Condemner 3:1

I awoke slowly, degree by degree becoming aware of the world around me.

A languor suffused my limbs, a sort of warm weariness.  Better than sex.  Better than drugs.  It was a pleasant tension, as though every bit of me, every last particle, was being propped up, supported, by some kind of unseen wind.  It was like I’d always been drawn in soft pencil, and now someone had traced over it with a pen, rendering permanent every kind and whirl of my design.

My eyes slid open, very nearly of their own accord.  I took in my surroundings in a kind of daze, without curiosity or fear.  It barely seemed to matter.

I was lying on my side on a king sized bed, Betty pressed against my back.  I could see another bed, with Dale laying on his back in the center of it.  I closed my eyes.

But my euphoria showed no sign of abating.  After a few moments of blissing out, I slid my eyes open again, an ear to ear eating grin crossing my face.

A moment later I sat up.

Somehow, before I even saw her, I knew that Preventer was on the floor, sitting cross legged in a lotus position.  I knew it the way I knew where my legs were as I slung them over the side of the bed.  I knew it the way I knew where Betty’s second form was, curled up in a nearby closet.

Preventer didn’t stand up, but leaned forward towards me, stretching her hand out in the universal gesture for “up high”.  I slapped her hand, wincing expectantly.

Another pleasant surprise.  She tilted and dropped her hand back towards herself just a smidge as we slapped, relenting by conscious choice where her gift wouldn’t let her flesh cooperate.  As a consequence, it felt much like slapping another person five, as opposed to smashing my hand into an invincible barricade.

It was eerie.  We both chuckled slightly.

We’d moved with the same thoughtless coordination that you’d use to clap your own two hands together.  Somehow I could tell that she hadn’t been consciously trying to protect my hands, any more than you consciously put more weight on one of your feet when the other is sore.

Above me, Betty’s human form made a cute *blurble* kind of noise.  A sleep sound, I somehow knew.  A slight pang of guilt slipped through me, it wasn’t cool to slap five when everyone else was asleep.

Preventer was having similar thoughts, presumably.  She indicated the door with a head tilt.

We filed out, noiselessly opening and closing the door.

It was an oddly gleeful act, like a child slipping out of his parent’s bedroom after watching Mommy and Daddy ‘wrestling’.  The joy of getting away with something we weren’t supposed to.

There were Knights in the hallway, standing backs to the wall next to our door as we stepped out of it.  I nearly missed their existence.

I woke up a little more.

The presence of the Knights wasn’t heightened the way that Preventer and mine was.  They were still other.  I had no innate sense of how they were standing beneath their robes, or the expression on their face behind their masks.  They were foreign presences, blank and hostile.

“Fuck off”, stage whispered Preventer to them.

They looked from one to another, clearly considering whether to obey.  The moment lingered.

I was about to step to, to reinforce her command, when she reached up and tapped her throat.

As she did that, I could sense a feeling of satisfaction, of achievement.  I could also tell that she could tell that I’d been about to back her play, and was appreciative.

Whatever the significance of the throat tap, it wasn’t lost on the Knights.  They walked off in separate directions down the corridor as fast as they could, dignity forgotten in their rush to obey.

We waited a moment, as their footsteps echoed off.  I could feel a guffaw building in my throat, but it caught me by surprise when it erupted from Preventer’s.

“Hehehehehe”, she gave a surprisingly girlish giggle.  I looked down at her in dawning appreciation.  I didn’t know exactly why, but I could somehow tell that she deserved congratulations.  She’d done something that she’d been trying to do forever.

“Nirav,” she said.  “We are Linked!”

Linked.

The greatest insurance in the world.  The power that protected the Fists.  The power that had stopped the world from getting rid of goddamn Remover, of Pursuer and the rest.  The power that some people thought of as the pillar that propped up Her reign.  That power was shielding me.

I chuckled a little, suddenly realizing what this good feeling was.

I wasn’t afraid.

Not since the last days in Bany had I felt this way.  Not since Condemner had crafted me, before I’d learned of the infero housed within me, the dreadful force that could take away my will at its whim.

I didn’t fear him anymore.

There wasn’t any explanation for it.  The bright sensation that suffused me didn’t come with an instruction book, but I instinctively knew that it had to be, that it was to be shared.

I looked at Preventer, and was shocked to see tears glistening on her face.

She didn’t have her makeup on, and her gift’s gleams moved behind her flesh like fireflies, but I could still see them.  I couldn’t have been more surprised, despite our newfound bond.

Preventer wasn’t a person who cried.  She made others cry.  When we were outside her presence, Jane and I had agreed that Preventer was beyond redemption.  I’d heard of the things that she’d done, lives extinguished without a care, families shattered without compunction.

And still, relief or something very much like it brought tears to her eyes.

“Do you know?” she asked, and her voice actually quavered.  “Do you know?”

I didn’t know exactly what she was asking, but it didn’t matter.

“Yeah” I said.

The next moment she was hugging me around the stomache, her body wracked by sobs.

I looked down at her.  She seemed a gleaming rope, trapping me in place.  Not so invincible after all.  I’d bur…

I choked off the thought, feeling Condemner within me.

Perhaps it was the link.  Maybe my newly forged ability to feel the presence of others extended to a greater understanding of myself.  Maybe he’d just kept me around too long.  For whatever reason, I could feel him rise.

An altogether different kind of warmth.

“You stupid fuck” I whispered.  “I beat you.”

I didn’t worry that Preventer would think I meant her.  The idea that one of us would misunderstand one another felt laughable, at this shining moment.  I even patted her hair as I spoke.

Condemner pulsed within me, doubling me over in a momentary spasm.  I bent down over Preventer, as though to shield her from something, but really I just needed her strength to stand.

It reminded me of the last time we’d been together, just the two of us.  When she’d threatened Condemner on my behalf, fearlessly standing down a beast that could burn the world for a man who was nothing more than a fantasy.

“I am Linked,” I breathed.  “Not you.”

I could feel the truth of it even as I said it.  My identity, the whole idea of ‘Nirav’, was a blanket that my deeper self wrapped around it to hide.  A mask that it used to shield.

But Linker’s power didn’t know that.  It wasn’t built to link people with multiple identities around one another.  It stopped at the first one it got to.

No way to prove this, of course, but right now I’d bet everything on it.

“You had every advantage, ‘Condemner’, you could have destroyed me at a moment’s notice.  And still you lost.  Lost to your own fucking delusion.”

I could feel him, me.  Wrath like a mountain range, terror like a storm cloud.

“I’m immortal now, but you are not.  You shred me, you pull me away from myself, and the Link will bring me back.”

Preventer glanced up, tears and gleams mingling on her face.  She was smiling with pride.

“You did it,” she said.

I hadn’t realized that this would happen, not consciously.  Condemner would have seen it in my mind.   She was giving me too much credit.  I could see the realization the instant that she had it, and I didn’t mind.

Condemner pulsed again, focused now.  He wasn’t pushing to take over, or shredding me apart, just adding the idea of *pain* to my identity, making me suffer.

I stood strong, the Link holding me up even as he sought to beat me down.

“You do this,” I rasped, fighting to get the words out.  It was important that Preventer hear them.  “You fuck with me at all, and you are dead, you hear me?  I’ll have the rest of the team kill you.”

Condemner maintained his assault, sending waves of anguish blasting through my flesh.  Only Preventer kept me from falling, supporting me as my nerves were turned against me.

“They’ll kill you, Condemner.  You’ll be gone.  And the link will bring back me! Me, not you!  I will be the fire, you will be ashes.  Is that what you want?!”

I gasped the words out, not the passionate shout that I’d always fantasized about confronting my inner self with, but I knew that he understood.  That I understood.

The part about me being the fire was what made him stop.  I was Condemner, in part.  I understood him to a degree.  It was vitally important to him that the flame burn on and on.  He wouldn’t trust it to another.

He relented, and I stood tall again.

I raised a hand up in front of my face.

“Now, Condemner” I said out loud, “sing for your supper.”

He resisted.  I could feel his presence sinking down again.

“Preventer,” I said.

She looked up.

“Would it be hard for you to kill me?”

I asked the question without a qualm.  I could tell, through the Link, that she would have trouble with it.  Preventer was an armadillo, a hard shell around a gooey center.  She could kill strangers, or people at a distance, as long as she could make herself afraid.  I doubted that she could turn against me without sore provocation.

She nodded.  I could tell that she knew that I knew that she didn’t mean it.  This could get dizzying.

“If no flame appears…”

Before I finished the sentence, a bright candle flame was dancing in my hand.

I was entranced.  The heat of Condemner, the warmth of the link…

I fought for lucidity.  Reminded myself that he was beneath me, upstream from me, able to supplant me at a moment’s notice, that I’d bought this exercise of my gift with blackmail and trickery, and the help of my friends.

And still, I stared into the flame…until Preventer reached up and snuffed it out.

She put both of her hands over one of mine, pale flesh with gleams beneath it covering over my counterfeit form.

“Careful,” she said.  “your power is finite.  If you don’t refresh the fire, you could burn away your life.”

I nodded, although I sensed her surge of amusement on the word “careful”.

“And then I could die.” I continued, looking down at her.  It was exquisite satire, both of us in on the joke, mocking the creature which could hear only our words, couldn’t understand the meaning beneath.

“And come back the next evening!” we finished together, to another round of chuckles.

How had I ever thought that Preventer wasn’t funny.  Now that I was Linked to her I could feel the wry humor with which she regarded the world.  The iron clad need for safety sprang from… well, it seemed like the Link wasn’t full mind reading.

Awkwardly enough, I also got the feeling that she was working herself up to kissing me.  That snapped me out of the moment.

I took a step back, awkwardly pulling our hands apart.  She did likewise.

“It’s not…” and all of a sudden the glee that I’d taken in talking where Condemner could overhear but not understand was gone, and he was just an unwelcome witness, an enemy eavesdropping on our communication.

“Hey, hey, no harm, no foul,” she said.  She couldn’t possibly expect me to believe…wait, she was talking about the use of Condemner’s power.  This was harder than I’d thought.

“Right, sure, I get it.  Don’t want to use up my red friend, now do I?”

I felt Condemner retreating now, pondering this new development.  I wasn’t sure that it believed what I was telling it about the Link, wasn’t sure that I could trust it to give me fire when I called for it, but it was a heck of a lot better than what I’d gone to sleep with.

“Let’s go wake up the others,” said Preventer, composed once more.

Only, she wasn’t.  Through the link I could feel her embarrassment, the sting that she was feeling over my implicit rejection.

It wasn’t really a lack of attraction.  It was…well, Preventer was evil.

I mean, in the final analysis she might have reasons for what she did, but she still did them.  When I looked at her it was always with a shudder.  The brand of Cain was always upon her.

She raised an eyebrow, some of that must have gotten through.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

My voice trailed off.  I was apologizing for my thoughts now?  To Preventer, of all people?  And what did I mean I didn’t mean.  I definitely did.

“I’m used to it,” she said.

Once again, that sting over the link, recrimination somehow.  She might be used to it, but it definitely bugged her.

I had to make an effort, had to fix this somehow.  Today was, in a very real way, my birthday, my independence day from Condemner.  I wasn’t about to spend it fighting with my own team.

“When you backed him down,” no need to tell her I meant Condemner, “you saved my life.  I can’t say that I accept everything you’ve done, everything that I’ve heard about you, but I also can say that you didn’t have to save me.  You could have gotten through perfectly fine on your plan to get Linked with just Condemner.  You didn’t need Nirav.  But you reached out, you helped me out.  So, thanks for that, Preventer.”

She stood there for a long moment, looking at me without expression.

The link gave me nothing.  She could probably use her gift to block it when she wanted to, just picture it as harm and it would swing mindlessly into action.

Finally, she gave me her hand again, but this time she wasn’t clasping mine, wasn’t stretching for a high five.  It was a firm, businesslike handshake.

When I took it, her hand was the old invincible stone once again.

I nodded, accepting the gesture.  We could be colleagues, partners.  Siblings in the Fourth Fist.  Nothing was between us, not for or against.

I didn’t believe it, entirely.  My glimpse of her mind had shown a more complicated person than that.  Still, for now, it would do.

“You can call me Rebeccah” she said.

Prayeradox

Dear Diary, you are not real.

I don’t need my gift to know that recording this would be an act of utter lunacy.  The complications that ensuring that no one who mattered would read what I’ve written would tax my talents at a time when I have very little leeway.  Thus, you do not exist.

As you are imaginary, I am free to communicate to you what I can never tell another soul.

I am Prevailer.

That would be news to Peggy Martin, you respond.

And, you are right, it would.  She thinks of me, insofar as she thinks, as some kind of rude idol.  A useful creature to call upon when times are tough, part oracle, part mcguffin, her little good luck charm.

And from her vantage point, that’s all I am.  She is the one who gets the glory of empire.  She is the one who experiences the thrill of battle, the ecstasy of her triumphs.

In other words, she’s the one who does all the work.

From my perspective, she barely exists.  Very few people do.

I look upon the world as something like a movie.  I can skip ahead, watch the parts that haven’t happened yet.  I can’t rewind, but I think you’ll agree that that isn’t exactly necessary.

She calls me ‘Answerer’, because ‘God’ would stick in her throat.

The mistake that she makes, that I force everyone to make, is to think of my influences, when they think of them at all, as being confined to the answers that I give when they call upon me.  But the truth is that every interaction is a lever, every time I change the environment I change the evidence that their senses present them.  Just as digging a ditch can turn a river, so waking Peggy up early can cause Prevailer to sack a city.

That’s what I mean about them not being real.  Do you, imaginary friend, think of a tape recorder that you fill as a person?  No, of course not.  Because it has no agency.  It only repeats what you tell it.

Neither do my minions.  Insofar as they can think, of course, they feel like they do, but how can they, when I know what actions will prompt their reactions?  If talking about the past with someone will make them sad, and cause them to skip the Court this evening… are they really sad?  Are they choosing anything at all?

My mother, before I was Processed, told me that I lived in my own little world.  Well, nowadays everyone lives in my own big one.

And yet, something unforseen has just happened.  It shouldn’t have been possible, but it did.  There are new channels, new paths that the future can take.  Not just the uncountable trivial differences, but genuine divergent forks for our little blue world.

This has happened before, usually it is Predictor’s fault, or Circe’s…but never on this scale.

This isn’t unmanageable.  I’ll throw out the new 4th Fist, arrange another Defiance, etc.  I can see the solution, the requirements are strict, but doable.

But, if I didn’t see why this happened, then can I trust my gift?  Will things work out like they always have before, on script?

Or are there more surprises in store.  Am I in danger?  After a lifetime of moving the pieces for both sides at my will, am I somehow on the board?

If I’m God, who can I pray to?

 

Fisher 3:1

The woman’s posture changed as she said it.  She stood straighter, raised her gaze to eye level and showed her teeth with a wide smile.  Mighty nice teeth for someone who looked like they were on death’s door.

Everyone looked at her, Predictor and Haunter breaking off their ‘private’ conversation.  I debated bringing the Hook out, or attempting to link shadows with her, but settled for standing in uncomfortable silence.

“You are only the second group to get that right!” she continued, smiling as brightly as a famine victim possibly could.

I moved back, letting the talky people move towards her.  I kept my eye on Jane.  She’d been… off … all day.  Her priorities had been worrying last time I’d put the Hook in her shadow.  Above all else, she sought to preserve, but nearly even with that, she sought to protest.  It felt like at any given moment either of those might win out.  A fraying, inconsistent list.  She was the largest risk to my longevity, and she wasn’t likely to handle surprises well.

Predictor spoke for us, responding quickly.

“Second group, huh, then who was the first?”

Smart, she was giving us time to recall what we’d done while we thought this was Linker, had we somehow gotten ourselves in trouble?  What did it mean that this wasn’t really her?  Was the Regime backing out on making us a Fist?  As we pondered these questions Predictor kept the focus on trivialities, acquiring more information and slowing the scene down.

“Fifth Fist, of course.”

It was eerie to hear such a voice from such a form.  This woman was a battered, starved shell.  She should barely have been able to croak these phrases, her breath should have caught in her throat with an alarming rattle, but instead her voice was almost bubbly.  It ran over with smugness, self-satisfaction.

Safe in my shadow, the Hook’s claws twitched.  This woman had deceived me, deceived Nirav and destabilized Haunter’s precarious psyche.  If I could bring it about, I’d put her down.

“Of course, can’t fool a prophet, right?” said Preventer, voicing the obvious.  She had probably realized who else must have seen through this trick before she even asked, just buying time for us.

“Well…” the woman seemed reluctant to admit that one couldn’t.  Then her gaze shifted, going over to Dale’s chest, and then up to his face, in a very exaggerated and obvious pan.

“So, you are the leader, right?  I’m Eater.”

“Oh, hi,” said Dale.

There was a moment of silence.  Preventer was no doubt wracking her brains for what line to take next.  Haunter was probably corralling her internal choir.  I caught a glance out of Nirav’s eye.  He would be petrified, poor boy.  If Condemner decided to throw down with this woman for tricking him…

“So, uh…your name is funny, because of how skinny you are,” said Dale.  “Does it talk about your power?”

“Of course,” Eater said.  “But I’m not about to describe my power to someone I barely know.”

“You don’t trust us?  But we are going to be a Fist.  That’ll make us your boss, wont it?”

Eater shook her head.

“Maybe one day, if Prevailer takes a real shine to you lot.  This fort and my Ultras aren’t part of the normal command structures.”

My Ultras… Eater wasn’t just a decoy, nor just an Ultra.  She was something like Thor, an Ultra who lead other Ultras.  A Regime version this time, so likely twice as nasty.

I was suddenly incredibly grateful that Preventer and Haunters little confab had happened before Eater touched us.  I had no desire for her dry bone hands to touch either of my bodies.  A little shudder ran through me at the thought.  Through the Hook, or my idea of it anyway, safe in my shadow, not the Lure, which kept on smiling kindly.

“So what comes next?  Or, what was supposed to come next?” asked Dale.

Eater folded her hands together steepling her fingers in a way that made me think they were going to snap.

“If you had believed in this show, if you thought you were Linked, then we’d have just drugged you at dinner, and brought Linker in when you were out.”

Dale didn’t get it.

“So if we fell for your trick you would make it real?  What kind of sense does that make?  I thought you were going to say that you’d kill us or something.”

She actually chuckled at that.

“Kill you?  The whole point is that no one can kill you.  The idea behind my trick…well…”

Eater stopped talking until her chuckles had subsided.  Everyone but Dale had already figured out what she was about to say, but there was no sense in undermining him or aggravating her by announcing that.

“She likes Her Fists, but She doesn’t trust them much.  If you guys thought that I was Linker, it would make the real Linker even safer.  Just a bit of spy stuff.”

Dale nodded dubiously, but Preventer was more enthusiastic.

“Hah, I was right.  This isn’t where Linker stays, it is just where you bring her to use her gift.  It’s useless for any enemy.”

“Yeah, that’s it.  She’ll be by tonight, expecting to find you guys unconscious.”

Nirav made a ‘bullet bouncing off gesture’ at his own chest, then pointed to Preventer.

“Yeah, good point.  Those who are unable to be sedated, which in your group ought to just be Preventer as long as we keep Indulger off of the ground, will obviously not be drugged.  Instead you get to wear bags over your head while she’s in the room.”

Haunter tensed again, and I had to act.  The next seconds might see something stupid if I didn’t head it off.

I put my hand on her shoulder, making certain to do so gently, not hard enough to cost her a shade.

She flinched.

Even as she did so I was putting my other hand on Preventer’s opposite shoulder, making the whole thing a sort of encouraging upper body hug, leaning my head between theirs.

“Wow, you guys figured it out!”  I tried to channel Dale with this line, injecting the Lure’s voice with just the same slightly dimwitted enthusiasm as he habitually used.  “We would have looked so stupid if you hadn’t.”

Even as I was talking, I was letting the hand on Haunter’s shoulder do the real work.  I pushed with my finger, gently enough that there was nothing for Eater to see, a series of presses from my right index finger.

Long short, long short long, and so on.  Morse code.

I hadn’t spent the entire bus right back talking with Nirav.  I didn’t sleep, so there was plenty of time to myself.  I spent most of it talking with Haunter’s passengers.  One had taught me this code.

Eater raised her hands like she was going to join in the embrace from the front, then dropped them as we cringed away.  She gave that dull chuckle again.

Meanwhile my finger was tapping away.  “Haunter, I’ll use my other body to see Linker.  Don’t worry, we’ll find out who she is.”

A human probably couldn’t do this, not without it being visible to someone in the same room.  There was no way I could hear a response back, either.  But with thousands of people inside of her body, every one of them feeling my hand on their shoulder…they’d reconstruct my message.  From what the shade, one ‘Joey’, had told me, they would get it pretty quick.

We broke the embrace, and I dipped the Hook into Haunter’s shadow for an instant.  Relief rose about me. “Preserve” was her utmost priority once again.  She wasn’t about to stand up to Eater and the forces which backed her right now, no matter how frustrated she got.

“Let’s get you to your party,” said Eater.  “Sleep is in the gin, so drink it last.  Preventer, when everyone else is knocked out and Mangler explains what’s going on, try to act surprised.”

With that, we headed out of the little room.  Eater never broke character, shrinking from us as though we’d abused her since childhood, roughly grabbed and whisked away by the Knights who thought their red robes and masks made them figures of fear.

Mangler and Looter were waiting for us in the common area, and a keg was tapped.

Foreign as I was to the human condition, even I knew that midmorning parties weren’t exactly a thing, so I wasn’t surprised that we started things off slowly.

They had a screen with some sort of computer broadcasting to it, put old world sports on.  Mangler and Dale renewed their acquaintance.  I sat the Lure down on the couch next to Nirav, tried to grasp the old world game.

Lines of knights were running into each other, and a brown ball seemed to be an important part.  Nirav didn’t get it either, but it was still fun and exciting to watch.

Forger and Preventer were talking, Jane was berating a Knight, sounded like she was asking him to bring some books or something.  I let it all wash over me.

Inside, even as the Lure murmured gentle reassurance to Nirav, I was hard at work.

The Hook’s form was protean, ever changing.  It was currently an enormous bruising machine, but there was no reason that that had to remain fixed.  The same process that I’d used to regrow the Lure, the steady stream of energy that my gift lent me as long as some light fell upon me, I could use it on the Hook as well.

Gone were the horns.  Gone were the fangs.  I remodeled my combat form to be as inoffensive as possible.  A sickly and wasted shape, so slim as to be nearly two dimensional, so frail as to provoke pity instead of aggression.  A paper Hook, which could catch no fish.  A tough call, but I had the time.

The day dragged on towards the afternoon.  One of the teams won, and the Knights brought out more booze, more food.  Nirav got up and pissed at one point.  Preventer was making out with one of the boys she’d been with last night.  Indulger and Mangler were arm wrestling.

And I was still struggling.

I was attached to the Hook in a way that I hadn’t been to the Lure.  Time in the dark, time and the folding of my mind…the Hook was my body in a way that the Lure could never be.  When I thought of myself I pictured the shadow that connected the two as the part that was most completely ‘me’.  When I feared for my life, however, when I pictured Prevailer smashing me, or bringing me back to the place I MUST NOT GO…it was the Hook that I feared for.

This wasn’t going to work.  As evening approached I had to admit that I couldn’t remake the Hook in a day.  Perhaps if Thor had smashed it.  Perhaps if I was all alone, in an environment that was less distracting.  Perhaps if the Lure wasn’t drunk as a skunk.

I had deceived Haunter.  I felt an unexpected pang at the thought.  I’d intended to push out the Hook before taking the drugs with the Lure, hide it away in a corner of the room and remain partially aware when they brought the real Linker in.  But if I brought out the Hook and couldn’t hide it they’d just force me to drink with it as well, or put a sack over its head if the poison didn’t affect it.

I chuckled, making Nirav stir a little.

A bag over the Hook’s head wouldn’t do at all.  So many eyes on that thing.  I pictured them finding a huge sack, a twelve foot sack, and bagging the whole thing.

An instant later I sat bolt upright.  Luckily, one of the teams ran the ball into the goal zone at just about that moment.  I cursed angrily at the screen, subsided again.

Could I do it?  I forced my mind to the Hook’s form once again, revisualizing it as it truly was.  The horns, the spikes, the eyes…my Hook.

Then, instead of changing any feature, I focused on its overall size.  A Hook that could fit in a sack.  Could I shrink it?

The answer turned out to be yes, and without much trouble.  I could get the Hook down to cat sized, to hand sized.  A little imp instead of a battle demon.  Not good for much, but perfect for this.

The gin showed up a few hours later, and the garrison made a point to make sure that each of us got some.  We didn’t resist, playing our roles as we’d been instructed.  I guess in a way this was us showing trust to our bosses, but the truth was much simpler.  She could kill us whenever, so if She wanted us unconscious, then we weren’t about to fight the order.

Idly, I wondered how much of the Regime was just exactly that.  Obedience through fear, transmitted down a pyramid structure.  Puppets afraid of puppets, thousands fearing one.  No wonder we never got anything done.

Even as I mused about this, even as I put the gin to the Lure’s lips, I acted.  I slipped the Hook out of my shadow, manifested it under the couch and neatly flipped up onto the bottom.

Minutes went by, and our group swooned to the ground.  Haunter laid the book on her chest and sank into the big chair.  Nirav and the Lure nestled together on the couch I was hiding under.  Dale dropped off a stool and onto the floor with a tremendous crash.

Preventer must have done something, because I saw one the boys with her hit the ground, a red river gushing from a slit through.

“What the fuck?!” she shouted.

“Woah, woah!” shouted Mangler, even as her Knights were taking up battle positions.  “Just a little thing we got to do, Preventer.”

“What the fuck is happening to my team?” she yelled, stepping over the guy on the ground and walking across the floor towards them.

I felt that she was laying it on a bit thick, but my gift made this kind of thing easy.  For someone without it I guess she was doing fine.

“Her orders,” said Raper.  “You guys go through this ceremony, or you are the shortest lived Fist in history.”

“She ordered this?” asked Preventer, presumably looking from one of them to the next.

I couldn’t see anything from folk’s knees up, due to the Hook’s angle, but I imagined that they were nodding.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” she said, and began to cooperate.

The next few moments were a whirl.  They hustled the guy out of the room, dead or dying.  They put a bag over Preventer’s head.  She accepted without fear, even though she’d just killed one of them.  Invincibility must be nice.

Then they went around checking that all of us were really out.  They took pulses, slapped people, whatever.  They took some liberties with the Lure that would have pissed Nirav off if he were awake to see it.  They knocked a few of Haunter’s shades out of her with rough handling.

Ultimately they were satisfied, and they brought in someone else.

I’d been prepared to risk the Imp in order to see who Linker was.  I didn’t need to.  The voice was instantly recognizable.

The cracking of the moon

Without a doubt the most striking feature of our age is the series of deep fissures and rifts (visible to the naked eye) which cut across the moon’s surface.  As any child could tell you, this was the result of Prevailer’s celebrated power.

What doesn’t get mentioned as much is the furious debate which surrounds this event.  No one knows the exact circumstances, nor the reason for this action.

What is known:

Shortly after the Third Defiance (Slasher’s rampage), the moon was cracked.  Shortly thereafter, the Regime communicated to Union and Pantheon officials that it was indeed Prevailer’s action which brought this about.  Notably, they did not elaborate.  Intelligence sources have indicated that the reason that Her gov said nothing more on the matter is that they did not (do not) know anything more.

Widespread speculation has persisted since the incident.  The general idea, at first, was that this was a warning message.  Prevailer was telling everyone to back off.  But Her subsequent behavior hasn’t squared with that, as She continues to press for violent contact with her myriad enemies at every opportunity.

The “warning message” theory was damaged at the start of the Fourth Defiance, when the Pantheon, pushed past endurance by Her policy of massacring the families of prominent enemy leaders (which led to their assuming various gods’ names) assailed the Regime en masse.  If anything should have provoked a world cracking response from Prevailer, that would be it.  But She was content to fight the Fourth Defiance as She had those before it, battling Ultras rather than smashing the world.

No one has really come up with a good reason to replace the warning message theory, however.  The Union, publicly, refuses to comment.  Privately the line is that it was a temper tantrum, just one more demonstration of the childish and violent nature of their adversary.  The Pantheon gives a thousand answers, from Prevailer having a fight on the moon to Her hitting someone into the sky without being careful of what was above Her.

My contention is a modified “warning message”.  Just as people speculated, Prevailer was displaying Her power, throwing a brush back pitch to a very specific audience.  What She was warning against, however, is not the Fourth Defiance.  She loves to fight.  She isn’t telling people not to fight Her.  She’s telling them not to do something else, and it would be very interesting to know what that was.

Haunter 3:1

I was the only one who opted out of the orgy.

A side effect of my gift was that, with every one of my shades feeling everything I did, I was basically forced to be chaste.  Sex with anyone would squick thousands of people.  It was an unacceptable price to pay for a momentary pleasure.

Also, if I was being honest with myself, I was much too old.

I liked to think that even if I hadn’t been burdened by being the only window to the world for a small city, and even if I’d been younger, I wouldn’t have been willing to fuck prisoners.  It’s easy to explain after the fact how you’d definitely have conquered temptation that didn’t apply, of course, but I still felt certain that rape would have been off the table.

That’s what this was, really.  Mangler hadn’t said anything about forcing these people to be here, but I wasn’t born yesterday.  Attractive humans in a Regime facility, eager bedmates for her favored Ultras?  No points for guessing that they weren’t volunteers.

I was actually a bit disappointed in the rest of my team.  Preventer, of course, was unsurprising, but I’d have bet money that Indulger wouldn’t be down for this sort of thing.  Presumably he didn’t fully understand the situation.  Dim as he was, he probably didn’t question why people wanted to fuck.  I had to admit that I’d misjudged Fisher and Condemner, however.

The night had been long, and not especially restful.  My own internal contemptation was at a fever pitch, trying to drown out my awareness of what was going on one room over.  Tomorrow I’d be face to face with Linker.  If I was going to take the suicide plunge, this would be my last night.  I didn’t really intend to, but the thought still just sort of hung there.  Recurring.  Disturbingly real.

I could do it.  I could really do it.  I could walk up to Linker, wear all of my shades and tear her head off.  I felt little at the idea.  Not really reluctance to take life, or fear of the consequences, I was apathetic.

There in the night, tossing and turning on the Castle’s luxurious finery, the thought was as humdrum and ordinary as realizing that I could go without shoes on the next day.  Just a sort of idle awareness, entirely out of tune with the gravity of the speculation.

I woke in the morning, still in that same fugue.

I didn’t look forward to the moment, didn’t dread it.  I let the minute by minute cares of the morning surround me.  I changed my socks, packing the dirty ones away in a plastic bag.  I stretched out, carefully limbering up my rigid muscles.  I let a few shades out to have a conversation that they’d been looking forward to.  I checked my clothes for tears, put on my sigil.

Ultimately, I couldn’t think of any other way to delay it, and I entered the other half of the suite, where the rest had been entertained by the Castle’s personnel.

The humans had left some time in the night, leaving the room full up with my team.  I felt an odd pang of affection as I looked at them, which I quickly squashed.  We’d been through a lot together in Redo, but that didn’t erase what they’d done last night.

It was hard, however, to make myself believe that.  The morning light, sliding through a window, illuminated a peaceful scene.  Dale was sprawled on a couch, feet hanging over an arm.  The picture of an intoxicated frat boy.  Nirav and Fisher were sleeping together on another couch, clutching one another even in their slumber.  Fisher’s beast, or other form, hunched over the back of their couch, watching me with wide and unblinking eyes.

Preventer was awake, sitting cross legged.  She looked away as I gazed at her.  Guilt?  That would be odd from her.  I’d heard stories of Preventer, of dozens butchered so she could play at being a scientist.  There should be no human feeling there, no chinks in her iron heart.

She nodded to me, and began waking everyone up.

I let more shades out as we rousted the other members of the team.  By two’s and threes they scurried back into the adjoining suite that I’d slept in, carrying on conversations that they’d been waiting days to have.

It was a little risky, letting so many out at once.  They could make a lot of trouble here.  One might attack a Castle employee, mad for revenge on the Regime that had ruined them, one and all.  They might betray my purpose, gambling that the Regime might show mercy on my passengers if it was warned of the threat that I posed.  There was probably a dozen other things that they could do.  The smart play was to keep them all inside, interrupt the rotation for this visit like I did for a battle.

That had been the plan, but I just didn’t feel like it now.  The vagueness of the night before still clung to me, coloring my world with greys.  Breaking my routine, acknowledging the importance of today…it was just too much work.  I let my shades out, stood woodenly in the midst of the rapists that would soon be linked to me, and felt nothing.

No one spoke to me, or looked me in the face.  They woke and carried out their morning rituals in companionable silence.  Dale did a series of exercises entirely different in character from the ones that I had done, pumping iron with brutal strength.  Fisher climbed on her other body, scratching away at the creature’s back with her human form’s hands.  Nirav quietly repeated a series of affirmations, mumbling to himself and looking out a window.

Preventer alone seemed aware that all was not right with me.  She glanced at me a few times, once opening her mouth to speak.  She didn’t actually say anything though.  She just put that white paste all over her exposed skin, and prepared the rest of them for our interview with destiny.

It took a few hours to get us all revved up and pointed in the right direction.  A servant came by with food at some point, and we ate.  The rest of them spoke, but they seemed to understand that I wasn’t ok to talk just now.  Dale asked me if I was ok, but I just looked at him, and he turned back to his meal.

“Jane,” said the Colonel.  “I’m ordering you to retract the other shades.”

For a moment, I didn’t do anything.  The Colonel didn’t actually command my obedience.  The army that he was a part of was generations gone.  The idea that I was under his command was suddenly absurd, a ridiculous fiction.

I muted him, clamping down on him with my gift, with just shy of the force that I’d need to expel him, send him to join his men and his world.

He didn’t try and speak, however.  He couldn’t know that I was, for the first time in my life, silencing him.  He couldn’t know that I was ready to lay him to rest, that his ancient mission would end in failure at this ordinary table, as idiots chattered over their shitty breakfast.

A tear dripped down my face.

I was startled.  Where had that come from?  I felt nothing.  I used the heel of my wrist to brush unshed tears from my eyes, aware that the others were turning to regard me now.

”I’m fine,” I assured them.  “Fine.”

They nodded, saying nothing.

I relaxed my grip on the Colonel’s channel.  Where had that come from?  HIS ancient mission?  It was OUR mission.  I had long since made it my own.

I didn’t say anything to him, but I retracted the shades that were chatting in the little side room.  Dale started at bit as the blurs streaked into me, but no one said anything to me about it.  They were used to my shades by now.

“Shall we?” asked Preventer.

Everyone got up, and at a prompt from the Colonel I got up too.  I had been just about to anyway.  He didn’t need to order me around.

It was a childish resentment, but it was something.  I was breaking out of this fog.  Color crept back into my world as we trooped out the door and met up with a Knight.

By the time we got downstairs I was feeling almost ordinary again.  I wasn’t, by any means, ok with what had gone down last night.  There would be a reckoning.  But I was once again present.  I had agency, for lack of a better term.  The Colonel receded as I began to respond to the world once again.

Knights escorted us through a few rooms, until we eventually met up with Mangler, who was leaning against the wall near a heavily armored door.

The door was a child’s idea of a prison door.  Plates nailed into it, a series of padlocks running up the side without the hinges.  There was a sort of mail slot in the middle that you could look through, but it was too low.  More like a real mail slot than a prison window.  If you wanted to look in you’d have to stoop way over, or be Preventer’s height.

“It’s time,” said Mangler.  She started undoing the locks.

I took a firm grip on my shades, grasping the entire reserve in a lock.  I’d never had a shade escape when I didn’t dispatch them, but now was hardly the time for firsts.

“No one try anything.  You will get your revenge, but this is NOT the time,” I told them.  I wasn’t actually entirely sure that I wouldn’t do anything, but If I was, then it would be my idea, not one of my passenger’s.

Mangler pushed the door aside, and we trooped into Linker’s room.

It was a cell, no question about that.  There was a bare cot, where she was sitting, as well as a small writing table.  Illumination came from a single lightbulb.  One of Adder and Copyer’s creations.

I felt a small pang to realize that he knew of this place, or probably did.  It hurt to imagine Mark occupying the same moral universe as this room.

Linker was savagely abused, a wisp of a woman who’d been taken to the edge and back one too many times.  I felt a great surge of pity as I looked upon the Ultra that I had sworn to bring down.

She was of average height, but prison camp thin.  Her arms were knobby sticks, riddled with burn marks.  Her face had the sunken and battered look of a pro boxer’s, which contrasted grotesquely with the frailty of her frame.  Her eyes flinched away from our gazes, her hands rising in front of her in a reflexive defense movement, cut short by her certain knowledge that trying to defend herself only made things worse.

“All five of them, and don’t be all day about it,” Mangler yelled in.

She shut the door behind us with a deafening clang, locking us into this cell with this ill-treated creature.

I was fully awake now.  Something about Linker’s predicament pushed my earlier concerns aside.  I was in the moment again, entirely present.

“Are you guys a Fist?” she asked.

Linker had a quavering, tinny little voice.  It sounded like she was afraid to make any noise.  She probably was.

“We are gonna be,” said Dale.  He seemed a bit aghast at Linker’s condition, mouth hanging open a little.  It wouldn’t inspire him to actually DO anything about it, of course, and I wasn’t about to fool myself that he was any kind of ally again, but it was still nice to see that I wasn’t the only one of us who had something resembling morals.

“Are you really Linker?” asked Preventer, utterly unphazed by the disgusting setup.

She shrank away, as though afraid that she was about to be struck.

“I’m sorry!” she said, cringing down away from us.

“I don’t care that you are sorry.  I didn’t ask that.  I asked whether you are Linker.”

Preventer’s tone was even, her posture unchanged.  Nothing about her said that giving the third degree to someone who looked like they were desperately in need gave her the slightest concern.

“Yes.  That’s what they call me,” said the woman.  “I’m Linker.”

Preventer caught my eye, gave a chin tilt, indicating a corner of the room.  I walked aside with her.  Any privacy that this created was entirely illusionary, but I went along with it to put a pause on the bullying.

“There’s no way that this is legit,” said Preventer.

“How so?” I asked.

I was honestly curious about where she was going with this.  Did she think that the Castle was revealing its enmity…by wasting our time?  What purpose would a fake Linker serve?

“All of Her enemies.  The Union.  The Pantheon.  All of their agents.  They can’t find Linker.  Nobody can.  And yet we get brought right to her…and she’s just some girl?”

“What else would she be?” I asked.

“There’s got to be more to it,” Preventer went on.  “Like Linker is really an extra power that Snitcher has, and we got Linked earlier when he attached his view to us.  Or Linker is one of the boys we had last night, and we got Linked then.  Or it is one of the guards, who has touched each of us in passing.  There are a hundred possibilities, but the idea that the Union can’t find a woman inside a fort guarded by three Ultras and some Knights isn’t one of them.”

I looked back to Linker, as she shivered and twitched.  She DID seem kind of frail to be an essential component of the Regime’s survival.

“So, let’s just say for a moment that this is true.  What do you think we are supposed to do now?” I asked.

I noticed, as I did, that the rest of the group wasn’t even pretending to look away.  Well, Fisher kind of was, but I’d seen enough of her by now to know that with two bodies in action she was basically aware of everything around her.

“Say this…look, I can prove it is true, alright?” Preventer was fuming a little.  Being doubted seemed to be a button of hers.  I made a note for future reference.

“For any Fist, the moment that they are linked is a big deal.  We’ve never really talked about it, but there’s a way to avoid aging that is tied up in exactly what moment you get linked.  There are security considerations.  It is really important.”

There was silence as she finished speaking.  We all sort of just considered what she had said.  I wasn’t certain exactly what she was talking about, but if this was a snow job then Preventer was far more devious than I gave her credit for.

“And this important time, this critical fact…They leave the timing of it up to us?  And it is just randomly in the morning? eggs-immortality-sandwiches?  From a group that has a specific posture for ‘don’t murder me”?

She seemed to run out of passion, then.  The umbrage or whatever that had spurred her to talk had run out.

“It’s not real.  Trust me on this.  Whoever this is, she isn’t Linker.”

For whatever reason, I believed her.  Preventer had a lot of faults, but flights of fancy weren’t among them.

“So, what is she?” asked Nirav.

“Impressed,” said ‘Linker’.

The Regime’s Birth 4

Karen Austin worked fast.

Those recordings which existed of Simon’s ill fated attempt to take Peggy Martin into custody were destroyed, or hidden.  Her testimony’s to her superiors were fabrications.  She strove with all of the Joint Task Force’s extralegal authority to rewrite the incident into an acceptable history.

The truth:  Prevailer massacred the JTF’s field unit.

Karen’s truth:  The JTF proved a confused and terrified Ultra into lashing out, a tragic and lamentable accident.

It is difficult to believe that Karen was entirely successful.  Someone, on some level, must have smelled something rotten.  And yet her attempt appeared to succeed.  The intelligence community agreed to allow her ‘alternate approach’ to be attempted, to neutralize Peggy by bringing her into the fold.  To turn the perpetrator of the Newark Incident.

Perhaps it was a pro/con calculation?  Call out Karen’s bullshit, and all you have is the continuation of a battle that you can’t win.  Buy into it, and she is promising you that not only will Peggy stop making trouble… but she’ll be inside, pissing out.  With a hammer like Prevailer everything would be a nail, to twist an old expression.

Alternatively, perhaps Karen’s friends and allies inside of the JTF were to blame?  The woman who would become Remover didn’t lack her later knack for finding useful pawns in her mortal days.  A whisper in the right ear, the promise of Ultra powers…perhaps it was simple corruption.

In any case, the facts of the matter are that the United States government, or a portion thereof, swallowed its pride, covered up the Newark Incident, and joined hands with Peggy Martin.  An almost literal contract with the devil.  It was to have ruinous consequences.

Still, the initial fruit of this union was sweet.

Dr. Chen went to work for the government, and the Ultra Corps began to take shape.  Volunteers.  Patriotic women who had life threatening illnesses were carefully contracted.  Grieving widows who felt that they had nothing more to live for were shown a more useful form of suicide.  A few people were probably kidnapped off the street.

Ultimately, the United States put together a squadron of Ultras, and began to use them to deal with the proto-Pantheon problems that had been cropping up.

Southeast Asia was, by this point, a sort of undeclared other world.  Videos filled the internet, of Ultras calling down fire and lightning, growing to huge stature.  Violence filled the streets of China and India, as Copyer’s Chens wrought Ultras without restraint in mankind’s population center.

Officially, nothing novel was occurring.  These were social disturbances.  Or spasms of rioting.  Or civil wars.  What they definitely were not was a sign that the world’s nature had fundamentally changed.  The Superpower of the day was not willing to see that.

And so the Ultra Corps began to fight the tide.  Trained and equipped by the world’s mightiest nation, supported by Dr. Chen (in his employment at Medsenk, which would eventually become The Company) and Prevailer, they kept the Ultras from the world’s eyes for decades.

Well, from its eyes, officially.  The knowledge couldn’t actually be stopped by kicking in doors and blasting people.  With every incident, witnesses spread.  Debunkers couldn’t quite explain away all of the disturbances as computer forgery.  Eventually, everyone knew  that something was different, though no one could say exactly what.

In 2106 the first Mover transposed 46 miles of the American n0rthwest with a similar quantity of the Australian outback, and the dam burst.

Preventer 3:1

The bus pulled to a stop in front of the Castle.

I stood and stooped to look out a window, taking the place’s measure.  I’ve spent a long time in Shington, long enough to have heard rumors of the Knight’s fortress, but I’d never seen the place in person.

The Castle was a converted mansion, five stories tall and with at least three wings.  Outside of a city, it had never been Toppled, and it filled me with a primitive awe.

How many old world buildings of such grandeur had avoided Remover’s wrath?  How many had gone on to be tended to, evading the more mundane peril of neglect and collapse?  Most of all, how many had withstood or avoided the endemic Ultra battles which had shattered the less lucky of their breed?  Perhaps only those in the Union, or select fortresses within the Pantheon’s heartland.  Shington itself contained no structures that rivaled the Castle.

There was no subtlety to its design, of course.  Its original owner might have been self effacing or vain, but there was no way to tell nowadays.  The Regime had an aesthetic all its own, and the Castle gave it full expression.

Great horned skulls were sculpted between floors, their smooth brows serving as impromptu balconies.  Spikes and hooks protruded from the wall, with old bodies still dangling from them.  The entire building was painted Knight Red, and no doubt Refiner’s blessing was still upon the place.

Haunter spat into a cup that she had apparently just finished drinking out of.  Some kind of tobacco.  Moments later she sucked in her shades, ending their brief sojourn among us.

I had gotten accustomed to their endless chatter.  In their brief periods of freedom they inevitably spoke quickly and often, and they’d filled the bus with a constant din.  During our trip I’d often felt oppressed by it, considered asking Haunter to quiet them down.  Now I found that I missed it.

The silence as we filed out of the Troubleshooter’s bus was downright ominous.

Dale walked with a heavy tread, his former good cheer entirely missing. The mask that he used for a sigil made it impossible to tell his expression, but if recent days were any indication he’d be sullen, resigned.  The battle in Redo had taken something out of him that the trip back had not restored.

Fisher swayed along with her usual exaggerated gait.  Borderline pornographic as her persona was it was still comforting to me to see someone else mostly unaffected by our experience.  My teammates had become morose and bitter.  From their demeanor you couldn’t tell that we were about to become deathless.

Nirav gave me a smile that was probably meant to be comforting as we stepped down.  His anxiety, at least, was easy to understand.  The Knights might be under the Fists in the Regime’s org chart, but they were still a white supremacist group at heart.  Refiner’s minions would see his skin and their scythe hands would itch.  That would be enough to make anyone ill at ease, but Nirav’s only method of self defense ran the risk of annihilating his memories, should Condemner feel unkind.

Last, there was Haunter, Jane, I corrected myself.  She thought of herself as Jane.  She thought of her shades as people.  It was for their sake that she endured.

We’d grown a bit closer on the ride back.  I’d made a special effort to be accommodating, taking each little statement or question as an opportunity to pry away at the doors of her reserve.  She’d opened up about a few things.

Jane was as old as she looked.  She’d been in the First Defiance.  She remembered the old world.  She’d bent her knee only with great regret, thinking not of herself but of her passengers.  She had a dream that she wasn’t very specific about, but it seemed to involve them getting their bodies back?

Honestly, as Jane presented herself she was something of a saint.  I didn’t entirely buy it, but it seemed like she did, and that was useful.  I could work with a saint, certainly much better than I could work alongside someone who coveted my influence over Dale.

As we walked towards the Castle the big double doors opened, and a double file of Knights came out.  They marched towards us in step, thumping their scythe butts with each stride.  Impressive.

I knew from Knights.  I’d used a bunch of them in my experiments.  Discipline wasn’t a defining characteristic of the breed.  These fellows were of uniform heights, and someone had drilled the idea of all thumping the sticks at the same time into them.  These were their elite.

As we walked into the middle of them they stopped and thrust the scythes out, over us.  I was a little proud that nobody flinched, even as the augmented blades clashed above us, forming a series of arches.  My respect for their drill master rose.  Nobody did formality like this anymore.  I’d seen Her personal staff, and they didn’t show off to this extent.

Waiting for us at the door were the building’s actual guardians.  The Ultras.

The one who seemed to be in charge was a virtual amazon, a woman with a physique like Dale’s.  She was big, burly, and wore a Knight’s robe and scythe.  Only the skull mask was different, worn askew on her forehead at a jaunty angle.  I knew her by reputation.  With Refiner tied up in Second Fist, this had to be the Knight’s deputy leader, Mangler.

Dale nodded to her, the two obviously knowing one another.  Maybe there was some kind of muscle club that I didn’t know about.  Mangler and her deputies stepped aside as we walked into the foyer.

If there was really some kind of elite group of strong people, then neither of Mangler’s assistant Ultras looked like they’d be part of it.  One of them was an albino with glasses and a French braid.  She wore the robes, but for her sigil she’d chosen a tiara.  Raper, if I recalled correctly.  The other had her face mostly obscured by an elaborate shark tattoo, but still somehow managed to show off inhuman fangs.  That would be Looter.  Her sigil was a ten gallon cowboy hat.

Mangler spoke as we got inside.

“Welcome to the Castle.  She told us that you’d be coming to visit Linker.”

I saw Jane twitch, just a bit.  I nearly twitched myself.  Linker, at long last.  I’d fought hard to get to this point.  Challenged First Fist, dared Her attention to win my position, survived a baptism of fire in Redo.  Against all odds I’d succeeded.  Soon I would be safe, at long last.

I’m not entirely illogical.  I recognize that, with Ultra Durability 3, I’m already safer than the vast majority of the world’s populace.  But somehow that never seems to matter.  I was always afraid.  Maybe with a Link the fear would go away.  It wasn’t the main point of all of this, but it was never far from my mind.

“Yeah, we are Fourth Fist.  We are here to get Linked.”

Dale spoke for us.  He was the leader, after all.  It also seemed that he had some kind of rapport with Mangler, which could only serve to assist us.

“Good on you, ‘Dulger,” Mangler said.  “Great to see you finally stepping up.  When I heard that you beat Pursuer I knew that you’d do great things.  And now look at you, leading your own Fist.”

“I dunno about great.  Honestly, Mangs, I felt like what I was doing was more important when I was just building roads.  We had a fight recently, and I…” Dale trailed off.

“No way!” responded Mangler.  She had a slightly higher pitched voice than you’d think in such a large woman.  Not soprano or anything, but it wasn’t the raspy growl that I’d been subconsciously anticipating.

“Being in a Fist, that’s a big deal.  You’ve leapfrogged over me, that’s for sure.  I’ll be here guarding Linker while you are out there smashing Her enemies.”

Dale nodded vaguely, noncommittally.  He needed to get better at deception, but that was probably asking too much.

Mangler started to walked as she chatted, her aides falling into step.  We hurried along with them, accompanied by a flood of Knights.  They seemed to be everywhere.  There probably weren’t more than a couple dozen in the building, but their identical uniforms made it feel like there was a host of them.

Before too long we arrived at our destination.  There was one of those long tables that you see at cafeterias, or really rich people’s houses.  It had 8 places set out, and it was clear that we were to be seated.

We took our places, sorted easily enough by the fact that the cups had our drawn on  them.  I was at the bottom of the table, well away from where Mangler and Dale were placed.  That suited me fine.

As soon as we were seated the Knights started bringing food in.  Plates of delicacies were passed between them with a swift formality, letting us reach out and grab whatever we wanted.

I scored an intact candy bar, some meat and some small things that looked like vaguely sugar-ish.  I popped one in my mouth.

I gasped as the taste registered.  I’d never had anything quite like this.

“It’s a jelly bean,” said Looter, who was sitting across from me.  She was ripping into a potato with her shark’s teeth.  “Old world sweet.  We get the good stuff when a Fist comes by.”

I was happy that Looter was the one who ended up talking to me.  Mangler seemed to be much more on Dale’s wavelength, and Raper had gotten her name for the obvious reason.  Looter, though, I hadn’t heard anything dreadful about.  She was one of Refiner’s cronies, but other than that I knew nothing of her other than that she was a decent combatant.

“It’s great,” I said.  “Did you rustle this stuff up?”

She grinned, surprisingly endearing despite her fangs.  “Did my name give it away?”

I nodded.  It had been a spur of the moment guess, but I’d have lost nothing if it was wrong.

“I make a trip out away from the cities from time to time.  Shake down the independents, look for old buildings that might have something good laying around.  You can find a surprising amount of useful shit by digging through the old world.”

I nodded.  That was self-evidently true.  The meat was a bit gamy, but good.  Not that my gift would have let me get food poisoning, but it didn’t actually made bad tasting things taste good.

“Odd habit for a Knight to have.”

I let the statement just sort of hang in the air, waiting to see what she’d do with it.  On one level, I was insulting her.  Regime Ultras were served by Knights, we certainly didn’t join them.  On another, it was a request for information, trying to get her to tell me what this place’s deal was.  Ultras generally only defended Company Facilities by choice.  What did she think was going on here?  Did other people know that Linker was here?  Was Linker here all the time?  I was mostly fishing.

She just grunted, not really giving me anything.  After a moment she looked up, as though she was about to speak.  Her mouth actually opened before…

She was cut off, by the clang of scythes.  At the head of the able, Mangler was raising a can of soda in a ‘toast’ gesture.

“TO FOURTH FIST!  LONG MAY YOU SERVE!!”

Her booming voice seemed to shake the hall.  It didn’t help that Dale had joined in.  Those two were loud individually, but together they were a cacophony.

“Long may we serve!” we chorused back.  It wasn’t exactly the motto, but we got the idea.

It wasn’t possible to chat with Looter anymore after that.  The toasts came hot and heavy, as we went around the table.  We toasted our success, our enemy’s failure, and everything between.  We toasted Her, our service to Her, and basically everything that Peggy Martin had ever said or done.  It was a bit forced, but enjoyable if you went in for that sort of thing.

After the toasts were done Mangler addressed us all.

“Tomorrow, you take your place among our greatest leaders.”

She gestured behind her, and a set of Knights that I hadn’t noticed held up pictures of the other Fist’s leaders.  Predictor and Leveller, Refiner and Remover, even Fader smiled out at us from a bronzed frame.  I couldn’t help but notice that the old Fourth Fist was absent.

The message was clear.  Only the present was great.  Only those who still fought were venerated.

“Tomorrow, our Master will welcome you into the company of Her immortals, those who sit at Her right hand, who drink the blood of Her foes and spill their own in Her service.”

This was surprisingly eloquent.  Could Mangler actually mean it?  I’d never really met a Regime patriot, other than Subtracter, but there wasn’t any reason that there couldn’t be one.  It seemed dubious, but the Regime was a big organization.  Surely in all the Ultras at their command they could find one who was an honest partisan of ‘our’ cause.

“Tonight, you sleep the sleep of the victorious.  The sleep of the mighty.  Rest and relax, for tomorrow you become a Fist.”

Tomorrow.

That meant that Linker was close by, or the Regime had a lot of confidence in some travel method that I didn’t know about.  Linker’s location was basically the only secret that She had any care of, so far as I knew.  If we were to be Linked, tomorrow, then…

I felt a small surge of pleasure.  Ultra Strength couldn’t save Her now.

If Prevailer was letting us know Linker’s whereabouts, and by telling us when Linker’d be here She basically was, then She trusted us.

It was almost preposterous.  Haunter was basically what you’d see if you did a web search for ‘traitor’, and Dale would betray anything to help someone who was crying in front of him.  And yet Prevailer had decided to bring us in.  Dumbass.

I stopped myself there.  Underestimating Her had killed a lot more dangerous Ultras than me.  Maybe She had contingencies.  Maybe Linker would be moved after we had encountered her.  Maybe this was a setup.  There was no reason to let down my guard, not this close to success.

Thus I admonished myself, as we moved up the stairs to the room that we’d be sharing.  And yet it didn’t entirely take.  I couldn’t stop the warm glow from spreading throughout my body.

Tomorrow, I sang to my spirit.  All of my efforts were finally going to pay off.  Tomorrow we’d be Linked.  We’d be a Fist.  We’d be on the inside, at last.

I knocked on wood as I thought that last.  Thui had taught me that superstition.  I felt a sort of pang at the thought of him.

Then we entered our apartment and I saw the partners that they’d found for us.  I put Thui out of my mind.