To say the least, there was no immediate outburst of support when I announced my plan.
“We can’t go up there,” said Dale, staring blankly at me as the dust settled around us. “We just wiped out most of our own crew. Fisher and Condemner might well be back in the Link. We have no idea if we are at odds with the rest of Fifth Fist, or with Zilla and her buddies, to say nothing of any Union survivors.”
“Beyond that,” said Preventer, “We don’t know much about the larger situation. If the Pantheon are on the march, and the Union is maneuvering to counter them, then we would run the risk of being caught in the middle. Even for me, that might be hard to survive.”
I considered how to make them understand. At least they were still remembering to talk as though the Link was intact. Dale might be trigger happy, but at least he wasn’t entirely out of his mind.
I put my hands up as though to concede a point.
“Dale,” I said. “What does your gift give you as far as people nearby? There’s no reason for us to discuss a final decision before we know all of the facts.”
He nodded and put his hand back on the cracked wall of our makeshift cavern.
“Zilla,” said Preventer, “If you can hear us, I’d urge you not to do anything rash. You know your trick won’t work on me, and if you make me wait until the Link brings my colleagues back I’ll be quite put out. It would put a sizable damper on our planned partnership.”
I was probably eighty percent sure that she couldn’t hear us. I was willing to take the Pantheon members word for it that what had happened to the other Fist was her doing, somehow, but I still didn’t buy the idea that she had some kind of clairvoyance gift. Maybe her minions had triggered it, or maybe she had set some kind of time delayed effect on them, but I just kind of automatically resisted the idea that her gift let her watch everyone around her and kill them at will. Even She hadn’t gotten that power, needing to rope in Snitcher to achieve the same basic effect.
“I don’t think she can hear you,” I told Preventer. “The planning session on attacking the jail would have looked very different if she could hear what was going on up there from down here.”
“Her gift is changing shape, right?” said Dale. “I don’t get how that let her take out Pitcher and the others.”
“Well, they bled from the mouths,” I said. “It looked like their insides were being torn apart. I’ve seen Mover kill like that, when she was trying to be subtle.”
“Zilla doesn’t have TK,” said Preventer. “Or if she does she is a lot more disciplined than she lets on. If she could move stuff with her mind she’d be goosing people nonstop.”
I grinned involuntarily at that, then paused a second.
Zilla was handsy as all get out, but what if that wasn’t just a personality thing, what if it was part of this mystery?
“Hold on a second,” I said, pushing the Jury onto this line of thought. “Let me just spend a moment pondering our circumstances.”
“Ok,” said Dale. “While you do that I can tell you a little about who is around.”
That wasn’t really in the spirit of giving me a second, but I wasn’t about to stop him from giving us information.
“Basically no one,” he said. “The Union guys in the camp have all got up off of the ground somehow, probably with those flying things, like the one we used to take us out of the embassy. The jail is up off the ground, so I can’t tell about that, and the other Pantheon guys are still buried down in the rocks.”
“They aren’t dead?” asked Preventer.
Dale shook his head.
“I was worried about Noon losing her cool, her power in this kind of situation wouldn’t have been pretty, but the rest of that crew I can just keep down below for a while. No need to burn even more bridges, right?”
In my experience, with one or two exceptions, gifts tended to sort of match a theme. Even if they had a variety of separate manifestations, they were all in the service of a kind of overarching goal. Like a monstrous Ultra who was strong and tough, using Condemner’s framework I’d say that the Entity in question wanted to be a big fighting monster. Or one who could blast and fly, well, once again, the gifts were clearly meant to work together.
Zilla, on that axis, was really odd. She had a kind of a disguise gift, like an infiltrator would get, but also Ultra strength and toughness. That pushed my mind towards an assassin, she could mimic friends of her target to get close enough, then suddenly take them out.
But how to square that with this extra part, the bit where she could instantly slaughter anyone? That seemed, power level aside, to kind of render the disguise angle entirely moot. An Ultra with the power to kill other Ultras at long range, without line of sight, well, they wouldn’t really need any kind of disguise power, right?
Moreover, working again off the theory that the Grabbies were farming for memories, it would be kind of counterproductive. Her creator was expecting to wake up with memories of fooling people with disguises, surely it could appreciate that she wouldn’t bother with that with this kind of cursing gift on tap.
“I appreciate that, Dale,” I told him, “But I wish you would have cleared things with the rest of us before you made your move. Zilla had plainly had some kind of falling out with Predictor’s Fist, but no one was attacking us.”
“I think she might’ve,” said Preventer, “if he didn’t preempt it.”
If I went with the theory that Zilla was supposed to be an infiltrator, and I considered that she was always grabbing and touching people, then perhaps she had to touch her victims, and her gift was something like killing anyone that she’d touched before whenever she decided to.
“Look,” said Dale. “I just don’t want to get chumped out again, all right? I’m sick and tired of getting taken out. It, uh, you lose hours of your day, you know?”
That still didn’t seem quite right. If she was exercising a death touch at a distance I’d expect people just falling down dead, not internal trauma. I felt like the fact that they were coughing up blood was significant somehow.
“I get it,” I said. “Fisher has told me how boring the Link is. I’m thankful that I haven’t had to experience it.”
I shelved the consideration of Zilla’s gift, delegating it to a subset of my reserve who lived for that kind of thing, and set my mind to what we ought to do next.
“Make sure the rest of Zilla’s goons are comfortable down there,” I advised Dale. “She will understand that you had to defend yourself from Noon, but there’s no call for further violence, not if we can avoid it.”
Dale just grunted, acknowledging the point without overtly addressing it. It wasn’t like he’d have killed them, left to his own devices. Or at least I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have. It said something that I’d felt the need to speak on the matter at all.
“I think Jane is right,” said Preventer. “We should go up there.”
I looked quizzically at her.
“I’ve been thinking about it while we talked,” she said, “and it makes sense. Our mission is up there. We are only down here because we convinced ourselves that the advance team could secure Andy. Between the Pantheon forces advancing and whatever happened between our allies, I think it is pretty clear that the plan is ruined.”
“That’s basically what I was thinking,” I agreed. “But also, I kind of feel like the advance team, Zilla in particular, are the only way open for us to fix whatever is going wrong between our groups. If we can explain ourselves to her satisfaction, then Dale can bring the others up, and she will keep them in line.”
Dale just grunted, but all of a sudden I could tell that we were going up.
“Be ready for…” I said, trailing off as our cave suddenly broke out onto the surface.
My gaze went immediately to where we’d last seen the prison, and it was still there, a series of linked cubes defying all reason by remaining airborne with no visible means of support. It wasn’t flying away, wasn’t spouting flame and plummeting downwards. It looked like a few worst case scenarios had been avoided.
Even as I was looking up a few members of my reserve had stepped out of me, and were peering all around. None of them saw fit to disturb me, so there wasn’t anything of any immediate concern on the ground around me. I spent a moment squinting up at the ship.
There were some signs of trouble, now that I was taking a second look. It was palpably listing, for one thing. For another, the part of it that was slightly more elevated seemed to be giving off what I would normally conclude was an engine plume, but what I presently surmised was probably just evidence of Condemner, hard at work.
“Boss,” murmured Joe, and I turned to look.
In the distance, hard to make out, the skiffs were still rising from what had to be the Union Intervention Force’s campsite. I couldn’t see too much of it, they were nearly at the horizon from our present position, but there was definitely a disturbance of some kind, definitely rectangles rising up and scooting away to the northwest.
“What now?” asked Dale.
“We just…” I trailed off.
What we needed to do was, somehow, get up there and intercept Andy. Or chase after him if he was gone. Or, I guessed, find his next iteration somewhere in the entire world if Zilla or Slasher had already killed him.
“Jenny,” I said into the walkie talkie. “Where is Andy? Are you on their cameras? Can you talk?”
There was a long, terrifying moment of silence.
I let myself go, just a bit. My eyes got a bit wider, I clenched my teeth. I let myself imagine Jenny having no idea where Andy was. Imagined that Zilla’s loss of control meant that the healers from her army were about to be thrown into battle with the Union. Imagined my mission failing, my reserve denied the second chance they so richly deserved.
I imagined, in that instant, Death’s words as truths. That I’d been an agent of pointless torment all this time, dragging the unquiet dead about with my false promises, forcing them to see their descendants degraded and their world despoiled.
By the time Jenny answered I was over it. I’d have time enough to fall apart later on.
“Andy and his guards are boarding a skiff. Jane, there’s, Zilla and Condemner killed our own people! Everybody was just, it was like…”
“Is Fisher alright?” I asked.
Fisher was, if I looked at the matter in a completely callous, not to say evil, way, basically a canary in the coal mine of Condemner bothering to play along with me. If he ever killed her the deception that we were still a Fist was finished, meaning that he wouldn’t be able to trust me not to destroy him by surprise, meaning I wouldn’t be able to…etc.
“I don’t know, she…”
Jenny trailed off, I could only imagine some scrolling, or whatever the Union equivalent was. I’d been utterly unable to fathom their interface when I had access to the embassy’s systems, apparently the main verb was ‘tilt’. Some of my more computer literate shades assured me it was a revolution in UI design.
“Did that thing just say Andy is getting away?” asked Preventer.
She’d been standing a little close to me, close enough to overhear at least part of our conversation.
“Yes,” I said. “We’ll have to bring down the skiff, she’ll let us know which one to target.”
“Bring down the skiff?” asked Dale, dubiously. “I can barely see up there, and wouldn’t Andy, like, splat?”
“No, we’ll target the, uh, extruders.” I breezed, as a shade provided the appropriate terminology. “Don’t judge my shade’s marksmanship by the standards of this era. They can make the shot.”
I was aware that a bit of a manic tone was entering my voice.
“Jane,” said Joe, inwardly. “There’s armor. The distance is too great, and there’s no reason to assume it would come down slow.”
“They are getting ready to go now, boss,” said Jenny. “I can’t find Fisher, or her body for that matter. I guess she’s still ok.”
“Which cube?” I asked, or demanded really. “Get ready!”
Soldiers rushed dutifully out of my body, pointing their firearms up at a nearly vertical angle.
“Maybe I could build, like, a really tall wall,” said Dale, hands spread wide in a placating gesture.
Shit. I knew I’d fallen far when Dale was humoring me.
I couldn’t get away with closing my eyes, but I sort of squinted, delegating visual difficulties.
I counted, not quite aloud, not quite in my mind. Subvocalizing.
“1, 2, 3…”
Had I forgotten the lesson of the collapse? Righteous umbrage didn’t make you stronger. You didn’t get to win just because you deserved to, just because you tried hard. There was no law of the universe that I had to catch Andy.
“4, 5, 6…”
Fear wouldn’t help me save my reserve. Anger wouldn’t. Billions had fallen, and I was no angrier, no more scared than any of them. Only reason could deliver victory.
“7, 8, 9…”
“They are heading out.”
Rifle shots rang out, but I had little doubt the range was too great, the angle too steep, the armor too thick, come to that.
“They are too far up for my barriers,” said Preventer.
I breathed out, heavily, and opened my eyes fully again.
“Alright, that’s that,” I said, keeping my words as calm as possible. “Our new objective is to figure out what’s going on with Fifth Fist and Zilla. Does anyone-“
“It’s turning!” said Dale, pointing a thick finger up at the escaping skiff.
I just stared.
He wasn’t wrong. The skiff, which had previously been taking the same high straight trajectory as all of the other evacuees, was heading straight towards us.
“Did Andy take control somehow?” I asked the walkie talkie. “I know the scanners on those things are exceptional, maybe they saw us waiting below, maybe…”
I trailed off. Fruitless speculation.
The skiff moved swiftly, dropping down with the trademark abruptness of the lithnetic craft, then pulling to an absolute stop a few hundred feet above and in front of us.
I waved a hand, hesitantly.
Someone on board seemed to yell something, but I couldn’t make it out.
“Remember me?” supplied the Jury.
I stopped waving, just about the same time the skiff opened fire.