“Just who I was looking for,” said Predictor.
He didn’t have the slightest trace of a smirk, not the least bit of smug in his voice. Hearing him, you’d never guess that he’d just arranged for his entire Fist to be ready to meet the two of us when we got back from our ostensibly secret conversation.
“You don’t say,” said Jane, stepping up onto Arena’s stairway.
I followed her up, pushing a barrier out of my leg as I did so. If we needed backup I could drum it against the ground, let Indulger know something was going on over here.
“I have a proposal for you,” he said. “I expect it has already been relayed to you by now, but I still figured I should make the effort, give it to you in person.”
“We’ve got the gist,” I told him. “You want our help in busting Andy out of a Union lockup.”
He shrugged, gave a guileless smile.
It was striking how little motion the rest of them displayed. Slicer was paying attention at least, but didn’t look like she any interest in interrupting. The other three might as well have been out for a walk, just happening on this conversation, for all the interest they displayed. Pitcher was grooming Gardener’s branches, while Tamer just looked bored. They certainly didn’t look like they were even considering joining the conversation.
I had a lot of difficulty imagining us ever acting like that. Sure, Haunter might occasionally take the lead for a while, but you could never really mistake us for a unit with a definitive leader, the way Fifth Fist obviously was. I wondered if it was just how little time we’d had the Link. I felt a vague sense of loss that we’d never find out.
“Care to elaborate?” I asked him.
He pulled out a cigarette and a lighter, set to smoking.
“I expect you folks have the basics down. We need you for transportation and power, you need us for information and insurance. We are willing to let you lend Andy to the Pantheon for a bit, so long as you aid us in taking him back if they decide to be pains about it, which they won’t.”
He spoke with casual assurance about future events, and it would be tempting to believe that this was his gift at work. I’d thought about it, though, and it seemed like lying about the things that he foresaw was probably one of his more common tricks.
“Why us?” asked Jane.
That was a good point.
“You could have gotten First Fist for this kind of thing,” I told him. “Smash and grab is something of a specialty of theirs, right? Or at least the smashing part?”
“They are good in a fight, sure, but capturing people alive isn’t really their style,” continued Predictor, blowing out some smoke. “Plus they are busy with some weird space job right now. I didn’t see a lot of good outcomes from bothering them.”
“You know where they are?” asked Haunter.
She seemed a bit intense as she asked that. It wasn’t anything that I could point to, exactly, but something about the way that she said it made me sure that she and her whole crew were very focused on this next part, in a way that they ordinarily weren’t.
“Sure,” said Predictor. “Or, rather, where they will be in various…you know what, let’s not get into it. For our purposes you can think of me as knowing where they are.”
“Always good to know where the hazards are on the map, right Haunter?” I said.
I didn’t say it so much to communicate any information. It was more like I wanted to let her have a few extra seconds to calm down, or consult her passengers, or whatever she needed to do.
She gave me a brief smile.
“As Preventer says, it is wise to avoid an encounter with Remover’s crew. We’ve had a number of hostile run ins with them. I’m glad to know that you can help us with that.”
“All right,” he said. “We can leave it there, if you don’t feel like admitting that you want to know where they are then I’m certainly not about to volunteer it. I have no reason to tell you they are hanging out up in Ston.”
He gave an exaggerated wink, took out his cigarette to cough a bit.
“Anyway,” I said. “Tell us more about how this operation is going to play out. We’ll pass it on to the rest of the group.”
“He can’t do that,” said Slicer.
“I certainly can,” he responded.
She said nothing, just looked dubious.
“Is there…” I asked.
“But I won’t,” he said.
Slicer looked exceptionally innocent.
“It would overcomplicate things, change the things that I was telling you, such that I’d have to tell you different things, kicking the whole cycle off again, etc. Instead, I’ll just do a regular briefing, is that all right?”
“Sure,” I said.
He made a gesture to his crew, and they moved out, forming up such that Gardener was below us, at the very foot of the stairs, while Pitcher and Tamer moved up a little ways, making sure nobody was listening in from up above.
Slicer stayed right where she was. I got the impression she didn’t leave Predictor alone, ever.
“Tell us about where they are holding Andy, if they are even holding him?” said Haunter, turning it into a question at the end. “Or is he cooperating with them?”
“I’m not sure,” said Predictor. “Closer to cooperation, I’d guess. My impression is that he’s using them for his own ends, and they understand that and accept it and use him right back. So…cooperation with some needless complexity, I guess.”
“Will he come with us willingly?” I asked.
“Oh, absolutely. He’s waiting for us. He wants to help out Haunter, like he helped out you.”
“Me?” I asked, at the same time as Jane asked “Her?”
“You’ve met him before, right?” asked Predictor. “He did something to you that let you beat Death. I don’t know the details.”
Could that be possible? I hadn’t let him touch me, and my gift should have prevented anyone from meddling with it in the first place. Predictor was just messing with me, probably.
“If he’ll come willingly,” said Jane, “then why do we need two Fists for this? Why don’t you just scoop him up on your own?”
“His Union allies, or coconspirators, or whatever you want to call him, will not let him go easily. They will, in particular, not let him depart in our company, in order to assist their mortal enemies in the Pantheon. We are going to have to fight them.”
Jane held up a hand, frowning.
“Shouldn’t you be able to arrange a way where we get him away from them without killing anyone? If mean, if he is cooperating with them they can’t be keeping him too cooped up. Shouldn’t we make this more of a heist than an assault?”
“How bout it?” Slicer asked, pointing at me. “You feel like telling your new pals at the Pantheon about how you spared all of the Union guys? Or do you think this story plays out better for you if we come back dripping with their juices.”
Honestly I didn’t really give it that much consideration. If I needed to buttress my position with the locals I could just lie about how many Union grunts we’d taken out. I certainly wasn’t about to risk our lives to acquire bragging rights.
“I’m fine with it.” I said. “If we can do this Jane’s way, then I don’t have a problem with that.”
“Zilla might,” said Predictor.
“She’ll only know what we tell her,” said Haunter.
Predictor shook his head.
“She’s coming, some of her lieutenants too.”
“Really?” I asked.
My general impression, both from dealing with Legion’s base and from my limited time here, was that the leadership mostly sent out their underlings when the time came for dangerous missions. Legion had come with us to the central fort, of course, but I doubt she would’ve been inclined to go along if we’d been attacking someone.
It seemed like, over time, the Overseers who were risk takers would die off, and the ones left behind would be more conservative. They should be a cautious bunch.
“Yes,” he said. “She’s not going to let you out of her sight.”
Zilla had certainly been weirdly forward in our meeting, but I wasn’t about to let myself think whatever interest she had in me could sway her decisions.
“That makes sense,” said Haunter. “Zilla’s interests are bound up, one way or another, in the fact that Death died in her vicinity. Zeus and his compatriots could blame her for the loss, or praise her for ridding their number of an unpopular member. We have no visibility into which it would be.”
Predictor gave a short nod.
“Neither does she,” he said, “but she knows as well as anyone that as long as she is around to receive it the lightning will fall first on the convenient scapegoat who just showed up. If they are mad, they’ll take it out on Preventer. If not, then that is also acceptable.”
I had been thinking of Zilla as simply wanting a return to the status quo, but it made sense that Death’s loss would put that in jeopardy.
“How many Gods will Zilla bring along?” I asked. “Is this going to be more like a raid, or are you trying to escalate the war with a major incursion?”
“I don’t know,” said Predictor. “It depends on your next conversation with her, which depends on this one, which I’m in, so talking about it is problematic.”
“Alright,” said Haunter. “Let’s come at it from another angle. How many guards are we dealing with, at the facility? Are they Ultras or humans? Can you give us any details on what we are facing?”
“No way,” I said, before my better judgement could stop me, “telling us about that would change whether or not we knew about it and that would change whether or not he was able to tell us about it or something.”
There was a moment of silence as that attempt at a joke kind of just fell flat, but at least Slicer gave me a small, conspiratorial, grin.
“Approximately a hundred human personnel,” he answered, ignoring my efforts at humor, “and a detachment of thirty or so Ultras.”
Haunter and I exchanged looks.
“That…doesn’t sound all that difficult,” said Jane. “We’ve faced far worse recently, without your assistance.”
“It’s the environment which complicates things,” said Predictor. “Andy is being held within a flying fortress that the Union operates as a prison.”
Shit, that did complicate things. Not so much because of the ‘fortress’ part, but because Indulger’s power wouldn’t be available to us if we had to fight up on a flying building.
“A flying prison?” I asked, dubiously. “I know the Union has flying ships that looks like buildings, but that just sounds unworkable. How do they handle all the coming and going and stuff?”
“I don’t know,” said Predictor. “But we are going to have to raid the place while it is in flight. There are no futures where it sets down outside of the Union heartland, other than those where we force it to.”
“Why is it here at all?” asked Haunter. “It makes sense that they wouldn’t set down anywhere near the Pantheon’s forces, given the risk of their prison being cracked open, but if they are sensitive to that concern I don’t get why the prison would ever even be in this area at all, even if it stays up in the sky?”
“Andy,” said Predictor.
“He demanded this?” I asked. “Is he in charge of where the prison goes?”
“No,” he responded, “I mean, Andy is the reason for risking the prison this close to the front lines. They are using his gift on Ultras in their front line units, so they have to bring him here.”
“Couldn’t they just send the Ultras back to the interior?” I asked.
He just shrugged.
“That could be a problem,” said Haunter.
I looked at her quizzically.
“If Andy is working on members of a local Union unit, then we have to consider that the prison will probably be really close to its deployment area. If the fight goes on too long we could end up facing a full Union assault, like the one that decimated the first Host.”
“Yes,” said Predictor. “That is a concern. I am hoping we end up with approximately five Pantheon assistants, leaving us only outnumbered about two to one in Union Ultras. We’ll sweep them aside and seize control of the prison, fly it away before the local forces can reinforce the garrison.”
“Wait,” I said. “You want to operate the Union machinery? I’m pretty sure it has safeguards and such to prevent pretty much exactly that scenario. And even if the normal stuff doesn’t, then there is absolutely no way that a prison would share that lack. They have got to be concerned about the inmates stealing the facility.”
“Very sharp,” he said, approvingly. “There are, in fact, a few security contingencies to deal with a takeover, but I’ve foreseen ways for us to surmount them. We can take the prison, if we can defeat all of its defenders.”
“How?” asked Haunter. “If this isn’t one of those times when you can’t tell us.”
“We’ll seize the command personnel,” he responded. “Alive. Then they will drive the facility for us.”
“That’s it?” I asked, in disbelief.
“That’s the best you can come up with? We are going to set off a fifty Ultra fight, and hope that the people we need are alive at the end of it? That’s idiotic.”
I clamped down before continuing the rant. I’d almost shouted the last words.
“My teammate’s misgivings have merit, Predictor. I don’t believe your gift could steer a path through such a complicated battle, certainly not for an Ultra on the enemy’s side. Any given combination of gifts might throw foresight off, and that isn’t even considering that the enemy might not cooperate.”
As Jane’s words washed over him Predictor cast a long-suffering gaze over to Slicer, who returned it without sympathy.
“Do I tell you how to enslave ghosts?” he asked. “Or do I trust that you, having done just that for decades, is probably at the top of your game in that respect?”
He didn’t seem enraged, more like irritated. Like this was something he knew and could deal with.
“This is a several part plan. We close with the structure, and the whole mob of us stays outside. A few critical people steal into the jail, snag the targets, remove them to safety. Then the rest of us barge in, kill the garrison, wake up the Gods. We reunite and fly the base back inside of the Pantheon’s shield.”
“Interesting,” said Haunter. “Who would-“
He cut her off.
“I’ve said enough to convince you. Go have your conversation with your team, then Zilla, get them on board and moving in the right direction.”
Slicer cast us a sympathetic look as Fifth Fist started to form up again.
Predictor gave us a parting shot.
“I’m doing you a favor, by the by, with this mission. Zilla too. We do NOT want to be in this base when they tear through in a couple days.”
“Who?” I asked, but Fifth Fist just walked away.