63 Summit Conclusion
"On second thought, there's no real rush to get out of here." Skidmark said with a crooked grin. "Wouldn't want to miss out on this."
The way Kaiser's armored helm slowly directed itself towards Skidmark would have been telling enough of the man's mood even without the rest of my senses informing me what he thought of the idea. Once again, Uppercrust took it on himself to step in on the matter.
"That will not be necessary or advisable." He stated smoothly. "Discussions for remunerations always go more smoothly with a level of confidence in play." He smiled towards Kaiser. "I believe, given the magnitude of the task ahead, the removal of any detrimental aspects of the discussion would be advantageous."
In other words, it was going to be hard enough for Kaiser to talk his way out of this without also trying to save face in front of the Merchants and wider community. Blasto, Skidmark, Saint, and Trickster were being shooed off for the sake of the coming negotiations and it was clear not all of them were in favor of the idea. Even so, I doubted they had any better reason for their continued presence than raw curiosity and interest in a front row seat to the spectacle of Kaiser humbling himself and his organization.
"A violation of the terms of a summit's truce impacts all members, not just those directly affronted by the act." Blasto said calmly. There was a slight vindictive edge to his voice, probably relating to the various shots Kaiser had taken at him over the course of the summit.
"The integrity of such conventions is a serious matter." Saint added. "We would, of course, wish to offer our support to any resolutions."
"Right." Quipped Skidmark. "That's why we're doing this. Gotta make sure Tin Boy follows through."
"While such an outlook is highly commendable, I do not believe additional support would be required to ensure compliance with any terms." Uppercrust's smile turned dark. "Not when the identities of the affronted parties are considered."
Collective gazes shifted from Uppercrust to me, then back again. I'm guessing there weren't many cases where a threat of the full strength of the Elite being brought down on someone was the second most serious factor in play. They might want to make a good show of it, but with the Celestial Forge and the Elite in play any additional forces would be a rounding error at best.
"Very well." Blasto conceded. "As long as it is acknowledged that Lost Garden's support was offered and declined."
"Of course." Uppercrust said with a nod. "Now, if there are no other matters…?" he left the question hanging.
"Actually, there is one final point." Saint said. "Given the possibility of modification of the terms of the summit, either through the coming discussions or through changes in the local situation, there are some concerns about communication." He glanced around the table. "The Dragonslayers' position in this city is temporary. I'm sure there is a local grapevine or equivalent for spreading news, but that's not much use for those new to the scene."
"Yeah, same for us." Trickster added. "The Travelers could use a more reliable way of keeping in touch."
He was lying. The Travelers didn't need local contacts, they already had their connections established. As if their arrival in the aftermath of a disaster in defiance of every expected pattern of behavior wasn't evident enough. They had a local connection, but one they were keen to keep concealed. I suspected as much, and it was just another thing to hunt down in the aftermath of the meeting.
But there was something I could take advantage of there. The reluctance to leave was only partially related to missing the chance to see Kaiser getting taken to the cleaners. Nobody had managed any form of concession or commitment from me. That was probably a pipe dream leading into the meeting, but the relatively less formal situation as groups broke up meant that there was a chance for someone to get a few words in with me, or possibly a member of my team, now that they were a possibility.
Everyone wanted a piece of Apeiron. I should have been flattered, but given how hard it was just dealing with a commitment to the Undersiders I found the idea more exhausting than endearing. Still, there were forces in play that I badly needed to keep track of, and luckily for me most of them were keen to reach out. I doubted I would be at all pleased with their requests, but having a line of communication was important. The last week had taught me as much.
"I'm sure you are familiar with the website I have used to provide updates on the local situation." I said. "In the spirit of open communication, I will make a modification to the site allowing messages to be sent." I scanned my gaze across the assembled capes. And Saint. "If there are any modifications to the terms of the summit, or other matters of note, it will serve as a means to inform me."
"That's a public site, right?" Trickster asked. "No offense, but if you put any kind of entry field on that thing it's either going to crash or you'll be drowning in more messages than you can handle."
I turned towards the teleporter. "There isn't much that I can't 'handle'. The site, and my ability to locate distinct messages from any of the present groups, will be fine."
"Apeiron's coding and site integrity is exceptionally robust." Saint added. "It has held against analysis by Dragon and a consignment of Protectorate tinkers." The man nodded. "That arrangement would be acceptable."
"Yes." Coil added in a voice that could make your skin crawl. "Not that other methods of communication will be abandoned, but I'm sure many parties here will appreciate the ability to contact Apeiron, for any number of reasons."
Someone was expecting a clusterfuck. To be fair, that was probably likely if I was actually considering contracts. More likely it would be used to try to steer me towards violations from other groups, bringing down retribution on them. Yeah, if I was anyone else, or was dealing with the inbox directly, this would be a mess. Fortunately, I had Survey for that. Normally I would feel bad about dumping it on her, but announcing what was basically a new, direct information source for her use was already causing spikes of excitement to dance through her code.
"Well, if that is settled, I suppose we should leave you to your business." Blasto stood from his chair, gave polite nods to me and the rest of the table, then turned towards his contingent. It began a gradual reshuffling of placements as nearly half of the occupants of the bar saw about making their way out.
Which, of course, was when the Celestial Forge decided would be the perfect time for a connection. And not just any connection, but a connection to the other new constellation, the one that had sprung up and been circling in the background without connection until that exact moment.
As the constellation swung down and I felt my power connect a cluster of motes the nature of the new powers was revealed to me. It was the Capstone constellation. An entire set of powers that existed for the purpose of modifying other powers. Every mote within the constellation shared a source with a mote I had already secured and, if my understanding was correct, enhanced those powers in some way.
Not always a direct way, or an obvious way, but the connection was there. And the cluster of motes I had received were connected to a power I had received earlier in this meeting. They enhanced Demigod Atelier.
The first power came from a minor mote called Mantra Affinity. Mantra, as a power source, was a lot more complicated than it seemed on first impression. And considering it was the force of prayer and faith focused into a tangible form capable of world altering feats, that really said something.
Mantra could be 'flavored', for lack of a better word, by the emotion of the person generating it. There were eight possible flavors of Mantra: wrath, violence, vanity, sloth, melancholy, lust, greed, and pride. If those don't sound particularly positive that's because they weren't. They practically bordered on the deadly sins, but I think that might have been intentional, some kind of warning about over-focusing on a particular form of Mantra.
And it would be easy to over-focus. If you had an affinity for a specific type of Mantra its effect on you was massively enhanced. Ten times more powerful than general Mantra, meaning more power from fewer worshipers. What's more, by holding an affinity it was possible to act as your own source of mantra, a source of prayer and emotion, effectively keeping you at the peak human level attained from Mantra Level 1.
I had a Mantra affinity, and for me it was focused on pride. That felt massively out of place with everything I thought about myself. I mean, melancholy was right there. Pride seemed to be almost intentionally counter to my natural instincts.
But maybe that was the point. A Mantra affinity that lined up with your own vices would lead to the kind of over-focus that would be naturally destructive. Having something that was not only uncomfortable, but represented an aspect that you would need to work towards developing, seemed like it would lead to a much healthier relationship with the powers in play. Considering said powers were concentrated worship energy it was probably a good idea to have a sensible amount of distance.
Plus, the focus on pride had other benefits. Taking pride in myself and accomplishments, not vapid self-aggrandizement but a proper sense of satisfaction and acknowledgement of what was actually completed, it was something that would be a step towards a better mindset for me. The move away from doormat behavior and towards Mental Fortress would be helped massively by being able to take pride in myself, and the entire concept was naturally made for the development of spiral energy. Powers based on a mentality that was both a positive move, and helped other powers.
There were more 'other powers' in play from a slightly larger mote in the cluster. Mantra Training and Techniques was, unsurprisingly, focused on techniques and training on how to use Mantra. Mantra had versatility that extended far beyond just direct empowerment of bodies or machinery. The skills granted by this power, bestowed as more vague memories of learning in a place I couldn't quite recall, covered them in immense detail.
Focused Mantra could be used to push a body beyond even the natural level of enhancement the energy provided, allowing devastating attacks and incredible feats of durability. Meditative Kata could channel Mantra to extend the lifespan, heal injuries, or resist disease while also allowing strikes that could shatter walls with nothing but peak human strength.
The art had a great deal in common with what I knew about chi and life energy. Mantra, when infused into a person's body, flowed through and empowered them in almost the exact same way that chi did. Chi techniques had a distinct crossover with Mantra arts, and the opposite was also true. Ninjitsu's presence concealment or the flowing strikes of T'ai Chi Chuan could be titanically powerful when enhanced by Mantra. Likewise, the ability to enhance your body or attacks with Mantra could also be accomplished with chi, allowing additional reinforcement and offensive power.
The mote had come with one last ability, and it was a significantly powerful one. It allowed me to create a Mantra Form. A new, more powerful form of existence suffused with Mantra. The process was intense, requiring years of work, but the power it could grant was titanic, especially at higher levels. The new form enhanced physical abilities even beyond what that level of Mantra would normally allow. It was accompanied with the manifestation of an actual halo. Really, it was an external Mantra interface, but I doubt the sudden appearance of a gleaming, ornate halo in response to the prayers of thousands would put people in mind to sit down for a lecture of power flow dynamics.
Yeah, every part of Demigod Atelier that I was finding awkward or uncomfortable was only going to be amplified with these new abilities. At least with the benefit of the techniques and affinities I could get some basic use from the power without needing to establish a full cult.
The last two motes in the cluster were tiny things, smaller than even the minor powers in the Forge. The first was called Shut Up!. The name actually included the exclamation point, and considering the power in question that was probably reasonable.
The best way I could describe it was as the opposite of Katsujinken. While that power gave me a calm demeanor and the ability to open any combat with at least a brief discussion, Shut Up! Let me know the perfect point to deal with long winded speeches, rants, or threatening tirades in order to 'expedite the proceedings'.
The power was basically 'end dialogue with sucker punch'. Incredibly, it didn't actually conflict with Katsujinken. Katsujinken was about focusing on peace and giving a chance for dialogue before violence. Shut Up! was about deciding the dialogue was getting you nowhere and jumping straight to the direct approach. It also had what was either a drawback or a safety feature where it was impossible to actually kill someone with the hit, no matter how much force there was behind it.
Given how hard I could hit I kind of wanted to see that in action. Also, it was a wonderful assurance to have against the Butcher, though I doubted that would be a reassurance to anyone who saw me swing at her with demigod empowered strength.
The final tiny mote represented an item added to the Workshop, one completely unrelated to every other aspect of the powers both from the cluster and from Demigod Atelier itself. I had no idea on the reason for its inclusion, though there was certainly going to be enthusiasm over it, based on the reports from the workshop.
'Seriously, how nuts is Garment going over that one?' One of my duplicates transmitted.
The answer was 'very'. I could feel her gloves twitching around my hands and the cloak over my shoulder, previously moving with believable if somewhat striking dynamics, was starting to flare dramatically as Garment realized what had arrived at the Workshop, and that she wouldn't be able to interact with it in any way until the end of the summit. I'm pretty sure she would have let Kaiser off the hook that instant if it would have gotten her to the Workshop five minutes sooner.
'It makes sense.' Sent the other. 'You've seen how she reacts over a single outfit. Compare that to an entire wardrobe.'
Specifically, it was a Resplendent Wardrobe. An actual 'unlimited closet' filled with designs from whatever world had supplied this power. The actual style could probably be described as 'Hindu mythology meets fighting game', though I'm sure Garment would find that description criminally deficient. My duplicates started to burrow through what was by all impressions a truly endless supply of fashions as I turned my attention back to the room.
My latest 'strategy trance' had raised some looks of concern from the departing capes, but they had decided to move on once it became clear I wasn't about to announce another invasion or pursue some direct line of highly threatening questioning. I'm not sure if the room had become jaded to the 'mythical' event of me publicly gaining powers, or if they were as concerned as ever and just accepted there was nothing they could do.
Actually, looking at emotional responses, it was something of a mix of the two, with the occasional spikes of excited interest, mostly from Lost Garden and a few of the Merchants. People without any major concerns or investments just enjoying the show.
The same definitely couldn't be said for Kaiser. I'm sure that Apeiron launching into an extended period of introspection right before he would be pressed for compensation under the threat of open war was doing wonders for his blood pressure. I mean, I was sure of it. I could feel his blood pressure and it was climbing wonderfully every moment that trance drew out.
I fully broke out of my own thoughts, much to the relief of the table, and glanced back at my own team. I received a few polite nods that provided cover for the actual mental exchange. I wasn't the only one corresponding with my team. Uppercrust wasn't even being subtle about it, calling Jacob's Ladder over and having a quiet conversation. Tattletale continued to speak with Grue through the cover of their soundproofed fields while Faultline was limiting things to the occasional glance towards her crew.
I wasn't sure what any of them were going to request. Attacks under a flag of truce were fairly serious affairs and Uppercrust hadn't been exaggerating the scale of the response. I was invested in not seeing a war break out in an injured and rebuilding city, but that didn't mean letting the Empire off scott-free.
Survey provided her own assessment of the upcoming negotiations, though she had limited source data to call upon. She also relayed an initial assessment from the versions of her program operating in the Workshop, both expressing a level of exasperation at the prospect of a truly infinite wardrobe and comprehensive documentation of everything that came out of it.
The rest of the table offered their own input, generally encouragement or congratulations on my performance so far. That felt exceptionally discordant, both for the novel experience of receiving genuine praise and the reminder that I wasn't actually facing all the world's challenges on my own. Not anymore.
That put a smile on my face, eliciting another round of concerned reactions from the table and another spike in Kaiser's blood pressure while chairs and seats were reshuffled. We had lost three seats from one side of the table, and the rearrange for the Butcher's arrival compounded that. It took some fairly wide shifts to redistribute everyone. At this point the placement of chairs was less of a pressing political matter, though Kaiser did end up moderately isolated as he faced down Coil, Uppercrust, Grue, myself, and Faultline.
Things looked ready to begin, though Uppercrust indicated a delay. Attention shifted to Jacob's Ladder who was returning with a very uncomfortable looking bartender. His brother and sister looked on from the bar as he was seated next to Uppercrust.
"My apologies for placing this obligation onto you, but the significance of the matter at hand demands representation from all affronted parties." He explained to the man. "Your generosity in hosting this event requires certain conventions to be observed. Rest assured." Uppercrust turned towards Kaiser. "The Elite will back any commitments made."
Kaiser straightened and cleared his throat as the Resources and Durability constellation missed a connection. "On that matter, I would dispute the accusations made." It was an audacious opening, but that was probably a tactical decision from the man. "The facts of this matter have been provided by a previously unknown cape and thinker notorious for manipulation, one with response protocols that prohibit any interaction." He turned back towards the group. "That is hardly a solid basis for accusations of this level."
I took a breath and leaned forward. "You are doubting Survey's proficiency in this matter, or the authenticity of her analysis?" I could feel her indignation at either possibility and the affronted look she was directing towards Kaiser was attracting the attention of the room.
Okay, it didn't take much for Survey to attract the attention of the room, and most of the reactions she was getting were more focused on the fit of her costume than the expression on her face. Thank Aphrodite's Blessing for informing me of the exact nature of how she was being appreciated.
"You must admit, it is a bold claim to both be able to detect powers in action and demonstrate them to such a degree of detail." Kaiser replied in an exceptionally reasonable voice. The poor oppressed gang leader, just wondering why everyone was teaming up against them.
"And yet the level of detail was exceptional and nuanced." Uppercrust countered. "Additionally, if Apeiron had wished to fabricate evidence of wrongdoing he could easily have presented a case that depicted more significant assaults against his own team." The man turned to the rest of the group. "Instead, the display revealed no impact on half of his organization and significantly diminished effect on the remaining members. A detail that was no doubt closely noted by all present."
"The nature of one's defenses, or the weaknesses in them, are not typically included in fraudulent demonstrations." Coil added with a grin that I could see through the thin material of his mask. "If we were witnessing a performance it would have been in his interest to depict no immunity, or complete resistance."
"It is understandable to have doubts on the matter." I offered. "The abilities displayed were unprecedented, though I would add that there are many things unprecedented about Survey."
"And the rest of your team, I'm sure." Uppercrust added before turning back to Kaiser. "If there is serious doubt as to the authenticity of the accusation, then they could be easily resolved by a series of power tests. Providing we know what to look for?"
In response to Uppercrust's prompting I moved forward without delay. A holographic screen deployed from my upgraded omni-tool depicting diagrams of Victor's powers in action.
"Based on Survey's analysis, Victor's power functions by destructively scanning specific memory structures corresponding to learned skills. The degradation triggered renders those abilities temporarily inaccessible, though recovery is possible as long as the patterns are not completely degraded. The carrier mechanism would be too complicated to explain, but the holograms depicted earlier represented projected pathways of the power's active effects. The effect is universal and apparently persistent, though it is significantly amplified through any level of direct attention or interaction to or from Victor." My explanation was followed by the most informative diagrams I was able to put together. I had a sense not everyone followed it, though I could detect Uppercrust's tinker power firing off during the presentation.
"Thank you for that comprehensive and informative explanation." He said before turning back to Kaiser. "The demonstrated effects would be easily detectable in controlled conditions." His expression turned dark. "Additionally, should Apeiron's assessment prove correct, having Victor at hand would simplify the following step."
I could feel Kaiser tense. "What do you mean by that?"
Uppercrust gestured with a flicker of his personal forcefield. "It would not be unreasonable for a man to be ignorant of the finer details of a subordinate's power. Should Victor have only demonstrated his power at its higher levels, the general effect could have easily been overlooked."
"A generous assumption." Said Coil, looking at Kaiser. "With the difficulty in detecting Victor's ability I imagine there could be any number of advantageous applications in situations such as this. I understand he has picked up an array of rhetoric and debate skills. It would be rather convenient for an opposed party to suddenly forget a few years of training or experience with regards to negotiations, only to suddenly regain them after they floundered in a meeting."
"Quite the frightening hypothetical." Uppercrust agreed. "And one we can be assured will not occur in the future, one way or the other."
"Meaning?" Kaiser pressed.
"Assuming this was indeed the actions of a rogue subordinate, the matter could be resolved simply and directly." He explained. "With the only necessary payment being Victor's head."
"NO!" Came a cry from the Empire contingent. I turned to see Rune pulling Othala back to her seat as the woman did her best to fight her way free. Damsel of Distress glanced towards the main table, then leaned forward, whispering something. Othala listened for a moment, then collapsed in her seat like her strings had been cut. Rune looked between the women with a concerned expression on her face and Kaiser and the rest of our table finished watching the spectacle.
"That will not be possible." Kaiser stated firmly. "The Empire does not abandon its own."
More likely the Empire doesn't abandon its top thinker who was an amalgamation of years of stolen skills in countless fields. It was anyone's guess how many elements of the Empire's operations Victor was propping up. Additionally, losing Victor would almost certainly cost them Othala, and the two of them seemed to be part of the arrangement that had brought Damsel under the Empire's umbrella. There had to be a significant amount of value there if Kaiser was turning down an out like that.
"That might be the Empire's position, but I'm not exactly thrilled about having my skills stolen, even if they grow back." Faultline glanced briefly over at my display screen, then briefly over at me before quickly turning back to Kaiser. "That's the kind of thing that would earn reprisals, even if it wasn't under a flag of truce."
Survey prodded me over a clarification and I sent her a confirmation before pushing forward myself. "The actual impact of Victor power during the period in question is likely to be minimal." I explained, rolling through another series of diagrams. "Intensity of effect mounts significantly based on the target's level of engagement and Victor's area of focus. It is unlikely anything meaningful was acquired by Victor." I turned to Kaiser. "In which case I would be prepared to accept alternate means of remuneration for this offense."
Kaiser nodded. "A minor offense…"
"There are no minor offenses under a flag of truce." Uppercrust cut him off. "The damage may have been caught before it could reach a critical point, but you have Apeiron's team to thank for that, not any action on the part of your organization. We will be keeping the potential scope of damage firmly in mind during these discussions."
Kaiser took a moment to collect himself, passing it off as impassive under the veil of her armor. "Of course." He said lightly. "Though I do wonder what you would suggest to be fair compensation." He scanned across the table. "If I am to placate all offended parties I doubt a single form of payment would be appropriate to all those involved."
"Payment." Faultline scoffed. "We can start there." She looked across at the rest of the table then shook her head. "Other people might have concessions, trade deals, or anything else planned for this. My operation is simpler than that. We're not looking for any entanglements. Pay us off and we'll be satisfied."
Kaiser inclined his head. "A weregild. Indeed. And what degree of payment were you thinking?"
"The rates for our services are well known. Payment on the level of my team's full commitment should do." She stated, and I could feel Kaiser begin to relax. I could feel her smile behind her welder's mask as she continued. "To be delivered to each offended party."
Kaiser immediately stopped relaxing, throwing things into reverse so quickly he could have injured himself. "Five times your full rate?" He asked. Faultline stared him down and he inclined his head. "Very well."
"An excellent idea." Uppercrust said cheerfully. "I believe the honor of the Elite could be satisfied with a similar arrangement." Kaiser tilted his helmet towards the tinker and I could tell he was giving Uppercrust a confused look. "By which I mean my operational rate, payable to each member of my organization present."
Kaiser froze stock still, and I didn't blame him. Parahuman mercenaries were expensive, but they weren't anywhere close to Uppercrust's level of expense. His work was a not insignificant part of civic budgets and was amortized over years. To say that was a ruinous amount of money would be comically underselling things.
The scale of the offer wasn't lost on the rest of the table. Even Coil seemed impressed by the level of the request. If Faultline had any objection to Uppercrust asking for orders of magnitude more than her she didn't show it. In fact, she seemed more amused than anything.
"I do not believe that would be possible." Kaiser said in a level voice.
"Ah, so much the pity." Uppercrust quipped. "Though I'm sure alternate arrangements can be made, as I'm sure the remaining parties are keen to put forward suggestions." He paused, then turned to the bartender sitting next to him. "My apologies Mr. Dewitt. Of course, you have the floor."
"Um, right." It was the first time I had heard the man speak that evening. He had a gruff voice that I was betting had been trained for shouting over crowds, not presenting in front of a cabal of parahumans. He floundered slightly, but rallied when I gave him a reassuring nod. I was pretty much responsible for dragging him into the list of offended parties, so it was partially on me to make sure he could get through this in one piece.
"Okay, we don't have any stake in the rest of this, or anything going forward, obviously. I'd prefer to get out of here and let you discuss things privately." He glanced longingly towards his worried siblings at the bar. "So, if it's all the same, we'll take the same deal as her and call it even." He nodded towards Faultline.
"I see no problem with that." Kaiser said quickly, looking around for any challengers.
"Indeed. A fair deal." Faultline looked towards the bar. "Payable to each of the affected staff, of course."
There was a slight stutter from Kaiser, but he rallied quickly. "Of course."
"Right, thank you, and I'll leave you to the rest of your meeting." The bartender, Mr. Dewitt, quickly rose to his feet and retreated out of earshot without even asking what Faultline's full rate was. I had a feeling he was going to be either impressed or horrified.
The Forge missed a connection to the Time constellation as Kaiser moved to get the meeting back on track. "Now." He said with a calmness I could tell he didn't feel. "I trust you have some alternate suggestion to resolve this issue?"
"Indeed." Uppercrust replied. "No doubt many people would prefer an extensive back and forth while prodding each other for possible avenues of advantage." He said with clear disdain. "Mostly as a ploy to aggrandize one's own ego at the expense of everyone else in the room." He did a remarkable job of looking at Coil without actually looking at Coil. "I have seen such theatrics far too often to find any amusement in them. This meeting has seen enough drama and dragged on far too long." He drummed his fingers on the table, sending up flashes of light from where the forcefield bounced off the surface. "My terms are simple. For a period of one year the Empire will not interfere with the activities of any Elite affiliated rogues active in Brockton Bay, regardless of their presence in Empire territory or otherwise."
There was a tense moment as the statement sank in. "Your meaning of 'Elite affiliated rogue'?" Kaiser ventured.
Uppercrust sighed. "Despite our wider reputation, the bulk of the Elite's membership operate legitimately, even under the restrictions of NEPEA-5. My offer is, in exchange for overlooking the Empire's actions, members of the Elite who maintain neutral status with respect to heroes and villains will be able to operate freely in this city." His voice turned hard. "Regardless of their ethnicity, lifestyle, or the nature of their business. No actions against them or their operations. One year. That is my offer."
I could feel Kaiser considering the offer. It was simultaneously both generous and extremely risky. The Elite was a diverse organization with strong ties on the west coast. I'm sure Kaiser didn't miss the fact that Uppercrust was talking about the Elite as a whole, not just his New York cell. That was probably how he would be able to sell this to the other officers. Overlooking a slight to the group as a whole, but opening up opportunities for their own agents as well.
And Kaiser would need to tolerate whatever the Elite sent his way, meaning ensuring that he could keep control over the more hardline members of his organization. Given the intelligence of the average person who seriously joined a neo-Nazi gang, it probably wouldn't take much to goad them into some ideological based offense that would have the entire Empire on the hook, only with even more reason for other cells to throw in against them.
"Providing these individuals do not act against the Empire I believe I can ensure our neutrality on the matter." Kaiser replied. "Even with respect to our territory."
"Individuals who act against local gangs hardly count as rogues." Uppercrust replied, with the clear implication that they had plenty of such individuals in the event the rogues ran into difficulty.
"Then we have an agreement." Kaiser stated.
A significant look was exchanged between the two men. It had the feeling of something that was carefully balanced to be acceptable to both parties, while still able to be leveraged. Kaiser could play it off as a temporary accommodation to irrelevant capes, letting him save face in his organization, particularly considering the threat he had waved off. On Uppercrust's side he had bought neutrality from the only entrenched gang with territory in the city's commercial districts. One year might not seem like that long, but it was enough to get established and build connections. There was a real possibility this could be used as a vanguard for a larger push from the Elite, and Uppercrust wouldn't need to do anything directly to facilitate it.
I also had to wonder if he would be inclined to use this as a recruiting pitch for Garment, or maybe even Parian, if she had any reason to be concerned about the Empire. Okay, my passenger seemed to be suggesting she had some reason to be concerned about the Empire, but I couldn't nail down what that might be. The list of demographics the Empire hated was expansive and seemed to grow at every opportunity.
His exchange complete, Uppercrust settled back into his chair, looking over the remaining parties. Coil to his right and Grue to his left. He turned towards Grue and raised an eyebrow.
"I must admit, I'm surprised you weren't keen to take a payout, along with Faultline." He said. Grue looked at him, then silently turned to Kaiser.
"Kaiser is prepared to make another offer. I am waiting to hear it." His voice echoed across the table as he glared at Kaiser's armored figure.
Well, I could tell he was glaring. To everyone else he was as impassive as ever. The advantage of a face concealing mask and the effect of his darkness covering everything else.
"Indeed. Tattletale must have trained you well. Or has she been sending you tips over the course of the summit? Feeding you some of those little insights?" Brian gave no visible reaction from under his darkness, but I could tell that was exactly what had been happening.
"Your point?" He said coldly.
"To business then." Kaiser looked over at his own tables and exchanged a glance with Hookwolf before turning back to Grue. "Shortly before the start of the ABB's offensive on Thursday night an Empire affiliated business was attacked by a member of the Undersiders." I could feel Brian's confusion at the statement, and Tattletale's confusion, and Taylor's confusion, and Alec's confusion, and Rachel's guilt…
Well, that resolved things rather quickly. And Tattletale was shifting from confusion to shock and outrage.
"Just one of the Undersiders?" Faultline asked derisively. "And what kind of business was this?"
Kaiser clearly didn't appreciate the interruption, but if he was making a case for this he couldn't hold back details.
"A gambling facility centered on animal combat."
"A dog fighting ring." I said coldly.
Well, that answered the question as to why Rachel had attacked it. She wasn't the only one who took offense at the concept as I could feel waves of disgust flicker through the room, with some spikes even found among the Empire's faction. Yeah, it probably sucks to have your nose shoved in the festering mess you signed on with. I caught a glimpse of Damsel looking as if she smelled something vile. Stuff like that probably hit the new recruit hardest, before they were fully bought in.
"In a more basic parlance, yes." Kaiser continued. "Bitch assaulted the facility, entering directly through an exterior wall, keenly demonstrating both her well known blade and the new personal shields it appears the Undersides have been equipped with."
Uppercrust's head perked up and I saw his eyes jump first to Grue then to the rest of the Undersiders. Grue was sitting stoically, but that was a front for what was actually happening.
Tattletale had been keeping an open link to him through most of the summit, and thanks to his face being concealed and the watch damping sound he was even able to reply. What I assume had been the occasional shared detail or request for clarification was now turning into a heated exchange. I was deliberately not eavesdropping on their conversations, but I could tell when the link was active and how much they were speaking. The fact that Rachel was now also on the line was probably a bad sign.
Okay, Alec joining in probably would be the opposite of helpful in a situation like this. And there was Taylor, also in the conference call. They were doing a good job of concealing the fact that they were basically screaming at each other while Grue sat silent and stoic at the table.
Luckily for them, Kaiser's attention had shifted to me at the mention of the forcefield.
"The details of my contracts are confidential." I said clearly, pointedly ignoring the angry group of teenagers trying to silently shout over each other in the corner.
"Indeed, and that absolves you of any responsibility." I glared and he raised a hand in placation, perhaps remembering that I also had a debt to collect. "Regardless, with the nature of the entrance and the technology on display, it was decided to abandon the location rather than pursue a confrontation."
His description was remarkably smooth for what was probably a desperate retreat under pants-browning levels of panic. I knew what those dogs were like when they transformed. Being caught in close quarters with one wasn't a situation that led to calm evaluations of the merits of continued conflict.
Kaiser turned back to the group. "Given the events that unfolded following Bakuda's attack, there were more pressing concerns for Empire forces. As such, the Undersiders' actions have passed without an official response."
Yes, the 'Undersiders' Actions', because admitting they got their heads handed to them by a single girl would hurt more than losing to a team of teenagers, and because if Grue wanted to maintain that reputation he was so focused on he needed to present a united front, even when blindsided by Rachel's independent operations. Operations that they were still apparently having a screaming match over.
Kaiser turned towards Grue's calm form. From the way he was sitting you would never guess he was still trying to yell down his teammates. "Such an action would require reprisals, either now or when the city stabilized, but they would happen. It is a necessity in this business." Brian inclined his head slightly. The argument amongst the Undersiders seemed to be dying down somewhat and he was clearly trying to cover the tail end of it without letting the rest of the table know. "That said, we would be willing to forgive this breach, as recompense for the matter at hand."
There was a pause as Grue seemed to be soberly considering the man's offer while in reality Taylor and Alec had been chased off the line and he was frantically speaking with Rachel and Tattletale. Finally, he lifted his head towards Kaiser and replied, the echo of his power covering for any exhaustion or emotion he might have otherwise been unable to conceal.
"You are correct about these things requiring reprisals, but as long as you operate dog fighting in this town Bitch will find out, and she will oppose you." He gave no hint of having any problem with that despite his annoyance being clear. Considering the payday this had cost them, that was understandable. "If you want this matter resolved, then resolve it. Fully." He turned towards Hookwolf. Because of course it would have been Hookwolf. "The matches stop, for good."
Hookwolf clearly wasn't too excited about the prospect, but he held his tongue. Kaiser seemed to be putting on a show of considering things, but I had no doubt how this would go. It was doubtful the rings were anything more than a pet project of his top brute and maybe a front or distribution point for other businesses.
He was willing to waive any retaliation against the Undersiders, but that would assume he'd be willing to try that. Despite Brian's moves to distance the group from me, we were still regarded as closely aligned, if not the same actual team. Kaiser acting against the Undersiders would at best mean facing some of my technology, and at worst having the full force of my newly deployed team come down on him.
But by offering this, and by Brian agreeing to it, it let them stand on their own. The Empire acknowledged the attack, the damage it caused, Brian took responsibility for it, and the Empire backed down from retaliation. It was the kind of gang dynamics that laid the foundation for larger careers.
"Under the circumstances, I believe we can agree to that." He said with a polite nod. And just like that, Brian had negotiated away a gang war. If he wanted a reputation and a chance to move up in the world he just got it. And all it cost him was a titanic pile of cash and a level of internal strife that seemed to be rapidly picking up again.
"Well, that was fascinating." Coil remarked. "But I don't believe you have any convenient feuds with my organization that may be forgiven in exchange for this particular debt."
Kaiser glowered at the man as the Time constellation missed a connection. "You clearly have some scheme in mind. State it."
"You seem to be emboldened by recent successes. I wonder if that will hold?" Coil's masked face flickered towards me and I felt a spike of concern from Kaiser. "But no matter. I believe I will follow the lead of our esteemed guest and meeting chair, and request neutrality."
"What are you asking?" Kaiser responded.
"Simple, really. With the recent complications there are bound to be a number of complicated engagements in the city, even more if additional groups arrive to try their hand. My request is for the freedom to overtly move my forces through Empire territory." His teeth were visible through the thin fabric of his mask. "For a period extending no shorter than the duration of the local conflict."
Kaiser considered, then nodded. "Assuming no actions are taken against Empire forces or assets, I will grant you right-of-movement until the situation with the ABB territory is resolved."
I didn't trust Coil. I doubted Kaiser trusted Coil. The request seemed reasonable, to a point, but there were ways it could be twisted or leveraged against the Empire. I had a feeling that 'overt movement' was going to be watched closely.
Which would probably tie up assets from other areas. Or overlook any covert movements. Or any number of other ways this could be played against the Empire. I wasn't overly concerned, at least not for the sake of the Empire. Coil was a much more pressing issue, and someone I didn't want getting any additional leverage.
And just like that I was the last one standing. The final party to be placated before Kaiser was free of the penalty of breaking the truce. Attention drifted towards me like it was being drawn by a relentless gravitational pull. I was as uncomfortable with it as ever, but I had come too far to let that impact me now.
"So, we are left with the final question." Uppercrust said with a slight grin. "What would Apeiron ask of the Empire to make up for this offense?"
I looked at the man and smiled before turning my gaze over to Kaiser. "The answer is simple. The same thing I came here to secure." I said. "Peace."
"I assure you; the Empire has no wish to enter into hostilities with the Celestial Forge." Kaiser said quickly.
"I wouldn't expect so." I replied dismissively. "It is a wider peace that I am concerned with."
I summoned another display screen from my omni tool, this one showing a map of the city. An aerial view, accurate to shortly before the meeting started. With the level of detail on display the damage to the city became starkly apparent. Some areas were still burning or otherwise energized from Bakuda's more persistent bomb effects, while the scars of the last week were clear in damaged buildings and roads.
A fair share of that was due to my own actions, the scars extending through the Docks where my Dust trails had torn through the city. The very clear zone where traffic diverted to avoid the blackout field. Even a few lingering effects from where I had acted against cells of entrenched ABB during the Ungodly Hour.
But it didn't matter where the damage came from. It was there, and people were struggling to deal with it. Rough areas of the map started to fill in, marking out the black out zone and areas of damage, then the territories of the ABB, Empire, and Merchants.
"This area has been designated as a no man's land for the duration of the blackout effect and major repair works." I indicated the ABB territory. "My concern isn't that duration, it's what will occur once the truce expires."
"You wish to extend the term of non-interference?" Kaiser asked.
"Regrettably impossible at this point of the summit." Uppercrust replied. "And restriction on third parties would be beyond the recompence of a single player."
"Quite so." I said. "And while I certainly wouldn't question the Empire's willingness to abide by the truce." At least if they knew what was good for them. "I have little doubt they will take initiative the moment it is permissible to do so."
"As will everyone." Kaiser argued.
"I am not debating that. However, preparations for such a campaign will run counter to recovery efforts." The map zoomed in on the portion boarding between Empire and ABB territory. If you took a stricter view of gang territory rather than broadly splitting the city, there were much more limited regions that actually saw significant gang presence and operations. Of those, the region bordering between the ABB and Empire was only about a dozen blocks long.
They were a contentious set of blocks, as you would expect when holdings turned from one gang to another nearly over the course of a single street. When The ABB had been on their warpath the area had seen heavy fighting, and the damage was clear on both sides of the divide.
"If a group was to build up in preparation for a major offensive, it would naturally occur near the border of their territory nearest the objective." I explained. "Such a buildup has the potential to be detrimental to recovery efforts and the rebuilding of a highly stressed region. Having forces in such a position might even invite over-eager pursuits into a region of intended neutrality."
"What is it you are asking?" Kaiser said, glaring at the map. I smiled, then with a command extended the neutral zone one block into Empire Territory.
"For the duration of the Blackout effect and major repairs the Empire will withdraw from the following area, effectively extending the no man's land." I stated simply.
Kaiser considered the map. "There are significant Empire assets within the proposed area. Relocating them, even temporarily, would be a significant endeavor. There would also be logistical and security concerns, particularly given the current state of the city."
"I don't care." I replied in an even voice.
The man's head shot up. "What?"
"I don't care. You wanted to know my conditions for overlooking this offense and I have presented them to you. Recovery is going to be difficult enough without the Empire arming for war in a devastated neighborhood. I want you out of there. That is my condition." Seemingly I needed to remind Kaiser that I wasn't in the same negotiating position as the other groups at the table.
"These are your terms?" He asked, cautiously.
"They are." I could have asked for much worse than this, and he had to know it. I was making it as clear as possible that I wasn't inclined to listen to any petty complaints. He had my conditions, and he could live with them. Or not.
"I believe I can accept that. If there is nothing else?" He looked at me, then blinked as a series of markers appeared in the highlighted area.
"Yes, a clarification. This is a full withdrawal, leaving no doubt." The screen zoomed in on one of the dots, transitioning to a photo of an E88 tag on the side of a building. "To leave no doubt, all gang marks will be removed as well." I smiled. "For the duration of the agreement, of course."
"Of. Course." He said coldly.
"Capital." Uppercrust said cheerfully. "Then I believe we can call this summit to a close. I believe some of us have arrangements that should be put in place at the earliest opportunity." Kaiser gave a stilted nod. "As for the rest of you, it has been a pleasure."
At his words the tension broke as people slowly began shifting back towards their own groups. Grue walked back towards the Undersiders with calm, measured strides that concealed his own frustration and the nest of anxiety he was walking into. Tattletale had been getting progressively worse through the course of the summit and the revelation about Bitch's attack was the last thing she had needed.
Personally, I was glad there was one less dog fighting ring in the city, and that the rest were being shut down. That said, there were undoubtedly better ways to handle it than bursting through a wall knife in hand and forcefield live. The fact that she activated the field in advance, rather than waiting for some impact trigger was the only reason I and the rest of the Undersiders hadn't gotten an emergency alert the moment it triggered. I'm not sure if that was intentional, or if she was just going for intimidation. Either way, it was successful.
That issue was an internal matter, at least for the moment. I could probably push them on the agreement to keep me apprised of their activities, but if Grue had been in the dark I couldn't really hold it against him. I was due for another discussion with Tattletale, but that would have to wait until she had settled things, both internally and externally. Alec's words about the state of the team rang true. This wasn't the best time to push her, no matter how much I might want to.
Coil was slinking off to a corner, receiving coded status reports from his observation team. I was betting that since Survey had revealed their existence he wasn't assuming confidentially on any other matters, instead sticking to status updates on the other teams, something he probably assumed I had better data on already.
Because I did.
Faultline had made her way back to her booth where Spitfire seemed to be lightly chiding her while sneaking glances at me. Next to her Labyrinth shifted her head slightly and stared at me through her mask with unblinking eyes. The effect was fairly unnerving, but I gave her a warm smile and a nod before returning to my own table.
And was immediately pounced on by a mass of red wire in the shape of a tiny predator. "Everyone was saying you did great!" Tetra exclaimed. "And this was so much fun. I got to see everyone! Are we going to do this again?"
I shifted my arm to give her a better purchase as I shook my head. "Probably not. Hopefully we got everything taken care of." I paused and looked towards the bar. "Almost. Here, I have one thing left."
I helped her down onto the surface of the table and turned to make my way towards the bar. The brother who had been conscripted into representing his family at the meeting was wiping the surface of the bar with a cloth while watching my approach like a hawk.
Crossing the bar meant getting closer to the Empire contingent who weren't enjoying the aftermath of the summit quite as much as the people who had gotten concessions from them. I could feel the tension in the group as I neared them, a general wave of guarded attitudes.
No, there was one outlier. A sense of excitement and apprehension. I turned towards Damsel as I passed. She cheekily raised her glass towards me and grinned over it. I smiled and nodded back before continuing on my way.
The bartender, Mr. Dewitt, eyed me cautiously as I approached. He was disarmed slightly as I leaned against the bar and nodded to him.
"Thank you for your accommodation." I said.
He blinked, then shook his head. "Same for everyone. Glad to see the end of it."
"No." I said, causing him to look up. "You handled Proto Aima's order. That was above and beyond. Also, my apologies for roping you into that. It was bad business, but a point had to be made."
"No worries." He replied, but there was an uncertain edge to his voice, like he couldn't tell where this was going. "And came out ahead, so can't complain."
I nodded. "A good attitude." I reached under my cloak and accessed my subspace pocket. When my hand emerged I was holding a glass bottle that I set on the bar in front of him. "My thanks, for the effort and the trouble."
Cautiously he picked up the bottle and examined it. "Whiskey?" He asked, feeling the enamel and engravings on the glass. "I don't recognize this label."
I grinned at that. "You wouldn't. It's seventy years old." The man's eyebrows shot up. "I made it this morning." I continued.
He froze and slowly looked up at me. "You mean…" He trailed off, apparently not quite knowing what I could mean on that matter.
"A gift. Enjoy it as you will." I said before turning back to face the rest of the bar. And felt a connection being made to the Knowledge constellation.
It was a mid-sized mote from the same source as Nano-technician. The power was called 'upgrades! Upgrades! UPGRADES!'. Unsurprisingly, it allowed me to upgrade items. Specifically, after a short period of study I could figure out how to fix design flaws or improve the function of any technology. It synchronized extremely well with my Feel It Out power, drastically reducing the time needed for each upgrade cycle. It also allowed me to use salvaged materials instead of fresh parts or rare components for the upgrade process.
It didn't take me long to process the power, but I elected to stay at the bar and watch my team enjoy the freedom of the aftermath. There was some circling and power dynamics playing out between the various groups, mostly in response to the Empire and Coil. It also became clear that Tattletale and Faultline had some kind of beef, not that the girl had the energy to pursue it at the moment. Uppercrust had made his way back to his team and was locked in place with his forcefield rather than seated with them. His condition was apparent and I had a feeling I would be hearing from him through my website fairly soon.
As I watched, Faultline's crew drifted close enough to my group for Gregor to strike up a brief conversation with Fleet. I didn't eavesdrop, but I had the sense Fleet was enjoying the experience. Tensions were too high for things to turn into any kind of social mixer, so barring a few brief outreaches the groups stuck together and made their way out of the bar one by one.
I signaled my group and we moved to follow the Undersiders. Grue had already led them off by the time we emerged, a cloud of darkness over an alley, no doubt covering their escape. Coil wasn't the only one watching the entrance, after all.
I smiled, making sure to allow the various cameras a decent shot before nodding to Survey. In a barrage of stealth and movement systems we vanished from the street and were on our way back to the Workshop. Finally, the summit was over. Now there was just everything that came next.
Jumpchain abilities this chapter:
Shut Up! (Asura's Wrath) 50:
You don't have the patience for bullshit. During long winded speeches or similar engagements that drag on and on, you will have a sense for when and how to best expedite the proceedings. You aren't required to take the chance, but you will have to live with consequences if you do. This perk cannot let you automatically kill someone, no matter how hard you can hit.
Mantra Affinity (Asura's Wrath) 100:
You are empowered by a single flavor of sentient emotion. When acting within the themes of your dominant Mantra, you are capable of peak human feats. You count as both a prayer source and an emotional source of Mantra. There are eight Mantra affinities, Wrath, Violence, Vanity, Sloth, Melancholy, Lust, Greed, and Pride. Without a Mantra Affinity, you are denied the strength of emotion, and must subsist on ordinary Mantra. By taking this perk, your safe Mantra Level is set to 2, and you always count as having a minimum of Mantral Level 1 for purposes of determining such feats.
Mantra Training and Techniques (Asura's Wrath) 200:
You have learned or been taught numerous techniques to focus and express your Mantra, rendered as supernatural martial arts and superhuman feats of agility, durability and so on. Meditative Kata can extend your natural lifespan, heal minor wounds and fight off sickness, while strikes and attacks could shatter walls. This increases your maximum Mantra level by 1.
As an added benefit, this perk also allows you to create your own personal Mantra Form. Your first form will take approximately five years of study and meditation to fully construct, but when completed, you will be able to manifest an external mantra interface. To most people, it will look like an ornate halo, evocative of your personality and mantra affinity.
A Mantra Form usually has a core theme, such as improved combat ability, damage resistance, speed or other such boosts. Establishing a form enhances your abilities, even beyond what a given level of Mantra would normally allow. With a mantra form active, you may easily perform superhuman physical, mental and social feats, even before the direct application of Mantra. These stances and techniques however cannot enhance stranger powers such as psychic blasts or arcane magic, short of ensuring you can survive to perform them.
Successfully creating an initial form and manifesting it increases your capacity for Mantra by 1. Subsequent forms and other perks can increase this cap further, to a maximum of 8. You may use any mantra form you know, but you cannot stack them. Creating a new form takes ten years, times the number of forms you have already mastered.
Your halos can be attacked however, and if knocked aside or even destroyed. If that happens, you immediately drop down to Mantra Level 3, and any excess Mantra is wasted.
Resplendent Wardrobe (Asura's Wrath) 50:
You have access to an unlimited closet or the finest designers of Shinkoku Trastrium, able to properly dress your theotech empowered form in the grandest of styles. Anyone with mantra cybernetics can wear impossibly impractical clothing without any issue.
upgrades! Upgrades! UPGRADES! (Red Faction) 400:
You can make it all better. By studying a piece of technology for a short while, you can come up with ways to improve its functions or fix design flaws, though you'll still need the related technical skills to figure out details. In addition, you can use salvaged materials in lieu of fresh parts for this task.