“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.