Preventer 1:5

She didn’t kill anyone during the other audiences before mine.  The lady who wanted to settle somewhere got a sullen nod.  The other guy’s idea, something about an official integration of TroubleShooters into city structure, was roundly ignored.  The Ultra wanted to name his kid after Her, which he got permission to do.  That surprised me a bit.

As the Ultra scrabbled up the side of the pool, stupid hat nearly toppling from his head, I took a deep breath and headed down the short slope into the deep end.  I clasped my hands firmly behind my back to keep them still, looked from left to right.

She was still slouched on the diving board, gazing with subdued boredom down at me.  No expression at all, which was good.  I’d made a study of Her expressions and the behaviors that they portended and the inscrutable look was the second safest, behind smiling.  Adder met my gaze and gave a short nod.  Subtracter sneered and mimed a spit.  The First Fist were paying little attention, other than Alerter, whose face was twisted in a rictus of anger.  The Second Fist appeared to be more attentive, but with Deceiver in the mix who really knew?  The Third Fist were talking quietly among themselves, aside from Killer, who regarded me with interest.

“Prevailer,” I began, and launched into my speech.

It hadn’t changed much from lunch, a simple proposal to establish a sporting league for humans.  I cited as benefits that it would keep their minds off of their wretched circumstances, and speculated that we’d gain a spectacle to offer us much needed diversion.  I didn’t mention costs.  I’d observed many such proposals through the years, and mentioning anything but the positives didn’t appear to be worth it.  She might take umbrage at the slightest thing.

I wasn’t interrupted while I was talking, and from everyone’s expressions they appeared to be hearing what I was actually saying.  I wasn’t entirely surprised at this, but a decent part of me had believed that Alerter wouldn’t be able to wait for me to finish, and would take action immediately.  Nothing untoward occurred, however, and I wrapped the talk with the usual begging, taking the Posture and genuflecting before Prevailer.

She didn’t respond immediately, but Subtracter did.

“Daggers and balls?  That’s what you think’ll help with our rebel problem?  Bitch, you dumb as shit.”  She practically spat the words out.

An utterly predictable objection from an utterly predictable woman, it nonetheless had to be handled with care.  I couldn’t do it myself.  Yelling up to her would make me look weak.  The strange protocol of Prevailer’s court in effect prohibited Ultras proposing things from defending themselves.  Thus, my favor from Adder.

“Humans make up our rebel problem, Subtracter” he said, his calm tone cutting through her angry imprecations.  “If they are powerful enough to make a problem, might they not have something to contribute to the solution?”

“That’s different!” Subtracter retorted immediately.  Then she stalled a second.  I’d observed this pattern from her before.  She could speak off the cuff and then use her Ultra speed to come up with justification later on.  It was how everyone’s mind worked, of course, but on Subtracter you could almost see it happening.

“It’s easier to wreck stuff than to fix it,” Subtracter said.  “Dagger power be ok for breaking shit, but when it comes time to organize or do anything that means anything we can’t rely on em.”

Adder started to respond when Prevailer interrupted him.

“Anybody got a serious problem with it?” She asked.

I was already turning when Alerter slid down into the pool.

I saw Remover start, caught by surprise by her subordinate’s action.  This was also what I’d predicted.  Remover mostly saw her followers as apparel, or pets.  Alerter’s inferiority complex would be something that she knew of, but disregarded.  Since she hadn’t heard my earlier provocation, she wouldn’t be thinking about it in connection with the present moment.  She’d expected Alerter to wait for instructions, as she usually did.

Since the incident earlier today I’d been terribly worried that Pursuer would be the one to drop into the Pool.  Intellectually, of course, I knew that he wouldn’t.  Prevailer had made it clear that she didn’t like him doing all the fighting, and he’d taken on a Union prisoner two days ago.  Still, the thought had continually gnawed at my mind, and having it banished was a relief.

Alerter smiled at me menacingly, and cracked her wrists.  It was meaningless posturing.  She couldn’t hurt me with her wrists, probably couldn’t hurt me at all.  With a smarter foe I’d be wondering what she could possibly be thinking but Alerter was almost a feral creature.  She wasn’t thinking at all, acting purely on anger and the contempt she felt for the tiny noncombatant who’d used a note to get out of what they’d planned for me earlier in the day.

I took off my sigil and placed it with deliberately mincing movements off to the side.  Feminine and delicate, that was the way to play it.  Alerter’s attitude, the army clothes and the short hair, were all about projecting power.  If I displayed vulnerability, and she couldn’t hurt me, it would make her look all the weaker.

I took off a glove and placed it in my mouth, biting down on it.  Her brow furrowed as she saw me do this, confusion plain upon her face.  There was no real mystery to it though.

I’d pondered this battle at length ahead of time.  I’d watched videos of Alerter fighting, considered everything from her point of view as well as my own.  One of the obvious outs for her was to get me facing away from Prevailer and then create my voice saying something that would enrage Her.  A plea for mercy, a clueless taunt, the possibilities were endless.  By gagging myself I cut her off from this avenue of action.

It was important to remember that as dim as Alerter was she’d been in a LOT of fights.  She was primarily a support Ultra, but First Fist deployed constantly.  I was facing an enemy who had overcome the odds, and been overcome by them, hundreds of times.  I could see no way for her to prevail, but that didn’t mean that I could take any shortcuts.

“Do it, “ said Prevailer.

Without further preparation Alerter shot across the Pool towards me, hands extended like she wanted to throttle me.  I had barely begun to raise my own arms when the sound hit, a disorienting pulse of pure volume slamming into my ears and through my bones like a bomb had gone off.

It didn’t hurt, exactly.  I was proof against deafness as I was against all harm, but I was disoriented, and it made my barriers slow to emerge.  She was almost at me when I shot the first glittering rectangles out of my palms and arcing towards her face.

She ducked without difficulty, but her forward motion was arrested.  As the barriers slid by her she turned her own palms towards them, and they crumpled and shattered beneath her sonic projection.

Seen from the side, there was a sort of shimmer in the air where she pointed it.  A vaguely conic projection of what looked like heat haze had extended from her towards my barriers an instant before they came apart.  Way too fast to dodge.

But it hadn’t hurt me the first time.  As she faced me again I threw my hands out wide, and sent barriers on arcing paths towards her.  As each one slid out of my flesh I mastered my pang of concern.  No one knew about it, but my barriers fueled my invincibility.  As each sparkle left my flesh and became a barrier I became just a bit more vulnerable.  It would take dozens before I dropped to a level where I could be harmed, but it was still a chilling feeling.

Faced with two barriers on wide arcs towards her Alerter stole a second to turn her cone downwards.  She echoed it off the floor of the Pool, absorbing the noise as it bounced back up to her.

She got back more power than she expended, from what I’d heard.  I’d have to make certain not to allow her to do too much of that.  Even as the pair of wide barriers closed in I pointed my hands directly towards her and got ready for my next attack.

I’d been expecting her to attempt to duck the wide pair, but she surprised me by stepping quickly forward.  I didn’t have a good enough turn radius to keep up, and the barriers crossed behind her.  She reached back with a hand and tapped one as it went past, giving me that wide, menacing smile again.

I bit down harder on the glove and stopped playing around.  I sent a pair from each hand directly towards her, and simultaneously sent another pair sliding out of my face in the wider arcs.  There wasn’t anything special about the skin on my hands, and I didn’t have any particular limitation on how many barriers I could control.

With barriers coming in directly from me and from both sides Alerter was forced to get serious about her defense.  She blanketed the left side with her sonic attack, shredding those barriers even as they neared her.  Then she jumped into the hole that she’d just blasted in my attacks, moving to my left with alacrity as the barriers I’d sent straight and right crossed themselves where she’d been standing.

She clapped sardonically as the barriers arranged themselves for another run.

The First Fist joined in, as did the Third.  This was cunning.  The noise they were making would strengthen Alerter, but it wasn’t overt enough to seem like cheating.  Still, we were well within my projections.  I had three more ways to end this fight.  I put the first into effect.

As my next set of projections arced towards her I shredded the soles of my boots with another pair, which sliced their way, much more slowly, through the ground towards her.  I didn’t slacken the rain of horizontal projectiles as the burrowers came towards her, pushing her attention left right and straight on with barrages of glittering bladed walls.

She didn’t seem to realize that they were coming, wholly absorbed in the meticulous shredding of my onslaught.  She swayed this way and that in the center of a glittering hurricane of barriers, blasting clear spaces an instant before she needed to occupy them, ducking and weaving through the golden energy fields when she had to.  It was an awe inspiring display.

I brought it to an end, bringing the burrowers up beneath her and slashing into her legs and feet.  She dropped and rolled, but before I could slam the horizontal barriers into her and bring matters to an end she was on her feet again, wounds healing before my eyes.

She’d been saving up the power she’d absorbed during the fight.  She hadn’t used it to power up her blasts, instead saving it in order to heal up if I caught her off guard.  I hadn’t imagined that she could be so cunning.

My moment of realization slowed me for a second, and she extended both hands towards me, tossing me off my feet with a ferocious sonic attack.  I skidded and slid into the wall of the pool, crumpling the edge before dropping to the ground.

Immediately I started rolling.  Inactivity, passivity, even for a moment, could be death in this place.  Prevailer was watching, and she had no patience for weakness.  Even as Alerter sent her cone at me again I switched tactics, bringing my barriers together to form a single large wall, splitting me off from her.

It was her turn to be taken aback.  She blasted the great wall, but it held fast.  Another thing folks didn’t know about my barriers was that they grew stronger the larger that they were.  She’d have to power up her beam before it could harm my barrier, and I saw no reason to give her the time.

She seemed to come to the same conclusion, and leapt back to echo her energies off the wall and floor.  I sent the wall towards her, but in addition to growing stronger my projections become more sluggish the larger they were.  It shuddered and slid through the air towards her at a sedate walk.

I couldn’t give her this kind of time.  I broke it apart along horizontal lines and sent it at her as a series of wide thin blades.  A flash of inspiration hit me, something about the way she’d tapped the barriers that had missed her earlier, and I sent them in in sequence, from bottom to top.

As I hoped, she took the flashiest possible dodge.  As each barrier approached her she hopped up onto it, rising into the air above me as though she were ascending a ladder, simultaneously charging herself against my very own projections.  It was an amazingly cool, almost awe inspiring move.

It was also idiotic.  A dozen rifles rang out as she rose above the edge of the pool, and several of them struck home.  She pitched off the side of the platform with all the grace of a felled stag, dropping to the ground in a heap.

Before she could heal herself I shredded her with the barriers, pulling apart the great walls and stabbing into her with the footwide fragments I’d used earlier.  I slammed them into her core, sliding into her ribs and shoulder blades with my projections.  Blood sprayed everywhere.

I looked up into Remover’s beautiful face and I returned their earlier applause.  With each loud and mocking slap of hand on hand another jet of red fountained out of Alerter as the sound attempted to regenerate her despite the blades holding her apart.  She couldn’t scream, but the pain must have been excruciating.

Things happened very fast then.  Pursuer launched himself off the side at me.  I froze in panic as he grew closer, but then he was knocked off his trajectory and sent flying through the air as though he’d been hit by a giant tennis racket.

She was before me, appearing in Her distinctive teleport. Prevailer had slapped the dog man clear across the Court.

I trembled as the audacity of my actions caught up with me.  I knew that showing fear in front of Her was worse than dumb, but I couldn’t help myself.  If She hadn’t stopped him…

“You’ll die,” said Prevailer.  “Fist Fist’ll do ya in a day or two.  They don’t take this kind of shit.”

As she said it she looked up at them.  Remover didn’t move.  Averter maintained his characteristic dispassionate stare.  Attacker looked daggers at me.

“That’d be a waste,” She said.  “I like you.  I’m forming up the Fourth Fist again.  How’d you like to be in charge of it?”

Alerter wasn’t the only person in the court who was utterly predictable.

About the Pantheon

The first thing to understand about the Pantheon is that it is mostly a myth.  That’s wrong, of course, but its much closer to right than the impressions that immediately arise within your mind when you think of the organization.

Think of World War 2.  It was fought between ‘The Axis’, and ‘The Allies’.  These terms described things, but they weren’t exactly things.  ‘Axis’ troops were Japanese, or Italian, or German.  If you expected them to behave similarly your expectations would betray you.

The Pantheon is less real even than those old notions.  Broadly speaking, it encompasses, everywhere that isn’t in the Union or the Regime.  Put like that, its laughable, right?  No one could possibly treat this as a real thing.  And yet, ‘the Allies’ won WWII.

The Pantheon is a loose patchwork confederation of feuding Ultra fiefdoms.  Strongwoman terrorizing a few cities here, gang of raiders harassing Union concerns there.  There is a certain organization at the top level, but its all ad hoc, all put together by charismatic or powerful Ultras on the spot.

The Pantheon that fights the Regime in old Mexico shares virtually nothing with the Pantheon that fights the Union in central Eurasia.  Neither of them have anything in common with the Council that makes pronouncements from the Pantheon’s supposed Capital in Australia.

Here are some unifying principles that are, generally, true of the entire Pantheon:

  1. They pay lip service obedience to the ‘Leadership Council’.  If Zeus and Company show up and crack the whip any given cell will obey them.
  2. They are Ultra supremacists, similarly to the Regime.  The religious slant that the Pantheon is infamous for doesn’t hold true everywhere, but even if the Ultras aren’t considered Gods they are generally in charge.
  3. Violence is accepted and expected.  All of the grubby little kingdoms and principalities are basically dark age concerns.  The powers that be maintain their status by preserving a reputation for being ‘harder’ than the next city’s tough gals, and so on.
  4. Ultras are ubiquitous.  The Company operates throughout the Pantheon, and Prevailer has given it none of the restrictions that govern its operation within the Union.  People show up to be Processed at rates unknown in the Regime or Union.

The Pantheon is a generally unstable patchwork.  It would be no surprise if the whole thing fragmented or fell apart in a few years.  Of course, that has been the case for a long time now.  Perhaps there are hidden factors stabilizing it.

 

 

Preventer 1:4

We left Adder’s apartment late that afternoon.  I sent the Knights, with some things that Adder had made for me, back to my house.  It would be awkward, what with Refiner’s rules and all, to bring Knights on a trip with Adder.  The two of us headed out to the Sniper Court.

We had to leave the Lair first, hiking once more through the rubble and passing easily through the checkpoint.  They were vigilant against people going in, but not so interested in those who were leaving.  Beyond that, Adder was extremely distinctive, and very few people would be dumb enough to imitate him.

I hadn’t gone out in public with Adder before, and it was quite the experience.  Humans came up to him, every block or so.  They talked with him like he was their friend, and he responded in kind.  He seemed to know everyone’s name, though that couldn’t possibly be the case.  Some of them wanted something form his gift, some medicine, food or other item.  They\ things he made didn’t last once he stopped maintaining them, but if they were consumed in the meantime they would be part of a new Form, one with durability.

Adder seemed utterly at peace with the possibility that any of these humans might be an assassin.  This was, on the surface, a bit bizarre.  His power, the ability to conjure anything, might be fast enough to preserve his life.  It might.  It was nothing I’d bet on.  He had the stature in the Regime to insist on guards.  He could get Knights or even Ultras to watch over him, but here he was exchanging gardening tips with some random human.  It seemed positively suicidal.

He didn’t deviate from this behavior even after we left the lair.  There is no filter on who can be in greater Shington.  We don’t keep track of who comes and who goes.  Adder didn’t seem to care.  He shook hands with people who could be Union agents, KEM fanatics or simply resistance.  I didn’t know if he’s just that powerful, or just that suicidal.

I was relieved when we started drawing closer to the Sniper Court.  The humans thinned out, stopped moving over to intercept us.  I saw a few other Ultras on the street, most notably the Third Fist.  We weren’t late after all.

The Court was an old apartment block.  According to Regime legend, it was in fact the apartment block where Prevailer had lived before the fateful night she’d broken into Dr. Chen’s lab looking for something to snort.  It was preserved immaculately, a faithful museum of American habitation as it had been at the end of that hidebound culture’s existence.

The Court was a shambles, but it wasn’t the shambles of the rest of Shington.  No one had toppled it.  No Ultra had smashed the walls down, or blown everything up.  Rather, what was preserved so carefully had always been decrepit.  Those walls had been covered in spray painted symbols all those decades ago, and remained so now.  The stoops had always been crumbling.  The doors had always hung from their hinges.  The entire apartment was a piece of frozen decrepitude, a veritable mummy of a building.

The U shape of the building opened away from the Lair, and so we had to circle it.  We walked close to the building, Adder sticking out a finger and sliding it along the pitted walls.  At every doorway we stopped, and he brought into existence one of the long sleek rifles that gave the Sniper Court its name.  He’d stop at a door or a broken window, conjure a firearm and set it carefully down, giving a satisfied sniff.  I had no doubt that when you pulled those triggers, bullets would come out.

I’d known on some level that Adder made the rifles.  Ultimately, most of the things that are at all important in the Regime are created by Adder’s gift and duplicated by Copyer.  The duplicates persisted while Adder’s creations disappeared when he fell unconscious. Still, knowing something in the abstract was different from witnessing the effect in person.  Prevailer may be the Regime’s soul, but Adder was its beating heart.  The whole concept wouldn’t have worked with him gone.

When we arrived at the open portion of the tenement block I looked into the center.  The crumbling apartments formed a wide silent ring around the Duel Pool.  Bright spotlights cut through the late afternoon gloom to brightly illuminate the center of the yard while leaving the buildings around the periphery in shadows.  Despite my gift I shuddered as I looked at those gaping windows.

The Duel Pool was one of Her favorite audience locations.  An old in-ground pool which once provided the inhabitants of this wretched piece of low income housing with some much needed refreshment now played host to Prevailer’s interactions with the outside world.  Host, and occasionally executioner.

Anyone could come to the Sniper Court, pick up a rifle and enter the buildings in the periphery.  Anyone could fire on any of the figures that came to speak with Her.  To step in to the Sniper Court was to become a target.  If bullets could harm you, then the odds were that you would never leave this place.

Retribution was a bit gauche, but no one would stop you if you wanted to rush the spotlights and make a fool of yourself hunting down some humans.  Very few Ultras did.  You didn’t come here if the run of the mill rifles could harm you, and it was a rare KEM cell or assassin that tried anything in Her presence.

It could happen, of course.  The strongest Ultras in the Regime, all crammed together and half blind from spotlights made an attractive target.  The Union had struck the court a few times.  The Pantheon had challenged it openly.  It was rare though.  Prevailer was here, after all.  No one had ever figured out a way to beat her.

As we walked towards the pool Adder’s gift took effect once more.  He surrounded himself with a thin, clear hemisphere.  Some kind of plastic, perhaps.  Lightweight enough that he could carry it with him like an umbrella, but presumably strong enough to deflect rifle fire.

I didn’t need any such tricks, of course.  Ultra durability of the third degree would shield me from every rifle that the world had ever made.  In theory, I could shrug off an atomic detonation, or survive in the heart of the sun.  I’d never heard of anyone testing a gift similar to mine under such conditions, but that was what the Company Men had told me.

Crowded around the Duel Pool were the luminaries of the Regime.  A veritable who’s who of Her greatest servants sat in a semicircle.  Very few looked out at the spotlights.  Slightly more kept an eye on the entrance, and I knew that they’d be straining to make out who Adder had brought along.  Most of them were watching the people standing down in the shallow end, the folks who’d come to see Her, and receive Her judgement.

I recognized Subtracter, sitting next to the diving board on the edge of the deep end.  Her right hand, as everyone knew.  Subtracter was a mean looking young woman, cross eyed and scowling.  No one would dare tell her that, of course.  She had Ultra strength, speed and durability at 2, and flight besides.  Possibly the second strongest Ultra in the Regime after Her.  Certainly the second most influential.  She commanded the Fists.  She’d be the main obstacle to my ambitions tonight.

The First, Second and Third Fists were here too, squatting along the sides of the deep end and talking among themselves.  Three Fists.  I calmed a spasm of panic.  That was more than I’d planned for.  It shouldn’t affect anything, shouldn’t matter, but I felt my hands tremble anyway.  I didn’t need things going wrong tonight.

We got up to the edge of the Pool and Adder patted me on the shoulder, then turned to take his place.  I sat on the edge of the shallow end.  Beneath me, in the dry bed of the old pool, a pair of humans stood, along with an Ultra whose sigil was the single ugliest hat I’d ever seen, some sort of lumberjack’s knitted hair covering.  I paused at the edge of the pool.

This was the moment of no return.  Dropping down into there, I’d be committed.  Right now, I could still sit down, watch this night play out like I had so many others.  Adder would wonder why I’d chickened out, but that could be handled.  I didn’t have to do this.

After a brief hesitation, I slid in.  I did have to do this.  I knew that.  I’d forced myself to think through the matter time and again, and there was no other possibly conclusion.  Prevailer’s reign was unstable.  She was unstable.  A mental patient with dubious intentions could not outface the world forever.  Once she fell, I’d be done for, complicit in her crimes.  The actions of this evening would put my life at risk, but inaction would be certain to lose it.

Bizarrely, the pool felt noticeably cooler than the concrete around it.  Probably the absence of the lights, or just a psycho somatic trick.  Out of sight of the distant watchers and their rifles my instincts seemed to unclench a bit.  Absurd, since by any measureable metric I was in more jeopardy down here than I had been up there.

There was a distinct popping sound, and She was there.

Prevailer appeared astride the diving board, squatting over it like some squat gargoyle.  I was ready for it, but still Her appearance shook me.  It wasn’t so much the mode of the teleportation as who’d arrived.  The creature who’d changed the world, the Fiend, Peggy Martin, call Her what you will.

Nothing stuck to her, nothing ever had.  She looked just about the same way she did in the old footage.  A middle aged black woman, puffy faced and scowling.  A tear tattooed under one eye, presumably significant in the bygone gangland culture that had shaped her.  She wore a sweat suit, the famous baseball cap sigil with a crown drawn on the front in magic marker.  She was playing one of Adder’s electronic games, it beeped and booped rhythmically as she mashed the buttons.

The Fists fell silent, all at once.  Their quiet conversations died away.  Subtracter dry washed her hands.  Everyone waited.

After a moment Adder cleared his throat, loudly.  She looked up, then put her game aside.  Prevailer looked down into the shallow end and beckoned us closer.

I let the humans lead the way.  I’d sat on the edge of the pool enough times to know better.  When She was feeling insecure, wanting to make a statement, it was usually the first in line who got torn apart.  There was no way to entirely eliminate that danger, but I’d do my best to mitigate it.

The woman in front started talking.  I listened long enough to get the gist.  She wanted permission to start a town outside of one of the big cities.  Foolish to come here.  Twice foolish to bother Her about such trivialities.

I spend the time peering up at the Fists.  Second Fist was arrayed at the edge of the pool near me.  They wouldn’t interrupt Her conversation, but Deceiver made a slight hand motion.  I took it as a greeting.  I got along well with Second Fist.  They didn’t know it yet, but I planned to bring them along when I went to the Pantheon.  They’d make an excellent Praetorian Guard.

Refiner gave me a nod as well, or at least it looked like he did.  I was one of a very few to know that the ancient leader of the Knights was entirely senile.  Linker’s power brought him back every day if he actually kicked the bucket, but he had aged into decrepitude long ago.  Deceiver’s power kept people from realizing it, but the old monster was almost entirely out of synch with the world around him.  The Ultra who the president had once called ‘the foremost threat to our national well-being’ couldn’t change his own robes.  Times changed.

Bomber, Destroyer and Choker were also there.  I didn’t pay them much heed, however.  It was funny how every Fist found its own center of action.  If First Fist were a group of bullies, surging round like hyenas when they smelled weakness then Second Fist were combatants, uninterested in scenarios with no conflict.  Deceiver led the way in social circumstances, the other three would follow her lead unless fighting broke out.

“Deceiver, how’s it going” I said, softly.

This might seem brave, but I’d been here before, and sitting in the deep end where Prevailer and the other important folks were you couldn’t hear anything going on in the shallow end.  Beyond that, Deceiver’s gift could muffle the sound if she felt like it.

“Fine, fine.  And how goes the pimping?” she responded.  Deceiver affected a crone’s mannerisms, showing the world an ancient visage and letting us hear a creaking raspy whisper.  I didn’t buy it.  There was no reason, given her gift, to let us know what she looked like or sounded like.

“It’s science,” I said.  “You know that.”

“Hmm…” she murmured, dubiously.

“It’s a legitimate area of study.” I said, pretending heat.  “Why is it that we get the powers that we do?  Is it our bodies, or our minds?”

“Aren’t our minds part of our bodies?” she asked, just as we’d rehearsed.

“Pah.” I scoffed, still softly.  “You are smarter than that.  Look at Alerter and Blinder.”

I didn’t give any sign that I remembered that Alerter would hear everything I was saying.  She wasn’t very bright.  She was used to eaves dropping.  Most people didn’t know about it.  Therefore, I didn’t know about it, or why would I talk like I was?  Backwards reasoning, but that’s how simple minds work.

“I had photos from back when they looked exactly the same.  Identical twins, basically the same body, dressed the same.  I showed em to boys.  They could tell them apart with ease.  They called Blinder ‘the pretty one’.

Alerter had one big button, and I was mashing it.  But she couldn’t do anything to me now, with so many folks around.  I continued.

“You think it’s a coincidence that when it’s time for powers to get handed out Blinder ends up with the good one?  Come on.  No way is it a coincidence that the better twin gets the better powers.”

Deceiver was perfect, not letting on for a second that she knew that Alerter would be hearing all of this.  She gave the exact same polite chuckle that you’d give when any zealot articulated their crackpot theory.

I turned away, well satisfied.  Out of the periphery I could see Alerter sitting stock still, letting Attacker chatter on and giving me the death gaze.  I didn’t react, didn’t turn to see her.

I’d pissed her off.  If all went well, in just a little while she’d be trying to kill me.

Q&A: Essence Theory

Transcript: Dr. Chen, creator of Ultra theory, and his assistant are questioned by a reporter as they leave a talk show.

Reporter:  Dr. Chen, if your posit is correct, doesn’t it beg the question as to how physics, or science really, has functioned for all these years?

Dr. Chen: Not at all.  Think of the geocentrists, who believed that the sun circled the earth.  They could predict the movements of the stars, using a sort of increasingly convoluted set of spheres.  In order for heliocentrism to prevail it had to replicate all of the predictive power of the old understanding, as well as facilitate future discoveries.

Reporter: Then, in that vein, what wonders does Essence Theory unlock?  Why should it be adopted rather than the traditional model of reality?

Dr. Chen: Most immediately, Essence Theory explains the consistent failure to mechanically replicate thought.  The AI research which we’ve been conducting, one and off, for the past century, is mere cargo cult nonsense.  Once you see the brain not as a thought generator, but as a thought receiver, you can understand why these efforts must fail.  Even a perfectly replicated phone will receive no calls if it isn’t part of the network, so to speak.

Reporter: And these Ultrahumans, they are made possible by your theory?

Dr. Chen: Precisely!  Ms. Martin (my lab assistant) can lift a ton, and yet consumes the same calories as you or I.  This tremendous power, this ultra strength, appears in the same way that thought does for you and I.  It is a creation of the ‘soul’.  Just as your ‘soul’ gives you thought, hers gives her thought and strength.

Reporter: So then, you are able to modify the soul?

Dr Chen: No, I’m sorry, I didn’t intend to give that impression.

Ms. Martin: This guy bothering you doc?

Dr. Chen: It is fine, Peggy.  Look, think of it like reeling in a kite.  The string, or ‘soul’ if you will, is attached to the person, or rather, to the brain.  My Process ‘tightens’ the brain, pulling the string closer and wrapping it around.  I can’t touch the string itself.  But by modifying the person’s brain we reel it in.  The soul is closer, it can do more.  The Ultra power is this extra functionality.

Reporter: And this process is safe?

Dr. Chen:  Regrettably, no.  Sometimes, most of the time, the ‘string’ snaps.  We are left with a body with no soul connected.  A corpse.  But I’m certain that, given time, we can overcome thi-

Ms. Martin: You are upsetting the doc.

Reporter: Have there been any fatalities? Dr. Chen!? Are you continuing to create-

End of transcript.

Preventer 1:3

Relief was a long time coming.  I knelt on the soiled floor of the Garden’s best room, breathing heavily.  The magnitude of what I had done seemed to oppress me, grind me into the floor.  I’d confronted the First Fist.  I’d threatened Remover, of all people.  The woman who had toppled the old world, who had literally crushed its populace beneath its buildings.  I’d backed her down.  She and her posse had walked away.

I’d planned for their enmity.  There was no way around it, or none that I could conceive.  If I wanted to be a player, and I very much did, in the Regime’s affairs then I’d draw the ire of the existing power structure.  Planning it, however, was very different from experiencing it.

I tried to calm myself.  Knowledge is never bad, after all.  Their enmity wasn’t new, only my knowledge of it.  While I’d been walking here they’d already been planning on giving me to Pursuer.  I’d been ignorant.  To bemoan the alleviation of my ignorance was worse than illogical, it was ridiculous.

Gradually, I regained mastery of myself.  I stood again, stretched my hands out in front of me and stared at them until their trembling ceased.  I made myself look at the human remains crushed into the bed and accepted my fault.  She’d died because I’d brought her here.   The instinct to moan and apologize was absurd.  The dead did not hear.  Even if she could, she had no reason to forgive me.  I wasn’t about to set the rest free, or cease my efforts.  Repentance without a change in behavior is self-serving twaddle.

When I was calm once again, I left the room, stepping over the toppled door.  I overcame the absurd suspicion that the Fist was waiting for me downstairs and made my way down to the ground floor.

The Knights were all there, crouching on couches and footrests, awaiting my return.  I envied them the full face masks for a moment.  I couldn’t see how they’d taken the First Fist’s passing.  Were they affected by the Ultras they served?  Were we all the same to them, or did they have a special dread for warlike bastards?

“Kirsten,” I said.  “Stay here until Gary gets back.  Observe everything carefully, write up what you see and give it to Knight Commander Percy when you get back this evening.”

She saluted, crossing fists in front of her.  I’d picked her because she was the smallest of the four.  Irrationally, this made me think that she was probably the smartest.  I’d caught myself doing this before, and it’s a weakness.  Just because I’m tiny, and smarter than those around me, doesn’t indicate that the two qualities are somehow correlated.  It wasn’t important enough to correct.

“The rest of you, with me,” I said.  We headed out into the street.

With only 3 Knights we changed our formation slightly.  A pair of them walked diagonally in front of me, and one walked directly behind me.  As before, it was mostly pro forma.  My gift would ward me, or I would die.  Knights couldn’t hurt, so I had them, but I put no stock in their obedience.  Refiner was a patron of mine, but his men were only nominally loyal to him.  There was no way to know how many Ultras had been betrayed by their Knights, but it wouldn’t surprise me to know that it was a lot.

Shington’s streets remained quiet, just a passerby trotting here or there.  They dropped into the Posture at the sight of my sigil and escort.  I headed straight for the Lair, paying them little mind aside from scrutinizing them to make certain that they weren’t assassins.

It took a few hours to make our way downtown, we had to cross a split in the earth from a recent battle on a bridge made out of an old school bus, and there were a few checkpoints that impeded things a little.  All in all we made good time.

Actual scrutiny didn’t begin until we reached the boundary of the Lair.  It takes up most of the middle of Shington, the ruins of the government center and a swathe of ruined residential zones where the politicians and their support staffs used to live.  It was surrounded by an improvised wall, and at the opening we were met by a fairly serious inspection.

Ultras in the service of the Regime manned the gates, alongside a bunch of Knights and some Copied drones with guns.  I didn’t recognize the sigils, but these Ultras would be combat capable and dedicated to their task, if unimaginative.  All had been brought near to Torturer’s pit, and the entire purpose of their lives was to avoid being brought back.

They inspected me and my Knights.  I had to brush off some of my skin sludge and let them see the sparkles to verify my identity.  The Knights had their masks taken off and their faces compared with photographs kept in a book.  Daniel had put on some weight since his was taken and for an instant I thought they were going to kill him, but they eventually let us pass.

We threaded our way through the rubble of the Lair, heading for Adder’s residence.  Weirdly, the Lair is much more ruined and decrepit than the greater Shington area.  Prevailer’s preference.  Wreckage suited Her.

Adder lived in an old apartment building.  He didn’t have any Knights or servants around, and I knew from experience that if I brought mine up with me he’d talk to them as much to me.  I left them outside and headed in to meet him.  I took the stairs up to his floor, knocked on his door.  After a moment I heard the door unlatch and he opened it up.

Adder was a preposterously old black man, shriveled up like a raisin.  His teeth shone out from behind lips that twisted with an old wound.  He smiled broadly though, and the wrinkles changed and deepened as he did.  It was strange, like an old Santa video, how totally a smile could transform a face.

I stepped on the heels of my shoes and got them off before coming in.  He was fussy about the little stuff like that.  As I stepped into the apartment he was heading over to a breadbox, taking out a plate and loading it up with cheeses and things.

While he bustled about I looked him up and down.  He was spry as ever, moving like a man merely old, not the ancient creature that he was.  The lines on Adder’s body weren’t all wrinkles.  There was lot of scar tissue, from an appalling number of operations.

Adder had no way to deny the years, no link or gift like Prevailer’s to cheat the reaper.  Instead, he had the diligent efforts of a surgical team and Prevailer’s promise that the day he died she’d kill half the human race.  He and Copier remade the parts of him that started to fail, and every time things wore out they patched him back together.  It couldn’t last, but it was impossible not to be moved by the effort.

“Little ‘Venter” he said, his voice incongruously deep despite his advanced age “how nice to see you again.”

“Mark” I responded.  He hated his Ultra name, despite the fact that it was in my opinion one of the cooler ones.  “You are looking well.”

He chuckled quietly.

“I’d hate to see what you’d think looking ill would be like, if this is what you call well.”

“Flattery,” I admitted.  “Would you take ‘unchanged’ at face value?”

“Closer.”

“Well then, you are looking unchanged,” I said.

He nodded in response, nibbling on one of his cheese and cracker snacks.  I picked up some puzzle boxes for Thui and then put them down again.  No purse.  I’d have one of the Knights carry them on the way back.

We small talked for a little bit, back and forth about this and that.  I didn’t have a particularly close relationship with Adder, but my understanding was that he did this with everyone.  I’d put it down to trying to bore Snitcher out of watching him, except for the fact that Snitcher had told me that Prevailer had given him standing orders never to so much as glimpse the old man.  Maybe it was an old world thing.

Eventually, after bringing him up to date on every Knight I knew (whose names he all remembered), and hearing in return about a dog he’d been raising, his operations and the new computer games he was making for Prevailer we got down to the purpose of my visit.

“You asked me to look into why humans rise against us, in such numbers, despite all that we do to them.  I’ve got the answer.”

He smiled delicately.

“An answer, perhaps.  I’m sure that it is too complicated of a topic for there to be one, singular, absolute answer.”

I forged on ahead.

“Well, the main answer.  Like I said in my report.  They rebel because there is nothing else to do.”

He nodded.

“I thought it would be because we mistreat them,” he said.

I rolled over that.

“It is utterly unrealistic to expect them to do nothing.  It is entirely against human nature.  Basic psychology tells us this.  We aren’t giving them a choice between compliance and rebellion, it is a choice between stasis and action. No wonder they rebel!”

His smile became a trifle sad.  I might have been imagining it.  He had a bit of a hangdog, grandfatherly face at the best of times.  It would be easy to project wry sadness onto it at the best of times.

“Granting your premise,” he said. “What do you think that we should do about it?”

“I’ve already got a plan.” I said.  “We’ll take our inspiration directly from the old world.  Chariot races kept the ancient Romans peaceful.  Football worked for the Americans.  There’s no reason at all that we can’t do something similar.”

“Sports?” he asked.  “You propose we bring peace back to America by bringing back, what, some kind of tournament?”

“Exactly.  Football, soccer, rugby, baseball…there were dozens of games back in the day.  We bring one of them back.  We put the humans in teams and assign the teams to represent the cities.  You make the gear, Knights guard the festivities, humans have something to talk about, something to think about, that isn’t how hard it is to walk past the Company Facility and stay unprocessed one more day.”

I was kind of carried away, speaking with a kind of passion that I didn’t usually display.  It wasn’t that I had any kind of passion for ball games, of course.  I just liked showing off how smart I was.  Adder was better able to appreciate it than most, and winning him over would be an achievement.”

“Well, it hardly seems like it can hurt,” he temporized.  “But you must have already thought about why this won’t work.”

I nodded, slowly.

“Picture it, the first game of your league, everyone’s there.  There are players, an audience, referees…”

His eyes got a sort of faraway look as he talked.  It was hard to keep in mind, but he’d actually lived through things like this.  No doubt his father or someone had brought him to ball games in his youth.

“And then, Subtracter kills everyone,” he finished flatly.  “Do you think the next game will be so well attended?”

There it was.  The sticking point.  This was what I’d have to get past.

“She wouldn’t, if I got her to promise not to.  Prevailer frowns on liars.”

He nodded, slowly.

“The objection was more general, as you well know.  Subtracter is far from the only Ultra who occasionally dabbles with ordering humans about.”

He arched his eyebrows while he said this.  I thought about the Garden and shifted uneasily.

“Granted.  What I’m thinking isn’t exactly that kind of a promise.  I want to be, officially, in charge of these leagues.  I want it known that anyone messing with these leagues would be messing with me, and more importantly, with you.”

“So, you want Her to confirm this,” he said.  His voice fell a little bit as he brought Her up, his gaze dimming and the wrinkles on his face seemed to deepen.

“If I speak up for it, and you back me, I don’t see why She’d refuse.”

“You will speak with Her,” he spelled out.  “In public, you will ask Her this, and you want me to support you.  We will say that letting the humans have their games will, what?”

“Keep them out of our hair,” I finished, eagerly.  “You know Her very well.  You must know that She couldn’t care less about what the humans do.”

He didn’t move for a long moment.  When he spoke his voice was tentative, careful.

“I do know Her very well,” he mused.  “I wonder, however, if you do?”

I didn’t really know how to respond to that, so I stayed quiet while he continued.  His gift manifested as he rubbed his hands together, forming bubble wrap which he absently popped for a long moment.

“Very well, little ‘Venter,” he said.  “I’ll support your request to be placed in charge of human sporting events.”

I grinned and held out a hand to shake, the feeling of relief unknotting a clench I hadn’t even noticed in my belly.

“If, you do me a simple favor.”

I just stood, hand out.  Adder wouldn’t ask anything difficult.  He wouldn’t hurt anyone.

“These poor athletes.  These men and women you bring to the Regime’s attention.  They must participate of their own free will.”

“What do you-“ I got out before he cut me off.

“No hostages, no threats.  Anyone who gets involved in this knows what they are getting into.”

I thought for a moment.  This would be burdensome, but ultimately, it didn’t really matter.  I extended my hand again.

He seized it and shook it carefully.  His skin was surprisingly warm, as though his body was kept at a higher temperature than mine for some reason.  He kept a hold of it a moment longer than I’d intended to shake it, and looked right in my eyes.

“I mean it, Rebeccah,” he said.

I nodded.  He released my grip.

“Then would this afternoon be too soon?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“No reason to delay, I suppose.  Let’s hammer out the details of our proposal over lunch.  We’ll visit Her at the hearing this evening and see what She has to say.”

We chatted of trivialities again.  It was his way.  The beginning and ending of any conversation must be smothered in the banal, the inessential.

I didn’t try and interrupt him.  Experience had taught me that this time was useful to him.  He was thinking through the notion, fiddling with it and turning it round in his mind.  He might come up with something that I hadn’t thought of.  He probably wouldn’t but he might.

Anyway, there was no danger that we’d miss the hearing.  Adder couldn’t be late, not really.  She would wait for him.

 

Law in the Regime

Prevailer’s Regime, or the group of Ultras we refer to by that name, are avowedly anti-law.  Prevailer has delivered a number of rants about how a government of people, rather than one of laws, is the only proper or, occasionally, true form of government.  She vacillates between accusing other states of being in fact dictatorships akin to hers but hiding behind formalities and advocating that other states should adopt such setups.

You might think, therefore, that the Regime would have no legal system at all.  If the leaders hate the very concept, why have one?  Formally, that’s true.  But laws are mostly another a method of guaranteeing consistent behavior from power, and over time certain trends in the behavior of the leadership have become essentially an unwritten legal code.  It governs whose side an Ultra will usually come down on if they become involved in a dispute, or which side the Regime will come down on if the dispute is between Ultras.

The Regime’s de-facto legal system bears a resemblance to a variety of others worldwide, with the following exceptions as the largest points of divergence.

  1. Ultrahumans are nobility.

There is no mystery which side an Ultra, or the Regime at large, will take in any dispute.  It will be the side that another Ultra is on.  Human existence is assigned less value than an Ultra’s preference.

  1. Weakness is despised.

The Regime has what amounts to a barbarism fetish, and strives at all times to be seen as the most forceful, powerful and dynamic entity in any given relationship.  This trickles down to virtually all levels of its decision making process.  It admires strength, and will typically side with the strongest appearing or acting party in any given dispute.

  1. Religion is abolished.

Prevailer has formally banned all religions (or rather, threatened to kill any practitioners that she comes across).  Consequently, the Regime will nearly always go out of its way to destroy religious artifacts or harm believers that it becomes aware of.

Aside from these three exceptions, the Regime’s judgement will be that of whatever member of it has been assigned the task of forming one.  Therefore, if you ever find yourself attempting to persuade someone in Prevailer’s crew to take your side on an issue, you should represent yourself as an Ultra, and at all times adopt an active, even predatory, attitude.  (In particular, avoid the temptation to recite or bring up the other party’s transgression’s against you.)  Obviously it also behooves you to present yourself as an atheist.

Another distinction between the Regime’s laws and those of more civilized parts of the world, is that appeals are virtually nonexistent.  So long as you are nowhere near the center of Regime power the Boss that you make your cast to first will also be the last to rule on the matter.

Since this Boss has undergone no particular training other than being fortunate enough to survive the Process, there is very little reason to expect that the judgements of the Regime in one city will resemble those it makes in the others.  Keep the three guidelines above in mind, and good fortune.

Preventer 1:2

I froze, mind spinning.

My first instinct was to bail immediately.  I gave it due consideration.

I didn’t have anything to gain from talking to the First Fist.  No one did.  They were a brutal gang of the worst that the Regime had to offer.  There wasn’t any possibility that I walked out of a conversation with them better off than I went in.

On the other hand I had plenty to lose.  Most obviously, I could lose my life.  Remover and Pursuer were both on the short list of Ultras that could almost certainly kill me.  Even if I disregarded the possible hazard to life and limb, there was plenty of other reasons that this conversation could be detrimental.  They could want something from me that I couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do.  They could take my assets for any imagined reason, or for no reason at all.

The First Fist, and Ultras like them, were the reason that the Regime is a shit hole.  Build whatever you want, they’ll wreck it or steal it for an afternoon’s amusement.  In that manner had passed the factories, the stores, the industry of the old world.  Smashed by bullies because it would make folks sad.

Despite this, I’d have to speak with them.  Alerter picked up on all sound in a large radius around her position.  She’d have heard Gary tell me that they were hear.  The First Fist preyed on weakness.  Scurrying away from them would make me less safe, not more.

“Thank you, Gary, I suppose I should speak with them.”

He looked pathetically grateful.  A weak smile spread across his face and he dipped his head slightly in what I might term a proto-bow.

They were, of course, the reason for his disheveled state.  The Fist couldn’t be easy houseguests, and he was just a human.

“Gary,” I told him. “Take a message to Adder for me.  Tell him to read it if, and only if, I’m late.”

If he looked grateful before he looked twice so now.  I made a writing motion in the air and he scurried off to go find me a pen and paper.

While he was gone I prepared myself for the upcoming conversation.  I hated confrontation, cringed from it, but this had to happen.

No flapping my hands.  No looking at the ground.  Even if they looked angry I had to give them nothing.  No weakness.  Treat them like Her.  No emotion, deal with them calmly and reasonably.

Gary got back with a pad and a pen.  I put the pad up against the wall and wrote “Gary, stop reading this.  Adder, sorry that I’m late.  I’ll try and be along as soon as I can.”

I handed it back to him and he practically bolted out of the door.

With him gone, I headed up the stairs, trying to think what they might want.  I didn’t have a lot that would be valuable to them.  Some material possessions, but they didn’t need things like that.  I’d spent some time organizing Knights and pairing people with the hostages which motivated them, but again, the Fist didn’t exactly seem to be interested in social engineering.  What were they here for?

At the top of the stairs was a hallway, with a bunch of small rooms where the regular business of the Garden took place.  I walked past those.  The room at the end of the hall was larger than the others, and that’s where they would be.  Reaching the door, I noticed that it had been broken off its hinges at some point, and then set back in place.  When I knocked on the door it fell in.

The room beyond was a large master bedroom type room, with 2 big beds a chair and a desk.  There was the obligatory red trimming to it, and I’d had Gary and Thui put some effort into scavenging fancy stuff to decorate it.  Wasted effort now though.  The First Fist had fouled the room, soiling it and shredding it and marking it as their own.

Pursuer had demolished one of the beds.  He was sort of curled up in its wreckage, half into the ruined mattress, gnawing absently on one of the bedposts.  Very few men survived the Process, and many who did had some physical abnormality.  Greg Hasp was proof of this.  When he’d become Pursuer he’d warped and twisted into some kind of dog man.  He looked something like an old movie werewolf, a bipedal canine creature, with a bulldog’s head on a human body.  He growled slightly as the door fell in.

Averter was leaning against a wall, playing a handheld video game.  He didn’t look up as I entered.  He was a bald, tall man with a drooping and wrinkly face.  His game beeped and booped as he mashed the buttons.

Attacker was sitting on the intact bed.  She was short, Asian.  I didn’t know much about her.  Her power made her like a video game character, racking up ‘score’ the more people she killed and stuff she broke.  She could spend that score on extra lives or power ups.  She also had Ultra speed 1, made obvious when her head whipped around like a blurred special effect as the door fell in.  She was the only one of them who was obviously armed, with a sawed off shotgun hanging at her side.

Alerter was lounging across that bed, legs bent off to one side to accommodate Attacker’s seat.  She had on old army fatigues, hair cut short where her sister’s was long.  I’d made a study of her as part of my research.  She picked up all sound in a large radius around her.  It healed her and strengthened her.  She could discharge sound and suck it up again in a sort of virtuous cycle, building up to a cacophonous destructive blast.

Remover, the most famous member of the team, was sitting at a desk.  She still looked like she did when the old world fell, a trashy pretty girl with dyed green hair and tight leather clothes.   The rest of the First Fist were bad enough, but Remover was a monster.  In the entire Regime, no one had killed more people for less reason, Prevailer included.  She looked up as I entered, a smile spreading across her face.  I clasped my hands together behind my back to keep them from shaking.

“To what do I owe the honor?” I asked.  I didn’t direct the question to any of them in particular, sort of aiming it out into the room at large.  As I asked this I was suddenly overcome with the pungent aroma of the room.  I’d thought, idly, that the Fist had soiled it.  That was grimly literal.  The smell of urine, and another smell I couldn’t place, were strong in the air.  I wrinkled my nose a bit, involuntarily.

“Honor” aped Attacker.  “We aren’t ‘honoring’ you, you dumb bitch.”

“It’s a figure of speech,” Alerter responded before I could say much the same thing.  “She’s trying to ask why we came to see her.”

“Well why didn’t she just-“

“Whuff” Pursuer cut off Attacker’s response with a loud chuffing noise.  He sat up from his pile of beddings for a moment, and I gasped involuntarily.

Crushed into the bedding was what had once been one of my people.  The reek I couldn’t identify wafted strongly across the room from the red mess as he shifted, and despite my resolve I cringed away.  The stench was awful, and the thought of her fate much worse.

“I-“

This time it was Remover who cut me off, the others falling silent as well as she spoke.

“Preventer, I must apologize for my teammates rudeness.  We are a motley bunch.”

“No…no apology necessary,” I said, looking almost gratefully away from Pursuer and over to her.  Anywhere else was better to look.  Had to get myself under control.  “I’d be grateful, though, if you’d explain… I mean, say, why you are here.”

“A social call,” responded Remover.  “No business here, I’m afraid.  How are things for our city’s most industrious pimp?”

“Is she that?” asked Alerter.  “I mean, Andre is a hustler.”

“Not any more,” Attacker reminded her.

“Oh yeah.”

“A social call, fantastic,” I said, trying to take the pace of the conversation back from them.  I hadn’t considered, going in, how shitty it was to talk one on five.  If I didn’t get more assertive they’d talk as much to one another as to me, and that meant that the conversation could progress a long way in a dangerous direction before I could try and steer it back.

“I’m sure it’s been a while since we last spoke, how things…how have things been?” I continued.  Weak.  But what did you talk about with the First Fist?  I was used to thinking of them as beasts, monsters.  What on earth could I discuss with people who killed wholesale on a daily basis, in a room smelling of piss and viscera?

“Medium?” said Alerter, looking at Attacker.

“What does that even mean?  Is there a scale?” said Attacker, almost simultaneously.

I resolved to ignore them.  Their comedy routine didn’t matter.  Remover was in charge of the First Fist.  She’d say the things that were important.

“Just fine, thank you.  We were in the Union recently, that always puts us in a good mood.”  Remover played with her hands as we spoke, brushing them against one another as though she was rubbing something off of them.

“Oh, well…” I said, trailing off.  I couldn’t think of a thing to say, all of a sudden.  She hadn’t made any mention of what they were in the Union doing, so clearly I should ask, but she’d just respond with something hideous.  Would going along with that be the better plan?  Would they be satisfied with bullying me and be on their way?  What did they want?

“Puts you in a good mood,” said Alerter.  “I’ve always hated the north.  Too fucking cold.”

Pursuer sort of chuffed again.  It might have been agreement.  I wasn’t looking at him so I couldn’t tell if he nodded his head or not.

A rustle from his direction and a vibration in the floorboards made me glance slightly back at him.  He was getting to his feet.

“Yeah, travel,” continued Remover, blithely.  “Good for the soul, right?  See the world.”  As she babbled on she got up and approached me.  Pursuer did as well, and I turned my head so that I could watch them both carefully.

I blanched, once again.  Pursuer didn’t wear any pants and he was a big guy, in every sense of the word.  My height meant that his crotch was only just below the level of my chin.  Dripping with something.  My gift kept me from throwing up, but my mind went blank.

“As far as social calls go,” continued Remover. “This one isn’t entirely without ulterior motive.”

I was grateful for her blather.  It let me collect myself.  I breathed carefully and deeply, clenched my hands behind my back until they were white, and tried to focus on what she was saying, and not the smell, sights or any other aspects of the situation.

“You see…” she continued.  “Oh, I’m sorry.  Are you well?  You look a bit distracted?”

I nodded slightly, not trusting my voice just at that second.

“She doesn’t look well,” said Alerter or Attacker.  I continued to ignore them.

“Ah, well, if it’s nothing then,” said Remover.  “There’s a recurring issue for us, in terms of whorehouses.  Pursuer, well, with his gifts you can imagine that there’s a bit of a problem.”

Pursuer had Ultra strength three.  The implications.  I struggled not to think about it, keeping my mind fixed on the conversation.  All this disgusting shit wasn’t the point.  It couldn’t be.  They were putting me off balance for something.

“Girls, like bubbles,” said Pursuer, in a voice that sounded like a movie special effect.  It was rumbling and bass, much deeper than a regular person’s speech pattern.  “Concrete, steel much better, but still not satisfying.”

“You like dogs?” asked Attacker, brightly and innocently.

I blanked for a moment.  I literally couldn’t think of a thing to say.

“You’ll probably survive,” said Averter, speaking for the first time.  “Your gifts should cancel one another out.  You might learn to-“.

I cut him off, saying the first thing that I could think of.

“I know how you’ve stopped aging.”

They had all been leaning forward, keeping their rhythm going.  At that, however, they stopped.  Pursuer took a step back, Attacker and Alerter looked back at each other and Averter resumed his silence.  It was Remover who responded.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked, calmly and pleasantly, like she hadn’t been threatening me with dog rape a second ago.

“You still look like you used to.  I’ve seen the old footage.  You haven’t aged.  Refiner is from the same time.  He’s in a wheelchair now.  But you look just the same as you always have.”

I was talking fast, short sentences while I got my mental balance back, again.  Don’t think about what almost happened, what could still happen.  What had happened to whoever that was.

“Oh, darling,” said Remover.  “I’ve aged.  But I simply, ‘removed’ all of the evidence.”

“Bullshit.” I said, cutting off Alerter and Attacker as they started to chatter again.  I had to keep this conversation between Remover and I if I wanted any kind of control over it.

“Your power works on objects.  Everyone knows that. It doesn’t remove, I don’t know, effects from things.  It isn’t anything you are doing, or can do.  You are not aging because of Linker’s power.”

“What a strange supposition,” said Remover.  “Linker has joined many Fists together.  If his power stopped aging, wouldn’t it apply to all of us?”

“You kill yourselves,” I said, voicing a deduction I’d made a long time ago.  It was simple, if you let yourself consider every possibility.  “Every night, right before it rolls over.  Four of you, always including Remover, kill yourselves.  An instant later the link brings you back, the same as you were the previous day.  Poof, time defied, for all but one of you.”

They were silent for an instant, all 5 of them.  Jackpot.

“You can’t let this get out,” I said.  “People try to kill you 5 all the time.  They fail because there are 5 of you, each individually very hard to destroy.  What if they knew that there was a time, every night, when they could just kill 1 of you, and be rid of the First Fist forever?”

Remover coughed, almost delicately.

“This is a fascinating theory,” she said.  “Very interesting.  But, if what you are saying is true, wouldn’t it imply that we should kill you, here and now, in order to prevent this idea from getting circulated?”

There was a very dangerous air in the room now.  But somehow, since I’d brought it about, it didn’t inhibit me like their threats had.  I felt like I could bring my hands in front of and they wouldn’t flap or twitch.  I didn’t, of course.

“It might,” I allowed.  “If I hadn’t sent a message to Adder before we started talking.  If I don’t make it to my meeting on time, he’ll read all about my ‘fascinating theory’.”

It was somewhat common knowledge that if Adder wasn’t officially the resistance’s leader he was something close to it.  Prevailer’s favor protected him, but anything you told Adder the Regime’s enemies would know in short order.  He was almost like their unofficial ambassador.

“Alerter?” asked Remover, with a dangerous calm.

“Before she came up, she gave a human something to bring to Adder.  She wrote some stuff.  I know you are always after me to learn to tell words by the sound of the writing but… I was talking to ‘Tacker and…”  Alerter’s voice was suddenly a whiny, shrill thing.  She trailed off.

Remover gave her a measured stare, then looked back at me.

“It was just a thought,” she said.  “We figured you might be lonely.”

“I understand.” I said, heart hammering.  “I… I’m seeing someone though…so…”

“Say no more,” said Remover.  “And write no more, hmm?”

I nodded in response.

“Welp, we have places to be.  We’ll see ourselves out.”

At Remover’s command they started to suit action to words, getting up and filing past me.  They were by and into the hall in a heartbeat, leaving me in the reeking bedroom.

Adder would hear it if I fell to my knees.  I did so anyway.  I couldn’t help it.  I dropped down and gasped the air in and out, as though I’d just come up from the water.

They were monsters.  Pure and simple, goddamn fiends.  Their reputation was, if anything, an understatement.  I couldn’t believe I’d gotten away unscathed.

My relief waned as I remembered that, later today, my plan called for me to fight one of them.