“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.”