Condemner 1:2

The Decimation came around a lot sooner than it felt like it should.

It was a funny thing about Ultra Speed.  You’d think, each day twice as long and all, that everything would take an eternity to arrive.  But what happened is that events started to cast a sort of shadow.  The time before something you dread wasn’t just time, it was time spent dreading.  That anticipation, fear if I was being honest, seemed to help speed up the process.  All too soon the day was upon us.

I was working with the others when I heard the sirens, chit chatting with Daphne and half-assedly assembling a broken piece of machinery.  Their whoop-whoop-whoop spread out over the town, turning every head towards the facility, and filling every mind with a sick dread.

Daphne gave a strange smile as we stood up, leaned in and whispered to me.  I couldn’t hear her over the distant alarms and the rustle of folks rising to their feet, but I could lip read a little, and it wasn’t hard to guess.

“It’s going to be me,” she’d said.

I just shook my head resignedly.  Nectady wasn’t exactly small.  We were probably as safe today as we were most days.  Daphne believed in her hunches though, and attempting to quell her anxieties wouldn’t really do either of us any good.  Besides which, what could I say?  She might be right.

Our little group merged with others, tributaries merging into rivers.  Every face was fixed, sallow.  With my gift I could read every expression, but it felt pointless.  Everyone had on the same expression.  I probably did too.  Fear, shame, dread.  Afraid we’d be called on.  Afraid that someone we love would be called on.  Afraid that we’d stand up and try to be put a stop to things.  Afraid that we wouldn’t.

Nectady doesn’t really have a grand stadium for these sorts of things.  It had a few smaller ones, but they’ve been used for Ultra fights and knocked down over the years.  Stretcher, the city’s current Boss, used a big old field for this sort of thing.

Maybe it had once been a sports field, back when games were played by folks old enough to know better.  Maybe it had been a park, there were a few scraggly trees around the edges.  More likely than either it had just been some buildings, and they’d erased it down to ground level and planted grass.  No way to know, but the last would fit.  The Regime was firmly planted in the old world’s corpse.  Repurposing a place of business, a place where things used to be done, as an execution ground felt like it was exactly in their wheelhouse.

The crowd of people that was forming up in the field didn’t merge into one immediately.  We clung to our divisions, gangs glaring hatefully at other gangs, folks from one block looking with suspicion upon folks from another.  It was more like a mob of mobs than a united crowd.  Lots of distinct smaller clusters of people, each hoping that no one from their circle would be called upon.

The Ultras walked among us.  They were marked out by their hats, and by the little waves of people nodding their heads or making other gestures of subservience.  I didn’t see Queller, but she was probably closer to the center than I was.  Stinker, dressed in much more typical ‘fierce Regime Ultra’ garb, was prowling around our section with the rest of them.

I could see the Knights though.  They were unmistakable.  Red robes and skull masks, scythes and jackboots.  They stood out in the crowd, more even than the Ultras they served.

The Knight uniform was utterly ridiculous, I’d always thought.  Invented by Refiner long ago,  when he was spinning off his hate group from a larger and more successful one.  It was a look made for backrooms, for uniting like minded souls by getting them to embrace something that the outside world would laugh at and hold in contempt.  He’d probably got the first few on clearance from a movie store or wherever the old world sold such things.

My context free knowledge was frustrating about such things.  Somehow I knew that Refiner had been one of the first prisoners to volunteer for the Process, back when it was first being tested.  Along with Remover he’d been one of the first Ultra-villains, the folks that they’d recruited Her and Her ilk to put a stop to.  This wasn’t exactly common information.  It wasn’t suppressed or hidden, but I was the only member of the Righteous who’d known it, even Larry had to look it up.  It made me worry that before losing my memory I might have been part of the Regime, maybe a big part.

Absurd, of course, Larry would definitely have known, and he couldn’t keep a secret from me, but the thought kept cropping up.  The area where they found me was scarred and pitted with the force of a major clash between Ultras.  The Regime had definitely been one side of that.  Had I been with them, or against them?

There wasn’t a raised area in the middle for everyone to see, so when they were satisfied that we’d all been herded together the Ultras started telling everyone to get on their knees.  I dropped down with all the rest, a whole human landscape felled by an invisible axe.  At least the ground wasn’t wet.

Every eye was turned to the middle of the field, where Queller and Stretcher were standing.  They didn’t have the victims in the center, which sort of surprised me.  I’d figured during the “everyone mill around time” at the beginning that they’d been picking out the offerings, but apparently we were going to do it live.

Stretcher rose up, limbs extending and contorting like pool noodles as she ate up the space around her.  She was an imposing figure, arms and legs winding around one another like pythons even as her spine twisted her 360 to pass her gaze over everyone.  Still, it spoke volumes to her insecurities that she did all this after forcing everyone to their knees.  As though a rising tower of Ultra flesh wouldn’t have gotten our attention all by itself.

When she’d grown to twelve feet she started speaking.

“Force rules the World!” she bellowed out.  Her voice was loud, but a little too high for this sort of thing.

“Has ruled it, Shall rule it!” chorused back the masses.

I couldn’t help but recall the Righteous’s call and response, and mull the similarity.  Was Elder Tanya a little Prevailer, a dictator in embryo?

“Some idiot,” she went on, “didn’t believe that.  They tried to use poison, a coward’s weapon, to take Her down!”

Poison?  Against a woman who created a new body every time she teleported?  In every city in the Regime ten people would be dying for this stupidity.  If it was even true.  I wouldn’t have put it past the Regime to make up a reason to put the fear into everyone.

“Some of you gathered here remember the old days, when Prevailer fought off these attempts daily!  Some of you might even have a certain sympathy for these rebels, these deniers of the obvious truth of Her power!  Some of you…are going to die, right here, right now!”

Queller spoke up, a softer voice, but it cut through Stretcher’s ranting like someone had pulled the plug on a nonexistent microphone.

“She is eternal, you understand that, right?”

Queller actually paused then, like someone was going to answer.  I took a good long look at her.

Queller was a big strong looking woman.  Mannish, built like a tank.  Her powers hadn’t distorted her form like Stretcher, but she still stood more than six feet tall.  She was wearing a military uniform, or a riot cop’s.  Black fabric with metal plates wherever that was possible.  She had a gun on each hip.

“Prevailer has ruled the Regime since its founding.  She is ageless, a new body every day.  She is undefeatable, with a Tally in the four digits.  Folks, She’ll be in charge until She decides differently.”

Her form, her guns, they weren’t what made Queller dangerous.  I could see what did though, by squinting at her.  The nimbus of her power hung in the air around her, a dome with about five feet between her form and the edge of it.  Anything that entered that dome would be Quelled.  People lost their will and became her helpless puppets.  Bullets lost their force and fell limply to the ground.  Fires stopped burning and water stopped flowing.  She could extend it out like a limb, although it had a constant volume.  She could swallow it into herself if she didn’t want it active for some reason.  Those Quelled never recovered.  They were like the Company Men after that, flesh without soul, understanding without volition.  It was a fate some thought worse than death.

“Rising against Her is, accordingly, a seductive notion.  Who doesn’t, on some level want to fight with God?”

Queller had it.  Whatever it is that lets people speak publicly, address a mass of their fellow sentients without losing their interest.  In another time she might have been a preacher or a teacher, instead of what she’d become.

“Who doesn’t want to burn out, burn brightly away instead of the gradual decline that we all have to look forward to.  Heck folks, I’m a powerful Ultra myself, and I’ve got to say that the thought has crossed my mind a few times.”

She didn’t quite have them chuckling.  The ‘aw gee we iz all folks here’ routine doesn’t exactly work in this context, but she was almost there.  It was far more effective, judging by the expression’s I was seeing, than all of Stretcher’s shouting.

“But what you aren’t taking into account is Her rights.  Its Her time that you waste, when you pit yourself against the infinite.  Her that you disappoint when you try the same things she’s seen time and again.  You let Her down, with your frailty, with your lack of invention, with your general humanity.  And so She has taken the privilege away from you.”

That was certainly one way to spin it.  It wasn’t that the big bad boss was afraid of being knocked off, oh no.  It was that She didn’t like having her time wasted.  Sure.

“But how to punish someone who is already a smear on Her fist?  How to enforce a consequence on someone intent on ending their life?”

Like we didn’t all know the answer to that one.

“The Decimation.  The killing of ten people from every city, every town, in the entire Regime.  Even people hellbent on taking the easy way, the coward’s way out, and dying at Her fists, even they have those they care for.”

Queller stopped talking for a moment, letting that sink in.  It was nothing we didn’t already know, but the act of pausing, after talking conversationally, lent the moment an artificial gravity.  If the general pitch hadn’t been ‘feel guity because someone stood up against the person who is having you killed’ she might have persuaded a person or two.

Queller remained silient, and Stretcher stepped back into the void, shouting once again.

“Ultras, pick your daggers!”  Nothing like a little racism to make the mass execution go down easier.

I was actually a little shocked.  For some reason, and despite the obvious absence of any lottery equipment or other mechanism for doing the picking, I’d been convinced that they’d select the victims at random.

I’m not sure how I convinced myself of this.  Maybe someone had told me somewhere along the way, or I’d just always presumed, but thinking about it, OF COURSE they’d just round up the usual suspects.  Why even pretend that the whole ‘collective punishment’ schtick would be any fairer than anything else?

Stinker was coming our way, a set of handcuffs in her hand.  I guess we were one of the blocks that would be donating a victim to the cause.

It seemed absurd.  Stinker was such a comic figure, such a caricature of what a repressive authority would actually be.  She trudged towards us with the cuffs dangling down like she didn’t know what they were.  Like she’d rather be literally anywhere else in the world.  The idea that this woman, who I knew, who I’d seen whip her own fingers with a dime store bullwhip, would condemn one of us to death just seemed preposterous, impossible.

At least, I didn’t need to worry about my friends.  Stinker was Righteous.  She knew all of our little cabal, and we were all in this group.  We’d make it through this.

I felt a wave of relief wash over me, instantly followed by crushing shame.  Was I so low?  To be thrilled that another, equally innocent, would suffer in my stead?

Stinker’s eyes passed mine and focused on the figure next to me, on Daphne.  My teeth snapped together.

Daphne was probably my best friend, though that didn’t exactly mean that we were close.  We worked together every day, ate together, walked home together.  We joked about Stinker together.  Now that I thought about it, that might not have been the smartest idea.

As Stinker got closer I let my gaze fall to the ground, inwardly writhing.  Could I do it?  Could I make myself try to take her place?  I mean, I liked Daphne, I found her amusing, but could I die for her?  That was crazy, right?  But could I live with not doing so?  Live with all my illusions of virtue stripped away?

Was I already lost, just for caring so much about one victim instead of all the other, presumably equally innocent, anonymous ones?  9 more in this crowd, and ten more in every other city?

I clenched my teeth, feeling a surge of resignation eating up the trauma.  I saw Stinker’s feet heading straight for us, each step taking me closer to the moment when I’d do nothing.  I didn’t have it in me to stand up, couldn’t make myself fight the machine.  Greater love hath no man than this, and I didn’t have it.

No, no way.  I wouldn’t let myself just do nothing.  I gathered up my courage, searched my scant memories for inspiration.  I clenched my teeth.

I looked up again as Stinker came to a stop in front of us.  She looked back, seeming to understand that before she addressed Daphne she needed to reckon with me.  I looked into her eyes and…. said nothing. Did nothing. I just knelt there, hot shame and relief chasing themselves through my mind.

The moment seemed to prolong itself.  My gift at work, letting me writhe inwardly.  No, it was too long for that.  What was she doing?

Daphne surged to her feet, trying to intervene, but Bruce pulled her back down.  I couldn’t process it, even as Stinker reached out and clapped the cuffs on me.

“Nirav, you are hereby picked for the Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty Second Decimation,“ She said, staring at me right in the eyes.  “You will die this day, slowly and with great pain. And when you’ve shed your mortal flesh, when your spirit flies free, may She have mercy on your soul.”

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