight fan? I bet if you attended one of my events I’d win you over. They are so great. It is like fighting, but instead of people dying we just have a great time and make everyone happy. I think it is not fair for you to say that making everyone happy isn’t a gain for our team. Isn’t that what we are trying to do?”
“It isn’t that simple!”
I took a deep breath, controlled myself. Shouting never helped anything, and I’d been dangerously close on that last line.
“It isn’t that simple.” I repeated. “I know. I’ve tried. Just helping people out, just entertaining them or carrying them in my reserve…that’s what I’ve done, for all this time. I’ve spent my LIFE trying the ‘just help people’ approach, and I’m here today, doing this, because that approach doesn’t work.”
I paused, searching for a key that might unlock this, something that might make them see sense.
“Preventer, you told me that you were attempting to get our subjects entertained, back in Shington. Some kind of sports thing, right?”
She nodded, her expression guarded. Something was off there, but I didn’t have time to consider the matter further.
“What was the hardest part of that? Like, why was it so hard to accomplish? What was in the way?”
Everyone looked to Preventer, waiting for her answer.
This was risky, letting Preventer take the thread of the conversation, but I’d never seen a lecture convince anyone. I had to engage with them, get them to see why what they were proposing was insane.
She looked up at me.
“I had to get the Regime’s agreement not to spoil everything. Otherwise Subtracter or whoever would have ruined it.”
That had been about what I’d figured. My argument was on track.
“Dale,” I turned my focus back to our leader. “If you just help people, then they are better, right up until someone comes along who just hurts them. Remover or Her, whichever. It is so much easier to hurt people than it is to help them, there’s just no way that we can cancel out what the bad guys do by just doing good. We have to actually…”
I paused, letting the implications of Snitcher’s death roll through my mind.
“-actually stop them. We have to stop the people who are fucking everything up. That’s why I joined the Fist, so that we could get on the inside and put a stop to all of this. That’s the prize we have to keep our eyes on. We can’t afford to get bogged down in whatever this is. We have to stay focused on taking down the Regime.”
I wasn’t sure that I’d ever actually said the words aloud to everyone. It felt good. Even better was that no one recoiled and tried to distance themselves. My Fist, like me, had thrown caution to the wind. If Krishna had lied about Snitcher’s death…
I pushed the thought from my mind before I could complete it. I needed this. Needed to speak my defiance aloud.
“Well said!” gushed Nirav. “And I agree with the general principal. I’m just not sure how it applies to this particular situation. Can you help me out there?”
It was like cold water, breaking the mood that I’d been working towards in an instant.
“We’d be putting everything that we are working towards, the whole mission, at risk. And for what? For nothing! We gain literally nothing from this endeavor.”
Nirav frowned, his forehead wrinkling in a manner that I was unused to seeing.
“Not literally nothing. Unless Indulger’s morale, the morale of the people of Redo is literally nothing?”
Nirav was the one who was really throwing the whole balance of the group out of whack. I focused on him for a moment.
The setup had always been stable. Indulger’s decency had him taking my side in most arguments, and Nirav would generally follow along. I’d always known that Preventer might one day sway Indulger, but with Nirav and Fisher on my side I’d still been confident that I’d prevail.
How had things gotten this badly out of whack? I could understand why Indulger would want to take Krishna up on her offer, his passion for professional wrestling was something that we’d all come to understand on those long bus rides. But why would Preventer and Nirav buy into something this crazy?
“No, of course. I misspoke. It isn’t literally nothing. It’s nothing…in terms of progress for our mission. In terms of bringing down Her and all Her works. It’s the kind of good that I used to spend my time doing, and I’m telling you, small improvements don’t last. Sooner or later the Regime will kick over any sandcastle that we make.”
I was thinking while I rattled that little speech off. It wasn’t going to work, it was nothing that I hadn’t said already. I had to understand their real reasons in order to get them back on board.
Preventer first. Why would she agree to this exhibition? She despised violence, aped a scientific, clinical demeanor. She saw herself as an intellectual. Why support a sporting event?
Well, why did Preventer do anything? She must benefit somehow. But I couldn’t see any way that she could gain anything from this kind of low brow entertainment. It didn’t fit with my models of her at all.
“Haunter, when I was reluctant to meet with the Pantheon it was YOU who persuaded me. You pointed out that we have nothing to fear, no risk at all. With my gift we are safe from anyone save Her. With Snitcher’s passing we need not quake in fear of provoking Her judgment. Don’t you think that that logic still applies?”
Had her earlier objections been a setup for this? That didn’t make any sense. There was no way that she could know what Krishna would propose. And it didn’t address the crucial ‘why’ of her behavior. I still didn’t have any idea of what she was after.
“Well, I mean, there’s a difference between a brief conversation, where we might gain useful information, and a prolonged period of cooperation. If She learned that we cooperated with the people that we are supposed to be fighting…”
I’d lost them. I could recognize the looks going from one to another. Fisher was practically rolling her eyes.
Whether it was the apparent hypocrisy of arguing that Preventer had pointed out or whether it was something else, it didn’t matter now. I didn’t need the Jury’s confirmation to know that the group had come to a decision, and the rest of the conversation would just be them getting me around on the subject.
“Jane, I really think that if you just give it a chance you’ll see…”
I nodded as Dale started talking, repeating whenever he got to the end of a sentence. We were doing this.
“Jane,” Irene said, “The Jury is pretty sure that Preventer knew Nirav would go for this before he even spoke up.”
Now THAT was interesting.
If Preventer had talked Nirav on board with this crazy plan ahead of time, then the whole conversation took on a totally different meaning.
First off, in order to get him to agree beforehand she’d definitely have had to know about Krishna’s offer before it happened. How? The only answer that made any sense was that they’d been in contact.
And that wasn’t exactly surprising, when I thought about it. Preventer had revealed, during the attack on Redo, that she had Pantheon connections. It stretched belief that they would be to Krishna, but maybe she’d been able to friend of a friend her way up the chain, get a message to the warlord and arrange this.
Cast Preventer as the author of this whole situation, and the question of how she benefited was easier to solve. If this was premeditated, then she could have alerted Her. Prevailer might warp in mid match and start killing. We’d look good in Her eyes, and that was something that Preventer valued.
Or this might be all about getting some face time with Krishna. They could sit together in the spectator’s area or something, hash out an arrangement with the kind of detail and precision that you only get while face to face.
Or any number of other things that I hadn’t thought of yet.
“You got it, you convinced me.” I told Dale, breaking up the end of his entreaty.
If this was some kind of play cooked up between Krishna and Preventer, then there was only one thing for it. I had to figure out the arrangement, and perhaps expose it.
“Great!” Dale seized me by my shoulders, nearly hard enough to destroy one of my shades. He relaxed his grip just in time.
“I just know that you’ll love this. Ultra Fight is the best thing in the world, and I’ve been hearing great things about the SouthWest region. Maybe Red Alice will be here!”
The name meant nothing to me, but I smiled up at Indulger.
“I get to be the one who tells Krishna!” he said, and left the huddle in a whirl of enthusiasm. He began to enthusiastically shadow box the air, before dropping an imaginary enemy in something the reserve informed me was called a ‘hanging tornado back splash’.
Even knowing that he was being used, I still felt good for him. Dale’s happiness was something pure, something good. He took a genuine pleasure in his life, and it lifted my heart to see it.
I looked over at Preventer, who smiled back at me. My heart sank right back down.
“Jane, I’m glad that you’ve come around on this. I hate it when we are at odds, and I really respect your intelligence. When you back me up I feel certain that I’m making the right move.”
I gave her a crooked smile.
“Indulger’s words moved me. He’s right. You are right. We have nothing to lose, so why not give the people a show? It certainly beats fighting Krishna and her crew.”
Nirav nodded, solemnly.
“I had enough of Ultra warfare the night we took Redo. I’ll never forget how Condemner feasted that day. If you hadn’t contracted those people…”
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “It’s all in the past now.”
I fixed my gaze on Preventer, hiding her malice behind a wide smile.
“The present is what matters. What we do here and now, this very day. That’s what we need to focus our minds on. What we need to prepare for. We can’t do anything about the past, but the present is ours to shape.”
Preventer nodded, either oblivious to my deeper meaning, or in full agreement.
“To be honest, I’m looking forward to this matchup. It feels like it has been a long time in coming.”