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!”
“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 threw 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.