“Talk to me,” I whispered into the ghostly walkie talkie.
There was a long moment of static, so I used the time to look around.
We were, as we nearly always were, in one of Dale’s caves, the light provided by thin fissures in the roof and walls. We’d gone back down under the surface as soon as Genie had taken the attack team up to go after the ship. No point in leaving ourselves vulnerable if we didn’t have to, and all that.
Noon and Bull were both really tense, standing stock still, looking up at the place where the hole to the surface had disappeared. Despite the fact that Zilla had seemed to be the proximate cause of their anxiety, her departure hadn’t helped them to relax at all. They still acted like her hand was at their throats.
The pair of Furies who were still here didn’t seem quite so nervous. The Jury’s read on that crew had them as the sort of young people who believed themselves invincible. They would be mostly chafing at their having been left behind. The fact that the mission above was exceptionally hazardous wouldn’t have even registered.
Tamer, Pitcher and Gardener, by contrast, acted like they didn’t have a care in the world. Their leaders were out and about in the face of grave peril, and the overall vibe they were giving off was ‘bored’. I suppose the Link and Predicter’s ability to foresee the future would have sapped most of their tension away, but I was still convinced that it was mostly a front. They were too smart not to be at least a little worried.
We were just a few miles away from an Intervention Force’s camp, after all.
Dale and Preventer, at least, were both showing their nervousness in a slightly more obvious manner. They were having a dumb argument about whether or not Dale should go ahead and drink down Lotus’ concoction, or whether he should save it for a more pressing need.
“We’re in,” said Jenny, her voice breaking through the static.
Predicter had told us that it would be safe to use the old walkie talkies once they’d gone inside. I wasn’t sure whether that was because he was disabling whatever scanner would be listening for it, or just that it would be too late to do anything about it, but I wasn’t about to argue. I was betting everything on this mission, and I’d take any insight into it that I could get.
I nodded, although of course she couldn’t see that. It was for the benefit of everyone else around, who were covertly watching me.
“Keep me informed,” I told her.
“Are they in?” asked Dale, the sarcasm bubbling just beneath the surface of his voice.
“Of course they are,” said Noon. “Our Master cannot fail. Zilla will work her will upon the world without fail, just as she always has!”
I nodded noncommittally. I actually put most of my faith in Predicter. He might be planning something shady later, but it seemed extremely unlikely he’d go to all this effort if they were just going to be cut to ribbons up there.
“Zilla says Indulger should start his attack now,” said Jenny.
I frowned. I’d been hoping that that would fall by the wayside, but there was no help for it.
I motioned to Dale, who put his hand carefully up against the wall.
There was a slight shuddering, but no more than that. It was terrifying to think that only a few miles away people would be screaming in fear as the very ground turned against them.
Screaming, but not dying. I knew Dale well enough to know that everyone would be being attacked by rumbling hills of rock and sand, slow and cumbersome, rather than simply skewered or dropped into the world’s core. Dale wouldn’t, for the most part, kill if he wasn’t in danger.
The next few minutes passed in a tense and uncomfortable quiet. It was hard to escape the impression that we were cowering down here, trembling beneath the earth while our fate was decided by those above.
The Jury waged a debate within my mind, trying to game out what the likely outcome of Dale’s attack on the camp was, and whether that would aid or hinder the current assault that Zilla was waging upon the flying jail. Their consensus seemed to be heading towards it being a good idea, but I felt that they were probably just trying to make me feel a bit more secure in our present circumstances.
“There’s a problem,” said Jenny, her voice once again an abrupt break in the ghostly hissing.
“Problem?” I asked.
“Holy…it is happening!” she said, her voice rising.
“Report!” I insisted. “What’s happening?”
“Jane, there’s…the Pantheon, the Grand Push is starting, the Union is responding. It’s all going down!’
I just stood there for a moment, mind reeling.
The Pantheon attacking? That didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Their leader was here, with us, currently embarked on an enemy transport. Had Zeus finally gotten tired of waiting, or maybe Legion had launched a coup as soon as we departed?
“The Pantheon is attacking?” asked Preventer. “Why would they do that? Why throw away a peace that only…”
She trailed off, perhaps realizing that no one here was going to be able to give her an authoritative answer, that all we could do would be to pile our own speculations atop hers.
“That must be why the Intervention force is bailing,” said Dale.
I whipped my gaze over to him.
“They aren’t staying?”
He shook his head.
“Nope, just abandoning the camp. If I’m reading the vibrations right they are hopping up onto flying things, and I can’t tell where they go from there. I thought they were probably hovering a little ways above the ground, but maybe if big things are happening they are just going off to wherever that is.
I gave a solemn nod.
“If the Pantheon is actually moving out, then tomorrow morning the Union will begin operations in earnest. They’d be deeply disinterested in skirmishing with a Regime Fist in the meantime, not with their homeland at risk.”
“How would they know you are Regime?” asked Noon. “Perhaps they believe that the rising stones are a sign of Divine Advent, the very stones singing of the Earth’s welcome for the Cloud Gatherer.”
At least when we did the thing where we pronounced capital letters we only did the one person’s pronouns. These poor children’s minds had been thoroughly contaminated with signifiers of arbitrary significance.
“They have files,” I explained. “As soon as we came on the scene their scouts were gathering up information about us. They know our gifts, and that knowledge will have been disseminated to any and all officers of above a certain level. Combine that with our recent…”
I trailed off. There was no reason to tell them about the embassy catastrophe.
“They have files.” I said again.
“It matters not,” said Bull.
Despite her hulking battle form her voice had remained that of a small woman.
“We are strong, and they are weak. Zilla is unstoppable, and she has set her mind to the capture of the one called Andy. Whatever their knowledge, it cannot change this essential truth. The mighty take, and those who lack power complain about it.”
I rolled my eyes.
“How does that belief square with the fact that you guys lose every time you face them?” I asked. “Do they get mighty in time to beat you, then lose their power as soon as the fight is over, so you get brave enough to try again?”
They glared at me, the Furies audibly spluttering.
I wasn’t worried. These were minions, through and through. They’d try and kill me if and only if their boss told them to. Whether I antagonized them or not wouldn’t make any difference at all.
“Maybe them winning proves that they are weak, somehow,” said Pitcher. “If they were really strong, then they could handle defeat, or something like that?”
I scowled at her. Openly taunting the Pantheon was, if nothing else, kind of tacky. Their beliefs might seem ridiculous to us, but they could still kill just fine.
“What does this mean for the current operation?” asked Preventer. “Is the jail pulling out too? Or might they evacuate it instead of reinforcing it?”
I didn’t answer her directly, instead pointing a hand at Predictor’s Fist.
“Is this what your boss was counting on?” I asked. “He was dropping hints about Zilla not wanting to be in her camp when something happened, I take it the Pantheon’s big attack is that something?”
They looked to one another for a moment.
“Yes,” said Gardener. “This is the reason that this mission can succeed. The Union will be too busy to concern themselves with a jailbreak when their enemy is on the rampage.”
“Zilla is the reason that this mission will succeed,” insisted Bull. “We are the reason. Our Divine Purpose will not be obstructed by the heathen’s pitiful efforts.”
The Fist members stood up at that, and suddenly the tension in the room seemed menacing in a way that it hadn’t a second ago.
“Zilla is a chump,” said Pitcher. “She dies screaming, not too long from-“
Her eyes bulged from her face, and a great gout of blood shot out of her mouth.
I dropped instantly into a defensive crouch, a pair of shades moving smoothly out of me, as Pitcher toppled.
Before I could get my bearings another body joined the pile, as Gardener slumped down atop her, his bulky form seeming to swallow up hers as they writhed on the ground.
“What is happening?” asked Tamer, eyes frantic.
I looked to Dale, but he just shook his head. Whatever was attacking, it wasn’t anything that his gift was telling him about, which meant it wasn’t putting any pressure on the walls or the ceiling.
“Judgement is happening,” said Noon.
“Praise Zilla, and fear her Wrath!” added Bull.
“This isn’t-“ said Tamer, before she hunched over, putting a hand to her chest, eyes wide with terror.
“Tamer?” I asked.
“Not like-“ she managed, before a spray of blood emerged from her mouth. Her eyes flared wide for a moment, and then she slumped limply to the ground.
“Who’s a chump now?” asked Noon, striding forward and giving Gardener’s limp form a kick. “Why didn’t your leader see this coming? Eh?”
So complete was my faith in Predicter that for a moment I thought there would be a response, but the forms of his fist just kind of lay there, still and unmoving.
Bull turned to us, leaning menacingly forward, as though she was about to spring.
“And then there were three,” she said. “Will you also prove false before her judgement?”
A long beat, as we stood, waiting to fall prey to whatever it was that Zilla was doing.
“Looks like we pass,” said Preventer. “Not that I was worried anyway.”
“Well, you have found favor in her eyes,” said one of the Furies. “You will endure this, your future is assured. You will stand beside her in the Council, and so long as you abide by her admonitions she will not smite you.”
“So we are all going to be fine,” said Dale. “Since we can’t die if Preventer doesn’t, because of the Link.”
Bull kind of leaned back, following that line of reasoning.
Noon wasn’t so easily mollified.
“I would hear you say it, heathens!” she snarled. “Give praise to Zilla, and to the Cloud Gatherer. Make known your allegiance, or chance her displeasure.”
Dale spoke before any of the rest of us could answer.
“Force rules the world, has ruled it, shall rule it,” he said, giving the catechism of the Regime without hitch or pause. “Maybe nowadays that force is Zilla, and maybe it is still Her…”
Noon’s eyes widened.
But even as she spoke, even as she moved a hand, perhaps to invoke her allegedly omnidestructive gift, Dale’s gift was already in motion, spears of rock shooting out of the earth beneath her.
“But it sure isn’t you,” he finished.
She was pierced through in an instant, the stone blades from below impaling her legs and torso, and another from the roof dropping down and obliterating her head.
The Jury erupted in a tumult, even as I braced for more violence. What the hell had gotten into Dale?”
Bull didn’t waste any words, simply charging straight at him, intent on vengeance.
Bullets thudded into her, my shades spraying them in a frantic hail, but they made no impact, and we didn’t have any time to do anything more before she would strike…
Preventer, who stepped smoothly into her path.
Bull had lowered her head like the animal that was her namesake, her battle form a veritable engine of fury and destruction, entirely focused on obliterating all in her path. Everything that her gift could give, every ounce of her battle form’s enormous frame, all concentrated and channeled into Preventer’s face.
An unholy noise rang out as nearly unstoppable force met immovable object, and Bull bounced back as though she’d run right into the end of the world.
The Furies surged around her, lifting her back to her feat, one of their number facing off with us.
“Are you crazy?” she asked. “Zilla will punish this defiance.”
Dale didn’t give them time to say anything more. At a gesture the cavern collapsed, stone and rock raining down from the roof in an all-obliterating cascade.
I sprang to the side as a great boulder crushed the area where I’d been standing, but there was no way to avoid every stone. I felt a shade leave me as a sharp rock slipped through my arm.
The noise was too great, there was no way to see, I shrunk down, frantic to minimize my profile, even as the dust and rocks buried us.
What followed felt like an eternity, but couldn’t possibly have been longer than a few seconds. I could do nothing, battered here and there by the encroaching stones as I was swiftly crushed into immobility.
A dozen, two dozen shades slipped away, treasured companions lost to this madness, I clenched my teeth, relaxed everything else, desperately trying to prolong each moment of intangibility, hoping to stem the tide of losses, give Dale time to fix this somehow.
My wish was granted a moment later, the stones slid away, another cave forming around us.
I gasped and coughed, taking my first breath in what seemed like forever. A man’s arm, unmistakably Dale’s, lifted me to my feet.
“What,” I gasped, coughing. “What the fuck?”
“Easy,” he said. “Easy.”
I shook off his supporting hand.
“What the FUCK?” I asked again. “Dale, that…”
I shook my head, utterly at a loss for how to even end that sentence.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry, I just…”
Light fell across us, Dale’s gift opening one of his mirror fissures to the surface. I could finally see again.
Dale’s eyes were wide, his hands were trembling.
He dropped to his knees as I watched.
“Dale…” I said.
“I…I can’t…” he stammered. “Without…”
And he looked at me, my mind finishing the sentence.
The Link. If Noon had called upon her gift in here Dale would have perished. If Zilla continued to kill from afar he would perish. There would be no return for him.
But even still, that didn’t explain…
“I can’t,” he said again. “I can’t put another above Her. Not really. Not in any big way. She made sure of that, back when we were in Shington.”
Torturer’s work? Or a symptom of Lotus’ gift that hadn’t been obvious before? Or perhaps just the trauma of our insane life, catching up to him all at once?
“I understand,” I said. “I get it. You don’t have to say anymore.”
He breathed heavily, even as his gift extracted Preventer from one of the walls.
“What the FUCK was that about?” she asked, and then proceeded to have substantially the same conversation with Dale that I just had.
I left them to it, grateful for a moment to process the situation. Fifth Fist’s reserves were dead. Zilla’s reserves were dead. Dale was unreliable. We might be struck down at any moment. The Union was pulling out.
“Andy,” I said.
I had to focus on what mattered.
They both looked to me.
“We have to get up there. Whatever Preventer’s plan was, it is all messed up now. We can’t rely on them to get Andy for us. We are going to have to do it ourselves.”