Fisher 1:5

Crusher was well caught.  It was immediately apparent.

Rewinder had one of his tendrils in her grip, and he was vibrating back and forth through a frozen instant.  She let him advance a second, then rewound him, over and over.  The forest of tendrils that surrounded all of us were shifting back and forth like a tempest was lashing at them.

Touch, that was what I’d been missing.  She had to touch someone to rewind them.  She’d touched Crusher when he grabbed for them, and Wrecker as they walked up.  But she hadn’t been able to turn me back because we’d never made contact.

Wrecker, her back to me, was grabbing tendrils and ripping them apart.  Crusher, it turned out, didn’t have Ultra toughness level 3.  Wrecker tore a pair of limbs off with casual ease, and they didn’t heal as Rewinder brought him back to stasis.

Wrecker and Rewinder were a pair well matched.  They could have overcome just about any single foe, but forgetting about me was an error that they wouldn’t get the chance to regret.

I hit Rewinder in her lower back with the blades of the Hook, slamming the spikes into her flesh with lethal force.  I aimed for the clothed areas, avoiding flesh on flesh contact, hoping that my guess had been right.  I felt a shudder and a massive impact as my blades struck home.

They rebounded, bruising and staggering her but not penetrating.  Rewinder had the same kind of Ultra toughness as my Hook did!  I tried to jump back, but tripped over one of Crusher’s tendrils.  He’d been released from the rewind when I hit Rewinder and his tendrils were jerking into spastic motion.

Before I could get to my feet again Wrecker was bearing down on me, tearing through tendrils in a heedless race to see me pay.  She knotted both fists together and swung the double fist at the Hook’s midsection, but I kicked off a tendril and slid aside from the strike. She cracked the concrete where she slammed her fists into the ground.

Around us, the tentacles were once again vibrating back and forth as Rewinder held down Crusher.  Wrecker paid no heed, seemingly berserk.

“You gon’ get it!” she snarl as she sprang at the Hook again, kicking furiously as I rolled it aside.  She landed a hit or two, but her rage made her a little bit clumsy, a little bit slow.  She missed, for the most part.

“Sarah!” called out Rewinder, from her position near the middle of Crusher’s tendril cloud.  Her voice was taught with concern, even fear.  What was she worried about?

Suddenly I got it.  Their unity had been broken, and now they were in peril.  If I could beat Wrecker again, Rewinder would have to use her power to restore her partner.  Doing so would leave her vulnerable to Crusher.

Even as the Hook rose against her, Wrecker seemed to come to the same realization.  She stopped the blitz and raised her hands in a fighting stance.  Anger still showed from her visage, but she was making a deliberate effort to calm down.

Opposite her, I brought the Hook to its feet once more.   I moved it with a calm menace that I hoped would prey upon Wrecker’s volatile mental state.  It was a calmness that implied that I was at some manner of advantage, but I was far from certain that that was the case.

Earlier I’d defeated Wrecker, true, but at that time she’d been fighting with the certain knowledge that she couldn’t fall.  With Rewinder standing by to unhappen defeat, she’d been an arrogant and careless assailant.  No reason to think that that would still be true.

We seemed equally matched in strength, or close enough to it.  I didn’t think she had as much Ultra toughness as my Hook did when I folded up the Lure inside it, but I couldn’t exactly afford a slugging match with someone who inflicted wounds that never closed up.

I stood the Lure silently before her, letting her sweat, letting her contemplate her moves.  If she jumped forward, we’d be in it.  If she tried to get back to Rewinder, I’d be on her like a shot.

“You need me?” she called out, never taking her eyes away from the Hook.  Her fake old world gangster accent was slipping again, a poor match with pretended nonchalance.

I realized a way forward all of a sudden, to tip the balance in my favor.  Beneath the Hook, I carefully extended my shadow across the floor, sliding silently beneath the battle debris until it intersected Wrecker’s shadow.  Delicately, carefully, I slid the Lure into it.

I couldn’t affect Ultras the way that I could daggers, of course, but I could observe.  Their priorities, their intentions.  These were priceless advantages in a fight, and with this standoff I had the time to sort through them.

The first shock was that Wrecker wasn’t, at the core, entirely selfish.  So many Ultras had, at the top of their priority list, something like “stay alive”, or “gain power”.  Wrecker wanted to “Protect [Name]”, which had to refer to Rewinder.  She was best summed up as a banner bearer, or posse member.  Not someone who considered herself a power in her own right.  She was a flunky.  I wondered if Rewinder reciprocated this bizarre loyalty?

The next, that Wrecker didn’t care at all what other people thought of her.  There was no “look cool” or similar notion anywhere on her priority set.  The fake accent, the swagger.  It was a pose.  She feigned overconfidence, but there was no insecurity at the core of her.  It must have been a battle tactic that the two had worked out, concealing her attitude in order to deceive their enemies.

“Bitch, you gon’ fight, or what?” Wrecker asked.  She made ‘come get some’ gestures with both of her hands.

I slid the Lure back into the Hook, retracting my shadow.  No obvious weaknesses, but if I could engineer a threat to Rewinder…

With a flash, Prevailer was among us.  The Hook dropped instantly into the Posture.

She’d appeared as was Her wont, in a sudden ‘bvurp’ of teleportation, displacing into the midst of the tendrils without a care.  The leader of the Regime was wearing the beat up old jeans and tee shirt attire that She usually did, with Her famous Sigil tilted on Her head.  Effortlessly, She made Her presence felt.

Rewinder stopped whatever she was doing to Crusher, dropped into the Posture.  Wrecker ran back to Rewinder’s side, then joined her.  Crusher writhed in confusion for a moment, tentacles shuddering as his sense of time caught up to the present, then registered Her presence and fell to his knees.

“Four of y’all?” She asked.

Rewinder spoke up first.

“We were just waiting to finish these chumps while you were watc-“

“Ees a lie!  Leetle Beetches were for crushing!”

Wrecker’s counterfeit fury flared up at this interruption from Crusher.

“Shut up, freak! You gon-’” She shouted at him, then went instantly pale.

That accent had caught up with her.  She’d done her Prevailer impression, doubtless with the intonation of habit, in front of the genuine article.

The dictator didn’t seem to mind.  She continued as though no one else had spoken.

“That’s three too many.  Guess I’ll pick.”

I kept the Hook bowed, but inside I was panicking.  My life hung on Prevailer’s one out of four random pick?  This couldn’t be happening!

I wasn’t the only one that had that thought.  Wrecker came to her feet in a rush.

It took me a second to figure out what she was going for, but when comprehension came it was unmistakable.  She was here to protect Rewinder.  She couldn’t take the chance that Prevailer would pick her, and kill her boss, or lover, or whatever.

The thing that surprised me, though, was that Rewinder came to her feet an instant later.

“You bitch, you ain’t gon-“ began Wrecker, only to be cut off by Rewinder saying much the same thing.

The two stopped, frozen in a moment, realizing that they’d both erred.  Cutting off Prevailer’s words, getting yourself killed, would be a noble sacrifice.  Both of them doing it rendered the whole thing utterly pointless.

I relished the look of realization that crossed their face in the instant it took Prevailer to teleport to them.  Rewinder was reaching out, not for Her but for her friend, when Prevailer’s fist took her in the face, blasting her head out of existence.

Wrecker gave a great, heart rending cry, and took a swing at Her.  Prevailer ducked smoothly, backed away as the furious Ultra rained blows on her.

Wrecker got a few hits in, striking several glancing blows to Prevailer’s guard.  She seemed the superior fighter, but no one can beat greater Ultra strength.  Eventually one of Her blows touched Wrecker’s guard and shattered her arm.  The end came an instant after.

During this time I stayed locked in place, the Hook’s arms folded behind its head as the old world police had demanded of their victims.  The fear of moments ago was still racing through me.  A pair of combat trained Ultras, long time partners, and Prevailer had snuffed them out in a few instants, barely trying.  The Posture was supposed to be a generalized signal that She didn’t need to kill you.  I hadn’t pissed Her off.  She had no reason to kill me.  I tried to make myself believe it.

She walked back over to the two of us.  Crusher was folding his tendrils around himself, trying his damnedest to stay out of Her way.  I contented myself with keeping the Hook looking meek and unthreatening.  Both of us knew that our lives were just as much at stake in this contest as they’d been in the fight earlier.

“So,” she said, in the same bored drawl. “One of you.”

She looked us over, gaze passing from one to the other with no visible reactions.  I thought about speaking up, decided against it.

There was just too much chance that She’d kill whoever broke the silence.  Asserting Her power was a very big deal to Prevailer.  I wasn’t sure how I knew this, but I trusted the instinct.  I would say nothing until bidden to.

“Shadow, you’re up.”

So much for that.  I unfolded the Lure, bringing it up from my shadow in the same posture as the Hook had been in.

“Prevailer, I’m by far the best suited to take on…” I faltered for a second.  How had she described it? “…to be your gal.  I’m deadlier than Crusher, and I’m also much smarter.”

It was hard to know what buttons to press.  I was mostly trying to get Crusher to seal his fate by speaking out of turn, but I was also trying to portray the sort of infinitely deadly emotionless murder puppet that She might want.  I just didn’t have any actual ideas what that entailed.

“During this contest, I’ve killed one of the others, despite the time limit.” Bad move to mention that.  She’d just killed two in far less time.  She wasn’t about to be impressed by my work with Shrinker.  “I also infiltrated the daggers, steered them towards Torturer’s Pit.”

Reaching.  Dangerous.  I had no idea what She’d make of that.

Prevailer chuckled.

“Torturer…” she mused. “Kelly’d hate to be called that.”

She turned her attention to Crusher.  It might have been my imagination, but there seemed to be a flicker of disgust across her face, a slight curl to the lip.  Did She dislike dudes, freaks or tentacles?

“Prevailer” he began “I am most honored to be considered for…”

She held up a hand for silence.

“Never mind, Crusher.” I felt a wave of elation surge through me. “Get back to your cell.”

He didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, pulling himself out of sight with a frightening speed.

I almost envied him.  He was still condemned here.  Still trapped in this hell with no chance of escape, but he was almost certain to live out the hour.  I had no such certainty about myself.  Prevailer was mercurial.  Drawing Her favor for one moment didn’t mean anything for the next.

She looked back to me.

“Imagine hearing that accent, day in and day out?” She chuckled.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh alongside Her, so I settled for giving Her one of the “we are jointly enduring the folly of a third party” looks I’d practiced from the Lure.

She didn’t speak for a moment, seemingly waiting on reply, so I coughed up meekly.

“It would be dreadful.”

She seemed to take this in stride.

“Dreadful…” said Prevailer.  “Good guess at what’s coming.”

I was trying to think of a response when She moved over to me.  I held myself tight in place, willing my forms not to flinch.  Showing fear to Her was death.  Everyone knew that.

“You mentioned Torturer” She said, practically purring the words.  She ran fingers along the Hook’s chin-equivalent, effortlessly pulling its lanky mantis form down before Her.  “Have you ever met her?”

“No…” I had the Lure say, suddenly unsure.  “Or, I don’t think…”

Prevailer gave a cruel laugh.

“You have.  I thought I remembered that you were one of the ones.  That’s useful.”

I fell silent once again.  My forms had no reflexes.  I didn’t tremble, shake or in any way show my fear, but being in Her direct clutch, as she mused on Torturer, was driving me into a wild panic.

“I dipped you into her range, you know?” She asked.

“Yes.” I said, knowing no such thing.  It made sense.  I’d lost the memories, but that must be why I couldn’t go towards the center room.

“It’s something I do to Ultras I plan to use later.  It teaches them useful lessons.”

As She spoke Prevailer pulled down on the Hook’s head.  It was an easy pressure at first, like you’d use to guide a tame animal.  As the Hook relented it got stronger and stronger, jerking my skull down from until She was holding the Hook’s upper body bent double before her, right about at Her waist.

“Useful lessons.  Lessons that their bodies enforce, whatever their minds might desire.  Lessons that go deep.”

Her other hand came across, landing on the other side of the Hook’s head, caressing it with a thumb, each movement scarring the head like a rough knife.

“Lessons that their minds can’t forget.  That their will can’t erase.  Permanent lessons, as much as any thing about you bitches can be permanent.”

My mind went nearly blank.  I tensed, a tremendous effort of will sufficing to keep from pulling the Hook into my shadow and making a run for it.  ‘Hold on, Hold on’ I chanted inside my mind, keeping my forms rigid and motionless as the insane tyrant fondled my head.

“One lesson really.  Don’t betray me.  Try it, and your body will betray you.”

I felt a flood of relief.  She needed me alive for something.  As far as betraying Her?  I wasn’t an idiot.  She didn’t need to tell me twice.

Excerpt

…a more , or perhaps less, subtle heroism than was required by previous generations.

The defenders in the past contended with adversaries, or forces, which were bounded in the ways that they were bounded.  They faced challengers who sought to bring those that they protected under the dominion of those who would do them wrong.  Their foes resembled themselves in the ways which were important, such that battle was occasionally romanticized as a game, or a duel.

Nowadays, of course, we are not so fortunate.  What you will be part of is no game, rather, it is, at it’s core, mythic.

The police officer of days gone by faced criminals, humans like herself in every important way.  Soldiers in the old world bought soldiers loyal to enemy nations, perhaps unequal in technology, but equally laying their lives on the line to carry out their master’s orders.

Today’s heroes contend with monsters.

I do not use that term lightly.  Your courses will not speak of monsters.  They will not speak of evil.  I partake of that tradition.  A tradition which describes sadism as a mental defect, habitual killers as serial offenders.  It is a defeat that I must utter these primitive sentiments, but it is a defeat which I endure in the search of a lasting victory.  Only truth delivers victory.  The world must be faced as it is, for only doing so brings power, and only power can garner us salvation.

When your training is complete, you will go forth to defend this Union.  You will do so against, and I emphasize this once again, evil monsters.

You must be vigilant.  You must be capable of understanding your enemy.  Are they the desperate and confused rogue Ultras, bearing powers that have warped them beyond the bounds of sanity?  Are they the loathsome would be the demi-gods of the Pantheon?  Power hungry and selfish?  Are they the deathless fiends of the Regime, desperate to amuse their twisted Lady?

You must be ever discerning.  Do they seek battle?  Would facing the foe head on draw them away from those you’ve sworn to protect?  Do they seek conquest?  Would facing them cause them to lash out at your charge, determined that if they could not master the free folk of the world then no one would?  Do they come at the orders of another, enacting an agenda unfathomable to a right thinking person?

You must be daring.  Are they weak, such that your unit might subdue them without great harm?  Such a chance might bring about their redemption.  You might gain a powerful new ally.  Are they a challenge, such that the outcome of your battle is entirely down to the skill with which you apply the lessons that you will learn?  It is for these challenges which you will be trained.  Are they beyond you entirely, unto you as Ultrahumans are to common men?    Must you withdraw, cursing your powerlessness even as your charge succumbs?

You must…

Fisher 1:4

I circled away from Crusher.

I hadn’t fully committed to his plan, mind.  It seemed sensible that it would be better for me to fight as part of a two on two than take on a pair of Ultras alone.  Crusher, though, gave off an air of brutal power that made me wary.  Those limbs gave him a horrifying reach and mobility advantage.  I felt as though my Hook would be overmatched in a direct contest, and with as many sensory organs as he had an ambush didn’t seem feasible.

This was a gloomy surmise, but in truth there was no way to know how things would go but to lock up with him.  Tentacles and all, if his Ultra Strength or Durability was only at the first level I could fold myself into the Hook and tear through him.  Similarly, if he was at the third level then he’d pull me apart like cotton candy.  No way to know before we threw down.

That feature of Ultra fights, the inability to know beforehand whether one’s foes were even in one’s league, probably had a lot to do with why we’d both backed down in that meeting.  Crusher could posture all he wanted, but if he’d come down on me one of us would be dead by now.  This agreement, however, raised all manner of interesting possibilities.

One of the few bits of information that had stuck with me, in its full context, was the old world concept of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Two people, if they both choose friendship they get moderate rewards.  If they both choose enmity they get no rewards.  The greatest reward, however, went to the one who chose enmity while fooling the other participant into picking friendship.   Crusher and I were in a similar situation now.

If we both hastened along the corridor, and arrived in time to find and fight the enemy pair, then we were each part of an even battle.  Call this choosing friendship.  If I loafed along, however…

Say Crusher arrived first.  They’d perceive him, nothing stealthy about his hulking form.  They’d start fighting.   I could observe from a distance, and pick the moment that all parties were at their weakest before making my strike.

I stopped, crouching in an archway along the outside circular ring.

Both of us arriving together is good, but Crusher getting there first is better.  So why move at all?  But then, wouldn’t he be thinking identically?  How would things shake out if we both stood fast?

I shook the Lure’s head wordlessly.

It wasn’t a symmetrical situation, though.  The pair of Ultras had been circling towards me.  More importantly, I couldn’t dodge into the center like everyone else could.  If everyone was trying to avoid a fight then this was a crippling disadvantage.

My musings were cut off, as I heard voices echoing down the hall towards me.  I shrank into the doorframe, folded down into the Lure.  It was a pose very similar to the one that I’d struck as I waited for Crusher’s arrival down the other way.

“I’m Axing You.  Where she at?”

The voice was smooth, female, practiced in public speaking.  It was also aping Her accent, the distinctive dialect of the old world’s underclass.  Whoever was talking had a death wish.

There was in a low murmur in reply, too low to hear.  The voices grew louder, however, as they got closer.

“This Bitch Gon’ Die” said the first voice, growling like a tv character.  “She gon’ get got!  Wrecker gon’ wreck her!”

I stood the Lure up and stepped out into the lighted center of the archway, catching the illumination of the hall section they were traversing’s lights.

They betrayed no surprise, dropping into practiced combat crouches with a worrying lack of fright.  Union trained, beyond a shadow of a doubt.  It wasn’t precisely a surprise, but I cursed inwardly at the realization.  This would be a bit harder than I’d been planning.

The two women were opposites.

The first, tall and slender, blonde with her hair cut short.  She’d torn the rags that all of the other prisoners seemed to have been given to stripes and wrapped them around her forearms and shins.  The blood of those she’d taken them off clung to the wraps, giving them an oozing red texture.  She wore a knotted kerchief on her head, and had some kind of facial tattoo I couldn’t make out at this distance.  From the sound of her soft, startled curse she was the one who’d been faking Prevailer’s accent.

The second, by contrast, was a squat, fat gremlin of a woman.  Her eyes stared out of a great broad forehead.  Her ratty hair hung long about her.  Her dark skin was creased where her corpulent form had stretched it, folded from the long habits of daily living.

She called out to me.

“Fisher.  Get over here”

How did she know my name? I stood the Lure right where it was, beckoning them closer.  I didn’t actually have a strong desire for them to get closer, mind, but it was the aggressive, powerful thing to do, and maybe it would convey some sort of confidence to them.

“Bitch, you Gon’ make us kill you!” shouted Wrecker, as she swaggered away from her partner.  I still didn’t respond.  What would I even say?  She seemed aggressive to the point of insanity.  The Lure cowered back in the doorframe as the woman who called herself Wrecker bore down upon her.

She approached with a calm, measured stride.  It was more like a strut.  She puffed out her chest and turned her feet with each step, the unwearied tread of the dominant party.  Once again, I had the contextless impression that my notion of this came from fiction of some kind.  I’d watched something or read something that told me that this was how old world criminals projected strength.  It might have been intimidating then.  For an Ultra to do it was just bizarre.  She might just as appropriately have sent forth a herald to throw a glove across my face and challenge me to a swordfight.

Just before she could touch the Lure, I burst into action.

My shadow slid beneath her, orbiting my body and extending out past her.  Even as she reached towards the Lure I was drawing it down into the dark, sliding it into the folded space of my form, as the Hook pounced into the world behind Wrecker.

She turned as I struck, give her that.  Some sound, some instinct, had warned her, and she was halfway around, raising an arm as though to fend off the blow, by the time I struck.  If I hadn’t done this so many times she’d have survived.

I slammed the Hook’s bladed forarms into her back.  I winced in anticipation as the blades shot forth, but she wasn’t Ultra Tough three.  My Hook’s hooks didn’t glance off, they sank deep into her upper back, grinding through meat and bone and raising a fountain of blood as they tore into her heart.

Before I could do more, however, the strangest thing occurred.

The blood sprang back in.  My arms were forced out, and she backstepped past me at incredible speed.  She was at her partner’s side again almost before I could blink, seemingly unharmed, despite the evisceration that I’d just accomplished.

The Hook stood, regarding them, silent and forbidding.  Inwardly I strove to figure out what was going on.

The short fat woman again, addressing her comrade.

“She has two forms, joined by the shadow.”

“Wha-…she got me?” asked Wrecker.

“She did.  She is at least Ultra Strength two.  You’ll have to be careful.”

I’d recovered my poise by this time, and was sliding sideways along the corridor towards them.  As near as I could tell, the little one had unhappened the injury that I’d inflicted upon Wrecker.  She’d reversed her somehow, bringing her back along her timeline to a point where she was uninjured.

Once again, Wrecker came against me.  This time it was no strut.  This time she put her shoulder down and charged like a linebacker.  She met the Hook’s opening slash with a forceful counter, slamming my arm aside with a wrenching impact.

Whatever her durability’s flaws, her strength was certainly at least my combat form’s equal.  I struck my other arm at her, frantically gouging chunks out of her side and back even as she smashed into the Hook.

We entered a frenzy then, her punching furiously, me slashing frantically.  She dented my carapace, cracked and chipped away at the armor on the Hook’s front.  I, for my part, shredded her back and limbs, raking my hook’s back and forth across her form.  I was winning, but any moment…

Just as I feared, the little one used its power again.  Once more my fight unhappened, once more Wrecker’s damage was removed.  The Hook’s injuries, however, remained.

I sprang back, unfolding the Lure in order to get my healing working.  They didn’t seem in any hurry to pursue, standing idly and chatting.

“She’s hitting you with those blade things,” the little one said.  “You’ve got about the same power, but she’s winning because she’s sharp all over.”

“Bitch ain’t winning,” said Wrecker.  “She just prolonging this shit.”

I let them chatter, content to stand.  The longer they wanted to waste time, the better.  Things could only get better for me.  Crusher might show up.  Prevailer might show up.  They might have heart attacks.  Anything that happened would make the situation better.

“You think she gon’ give us any real trubbs?” asked Wrecker.  “She got anything that she can do?”

One of the benefits of not speaking, of having a form that has no verbal apparatus, is that sometimes folks think that you can’t hear, or can’t understand what they are saying.

The little woman shook her head slowly.  “No, you’ve taken care of her.”

My wounds weren’t healing any more.  I was fully spread out, both bodies in the light, both casting each other as a shadow.  The uninjured Lure ought to be altering the Hook’s form second by second, recreating it without injury.  Where Wrecker had punched, however, remained a pocked and partially shattered chest plate.

Somehow the two seemed to understand what I was thinking.  Maybe everyone that they fought had this reaction.  In any case, Wrecker through back her head and laughed.

“You think you gon’ get better, bitch?”  she yelled through her feigned mirth.  “You think you kin wait long enough, you gon’ feel all right again?  Bitch, why you think they call me Wrecker.”

The figure with the rewinding power spoke again.  “What she damages, will never be made whole.  What she splits, no one shall put together.  She was born to wreck this world.”

I took a step back with both forms.  This wasn’t going to work out.  I couldn’t harm Wrecker, as her partner would just undo it.  I couldn’t heal any harm I took.  Two reasons I had no business in this fight.

Just before I could dart through the door and try to make a break for it, a sudden yell seemed to shake the corridor.  I recognized the accent immediately.

“Leetle Feesher!” boomed Crusher, from somewhere down the hall behind them.  “Is looking like you are in big trouble, ya?”

Somehow, despite the respawning killer currently engaging me, it felt like Crusher’s appearance meant that things were getting worse.

They reacted instantly to his voice.  Wrecker stopped stalking me, jumped back to her partner’s side.  She kept her eyes on me, even as the short woman turned her gaze towards Crusher’s end of the hall.

His appearance was something out of a nightmare.  It was elaborate, ceremonial, and utterly terrifying.  His tendrils writhed all along the doorway he was emerging from, pulling his human form along like a puppet master long outgrown by the marionettes.

“Who is this freak show?” yelled Wrecker, slipping out of her accent for a second.  She cast a nervous glance or two over her shoulder.  I didn’t try to take advantage of her distractions.  I had no interest in getting close to Wrecker again.

“Freak show?” came Crusher’s voice once again.  The deep base tone still had that strange reverberation, as his tendrils played his vocal cords like an instrument.  “Leetle girl dares to make leetle insult?”

His tendrils pounced.  Faster than I had imagined that they could move, they shot across the room’s divide, light, fast tentacles reaching out to surround and strangle Wrecker and her partner.  Just as fast, they shot back.

Crusher hadn’t deliberately retracted them, it was immediately clear.  His yelp of surprise had nothing of deceit in it.  Rather, his pouncing, and whatever damage that he’d done, hadn’t fit into the short Ultra’s version of events, and so had been edited out.

I’d had a bit of an opening there, with Wrecker pulled off her vigilance by the strangling limbs of Crusher, but I hadn’t bit.  I told myself that it just wasn’t the right time, hoping that my ordeal with Torturer hadn’t stolen my nerve.

“What has happened to Crusher?” he asked, plaintively.  I could see that some of the eyes were focused on me, hoping that I’d honor our alliance enough to tell him.

That raised an interesting question.  When I’d scrapped with Wrecker, why had her partner rewound her, and not me?  It meant that she’d had to instruct her of what had gone wrong each time, whereas I’d been learning by doing, as it were.  Tactically speaking, it was the wrong play.

The right move, rewinding the enemy, gave you the situation here, where Crusher had no idea what was going on, but Wrecker and Rewinder (I decided to name her in my mind), knew just how fast his tendrils could pounce.

Perhaps, she couldn’t?  Maybe she had to get close to her victim.  But then, how had she rewound Wrecker?  I was missing something.  At the least they seemed to have forgotten about me.

Rather, the pair were trooping back the way that they had came, menacing Crusher with a steady advance.

They strode towards him, side by side, like a pair of conquering queens.  Showing no fear at all they passed into the section of hallway that he infested, beneath the hanging hazards of his appendages, surrounded by his unblinking eyes.

Instinctively I followed at a safe distance.  This would be the end.  If Rewinder could keep Crusher in her power’s grasp, Wrecker could tear him apart without resistance.  Presumably her power’s anti healing effect would overcome the restorative part of Rewinder’s power.  Crusher would die in a frozen instant, rewound over and over, more damaged each time.  Shortly thereafter, I’d suffer the same fate.

I couldn’t let that happen.  My only hope was that her power wasn’t quite so all-trumping as it seemed.  With barely a pause I flung the Hook at the back of Rewinder’s form.  Simultaneously, Wrecker sprang at Crusher, and he grabbed for us all.

The Company

What is it called ?: The organization formerly known as Brand and Chen’s Essence Labs (BCEL) has long since shed that moniker, and is presently referred to simply as “The Company”.

Where is it ?: The Company has a truly global reach, with chapters throughout the Union, Pantheon and Regime territories.  It is a remote city indeed which has no Company Facility.

Who runs it ?: The Company’s personnel are primarily the copies referred to as “Company Men”.  These creations of the secretive Copyer are believed to be imitations of a human who worked for the original organization, and was chosen as the template for future generations.  These rank and file copies perform the general labors of the facilities, processing requests and communicating with outsiders.  Above them are the Chens, copies of the original founder of essence theory who perform the scientific labors of the facilities.  These are the beings which oversee the Process, and catalog each result.  Parallel to the Company’s own hierarchy there will usually be an Ultra or two tasked with security, though this arrangement depends largely on the relationship that the Company has with the local governing bodies.

But who runs it ?: In theory, the Company is a truly decentralized cooperative, with each facility looking to its own operations, budding to establish new centers when opportunities arise.  Given the soulless nature of its personnel, however, it is apparent that there is a power behind the Company.  The generally accepted theory of this power’s identity is the mysterious “Copyer”, an Ultra who is reputed to be a part of Prevailer’s Regime’s inner circle.  Above him/her, of course, would be Peggy Martin herself.

What does it do ?: The Company’s primary motivation seems to be to make available to every living being the option of undergoing the Process.  Throughout the Pantheon and the Regime, the Company’s doors never close.  Any human who wishes to take their chances with the Process has only to report to their local facility.  In the Union the facilities operate under a quota, only producing so many Ultrahumans a year.  This number rises and falls, but generally seems to be calibrated to keep the Union at a military disadvantage when compared to its rivals.

Does it do anything else ?: Yes, the Company Facilities also perform the kind of city services that used to be delegated to governing bodies when the local authorities are unable or unwilling to do so.  Company Men emerge to undertake construction projects according to a schedule that only they are privy to, and protein paste is available free of charge to any who ask.  The Company fixes technology (to the extent that it is able, basically equivalent to a gifted mechanic) and gives out counseling sessions.

What does it mean that the copies are ‘soulless’ ?: They have no will.  A Company Man will do whatever he is told and betray no initiative otherwise, unless that would contradict an earlier order.  Presumably, when they are created, they are given their operating instructions by their creator, which prevent them from betraying the Companies overall objectives.

Why am I the only one who thinks this is incredibly shady ?: You are not.

Fisher 1:3

A flash across my mind, like lightning in a night sky.  Torturer.  I twitched and shuddered.

That was ridiculous.  I had complete control of my bodies, no reflexes to speak of.  If I’d shuddered, it was because I’d intended to.  Only, I hadn’t.  I must’ve, but I didn’t.

The woman looked at me reassuringly.

“It’s all right,” he said.  “She stays down when she hears people above her.  She hides away at the bottom of her cell to make sure her power doesn’t get us.  It’s deep enough for her to get away.”

I nodded, like that made any sense at all.  Torturer, from the name, must be another Ultra.  Was she another who I’d have to battle?  Why would she hide away from daggers?  It didn’t make any sense without more context, but there wasn’t time.

“Lead the way” I said.

With me seemingly reassured they turned and trotted off.  I… didn’t follow.

It was alarming, frightening even.  I simply stood there as the Lure, watching plaintively as they headed through the hallway towards the center door.  They stopped after a few paces, looking back in puzzlement.

“Come along?” said Handsy, somehow making it a question.

I nodded and… didn’t move.

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m coming with you.”

There was a brief awkward moment.

I tried to take a step.  I strove with every ounce of my essence to cause the Lure to raise its foot so much as an inch.  Wasted effort.  I might just as easily have tried to grow a third form, or make a fist with my hair.  I just stood there.

“Um…soon?” he asked.

Leader said something in an urgent tone to the rest, but I wasn’t close enough to hear exactly what he said.

I couldn’t just stand here.  I started to walk away from the group, instead of after them.  This I could do.  I headed clockwise around the circle, towards the lone Ultra.

“Stop!” yelled Leader, this time loudly.

The group’s eyes, fixed upon me, were no longer showing concern.  There was uncertainty, terror, and a new and horrifying hostility.  Eyes narrowed and jaws clenched.  The jig was up.

I brought  the Hook forth a moment before they could start firing, slid the Lure down into my shadow even as the shots rang out.  They glanced off my hide as I lunged away down the dingy corridor.  No big surprise there.  If their shots had been chipping away at the Hook when I had both of my forms out they’d accomplish less than nothing when I was in full battle mode.

I could have stayed and fought them, of course.  They couldn’t hurt me, so I would certainly prevail in a confrontation.  There was no reason to do so, however.  Just because I was beyond their ability to threaten didn’t mean that they might not be able to hurt some of my competition.

Aside from that, whatever was going on with the Lure’s ability to move, whatever had caused my hesitation there, was nothing that I wanted to experience any more of.  Let the humans go.  Let them hide in the center, with Torturer-

Another shuddering flash interrupted my thoughts.  It was like a streak of white noise, a bar of bright light illuminating a cavern.  I nearly fell over.  Torturer, that was the key.

A memory surfaced suddenly, from before the darkness.  An instant only, my Hook dangling on a literal hook, hanging helpless and writhing above a dark and empty pit as unsupportable anguish wracked me beyond endurance.

I stopped, leaned the Hook against a wall.  Leaning the Hook was absurd, of course.  I controlled my forms with my conscious will.  They didn’t breathe, or fall, or react save that I demanded it.  Or at least, so I would have said up until a few minutes ago.

I put the pieces together.  More instants slid back into memory as I concentrated on it, worrying at the edges of the remembrance like a dog pulling apart a chunk of meat.  I’d met Torturer.  I must’ve.  I was deathly afraid of her.

Preposterous, but it had the stink of truth to it.  I’d lost my fight with Her.  I couldn’t imagine why I’d picked one, but I must’ve.  I’d lost, and been brought here, and…

Conjecture filled in the gaps.  I’d been tortured, or Tortured to be precise.  It must have damaged my mind.  My I.  My identity and agency.  The very thoughts I was thinking must be deformed, twisted by the shape of that time of agony.

I put the thought aside.  I didn’t care about the past.  It was irrelevant.

My Hook’s claws rasped against one another as I slid them up and down like a man ringing his hands.  I had to stop dwelling on this.  I was in a fight with three other Ultras.

I took a step, and then another, sliding back into my Hook’s combat pace.  Ultra Speed wasn’t among my gifts, but I could get a move on when I needed to.  Keep moving.  Focus on the present.  I’d have leisure to think about the past later, after I’d won the fight.  One step ahead of the other.

A sound ahead helped me focus.  I slid to the side of a doorway, and manifested the Lure on the other side.  I was at the end of a long section of hallway, at some kind of archway.  If the layout held the same all the way around it should lead to another section just like the one I’d come out of.

I listened intently.  My Lure actually hears better than my Hook.  The Hook doesn’t have any ears right now, which probably explains it.

Footsteps, closing in.  Heavy, tromping, with a swift gait.  A strange extra thudding alongside the primary steps.

I stepped the Lure through the door, then dropped it to the ground with an exaggerated shriek of terror and dismay when I saw what was approaching.

The Ultra coming down the hall was one of the rare male Ultras.  Like many of his kind, he was physically mutated by his gift.

His general features were Asian.  He wasn’t short, however, and he had long stringy hair.  He was wearing the same faded rags that the rest of the prisoners had on, although his had more bloodstains than any of theirs.  None of this, however, compared with the oddity of the tentacles.

A veritable thicket of limbs rose into the air around him, swaying and stretching like snakes.  They were about as thick around as forearms, and there had to be a few dozen of them.  Some rose above him, some stretched out before him.  Some curled around one another and some wrapped themselves around his torso like makeshift armor.  He had to have more body mass in tentacles than there was in his human form, several times over.  He was a forest of limbs, an animate mass stomping directly towards the Lure.

I gave a low moan, peering through my Lure’s hands, trying to suss out his form’s peculiarities.  He’d killed an Ultra, and he hadn’t needed dagger help to pull it off.  I looked for a weakness, a vulnerability, anything.

His tentacles all emerged from the same part of his body.  They rose from a large hump in his upper back.  He’d have been bent over, save for the fact that he’d wound three of them around one another and was using them as a sort of tail, balancing himself when his mass pulled him this way or that.

The grasping limbs weren’t uniform.  Some were just tentacles, ending in rubbery masses like an amputee’s stumps.  Others came to an end in large eyes, peering hither and yon as he whipped them around.  Still more had elongated fingers at the end, with joints for grabbing and holding.  There were tentacles with obvious mouth equivalents, and tentacles with snuffling nostrils like an elephants trunk.  There were claws and brushes and male reproductive organs at the end of these limbs, a switchblade of elongated body parts, spares of every portion of his body waving around at the end of long supple tendrils.

As he drew steadily nearer, he spoke.

“What’s this?  What’s this?” he asked.  His voice was incredibly odd.  No human accent, Asian or otherwise, but there was a strange quality to it.  There was a sort of vibration to his words, a strange emphasis on one syllable in each word.  ‘Waaat’s thiiis?  Waaat’s thiiis?’.

“What do we have here?” he asked, rhetorically.  He drew nearer.

My Lure began to crab walk backwards, scrabbling away like the victim in a horror movie.  It wasn’t entirely feigned.  I was affronted and disturbed by his form.  I did want to get away.  I knew there was no way that I could run from something with that many points of contact with the ground, however.  He could probably sling himself along these halls like a rocket if he felt the need.  It depended on how much Ultra strength he had, but I felt instinctively that he could catch me.

“Little girl, all on her own?” he asked, once again seemingly talking to himself. Again, his pronunciation was bizarre.  ‘Leeetle grrrrl’, etc.  This time, staring at his mouth, I saw how he did it.

There were more tentacles within him, sliding up and down his tongue and pinching its shape to give his words a strange sort of inhuman resonance.  Tentacles inside him.  Thinner ones.  The implications…

He could probably use them to plug wounds.  Maybe he could do quick surgeries?  Maybe he could pull his vital organs aside if someone stabbed him?  He could almost certainly shoot them out, ripping through his own skin to surprise someone who thought that getting past the thick tentacles meant that they were in the clear.

“Crusher will take care of you.” He said.  “Crusher will take good care of you.”

The Lure backed into the archway’s doorframe and cringed there, letting him get closer and closer.  I held my hands out in front, in a classic ‘don’t hurt me’ posture.  Even as I did so, I brought the Hook up to the other side of the archway, ready to pounce.

“Crusher will take good care of shadow girl.  Will only kill her if she is naughty.”

Shadow girl?  How did he…

The answer became obvious to me almost instantly.  So many eyes, so many vantage points.  The strange behavior of my shadow might be difficult for a human to notice, but his awareness of his surroundings must be several levels beyond what I could conceive.  The jig was up.

“Crusher, is it?” I made my words cold, almost haughty.  I stood the Lure up even as I spoke, abandoning the charade of panicked helplessness.

“That’s what they call me, little girl.”  He made it sound like he had no idea why they called him that.  It wasn’t hard to guess though.  It was all too easy to picture those tentacles, that writhing pulsing knot of flesh, squeezing and tightening around a person sized lump, wringing the blood out like a dish towel.

“I’m Fisher.”  I said.  “You ready to do this?”

It was a pretty terrible line, but it didn’t actually matter.  We were going to fight, and the loser would die and the winner would live.  The dialog was foreplay.

“Don’t be in such a rush, Fisher,” he said, pronouncing it ‘Feeesher’.  “I’ve got a deal to make with you.  One that I think you’ll want to thank Crusher for.”

“What deal is that?”

I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was saying at this time.  Mostly I spent my energy watching the tendrils, flicking my gaze from one to another, ready to draw in the Lure and spring forth with the Hook at full power the instant he made his play.  My mouth was sort of on autopilot, continuing the conversation in the hopes that he was one of those guys who has trouble talking and fighting at the same time.

“You know that there are two other Ultras in here.  Let’s kill them together, then settle things between us.”

“Sounds great.” I said, noncomitally.  “Great plan.  I double agree.  We are partners to the end now, thanks to that great plan.”

His tendrils swayed, and laughter barked forth from several of the mouth-tacles.

“I am serious, little Fisher.  I am serious like She is serious.”

“Once again, an amazing line.  I’ve totally come to trust and respect you, based on what you just said.  We are now the best kind of allies, the kind that turn our backs to each other.”

He chuckled again, and then he turned his goddamn back.

I didn’t bring the Hook through the archway.  His human form didn’t matter.  The tentacles would do the work, and the eye-tacles were still watching carefully.

“You rather fight Crusher?”

I said nothing.  No more sarcasm.  I just stood there.

One of us was doomed if we started to fight, and we both knew it.  Ultras were rarely anything like evenly matched.  One of us would have more Ultra strength, or speed, or toughness, and they would just unilaterally win.  With two brawlers there would be no escape or second engagement once we started.  The stronger would walk through the weaker like a bank of mist, tear them apart like cardboard.

“I’m not asking for your trust, little Fisher” he said.  “We are having to kill one another, having to kill one another or She kills us.  So no trust between us.  Crusher and Fisher, never to be together as family.”

Did he ever shut up?

“I’m asking you to go back the way you came.  I go back the way I came.  We catch them between us.  Two on two, instead of one on two.”

I raised a hand slightly, a sort of quelling gesture.  Without taking my eyes off of his myriad waving limbs I gave the idea a quick consideration.

“Alright, big Crusher” I aped his speech pattern.  “You’ve got a deal.  I’ll walk away, leave you for later.  You help me with the last two, and I’ll make your death quick and painless.”

“Such generosity!  Such a big heart, for such a little girl,” he responded.

He started to back up.  I drew the Lure back through the doorway.  I still hadn’t shown him the Hook.  It would be a nice surprise if he didn’t observe it during whatever fight we’d have to have with the other two.

I stood watching him retrace his steps, tentacles slamming out and grasping at the wall, suckers gaining purchase and grinding his bulk along.  He moved at a good clip, faster than he’d been going when he approached.  That had been more of a deliberate theatrical stalk.  This was an actual businesslike stride.  He was several times faster than a fit man could run, his tendrils whipping his body forward in a never ending flinging motion.

Just before he vanished back into his own archway he looked back.  I’d been almost ready to turn around myself, but stopped and caught his eye.

“Crusher…is not so generous.  When I beat you, I drop you to Torturer.”

The shriek that rose from my throat was entirely unintentional.

The Torturer Factor

In terms of espionage, of intelligence gathering and secrecy, the Regime should be a non factor.  It combines a disdain for secrecy with an attitude which does not engender loyalty among the rank and file.  In any given operation the Regime will be lucky to have even one genuine patriot.

Despite this, however, the Regime manages to pull off the occasional surprise for its adversaries.  It also displays a surprising amount of knowledge about its opponent’s plans.  These successes can be chalked up to the way that the Regime utilizes the Ultra known as Torturer.

Torturer’s human name and birthplace are unknown, but she has been a prisoner of the Regime since its birth.  She is one of the few Ultras to survive the brutal purge of the Regime’s ranks which occurred during the Third Defiance.  Most theorists believe that this was because the entity which destroyed much of the Regime relied upon Ultra Speed, and lacked the ability to draw near to Torturer in order to release her from her predicament.

In any case, testimony paints a grim picture of Torturer’s circumstances.  An Ultra cursed to create a field around herself which causes in other beings unendurable agony, as well as the more usual Ultra Toughness.  She is imprisoned in some Regime facility, locked alone in a dark cell.

Unable to take her own life, and lacking Ultra strength in order to escape, Torturer has passed the decades in isolation and darkness.  This is not to say, however, that she has been entirely alone.

When the Regime wishes to break a prisoner they use devices to force them into close proximity to Torturer’s cell.  The anguish which results is reported to be beyond any imaginable endurance.  Humans brought within a hundred yards experience a totality of suffering which can quite literally not be described.  There is simply nothing in the world to compare it to.  It can only be estimated by observing the effects.

No survivor of Torturer’s proximity has ever knowingly performed an action which might result in their return to her vicinity.  No one forced into close proximity has survived.  The ancients believed that people had the ability to “will” themselves to die.  Widows in inconsolable grief, twins separated by cruel circumstance or repentant sinners, the old medical texts are rife with descriptions of such adult “failure to thrive” cases.

Nowadays the general explanation is that after a certain point the world is so miserable, so unendurable and insupportable that the soul detaches from its life of its own free will.  Those forced into close quarters with Torturer, without exception, expire of this phenomenon.

The Regime gave this prisoner the name Torturer because of the manner in which they put her power to work.  In combination with Answerer, an Ultra with an ability which allows her to identify lies, the Regime can extract nearly any information that an operative might possess.  They move the victim into the agony range, but keep them shy of the death range.  The victim invariably spills their guts, saying anything to make the pain stop.  With Answerer ensuring that they are unable to deceive their captors, the truth soon emerges.  In this way, the Regime has come a long way towards evening the information war.

Adversaries have access to Regime plots (and have, on occasion, influenced the formation of same), owing to sympathizers and/or surveillance.  The Regime, however, has access to anything that anyone it capture knows.  Those enemies who underestimate this factor have seen their plans end in direct battles with Prevailer.

Fisher 1:2

“Were you a rebel, on the outside?” Leader asked.

I took a sec to compose my answer, letting the Lure breathe in a deep shuddering breath.  Claiming to be a rebel made me seem tougher, might let me borrow some credibility if they were just civilians, but it had its risks too.  I could easily imagine getting tripped up by some kind of recognition code that they all learned for these sorts of circumstances.  Lured people had altered priorities, not mental impairments.  They could still reason.

“No…at least, not officially.” I said.  I’d try to split the difference, see what cues he gave me.

As we talked the group was leaving my antechamber behind and moving out into the prison at large.  We entered a broad hall, the woman who’d knelt beside me making a hand sign to a distant watching group as we did so.

That didn’t make any sense given when She opened the cells.  How had these daggers gotten spread out all over the place so swiftly?  They must have been at general liberty all along, with only the Ultras, or only me, stored in particular cells.

I nearly missed Leader’s next question in my sudden fury.  Years in the dark, my forms folded up inside one another, for basically no reason.  There were prisoners who could walk wherever they wanted.  Spoiled children who had sensory inputs during the entire time that I languished behind that door.  I was suddenly, fiercely glad that all of them would be dying soon.

“There’s a story there?” he asked.

“I killed a Knight, and his Ultra.” I said, simply.  I needed to give a reason for being thrown in the Pit, one that didn’t make me out to be a danger to the team.  The Regime hated it when humans opposed the natural order and made the Ultras prey.  I hated it a bit too.

His eyebrows raised slightly, and one of the guys clapped me on the back.  I jerked reflexively, but controlled myself before the Hook burst forth.  This was an affectionate gesture, acknowledging their fierce new little sister for her brave deed.

We crossed the hall in a pack, meeting up with the second group.  Low tens of humans here, little over a dozen.  Everyone had guns.  One of the men, same one who patted me earlier, handed the Lure his.

I tuned out the conversation a bit as I Lured the new group.  It wasn’t difficult, in the close confines and dim light no one noticed that my shadow didn’t behave exactly right, orbiting my body and stopping as it connected with each of the new ones.  Same basic idea.  I strengthened the priorities that I felt like would be generally helpful for group cohesion and morale.

As I started to pay attention again the leader of the new group, an aged and fierce looking grandma, was sketching the prison on the wall with a piece of rubble.  I watched hungrily.  It was a basic wheel structure, with the elevator in the center.  We were on the south part of the wheel.  East of us a pair of Ultras had been housed.  They’d taken their hall and seemed to be working together.  North of us another pair had been housed, one of them had already killed the other, and a few daggers who’d been too near.  The main action was out west, where an Ultra was holding off the main human force with some kind of barriers.

“Where did you say that the one you shot at went?” the grandmother asked.  She seemed a little suspicious.

“Past me, out into the hallway” I said.  I had conscious control over every aspect of the Lure, so there was no chance that I would stammer or betray myself as I lied straight to her face.  I’d tasted her shadow.  Her priorities were simple, to kill as many Ultras as possible.  I’d pushed her bloodlust and weakened her caution as much as I’d been able.

“You KEM?” she asked.

This time I decided to chance it.  There needed to be a reason that none of them had ever seen me, or even in their Lured state they’d eventually work out that they had a missing Ultra and an extra buddy.  If they were rebels, and I was KEM, it might be plausible that we’d be housed in separate cells.

“Yeah” I allowed “But I’m one of the good ones.  Don’t lump me in with all those mouth breathers, hide out in the sticks and don’t ever do anything.”

“Listen-“ she began, when the handsy guy who came with me interrupted.

“We can debate the finer points later.  For now she’s one more on our side.  And wouldn’t you know, killing Ultras is exactly what we’ve got to do.”

That seemed to shut them up.  It wasn’t that Handsy was a leader, exactly, it was that he was pushing against the command structure here.  They clung to some kind of organization despite the fact that they all had the same guns, and consequently the same power.  They had a chance only if they remained united.  They couldn’t afford to break ranks, and he was signaling that he was willing to do so over me.  So they folded.

“Let’s go help the west group” Leader said.  “I bet that’s where the other cells are headed.  Let’s hope the East pair and the North one fight it out with each other.”

Everybody nodded, and we trooped off down the hall.

Seeing the map scratched on the wall had helped an awful lot.  I could follow our progress as we headed down the hall.  Everything we walked past looked about the same.  Just dry concrete with strip lighting, the occasional piece of threadbare furniture.  The entire place had a dingy, drag air to it.

Gunfire from ahead broke out in a fitful burst as we came to the entrance to the West antechamber.  I made certain to jerk the lure in unison with the men around me.  Most of the daggers clearly lacked combat experience, visibly startled by the sound of bullets.  That wasn’t terribly encouraging.

As we got to the door Leader made a motion that seemed to mean ‘back, back’, and he and another man stepped up to take cover to either side of the door.  They peered through, then dashed in in unison.  In a mob we followed to their positions.

Where the antechamber should have been, where I was expecting to see a small dimly lit sitting room like the one I’d killed the first humans in, there was a strange vista instead.  The room had been stretched, distorted and warped into an enormous version of itself.  The two front members of our group were running towards a firefight that was raging around the legs of the table and chair set, rendered by this bizarre magnification into a huge set of wooden pillars.

Once again, we followed after, and I laid eyes on my first true enemy in this clash.

The West Ultra was a grotesquely fat woman, body bulging and sagging everywhere.  She had on the same kind of rags as the daggers did, and a beanie as a sigil.  She was huddled behind one of the pillars, trading gunfire with a slightly smaller group of humans.

They hadn’t started out less numerous, they’d been getting picked off.  Even as we arrived at the cover another one fell in a flurry of bullets.  As the Ultras was dropping back into cover I thought that someone got her, but she didn’t visibly react beyond a momentary jerk.

I took full cover behind a pillar, staying entirely concealed, such that I could see the friendlies, but couldn’t catch even a glimpse of the hostile. The Lure was a little tougher than an ordinary human with my hook folded up inside me, but nothing I’d bank on.  I needed to grasp the battle’s dynamics before I could venture out.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on.  The Western Ultra had Ultra speed 1, and she was using it to precisely target and take out everyone who shot at her.  She must have had Ultra toughness too, or some kind of armor, because they’d simply shot too many times in her vicinity not to have gotten some hits, and she wasn’t dead.

Another lull hit as everyone clung to cover, then I heard a cry of “Get her!” and the sound of running feet.

I stayed right where I was, but an absolute salvo of gun shots rang out.  I could also hear the heavy slapping of her feet as she ran.  She must have run out of bullets, and tried to chance a reload.

The fusillade continued for a moment, then a cry of pain rang out.  A guy’s.  She was returning fire again.

That tore it.  Bullets weren’t doing anything, if she could run out and get more ammo in full view of the squad without incident.  Maybe it was fast healing, maybe it was armor…maybe she displaced an image of herself.  No way to know without finding out for myself.  I let the Lure shrink down against the pillar in pretended terror, even as I brought for the Hook.

I emerged from my shadow in full pounce, flashing towards the Western Ultra as she was dropping back into cover.  I was shot for my troubles.

Two high caliber bullets to the upper torso in the fraction of a second that the Hook was in view.  Impressive.  Terrifying, in fact.  I fought through the pain and came on.

With the Hook drawing closer she dashed to another piece of cover.  This time I had a clearer image of what was going on.  She definitely had level one Ultra speed, the reaction times could be nothing else, but something else was going on.  The same distortion that had rendered the room enormous, or us very small, was helping her mobility out.  She was taking her steps across shortened distances, jerking meters with each stride.

More bullets impacted on the Hook, this time from my humans.  None of the Luring I’d done would apply to it, of course.  Their instincts would tell them, correctly, that I was a monster that they needed to defend themselves against.  I ignored them and continued on.

The fat Ultra popped up from her cover, but even as she was loosing her shots the humans were hitting her again.  She’d chosen this pillar to defend herself from the Hook’s pounce, she was open to the human’s fire.  This time it struck home.

She slumped against the wall for a moment as bullet holes stitched her side, then they shrank away to nothing as she dashed again for another piece of cover.  She was shrinking the wounds away.  The Hook followed doggedly after, the bond with the Lure gradually undoing the chip damage that the prisoner’s bullets were causing.

I was suddenly aware of Leader, shouting at the Lure.

“Is that it?  Is that what attacked you?”

I nodded mutely, unable to focus on either form for a moment.  My Hook’s head nodded too, but I think it looked like some sort of a snarl.  The moment’s distraction, however, left me vulnerable to the Ultra’s first serious counterattack.

Looking out from behind her cover she focused her energies, and started to shrink the Hook away.  My power took it as a wound, and moment by moment recreated the Hook from the Lure’s bond.  It was a very internal struggle, our powers directly opposed.

It was also being carried out in the middle of a very hostile environment.  She twitched as more bullets hit home in the copious folds of her torso.  I writhed as my carapace chipped and flaked away under a sustained barrage.  Where the hell were they getting all this ammo?

I was losing.  Her power’s effect, directly, seemed to change thing’s size.  My healing wasn’t a major power, it was a side effect of how my bodies worked.  Pitted explicitly against another Ultra’s power it was not sufficient.  My Hook was down to 6 feet, then 5, then 3.

All of a sudden the pressure let up.  I wrenched the Hook back to its feet, then sank it into the ground.  I snapped my attention back to the Lure, folding up into one form once again.

The Ultra slumped against her pillar, shot through from all sides. This time she sank all the way to the ground.  I could see no individual wound which might have killed her, but the cumulative effects of the human’s gunfire must have done the trick.   I guess that even shrunk down to some microscopic size the bullets had continued to have some effect.  Forcing her out of cover and into everyone’s sights hadn’t helped any.

Victory cries went up, but were quickly checked.

“Keep alert for the dark one!” yelled the grandmother.  I looked around with the rest of them.  While the Lure had been frozen someone had taken my gun away, but that was just as well.

We fell back in good order, paranoid that the size dilations of the room would revert and crush us somehow, but we made it back into the corridor without incident.  Everyone stopped for a breather.

“You ok?  You seemed to be having a fit in there.” Handsy again.

“It’s just…Terry…” I choked out a sob.  The hardcore KEM operative was gone.  I was a sobbing victim once again, mourning the trauma of it all.  It seemed the better posture to try to maintain if I needed to call the Hook again.  Fright would excuse my Lure’s lack of movement when I was battling.

“I know, I know” he murmured, which was funny if I thought about it, “we’ve all lost people.”

I sniffed back tears and gave him a small nod.  I’d copied it from a dozen old movies and it conveyed ‘you have inspired me with your words and the background music is rising in an inspirational manner’.

The Leader interrupted us before he could give me any more words of wisdom.

“That’s two down, four to go.”

He motioned everyone to quiet as he continued.

“That’s the good news.  Bad news is that the pair and the single Ultra whose location we are aware of aren’t moving towards one another.  The pair are working their way clockwise, while he’s going counter clockwise.  If we don’t get moving we’ll be caught in the middle.”

Everyone hushed at that.  One of the women spoke up.

“Are we going to…”

The way she trailed off made it into a question.  One that he answered immediately.

“Yes, it’s the only way.  We are going to have to head into the middle section.  If all goes well they’ll meet roughly here,” he indicated the hallway, “and fight it out.  We’ll wait their struggle out in the central chamber before challenging the survivors.  That’ll also let us consolidate our scouts and see if anyone made it back from the east team.”

Everyone’s faces fell at this news.  I couldn’t understand.

“What’s in the center?” I asked, blank faced.

“Torturer.”