The Regime/Pantheon Front: Misconceptions

It can be difficult for those of us fortunate enough to live in the Union to follow the progress of the ongoing conflict between the Regime and the Pantheon.  Several difficulties exist which seem to lead, with relentless regularity, to misapprehensions.  This text is an attempt to directly address these errors.

1: The Regime and the Pantheon are fighting over great swathes of territory.

Back before the Ultra crisis commenced a useful way to indicate where one government or another held sway was to use lines on a map.  All of the land between X and Y belongs to the nation of so-and-so, etc.  That is no longer the case.

In truth, the large stretches of the former United States which we color in the deep red that our cartographers have elected to use in order to represent the Regime’s grasp are predominantly ungoverned in any meaningful way.

The Regime’s actual zone of control is more like a series of islands in a sea of anarchy.  They rule only the cities, and exercise very little influence over anything else.

This naturally invites the question of what a city is, in the Pantheon/Regime sense.  Why would Ultras be found in one area but not in another?  The answer is remarkably simple.  A city is any settlement built around a Company facility.

The Regime sets down Company facilities in any area that its leader deems significant, and fights to control the people thus attracted.  The Pantheon more or less embraces this model, at least in the Americas.

2: Citizens of the Regime and Citizens of the Pantheon are two distinct groups of people.

This one is perhaps a bit more understandable.  We would never dream of bowing to a foreign power (I assure myself), and consequently we model the benighted rubble dwellers unfortunate enough to inhabit the conflict zones after ourselves.  This is an error, however.

My sources assure me that the most fervent hope of anyone living near the frontier between the warring powers is that one of them is victorious, and pushes the battle lines away from their environs.

This may seem hard to believe, but recall that the Pantheon and the Regime, at the level where they interact with ordinary people, are surprisingly similar.  In either case the people inhabit the bottom rung of a ladder which can only be climbed with the aid of the Process.  In either case their welfare will depend on the disposition of the Ultras immediately above them, which is more or less a crapshoot.

My contacts told me stories of a small settlement near Sonora which changed owners 4 times in 2 years.  Conversation revealed that the inhabitants were only aware of two of these.

3: Everyone in the cities is always getting killed by Ultras

I’m exaggerating, but not by too much.  People act as though the Ultra Powers territory is literally hell on earth.  In fact they resembles many other totalitarian states that have come before them.

The sad truth of the matter is that if a hypothetical space alien were to spy on a Union city and then on a city of the Regime the main difference that they would spy would be that ours wouldn’t be a ruin, and that we’d have power, vehicles, etc.

That is to say, there is a strong distinction in terms of setting, but far less of one in terms of the day to day occupations of human existence.  Every day does not see a Decimation.  Most days the people of the Regime live lives consisting of the same tedium that you would feel if you disabled your NET access and wandered off to life in a pile of rubble.

 

Ultimately, the best advice I can give anyone seriously interested in our neighbors to the west is this.

Consider carefully the plausibility of what you hear, particularly if it speaks to our own superiority.  Information which reaches you has gone through several exchanges, most likely, and each of them had incentive to make us sound better.  The truth is always more prosaic than you think.

Condemner 4:1

Ever since the meeting with the Union, I had been paranoid about meeting places.

Our report to Subtracter had been a perfect example of the kind of meeting place that someone who doesn’t care about the terrain sets.  We’d met up with her on the edges of Shington, along an unremarkable stretch of road.  She’d dropped down out of the clouds and listened to our debrief.

Fisher was, if anything, even more cautious than I was.  She had her Hook watching behind us even as she put her arm around me.  If anything happened, she’d let me know instantly.  I wasn’t going to be caught off guard again.

I hadn’t told her, but I knew that she could tell I was worried about her.  She’d been sullen and withdrawn since the fight with the Union, and then there was the rather memorable fact that Subtracter had killed her back in the Castle.  We clung to one another, tense and frightened, for the duration of that conversation.

It wasn’t a long time to wait.  Preventer had given Subtracter a brief account of what went down.  Subtracter thought us getting ambushed was funny.  Preventer tried to apologize for not getting the peace deal hammered out like we were supposed to, but Subtracter said that She had a rule to never punish people for killing other people.

No one really knew how to take that, and a bit later Subtracter was giving us another assignment.  We were supposed to go down and help out on the southern front once again, Pantheon troubles or some such.  I didn’t see how that could be, given what my other self and Prevailer had done in Redo, but we knew better than to question Subtracter.

We didn’t even have time to get into the city.  Preventer seemed really anguished about this.  I think she was planning on talking to friends or something.  Jane was tormented, wracked by guilt.  I had tried very hard not to think about the souls that Condemner had stolen from her, nor the anger that she must be containing.  I stayed out of her way as much as I could.

That was easy enough, the rolling road that Indulger used to shove us along was big enough that we could separate out easily enough.  Preventer and Indulger stayed together, as did Betty and me.  Haunter sulked alone, everyone understood somehow that she was close to an edge of some kind.

It was looking like this meeting would be another of the bad ones.

Subtracter hadn’t specified ‘how’ we were to pitch in on the southern front.  I was coming to realize that specifying how things happened was not really in the Regime’s wheelhouse.  Fisher suggested that we ask Third Fist what kind of help they could use, and between Haunter’s despair and whatever Preventer was dealing with her motion had carried the day.  We got in touch with Third Fist and they set up a meeting place.

The coordinates that Leveller had sent us led us to the coast, which I think we all saw coming, but I don’t think anyone realized that she’d built an ice palace.  I hadn’t even known that her gift let her make water into ice, much less hold so much of it.

The palace was enormous, at least the size of the Castle back up in Shington.  It gleamed and steamed in the heat of the Gulf, but stubbornly refused to melt away.  Icy tatues of Third Fist stood out from the walls, the warriors of the Regime picked out in heroic poses and shades of blue and white.

An isthmus or sandbar let out to it.  The castle proper was actually out in the ocean.  The waves parted from the path like the old texts that Elder Tanya had read from, with Moses parting the Red Sea.

A week ago we’d have probably walked right up into their power, crippling Indulger by pulling him from land before things even got started, but we’d all had about enough of that.  We conferred a minute, before taking Preventer’s suggestion.

Indulger took a knee, working his hands into the sand of the beach.  There was a faint rumbling, as the land responded, and then a much louder rustling, as the beach was crowded out of the way by an emerging stretch of earth.

Stone rose beneath Indulger’s hands, rose beneath us all.  A sort of artificial shelf, or whatever you’d call it, like a snake of stone, coiled up beneath us.  We rocked a bit, but the ground swayed to compensate, the stone shifting under our feat as it felt us lean one way or another.  Soon we were comfortable, and Indulger grunted, causing the peninsula to extend into the palace.

An unholy cracking and tearing sound emerged, as Indulger’s spear of stone unceremoniously tore into the palace floor beneath us, shouldering Leveller’s creation’s elegant flooring aside and driving a crack into the heart of the structure.

I had no fear that we would collapse the place, but it was impossible to deny the chill as I realized that Leveller might.  If she took this as an affront, then things would go bad, quickly.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have walked into her domain then.”

Condemner had been communicating more and more with me.  His voice arising from my subconscious like some imp from Elder Tanya’s tales.

I ignored him, looking around the frozen foyer that we had forced our way into.

There were a trio of doors, one to either side and one to the front.  I began to suggest that Indulger expand the stone ramp that we were on when Haunter took action.

A wave of her hand saw three shades dispatched.  I caught glimpses of gansters, scavengers and the like.  Rough men brought forth to serve the woman who was their home.  They approached the doors quickly and carefully, examined them for a moment, and then returned to Haunter.  All three saluted, and then sank into her form.

I’d never seen her shades salute her before, but before I could ask what it meant she spoke.

“The doors are fake.   Leveller can open anything she wants.”

We stood for a moment after that, digesting it.

“So, we are supposed to be knocking on the doors, and then what?” asked Preventer.

Indulger shrugged.  He held up a hand, made a ‘knock knock’ gesture.

The fortress shook, convulsively.   Only the ground shifting in counterpoint to it kept us from toppling over.

The shaking died away.

“Let’s not…” I began, when the door ahead of us turned to water and splashed across the floor.

Steam hissed out into the air, haloing Third Fist as they walked out to meet us.

They didn’t break stride, didn’t break ranks.  The Regime’s greatest warriors walked straight up and stood arrayed before us.

None of them stepped off the ice.  None of us stepped off the rock.

Leveller spoke.  Her voice bubbled out of the water that surrounded her, giving it a strange, bass quality.

“We got your message.  I whipped up this little display to greet you in surroundings…appropriate… to your newly raised station.”

We’d talked to Indulger about his manner of speaking and it payed off now, as he didn’t respond to this.

“I hope that I didn’t give offense,” Leveller continued.

I tried not to gawk.  Third Fist had been openly contemptuous at our tryout, had ultimately sided against us becoming a fist.  We’d smashed our way into her castle instead of just walking in, and she was trying to mollify us?

“No.” said Preventer.  “No offense was taken.”

“Well, thank Her for that,” said Mover, sarcasm dripping from her tone.  She, at least, hadn’t softened her attitude since our previous meeting.

Leveller shot her a look, then regarded us once again.

“I’d like to start things off with you on a new foundation, now that you are a Fist.  I’ve been to Redo, seen your work.  We clearly underestimated you.  I’m sure that you will serve Her with distinction.”

“Yeah,” said Indulger.  “That’s what we are trying to do.”

He crossed his arms.

That’s where we were at with Dale.  Short sentences when he knew that he was right, and power pose body language, to emphasize his size.  Fisher had been working with him.

“Wonderful.  Why have you come to see us?” asked Leveller.

Even while she was talking, I was keeping a close eye on the actions of the rest of their Fist.  Killer was sitting on a jagged ice section which had splintered when  Indulger had knocked.  She did finger guns at me when she saw me looking, and I forced myself not to react.

Blaster and Evolver were hanging back, still standing by the door that Third Fist had walked out of.  Leveller and Mover were the only two who had moved up to deal with us directly.

“Subtracter asked us to lend a hand on the southern front, and we didn’t want our operations to run up against yours.  Do you have anything in particular that you could use our aid with?” Preventer asked.

Mover and Leveller moved together, conversed in low tones.  Fisher would be able to hear this, of course.  Her Hook had incredible senses.  She could tell me what they’d said afterwards.  For now I stood my ground and tried to meet the stairs of the back three.

There was animosity there.  It wasn’t First Fist’s blank and all consuming hatred.  It wasn’t even the deranged, damaged ferocity that the Union man had shown.  This resembled what I’d seen in the Castle, when the Knights had thought I wasn’t watching.  A bone deep contempt.

I’d heard rumors about Third Fist, about the only Fist with no men in it.  I resolved never to put myself at their mercy.

“So…like I said, we’ve been to Redo, seen your work.”

I refocused on the main two.  Leveller was speaking again.

“You did an excellent job of taking out the enemy.  We could hardly have done better…”

“But?” asked Betty, taking the cue with a natural grace that made the situation seem much more like a civil conversation and less like a hostile negotiation.

“You also took out a lot of the daggers.”

I looked away from the other side for a moment, searching my comrades to see if any of them knew what that meant.  From their faces, no one did.

“Subtracter told us that it was always going to be fine to just kill everyone.” I said.  It felt like invoking Subtracter’s authority strengthened our position somehow.

Leveller nodded.

It was Mover who spoke.

“Sure, sure, but that doesn’t get you out of fixing the consequences of your mistakes.”

“Mistakes?” asked Preventer.  She didn’t give the words any particular threatening inflection.  Still, the question was unquestionably a bit pointed.

“So, you are the Pantheon.  You want to get back at us for the loss of Redo.  What do you do?”

Mover asked the question like we were particularly dense children.  Seemed like Leveller’s newfound civility hadn’t extended as far as Mover.

“I strike back, take down one of our Fists and teach the Regime the consequences of messing with it.” said Preventer.

Leveller shook her head.

“It is comparatively rare that an enemy will actually strike at a Fist.  I take it you got attacked up north, but  that that’s not common at all.  The women in charge of the Pantheon’s movements aren’t dumb.  They prefer to expend their grunts on people who stay dead when killed.”

“That makes sense,” said Preventer, “but I don’t see what that has to do with our work in Redo.”

“Would you attack Redo now?” asked Mover.  “Kick some sand around, bounce some rubble?”

I saw it, all of a sudden.  We’d killed the Pantheon’s Ultras in Redo, true, but as far as everyone knew we’d also killed the civilian populace.  Haunter had only ‘saved’ them in a very particular sense so that was even mostly true.

By doing so we’d eliminated Redo as a point of contention.  The Company Facility wouldn’t be reoccupied if there was no one there, and the city would join dozens of other such settlements dwindling away in the desert.

“Of course, nothing has REALLY changed,” stressed Leveller.  “The enemy could always have moved east around Redo and struck whatever they chose, just as they can now.  The Pantheon, however, generally prefers to attack the outermost target, likes to conquer land like they are peeling an onion.”

Haunter spoke, startling all of us.  Her voice was hoarse and low.

“When we were sent to Redo, you expected us, not yet immortal and outnumbered twenty to one, to capture it intact?”

Leveller gave her a pained smile.

“I expected you to die, to be honest.  I didn’t think much of you at that time.  I certainly didn’t think that you’d succeed well enough that She would intervene, and we’d end up with a big hole where there once was something to pass back and forth.”

Preventer coughed, delicately.

“Now that we understand the pain point, what might we do to rectify the situation?  As we mentioned, Subtracter has dispatched us to the South.  You are the acknowledged experts in this field.  If our actions have brought about a difficulty, then perhaps you could let us in on how we might provide relief?”

Mover gave a sharp nod.

“Now you are getting it.  What we’d like you to do is very simple, and eminently within your power.”

Considering that I didn’t think Third Fist knew that we’d had most of the enemy in Redo fight each other, and Prevailer’s backup for the last part, I wasn’t too confident in her estimate of our power.

“You can-“

“We can fill the city back up, right?” asked Haunter.

As soon as she said it, the matter was obvious.  Cities in the Regime were just places that there were Company Facilities.  There were plenty of little places outside of them where people kept their heads down and tried to live as their ancestors had.  They lived in dread of a knock on the door, the knock that we would bring.

Leveller nodded.

“We hate to work so far from the sea, but with Indulger’s power you are no doubt unfettered by such limitations.  If you are looking to be of use on the southern front, then the best thing that you can do for us is round up a few thousand daggers and get to work on rebuilding Redo.”

“It will be a pleasure,” said Indulger, “to help the citizens of the Regime embrace the better life that the cities offer.”

Crickets.

“Sure, but mostly I just want the Pantheon to have something to attack when they come for payback.  Could you guys fight them off if they come while you are there?”

That wasn’t really a question.  Leveller knew that Her view on Fists that ran from the enemy was extremely dim.

“It will be a pleasure,” said Indulger again.

This time it didn’t sound like he meant it.

Conversation with a new reader

Q: What is your story about?
A: In the near future, someone has figured out how to make superhumans.  They’ve taken over and ruined everything.  Some of them are trying to fix stuff.

Q: How was I supposed to get that from a title like ‘The Fifth Defiance’?
A: The dictator refers to rebellions as ‘Defiances’, and this is the fifth one.

Q: Is the dictator a superhaman?
A: Yeah, she is Prevailer, the most powerful of them.

Q: Should I take the fact that there have been five rebellions to mean that this government is not a bastion of reason and sensitivity?
A: Yeah, it is generally oppressive.

Q: Who is being oppressed?
A: People without super powers.  There is a two tier setup where the Ultras, which is the people with super powers, and their flunkies are in charge.

Q: Lame.
A: Yeah.

Q: So our heroes are normal humans?
A: No, the only people powerful enough to rebel against the Ultras are Ultras themselves.  In fact, they are Ultras who are part of this government.

Q: So this is a collaborator story?
A: Yeah, that’s a fair way to describe it.  People trying to take down the Regime from the inside.

Q: Is your evil empire really called ‘The Regime’?
A: It is.

Q: Anyway, if your story is set in the future, is the technology more like sci fi or more like present day?
A: Present day, in the Regime anyway. The upheaval pretty much put a stop to technological progress, and also there were other factors I don’t want to get into right now.

Q: Wait, there are places outside of the Regime?
A: Yeah, it only covers what was once the east part of America and Canada.

Q: Are other countries also infested with these Ultras?
A: Yup.  There are two main ones.  The Union is a place where Ultras and humans work together (kind of) and they have a society that is a lot like what we have.  The Pantheon is a warrior patchwork of Ultra led states that are basically mini-Regimes.

Q: Are there any wars going on?
A: Yeah, everyone is at war with everyone else.  The Pantheon are trying to take over the world, the Regime is unpredictably hostile and the Union is trying to fight back against everyone who keeps attacking them.

Q: So, I’m going to read about the adventures of some people who work for an evil government, but are trying to overthrow it, in a world where it is at war with everyone?
A: Yeah, but the first story arcs for each character just introduce them, get them to where they are going to meet up with the rest.  The actual working together and for the gov part comes a ways in.

Q: Story arcs?  What’s the update setup like?
A: Wednesday updates are named after the viewpoint character.  They are 2.5 k long.  Sunday updates are like this one, just supplementary stuff.

Q:This one?  What are you talking about?
A: Got to go.

Fourth Fist : Meditations on Calamity

Haunter

The Colonel is gone.

I can’t quite make myself believe it.  He has been the voice of my mission for decades.  He kept me going when I was weak, gave me hope when I would have given into despair and ultimately gave his life for me.

Does it make me selfish, that all I can think about is that I could have ordered another to go in his place?  That I could have realized sooner that the only path to victory was to feed Condemner’s hunger.  That if I had done that with comatose shades, instead of sending his troops out to be gunned down, he might be with me still?

But my failure runs deeper than that.  Whatever the Regime might believe, I lead this Fist.  I have made it my responsibility to make it a force for a better world.  To use it to find a way to embody my shades.  To use it to end Prevailer.  I’ve accepted monstrous moral compromises to this end.  And still, I was blind.

I had an intrinsic trust in the Union.  I walked us right into their trap, assuring the others that this last remnant of the world that I once knew wouldn’t stab us in the back.  Assuring them that they’d be smart enough to take an obvious win when we fucking HANDED it to them.

Even once it became obvious that that officer was insane, I still tried to reason with them.  We were captured because we took Indulger out of his element, took no precautions to keep ourselves safe.  We trusted, and the Union betrayed that trust.  More than betrayed it.  Their entire plan HINGED on us being naïve saps.  They could never have subdued us if we’d been careful, if we’d approached things in a military manner.  If I’d had the Colonel’s precautions in place.  They DEPENDED on being able to trick us, and they were right.

I should have had us surrounded by shades on the way in.  Their presence would have kept us from being surrounded, and if we’d refused to enter that fucking building-plane, or whatever it was, we never could have been shanghaied all the way out into the middle of this fucking wilderness.  We’d have had Prevailer as backup.

‘Could haves’ are useless though.  The fact is that I didn’t.  Despite the Colonel’s insistence on scouting, I went in blind.  Despite knowing Indulger’s weakness, I brought him into a building.  Pig headed stupidity, and only the Colonel saved us.

And he didn’t save all of us.  Irene pegs the tally of the fallen at 208.  They are gone, because of me.  The American unit is led by a Major now, but I don’t know him.  The game, the pretense that I am still a member of a military organization, and that I have a purpose, I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of everything.  I don’t give a shit anymore.  Let Preventer take the lead for a while.  She could hardly do worse than I have.  I need this time to tend to my rotation, get everything settled again.

I can’t let them down again.

I can’t even die, but they can.  I’m in some special kind of hell.  Responsible for thousands, growing older even as their number swells, unable to succeed or fail conclusively, experiencing life as a series of small, but crushing, losses.

God help me.

 

Indulger

I have never really died before.

I don’t like it.

It took a long time, after that iron lady broke my neck.  My gift kept me kind of hooked to my body somehow, hurting but not hurting, looking for energy.  Like the way that it is when it is about to rain, but it isn’t.  But eventually, with no connection to the ground, my gift let me slip away.

But then Linker’s gift caught me.  The way that we can all sense each other, the way we know each other’s thoughts (kinda).  That is just the outside of it.  Like the shell of the main part.  Somehow, the gift did something to me where I was CAUGHT by the others.  I couldn’t know anything about my own broke body anymore, but I still had that sense of them.  That weird ‘knowing where all of us are’ sensation that we’ve had ever since we got Linked.

When I was dead it was ALL I had.  And it swelled as time went on, until in the night it somehow pulled me back into the world.  Everybody was happy, they weren’t surprised because they could feel me coming back.  They even had some clothes to wear from the Union guys that got killed.

I was sad that all of those guys died.  I guess I’m happy that it wasn’t us, but when I have my matches I try to keep stuff not hardcore.  I’m going to talk to the rest of the group when I have a chance to do that.  I want to tell them that if the bad guys start running we can let them get away.

I had planned to make sure that that’s how we would fight, but I was dead for most of this fight, so I didn’t get any ways to change how it went.  Being dead sucked.

I guess it must suck a lot worse for people who waren’t in a Fist.  It is finally sinking in for me how crazy powerful Linker’s gift is.  Like, it is hard enough to kill me anyway.  But now they have to get all of us in just one day?  We are basically invincible.

Well, except for Her.  Obviously She can still handle us whenever, which must be why the other Fists obey Her.  I never thought about it before, but I understand how the things works much better now.

This is our second big team battle, and just like in Redo there was a lot of sneakiness going on.  Here we were on the receiving end.  I don’t like that.  I think we will do a lot better in a stand up fight.

I’m worried that She will be angry that we didn’t make the peace work.  That’s not quite right.  I’m worried that She will be angry that we didn’t screw it up in the right way.  I hope She is in a forgiving mood.

 

Preventer:

What a colossal clusterfuck.

I was completely caught off guard when the Union men betrayed us.  I never saw it coming.

I have a recurring issue with this kind of thing.  I’m working to correct it.  I just have a hard time anticipating utterly self destructive and pointless behavior.  I generally model agents as taking action that they believe will bring about their agenda, and these daggers weren’t validating that model at all.

Haunter has basically been catatonic since this fiasco, and the rest of the troop is mostly occupied with the mundane realities of our trek back.  I doubt if any of them have managed to devote any brainpower to the bizarre situation that unfolded in that ship.

We offered Prevailer’s cooperation to the Union.  Why on earth would Peggy Martin agree to work with the only country where She imposes a Processing quote?  Could our intimations to that fanatic have contained a gem of truth?  Does Zeus have a checkmate just a few moves down the line?

Possibly even more importantly, I have answered a question that I was afraid to ask.  I took no action during this scuffle, reasoning correctly that so long as I maintained my immortality there was no true risk to our unit.  I had been concerned that the squad might resent my inactivity, but they have taken it in stride.  None of them have chided me, at any rate, for reserving my barriers as I was hauled away.

It is possible, of course, that they are waiting for an opportune time to remark upon the matter.  But I doubt that they have sufficient subtlety.  Indulger certainly doesn’t, and Nirav and Fisher mostly have eyes for one another.  Haunter’s depression seems to preclude acting upon received information.  She has mostly marched along in silence since our return began.

Indulger’s mode of travel has been extremely impressive.  While he was useless when separated from the ground, he more than makes up for it when granted the necessary environment.  Despite our utter lack of a vehicle, and a crash site located somewhere in the north part of Union territory Indulger insists that by shifting the ground that we walk on we are travelling as fast as we would in Haunter’s bus at top speed.

I’m looking forward to our return to civilization.  I need to get Thui to renew contact with a Pantheon asset, find out if there is anything to this talk of a secret army, and what I might do to make certain that my Fist doesn’t end up in front of it.

 

Condemner

I let them live.

The woman, Preventer, was not there when Nirav let his grip on my gift slip.  By the time I found her, squirreled away like the useless bitch she is, I had wrecked the ship too thoroughly to take the appropriate action.

It seems as though the daggers intended to freeze her.  She would have been put into a storage area with no space for the rest of us to reform, and held until her gift wormed her free.  Nirav and the others would have lost months.

I would have died.

I can tell by how they act, how they complement one another’s movements and finish one another’s utterances.  They are the ones who are Linked.  Just as Nirav surmised, I am not.

I am alone, my life not tethered by this mighty gift.  The tether is attached, instead, to the useless disguise persona that I crafted for my time in Bany.  The irony pains me.

Since they were Linked, there was nothing to gain by destroying them when I had the power to do so., save pleasure.  They would only have reformed.  It galled me, but I played the part of the friendly djinn, aiding them in battle and freeing them to trudge miserably south, as I sought my ease within Nirav.

The one thing to come out of this whole experience that is worth anything is that I have tasted Haunter’s slaves.  They are sweet and delectable.  Their essence, untrammeled by the bonds of the flesh, fills me with might.

If I could take enough of them, take them swiftly, without letting their energy dissipate, then I could attain a peak of might that I have never glimpsed before.  I could burn the air, the colors and radio waves.  I could burn time and space, leave reality itself an ashen ruin.

I might even burn Preventer.  It is worth an attempt, at least.

 

Nirav

It was hard to let go.

When the Colonel descended upon me I knew what I had to do, but I almost refused.  Only the dread of dishonoring his sacrifice, of bringing calamity upon the ones that he strove to protect made me let Condemner out.

I can feel his control slipping.  I am most of him now, I think.  He has pretended to be me for so long that I feel as though I am actually real.  Linker’s gift, Betty’s affection, and the lived experiences that I have accumulated are anchoring me ever deeper within Condemner.  But what anchors his prime personality?

He is just a voice in the back of my thoughts, just a trick of the mind.  No one knows him, no one speaks with him.  Our being is entirely about me, and, slowly, I think that is having an effect.  I was once a mask, but now perhaps I am a shroud, or the skin entire.  One day soon, I may be all that there is, just a man with the gift of flame, and memories of the evil creature that I once had been.

Let it be so.

 

Fisher

Locked away within the Union Ultra’s stasis beam I nearly snapped.

It was too like my confinement within the Pit.  Too like the eternity that I spent there, my other form trapped within the darkness.  Too like the time that I was brought nigh to Torturer.

I felt what would happen if I did lose it.  Getting right up to the edge of collapse allowed me to see over it.

I am a bomb, and I’ve seen the explosion.   I am an agent, and I’ve seen the compulsion.

There at the edge of my self, facing the memories that the immobility was stirring up, I saw another scene.  A sight from my past, one I have long repressed.

I was brought up from Torturer’s pit.  I was dangled before Her, promising anything and everything, the sun and moon, if only I could be killed then and there.  Begging to die, rather than to descend once again to within a hundred feet of that fiend.

Prevailer had no interest in my protestations.  She spoke only to give orders.  She told me that I would be joining a Fist.  She told me that that Fist had a few people who might lack discipline, might go against Her orders.

By this point I was raving my hate for them.  I murdered everyone on my team in my heart in that instant, gutted them and fed on their corpses, all before knowing who they are.  Prevailer promised me that if I did as She asked, watched for signs of disloyalty and killed any who betrayed, She would not put me down again.

I can still remember the shudder of relief that ran through my forms as I thanked Her, my Hook licking Her boots as she stood over my Lure.  Subtracter raising a fist and returning me to darkness.

Does remembering this mean that it has no more power over me?  By glimpsing my buried past, have I gained my independence?  Am I a puppet no more?

I don’t know the answer to that question.  I feel no compulsion to betray my friends, my love.  I cannot imagine denouncing Jane or Nirav.  The idea seems incomprehensible to me.

But at another time I stood in another place, and what was incomprehensible to me then was doing anything that might make Her send me down again.  The me from that time would have cheerfully denounced a hundred Fourth Fists if it kept her from Torturer.  Two hundred.

I know myself, as only a form changer who alters their shape at will can.  I know myself as one who can see the objectives of others, laid out like goals across a black board.  I know myself as one can who is, functionally, less than a year old, who has conscious memory of every significant part of their life.  I know myself.

I know that I would never betray Fourth Fist.  I know that the trust and respect that they have shown me is all that is worth anything in my life.

I know that I would instantly betray Fourth Fist.  I know that staying out of Torturer’s pit is all that is worth anything in my life.

I just don’t know which will trump the other, but I have a sinking feeling that I’ll soon find out.

Graduation Address

Well met!

If you are hearing this, then your Process was a success.  Your mortal life, your mortal name, these are behind you now.  That crummy life, that wasted time of listening to grownups and sitting in the camps.  That’s done with.  You have been reborn, a God of the Pantheon.

No doubt you are perplexed by this voice.  You are familiar with the voice of the boss of the bullies who herded you here.  He has terrorized you for all of your short lives.  You are familiar with the voice of the Ultra who is his boss.  She was a being you have glimpsed a time or two, at a distance.  Her power enchanted and terrified you.  You may even be familiar with Death, who reigns above every camp boss.  Her voice issued from these recordings at times of punishment and celebration.

But perhaps you have wondered, only to yourself and during times of idleness, does Death have a boss?  Is there a Master of Masters?  The answer is yes.

The answer is me.

I am Zeus, Cloud Gatherer.  God of Gods, ruler of all the civilized earth.  You are my child, your fellow survivors my children, and now you are come into your inheritance.

You may not believe that this voice knows you, but let me tell you now that I have stood where you stand now.  I was born in these camps, mistreated and Processed.  I was reborn a God, and heard the recording of the God before me.

I killed her, and took her throne.

You have crouched, from time to time, and looked up at the cracked moon.  Perhaps you wondered what power could crack the moon?  But what I realized was that any one can put a thumb in front of that moon, block it out.  The thumb is greater, because it belongs to you.

You are the most important thing in the world.  You can blot out the moon.  What else can you do?

You can take revenge, first off.

The guards don’t know about this part.  They came from those who didn’t have the courage to choose the Process last time.  They never knew what happened to their guards, they were told that they were moved to another camp.  But do you think that happened?

Go out and kill them.  Get them back for everything that they’ve done to you.  If they beg for mercy, torture them.  If they fight back, use your Divine Power and show them their place.

When you are done with that, the camp Ultras, the grown-ups with power, will come to you.  You will cooperate with them, or you will kill them.  If you kill them, then you stand in rebellion against me.  I will kill you.  The end.

If you obey them, and undergo their tests, then one of four fates will be yours.

The first fate will be if you take their instructions, obey as long as they are watching, and then sneak off.  You will be an enemy of the world, and my good children will hunt you down.  The end.

The second fate will be if they deem you worthy to battle my enemy in the middle world, the Union.  These are weak Gods, slaves of men.  Against them you can gain glory and renown, let your Divine name ring out.  Destroy them and rise in power, until you join my Council as a mighty king and god.

The third fate will be if they deem you stronger, and apt for the Great Struggle.  You will cross the seas and face the slaves of the Demon.  For if we are Gods, then there must be a Devil, and only the mightiest may face this creature’s servants and live.  Tear glory from the great Enemy’s throat, and you will be a hero to all of the Pantheon.  You will sit at my right hand.

Finally, there will be those, rarely, perhaps one in a batch, whose power needs no proof.  Those whose talents are so manifestly Divine that they need only my fatherly tutelage.  Those will come to my Heavenly Kingdom, and enter immediately into my innermost service.

Let this be the last speech you listen to without a hand on your throat.  Go forth, and show the world the Divine glory that you possess.  Go forth, my rude and brawling sons and daughters.  Join my Pantheon, and magnify our majesty.

Fidel 1:6

The gunshot hung in the air.

Even some of my men seemed startled.  I still had a half squad in the room, spaced out around the edges, covering the captives.  They’d known that I was going to apply pressure to Haunter, and still there was gasping and starting at the sudden blast.

“Bitch.  You really think I’m dumb enough to buy this talk of a secret-“

I was interrupted as Haunter let out a primal scream.

She reared back and absolutely howled.  Nothing preternatural about it, no Ultra power or anything, but the absolute limit of an untrained lungs capacity for noise, vented into a room already stilled by a sudden sound.  Everyone flinched.

When she lowered her head, I saw tears glistening unshed in her eyes.  Decent acting.

“Why did you…”

My turn to cut her off.  I raised the gun an inch, concentrating her attention.

“I’ll ask the questions, thanks.  Don’t forget the line of crap you were feeding me earlier, about how you are going along with me voluntarily, because we are all on Team Screw Prevailer?  Or are you going to go with a different one now?”

She worked her mouth, visibly straining with herself.

“Not cool, man!” Indulger yelled.

I looked over at him, helpless in Dana’s grip.  Her iron arms tight about his wrists and throat.

“We are doing the best answering that we can do, guy.  Why are you shooting?  What did we ever do to you?”

His dull monotone rose slightly in a gasp at the end, as Dana wrenched his back a bit.  I’d told her about the gas station, about how Fists acted when they had the upper hand.  She understood what they really were, or at least she understood my thoughts on the matter.  A good soldier.

“You would have me believe that Prevailer is afraid?  Putting aside whether or not I believe in a covert Pantheon force for now, I certainly don’t believe that if such a thing did exist, Prevailer would seek allies against it.  The woman who runs her nation from a ‘Sniper Court’ where anyone is free to fire upon her.  The woman who bullies and assaults the world at every opportunity…you would have me believe that she got so frightened of this secret army that she wants to team up?  Mrs. “Force Rules The World” herself?”

“Bullies are rarely brave, in the face of actual threats.  They prey upon the helpless.  It is my believe that Peggy Martin never outgrew the psychology of her youth, never changed, fundamentally, from the creature of the criminal streets that underwent the process so many years ago.”

Once again Condemner, the arson fiend, spoke with the most cultured voice.  He picked his phrases, made everything sound fine and reasonable.  He’d also killed Bany and Redo, that we knew of.  Hundreds, thousands dead at this guy’s hands, and here he stands bantering with me.  Guess his victims didn’t matter to him, we were just daggers, after all.

I cut off the train of thought as unprofitable.  I turned my attention back to Haunter, who had actually managed to squeeze a tear onto her leathery old face.  She was muttering to herself.

“…better.  Have to…”

I couldn’t quite make it out.  I shot her again.  Another image fell out of her back.  This time her power had conjured up a young man, I didn’t have time to make out any more details before he faded away.

Her mouth opened once more, but this time the primal howl didn’t come.  She just made a sort of choking, ‘gak’-ing sound.

“Yes?” I asked.  “I couldn’t quite hear you.”

By some supreme effort she mastered herself, bringing her face back to a more neutral position.

“I was saying, Commander Martinez, that you have to be better than this.”

I didn’t shoot her for that.  She was answering me, even if she was giving me lip.

“I HAVE to, do I?  I’m not sure you understand precisely what was entailed in allowing us to capture you.”

“No, I don’t mean…” She trailed off.

“Lost for words?  Can’t imagine how a filthy dagger like me is going to proceed without your special ‘Ultra’ insight?  I guess I’ll just muddle on through.”

“I didn’t mean…” she fell silent again, but just before I did anything she took up the tread of her speech again.  “didn’t mean ‘better’ as in ‘more capable’, I meant something like ‘righteous’.”

That threw me.  That was an old Christian word, I knew what it meant, but it didn’t seem to fit in this context.

“You lost me there, grandma.” I said.

“Righteous.  You are Union.  You are the good guys.  But this…this slipshod interrogation, murdering my passengers for nothing… this can’t be you?!”

Her voice rose as she said the last, eyes widening, looking straight at me.

“Come off it, lady.” I told her.  “We’ve got briefings on you.  I know that you didn’t feel a thing from those bullets, so you can just save the injured act.  I may just be a dagger, but I’m not stupid enough to fall for that transparent charade.”

“None of us have referred to you by that epithet”, Preventer informed me, “and yet you keep bringing it up.  I assure you, Commander, we credit you with an intelligence equal to our own.  If we lack regard for you, it is because you have, through your own barbaric actions, your treachery and cruelty, forfeited it.”

I glared at the invulnerable bitch.  She was the real problem here.  Easy to be calm, to keep your composure, when you knew for sure that there’d be another day tomorrow.   She didn’t know about Daria, about the Dragon.  She didn’t understand that there was every possibility that this was her last day in this world.

I considered having Paris drag her out now, but decided against it.  I wanted this.  I wasn’t sure what ‘this’ was, but it involved the whole Fist.  They needed to lose, every one of them.

I knew, on some level, that I was asking for too much.  I knew that I should just kill the rest, have Dragon freeze Preventer over and resign myself to getting some information and a Fist out of action for a while as the fruits of this operation.  But the image had taken possession of me.  I couldn’t stop envisioning First Fist getting the news that their friends, their peers, had fallen at my hands.  Had somehow died because of the man they disgraced and released, the dagger they thought would never be able to strike back.  I didn’t have a way to make that a reality, but I could FEEL it somehow.  She could die.  I was seized by an unreasonable certainty.

“Please…” said Haunter.  “Please, just be sane.  Just don’t be this hateful, murderous thing.  Let there be something in the world worth protecting, just one thing.  Let the Union be my America.  Be professional.  Be reasonable. Please.”

I looked at her for a long moment at that. If she was faking, she was doing a damn good job.  I heard a soul in her voice, a woman straining to express the truth that she carried within her like a torch down through the decades.  The ring of truth.  I didn’t say anything, just stared.

But, for all that Remover had thought of me, I did learn.  I’d learned at the gas station what a sincere voice was worth.  The radioed pleadings that I’d obeyed, the impassioned orders…. all of it a counterfeit of Alarmer’s creation.  You couldn’t trust impressions.  The vile could beg as easily as the virtuous.  They could say the same things, in the same way.

Feeling as though I was in slow motion I raised the gun again.  I looked straight into her watery eyes.  Not this time.  Crocodile tears would not sway me.

I shot Haunter, right between her eyes.

All hell broke loose.

Even as Haunter’s spirit popped out her back, doing a decent impression of a human with a head shot as it faded, other spirits were emerging from her front.

She’d shaped these into imitations of bygone military men.  American soldiers, rifles in hand and fatigues fluttering in ghostly winds about them.  They rolled from her person and opened fire on me with military precision.

Their bullets were stopped by the Dragon’s power, unable to move through the field of iced air that she’d left in front of me.  A veritable firing squad’s worth of ghostly bullets clattered to the ground before me, as wasted and useless as they’d have been if they were the images that they resembled.

My orders were carried out throughout the rest of the room, even as Haunter launched her doomed effort.

Paris lifted Preventer up over her shoulders and sprinted out of the room in a blur, soldiers diving from her path.  She’d have Preventer in Isolation before too long, unless something completely unforeseen were to occur.

Dragon’s coldfires flared again, but didn’t rush to attack Condemner.  He could barely bring forth his flames, he was no threat.  Dragon was primarily focused on the zero wall that was shielding us from Haunter’s bullets.

Indulger tried some wrestling crap and Dana broke his neck.  That shit didn’t work on my girl.  Not from someone who didn’t really have Ultra Strength anyway.  She backed away through the zero wall after doing so, began to make her way around the perimeter of the room to her place at my side.

Kelly didn’t move a muscle, and her power stopped the bullets that Haunter’s counterfeit soldiers sent her way as easily as it did Fisher.

My soldiers began to return fire, Dragon opening pinpricks for their bullets to pass through as she had for me.  Fish in a barrel, and Haunter’s constructs winked out as they were shot.

I was impressed by how well she did, even so.  Despite waiting until her men were helpless.  Despite the bullshit fake crying theatrics, there was steel at Haunter’s core.  She used her constructs like a first rate military mind.

They flipped the table, sheltered behind it, used Kelly’s field as another piece of cover, and continued their accurate, useless fusillade.  She used them like a real squad, with the kind of precision and focused excellence that we strove for in the Union.  Her images fought like heroes.

But when your tactical situation could be summed up as ‘surrounded in a wall that lets bullets in, but not out’, it didn’t really matter.  My men moved about the room’s circumference, carefully picking their targets, popping her shadows one by one.

She vomited forth another wave, and then another.  It didn’t help.  We shot them like we had the last set.

I made it my own goal to put the bullets through Haunter, when the situation allowed.  I maneuvered around the room’s edge, Dana at my side, trying to draw a bead on the hag when the whirl of shades and smoke allowed it.  I took shots over Condemner’s cowering shoulders.

“Atten-Hut!” boomed a voice.

We stopped, almost despite ourselves.  It was a voice that recalled basic training, a voice that summoned back the hard hearted, hard voiced men who had worked us over in our youths.  A military voice, a stentorian voice.  The voice of another one of her shades.

I felt a ringing anticlimax rising in me as I raised my pistol again.  But something about the way it held itself gave me pause, and apparently gave my men pause as well.

“I am Colonel Lewis, United States Military,” the shade announced.  I hereby offer our complete and unconditional surrender.”

It wasn’t anything that the shade said that convinced me to hold up a hand, halting the fusillade, it was the look on Haunter’s face.  She looked like her puppy had just died.  A profound sorrow, even despair. it honestly looked like she was worried for this construct, despite sending so many of the others to be popped.

“Colonel?” I asked.

He simply nodded, striding towards me.

That was a rank in the old world militaries, I thought.  Something below general, above captain.  I wasn’t exactly clear.  We’d simplified things, but Haunter was clearly a history buff.

“I’m not about to have a negotiation with a special effect,” I told her.  “And you don’t get to surrender after you start shooting at my men.”

Haunter simply stared at me, her face a mask of misery.

“Commander,” said the Colonel shade again, “I want to tell you something, before you resume your operations, as one military man to another.”

He’d stopped short, standing in the middle of the room, roughly equidistant from the spot where Haunter cowered beneath the ruins of the table and the spot where Kelly held the Fisher beast at bay.  Condemner was between us, as was the wall of Dragon’s power.

I motioned for it to draw closer.  I wasn’t sure precisely what I was going to get out of humoring her, but there didn’t seem to be any harm.  I could resume the onslaught at any time.

No, I knew precisely what I was going to get out of it.  I wanted to hear her beg.  I wanted to hear the bitch beg.  Let it be through an imaginary Colonel if it had to, I just wanted to hear a Fist beg like my comrades had begged.

It would do her just as much good.

“Commander”, it said again as he drew closer, and I held up my hand, halting it.

I could see no weapons, but there was no guarantee that a ghost didn’t pack a suicide vest or something similar.  It could talk from right there.

“I wasn’t offering our surrender to you.”

Even as he said it, he was throwing himself forward.

I wasn’t caught unawares at all, hurling myself to one side.  The wall was still between us, no matter what her play was she had gained nothing by this.

The Colonel hit Condemner, who brought forth the tiniest fire from a frozen hand, the shade instantly went up in flame.

The Dragon’s power was greater than Condemners…so long as he didn’t take souls.

Suddenly a wave of flame burst forth from his frozen frame, a tidal wave of inferno, like hell unleashed, parting around the beings within the ring and breaking against the barrier.  I shielded my eyes, I’d have to put my trust in the  Dragon after all.

Not enough.  Even with a soul he didn’t have enough.  She was stronger.

I almost laughed.  Saved by the same bullshit lottery luck of Ultra power that I despised.  I saw the wave of flames crest…and then break.  Dragon strained, but she HELD.  This daughter of the Union, this first-rate Ultra.  She held.  The flames died down before us, and her shield of frozen air wavered slightly, but even draining Haunter’s construct hadn’t given Condemner the strength to breach it.

The flames died away in time to see Haunter feed him another dozen shades.

Condemner’s body flared, faded away, as a towering demon roared up.  Dragon’s shield cracked like glass as he surged against us.

Bullets ripped through it, but there was no man to shoot, just fire.  Dana stepped before me, flared white hot and melted.  The heat burned my face away.

I caught fire, and my world ended in anguish.

 

 

Holiday break

Hey readers, sorry for this.  I’m going to be traveling over the holidays, and I wasn’t able to get the updates for tomorrow or this sunday done ahead of time.  This means that the next time that I’ll post new content will be the 28th.

 

Thanks for your patience, I appreciate you sticking with me when I miss days.  I try not to do it often.