It was Dale who broke the silence.
“Betty, I don’t think that is a good idea.”
I turned the Lure’s face towards him, a polite smile forming on it. Within, I was seething. Dale was the key to steering our group. If I could get him to side with Nirav and I then we’d have a majority. Whatever his objection was it wasn’t as important as the simple fact that he was objecting.
“She doesn’t trust the way you think She does. There’s no way we could get a Pantheon Ultra’s gift to work on Her. Lots of people have tried to do similar stuff over the years, and it never works.”
“I get that,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Preventer, cutting off my response, “If we are going to be able to affect Her, why not use one of Lotus’ battle elixirs? That would be worth considering long before buffing Her is.”
“That wouldn’t work,” I said. “Look, I know how people have tried using stealth and Ultra gifts to kill Her. There is obviously some unknown factor stopping that from working. Fair enough. I’m not saying we have a key to that power, I’m saying that we put ourselves in a category it doesn’t operate on.”
Haunter nodded slowly.
“You believe whatever force acts to defend Her does so in response to ill intent? If so, you are saying that we would be unaffected by virtue of our genuine intent to aid Her?”
I nodded eagerly.
“Could we pull that off though?” asked Nirav. “I feel like some of us would register as hostile towards Her no matter what we might think in any given moment, given our basic attitudes.”
I could always count on Nirav to tee an easy one up for me.
“It must be used to that though. Haunter wasn’t stopped from joining our Fist. Heck, Krishna ended up Her seat. Nothing is stopping people who hate Her from being all around Her. Things only go wrong when they try and act against Her.”
“So despite our, shall we say, unflattering opinions, you believe that so long as we acted only in what we believed was Her interest She would not benefit from this hypothetical protection?” asked Jane.
“Exactly,” I said.
She paused for a long moment, then shook her head decisively.
“Still a bad plan, even if we grant that” she said, with finality.
“What?” I asked. “Why?”
Haunter pointed at Dale.
“Dale has been imbibing Lotus’ willpower extract for some time now. Has it altered his values?” she asked.
“I hardly think that is a similar situation,” I said. “We are ‘right’, are we not? The sides are not symmetrical. Increasing the intelligence of our foes and friends should give us more friends. Making people better at math isn’t equally good for the 2 plus 2 is 3 team and their rivals who know it is four.”
Jane gave a rueful grin.
“It would be nice if it were so, but you must know that our disagreement with Her is one of values. Think on what your gift can change, and what it cannot. Do you believe that being smarter would have permitted Meghan to carry forward in her original beliefs, even as you used your gift on her?”
“I…” I stalled a moment, trying to marshal arguments.
“Also she teleports a lot, and that would probably reset her back to normal,” said Preventer, piling on.
I looked to Nirav, who shook his head gently.
So frustrating. I was the only one who wanted to get us out of the war zone that had already cost us our Link, and I had to make up fake reasons to do it. I leaned the Lure back against the wall, scowling.
“So back to talking about Fifth Fist’s goal,” said Preventer.
“Like I said before,” said Haunter. “I don’t think they are here to fetch us back. If that was their plan, they would have demanded our return right there with Zilla watching, ready to lend a hand if we refused.”
“Ok,” said Dale, “but they definitely want something from us. I have a hard time believing that their showing up here is totally independent of us. I know that we are trying to avoid speculating about Predictor’s power, but at least it should be good enough that if he didn’t want to meet us he could have avoided it.”
“I think,” said Nirav, “it is a constantly refreshing vision of all the ways that he can die or be hurt. The fact that it is always current lets him win vs. other precogs, but he has no vision into anything other than stuff that is dangerous to him.”
Looks like we were playing the ‘speculate on Predictor’s gift’ game after all.
“Then how does he do the cards?” asked Dale. “We’ve all seen him take out cards with what someone is gonna say on them, even in situations where there was no way he was getting attacked.”
“It might be that he gets the whole timeline leading up to his potential deaths,” suggested Jane, “though that might be pretty much omniscience, depending on how it worked. There isn’t a rule that gifts have to be fair, remember.”
“I don’t think this is productive,” said Preventer. “If for no other reason than that he has presumably foreseen it and acted in such a way that it reaches no useful conclusion. Lets focus on what we do if they demand that we go back. I know Haunter and I would prefer to refuse such an order. What say the rest of you.”
The real question was Dale here. She knew Nirav would side with me, and that I had no desire to linger in such a dangerous place.
“I…” said Dale. “I guess I’m persuaded by Jane’s argument. I don’t think that they are going to try and make us go home. I feel like they might try to take us out, or they might want to work with us and do something with Preventer’s new influence over the Pantheon, but I think if they were just trying to get us to go back they’d have already told us so.”
“Fine,” I said, before I could help myself, “but what if they do? What is your call, as our leader, if they come up right after this meeting and tell us we are going back to Her?”
“Oh,” said Dale. “Then I say, ‘yep’, and we do.”
“Come the fuck on!” snapped Preventer. “We took on the Host at your instigation, how can you suddenly decide to back out? You sure that drink isn’t making your choices?”
“It isn’t complicated,” said Dale. “We stand a much better chance with Predictor’s crew if Zilla’s hordes are not around. If they are in favor of moving our fight a few miles away then I see no reason to refuse them.”
Haunter gave a big smile.
“I was going to say much the same. We can’t fight the Grand Host and Fifth Fist at once. If hostility is unavoidable, then the optimal course would be to allow them to split up before we engage.”
“You mentioned,” said Preventer, “the possibility of Predictor wanting to work with us in the capacity of seeing to my elevation. Can you tell us what you mean?”
She pointed at Dale as she spoke, seemingly trying to smooth over her momentary anger at him by pretending that it hadn’t existed.
“Sure,” he said. “You guys remember the stupidity with Commander Fidel, right?”
We all did.
“Well, it is important to recall how that started. She sent us to offer an olive branch to the Union. She knew that the big fight was getting ready to go down, didn’t want to distract them from it. I think we have to figure that She cares a lot about what is happening over here, even if She doesn’t show it mostly.”
“Even if that was genuine,” said Preventer, “and we don’t think She was going to turn around and violate that treaty a day later, how does that accord with what’s going on now? She wanted to help the Union. We are on the other side here.”
Dale seemed like he was about to answer, but it was Jane who actually did.
“I’m not convinced that we are.”
I looked at her, expressionlessly.
You had to give Jane a sec, sometimes. There would be stuff going on behind her eyes, stuff with her shades. If you let them package it up their own way it was generally for the best.
“We are, to be sure, on the official opposite side of the combat,” she began. “But from Her perspective, I doubt that that is the case. I think She only really cares about Zeus and his immediate rivals. Only Ultras of the greatest possible power can threaten Her. Our influence over Legion and Zilla’s forces, whatever it is worth, certainly doesn’t extend to anyone who might match Her.”
Nirav chimed in.
“She only cares about Ultras like us to whatever degree we can help or hinder Her. Her perfect scenario would be like what we managed with Death, where a powerful enemy dies, and the ones left alive can’t threaten Her.”
“I don’t think it is quite that way,” said Dale. “Like, the sense I got from Her was that the Pantheon’s main guys were like a treat that she was saving. I certainly don’t expect Her to thank us for taking Death down. She might think it was funny, but She wouldn’t feel safer because of us taking out a threat.”
It was always easy to forget how twisted up our ruler was.
“Alright,” said Preventer, “Let’s give up on Fifth Fist’s motives for now. We’ve decided what we will do if they try to take us, which was the main thing. If they come to us with anything else, we’ll convene then and hash out how to handle it.”
None of us looked entirely satisfied at that, but it wasn’t like we were holding back some brilliant idea for no reason.
“Ok,” I said. “So, while we wait for Predictor to lay out their proposal, what is the plan?”
“I will pressure Zilla, or whichever of her Overseers I can get a hold of.” said Preventer. “If we can get her to join her voice to Legion’s in pushing me for the Council we are set. Once the Grand Host protects us, Fifth Fist can’t do anything.”
I remained skeptical of the idea that the Pantheon was actually going to let an outsider become one of the main leaders, and certainly that they’d ever throw lives away defending her. Legion’s Gods hadn’t really even defended her when we showed up, and she’d run their whole setup for years. I didn’t see a point in raining on what was clearly a cherished goal of Preventer’s though.
“I suppose that can’t hurt,” I said. “Any chance we take, we emphasize that Preventer killed Death. What else? Should we be riling folks up against the other Fist? Are we going to track down those healers that Jane is interested in?”
“I’ll take care of that situation,” said Jane, immediately. “I owe it to my reserve. I’ve been working at this for what feels like forever, and it is all coming down to the wire. I’ll finish it.”
Oddly, she looked at Nirav as she talked about her dream ‘coming down to the wire’. He didn’t really react to the look, so maybe it was just something related to her own thoughts.
“I’ll talk to the guys,” said Dale. “If it is anything like the forward base here they will have their own parallel leadership setup. If I can get their equivalent of Rag on our side it will be a big help. They may not be in charge, but they hear a lot.”
I looked to Nirav.
“We know what those three are doing,” I said. “What do you want to get up to?”
He grinned at me.
“Welllll,” he said, leering cartoonishly at the Lure.
Preventer cleared her throat.
“We should probably try and verify the notion that Arena is really in charge,” he finished.
There were nods all around at that.
“All right,” said Haunter. “Let’s get back out there.”
Somehow, the ‘everyone be really careful, the Link is gone’ sounded louder for no one saying it than it would’ve if we’d all shouted it.
Dale brought us back up to the surface, and we went our separate ways.
Or, mostly separate. Nirav tagged along behind me as I started walking up into one of the bright yellow ramps of this place.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey yourself,” I returned. “Everything alright with you?”
He settled in beside me, keeping the Lure’s pace without needing to use his gift.
“Yeah…is what I’d like to say, but the truth is that there’s something.”
I knew it.
I stopped, turned to face him fully.
“You can tell me. We’ll fix it.”
“It’s Jane,” he said, looking away from me for a moment.
I had the fleeting and odd suspicion he was about to confess that they were cheating on me.
“What about her? I saw her looking at you in the briefing.”
“I think she still blames me for Irene,” he said. “I feel like she is always talking about me to her shades, behind her face where we can’t watch. It is making me crazy.”
I put the Lure’s hand on his arm.
“Nirav, no.” I told him forcefully. “That was an accident. Everyone knows it. Jane knows it. Her shades know it. She is not the kind of woman who would let something like that go if she thought, for one second, that you might have done it deliberately.”
He looked back at me, gave me a kind of a weak smile. I could tell he thought I was just saying this to reassure him. His arm was trembling under my hand.
“Listen to me,” I told him. “Your struggles with Condemner are in the past. You beat him, alright? You beat a fire monster with nothing but your own wits and courage. I don’t know anyone else who is half as brave. We believe in you.”
“But,” he said, his voice catching a little, “I missed the whole fight with Death. I feel like that was my chance to redeem myself, to show everyone what I can do FOR the team, and I was just a few moments too late!”
Unshed tears glistened in his eyes.
“No,” I said again. “You have nothing to fault yourself on. She was a teleporter, Nirav. She picked her moment, got Haunter away from the rest of us. Nobody blames you for missing that fight. I missed it too, remember. That was the enemy being shrewd, not us making mistakes.”
He still looked miserable.
I leaned forward like we were going to kiss, and rested my forehead against his instead.
“No one blames you,” I said. “Not for anything. You did the best you could, and that’s all that we can ask for from anyone.”
“I love you,” he said, and now we were kissing.
I indulged myself for a moment, the Hook looming up to block us off from some gawking locals.
Predictor might be able to forsee the future, but right now I could too. I could suddenly tell, with absolute certainty, that this boy was going to make it out of this.