“What the fuck happened?” I asked, hunkering down at the edge of the knoll.
An unfamiliar observer wouldn’t necessarily have noticed anything wrong with Shington on first impression. The city had always been a comparatively tiny set of intact buildings within a great halo of ruined structures, and it still was. The power had always been intermittent, and even the fires weren’t terribly novel.
But I was no unfamiliar observer. This was all wrong, even if I couldn’t immediately tell what had taken place.
“You are familiar with Torturer?” asked Mario.
I scowled at him. I didn’t have a huge amount of patience for people who asked questions that they knew the answer to, particularly in situations where serious consequences loomed.
The Jury, meanwhile, had been debating on the vista that I’d just looked out over. Their take was that the city’s center of gravity, so to speak, had shifted. The most prestigious Ultras had moved along the river, seizing the homes and dwellings of their less powerful competitors, and then repairing or rebuilding them.
The previous edges of Shington, by contrast, had fallen into disrepair, as the hangers on and have nots of the Regime’s capital had followed after their masters. The difference that I’d noted was a result of this, of the city ‘stretching’, so to speak, into the ruins about it, displacing its hangers on and expanding its overall volume.
“We came up with a scheme, a while back, to use her against Her. This was after Prevailer had stopped warping around, you see, and everyone knows that Torturer’s gift is unstoppable in a radius arou-”
“You didn’t,” interrupted Preventer. “Tell me that you didn’t.”
We were squatting on the edge of the greater Shington area, looking out over the city. The plane trip had been uneventful, with no sign of any attempt by the Union to track their vanished prisoners. Dale had gotten airsick, and ultimately spent the flight squatting down on the aircraft floor, hands clenched tightly around a chair leg.
We’d taken a skiff from the landing zone, which had actually been a bit of a tense moment, but Mario’s credentials had apparently been sufficient to get us through, and apparently no one had compared our profiles to those of notorious Regime figures.
Mario assured me that that wasn’t quite right, the comparison HAD been made, but SPARTACUS wouldn’t have routed it to anyone local because of some directives that he’d entered earlier. Somewhere an empty feed was blowing up with updates, but since the person who was supposed to be watching it was here with us, we were ok.
“We did,” he said. “We got the go ahead to try and weaponize her, I believe it was called Operation Karma Bitch. The plan was to herd her into the heart of the city, take out Her at best, a whole bunch of fascists at worst.”
I gritted my teeth.
“You understand that the vast majority of the city’s population are unpowered, right?” I asked him. “And that in the case of any kind of indiscriminate attack the Ultras will move away, and leave the humans around them to suffer?”
“You got to understand by now Jane,” said Indulger, “The Union aren’t like you want them to be. They hate us and they want to kill us, because they think they are better or something.”
I looked back to Mario, who winced and made a ‘sorta’ gesture with one hand.
“So what went wrong?” asked Preventer. “The world is still here, so I know you didn’t actually manage to get Torturer’s field onto Her.”
“She balked,” explained Mario. “Stopped as soon as she realized that she was heading into a populated area. She retreated to the city’s edge, and has stayed there since, foraging for food and such.”
I shook my head, looking out into Shington’s outskirts, trying not to think about the atrocity that had been perpetrated upon them.
“And She let this stand?” asked Dale, dubiously. “Like, Prevailer is ok with Torturer squatting on the edge of town instead of down in the pit? That, uh, doesn’t sound right.”
Mario looked over at him, eyebrow raised, but didn’t say anything.
“I’m not…I, hmm, I mean, we’ve been across the ocean, so you know better than we do what’s going on, but, like, if somebody told me that story I would say that She was weirdly passive, you know? Like, Peggy doesn’t really ever let anyone get one over on Her.”
“Remember,” said Mario, “You guys and Sixth Fist were deployed on the Pantheon mission. Fifth and First are off doing whatever they were up to, and Third deployed just after you did. The only assets She still has in-city are Remover and Second Fist, as well as the more minor Ultras.”
“I doubt She knows who they are,” said Preventer. “I remember a time where She called the Warlord the wrong name for her whole tenure. She’d forgotten that the last one had died, just went right on using the same name.”
“What’d the warlord do?” I asked.
“Changed her name.” she answered, deadpan.
We shared a chuckle over that.
Tensions had gone down a bit, in our little makeshift unit, since the jailbreak’s immediate aftermath. Dale was rationing his crazy juice, so he was noticeably more like his old self. Mario had sort of receded, in that way that humans in the company of a bunch of mighty Ultras often did, and Preventer was making an effort to be amiable.
“Alright,” I said, “So we head into the city, skirting the Pain Zone, and then what?”
“Well,” said Preventer, “We are trying to find First Fist, right? I can check on the Gardens, see if they’ve harassed any of them lately. I don’t think they could resist doing something heinous to my people if they were in town.”
I saw Mario stifle a grimace at that. It was easy to forget just how much of a shit Preventer was when she was being all reasonable, but there really just wasn’t anything resembling a soul in there.
“They probably could,” I responded, “if this is really Remover’s endgame. She owns that crew, body and soul. She isn’t going to make any obvious mistakes if it puts her long term plans in jeopardy.”
“Okay, but, like, is she gonna make any mistakes?” asked Dale. “You went off a few times about how she isn’t just some green haired super cop, she is the devil or whatever. So, doesn’t that just kind of screw us?”
That was an uncomfortable point.
“I think we decided,” said Mario, “to proceed as though our mission was possible. We are going into Shington because that’s the only way that the Union isn’t already trying to find First Fist. So, since otherwise we are doomed or saved no matter by someone else’s efforts, there must be something in Shington to find.”
I tapped my fingers together, trying to figure out how to unpick that argument. It was at times like these that I missed the Colonel. I gave it to the Jury.
“We can’t…hmm, what I’m trying to say is that that doesn’t exactly track.” I said, after a moment.
Dale scratched his head, looking at me.
“Yeah, we are stipulating that this is possible, “ I said. “And that means walling off the possibility that it isn’t. Fine. But, then, we still need to choose among the various options facing us, and we can’t extend the ‘don’t care about the odds’ principle further than we need to if we want to be successful.”
There was no need to rehearse the ‘passion doesn’t bring success, only reason does’ speech with my Fist. They’d all heard it before, and Mario had apparently arrived independently at something similar.
“So let’s put ‘talking to the people at the Gardens and using them as bait’ as one option,” I continued, “And consider others.”
“I didn’t say to use them as bait!” objected Preventer, but I breezily talked past her.
“Answerer knows,” I said. “By definition. If we can get a hold of Answerer we can get ahold of anyone.”
“Unless something about Remover is unforeseeable,” objected Mario. “If she’s pulled this all off under Her nose, and She had Answerer the whole time, doesn’t she kind of have to have a precog countermeasure?”
I frowned, but Dale jumped in before I could answer.
“It might be, like, simpler than that? Like, Prevailer only cares about Herself and Her friends, so, you know, Remover can stomp on the rest of us just as much as she wants. The questions aren’t getting asked about us.”
“It’s the same trick Remover pulled on the Union,” I said, “Getting them to think about the Pantheon as enemies so they wouldn’t act to save them when her attack came. She did the same thing to the strongest Ultras, getting Prevailer and Answerer and the rest to hole up and jerk each other off while she laid waste to the rest of us.”
It wasn’t a perfect comparison, but I’d be damned if I passed up a chance to tell Mario that his civilization was being dumb and it was leading us to extinction.
Wow, that was petty. Ok, maybe I would pass up such chances in the future. It wasn’t like he made the call, and by freeing us he’d already done all that he could do about it.
“It is still likely,” I stressed, “that Answerer can tell us where they are. If she can’t then that’s new information, but I’m pretty sure she’s answered First Fist related questions before. They’ve been working together for decades now. If Answerer had a blind spot for First Fist then I think She would have known, and done something.”
“There’s also Second Fist,” said Preventer.
I looked at her curiously.
“Refiner and Remover were always close,” she said. “First Fist likes to use Knight support, and Refiner can tell where his gift is in use. Wherever they are holed up, I really doubt they’ve ditched their blessed clothes.”
I grimaced, thinking of the Knights of Purity that I used to take on my troubleshooting expeditions, before joining Fourth Fist. I’d had no idea that Deceiver had been able to track my whereabouts all along.
“Would Second Fist tell us?” I asked. “It isn’t like we were ever exactly close.”
“It’s just another prospect,” said Preventer. “I’m not saying Answerer isn’t our best bet, but she’s notoriously hard to get ahold of. If we strike out there, then Second Fist makes a good second plan.”
“What do we do about Fisher and Condemner?” asked Dale, carefully noncommittal as to why they might not be here.
“No chance they will show up in time?” asked Mario.
Dale shook his head.
“Fists show up all the time without one member,” said Preventer. “It looks a little weak, but it isn’t the end of the world. It’s going to be hard to explain why we only sending half our number though.”
I looked back to Mario, considering.
“What if we weren’t down by two members?” I asked.
“I don’t like where this is going,” he said.
“Look, we can’t very well explain that we are walking around with a Union spy,” I said, “And we can’t leave you lurking outside the city in the brush.”
“I thought I could act like a Regime human,” he said. “Act like a minion or whatever.”
“Um…I don’t think you could pull it off,” Dale said, trying his best to be kind, “Like, maybe if you had a week of lessons, or whatever, but right now…”
“There’s a deference there,” I explained, “It is hard to pull off unless you are genuinely concerned that you could be murdered at any moment. Regime citizens are brutalized and traumatized. You are just too, I don’t know, awake.”
“So instead of pretending to be a class of people I’m unfamiliar with, you want me to pretend to be one specific person I’m unfamiliar with?” he asked. “That feels like a much harder acting challenge. I never met this Nirav guy, and the footage I’ve seen of him isn’t terribly distinctive.”
“His form was malleable,” I explained, “He could shift it a bit when he came back from fire form. You are broadly similar, and he was never the most social of us.”
“All you got to do is stand in the back,” said Dale, “And just make shit up if anyone asks you stuff. Talk about, like, the ‘dignity of fire’, and the ‘formlessness of fury’, if you get stuck.”
Preventer stifled a chuckled.
“He never said ‘formlessness of fury’,” she objected.
“He’s going to give you some shit for saying that!” I chimed in, not so subtly reminding the other two that, for now at least, Fisher and Condemner were to be resolutely present tense.
It wasn’t that we didn’t trust Mario at this point. It was the simple fact that the easiest way to tell a lie was to believe it, so each fewer person who knew the Link was broken was one less person who could accidentally spill that info.
“What do we do about Her?” asked Dale, as the chuckling was dying down.
We all fell silent at that, save for Mario.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “We are avoiding Her, aren’t we?”
I nodded somberly.
“That might not be possible,” I said. “She was romantically interested in Dale, back in the day. She may have left instructions in the wake of his return.”
“Can we just avoid Her proxies?” he asked. “I wasn’t on the Shington beat, I don’t know exactly how She sends out Her orders, but could it be as simple as just not talking to them?”
“Sure,” said Dale, “Except our plan is to go and find them and talk to them.”
Mario deflated a little.
“Yeah,” I confirmed, “Her orders generally go out through Remover and the Fists now. Back in the day she had the Snitches and such, but ever since Snitcher got taken out the shit just rolls downhill.”
“That’s not so surprising,” said Dale. “I mean, the reason we want to talk to Answerer and Refiner is that they know stuff. It makes sense that they would also know what we don’t want them to know, you know?”
“No,” I joked, before chuckling again.
“Won’t they know Condemner?” asked Mario, circling back around to this part of the plan in what I felt was an admirable attempt to evade the inevitable, “Should we maybe-“
“Nobody knew Nirav,” said Preventer, “And there’s nothing we can do about Her. If we get called before Prevailer, then all we can do is what we’ve always done, we play it by ear.”
I didn’t exactly love that, but standing out here was scarcely any better, and it didn’t seem like there was anything we could do to prepare for such an encounter.
“We will go off context clues, read the room, all that kind of thing,” I cautioned the rest. “Let Dale and I take the lead on it. He knows Her, and I have a lot of help in my reserve. We are our best chance to get through any encounters.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” said Preventer. “I literally joined a Fist and tried to defect to the Pantheon in order to not talk to Her.”
“Then it’s settled,” I told them.
I looked around the knoll, got nods, grudging or not, from each of them.
“Then let’s do this,” I told them. “Together.”
We all nodded solemnly, and then we got up and started working our way forward, pushing rubble aside and using Dale’s gift to shift the occasional large obstacle.
Without ceremony or excitement we slipped back into Shington.