“We need to think carefully,” I said, as I pulled the truck over on the side of the road.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, each marshalling our thoughts in the privacy of our own minds. I felt like the other two understood the seriousness of this situation, that this was, in all probability, the last time we would have the leisure to carefully choose where and how to commit our efforts.
“That was a clusterfuck,” said Preventer, after a long moment. “This whole thing is a complete shitshow. I’ve lost track of how many assholes we are fucking working for to do things that have nothing to do with what we are trying to accomplish.”
I nodded along as she spoke. That was impressively close to the reserve’s summation of the last few hours.
“At least 3,” I said, ruefully. “And ‘mutually exclusive’ doesn’t even begin to describe how disparate the goals in question are.”
“Let’s…” Mario said, then paused as we both looked over to him.
“Let’s air it all out,” he said. “I used to do this sort of thing at my day job. Calculating agendas and working out how to utilize insufficient force as leverage among competing powers was our whole deal. Let’s talk through all the stakeholders, what they want, our assets and objectives, just do a total summary of the whole deal.”
“Are you sure we have time for that?” asked Preventer.
“We do,” I told her. “We’ve got a day, this will take minutes. I think it’s a good idea.”
“Alright,“ she said, “Let’s do it quickly then. It would probably take more time to argue against doing it than it would take to get it done.”
“Ok,” I said. “Mario, take it away.”
The Jury had been doing something similar, so I was ready to step in and assist if he seemed to omit anything.
“Alright,” he said, “So our theater of operations is the environs of Shington, our actors are essentially everyone inside and everyone who can get here this afternoon, including most particularly Krishna’s composite Host.”
I gave him an approving nod.
“The time we are concerned with is the rest of today, tonight and tomorrow, with a hard bias towards accomplishing tasks as quickly as possible within this time.”
More nods, he kept going.
“There are five main factions that we are concerned with here, with several of them having sub factions. Broadly speaking these are Prevailer, First Fist, Second Fist, the Pantheon Host and us.”
“Should we consider the unaffiliated Ultras of Shington?” I asked, “The Troubleshooters, gang members, inner circle wannabes and just generic Ultras? As a mob they outnumber and possibly overpower everyone else.”
“I’d been modeling them as a passive force, which any faction can harness to a limited degree, but they don’t really seem to be demonstrating agency at this time, so I think we can mostly leave them out. If you know a way we can drive them to take action to their own detriment I’ll agree to put them back in, but as of now they seem content to let the rest of us duke it out.”
“We can come back to them,” said Preventer, “If someone brings up a clever idea related to them. For now let’s focus on the stuff that is already active.”
“Alright,” said Mario, “so, first off, let’s talk about Second Fist and Answerer, who seem to be the closest thing to ‘in charge’ of anyone.”
“Their assets,” I picked it up, “They are, themselves, 5 powerful Ultras. Deceiver’s gift, in particular, should allow them to defeat any small group that they know are hostile without losses. Destroyer is also worth mentioning, she’s right behind Subtracter in terms of being a personally vicious and destructive Ultra.”
“They are served by the Knights,” continued Mario, “A militia of about a hundred or so humans, each protected and empowered by Refiner’s gift to the point of about Ultra strength or toughness of one. About a third of them have access to higher rated gear which lets them operate at Ultra strength and toughness two, and this includes firearms.”
“The gun troops are rarer than one in three,” interjected Preventer, “I’ve seen a lot of Knights, they are more like one in ten.”
“It’s the same guys,” I put in, “They just switch up what they give them. Seth used to be one of my escorts, just a scythe carrier like the rest, but earlier today we ran into him in the elite reglia. There’s an inner core of more trusted Knights who have access to the good stuff, they just don’t always give it to them.”
“That’s what our reports indicate,” said Mario, “They are paranoid about the guns getting into circulation. Ultras that they are particularly fond of sometimes get one, and they have a few equipped defenders at the Castle with them, but that’s about it.”
“We should also assume,” said Mario, “That Refiner saved the best things for himself and his Fist. Best case, he is the only one with Ultra toughness and strength three gear. Worst case, all five of them have it.”
“If only one has it it’ll be Deceiver,” I said, “But I agree that it’ll probably be all five. Even if it isn’t, the other four will certainly have the elite Knight gear.”
“And then there is Answerer,” said Preventer, “Who seems to be their ally or leader. Her foretelling is supposed to be on the fritz to some degree, but it’s still an element to be aware of.”
“I think she’s their only weakness,” I told them.
Mario gave a solemn nod.
“She will be used to relying on her gift,” he said, “And I think they’ll be almost entirely passive until she trusts it again. Precogs are, in the Union’s experience, almost addicted to certainty. They don’t cope well, at all, to being put down on the level of the rest of us. I’d expect them to sit in their fortress and risk nothing, do nothing, as long as possible.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Second Fist alone, as an active presence, would make this situation hopeless, they’d have given us a Fist member as a ride along instead of Knights, or something similar. But with Answerer inside their decision making circles they are hesitant, careful. They are chasing the dragon of her perfect certainty, instead of going with good enough.”
Preventer seemed to be convinced, or at least she didn’t raise any further objection.
“So that’s their assets,” I went on after a moment. “Knights, Answerer’s beneficial component, and their own not inconsiderable combat power. What are their objectives?”
No one spoke for a moment, so I answered my own question.
“They engaged us to deal with Krishna’s Host, so they want that dealt with. I think a better way to phrase that, though, is to say that they are trying to run out the clock. They want to survive intact until Answerer’s gift clears up again, at which point they expect to be able to commence or resume their precognitively cleared path.”
“We didn’t mention Dale under assets,” said Preventer, “But he kind of is one. I’m not saying they’ll try and use him as a hostage against us, but certainly it is good for them that we don’t have him.”
“He’s also a weakness,” I pointed out, “In that if we get him free and clear we can hit them from outside of their fighting range. Dale is a really hard problem for them to solve the moment he’s in our camp again.”
“They might have already solved him,” said Mario.
I looked over, he drew a thumb across his throat.
“I doubt they’d do something like that,” said Preventer. “It’s what you guys said about Answerer again. We are modeling them as timid and uncertain. They know our Link is gone, so if they kill Dale they can never use him. I think they’ll keep him intact unless we force the issue. They’ll figure that once Answerer’s foresight is back there may be valuable routes for them that require his gift.”
“Makes sense,” I allowed. “But I think we are good on the subject of their agenda, right? We all agree they just want to survive until tomorrow?”
Nods all around. It was good to be on the same page.
“What about weaknesses?” I asked. “Their strengths are pretty intimidating, but do they have any weaknesses that we know of?”
“Consequence of their goals,” said Mario. “They are reactive and dependent on Answerer’s gift. It’s made them ignorant. They don’t know Subtracter is alive, nor do they know that she thinks Prevailer is dead. The ground has shifted under their feet, and they are entirely clueless.”
“They also think that we are their agents exclusively,” I said. “We might, with the right story, get quite a ways into an operation against them before they catch on.”
“Depending on what happened with the shades you sent out earlier,” pointed out Preventer. “If they’ve been caught and dealt with then they will be onto our enmity, at the very least.”
I shook my head.
“The shades haven’t been destroyed,” I told them. “They might have been captured, of course, but I don’t want to return them to the reserve to test that theory, not at the risk of destroying their cover, or losing the captured gear.”
“The shades are looking for First Fist, right?” asked Mario. “So they shouldn’t have met up with any other Knights yet, just be roaming the city. Second Fist may know their Knights aren’t back yet, but they may well think that they are still with us, negotiating. It feels to me like the odds are decent that the substitution hasn’t been discovered yet.”
That was a critical point. If the Knights didn’t have any real protection against infiltration then the shades could just walk in there and take action. They might be able to free Dale, or assassinate Deceiver.
“So if their strength is just their actual strength, and ignorance is their weakness…” I said, trailing off to allow someone else to speak.
“We should also consider our relation to them,” said Preventer, “Do we have any objections to them achieving their goal? I mean, is this a fight we need?”
Mario was shaking his head ‘no’, but I held up a hand to interrupt.
“I think we do,” I told them. “I think I’ve figured out where Remover is, and we need Dale to get at them. If so, then whatever else we do with Second Fist, we at least need to free Dale long enough to use his gift.”
“What?” said Preventer, eyes widening in surprise. “Where is Remover?”
“I think she is in the center of Torturer’s zone,” I told them, “If she’s protected by her nature from Torturer’s gift, or if she’s just bending it like Answerer’s, then it’s a perfectly private refuge for her, and it is also the most likely place for any gear she might need to do whatever the Union is observing with their satellite.”
“We don’t think that’s tech related,” answered Mario. “We think someone is using an Ultra to communicate with the SOV entities, but the rest makes sense. You want to use Dale to shove Torturer out into the wilderness?”
“Or back underground,” I told him. “Also to move any bystanders out of the way during the process.”
None of us brought up the possibility of using Torturer against our enemies. I liked to think I was as consequentialist as the next revolutionary, but some acts were beyond even my ability to stomach.
“Alright,” said Preventer. “I think that’s probably our best guess so far, so I don’t mind going forward with it. But I’d like to reunite with your shades before we move on this, if we can. Imagine if they found First Fist and we attacked Second Fist for no reason.”
“I think rescuing Dale isn’t ‘no reason’, regardless of whatever else is going on,” I said, “But I’m with you on this. If nothing else, whatever plan we go with to take on Second Fist will very likely involve my shades, or at least the gear they have on.”
“Alright,” said Mario, “What about our other new bosses, Subtracter and her Host?”
“It’s Krishna’s Host,” I put in, instantly. “Subtracter doesn’t even have Prevailer’s charisma. She’s never inspired a drop of loyalty in anyone I’ve ever seen. The Host is only following her because Krihsna told it to.”
“Are you sure they are loyal to anyone?” he answered. “Maybe Subtracter is just the strongest Ultra, so they will suck up to her.”
I shook my head.
“We had a confrontation earlier with this crew,” said Preventer. “None of them squealed on Krishna when she as functioning as Prevailer’s seat. They are loyal, or as loyal as the Pantheon comes.”
“So assets,” I said. “Simple enough, Subtracter has a flying gift, Ultra strength, toughness and speed, all at 2. She’s a one woman army, can defeat anyone other than Her. Absent Deceiver’s gift I think she’d have just done this all on her own.”
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, feeling the usual tang of bitterness at the random way gifts were handed out.
“Backing her up, we have Krishna’s Host, maybe a hundred of the Pantheon’s tougher Ultras. Not Bride level, but motivated veterans. Again, absent Deceiver, I think they could take the Knights, though maybe not with the rest of Second Fist backing them up.”
“But if they come into the city,” objected Preventer, “They’d arouse the populace against them. They couldn’t win that. Anybody who is obviously not Regime who comes into Shington is starting a war they can’t win. There must be a few thousand Ultras here, and a lot of them are on the stronger side.”
“Subtracter would need to lead them,” I said, “And be seen to do so. Walk at the front and make it clear that she’d drafted them into the Regime.”
I paused, struck by a thought.
“I’m not sure how well the whole ‘I’m the new Her’ is going to work out for Subtracter, actually.”
“I was just thinking that,” she said. “Fear of Her is bone deep around here. If she goes public with her rebellion, I think people might just start fighting her. Not necessarily because they think they can beat Subtracter, but because they think it is a loyalty test of some kind.”
“So,” said Mario, “Strengths are combat power, agenda is just taking out Second Fist. Do we have any need to oppose them?”
I shook my head.
“More power to her, as far as I’m concerned. I expect she’ll double cross us and try to take us out if she sees the chance, of course, but as far as I’m concerned if she gets away with everything she’s going for that’s fine by me. I expect Prevailer will see to Subtracter if She ever gets active again.”
“Weaknesses?” asked Preventer.
“Subtracter is genuinely, terrifyingly, dumb, and violent on top of it. Nobody would voluntarily endure her presence a second longer than they had to. Krishna will have figured that out by now. I think if she’s given a chance, the Host may well double cross their new boss. It’s impossible to work with Subtracter for an hour without realizing that she’d kill you to make a point.”
“So there’s some instability there,” said Mario, “And of course an idiot being in charge is its own disadvantage.”
“What about the other parties?” asked Preventer. “First Fist and Her.”
“I’m at a bit of a loss with Prevailer,” I said. “We can probably skip strengths, and weaknesses with Her, but the thing that troubles me is Her agenda.”
“I can’t imagine Her enduring the fringes of Torturer’s zone for months, or letting the Pantheon and the Union have their big battles without Her involvement. I’m not saying Subtracter is correct about Her being dead, of course, but I think She is somehow incommunicado.”
“Maybe Subtracter was only ever told a decoy location,” said Preventer. “It got swallowed up by Torturer’s gift and she jumped to the conclusion that Prevailer was dead.”
“In any case,” I said, “Her agenda currently seems to be nothing, and we don’t have any need to oppose that. Let’s let Her lie. If we run into Her, we do the usual groveling and obedience. If we don’t, we don’t go looking.”
I ignored the obvious possibility that Remover had Her with her in whatever hideout she’d holed up in. No point to worrying about what we couldn’t do anything about, and all that.
“As far as First Fist goes,” said Mario. “We are completely in the dark. We don’t know where they are, what their true capabilities are, or whether they even have any weaknesses.”
“They are sadists,” said Preventer, “They are maniacs and egomaniacs. Those are weaknesses, and they don’t see them that way. If we give them a target, we can be certain that they’ll strike at it.”
“Sure,” I said, “But their list of advantages goes on and on. Fierce combatants. Massive intimidation factor that will allow them to recruit almost anyone from the Regime’s storage. Good relationship with Her. Possibly able to control Answerer’s gift, or any other gift. The list goes on.”
“Alright,” said Preventer, deadpan “You’ve convinced me, let’s beg them for mercy.”
“That just leaves us,” I said. “Three Ultras, if we can get Dale back, and a motivated human. Fierce combatants, probably currently more knowledge than anyone else about all these parties, and a ticking clock.”
“I wouldn’t bet on us,” said Mario.
“I might,” said Preventer, “But I’m a notoriously poor gambler.”
“It’s a puzzle,” I allowed, “But it seems like there’s some leverage. I don’t think this is impossible.”
“Well,” said Preventer, “Let’s hope you are right.”