I came awake with a thrash, limbs twitching against the heavy fabric like a bird thrashing in a net. My mind seized up with animal panic for a fraction of a second. There was someone’s arm across me.
The pressure lifted as soon as I moved, and I swiftly returned to myself. The entangling pressure didn’t come from any net. It came from my luxurious blankets. The arm was Thui’s, and he would never dare to allow harm to come to me. Also, he was only a human, and couldn’t possibly hurt me even if he stopped caring about his daughter’s wellbeing.
I stretched out, kicking my feet beneath the blankets and pushing my arms out as far as they can go. The king sized bed accommodated me easily. It stretched beyond my reach in every direction. This was partly because it was huge, and partly because I’m a goddamn gnome.
“Four feet 6 inches isn’t that short.” I reminded myself. It was such a stupid insecurity to have. Who cared how tall I was? I didn’t let myself answer that, long practice with my thought patterns leading me to cut the thought off before it could start me spiraling.
I tossed back the covers and sat up on my bed, blinking sleepily across the master bedroom. I’d had Knights board up the great windows that used to permit light into the room, but there were gaps between the boards which allowed light from the glorious Shington morning to spill forth across the floor.
Thui was settling down into his chair, reaching for the puzzle cube I’d brought him from my last visit to the Lair. He had a fondness for the things, and Adder didn’t mind giving them away. I found them unsatisfying myself nowadays. There was a simple algorithm that I’d figured out that would, in time, let me solve any variation.
I got up, rolling to the side and lowering my feet gingerly down off the side of the bed. The floor was cold, and I sort of hop stepped across the room to the bathroom. My gift grants me level three Ultra durability, basically invincibility, but I still feel hot and cold. Vexing.
I looked myself over in the mirror. No wrinkles, no grey hairs, no visible signs of aging. My reflection showed a woman who could be 45, 35 or 25. I was 39. My hair was still cut in the boyish mop it had been going into the Process. It never grew. I’d washed the thick skin cream I used off before going to bed, so the sparkles showed behind my skin. Dancing back and forth like fireflies, the gleams moved behind my flesh, barely visible.
Sighing, I reached for the skin sludge, as I thought of it. I put my fingers in and pulled out a thick glob of a paper white substance. It moved and looked basically like the paste that my mother had let me play with when I was younger. I rubbed it on my cheeks, neck and forehead. I slathered it on thickly, leaving myself with an albino complexion, like a tiny snow woman. It hid the sparkles.
I’d put out today’s clothes last evening, and I pulled them down from the hanger and put them on. Big meeting today. I dressed myself in a guy’s suit. It was a very formal look, almost a tuxedo. My sigil, a fancy little hat that I wore slightly tilted, didn’t exactly gibe with it. No helping that though.
I went out into the bedroom. Thui was still ticking away at his puzzle cube. I’d never considered where they came from. I mean, I knew Adder made the physical cubes, but surely he didn’t think of each pattern. He probably had an old world puzzle book somewhere that he took the designs from.
“I’m going out today”, I told him. “I’ll visit my Garden this morning, then head into the Lair.”
He barely reacted, eyes perhaps widening slightly. Thui had squinty eyes, so it was hard to tell in the dimly lit bedroom.
“Ah” he said. That usually meant something like “Yup”, or “Ok”.
“I’ve got a hunch that this’ll escalate” I said, affecting a carelessness that was entirely foreign to my nature. “I might end up at the Sniper’s Court this evening.”
I didn’t need to ask him to be there. He understood without it being explicit. He’d been in my service for a few years now.
“Be careful” he said. Ironic, for a human to tell me to be careful. Doubly ironic considering my paranoia.
He had a point, actually. I was craven in the moment, but today would be an important step on an audacious plan that should ultimately see Prevailer unseated, and me governing the Regime as part of the Pantheon. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to be careful.
I chuckled and headed out into the house. Knights fell into the Posture as I walked by, rising again once I went past. A lot of Ultras let their personal Knights ease up on the formality, but I couldn’t see any reason to do that.
I went downstairs. They had a fire going in the kitchen, and three breakfasts set out. I picked the rightmost at random and sat down to eat. Knights picked up the other two. No sense wasting food, after all. They’d be served to some of my hostages.
I didn’t actually need to eat. A long time ago I’d tested, and I was as immune to starvation as I was to any other form of harm. I continued for a few reasons. First off, it never payed to disclose the full limits of your abilities. No one needed to know that I didn’t need food. Second, while I didn’t know of any way to negate gifts it didn’t mean one couldn’t exist. If they somehow turned off my Ultra durability and I hadn’t eaten in years, would I instantaneously starve? I wasn’t anxious to test it. Lastly, I liked eggs.
Breakfast finished, I searched out Knight Commander Percy. He was out on the porch, so I called him inside.
“Preventer,” he greeted me.
“I’ll need an escort.” I told him. “4 Knights. We’ll be gone for most of the day.”
He just nodded, then went out to get them for me.
I sat a moment and pondered. Today’s objective was one that exposed me to a certain hazard, but the odds were well in my favor and it was important. I was going to pitch my idea for a sports league to Adder and the other leaders. Whether they went for it or not it would mark me out as important, a thinker. My Garden had started that process, and this would complete it. By day’s end I’d be one of the Ultras that people considered when they were trying to predict what the Regime would do.
It was a dangerous prospect. A lot of the attention that I was going to attract could easily take the form of assassination attempts. Beyond that, coming to the attention of the Regime’s leaders, joining their ranks, was hazardous in and of itself. Very few beings could conceivably harm me, but Her inner circle held most of them.
I let myself be afraid for a moment. Fear is a valid emotion, no reason to try to suppress it. I consciously tried to be scared. After a few seconds it began to feel foolish, and I let up. I wondered if other folks got these sudden frights. Those I’d spoken to mostly claimed that they didn’t, but I had no way to verify that they weren’t lying. Threats weren’t exactly an option for this sort of thing, as they’d expose the degree to which I was concerned about it.
A little while later the Knights came trooping in, 4 skull masked red shrouded figures bearing those scythes. They would make for an intimidating entourage. I found that having big goons around helped with the fact that my stature made people discount me.
“Take off your masks” I told them. The full face design of the Knights outfits was sheer idiocy. I didn’t want to be the dolt who got assassinated because an Ultra impersonated one of her Knights.
One by one they obeyed. Paul, Kirsten, Daniel and Travis, or at least people who looked like them. I didn’t have any way to test for shape shifting Ultras, but those I’d heard of didn’t have any way to harm me. It would have to do. I gestured for them to put their masks back on.
We walked out into the street in a formation. 2 Knights ahead and diagonal, 2 Knights behind and diagonal, so that I was in the center. This was much more about looking cool than it was about safety, but it probably helped out in that regard as well. I couldn’t find any books about how bodyguards used to operate back in the day, so I mostly made up my formations as I went along.
The streets of Shington aren’t nearly as rubble strewn as those in the rest of the Regime. Shington is probably the only city in the Regime that has actually grown since the crash of the old world, as folks flock to the strongest Ultras hoping to avoid the terror attacks of the Pantheon.
We headed down the streets towards my Garden. Few people were out this early in the morning, and those who I saw were predominantly just humans. They dropped down into the Posture as I passed. I looked carefully around as we walked. I scanned rooftops, alleys, anywhere an assailant could hide. I saw nothing threatening.
The Garden was a large, 3 story house which sat on a plot of land that formerly contained a tenement. It was one of the few structures built after the new world began. It had been the Union embassy, during the brief time when Prevailer let them have one in Shington and they believed that doing so was worthwhile. I’d snatched it up from a human gang a few years ago. No Ultra was willing to live in it, in case the Union had left behind something we didn’t have the tech to detect, but it was ideal as a place for my experiment.
Turning it into a pleasure house had taken very little work. I made Knights fetch red cloth, pestered Adder into creating a few choice items, and decorated the whole place with the sort of garish bad taste that seemed to be tradition in such places.
Putting the operation into motion hadn’t been difficult either. Women would comply when threatened with death, or the deaths of their loved ones. The men came each evening with no prompting. I’d crushed a few similar establishments to make mine stand out more, and the whole thing was running much faster than I could have imagined.
Very few people were around at the Garden in the morning. It was active late into the night, which meant that the personnel were mostly asleep, and the visitors gone, when I arrived. This was deliberate. I had difficulty with confrontation, and the women I’d gathered despised me.
Arriving at the door I gestured for one of the Knights to knock, loudly. He thumped on the door with the staff part of his scythe, and a few moments later Gary opened it. He must have been downstairs to arrive so swiftly. He was wearing jeans, a t shirt and shades.
Sunglasses were not exactly forbidden, but they were right on the line of being a Sigil. It was a cocky thing to do, out of line with Gary as I knew him.
I stepped closer to him, even as he began to greet me, and reached up over my head to pull the glasses off. He flinched as the sun touched his eyes, his salutation choked off by his surprsise.
His eyes were bloodshot, and now that I looked closer he hadn’t shaved in a while. I didn’t smell any alcohol on him though. He was still obeying at least that much of my admonition, at least. Or he’d washed up.
“What have you been doing to yourself?” I asked, harshly. My voice has a sort of piping high pitched squeak to it that I hate.
“Sorry, boss” he said, “I’ve just, I haven’t slept well, past couple of nights. We had the First Fist here.”
I cringed back hands making flappy motions, then hated myself for doing it.
“Really? They stopped by? Did they…” I trailed off.
“Yeah” he said. “they screwed some girls, and some of the guys who’d come by. The girls had their drugs, before you ask.”
I nodded. That had been exactly what I was about to ask. The fertility drugs were the whole point of the Garden. I’d gotten Adder to make them for me a while back, then taken them to Copyer and had him duplicate them into crates full.
In order to make my name as a great scientist I wanted to crack one of the big problems. The biggest one that I could think of, aside from the Process itself, was whether the powers that Ultras got had anything to do with their body’s condition. Were our genes somehow significant to what kind of powers we ended up with when our souls were brought closer to this world, if that was actually what the Process did?
Like many great scientists of the past, I had turned to twins. There was a pair among the Fists. Alerter and Blinder were twins, and their powers were disturbingly similar.
Alerter could create and absorb sound. Blinder did likewise for light. There was a clear family pattern to their gifts. It strongly implied a physical element to the abilities granted by the Process. If I could replicate that effect in another set of twins then I’d feel as though the point was adequately proven. The implications would be shattering.
Twins weren’t exactly common, however, and the brute math of the Process worked against me. One in thirty women. So, just one in 900 pairs of twins would both survive the process. I hadn’t been able to gather up 900 sets of twins. I could only find a few dozen in Shington and the surrounding cities, and half of them were boys. I’d Processed them anyway, hoping for luck, but no dice. Thus, the Garden.
Women dosed with the pills would often give birth to multiple children. Some of those were identical twins. I could get my sample size within a decade. I hadn’t found a way to age the children to the point where they could undergo the Process yet, but I was reasonably confident that I’d pull it off. There had to be an Ager out there, and ultimately all Ultras came to Shington at one point or another.
At Gary’s words, however, a new avenue suddenly occurred to me. Forget twins, any kids of male Ultras would be worthwhile for my research. Lady Ultras, of course, generally aborted any offspring rather than be made vulnerable. How many of First Fist were men?
Two, I thought. Averter and Pursuer. Remover and the rest were women.
“The girls who the Fist were with. Stop pairing them with men until you know whether they are pregnant,” I told Gary.
“Only one survived,” he said. I was taken aback for a moment, but, of course, First Fist had a bit of a reputation. I really should have expected that.
“Do you think they’ll be back?” I asked Gary, half dreading and half hoping for an affirmative answer.
He kind of shook his head.
“Boss, they haven’t left.”