The tension in the room lifted somewhat when we got the news that we wouldn’t have to suffer through an interview with First Fist. No point to it, now that we had the majority.
The Knight who delivered the message took the Posture for a moment, then headed back down the hallway. Presumably we’d be summoned when Prevailer wanted us. We had a little while to relax.
I’d been dreading meeting First Fist again, honestly. They were such garbage, such vile shit. I’d have had to strain to hold the shades inside in case any of them wanted to do anything dumb while simultaneously mouthing pleasantries at war criminals. The last time I’d talked to Pursuer I’d thought my heart would stop. It was an enormous relief that we wouldn’t be meeting the Regime’s worst unit today.
For all that, I wasn’t the most obviously relieved of group. That title would go to Preventer. She actually shrank into a chair, the soap-opera slow collapse you used to see on the more trashy programs.
“She mentioned that the First Fist had a grudge against her,” said Joe. “Guess she wasn’t looking forward to seeing them.”
That was a bit of an understatement, it seemed. Preventer sucked air in and out through her mouth, great wheezing gasps accompanied by visible shudders. Strange behavior from a woman who didn’t need to breathe.
Indugler, Nirav and Fisher began to chat. Presumably they got the same vibe that I did, that Preventer wouldn’t be thankful for anyone pointing out her moment of weakness. I listened in at first, but it was mostly just nervous relief talking. They were thrilled that this had gone so well, worried about what would come next…all the usual things that you’d expect people to feel at this point.
I used that time to call the Reserve to order. The Colonel held forth.
“I’m always at a loss, at times like these, on what to call you. There are those among you who are my subordinates. Should I address you in that way? Should I hold forth as the last vestige of the American military, and call upon your obedience by invoking the traditions and oaths of the finest fighting institutions that have ever existed?”
No, most of you haven’t sworn those oaths, and never lived as servicemen and women under my command.
Shall I appeal to our common situation? The experience of existing, day in and day out, within Jane’s gift is a humbling one. Surely it must build common ground. Shall I address you as my fellow shades? Fellow ghosts?
No, for we remain human still. But there it is, there’s the key.
My fellow humans, we need to talk.
In a very short time, just a few minutes, Jane will stand in front of Prevailer. She will stand before the beast, no, that’s not quite right.
Peggy Martin would like for you to think of her as a beast. She would like for you to think that she was a monster, a natural disaster. But that is exactly the wrong that our existence exposes. The Regime’s central fiction. The perverse and blatantly incorrect idea that Ultrahumans are not human. That they do not partake of a shared heritage with the rest of us.
Prevailer is no monster, she is simply a criminal. Anyone, given limitless might, could choose to abuse it. Could choose to ruin the world. It takes no special talent to be wrong. It is easy, common. In just a few hours, Jane will confront this criminal.
I call upon you, at that time, to hold your hands back. I call upon you to withhold condemnation, to make no move to bring this overgrown delinquent to justice. Jane must be, not a soldier, but an undercover inspector, building the trust of the suspect and preparing for the day when the natural order of things can be put right.
And that day is coming! Let none among you doubt that. Our gracious host’s tireless efforts WILL bear fruit. The world WILL be set right. Peggy Martin’s own moronic notions, her conflation of power and shared sin with her own warped moral compass, will blind her to the peril that we pose.
Let me be concrete here, as our losses were concrete. If Jane can keep everything under control during this interview, if you cooperate, then before the day is out we will learn the truth of Linker. THAT is a fact. We will see the Regime’s vulnerable underbelly.
Perhaps Jane will strike. She may decide that our lives are worth giving up in order to destroy the system of the Fists for all time. Perhaps we will simply pass this information on to the Resistance, allowing others to take advantage while we search for further weaknesses. Perhaps she will take no immediate action.
Officially, Jane answers to me, but the obvious truth of the matter is that she has the final say in what is going to go down. My final exhortion, to you all, my fellow refugees, and to you, our gracious carrier, is to be guided by the better angels of your nature. Let us all exercise the caution that this task demand, the nuanced discretion that our civilization trained in us, and take from this criminal a vital pillar of her gang.”
I sat for a moment further, absorbing that.
It was a pretty good speech. He’d always had a talent for them, and I was sure he had the time to compose them, locked away as he was. It really brought home the immensity of the decision that I was facing.
It wasn’t exactly as he’d portrayed it. There wasn’t really much of a chance that destroying Linker immediately would be the right call. She or he might well be in a link. This was mostly recon. But the decision was still real.
Once I understood the Linker system, disseminating that information would be my first active and verifiable treason against the Regime. If the Resistance was infiltrated, which there was every reason to expect it to be, it would be my last act. It would be the death of my new colleagues in the Fist, as well as the thousands that I bore within the reserve.
Would it be worth it? The Fists exported Prevailer’s will, no doubt of that, but She was still almighty without them. Would She simply shatter the world when it was no longer so pleasant to maintain Her dominion? Could I take that risk?
Heavy questions indeed.
Preventer and I were still sitting quietly, absorbed in our respective thoughts, when the Knight knocked on the door again. Indulger broke off his conversation to walk over and open it.
“Fourth Fist?” he asked. “She would like to see you now.”
We followed the Knight down the hall, finally leaving the ruined office.
The interior of the Lair passed quickly, an indistinguishable blur of neglected hallways, guard stations and empty rooms. The place had been raided long ago. No real hint of past glories remained, and such prestige as it presently had was not expressed by any kind of artifacts.
I thought at first that we’d head towards the ruins of the Oval Office, but we headed down to a subterranean level instead. It was actually an old break room, soda dispensing machine still intact, where we found Her.
There weren’t any guards to alert us to the encounter. The Knight we were following did not slow. We simply passed around a corner, like dozens before it, and found ourselves entering Her presence. I dropped and took up the Posture before I could take a second thought. The sounds of the others doing likewise was reassuringly uniform. I’d been worried about what Indulger might do.
Prevailer looked over at us. She seemed to come to some kind of conclusion, then impatiently motioned for us to rise.
As always, there was nothing much to Prevailer, physically. She had the kind of body that you’d see behind a counter bagging your groceries, or at a local license office renewing your forms. Pudgy, dark skinned, middle aged. She was wearing a sweat suit. The only sign that this was the closest thing Earth had to a ruler was Her famous Sigil, a baseball cap with a crown scribbled on it.
“So, you are the Fourth Fist, huh? The peeps Adder said can throw down?”
Prevailer’s voice didn’t really vary from a bored monotone. She still had slight twinges of the accent of the old American urban poor.
No one answered for a moment. I didn’t want to upstage our leader. Presumably the rest of the Fist felt the same. On the other hand Indulger was just standing there, gaping slightly. Fisher dug an elbow into his ribs.
“Yeah, that’s us.”
“I figured. I guess it’s time for me to give you the talk. I don’t wanna stand around all afternoon. You gonn’ be on your way and fighting before much longer.”
Everyone stood in silence as Prevailer took some scraps of paper out of a pocket and consulted them, then started talking.
“So, I was just a lil’ thing, just a lil’ bitch, helpless, when my ma told me something damn scary. She said that there were seven billion people on earth. Can you believe that? It was true. Bout the only true thing she ever said. Yeah, she dinn’ sugar coat it, laid it down on me when I was jus’ small. Seven billion of you, one of me. Scarcy stuff, huh?”
She took off her Sigil for a moment, bending the cap in her hands. Her eyes were unfocused, fixed on whatever memory She was examining. I fought down a mad desire to attack while She was monologging.
“When I got big I started working on that. Threw me in jail for some other stuff, but they never knew I’d killed a guy. Wasn’t nothin’. You know that tho. Killing ain’t nothing. But there were too many of you to kill.”
She paused for a few moments, picked back up the notes, flipped through them.
“So, the Fists are part of the plan for dealing with that. We are down to like 4 billion now. The game goes like this. The Process is set to kill most people who take it. Those who live are Ultras, and the Fists kill those. Anyone tough enough to take you out would be fun for me to take on.”
“Set to kill?” I erupted within the reserve. “What the hell does she mean by that?”
“As my Fist, you are gonn’ be fighting all the time. Killing off Ultras, making them kill their own people to make more. That’s what you do for me. You kill Ultras. What I do for you is two things.”
Prevailer held up two fingers, as though she needed to reiterate the concept of ‘1 + 1’.
“First off, I don’t kill you. I’ve never killed a Fist that was doing its job. Or, not for good. Anyway, if you kill for me, you are mostly safe from me. It’d be a pain in the ass to replace you.”
She gestured around for some kind of emphasis.
“You think I like wasting afternoons on this bullshit? That I like calling everyone together? It’s a huge pain! So I’m not gonna kill you until I have to. Sleep easy. That’s the first payoff.”
Indulger looked like he was about to say something at this point, but didn’t actually break his silence. Maybe he wasn’t as dumb as I’d feared.
“The second thing, you get one favor. Can be anything that is too much pain in the ass, of course. But mos’ stuff though? Done. Want a mountain of gold? No sweat. Want me to kill some punk you hate? Consider her dead.”
This time the silence stretched a bit longer, before Prevailer pointed to Indulger.
“Uh, yeah. We, we were talking about-“
“Uh…Uh…Stop stuttering, you sound like a lil’ bitch!”
Prevailer aped his mannerisms, his stoop and distinctive cadence, as she spoke. She moved her hands fast and laughed at his flinch. It was pure playground bullying.
“We want a boat!” said Indulger, firmly.
“What?!” I exploded again. “A goddamn boat?”
“A boat?” She said.
“A big damn boat. And all the people on board have to do what we say. We’ll sail across the ocean and kick ass wherever the sea goes.”
“Don’t his powers depend on contact with the ground?” asked the Colonel rhetorically.
Prevailer shook her head, as though amused or dismayed.
“A damn boat. Fine, done. You get through your trial and you can pick any boat you want. You’ll be in charge of everyone but me on board it.”
Trial? I felt a chill hand seize my heart. Getting the approval of a majority of her psychotic slaves wasn’t trial enough?
“Nice!” Indulger put up his hand and got a high five from a shell shocked looking Nirav. “Can’t wait to see it! You won’t be disappointed, Boss, our Boat will be the coolest place in the whole Regime.”
Prevailer said nothing, just sort of blinked at that. Indulger’s entire demeanor indicated that he had been expecting to be turned down. Now he seemed relieved, almost manic. She didn’t seem to know quite how to take that.
“So, Boss, what’s the trial gonna be? Or can’t you tell us?” Indulger’s audacity continued. He addressed Prevailer like you might anyone else, and seemed to be taking the insanity of this new hurdle in stride.
She seemed to be getting over her momentary confusion, and responded with a breezy carelessness that matched his tone.
“Go down south. Son’ of a gun calls hisself Thor is causing some trouble. He’s scrapped with Third and Sixth fist a time or two. He won’t know you though. I want Fourth Fist to go down there, kill Thor and his gals. Then come back to get Linked up.”
We were being deployed into battle, and with a Pantheon warlord, WITHOUT the Link? I wasn’t even going to get my chance to take action against the Regime?
I started to speak up, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Preventer give a slight head shake. As little as I liked her,she was probably right. Asking for clarifications, fighting the request…none of those were options. When She gave orders, we obeyed. Until I got the rest of the Fist on my side, and until the time came for open defiance this would remain true.
“Where-“ started Indulger, but something shut him up. Maybe it was Nirav’s subtle hand motions. Maybe it was Prevailer’s untroubled gaze. Whatever it was, it stopped him from trying to get directions from Her.
“We’ll take care of it.”
“Do that. Then come back. Tell Subtracter when you are done.”
We all nodded. She turned away and took out a handheld video game. It seemed like we were dismissed. We walked out of the room.
Once we’d gotten a little ways away down the hall I asked the question that had to be on everyone’s mind.
“Thor, I’ve heard that name. He’s a Pantheon heavy hitter, right? Fights in the south? About how many Ultras are in his crew?”
I didn’t really expect an answer to this. I was mostly just sort of establishing that I was a forward thinking person who the team should turn to in times like this. It was a bit jarring when Preventer answered immediately.