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.”