It was a couple of hours before anyone showed up to speak with me.
I idled away the time, relaxing in the facility’s lobby and letting the Lantans see my sigil. I figured that every one of them that left was another potential messenger, serving to spread the word to anyone who didn’t already know that a Regime Ultra was in town. Even if the Knights failed me, which didn’t seem incredibly likely, the town’s gossip would eventually ensure that the Ultras all knew that I was here. It certainly beat combing the town for them.
Eventually, a pair of very dark skinned, very muscular humans stalked in and headed towards me. They had a distinct ‘enforcer’ vibe, guns and old world armor vests with muscular arms showing and heavy tattoo work. Both were bald, one had a chain threaded through a hole in his nose and connecting to his ear. They were scowling. I hoped I wouldn’t have to kill them.
“We heard you were Haunter?” His tone made it a question.
I was sympathetic to the dance he was stuck in. He couldn’t display humility, couldn’t fawn or cower before me. He had a rep to maintain. But he couldn’t use his usual aggressive and combative posture with me either, as I would be forced to display dominance by Snitcher and his invisible leash. He was trying to hit the sweet spot between the two extremes. No reason to make it hard on him.
“Sure am” I stood and extended my hand for a shake.
He looked momentarily nonplussed, but reached out to take hold of it for a brief grip and pump. We shook, and I hung on after.
“You supposed to find me?” I asked, prompting a confused nod. I hadn’t needed to know that, really, it was implied by their presence, but I took advantage of the agreement and our grip to hook his soul. Whoever he was, he was brave enough to confront an out of town Ultra who might be here for a Decimation. No reason to let that bravery go to waste. When he died, today or in a few years, he’d join my reserve.
“You with him?” I asked, letting go and reaching out to shake with his comrade. Another grip, another nod, and another soul preserved. I let his hand go as soon as the hook was in.
“Biter sent us.” The first one said. “She met with your Knights, wants to know what you want.”
I shook my head, slowly.
“That’s not how this works. I know she’s new at this, but when I send someone to fetch a backwater shit-city’s newborn Ultra I expect them to show up, not send daggers to speak with me. Does your would-be Boss have a death wish?”
I’m pretty sure this was roughly the posture that they were expecting me to strike. I could bank disrespect with these guys, accumulate Snitcher’s approval in case I had to bargain later on.
“Mike said it wrong.” The second guy spoke up. He had a deep, cough-y sort of voice. “Biter and Stepper are right outside, like you asked, just didn’t want to walk in on you without sending envoys ahead.”
Where had he heard ‘envoys’? Who used that word?
“Huh” I said, standing up and pushing my sigil back. “Guess I’ll head outside and talk to them then.”
I walked around the desk. As I did so they began to back towards the door.
“Take a seat” I told them. “Enjoy the A/C.”
This was mostly just racking up more Bully Points with Snitcher, if he was even watching, but in general I didn’t need them in any potential fight that might happen out there anyway.
I walked towards the door, getting into what I thought of as a ‘combat posture’ on the way. I pulled shadows from my reserve and wore them. Comatose folks mostly, and some Tourists. Ultimately I put on ten of them, striking a good balance between how many I’d lose if I got hit and how strong I might need to be. I also manifested a squad of Vets.
This was a complicated process. A lot of Vets had weapons for accessories, but comparatively few of them had ended their lives with similar attachments to extra amm. I ended up manifesting about twice as many as I’d need, and letting them trade weapons and ammo. Ultimately a small unit of America’s finest walked again, escorting me out the door with a trained soldier’s careful vigilance. Another squad, mostly disarmed, remained in the lobby. I couldn’t retract them without losing their accessories, so they just remained behind, watching Mike and his buddy.
We stepped out the door and into the square, a bunch of ghostly forms surrounding a grandma with a wide brimmed hat. Waiting across the plaza was a ramshackle bunch of lightly armed bravos surrounding a pair of Ultras. I couldn’t help it, I let one of my shadows who knew how to whistle the cowboy theme control my lips, and we crossed the square with the distinctive gunfight whistle rising around us. Several of my shadows picked it up and amplified, but a tumbleweed entirely failed to roll between us.
The Nightsiders were typical new world gang members. Most had a street fighting weapon of one kind or another, knives and bottles and the like. A few, more than the usual percentage actually, had guns. I wasn’t too worried about them. Nowadays ammo was in such short supply that basically no one in the Regime trained with their weapons. On the other hand, if we got into a fight basically all of these guys would die, and that was sort of the opposite of why I was here. It had taken me a long time to realize that you couldn’t save the Regime’s populace from the gangs, because the two were one and the same.
The woman who stepped up to talk to us had to be Biter. She was dressed in jeans and a jean jacket, with some sort of white tee beneath it. A quick ‘greater than’ sign, or crocodile mouth, had been stenciled on the front of her jacket in green paint, and she had an engineer’s cap for her sigil. Her sleeves were rolled up, and her arms had the same grey-black hue as the squares asphalt.
Stepper remained back, in the group. She was wearing a formal outfit, basically a dude’s tuxedo slightly refitted. She had curly hair, very dark skin and a cowboy hat for a sigil. The most distinctive thing about her was the carpet of blueish light that followed her about, winding around where she’d wandered the square before we showed up, and ultimately dwindling away out along one of the side streets. I couldn’t help but notice that the light extended behind and all around where we were walking. If things went wrong that was going to pose a problem.
Biter walked right up to me, hands near her hips. She smiled broadly and I could see that some of her teeth were missing, but that this didn’t daunt her. Honestly, she looked much more like a Boss than Reverter did.
“Haunter, my ma met you once. You got her in there?” she asked.
I didn’t let it show, but this was a shock. I tried to stall while the Jury frantically tried to figure out whether I had Biter’s mother in my collection.
“I don’t recall telling you I’d answer your questions.” I blustered. It was weak and I knew it.
She slapped a fist into her hand, turned it over and steepled her fingers.
“If she isn’t, if you took her and let her go… then you are about to follow her.”
Shit, threats. This was headed one way. Damage control time.
“Rest of you” I raised my voice and looked around her. “Don’t step in, you walk away.”
At times like this my appearance was a serious handicap. Grandma is warning you to back down. Hopefully the shadows surrounding me lent me some credibility. In particular, hopefully Stepper took heed.
Biter stepped towards me menacingly. She stomped down and the ground vanished around her foot, making her lurch slightly as the pavement disappeared. Holes in the bottom of the shoe, or she could use her power through it.
“Bitch, don’t talk past me. Don’t need my crew, don’t need em, don’t need nothing from you but my ma back.”
The Jury told me that, best as they could guess, Biter’s mother was one of the Tourists who’d died over the years. No way to know for sure, but no one in the reserve was admitting that they knew her.
I flicked my sigil off my head, so that it hung on my back by the cord around my throat and stepped right up to Biter. I relaxed conscious control of my body and let my more combative shadows handle my movements.
“Dead meat, Bitch” I told her.
Biter swung at my head, and I ducked and circled to her right. As no gun shots sounded I wanted to cheer internally. It looked like this would be just the two of us.
She turned to keep me ahead and took a fighting stance, or at least sort of one. Arms up in front of her like a boxer turtling up, probably couldn’t see well around them. She staggered again as one of her feet ate up some concrete, no doubt giving her legs even more durability than her power offered her unaided.
I slipped her guard with another side step and jabbed her in the side, sending her stumbling back. With ten folk’s strength I could knock around an Ultra with first degree toughness, but it wouldn’t really hurt her. I’d need to wear more if I wanted to do serious damage, but doing so would mean losing more if I took a hit, and ten was already a lot to risk.
She faced again, and rushed me, arms spread wide for the tackle. I grabbed the outside of one of her arms and started to drag it across to the other side, halting the rush, when a shock ran through me and the shades I was wearing were torn from my reserve. I jumped back and right, only narrowly avoiding her rush, and that only because she stumbled to a halt for a second, looking confused.
What the fuck had happened? I’d taken a hit somehow. A second later I got it. She’d ‘bit’ me through the skin to skin contact when I grabbed her arm, and my power had shielded me and cost me ten shadows.
“What-” she started asking, then kicked her foot into the ground like a soccer ball, and sent a lump of concrete flying my way.
I dashed frantically to one side, then ran over to a bench.
She pursued more slowly, watching me carefully and looking around at my manifested shades, as though expecting them to fire at her.
I picked the entire bench up and threw it at her, charging in its wake. A lot of stuff gets thrown around in ultra fights, and its mostly just fight foreplay, but I had a very specific reason for wanting debris near her, and I was very satisfied when she slapped it contemptuously to the ground.
She threw a heavy over hand punch which I evaded without much effort and I kicked up a piece of fence into my hand. Another telegraph punch forced me to step back for a sec, but then I close and stuck her with the fencing. I hit her in the side where I’d punched her, and this time she ‘bit’ her jacket through, but still staggered with the impact of the hit.
I stepped back fast, considering. She could only ‘bite’ the form that made contact, and the force still got through. Anywhere she had clothes on I could hit her, or I could use a weapon and hit naked skin. This wasn’t impossible.
She rushed again, and I stepped in, swinging my club down at her head. She took it on the forehead, eating up the end of the improvised weapon and reaching out with both arms. I tried to ward them off, but even with vastly greater hand to hand combat skill than she had I couldn’t do it entirely. She got a hand on my shoulder and tossed me to the ground hard enough to cost me another ten shades.
Ten more! Twenty passengers on my ark to the future that would never reach their destination. And she was doing this because she was pissed off that I’d lost one! I rolled to my feet, spitting curses.
She was still where she’d struck me, reeling slightly. Both times she’d bit me she’d stopped for a moment, as though confused. What was going on with that?
Then I remembered. When she bit someone she got some of their thoughts, or memories. She was getting ten times as much as she’d expected, and it was throwing her for a bit of a loop.
“Stop” I yelled, and reached around to my back to take my hat in hand. “This is fucking crazy.”
I started walking to her, wearing more and more shades with every step. Twenty, thirty, fifty…
“Stop?” she echoed, walking to meet me. She cracked her knuckles in an exaggerated fashion. “Just cause you losing you think you get to stop?”
Every step was torture. I had a hundred souls worn. A few gunshots now and I’d lose a sizeable portion of the reserve. It was hard to wear so many, like holding your breathe or sucking in your gut. I concentrated on one foot ahead of the other, silently willing Stepper not to shoot me a couple times to make a dramatic entrance into the fight.
I got there. We stood face to face, both with our hands together between us. Hers cupping one another, mine on my hat. She started to say something and I threw a hell of a sucker punch.
It was just a jab, thrown from the shoulder with no body power behind it, and all of my shadows who knew how to punch cringed, but I had my hat on the front of my fist, and with ultra power the actual physical stance the punch is thrown from matters a whole lot less.
I punched in the face as hard as I’ve ever punched anyone, and her bite only tore the top off of my hat, and left my fist slamming into her face. She hadn’t bothered to block, because if I was punching with the power I’d previously showed it would have been an inconsequential blow. Instead, it warped her skull and tossed her head over heels across the plaza, slamming into a Nightsider and knocking him down too.
I was already releasing the shades back into the reserve, even as I strode towards her. By the time I got there I was back at ten, which is my combat usual. I looked down at Biter.
Her eyes were white in her head, rolled back. Blood was flowing from a crack at her scalp and another along her cheekbone. She was out like a light, and if she didn’t have a healing power I didn’t know about I didn’t think she was going to make it.
Such a goddamn thing. She was angry, but if we’d talked she could have come around. I couldn’t take a threat without fighting though, or Snitcher might tell Her and She would kill me, and so much for my thousands of charges. I couldn’t even try and take her into the reserve, because I couldn’t take Ultras. Since walking into Lanta I’d killed Tom and Biter, and lost 20 souls. For what?
I turned to the Nightsiders, and retracted the Vet squads, both the one beside me and the one back in the Company facility. Translucent white streaks flashed into my torso in rapid fire, and I felt them taking their places once again within the reserve. Irene would be cataloging, finding out what twenty souls I’d lost with suboptimal fighting. Fuck.
“Doesn’t look like Biter’s going to be Boss” I told them. “Doesn’t look like she’s going to wake up. Anyone else want to die?”
This was the definition of a rhetorical question, and there was a lot of murmuring and looking to each other from a lot of ‘hard’ men. I didn’t blame them, an angry Ultra is basically a force of nature. Stepper could still probably take me, but I doubted she knew that.
“You taking over?” Stepper spoke up. Her voice was high and thin, no perceptible Lantan accent.
“Me, stay in this shit burg?” I barked a laugh. “Nah, I’m going to bring Reverter to Shington, if the Regime accepts her she’ll be your new Boss.”
Stepper didn’t look thrilled at that, but she nodded. The daggers didn’t seem to care one way or the other. Most couldn’t help sneaking glances at Biter, like they were worried she’d get up at any moment, or they couldn’t believe that she was gone. Had they looked at Kicker like that?
I made the ‘beat it’ gesture, and they turned and started to file off. A few of them hesitated a moment, and then, when I didn’t object, picked up Biter’s body and started to carry her off. I turned and headed back into the facility.
The guys I’d contracted with emerged just as I was going in. I cut off their questions with another curt motion of a hand, and they took the hint and filed past me. I stepped back inside, walked back to the seat I’d commandeered earlier and sat down.
Maybe fifteen minutes later Corey and Caitlyn showed up. They walked in and headed right to me, and then they made their apologies. Biter had apparently told them to wait for her to get back after dealing with me, and they’d done as instructed. I couldn’t even make myself get angry at them. Ultras were a force of nature.
Night was falling when Seth and Tom showed up, with Reverter in tow.