Haunter 2:4

We had a bit of a respite before the next meeting.  The Sixth Fist trooped out, with a cheery wave from Fader, and we were left standing alone in the same faded office we’d been stuck in all morning.

“That’s one,” said Preventer.

“If they go in order,” I responded, “we’ll have to deal with Predictor’s fist next.  Anyone ever met him?”

Silence for a moment, as each of us looked to one another.  Then Nirav raised his hand.

“This guy knows him?” asked Joe.  “The guy who doesn’t control his own powers is the guy who Predictor will be thinking of when he pictures us?”

I shushed Joe, looking over at Nirav.  The Jury read his body language as a bit sad or frightened, but bearing up well.  It didn’t seem like asking further would be a problem.

“You mentioned that the Fifth Fist captured you earlier,” I said.  “Is that when you met Predictor?  Can you tell us anything about him?”

Nirav nodded.  Preventer took out a small notebook and began to jot things down as he spoke.  I didn’t bother.  Someone in the reserve would remind me if I seemed to be missing out on anything.

“He captured me, us.  His Fist doesn’t have anyone who can take on Condemner, but somehow he got me in a position where I was blinded and drenched, wandering out into the middle of his crew to take a beatdown.  It was eerie.”

Nirav looked around, noting our reactions.  He seemed to be trying to stress his story, make sure that it sank in.  I’m not sure that he needed to bother.  I, at least, wasn’t about to underestimate an Ultra with precognitive abilities.

“We would talk, after.  While he had me restrained, neck deep in a barrel of water they were hauling back.  We’d talk about stuff, just random things. He liked to show off, I think. He was always ready with those goddamn cards, whenever it was a dramatic moment.”

Our puzzlement must have showed, as Nirav stopped talking for a second.  It was Indulger who puts words to the obvious question.

“Cards?  Like, what do you mean by cards?”

“He’d write down, word for word, what I was going to say in response to a question, or an exclamation that I’d make, or whatever.  He did this shit ahead of time, just for kicks I think.  When we got to that part of the conversation he’d pull out the card and show it to me.  Just to rub my face in how easily he could predict me, I guess.”

I frowned.  Taunting didn’t sound like Fifth Fist’s MO.  Maybe, if Predictor’s talents could guarantee that it would be effective.  Still, you’d think it wouldn’t be worth bothering to taunt Nirav.  He wasn’t going to be in charge if there was any fighting in any case.  Was Predictor trying to intimidate Condemner through his human host?  Could that even happen?

“Training” said Preventer, nodding sagely.  I hadn’t thought of that.  It made a lot of sense though.

“He is probably always training.  I’ve done a little of it myself, guiding more barriers and such.  My understanding is that our gifts are like anything else.  Practice makes perfect.  Since his Fist is so dependent on his gift for their successful operation it would make sense for him to be constantly striving to better himself.”

“Little of column A, little of column B” guessed Fisher.

Before we could do much more talking, we heard the approach of footsteps, and returned our attention to the door.

Predictor stepped in smoothly, showing no hesitation or uncertainty, despite allowing himself to be surrounded by potentially hostile Ultras.  He wore the same tuxedo that he was known for, the apparel of an old world tv secret agent.  It looked pretty good on him, to be honest.

Slicer, coming in behind him, wasn’t someone that I could use the words ‘pretty good’ to describe.  She was a hard faced woman, muscular and compact.  The famous spurs that jutted from her forearms and shins reflected light oddly from their edges.  It was like bug’s compound eyes, or the sort of smooth jumbles you see at the edge of obsidian formations.

The rest of their Fist didn’t show, which didn’t surprise me.  Even among Fists, famously dominated as they tend to be by their leaders, Fifth Fist was an exceptional case.  Predictor basically WAS the fist.  Slicer would be working as his bodyguard.  If he wasn’t planning on fighting, then he didn’t bring the rest.  Gardener, Pitcher and Tamer were basically just muscle.

Indulger reached out his arm for the warrior forearm clasp, but Predictor just looked at him, and Slicer actually shifted like she was ready to interpose herself between them.  He pulled his arm back in confusion, and then Predictor spoke.

“So, you spoke with Fader.  I imagine that she did her usual ‘everyone gets to answer one question’ song and dance routine?”

We all nodded.  Nirav and Indulger had slight frowns on their faces at that description.  They seemed affronted on Fader’s behalf.

“We don’t need to spend anything like that much time,” he continued.  “My abilities tell me what you’d answer anyway.  I have something a little more fun in mind.”

Immediately the Jury set to work trying to figure out what was coming next.  The consensus that emerged was that he wanted us to ask the questions.

“I’ll be doing the answering.  Each of you will pick one question and put it to me.  I’ll base my assessment of your intelligence on the quality of these questions, so think carefully.”

Right away, before I could stop him, Indulger blurted his question out.

“What’s the next thing that I’m going to say?” he asked.

Predictor’s smile bloomed across his narrow face, nearly splitting his head.  I hadn’t noticed before, but his eyes were the distinctive white on white that blind people used to have.  Was it an Ultra mutation, or just some contacts that he’d scrounged up?

“It depends on what I tell you now,” responded Predictor, evenly.

Indulger pumped his arm in a ‘victory’ motion.

“Ha!  I knew you’d bitch out.  You can’t see the future at all, you fraud.”

Even as he was speaking, Predictor was reaching for a pocket on the inside of his vest.  He pulled out an index card, and I didn’t even need to look closely to know that Indulger’s statement had been written there, probably word for word.

I’d heard a lot about Predictor, during my time as Troubleshooter.  He was kind of our inspiration, the only leader of a Fist who did anything like what we did.  In the process, I’d heard a lot of stories about his powers.  There was room to doubt how exactly it worked, but he’d demonstrated its effectiveness on too many occasions for me to think it could be disproved with a simple question.

Preventer was the next to go.  Her even delivery made me think that she’d rehearsed this question.  If she knew about the interviews in advance, then she probably had.  With the foreknowledge that she’d had, I’d probably have done the same.

“Where will the next Defiance come from?” she asked.  “Pantheon or Union?”

I tensed up for a moment, then relaxed.  I’d done nothing objectionable thus far.  If Predictor could reach out and pluck hypotheticals from the future and finger their perpetrators in the present, then this was a fate that could never be avoided.  I stood limp and motionless as he considered, waiting for him to pronounce my fate.

“Neither,” he said.  “And a very good question.  It signals your patriotism to Snitcher, your bravery to Her and also nets you useful information.  You learn who the enemy will be, should you be called upon to quell a Defiance, as well as the outcome of your difficulties this day.  One question, that is every question.  Well asked.”

Preventer preened a little bit.  It wasn’t visible to most of the team, I imagined, but she stood just a bit straighter, and her scowl wasn’t quite so pronounced.  I made a note that flattery, specifically focused on how smart she was, would be useful when dealing with my most difficult teammate.

“The Fifth Defiance shall come from within,” said Predictor.  “It will be a rebel affair, orchestrated by traitors within our midst.  We will crush it in short order.”

I wasn’t sure exactly how to take that.  I’d been fatalistic about him accusing me, but I didn’t exactly know how to feel about a prophet foretelling my failure, without the slightest hint that he knew that he was condemning me.

Then I got a lot more confused, as he looked over and gave me a big stage wink.

What on earth did that mean?  Was he lying for Preventers benefit, and intending to join up when the time came?  Was he winking to get plausible deniability if the Pantheon was actually the ones who attacked next?  Questions churned through my mind.

As I got my mental footing back, Nirav took the chance to ask the question that everyone could tell was burning a hole right through im.

“Predictor, you know the future.  I’ve got to know.  Will I ever be free of Condemner?  Is there any way that I can get this devil to let me alone?”

Using the word ‘devil’ was a bit risky, if you assumed that She would eventually hear of all this.  She wasn’t big on religion.  Maybe the devil got a pass, as long as you didn’t talk about God?  Nothing I could do about it now at any rate.

“Sooner than you think, little shell,” responded Predictor.  “He’ll dissolve you into his soul before the month is out.”

Nirav started, eyes widening.   Mine did too.

“Do you mean-“ I began.

“Condemner is, fundamentally, a cowardly, stupid Ultra,” continued Predictor.  “You are a reminder of how easily I bested him.  A living, breathing testament to his weakness and predictability.  He doesn’t have the mental strength to bear you for long.  You wear on his overweening ego too much.  He’ll drop you the next time he comes out.”

Predictor delivered the speech easily, in a smooth, casual tone.  The insults almost went past before you noticed them, delivered as they were with a casual air and a kindly smile.

Slicer stepped forward, watching Nirav carefully.  On our side Preventer was also stepping into some kind of combat posture, although if Condemner came forth in the middle of the Lair I wasn’t sure what anyone could do.

What on earth had Predictor been thinking.  If I took it as read that he’d forseen Condemner’s reaction, then he had nothing to fear, but what possible motive could he have for antagonizing the new fist in this way.  Why put us down?

He wasn’t the typical bullying Regime Ultra, or at least not entirely.  He’d have an objective for this kind of thing.  What could it be?

The reserve thought it over and came back with a surprising answer.  They thought, by a decent majority, that Predictor was actually trying to protect Nirav, using reverse psychology to get Condemner to keep him around.  The bait of proving Predictor wrong would be tempting indeed to the vain, stupid creature that they were depicting Condemner as.

Before things could escalate further, Fisher took her turn.

“Will I ever see the facility where She held me again?” asked Fisher.  Despite the fact that she was talking to a man she hadn’t broken out the succubus act.  No breathy lilt or bedroom eyes.  Instead she seemed curiously intent upon his response, almost waiting on it.

“You sure that’s exactly what you want to ask me?” said Predictor, this time with a hint of cruelty to his voice.  “There isn’t a more exact question that you’d like to ask?  Perhaps something about Torturer?”

Fisher subsided, slightly.  She sank back down on the couch, but her eyes hadn’t left his face.  She gave a smile that held no warmth.

“Well, if you already know, then yes.  What I want to know, explicitly, is whether or not I will ever experience whatever Torturer does again.”

Predictor shook his head, his smile not flickering for a second.

“You are safe, Fisher.  Honestly, it didn’t take prophecy to know that that’s what you would ask.  Everyone who has been near her asks that question when I give them the option, without exception.”

That was ominous.  How many times had he had variations on this conversation?  Had none of those groups been found worthy to be Fists?

Predictor looked over at me as I thought that.  Oddly, his smile went away when he looked at me. In its face, an expressionless mien.  He looked…concerned, might be the best word.

“Predictor.  My question is a simple one.  What will cause the end of the Regime?”

I’d considered a bunch of questions, but this was my favorite.  It combined a lot of different useful ideas into one simple one.  I couldn’t even credit the Jury with it.  I’d come up with this one on my own.

How do you stump a prophet?  Ask him an easy question, and make the correct answer illegal.  The smartest computer couldn’t tell you what 2+2 was, if you didn’t let it say 4.

The Regime will end when Prevailer dies, obviously.  But bringing this up, in the context of predicting the future, would be suicidal.  She’d probably warp in and kill him, but even if She didn’t, it would be a landmine in any future conversation that he had with Her, or with Subtracter.

Predictor spoke then.  He displayed none of the glee that he had in his earlier responses, no snide smiles or index cards.

“The Regime will end when there are none left to rule.  We will meet our fate, when She kills us all.  She will stand alone on an earth devoid of life, and then She will use her gift to cross the void to another world, another earth, there to repeat this cycle.”

That… hadn’t been what I was expecting.  Could his gift possibly be so powerful?  I’d heard that Answerer was better at prophecy, surely that meant that there were some things he could not foretell, among which the fate of the earth and Her subsequent actions must surely fall.

I simply stood there, mind awhirl with an inner clamor that for once I did nothing to quell.  The reserve, read a sentence of universal extinction, reacted with outrage, clamor and discord overwhelming the cycle of carefully maintained speaking times.

Predictor also stood still, also did nothing.  Even for him, it can’t have been easy to say that out loud.  To predict, in no uncertain terms, the world’s end.

“You said, ‘We’” said Fisher.  She didn’t seem affected by the monumental announcement in the slightest.

“What of it?” asked Preventer.

It was my turn to smile then, a fierce smile.  The man who sees the future had erred.

“ ‘We will meet our fate’ you said.” I went on.

Preventer chuckled ruefully.

“I suppose I did.  Way to give the game away.”

We let his mirth die out.  Slicer seemed to get a quiet satisfaction from her bosses surprising comeuppance.

“I’d been intending to string you along a little while longer.  But yeah, fair cop.  You will be a Fist.  The Fifth Fist approves you.  Welcome to the fight.”

Two down, three to go.

5th Fist

Prevailer’s Fifth Fist, her “Trapper Fist” is generally employed in a reserve capacity.  That is to say, this unit has no overarching assignment, no habitual pattern of action.  They cross the Regime from one side to the other, as Predictor’s visions bid them.  Prevailer gives them broad latitude to adjust matters in her favor in whatever manner they see fit.  They function, broadly speaking, as a more powerful version of the notorious Troubleshooters.

This is possible due to their leaders rumored ability to perceive the course of future events.  This “Predictor” has given every sign of having genuine precognitive abilities, and utilizes this power to give his team a series of one sided victories that even First Fist can’t match.  The Trapper Fist wins before the battles even begin, peeking at the script in order to trump every enemies battle plan before it can ever be implemented.

The Fifth Fist’s history is difficult to discover.  There are signs that it is as old as the Second, though that would make little sense.  Predictor practices a thorough counter intel discipline, and any information that leaks out must be met with a determined scrutiny, as it may well have been deliberately leaked.

What’s certain is that the Fifth Fist is presently Prevailer’s second favorite unit, behind only the First.  They kill, and do not die.  They fight, and know only victory.  Enemies of the Regime must reckon with a foe unlike any other.

How can a prophet be defeated?

Predictor : Stuart Purcell

Stuart is one of the few Ultras within the Regime to come to its service entirely willingly.  Originally a high ranking member of the Union’s covert Ultra forces, Stuart defected alongside Slicer during an infiltration of the Regime, and has since served Prevailer in the Fifth Fist.

Predictor has Ultra speed 1, Ultra toughness 1, and some manner of foresight, or future sense.  The limitations of this power are unclear, likely deliberately so, but it seems as though he gains knowledge that he will one day have access to.  Perhaps a telepathic link with potential future selves, or something similar.  He has admitted, on several occasions, that his ability is inferior to Answerer’s, but this may be false modesty.

Stuart leads the Fifth Fist, but in battle he has little to contribute.  He typically takes a dramatic role leading up to any given conflict, but once an Ultra fight begins he functions more like a coach or advisor to his team.

Slicer : Mary Cancer

Mary has always been Stuart’s wingwoman, ever since their time in the Union military.  The two were inseparable.  They went into the Process convinced that either they’d both make it through, or both die, and despite the odds their faith was proven correct.

Slicer is the team’s bruiser, with Ultra strength 2 and Ultra durability 2.  She also has the protruding bone blades which gave her her Ultra name along her legs and forearms.  The cutting power of these blades resembles that of the energy weapons of science fiction stories rather than what one might expect from the blade’s primitive appearance.

Slicer does most of Fifth Fist’s killing, using her blades to decapitate the enemies.  She is generally uncommunicative, and lets Stuart function as the group’s ambassador.

Gardener : Larry Pierce

Gardener’s past is entirely unknown.  No mention of him whatsoever can be found outside of descriptions of his actions in the service of Fifth Fist and the Regime.  No one knows where he came from, where he became an Ultra, or whether ‘Larry Pierce’ was even his real name.

Gardener is an animate wooden being, a sort of cross between tree and human.  Like many male Ultras, his powers have distorted his form.  He has Ultra strength at first level, and Ultra endurance at the second.  He also has an ability to compel plants of any kind into motion, causing trees and vines to wrap themselves around his foe.  The vegetation that he commands lacks his Ultra strength, but this is cold comfort to those who find themselves crushed by an angry forest.

Gardener functions primarily as a front line combatant, relying on Predictor’s leadership to keep him safe from fire.  In addition, he is also something of a refuge for the group, due to his ability to seperate portions of his form and regrow from them if the remainder of his body is damaged or destroyed.

Pitcher : Kelley Yould

Kelly was a Pantheon member, a champion rising swiftly through their ranks with a bright future ahead of her.  She disappeared shortly before the Third Defiance, and was soon seen in the ranks of the Fifth Fist.  How her allegiance was swayed, whether any trace of her original loyalties remain…these questions have gone unanswered.

Kelley can impart a massive velocity change on anything with which her flesh makes contact, hurling anyone she touches away from her with bone shattering velocity.  This is her only known power, but she can invoke it reflexively, which provides a degree of protection that most Ultras without Utra durability lack.

Kelley generally attacks from a distance, hurling cars and the like at the Fist’s foes.  She also provides some mobility to the group, flinging them around in order to avoid enemy attacks.  In times of desperation, she can get close and use her power on the enemy’s themselves, shattering them against solid surfaces or one another.

Tamer : Latisha Smythe-Beryn

Latisha’s foremost ability, her power to control animals, used to give her life meaning.  Dwelling beyond humankind’s knowledge, she sought to give order and structure to the lives of America’s resurgent large predator population.  Predictor tracked her down and drafted her.

Tamer is able to control any non human animal.  She does not appear to be limited by their numbers or sizes, and exercises this control through vocal commands.

Tamer can also merge with an animal, becoming an animal/human hybrid version of the creature.  A snakewoman/dogwoman/etc.  In this demihuman form Tamer gains some lower level Ultra physical powers (often Ultra Strength One, Ultra Toughness One, but sometimes speed makes an appearance).  She loses her ability to compel the obedience of beasts while merged with one, save for those beasts of the same species as that which she has possessed.

Her control of the targeted species is absolute, allowing her to issue mental commands, share their senses and overrule their instincts for self preservation.

In battle, Latisha generally provides scouting services, functions as a refuge and provides limited front line support.  She does not have any known Ultras on her Tally.  Perhaps a spot of decency in the otherwise relentlessly amoral Fifth Fist?

Haunter 2:3

We didn’t have much time to mull this over before the first interview.

According to Preventer’s preparations, First Fist hated her, Second Fist usually followed along with First, and Fifth Fist had never approved of anyone.  I didn’t bother asking her what she’d been planning to do about this when she joined up, or how she knew that this was the screening mechanism.  There just wasn’t time.

We moped around for a little bit after that.  I chatted with Preventer about what she expected us to face.  She was evasive, guarded.  Nirav and Fisher spoke quietly, off in their own little corner of the office.  Indulger, our reluctant leader, went through a series of contortions that it took me a second to classify as stretches.

Before we got too settled in, a knock on the door announced the arrival of our interrogators.  We took seats around the room, and I had a shadow go up and answer the door.

Joe manifested and approached the entrance, stepping off to the right, so as to be hidden by the swinging door when it opened.  He pulled it open with a yank, and receded swiftly into my reserve.  From the Fist’s perspective, it would look like the door swung open untouched, with all five of us potentials sitting across the room.  It’s the little things.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Fader strolled in.  I’d been pretty sure that we’d go six to one, in order, but it was still a huge weight off my chest to be right.

Fader was first, a short haired brunette in an old sweat suit.  She was neither pretty nor ugly, short nor tall.  Her eyes were perhaps a little too widely spaced.  It was her only distinguishing feature.  Like Prevailer, her gravitas came entirely from her reputation.

Fader was the only one, the sole Ultra out of a list that had to the thousands by now, who had tried to kill Prevailer and walked away alive.  Even She couldn’t hurt Fader.  When Fader called on her power and took on her ghost form, no one and nothing could affect her.  She’d been a bit of an inspiration of mine, honestly.  Sixth Fist was living proof that it was possible for someone inside of the Regime to resist, to some degree, its moral corrosion.  Even if that possibility only existed because of her singular gift.

Twister came through the door at near the same time, a knotted mass of limbs and spurs, stretching and catching on various protrusions in the ceiling and walls, ready to hurl into action at a moment’s notice.

I’d heard from Snitcher that when Twister resumed her ordinary shape she was actually kind of cute.  Knowing his tastes that meant that she was on the young side.  It wasn’t apparent from her form anyway.  She was a gyring, pulsing constellation of limbs, pulling knots of hair and various protrusions along her limbs in a steady progression.

The only man on the Sixth Fist, Charger, was next.  He was the sort of guy that I’d describe as ‘big’, if Indulger wasn’t in the room.  He was athlete big, maybe football player big, like a receiver or QB.  Indulger was body builder big, and tall to boot.  Their eyes met instantly, and Charger seemed to bristle a bit.  Dale, for his part, gave a sheepish grin.  That seemed to be his default reaction to everything.

Consumer followed on his heels, wearing a dress of all things.  I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen an Ultra in a dress.  It was a pale gray, presumably the color of her powers, and it was tailored to fit.  I guess the point was to advertise that she’d scared some poor tailor.

Lastly, Blinder appeared among them, popping into existence with a slight shimmer of visual static.  She was a very feminine girl, curly hair and a wide smile.  She actually seemed to sparkle a bit under the room’s lights, but that was probably her power.Blinder could hide things from vision, thus her sudden appearance, or show you things that weren’t there.

“Sup?” said Fader.  Her voice was a tinny thing, distant sounding.

“Hey-o” answered Indulger, beaming his usual sunny smile and striding right up to her.  I nearly manifested shades when he extended his right hand for an arm clasp.

“Ease up, Boss”.

Preventer actually said what I’d been thinking.  Indulger pulled his hand back from Fader, looked back at us.  I shook my head slightly.  He sighed deeply and walked back to his chair.

Making him leader might have been a dreadful mistake.  What had he possibly been thinking, offering to touch Fader.  The woman had been incorporeal for a decade, alert at every moment for the possibility that Prevailer would try and take her out.  She wasn’t about to solidify in order to do a grip and grin with someone that she didn’t even know.

“We’ve been talking it over, among ourselves,” said Fader.  “We’ve got an idea for how we want to do this whole nightmare of an interview thing.  You folks ready to go along with that?”

There wasn’t really any way to say know, so we all murmured our assent, nodded.  We looked like a pack of schoolboys or something, all bobbing heads and muttering in unison.

Consumer spoke, surprising me just a bit.  My attention had been completely fixated on Fader ever since she came in.  I’d delegated paying attention to the remainder of her crew to my shadows.

“Each of us ask one question.  Each of you answer that question.  Simple, yeah?”

Her voice was a bit mushy, but I understood her readily enough.  Was something up with her mouth?  Maybe Consumer, as a name, didn’t just refer to her beams.

More nodding from my new Fist.

Indulger did finger guns.  I’d definitely made a mistake putting him in charge.

“Why did you agree to do this?” asked Consumer.  She didn’t put the question to anyone in particular, just sort of spoke it to the room at large.  This was, apparently, her official question then.  We’d each have to answer.

I spoke up first.  I needed to set a pattern that the rest of the group could follow.

“I wanted to make a difference.”

There was a beat of silence.  I wasn’t sure if they wanted me to go on, or if it was another of our turns, but I decided that it was better to elaborate.

“I used to work out on the edges of the Regime.  I was a TroubleShooter.  You see a lot of stuff out there.”

I was warming to my monologue.  Even before I had shades to coach me on diction I’d been alright at this kind of thing.  I could drop a speech on most anything you’d care to bring up.

“But I wasn’t content with just seeing.  I wanted to act.  I wanted to make a difference, to…to matter, I guess.  In Her Regime, you do that by becoming one of Her fists.”

I fell silent again, this time comfortable waiting as long as they’d like.

“I got in trouble with your sister,” said Preventer.  Whose sister?  She was looking at Blinder.  A moment later I had it.  Blinder’s sister was Alerter, in First Fist.  That was going to be  a rough interview.

“I was dead if I didn’t get backup.  Fight fire with fire, and all that.”

Like me, Preventer metaphorically mic dropped at the end of her statement.  Once again, the Sixth Fist didn’t seem pressed to fill it in.

“Uh, my manager told me to.”

Eyes raised around the group at this pearl of wisdom from Indulger.  Blinder and Fader actually chuckled a bit, before going stony faced again.

“It doesn’t work, you know,” said Nirav.

Everyone in the room looked over at him.  He just sat there, looking at Preventer.

“What doesn’t?” she asked.

“Fighting fire with fire.  Better to use water.”

The room was quiet for another long moment.  I guess that counted for his response.  I looked over to Fisher, who was clearly not paying any attention.

“Eh-hem,” I cleared my throat.

Fisher met my gaze, all languid innocence.  She started talking a second before I was going to have to tell her to.

“I just want to protect my home,” she said.  “So many people are out to get us.  I just want to make sure that we are safe.  Not just Ultras, but all of the people in the Regime.  We’ve got to look out for each other.”

Laudable, but there was no way I was buying it from her.  The sentence had a palpable falseness to it.

A stir of motion in Sixth Fist, and Consumer retired, replaced in front by Blinder.

“What would you ask for, if you got to choose your group’s favor, the big one you guys will get from Her if things work out?”

Same order again.  I spent a moment composing my response as everyone looked at me.  When I spoke I did so with a slow, measured dignity.

“I would ask that Prevailer allow Ultras that want to the chance to help out the local communities.”

I thought about Reverter, and the good that she could have done for Lanta.  I thought about the Ultras wasted standing guard duty on facilities who could have been rebuilding the toppled cities.

Preventer was up next.

“I would ask that we consider a kind of strategic partnership with the Pantheon, with the aim of crushing the Union, before they destroy us all.”

What on earth?  Ally with the Pantheon?  The Regime?  What could Preventer possibly be thinking.  I looked down at her with bemusement.

She seemed somehow fierce, in the moment, tiny face screwed up in a scowl of defiance.  Her hands were rock still as she put words to what must have been a thought that she’d carried awhile.

“I dunno.  Maybe a trampoline?” said Indulger.  No laughter this time.  Everyone seemed to know what to expect from the big guy now.

“The Regime has scholars, Dr. Chen at least.  I’d ask Her if they could investigate my condition.  Free me from Condemner’s clutches, or figure out a way to kill me.”

Nirav’s plea was carefully considered, and delivered with polish and poise.  An ominous wish for one so young, but this was a harsh world, and I couldn’t criticize an effort to leave it.  Not after all I’d seen.

“I’d let one of the others have their wish.  Mine has already been granted, just now,” said Fisher.  She gave a wide ‘fuck me’ smile that got approving wolf whistles from the boys in the reserve.  God she was a parody.  Did that ever work?  Was anyone ever taken in by such a transparent act?

Charger stepped up.  He had a high, piping voice, poor guy.  He probably was normally the strong silent type.  But with Indulger towering over him, and his voice breaking like he was trying to ask Fisher to prom any chance of him being intimidating was ruined.

“What did you do to earn this position?  Why are you the five in this room, instead of some other five Ultras?”

That was kind of like two questions, but they were pretty related.  I didn’t have any reason to lie.

“I’ve been an outstanding TroubleShooter for decades now.  Bosses talk, Knights report, you know how it is.  I got a rep as someone who can get things done.  Guess I was at the head of the list when  they decided to reform the fourth fist, you know?”

I left out my devil’s bargain with Refiner.  If my read on the rest of my Fist was right, being tight with him would mean being distant with them.  No complaints from me about that.

“I got into a scuffle, like I mentioned, with First Fist.  I may have downplayed things a bit,” Preventer looked directly into Blinders eyes.  “I killed your sister, in the Duel Pool.  Caught Her eye, I guess.”

For the first time one of them nearly broke their silence.  I could see that Blinder wanted to step up and ask, or explain, something.  Fader’s hand on her arm, however, kept her mouth shut as our responses continued.

“Oh, ever since I beat Pursuer in that wrasslin match, Adder and his friends have been trying to get me to be in a Fist.  Finally gave in when I explained it all to my manager and she agreed with them.”

I’d known, on some level, that he had bested Pursuer.  But to hear him mention it, casually, mid conversation?  My mouth actually dropped open for a second, then closed with a click.

I wasn’t the only one to wince.  Preventer had clearly not forgotten about the eavesdropping equipment either.  I was cut off before I could say anything, as Nirav spoke.

“I was captured, by the Trapper Fist.  They brought me here, and Subtracter gave me the choice between joining up or being killed.”

Nirav gave a vastly expansive shrug, hands out wide, palm up.  Universal gesture of ‘what could I do?’.

“Omigod, shut up!” said Fisher, growing a slight valley girl accent for just a moment.  “I was a prisoner too!  Did they throw you in…”She trailed off as she realized that everyone was listening in.

“That is, I was also drafted, just like Nirav.”

Fisher’s voice flattened out as she said this, her gaze falling.  Indulger laid a hand on her shoulder in sympathy.  I fought mightily to keep from rolling my eyes.

Twister slithered her way out into the center.  Her body moved across the ground like a serpent, pushing off object at odd angles to rapidly propel herself.  Once centered she coiled up, putting her head at the same height as ours.  Well, as mine and Nirav’s.  Indulger and Preventer had to look down and up, respectively.

“We call, you come?” she asked.

We didn’t really need the system for this one.  Everyone nodded, murmured quiet pledges of sisterhood or friendship.  I was even sincere, to tell the truth.  Sixth Fist was probably the only Fist that I was certain was good people.  Good people who sometimes had to do bad stuff, to be sure, but good people nonetheless.

That just left Fader.  She stepped out into the middle of the room, the only woman that Prevailer couldn’t kill.  She seemed a little sad, somehow.

“I don’t have a question.  Truth be told, this was just a bit of a ceremonial deal anyway.  I don’t have any intention of recommending that we kill five of our own side’s Ultras.  It would be an act of barbaric incompetence rarely rivaled in modern history.”

I nearly gasped aloud as she crossed the room to stand before Indulger, and reached out to grip his forearm.  I’d been so sure, so entirely certain, that Fader never ever let anyone touch her.  Yet here she was, doing the warrior clasp with Indulger.

“Let me be the first to welcome you, Fourth Fist, to our fellowship.  Sixth Fist approves of your formation, and cannot wait to fight alongside you.”

Inside my mind, to the reserve, I announced it.  “This, gentlemen.  This is a step forward.  The approval of Regime inner party members is exactly what we’ve been striving for.  The Fifth Defiance begins today.”

6th Fist

The Sixth Fist, the so-called “Shielding Fist” is a singular military unit, even among the assembly of oddballs and miscreants who populate the Regime’s military elite.

The Sixth Fist describes itself as serving the people of the Regime, rather than its leadership.  They devote themselves to protecting the Regime’s populace from outside threats.  They seem untroubled by the hypocrisy of battling external enemies while ignoring the threat posed by their superiors.

This unit undertakes primarily defensive operations, holding back the Pantheon’s attacks in the southwest portion of the Regime.  Their kill ratio is lower than the other Fists, but this must be understood in light of the fact that this is the only Fist with any probability of displaying mercy to a defeated enemy.  They have a lower Tally because they don’t kill unless they see no other choice, not because they are weaker than the others.

The Sixth Fist is the most recently formed Fist.  They were created as a compromise mediated by Adder between Fader and Prevailer.  The tyrant, confronted at last with an enemy that she could not kill, was resorting to the slaughter of hostages by the score.  Fader was unwilling to give her life for theirs, and things were escalating.  Ultimately, Fader agreed to serve Prevailer in some capacity rather than see the killing continue.  Prevailer’s ego was assuaged and an uneasy peace resumed.

Fader: Melissa Van Horten

Fader has the power to become insubstantial, transforming into an image, unaffected by the material world.  Even Prevailer was unable to harm her in this form.  She can selectively dematerialize portions of herself, and seems able to remain in image form indefinitely.

In the team Fader serves primarily as the Sixth Fist’s anchor.  No one can kill her, and thus the team is truly beyond death.  On rare occasions Fader may launch attacks, striking directly at foe’s internal organs by phasing her extremities back in within their forms, but she much prefers to remain at a distance and quarterback her team.

Blinder: Hallie Meyers

Blinder is one of the team’s powerhouses, an Ultra with control over light in all of its various forms.  Light heals her, she shoots lasers and she can create convincing illusions.  It is likely that she has additional light related powers that are unknown at this time.

This power has a wide range, allowing Blinder to engage her foes from a daunting distance.  She generally remains at range, firing on the enemy and using images to cause their return fire to miss.  Any damage that she suffers is quickly healed so long as she remains in bright areas, but nonetheless she is one of the units most frequent casualties.

Blinder is the twin sister of Alerter, in First Fist, but does not display the psychological abnormalities of the deviant.  She acts, to all intents and purposes, as a dutiful and loyal member of Sixth Fist.

Twister : Esther Llaine

Twister is a bruiser, always ready to mix it up with the enemy’s foremost combatants.  She has a strange body, long and stretched with cutting spines orbiting each extremity.  With Ultra strength one and Ultra toughness 2 she lacks the raw power of the bruisers in other Fists, but her enemies are generally blind, so she has had a lot of success so far.

Twister is also responsible for the team’s mobility, whenever they are forced to operate without mechanized assistance.  She can carry the rest of the group in her form, and make decent time across most any landscape (approx 30 mph).

Twister is the most outwardly kind and selfless of the group, behaving more like one of the old world’s Ultra Heroes than the Regime killer that she really is.  While Fader directs the team to protect the Regime’s citizens, it is Twister who seems to actually care about them.  Ironic that the most monstrous form should conceal the most human heart.

Charger : Ted Presser

Charger is a large man, bulky and powerful.  He has Ultra strength and durability one, but once he gets going these both increase as long as he continues in a straight line.  He is a mighty projectile, capable of decimating anything that can’t get out of his way.

Charger, in general, functions as a sort of environmental hazard to the Fist’s foes, charging through the battlefield and only slowing down when safely away.  This protects him from harm and forces the enemy to remain constantly alert.  Blinder’s illusions and concealment means that fewer Ultras than you think are able to avoid him.  Most of the Fists Tally is ultimately down to Charger catching someone off guard and tackling right through them.

Charger displays the mental instability typical of male Ultras, in his case manifesting as an extreme temper.  When provoked he invariably snaps.  During the time that his temper is under control, however, he generally seems to be a fearful and careful man, quiet and retiring.

Consumer : Jill Hill

Consumer gets her name from the energy draining rays that she shoots from her hands.  These pale gray beams steal the Ultra powers from her targets, and bestow them upon Jill.  The transfer doesn’t last very long, a few minutes at most, and the victim can speed this up by putting distance between them.  Nonetheless, this is a potent weapon in Sixth Fist’s arsental.

Consumer, like Blinder, is only human in durability, and has to be protected on the battlefield.  She is another of Sixth Fist’s most common losses.  She generally occupies whatever refuge Blinder has taken, and joins in the long range battle.

Jill Hill is definitely the odd member out in Sixth Fist, a Regime loyalist of sorts placed inside their ranks at Prevailers insistence to make sure that the Fist is not planning on rebelling.  She is cruel and mercurial to those in her power, whenever she can get away wit hit.  She is not close with the rest of the team, who are aware that she is their leash.

If Prevailer is ever destroyed, it would be beneficial to reach out to the Sixth Fist.  They have done the best that they can with an impossible circumstance, and have much to contribute.

Haunter 2:2

Preventer responded, right on cue.

“That should be me.”

Bless her black heart.  The first to speak is at a big disadvantage in this sort of thing, and she was obnoxious to boot.  If there was any way that they could, the others would give me their support.  I didn’t need to convince them anymore, just give them a path to verbalize the decisions that her condescending attitude would had pushed them towards.

“I’m not entirely convinced of that, Preventer” I ventured.

Her hands spasmed again, doing a little flappy thing.  A psychiatrist on the Jury told me that back in the day they’d have diagnosed her with something or other.

“Don’t be absurd,” she said.

We waited for her to go on, but she just stood there.

“I’m not being absurd,” I said, making my tone as infuriatingly reasonable as possible, “Your power is extremely defensive.  As our leader, you would need to project strength.”

Preventer exploded in rage…sort of.  It seemed more like panic.  Anyway, she practically shouted.

“And you ‘project strength’ I suppose?  An old woman who relies on daggers for everything!”

“Got her.”

“Who said anything about me?” I asked, all innocence.  “I had someone else in mind.”

Preventer momentarily seemed to lose her verbal footing.  I looked over, significantly, at Dale.

“Indulger, would you take on the role?  You are the most powerful, and the fiercest looking.”

He gave a broad smile and scratched his head, seemingly deep in thought.

“Come on man.  We are gift wrapping this.  Just take the job.  I’ll support you, and Fisher will jump on a dumb dude she can manipulate as the leader.  Maybe literally.” 

Irene was saying what everyone in the Jury was thinking.

Preventer spoke up before Indulger could.

“OUR LEADER” she stressed, “shouldn’t be someone who is…someone who…”

She was looking for a way to say that he was stupid which would leave her able to get his support for leadership herself.  I’d have gone with ‘direct’ or something similar, but whatever Preventer’s book smarts it was painfully obvious that she wasn’t the best at thinking on her feet.

Still, Dale didn’t speak up.  He just grinned his big grin and swayed back and forth.  The very picture of someone trying to put something just right in their mind before they spoke.

Fisher laid her hand on his arm, looked at Nirav.

“He can do it, don’t you think?” she said.  Or, purred, really.  The boys in the Reserve were appreciating it anyway.

“I guess” he said.  “If everyone thinks so.”

Preventer looked… shattered, if I had to put it in a word.  Her hands flapped wildly back and forth, but she scarcely seemed to notice it.  She swallowed, visibly.  I have never seen anyone look less indestructible in my entire life.

“You, you make some good points.  Thank you, Haunter, for pointing out that it should be Indulger.  It is obvious once you say it.  Yes, Fine, Indulger it is.”

Fisher clapped him on the back.  Dale’s smile had a distinctly nervous tenor, but my feeling was that he’d pull through.

This was the first hurdle down.  If this Fist was to be what I wanted it to, an implement that I could use to pry open the machinery of the Regime and figure out where to break it, then it needed to have the right Leader.  I would have been ideal, but Preventer, and maybe Fisher, wouldn’t have gone for it.  Indulger would do.

Preventer’s next words cut through my momentary satisfaction.

“Nirav, does Condemner agree?” she asked.

He seemed at a loss for a moment.  When he spoke it was slowly and carefully, taking his time to form each word.  For someone with Ultra Speed it must have been agonizing.

“He doesn’t communicate with me.  I don’t even know if he can.  The only thing that I can say for sure is that he doesn’t seem to be trying to burn you all to death right now.  Hear me, man?”

He paused, as though waiting for a response.  That last had clearly been aimed at his inner passenger.  Everyone stood still, other than Fisher, who sat back down.

“I guess he is alright with Indulger as a leader, based on the fact that he isn’t attacking.”

This was worrying.  I knew that men often had trouble controlling their gifts, but he seemed to be entirely at his power’s mercy.

“Nirav, let me get this straight,” I said.  “You can’t control when you change.  You can’t control what you do when you have changed, and you can’t communicate with the entity that does?”

He nodded sadly.

“That’s about the size of it.  I think that it knows everything I know, though.”

Preventer broke in.

“That would make sense.  I’ve seen split volition cases before.  In every one there is a primary, or ‘real’ personality, and another subservient one.  You, Nirav, are just something that it through together.  The actual soul is the one that we call Condemner.”

“Way to sugar coat it lady.  I guess when you are invincible you don’t bother to learn politeness?” Joe speculated.

Nirav stopped nodding.

“I hadn’t actually thought about it like that,” he said.  “It makes sense though.  The reason for my amnesia is that I’m not real.  I’m just something that the big fire uses to drive his body around when its useful.”

His voice wasn’t quite breaking, but it was heading there.  His head was bowed slightly and his tone trembled on the edge of a sob.

Before I could respond further, the door opened and Subtracter floated in.

You almost had to admire the gall.  Leaving us to discuss ‘for the morning’ or what have you, and then showing up the instant that we reached a consensus.  She wasn’t even trying to hide that she’d been listening in.  No shocker there, Subtracter had very little reason to hide anything, ever.

If the Regime was, in the final sense, an Ultra farm, then Subtracter was fruit ripe and ready.  She was young, brutal and ignorant.  The perfect citizen of Prevailer’s new world.  She had nothing of Prevailer’s ennui, of Adder’s obvious despair or even of Snitcher’s feigned boredom about her.  Subtracter was the genuine article, a true daughter of the Regime.

She was wearing some kind of old military uniform.  The Jury did a quick poll of some old Vets and came up with what unit must have belonged to but I didn’t pay any attention.  She didn’t have any weapon.  She didn’t even have a sigil.  The casual defiance of gravity as she drifted along, inches above the ground, was enough to mark her as Ultra.

“So,” she said.  “You want the meathead to be the leader?”

This was a class ‘you stopped beating your wife yet’ style question, but like all such childish taunts the threat of annihilation made dealing with it a minefield.  I needed to respond without looking defiant, and without looking weak.  It was a tough balance to strike.  While I was considering Preventer spoke.

“Indulger will be our leader,” she said.

I liked it, simple statement, not acknowledging her insult at all.  Probably the best way to play it.  Surprising, coming from someone who’d utterly come apart a few moments earlier.  Maybe there was something I wasn’t understanding about Preventer.

“Cool,” said Subtracter.  She flopped down on an old office desk.  It broke with a snap as she touched it, but she just remained floating where it had been, resting on nothing as though it was a hard surface.

“Ok, today is going to suck.  You have to talk with each of the other Fists.  That’s five shitty conversations.  At the end of it, if three of them give the thumbs up, you’ll talk to Her.  If three gives the thumbs down… you still talk to Her, but it’s a shorter conversation and when She’s done talking She kills you.”

Even for the Regime, this took me back.  Kill five Ultras that they trusted enough to consider forming a Fist out of?  Lunacy.  It fit though.  I ignored the sudden sinking feeling that Subtracter’s words evoked, and continued to focus on her.  This could be important.

“I’m going first though, to let you know what this Fist thing is all about.  Prepare you for your talks with the others.  Let you know the deal, like it is.”

Subtracter looked at each of us, one by one.  All of us except Fisher nodded our heads in acknowledgement.

“So, the Fists are Prevailer’s answer to the problem of not being everywhere at once.  She can beat anyone, you see, but it would be a huge chore to run around fighting everyone who wanted to.  Your job is going to be to act like an extra arm that She can use to swat stuff She doesn’t like, but doesn’t want to deal with.  That’s why we call them Fists.”

It was strange being condescended to by someone who probably couldn’t count past ten.  Strange, and frightening.  Subtracter didn’t need to be bright to kill us.  No referee would appear and signal a foul if she got something messed up and attacked.  The world would spin on, my shadows lost to the abyss that had claimed the old world.  Subtracter was the new world itself, in this moment.  Ignorant and almighty, lecturing people too scared to contradict it.

“You will be sent out somewhere, and you’ll make sure that no outsiders come into our space.  You can boss around the Bosses, do whatever you want in your area.  Just make sure that everyone there knows that She is the one in charge, and do anything that we ask you to.”

She made it sound kind of like a feudal baronial position.  It made sense, ultimately, that the Regime would reinvent a kind of skewed feudalism.  The notions of that bygone time, of Kings divinely descended and thus fundamentally above the common man, had finally become true.  It was a gruesome reversal.

“You are wondering, I bet, what you get out of it?  I mean, obviously we don’t kill you.  But we already weren’t doing that.  What’s so good about being a Fist?”

We weren’t wondering that, or I wasn’t.  Everyone knew that Linker supported the Fists, made them deathless.

“We’ve got this Ultra named Linker.  Once you are Linked you’ll come back from the dead, as long as even one of you are left alive.  Sweet gig, huh?”

“Jane, remember what we discussed.”

I didn’t need the Colonel to remind me.  Linker was the Regime’s weak spot.  He, or she, allowed Prevailer to project her power.  The Link sustained Remover, and Refiner.  The worst villains in the Regime, save Her, had all been killed a time or two.  If I could take Linker out of the picture, I’d have struck a blow against the Regime that would rock it to its core.

I’d spoken to the Colonel.  He’d agreed.  We’d polled the Reserve, and it was near unanimous.  If the Fist wasn’t going to be an instrument of revolution, we’d kill Linker when the time came.  Before becoming another Fader, another instrument of revolution coopted into servitude, we’d destroy the Regime’s immortality, even if we had to throw away our lives.

“Better than that, though, She actually will do you a favor.”

I hadn’t heard of this.  What did Subtracter mean by a favor?

“Prevailer likes her Fists.  You all are with us, you are squad, core, posse, whatever you want to call it.  She’ll do your team one solid, if it doesn’t suck.  Remover got Her to destroy some town over seas that she hated.  Leveller got a sweet castle built for her team.”

I quietly boggled.  A favor from the Regime?

“They won’t do any of the important ones, boss.  They won’t stop being the Regime in any real way,” said Joe.

Still, the potential.  It would be tough to phrase it in such a way that we didn’t seem weak, and as Joe pointed out, the Regime wasn’t about to accept “Stop massacring people”, but there had to be some good that I could do with this.

“Interesting,” said Preventer, quietly.

Or bad.  Preventer would probably want something ghastly from the Regime.  Still, the emerging dynamics of our team meant that I was pretty confident that I could steer us towards something vaguely humane, if it came to that.

“Yeah” said Subtracter.  “Interesting.  You’ve got to make it through the interviews to get it, but if you play your cards right you’ll get to ask Her one favor.  Think real careful about what you decide.”

The last was aimed at Indulger, who wasn’t looking particularly leaderlike.  He stood there with a frown on his face, like he was committing her words to memory, or trying to count by threes.

“These Fists.  If they don’t like us, can we kill them?” asked Fisher.  She spoke with a bland assurance, as though killing Fists wasn’t an impossibility, but only something that she didn’t have permission to do.

For the first time I found myself thankful for her strange demeanor.  This would win us points with Subtracter.

Sure enough, it bought a chuckle.  Subtracter altered her flight to bring herself to her feet before us, standing as equals aside from the fact that her boots didn’t actually touch the ground.

“Kiddo, this is the Regime,” she said.  “You are allowed to kill anyone that you are strong enough to kill.”

Indulger spoke up, surprising me.

“Force rules the world,” he made the gesture, raising one fist high.  “Has ruled it, shall rule it.”

Subtracter nodded, acknowledging the point.

“Yeah, but Force has a name.  It’s Peggy Martin, and if you forget that, you die.”

With that last statement, she drifted out.

We stood quietly, for a moment.  Subtracter’s absence had a kinetic quality to it. It was as though she’d taken something with her, something fundamental.  Like the room had had a center of gravity until she’d left, and now we were all afloat.

It was Nirav who brought us back to our sense.  He held a hand up, one finger pointed up, near his lips but not actually across them.  A decent approximation of a “be quiet” sign.  If I interpreted him right, he was calling attention to the timeliness of Subtracter’s arrival, reminding us that they were listening in.

Preventer seemed to get it.

“Let’s talk about these interviews,” she said.  Screening off discussion of the favor until we were already out of peril was smart, but more importantly it would prevent us from alienating the Fists before we spoke to them, by picking a favor that they disapproved of.

“We have a bit of a problem, actually,” Preventer continued.  “According to my calculations, three of the Fists will likely disapprove of us.”

Indulger spoke for all of us.

“What makes you think that?” he asked.

“I polled them ahead of time,” said Preventer.

That sank in for a moment.  She’d asked the Fists how they’d voted before this.  So she’d known about this trial, known what was coming.  She knew the leaders of the Fists.  That was simultaneously intriguing and disgusting.

“Can we make them like us?” asked Indulger, innocently.

Preventer looked at him for a long moment, saying nothing.

“I bet I can!” said Fisher, with her usual cheery casualness.

Fists in the field

Mighty Zeus

Prevailer’s most notorious defenders, her so called ‘Fists’, are far from the all defeating force that they are typically portrayed as.  Their effectiveness has been greatly overrated, for various reasons.  At your order, I’ve looked into what exactly is going on with them.

At their most basic level, one of the Regime’s Fists is composed of five Ultras joined together by another Ultra’s gift.  This gift causes any of these Ultras who dies to reappear, healthy and restored to life, alongside a living Ultra from the formation at the end of the day. Traditionally the Ultra whose gift causes this effect is known as “Linker”, and she or he is one of the most powerful Ultras known to exist.  In truth, nothing of Linker is known substantively.  Her existence is inferred through the effect that the Fists demonstrate, as well as a few of Prevailer’s statements.

In any case, this Link, has no effect on these Ultras other than to restore them to life if at least one of them persists.  It does not appear to augment their powers in any other way.  So, what then to make of the persistent victories, often at great numerical inferiority, that the Fists enjoy?

The first factor to consider is that the Ultras who compose the Fists are, themselves, individually extremely powerful.  Prevailer selects Ultras based primarily on their might, and she has an entire nation to choose from.  The Company do her will even more than yours, and she has been unstinting in the transformation of her human resources.

In any given Fist there will be one or two Ultras who are at the absolute top tier.  Ultras comparable to your Divine self, or the rest of the Council.  Ultras who can defeat numerous other Ultras without serious effort. These Ultras deal the majority of the Fist’s damage.

The remainder of the Fist functions as their support, selectively engaging and deterring anyone who attempts to avert the proper functioning of the team’s heavy hitter.  These other Ultras are no slouches themselves, and protect their primary with a vicious fervor.

Finally, the Fists each have one or two Ultras who are notably hard to dispose of.  Fader is the classic example, but lesser versions abide in each Fist.  Even if our forces get the upper hand in a battle, the damage will be gone by morning if we aren’t able to chase down and destroy these ‘Refuge’ ultras.

This organizational structure allows the Fists to engage in one sided attrition warfare, taking on units of dozens of our troops, killing ten to twenty, losing two to three and retreating, only to return and reengage on the morrow.  This is the primary factor in the Fists’s success.

Another element that contributes to their success is the degree of experience that Fists accumulate.  Thrown into battle day in and day out, dying and killing with abandon, the Fists quickly become deeply proficient in the art of Ultra combat.  Even our most hardened units have never fought on as their dying breath leaves their bodies before, but to the Fists it is a weekly occurrence.  The morale boost that their Link gives them, the ability to remain calm and effective under all circumstances, goes a long way towards helping them be successful.

Lastly, there is their supporting structure.  The obvious countermeasure to a Fist, to a set of five Ultras who can defeat dozens, is to bring more than dozens.  If we bring hundreds, we can overwhelm a Fist, or we could, except for their master.  The concentration of force  necessary to withstand a Fist’s onslaught, overcome its combatants and track down its survivors is too great.  Such a force would draw Prevailer to it.  Hundreds of enemy Ultras in one place is a challenge that she will not pass up.

I’ll end this report on the sourest note of all.  Intelligence chatter indicates that the Fourth Fist, which you heroically destroyed, is being reconstituted.  Prevailer moves sluggishly to replenish her forces, but ultimately she does take action.  The Fists will stand at six once more.

So, even a destroyed Fist may be brought forth once again.  The conclusion is obvious.  No one was ever destroyed by chopping their fists.  To kill the Regime, we must strike its ruler.  We must kill Prevailer.

Haunter 2:1

“You need a moment?” asked the Knight.

I shrugged him off, giving him a dismissive glance.  Inwardly, I was far less sanguine.  I didn’t like being back in the Lair.  I didn’t like being this close to Snitcher, to Subtracter, to Her.  I was far from sure about joining a new Fist.

“This is what we’ve been working for.  This is what we get for tolerating Seth.  For being Prevailer’s dog.  For all of it.  This opportunity.  We are going on the inside.  We will be able to HURT Her.”

The Colonel was right.  I’d striven for this, killed for it.  I put my hands on the office door and pushed it open, stepping confidently inside.

Within, a group of Ultras waited.  They occupied an old office, deep in the Lair.  It was shabby, barely maintained since the old World had ended, with a threadbare carpet and blinking lights.

The Jury filled my head with a virtual roar of chatter, even as I walked slowly across the room.  These were, quite possibly, the four most important people I’d meet in the course of my life.  If we were indeed to be a Fist, my survival, and the thousands that I carried, would rest upon their capability.  My revolution would rest upon their cooperation.  The Jury gave them a full analysis.

The woman lounging on a sort of mini couch drew the most attention.  She was breathtakingly hot.  Hundreds of men, and not a few of the ladies, let me know in no uncertain terms.  She was young looking, strawberry hair and freckles.  She had on a loud Hawaiian shirt and a pair of slacks.  No visible weapons.

The Jury’s opinion came in.  The consensus was that she had to be a form changer of some kind.  I had a cast of thousands to poll, and not one of them looked that good.  None had even met anyone who looked that good.  This girl looked airbrushed.  It had to be Ultra trickery.

Beyond her appearance, they thought that her posture was all off.  She was sort of poured onto that couch, lounging as though at ease, but it wasn’t the way that a person would actually lounge.  A number of doctors confirmed that her joints weren’t quite right, making her posture in a caricature of a real person’s relaxed stance.

She greeted me as I walked in.

“Heya!  Guess you are our fifth, grandma!”

I smiled diffidently, buying more time for my shades to case the room.

“Guess so.  What’s your name?”

“Jane” she said, brightly and falsely “Jane Smith.”

“I’m…” It set me back a second, but I pushed past the awkwardness.  “I’m actually named Jane also.  I’m Jane Trent.”

“Oh,” she seemed taken aback for a moment.  “then I’m Betty.”

Awkwardness didn’t begin to cover it.  Before I could work out how to continue the conversation one of the men was approaching me.

He was tall, good looking, albeit nothing like ‘Betty’.  Dark, swarthy features, short curly hair.  He was wearing an old world three-piece suit.  It fit him nicely, maybe tailored.  He had a gun at his belt.

The Jury didn’t really have many observations about him that weren’t obvious.  He seemed ill at ease.  His smile was forced.  Nothing that wasn’t immediately explained by the gravity of the situation.  I’m sure my smile seemed forced as well.

“And I am called Nirav.”  He had shining white teeth, perfectly clean and perfectly formed.  They reminded me of teeth I’d seen in my youth, back when dentists and fluoride were going concerns.

His accent was thick, definitely Indian.  The Jury was split on whether he was doing it deliberately or not.

“Nice to meet you, Nirav.”

I offered my hand for a shake.

This was a calculated gambit.  I needed to grow trust.  We all did.  This was that.  An opportunity to use our powers, if touch delivered powers were present, against one another.  A baring of the throat to establish this awkward union as a family.  That was the idea anyway.

He hesitated a long moment, then reached out and shook my hand.  His hands were unnaturally hot, as though he’d been holding them near a radiator.

Before I could investigate that I had to hold out my hand to the next member of the group, who positively engulfed it in his own enormous paw.

Indulger, some of my shadows recognized him.  They were immediately interrogated by the rest, even as this genial behemoth of a man pumped my arm up and down.

“Hey!”  he said.  “I’m Dale!”

I liked what I was hearing.  Those who knew him, liked him.  He was a wandering Ultra, not Regime, or at least not up till now.  He just showed up and helped with construction work and the like, before moving on.  He’d also beaten Pursuer in some sort of Ultra mock fight thing, and anybody who got one over on the giant rape dog was ok in my book.

“I’m Jane.” I responded.  I looked up at him.

Indulger was simply massive.  He must have massed twice what I did.  I came up to the middle of his chest, and I’m not exactly short.  His arm seemed to be about as thick around as my torso, and even if he didn’t have any Ultra strength I could still tell he was taking exaggerated care with his grip on my arm, being very careful, like someone holding an egg.

“Preventer” came the flat voice of the last member of the team, the only one who hadn’t come over to meet me, and who looked to have no inclination to shake my hand.

Preventer was a tiny woman.  I’m no giant, but I was about a head taller than her.  She had no visible muscle tone, wore no bulky items.  Sitting carefully in a chair she seemed like a doll when viewed next to Indulger.

The Jury told me that her strange white skin color was definitely cosmetics, as though I couldn’t tell.  She had paper white skin, a brown swirl of hair on top.  One hand twitched back and forth for a moment, before the other reached over and stilled it.  Curious.

“But, what’s your name?” I asked, trying to appeal to a spirit of comradery.  Take the hint, woman!  Four of us have just given our human names.  Why wouldn’t you go along with that?

“Preventer” she said again, brow furrowing slightly.  “And you are Haunter.  Jane Trent is just the name of the woman who became you.  Of the eggshell that you broke free of.”

I let her talk, the Jury gauging the effects that her words were having on the room.

“You are Haunter”, she said again, then started pointing her fingers at the others. “And this is Indulger, Fisher and Condemner.”

Fisher and Indulger didn’t have any particular reaction to their names, but some of the Jury were still paying attention to Nirav, and when his Ultra name was uttered he twitched violently.  It was fast enough that the Jury guessed he had Ultra Speed to at least the first level.

“Fine, Fine.” I said, raising my hands to placate her.  Preventer was going to be a problem.  She was another Ultra that I knew of, and her reputation was as dark as Indulger’s was light.  Abducting children, forcing women into degrading service, throwing lives away in Company Facilities…she was not going to be part of the solution.

“You were late, Haunter, so you didn’t hear the opening pitch.  They are going to leave us in here all morning.  We are supposed to talk things through, decide who will lead our Fist.  If they come back, and we are all still alive, then we’ll move on to the actual initiation ceremonies.”

“All right,” I said. “That makes a surprising amount of sense.”

The word ‘surprising’ was an olive branch to anyone else who had problems with the Regime’s way of doing things.  A little, utterly deniable, way to let them know that I shared their perspective.  The Jury’s observations showed that Nirav and Indulger agreed with me, as did, surprisingly, Preventer.  Only Fisher gave nothing away, her beautiful mask of a face affecting a casual pout.

“We had been outlining our powers.” Preventer continued.  “Myself, I have Ultra Toughness Three, and I can emit a series of sharp force barriers if the need arises.  I am a fine tactician, and I think by virtue of my superior power, and my greater intellect, I should be in charge of our Fist.”

Superior intellect, and this was what she came up with?  She might be book smart, but I didn’t need the testimony of the Colonel or other military men to know that she wasn’t anyone’s idea of a people person.

“I summon a shadow creature which fights for me.  I am called Fisher because it is adept at underwater combat.”  She actually batted her eyes as she said this.  I would have sworn that you can’t actually ‘bat’ your eyes in real life, but she did it anyway.

“That’s so cool” gushed Indulger.  I didn’t need the Jury to tell me that he found Fisher attractive.  Of course, the chair that he was sitting on probably found Fisher attractive.

“My powers aren’t so great.  I can just make the ground do what I want, and it heals me when I touch it.  Also I’m Ultra strong and tough, both at level one, while I’m in contact with it.”

It said a lot about Dale’s character that he confessed to us that he was utterly powerless right now with a smile on his face.  It didn’t even seem to occur to him that Preventer’s mention of ‘if we are all still alive’ was supposed to imply that we might kill one another if we didn’t approve of this configuration for our Fist.

“For myself, I bind the souls of humans.  I can summon them forth, and they often choose to aid me.  They can grant me their strength and skills, or take independent action.”

In order to demonstrate I manifested Irene, who stepped out from my side and waved to the rest with her clipboard, before disappearing again.  Nirav and Fisher jolted with surprise, but Preventer didn’t move and Indulger just kept grinning.

“Fascinating” said Preventer.  “Absolutely fascinating.  That is one of the most powerful and versatile abilities that I’ve ever heard of.”

Nirav’s interruption was fortuitous.  I had no desire to have an in depth discussion on my abilities until I was certain that everyone in this room would be willing to assist me.

“I’m Ultra fast, level one,” he said.

We waited for him to go on.  That wasn’t nearly enough to warrant inclusion in a Fist.  Ultra Speed is potent, no doubt, but on its own it wouldn’t be sufficient to get the Regime to take notice of him.

Dale, bless his thick heart, asked the obvious question.

“Is that all that you can do?  Or do you have, like other powers?”

Nirav just pursed his lips and shook his head.  It was Preventer who answered.

“Condemner is able to summon and control fire.  He is the most potent pyrokinetic that the Regime has ever found.  His Tally is in the low twenties, and that includes Regime combatants with serious combat experience.”

Nirav nodded, sadly.

“That’s Condemner, I guess.  I don’t know.”

We must have looked quizzical, because he continued.

“I just wake up in burned places.  Burned people all around me.  Condemner leaves no one alive.  I just…move along.  Hope he doesn’t come out again.”

Fisher angled her head to the side, then reached out and took his hand in both of hers.

“That must be so hard for you.” She said, emphasizing the word like a porn actress.  “And you remember nothing of the fights?”

He nodded, looking away, then back to her.

Preventer coughed uncomfortably, and they both started and slid way from one another.  God help me, they were doing a meet cute.

“Your shadow creature” asked Indulger. “Is it very tough?”

Fisher gave a slight smile, seemingly pained at having to brag.  “Well, it’s stronger than a human, and tougher as well.  I’ve heard it described as having Ultra Strength and toughness at one, same as you.”

The Jury gave a sudden warning, drawing my attention to the floor.  Fisher’s shadow was sprouting shadow tendrils, which were sliding across the floor towards the shadows of the others.  Nirav’s and Preventer’s had already been touched, and the tendrils were heading towards mine and Indulger’s.

“Shadows!” I said, and jumped backwards.  This brought me closer to the light, and send my shadow playing across the very area I was trying to get it away from.  Oops.

Everyone was looking down all of a sudden, and Nirav was drawing his gun until Fisher raised her hands and her voice.

“Sorry guys, I should have told you about that.”  Fisher’s voice practically oozed regret and concern.

Four sets of wary eyes focused on her as she continued.

“My shadow beast, it isn’t always material.  It likes to scout around when strangers are near.  I swear though, it’s totally harmless.”

I wasn’t the only one regarding her dubiously.  Preventer spoke up, her voice low and serious.

“Fisher, don’t treat us like fools.  Your name isn’t Becky and it isn’t Jane.  Your shadow creature isn’t harmless.  You aren’t fooling anyone”

Fisher flashed that brilliant smile and sank into silence.

Nirav broke the stillness.

“I don’t know how to quantify Condemner, exactly.  It is strong though.  It has killed many strong foes, and always leaves me ready to move on.”

“That’s fine, for now.” I said.  “If we can’t trust Fisher to describe her powers, I’m not about to fault your for not knowing.  I feel as though we have the general gist anyway.  Condemner shoots fire, Indulger controls the ground, Fisher has a shadow monster, I have an army of ghosts and Preventer is invincible.  Sound about right?”

Everyone nodded.  I was encouraged.  Most of leading people was being the one that they wanted to put forth ideas.  If you could frame the matter being discussed, you had won before the vote was ever taken.  At least, that’s how some old world politicians I’d recruited thought of the matter.

“Well, if we all know one another’s powers, it seems like there’s just one thing left to do.”

I looked around the room, slowly turning my head from person to person.  Indulger was grinning his blank, vapid smile.  Nirav was looking pensive, brow furrowed.  Preventer was unreadable, a tiny snow sculpture looking back at me.  Fisher had her head tilted slightly, bangs falling across her eyes as she grinned back at me.

“You can do this, Jane.”  The Colonel’s encouragement silenced the Rotation, silenced the Jury.  “You can make this group work.

I didn’t exactly share his faith, but it was comforting that someone believed in me.  It made what came next much easier.  This was the tipping point.  If there was going to be violence, if this whole thing was going to fall apart, it would be the next bit that did it.

“We just have to choose one of us to lead.”