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 from his gift, some medicine, food or other item. They knew 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 psychosomatic trick. Out of sight of the distant watchers and their rifles my instincts seemed to unclench a bit. Absurd, since by any measurable 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.