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.
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.
“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.