It was funny, even with everything happening, even in the middle of a confrontation between two Fists, an event that my whole bureau had been feverishly speculating about as long as I’d worked there, I couldn’t stop thinking about my own motivations.
I thought that I’d made my own choices. I remembered my frustration at what I’d seen as the blinkered foolishness of the other branches, at their stupid insistence on squandering the opportunity that Fourth Fist represented while the Union’s survival was at stake.
That frustration had become outrage, and outrage had become, with the tacit permission of my direct supervisor, the impetus to action. I’d broken them out of jail and whisked them across the ocean, and now I was accompanying them on a desperate mission. It all hung together.
The problem was that there was another interpretation that hung together too.
Thinking about it the other way, I was just like the other mindwashed victims at the embassy. I’d come into contact with Fourth Fist back when I tried to abduct Indulger, and then again during the Martinez fiasco. Later I took action on their behalf that I insisted was at my own initiative, just like Meghan giving over her security codes.
In this other perspective the pattern was simple. Humans who encountered Fourth Fist became their puppets. I was a human who had encountered Fourth Fist, ergo I was their drone at this point.
It was a dubious mercy that that explanation was almost certainly the one my superiors would eventually believe, should they survive the present crisis. I’d go down as one more victim of Ultra nonsense.
I pushed the familiar worry out of my mind. Ultimately, the ‘am I brainwashed’ dilemma mirrored the ‘are we just playing into the precog’s hands’ issue. In both cases there was nothing you could really do about it, you could only act as you saw fit, and hope that the context of it all worked out in your favor, for a given value of ‘you’ that you happened to presently embody.
“Krishna?” asked Haunter, in a tone of voice that made it clear that she was really saying ‘really?’.
Refiner gave a solemn nod.
“I remember her,” said Dale. “She was the Pantheon person who almost got killed when She crashed our Ultra Fight. Her gift was Ultra smartness or something.”
He had a big, silly grin on his face as he said it, presumably thinking back to some good times.
I didn’t have any info on what he was referring to, but the idea that they’d done some kind of mock battle with the Pantheon stretched credibility a bit, even for Fourth Fist.
“She was a weakling,” said Preventer, decisively. “We never even saw her gift. Nobody in her whole crew could have threatened Subtracter, because if they had anyone that strong they’d have used them in the Thor situation.”
“You aren’t thinking,” snarled Refiner, or Deceiver through her illusions, “The Company has stopped supplying food. The Pantheon are feeling the squeeze. Her previous capabilities don’t factor into how strong she could be now, after her group has merged with so many others.”
“I don’t get how they could be hungry already,” said Dale. “Starvation takes, like, a while, right? Weeks or months or whatever? And most of them should be Ultra tough, so they couldn’t even starve. Why would they team up under one boss just because the Company is being dumb? Why not just wait it out, see if it fixes itself, for a while longer at least?”
“People don’t work like that,” said Haunter. “I’ve seen it in the old world, and it certainly hasn’t changed at all. Nobody waits around to secure their prosperity. At the slightest opportunity people will jump.”
“That’s what’s happened, anyway,” said Refiner, clearly not eager to hear more of Haunter’s ruminations on human nature, “The Pantheon warbands have splintered and reconnected. Many of them headed back down south, others carved out little fiefdoms or pushed up onto the Union. But there were always going to be some who decided to solve the problem at its source.”
“How could they know that She wasn’t still active?” persisted Dale. “Or did they maybe not care anymore because they thought that it would be better to be splatted than to starve?”
“Unclear,” said Answerer, breaking her momentary silence. I wondered if she’d been asking one of her inner questions even as we spoke.
“Futures where we gave assurances of food and aid didn’t seem any less dangerous than those where we simply threatened. The uncertainty about the whole project is difficult and fatiguing to penetrate.”
“And just what is ‘the whole project’?” asked Haunter. “How many Ultras are we talking about, and how far are they from Shington? What are we going to be working with?”
“Not that many,” said Refiner, at the same time as Answerer said “Two hundred and twelve.”
It comforted me, a bit, to see them talking over one another. A data point for Answerer genuinely being here and not just one of Deceiver’s illusions. Of course she could have counterfeited that just as easily, but I elected to believe that she had not. I couldn’t see much reason to bother with it.
“Not the worst odds we’ve ever dealt with,” said Dale, injecting a forced levity into his voice. “Things were way worse over in the Union.”
Haunter shook her head.
“Maybe not,” said Preventer, “I’m far from sure anyone we met during our time in the Union area could have taken down Subtracter. Maybe Death.”
“This is a foolish distraction,” burst out Haunter, aiming her appeal towards the apparition of Refiner. “It is First Fist that needs to be dealt with. We are only doing their bidding by attending to anything else. Just tell us where they are, please. It is literally important to the life of humanity.”
There was a raw, elemental passion in her words. Haunter spoke like a woman begging for the life of her only child, like someone in the grip of uttermost, surpassing sentiment.
But it meant nothing. Refiner just shrugged at her, entirely unmoved.
Answerer, at least, engaged.
“You claim that they counterfeits my answers, yes? So why would you trust any information I gave you about their whereabouts? Wouldn’t that just be more lies?”
“Maybe not,” said Haunter, immediately, “If it came from something besides your gift. They must have agents in town to keep track of Her, or you, or us. There are things they’ve left dangling here. There should be a way…”
She trailed off, aware that she wasn’t winning this one.
That was Jane Trent in a nutshell, I thought. She was a monument to the necessity of setting sentiment aside and acting only after careful consideration, her very life a sacrament and testament to this principle, and yet she found it so very hard to actually follow through on. The temptation to make an emotional appeal was seemingly irresistible.
“You want us to talk to Krishna,” said Preventer, changing the subject with her customary lack of subtlety, “Get her to back her minions off of Shington, and maybe while we are at it we should find out what happened to Subtracter. Is that it?”
Refiner gave a nod.
“They want the Company to return to its normal operations,” said Haunter, “And presumably some assurance that we won’t tell them to cease food supply again?”
“That won’t work,” said a voice.
It took me a long second to realize that the voice had been mine. I’d actually spoken up unprompted within a gathering of Fist members, of the cruelest and most powerful Ultras in the Regime.
“Why?” asked Preventer.
“The Company Men are dead, for the most part,” I told them. “People don’t take kindly to being told that there won’t be any more food or Processes, and the Company Men don’t defend themselves. Even if they started behaving again you’d have to get new ones back out to everywhere that needs them. It would be a huge mess.”
“They killed the guys who made them food?” asked Dale. “You are kidding me. Nobody would be that stupid.”
He sounded like even as he said it he was reconsidering.
“There’s another factor,” said Answerer. “You can’t actually give them what they want.”
“Are you serious?” asked Preventer. “You don’t have Her as a deterrent, and we are dealing with someone who can overcome Subtracter, and you still don’t want to budge on something that we absolutely don’t care even a little bit about? Are you genuinely insane?”
Haunter held up a hand, speaking quickly. Preventer’s invincibility might have let her forget that we were entirely at Second Fist’s mercy, but Haunter would suffer no such illusions.
“If we give in to coercion this time then in the future we-“
“No, that’s not it,” said Refiner.
Or, snarled, really. Everything the image did or said was just utterly sinister. Deceiver must have worked at it for a long time to get something so terrifying set up. It was like interacting with a drama’s special effect in real life.
“You can’t give them what they want because we don’t have it,” clarified Answerer. “Subtracter was in command of the Company. She’s the one who told them to stop working. She and Adder were the only ones Prevailer trusted with that authority.”
“And she’s gone,” said Preventer. “I suppose I can see how this could be complicated.”
“We can’t actually meet their demands,” said Haunter, “And we can’t threaten them with anything except Her wrath, given their evident power.”
“That’s not automatically true,” said Dale. “Like, they might have ganged up on Subtracter or something. Whatever they pulled to take down one Inner Circle member might not work on two Fists.”
Refiner sneered elaborately at Indulger’s numbering of Fourth Fist as a peer to his own, but didn’t press the point.
“We’ll work something out,” said Haunter. “And in exchange you will put your resources at our disposal as far as finding First Fist.”
I felt impressed that she managed to finish that sentence without letting her voice rise up at the end and make it a question.
Refiner barked a harsh laugh as Answerer shook her head.
“We aren’t stupid,” she said, “And I don’t need my gift to know that if I let you go now, free and clear, you wouldn’t waste a second in fleeing the area. You’d leave us to deal with the Union ourselves while you continued your ridiculous quest for a Fist that utterly overmatches you.”
I hadn’t actually thought of that, myself, but it was clear the second I put any consideration on the matter at all. The only leverage Second Fist had on us was our current predicament. If they let us out to go deal with Krishna that would evaporate.
“Are you really going to try and get us to do the impossible for you with our hands tied behind our back?” she demanded. “You want us to negotiate with a stronger enemy who we can’t actually give in to or fight off, and now we are going to be saddled with some kind of, what, insurance policy?”
“They are called Knights,” said Refiner. “You should be accustomed to their company.”
There was another shoe to drop, surely. Knights wouldn’t actually stop Ultras from doing whatever they wanted once we were away from their masters. Indulger could just drop us into the ground, if nothing else.
“We are bringing daggers along?” asked Dale.
The slur wasn’t really fooling anyone, at this point. Answerer had probably shared enough about Fourth Fist’s ideals and goals that they wouldn’t really believe that they looked down on the unpowered.
At least, I hoped they didn’t, for obvious reasons.
“They are,” said Answerer, “But you aren’t going anywhere.”
All three genuine members of Fourth Fist erupted at once, objections and accusations tripping over one another as they filled the air.
I didn’t join in, just stood silent and resigned. Of course Dale would be their hostage. Nothing else would make any sense.
He was their, or our, transportation, our shelter from retributive drone strikes. He was our most powerful combatant, and the leader besides. He was also the one that She was interested in, the one Second Fist would want, above all others, to ensure the presence of.
“What are we going to tell Krishna when she asks why the guy who put on the wrestling show with her people, the one who saved her life, the one who is officially our leader…isn’t here?” asked Haunter.
Her voice was sort of tired and plaintive at this point, as though the relentless disappointments of this conversation had finally broken her.
I knew better. Maybe Haunter had broken at some point in the past. There were some terrifying voids in the reports that kind of hinted at that kind of thing. But the woman who was currently leading Fourth Fist was past discouragement. She was faking, I felt it to my bones. For whatever reason her inner collective had decided that this was the right affect to put on her dialogue for the moment, nothing more.
We were, I supposed, lulling them into a true sense of superiority.
“Tell her whatever you like,” said Answerer, “But if you feel like trusting my gift you’ll stall for time. Tell her that you are doing the usual Fist deal, where you don’t all go to one place at the same time. Tell her Fisher and Indulger are staying in the city for the first few meetings.”
“And after that?” asked Preventer. “After we stall them for a while…you’ll swap out your hostage? Keep Haunter or me and let Dale talk to Krishna?”
“Not ‘a while’ “, said Answerer. “Two days. You keep them stalled for two days, and we move past the uncertainty in my gift. Everything will be clear again, and I’ll take over. I can’t see past the cloud well enough to do the timelines, but I can tell that things will clear up again on the other side.”
I couldn’t keep my eyebrows from rising, my mouth from opening. I did manage to stifle the urge to shout anything stupid, or to renew Haunter’s plea. They weren’t going to listen.
But there wasn’t a doubt in my mind why Remover’s interference would cease after a certain period. And the fact that we were apparently going to be tied up with this nonsense for that time was just an exclamation point.
The conversation went on, objections and denials, going through the motions, but I’d mentally checked out of it. They’d laid down the important things. Us three, Preventer, Haunter and myself, would be sent out to stall the Pantheon, with Dale’s life as insurance. We had to do it for two days, and then Answerer’s gift would be working again.
I was grimly certain that Answerer was right, if not in the way that she imagined. If Haunter’s fears about Remover were true, and I’d bought into them enough to throw away my life and embark on this madness, then in two days the timelines would clear up, all right, because there would be no one left to complicate them.