“The Union has Andy,” I told Jane.
We were isolated, for the most part. We’d hiked down out of Arena’s creations and asked Dale to shuttle us a few miles away. He’d bring us back when we stamped in a certain pattern.
She gave a somber nod.
“I figured if he turned up again it would be in Union hands,” she said.
“How’d you guess that?” I asked
I was sort of impressed. I couldn’t really think of any way, given the knowledge she’d had of his departure, that she could have seen this coming.
“Nothing is ever easy for us. We are getting along with the Pantheon, estranged from the Union, ergo he’s with the Union.”
I shook my head.
“Cynicism doesn’t fit you, Haunter. Where’s the woman who lectured Death about the value of the old world?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve got her rattling around in here somewhere.”
I wasn’t sure if she meant that literally, and she didn’t seem inclined to elaborate.
“Predictor is going to ask our Fist to accompany him,” I told her. “He wants our help to break him out of whatever cell they are keeping him in.”
“He said this?” asked Jane.
I shook my head again.
“Not to me, but he let Zilla in on his plan. He figures two Fists can accomplish just about anything, including a raid into the Union’s most secure prison.”
Jane looked contemplative for a moment.
“Two Fists probably could, at that. The data from the embassies systems suggest that the Union’s main anti Fist countermeasure is a large Ultra squad. If it could be drawn into action it is hard to see how another Fist, acting at the same time, could fail to achieve its objective.”
“And the decoy Fist,” I said, “Loses some folks and gets driven off by the Union. No big deal.”
“No big deal,” she said. “Depending, I suppose, on who does the dying.”
I’d been worried about this. I knew that Haunter’s feud with Condemner was taking some weird turns lately, and it would have to be an attractive prospect to rid ourselves of him.
“Whoever it is,” I said. “They will be back the next day, so it doesn’t really matter all that much.”
I let the unspoken implication, that we would NOT be serving as bait, hang in the air.
Haunter had to realize that losing any member of our crew would make it obvious to our hosts that the Fist was Linked no longer, right? Someone in her mass mind would have caught that.
“What’s your instinct telling you?” she asked. “About this plan of Predictors, I mean. Do you want to go along with it?”
“I don’t see how we have much choice,” I said, bitterly. “He knows certain information that we wouldn’t like to get out. If we don’t fall in line, he could make a lot of trouble.”
“Put that to the side,” said Jane. “Forget that part. I’m asking the other half of the question. Do you want to do this? Absent any compulsion or duty, would you be comfortable doing this? Say we were the ones with the plan, take the whole thing about doing Predictor’s dirty work out of it.”
“I don’t particularly need Andy’s assistance,” I told her, plainly. “I wouldn’t trust anyone to modify my gift. It’s fine the way it is. I’d be risking a lot for someone else’s gain. All things considered, I’d let this opportunity pass by.”
Jane gave a measured nod.
“That’s one perspective, but might I suggest an upside?” she asked.
That was a bit of a surprise. I’d assumed Jane would share my basic view of the matter. This whole conversation was kind of premised around the two of us being on the same page, and working out how to persuade the other three not to buckle.
“Sure,” I said.
“You are settling,” she said.
“You are putting down roots here. You’ve let Gon heal you a few times now. The two locals you’ve conscripted, your overtures to Zilla, it all adds up. You intend to remain here, in the medium to long term.”
I waved a hand, idly.
“I don’t think it is constructive to have firm intentions,” I told her. “I cultivate possibilities, that’s all. There is no downside in setting up my situation here. Even if we do end up leaving, the practice will stand me in good stead wherever we do end up.”
“Sure,” said Jane.
There was a moment of silence. She ran a hand along the brim of her Sigil, looked up at the massive form of Zilla’s double, looming in the distance.
“If you do end up staying here for a while,” she said, after the moment had passed, “you might benefit, a lot, from a bit of bread with your circuses.”
“I don’t follow,” I said.
I’d used that comparison a long time ago, when I was writing a report on why the Regime constantly saw rebellion. It didn’t seem to apply to my situation.
“Your whole pitch to these Gods is negative,” she clarified. “They need to do what you say because you are a powerful killer. They have to be your friends or you will choke them. You would do well to offer them something.”
“My methods have stood me in good stead,” I told her. “I’m not exactly a new hand at compelling obedience.”
Haunter’s mouth turned downwards.
“Yes, I’ve heard of your gardens,” she said. “How do you think those are going now?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Now? With me gone? I have no doubt every one involved has gone on to other endeavors. It is certainly what I would do, in their place.”
“Exactly,” said Jane. “The threat is gone, and they abandon their tasks. You bullied them into obedience, but not real loyalty.”
“It was enough,” I objected.
“Was it?” she asked. “Did you ever wonder how Remover found out about your boyfriend?”
“Thui wasn’t my boyfri-“ I said, letting the sentence peter out as I thought about it.
“Obedience,” said Jane. “Wrought of fear. And when a scarier person came along, and Rebecca, you will NEVER be the scariest, they obeyed your enemy instead.”
That wasn’t true. Remover and her cronies had had decades to build up their information networks. They didn’t need my people to betray my secrets. Their could have been any number of other ways to find out about Thui.
“What else is there?” I asked.
“Consider the old world,” said Jane.
“Fuck the old world,” I told her.
“I got a job, a task, a long time ago,” she said. “Everyone who could punish me for abandoning my duty is long dead. The fear is long gone.”
“You are just,” I stopped.
What was she just? I tried to push Thui’s plight from my mind, focus on this conversation.
“They didn’t use only the stick, back then. They fashioned a loyalty that would last, and it has stood the test of time. You would do well to emulate their example.”
“Andy,” I said, slowly, “but not for me. Make him available to the Gods, buy respect with his gift.”
“Predictor will definitely let us hold things up for a week or two,” she said. “We’ll make it a condition of our assistance. We get to use him on a few Pantheon Gods before he goes back overseas.”
“We…” I said.
Something wasn’t right. Or rather, I was missing something. Why was Haunter striving so hard to convince me?
“Do you want Andy to work on your gift?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said. “I deliberated too long last time, missed my chance at it. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Jane was almost impossible to read, under ordinary circumstances, but I still felt like that wasn’t the whole truth. It might be true, but there was something more to it.
“Jane,” I told her. “You are going to have to tell me your real motives. This is already dangerous enough. If there is something going on that I don’t understand then I’m not going to chance it.”
Jane sat back on her heels, dry washed her hands for a moment.
“While you were visiting the Pantheon higher ups, I looked up the fort’s healers.”
“Not what you were hoping for?” I asked, judging by the fact that she was here at all.
I knew that if they had shown themselves capable of bringing her cargo back to life there was no way she’d be doing anything else.
“They are close,” she said. “So close. Close enough that Andy could get them the rest of the way there. I’m sure of it.”
I sat still for a second, trying to work out how she could be so confident of that.
She had definitely spent more time with Andy, back in Redo. He might well have explained some things to her that were never passed on to me. But I didn’t think that was it.
This seemed more to me like she was forcing it. Like she couldn’t live with herself if it wasn’t that way, so she had just set it to be a certain way in her mind. I’d seen plenty of that back in the old days.
I’d even done it myself. Back when Thui had sent me to be Processed, I had known that I would survive. I had been absolutely, impossibly sure of it. My greatest fear had been that my gift would be one that couldn’t keep us safe.
“Andy brings them the rest of the way,” I repeated. “Their new gift lets them forge new bodies for your passengers, and for any Gods who are so inclined. Our popularity rises, and my own sailing is a whole lot smoother.”
“It would only take a few days,” she said. “Predictor could hang around that long. With Snitcher gone it isn’t like She has any way to know how long things take.”
“I can see it,” I told her. “The prize is real. But let’s talk about the risks.”
“We have a precognitive gift on our side,” she reminded me. “He is better even than Answerer at battlefield stuff.”
“Do we?” I asked.
I hated to second guess the reserve like this. Ordinarily there would have been no point in doing so. But if she really was unable to think clearly about this opportunity then I couldn’t leave matters in her hands.
She hadn’t replied, so I pressed on.
“Do we have him on our side? Or does he have us under his thumb? Jane, if he is as good as you say he is, why does he need us?”
That gave her pause, or maybe she was just continuing her earlier silence.
I studied my own hands, noted with approval that they showed no hint of trembling.
“Dale,” she said, at last.
“He needs Dale,” she said. “Even if Predictor knows exactly where a Union prison is, how is he going to get there? Once there, how will he keep things quiet? His crew aren’t exactly set up for covert operations.
That was certainly true.
“And Dale is?” I asked. “Our Dale?”
“Think about it,” she responded. “His gift doesn’t have to be dropping mountains on people. He can take us through Union territory in a mobile cave, hidden from any drone scouts they might have watching. If Predictor is able to pinpoint the target we might be able to rise up right from the floor of his cell, free him with no one the wiser.”
“Point,” I said.
“And also,” said Jane, looking to the floor, “They are probably going to drag Dale back to Her when the mission is over.”
“We talked about that,” I said. “They’d have led off with that if that was their goal here.”
“You know Predictor’s methods,” she said. “He likes to line up birds and use just the one rock. He will accept our cooperation against the Union, and then take Dale afterwards.”
“We’d slaughter them in a fight,” I objected. “They have no answer to Dale, no way to harm me, absent Zilla’s forces there is no way we come out worst in that battle.”
“In a fight,” she agreed. “But what if it is a sudden betrayal? What if all of a sudden Slicer takes a hostage? Remember that this guy can see the future, or at least a big part of it. I don’t think we can take as read the idea that us being basically stronger means we win a fight with them.”
“Well, you’ve convinced me,” I told her. “I guess we should decline the deal then.”
Jane chuckled at that.
“I’m just saying that we need to have a plan for this.”
“That he’ll see coming,” I interjected.
“A plan,” she said. “Which will work EVEN IF he sees it coming. Which will dissuade him from turning on us.”
“I’m waiting,” I told her.
“I sort of prefer that you help make it up,” she said.
I guffawed at that.
“Really?” I asked. “You want to just walk into this, with nothing?”
“Not nothing,” she said. “Going in with our eyes open isn’t nothing.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but she forestalled me.
“Look, Preventer, I know that this seems dangerous. We’d be undertaking a mission alongside someone we don’t trust to rescue someone we don’t know is really out there. We’d be heating up this warzone while we were in the middle of it. There are a lot of reasons to back out.”
I nodded along with that.
“But they all fade away when you consider that we don’t really have a choice. We can’t fight another Fist without taking casualties, not unless we ambush them. That would leave us vulnerable, and the odds are that someone would take advantage.”
“I still don’t like it,” I said. “If we know that they are going to turn on us, there should be some way to leverage that information. I don’t like the idea of just waiting for the ax to fall.”
I might have said more, might have started talking about a double cross, but Predictor’s power was supposed to work something like a danger sense. If so, there was a risk that talking about killing him would let him listen in. I’d have to let the notion of us betraying them first hang unspoken in the air.
Jane stood, stomped her foot in the pattern we’d arranged.
“We don’t know it,” she said. “I said probably, after all. We aren’t sure that they are after Dale. Don’t worry. We’ll talk it through with the group, hear Predictor’s pitch. We’ll do our best to assuage your fears. We’ll do this correctly.”
I hoped that when she said ‘do this’, she meant ‘make the decision’, but I was reasonably sure she was talking about the mission that she’d already committed to. She was bound and determined to get Andy back.
I said nothing as we sped through the earth, letting the rumble of Dale’s gift pass over me as I considered.
Did I really have a choice? If Jane was committed to going, then were the rest of us going to be compelled to follow, simply to maintain the fiction of our continued Link? It seemed insane to fight the Union, and then another Fist, all so that I wouldn’t have to fight whatever portion of the Pantheon stopped supporting me when they found out that I didn’t have the Link.
Dale brought us up out of the ground at the foot of one of the stairways of Light.
Fifth Fist was there waiting for us.