Haunter 2:5

We had a little bit of time before we had to speak with Third Fist.

“They aren’t going to approve of us,” said Preventer.  “I tried everything that I could think of, but there was no way to influence them ahead of time.  They don’t seem to want anything, or fear anything, other than Her.”

I made a mental note to inquire into these pre-Fist activities of Preventer, but now wasn’t the time.

“Just because you didn’t rig things ahead of time, doesn’t mean we can’t convince them now.”

I spoke with authority, carefully projecting my voice and weighing the impact that it had on the rest of the team.  We may have made Indulger the official leader, but either Preventer or I would likely be the team’s actual thinker.  I needed to reinforce the idea of myself as the talking one, the one from whom the plans originated.

The rest were nodding, Fisher a little too vigorously, when Preventer spoke again.

“Haven’t you been watching how these interviews have been going?  Are you distracted by your shadows, or what?  Fader and Predictor both decided that they were going to say ‘Yes’ before we even showed up.  What makes you think anyone here is going to be open to persuasion?”

I didn’t really have an answer to that, and lapsed into silence.  She had an uncomfortable point.

“I told you, didn’t I?” Preventer went on.  “I told you how hard this would be.  Third Fist only respects power.  We don’t have enough of it.  We aren’t going to impress them.”

Indulger was actually the one who answered her.

“What do you mean, we don’t have enough power?  There are five of us!  We can do a lot of stuff.”

“I think what the little woman is saying” interjected Fisher, “is that we aren’t powerful in comparison to Third Fist.  No one is disputing that five Ultras linked together is a powerful force.  We are tough, in an absolute way.  It is only in a relative comparison with Leveller’s crew that we lose out.”

Indulger furrowed his brow, cocked his head to the side.

“We are strong, but weaker than the next people we will talk to.”  I broke it down for him.

“Rather than getting their approval,” continued Preventer, wrenching the conversation back into her favored path, “we need to focus on avoiding their wrath.  There is no way that we can stop them from voting ‘No’ on us, but if we don’t annoy them that’ll only be one vote against.  We have much better odds of persuading Second Fist than we do Third.”

“You think they’d jump us in the Lair?” asked Nirav.

Deafening silence.  Everyone looked around, carefully not responding to that.

To his credit, it didn’t take Nirav long to realize the obvious.  He smiled sheepishly and looked down at his feet for a second.

“Let me do the talking, or Haunter” said Preventer, “They don’t like dudes much.”

“Do they like you?” I asked.  I wasn’t surprised when she shook her head in the negative.  Funny to think that I had something in common with the butchers of the Third Fist.

Further conversation was curtailed, as we heard them coming down the hall.  We settled into seats, leaned against walls and generally tried to look some combination of tough and cool.  We did pretty well on that front, according to the Jury’s impressions.

The door opened with a sort of gurgling splash, and Leveller floated in.  Or stomped in.  It was hard to know what the right word to use would be.

She was a tall woman, wearing a wetsuit.  She floated in the midst of an animated statue of water.  A water golem.  Paths of air appeared from mouth and nose every few seconds, and the whole thing had a vaguely humanoid aspect to it.  The golem stomped, she drifted, almost entirely motionless save for her eyes.

Behind her, Blaster breezed in.  She was shorter and heavier set than her boss, although still towering when compared to Preventer.  She had on the same sort of military leavings that I did, though she wore it a bit better.  She gave me a shit eating grin, and traced her hands across her face.  It took me a sec to realize that she was trying to pantomime my wrinkles.  What was that about?

Blaster stood by the door as Leveller floated to the middle of the room.  It didn’t seem like a tactical formation or plan of any kind, just each of them doing what they wanted.

“So, you want to be a Fist” said Leveller.  Her voice was deep and echoing, sounding as though she was calling out from the bottom of a well.  It would have been an intimidating effect, even if I didn’t know her Tally.

Before we could answer, Killer sauntered in.  Leveller didn’t turn back, but Blaster started slightly.  I didn’t blame her one bit.  Killer had an arresting presence, for all that she lacked distinguishing features.  It was in the gaze, or maybe the stance.  She radiated danger on some primal, instinctive level.

“We ARE a fist,” said Preventer.  She was going with defiance.  I probably would have done the same.  Meekness, negotiation…these would get us killed in the Lair.  The Regime respected only audacity, acknowledged only power.

“I didn’t say, ‘So you want to be fisted’.  I asked you if you think that you are worthy to bear the name of Fist.  To stand alongside us, the killers of cities, and lay waste to the enemy.  You think you are strong?”

I almost spoke up then.  Preventer was taking a few seconds to think, and it seemed like the delay could prove ruinous.  I was sure that the other two members of Third Fist were close by.  We wouldn’t win this fight if it broke out.

“She thinks that we are worthy.  You saying that She can’t pick Her fists?  Have you told her that?”

Preventer’s reply was smooth, polished, casual.  Only the shaking of her hands betrayed her terror in the face of Leveller’s threats.  I adjusted my mental model of Preventer’s courage up a notch.  It was one thing to have no fear, but a much rarer, and altogether more valuable quality, to be able to defy your fear and strive anyway.

“Talking again?”

It was another voice, a new one, and I turned my head to the hallway to watch Mover drift in.

Like Leveller, she didn’t deign to touch the ground.  Unlike her leader, there was no visible medium for her to drift through.  Mover’s telekinesis steered her along without need of wetsuit or mobile pool.  She just floated wherever she wanted.

She was positively dapper, despite her warlike reputation.  A tailored suit, with matching purse and sigil.  She had a gun at her side, but even that was fancy, with engravings on the handle and some kind of coloring job which made it match her attire.  Her hair was dyed blonde, but the job was good enough, and recent enough, that the roots weren’t showing.

Leveller twisted about within her water sphere.

“I wasn’t talking to you, if that’s what you are asking!”

Mover lifted a hand in a ‘no foul’ gesture, and moved to lean against the wall.  Blaster was already there, but she scurried out of the more powerful Ultra’s way with a practiced ease.  Mover settled into place.

Leveller looked back to us, or, more specifically, to Indulger.

“So, you are the leader, huh?”

Indulger grinned sheepishly, rubbing his head.

“That’s what they tell me anyway.  They all pointed at me and that’s how it happened that I got to be the leader.  I’m real excited about it.”

Leveller seemed momentarily taken aback by his cheerful response, but then floated rapidly towards him.

Indulger didn’t react, even as Nirav moved to his side.  An instant later, he was engulfed in the sphere of water that surrounded Leveller, and her custom currents were holding him inside.

“Leader, huh”.  Leveller could speak just fine as her tides choked out Indulger.  “YOU are their leader?  A man, an inferior Ultra, unable to do a thing when he’s separated from the land?”

Indugler didn’t respond, as he was choking.  I saw his muscles strain and flex, but despite his size and power Leveller’s liquid mastered him effortlessly.

I had to do something.  I started across the room towards him, then became still, held in place by Mover’s gaze.

It wasn’t that I was intimidated or something.  I mean, of course I was intimidated, but I’d have been over and pulling Indulger out if it had just been that.  No, the force holding me in place wasn’t Mover’s intimidation.  It was her gift.  Force without mass, the ultimate weapon.

“Let’s let the leaders handle this, okay grandma?” said Mover.  She wagged a finger at me as she said it, grinning broadly.

“Took the words right out of my mouth” said Preventer.

A shimmering barrier unrolled itself from the back of her head, somewhere behind her ear.  It shot through the air towards Mover, then vanished.

What had…?  Preventer was shuddering, clearly affected by something.

Had it been Mover’s telekinesis?  But how could that affect Preventer, who had Ultra Toughness three.  It didn’t make any sense.  Nothing should be able to affect her that she didn’t allow.

Leveller hadn’t moved during all this, suffocating Indulger with a malignant indifference to what the rest of the Fist was up to.  She floated before him, watching wordlessly as the bubbles rose from his throat, and his hands fought helplessly with the unnatural waves which surrounded him.

Suddenly, she relaxed, letting Indulger out.

What had…then I noticed Nirav, or Condemner maybe, pointing a finger at her.

“You are that fire guy…” she began, trailing off a bit.  I knew that pattern from my time in the Troubleshooters.  She was trying to remember his powers, but she’d read so many that they all blurred together.

“His legacy, anyway.  You don’t bother my brother, unless you want me to incinerate you.”

Nirav had a manic look to his face.  I knew it to be that of a man who has just found out that he isn’t real.  Someone whose life expectancy was measured in weeks at most.  I had no idea Third Fist would make of it.

“You need him to fight your battles?” asked Leveller, speaking to Indulger again.  “A true leader would do their own fighting.”

Indulger, for his part, took shuddering breaths and coughed like he was trying to turn himself inside out.

Fisher spoke up, for the first time in this conversation.

“So, your definition of a leader is someone who doesn’t get any assistance from followers?  That makes sense, in your damp ass excuse for a mind?  Leaders are those who don’t lead?”

I thought, for just a second, that we were all about to die.  Leveller’s teeth curled back in a terrifying snarl, and Blaster moved up her hands, as though to fire off her deadly projectiles.  We were saved by a knowing chuckle.

Leaning up against the wall, still floating off the ground, Mover was chuckling quietly to herself.  As everyone else fell silent, it became more and more obvious.

“What!” snapped Leveller, orbiting about to get her eyes on Mover.

“Nothing, nothing,” said Mover, her chuckles subsiding a bit.  “It’s just…she’s right.  You were being ridiculous.”

A moment ago I’d been worried that Leveller’s group would kill us all.  Now I worried that they’d kill each other, and we’d get caught up in it.  Leveller’s fists clenched and her teeth ground as she looked at her impertinent minion.

Leveller’s mobile pond was drawing back an appendage when Indulger made his move.  He was up and off the floor, across the room and standing between them faster than I could remark on it.  Mover let him close, I guess, or maybe he was strong enough to push through your TK.

“What are you…What…” sputtered Leveller, as Indulger threw his arms out wide in a “hit me, not her” kind of gesture.

“Friends shouldn’t fight, it’s bad,” said Indulger.  “Fight with me instead.  You were starting something just a second ago with that water choke hold.  I still don’t have a way out of that.  It’s a strong move.”

“I don’t need your protection, big guy,” said Mover.  “Leveller and I have had our disputes many a time.  Nothing comes of it.”

I could almost sense Leveller’s pulse rising at that comment.  I tried once again to move, but apparently when Mover puts the whammy on you it lasts a while.  I couldn’t get my body to move so much as an inch, despite her evidence distraction.

I polled the Jury.  Should I wear more shades, get myself stronger, break out of Mover’s grip?  It would risk them. Blaster and Killer would have their pick of targets if they opened up in here.  I’d be hit several times before I even noticed, and for every extra shade that I wore each one of those impacts would claim another of the shadows.

They thought I should stay the course.  Just wait until she takes her power off, or leaves.  Fighting free might be defiant, but it would also damage Mover’s ego, and that was too risky to consider.

“Oh, I’m sor-“ Indulger began, even as Leveller barged past.

“You lot are failures”, her voice came back.  “We are going to recommend that She not use you as a Fist.  You aren’t worthy to be a goddamn Ankle, much less a Fist.  You barely quality to be a Dick.”

The others followed after her, Mover leaving last.  When she was gone, I could suddenly move again.  It was a good feeling.  I clasped my hands before me reveling in the voluntary motion, unimpeded by Ultra shenanigans.

We all stood quietly for a moment, taking stock.  I nodded to Preventer.  Her prediction had played out, exactly as she’d said.  There had never been a chance to convince Leveller and her crew.  They’d come in with their minds made up, exactly as Preventer said.

“Don’t get discouraged,” Preventer said, after taking a moment to collect herself.  “The odds of that working out for us were dreadful.  We have a better chance at the next one, and we just need one.”

“The Command Fist?” I asked.  “Refiner knows me, he recommended me for this post.  Can we use that as an ‘in’ with them?”

“Is Refiner the knight guy?  The racist?” asked Nirav.

I looked at him.  He had a good point.  The leader of the Knights of Purity wasn’t about to give the ok to another brown person joining the Fists.  At least, not if he had a choice.

“Yes” said Fisher, “So it would be best if, when he comes, you weren’t visible.”

I boggled at her for a moment.  It was so hard to understand what Fisher was thinking sometimes.

“Are you saying that we should put him in the space behind the couch?” asked Indulger.

Fisher shook her head.

“I’m saying that we should put him in the fire.”

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