Beth put the dossier down with a surprisingly light *thump* noise.
I picked it up, flipped through the measly pages that were present.
“Where are the rest of them?” I asked.
Beth had her bosses habit of pursing her lips and shaking her head a little before giving an answer that wasn’t going to be liked. Isaac never quite pulled it off, always looked a bit constipated. But it somehow worked for Beth.
“These are all we’ve got, Commander.”
I leaned back in my chair. All we had. Could that possibly be true?
At least I had my chair to lean back in. Returning from Dartmouth may have objectively worsened my surroundings, but the fact that they were my own digs made them infinitely more comfortable.
My office was a former workshop, low ceilings, inclined walls and lit by dangling bulbs. I had an old school desk pulled up in front of my rocking chair, and my comband slung off on one of the chair’s arms. There was an old overstuffed couch where Mario and Dana were sitting. The whole thing was shabby and vaguely disreputable.
I loved every inch of it.
“In our defense, Commander, this Fist is brand new. We have zero first hand reports of it in action.”
Beth also had a knack for making excuses without whining. Somehow she just seemed to be stating obvious facts, that just happened to exculpate Isaac’s spies from my ire. If I could bottle that talent, bureaucrats the world over would converge to buy it in bulk.
“But surely She didn’t just pick some scrubs off the street!” Dana said.
Dana was my adjunct, as well as my bodyguard. Her position was roughly analogous to Mario’s, but where he commanded human troops, she was in charge of my favorite Ultra squad.
Dana’s gift had made her big, loud and strong. She wasn’t built the same way that we were, flesh folded around bone. Since receiving the gift she’d become a creature of angles, of jagged polygon looking shapes interlocking to form a rough idol of a woman. Cracks and snaps followed her every movement, and she relished it.
Beth looked back at her with a slight grimace. It wasn’t anti Ultra bigotry, it was just that the two were so very different. Beth was poised, elegant. A delicate middle eastern woman with impeccable taste. Dana was … not.
“They aren’t ‘scrubs’, whatever you might mean by that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their prior activities were visible to the public’s eyes. They may well have proven themselves to the Regime more covertly. We don’t exactly maintain detailed records on every Ultrahuman in Prevailer’s Regime. This is particularly true for those who take no part in front line fighting, such as these five.”
“No part in the fighting?” asked Mario.
Mario was a team leader. One of a number under me. Officially there was no reason for him to be in this room. But in reality he was my number two. I’d have promoted him long ago, but he’d made it clear that he had no intentions of leaving his squad.
“That seems odd.” Dana piled on.
“I admit, it is a bit strange, but when has Prevailer ever felt bound by our notions of what is optimal? She might have picked them for their height, how good they were at sucking up, or because she thought their names were funny. We don’t know. But She did not pick them for their military service.”
I waved the discussion off, flipping through the files.
“Haunter…Indulger…Preventer…Fisher and Condemner? This is who we are dealing with?”
I pursed my lips, pondered. It was a decidedly mixed feeling not to be going up against any of the existing Fists. It meant that the plans that we’d prepared so painstakingly for dealing with each of them wouldn’t be of any use, but it was also relieving in some tiny way. I could rehearse my revenge on Remover and her cronies as many times as I wanted, in the privacy and safety of my own mind, but the truth was that she scared the hell out of me. We’d have better odds facing off with a brand new Fist than we would against the archfiends who had Toppled the old world.
“Who is the leader?” asked Dana. I passed her Indulger’s fact sheet, ignoring the crinkling and snapping sounds that her arm made as she angled it to take the paper.
“This meathead,” I commented.
“Wait, what?” asked Mario, and he leaned over to take a look at the sheet that Dana was looking at.
“Jesus he’s a big one,” said Dana. “He might be bigger than me.”
“Holy shit!” said Mario. “This is the guy.”
“What?” I asked.
“You mean that this is the road builder that you encountered in the Regime?” asked Beth, almost simultaneously.
Mario looked at us wordlessly for a moment, and I indicated that he should answer her question first. It was the better question.
“Yeah, this is that guy. Shit, what a world.”
I remembered that report. They’d engaged a Regime Ultrahuman who was engaged in construction activities. He had gotten the better of it, but they’d been able to flee.
“Anything useful about his powers?” I asked.
“Sure, yeah, he’s an earth mover…but, Fidel, do we really want to kill this guy?”
Did we want to kill a Regime Fist? How could he even ask that?
Something of my thoughts must have shown in my face, because Mario blanched.
“Not ours to ask why, guy,” said Dana. “What do you know about his powers?”
Mario took a second to think, clearly wracking his brains. Beth was using her comband to access something, presumably the official report on the incident.
“Well, like this fact sheet says, he’s got extreme earth moving powers. He was building that road all by himself. He also fought by using the ground against us, launched Rachel like a catapult, slid himself all over.”
I nodded. That was useful.
“But more importantly, he knew what Rachel was hiding before she showed them to him. I’d bet money that he can sense impacts on the ground, or feel through it or something similar. The way he was moving…he wasn’t using his eyes to keep track of everything. He just kind of knew where we were.”
That was rather more than useful, it might have saved the op.
“Alright, great stuff Mario.” I said.
“He didn’t manage to kill any of you?” asked Beth, clearly having finished her perusal. She speed read, like many of Isaac’s spooks.
“That’s just it, that’s what I was going to say before. He wasn’t trying to kill us. Just the opposite. He was trying very hard to make sure we stayed alive.”
My skepticism must have shown on my face, as Mario threw up his hands in mock surrender.
“I know, I know. Regime, therefore bad guys. I got it.”
We sat in silence for a few moments then, passing around the fact sheets.
I spoke up after reading a bit about Haunter.
“Beth, can you confirm this for me? Are they really saying that this bitch can control dozens of her creations at the same time?”
She simply nodded.
Dana tried to whistle, it made a sound more like a tire squeal than I’d be comfortable admitting.
“Dozens? I’ve never heard of a gift that lets an Ultra multiply their attention like that. I didn’t even think that that was possible.”
“Why, is there something about evil Grandma that is somehow special?” asked Mario. “She seemed like one of the weakest to me. Generates imaginary soldiers that pop when you hit them.”
I nodded for Dana to explain. I tried to keep abreast of general Ultra power knowledge, all officers did, but Ultrahuman personnel tended to be fanatic about it. If I had their ‘gift’ I probably would too. I shuddered at the thought.
“It’s not about weakest or strongest, Mario. It’s about finesse. No one can control their gift beyond how they can think about it. Mover’s TK may grip everyone at the same time, but she can only do as much as she can think to do with it. Same for Polly and Ri. It’s been a rule for as long as I’ve been following the topic. An Ultra’s gift only does what they tell it to do. But if you look at these reports, this Haunter is having nine or ten conversations at once through her puppets. That’s impossible.
It spoke to the weirdness of the situation that no one corrected the woman who looked like she was cast out of jagged iron as she called something impossible.
We fell to reading once again. It lasted uninterrupted for a time, before Beth broke it with a muttered curse.
I motioned for the folder that she was reading, and I traded with her, handing over the basically empty one on ‘Fisher’, and getting the ‘Preventer’ dossier instead.
I flipped past the character stuff, conscious of all eyes on me. The gist was basically a Regime bigwig, bit of a scientist wannabe. She’d killed a lot of people, I didn’t need the exact details. I needed to know what Beth had seen.
And there it was. Ultra Toughness Three. Mission failed before it started.
“Shit,” I said.
Mario motioned for it, and I handed back the folder, a sick feeling welling up inside of me.
Once again, Ultra Power was warping my world. Once again, the bad guys would triumph not through superior skill or training, not through hard work or stategy, but because some system, some cruel God, had assigned them invincibility. Because, at the end of the day, Preventer could not be harmed. So their Link could not be broken, so fighting them was pointless.
We could kill the remaining four, at whatever horrible cost it would be, and they’d just come back again. It would be useless. No wonder the new Fourth Fist had no front line combat experience. Who needed it, when you were invincible?
I refused to accept it.
“This will make this a bit tougher.” I said.
It would make it impossible, but I didn’t say that. I’d left the gas station determined to prove Remover wrong. Human effort was not futile in the face of Ultrahuman might. We mattered. Our efforts mattered. I believed that with all of my heart and soul. I would believe it now.
“Tougher?” asked Beth.
How much had Isaac shared with her? Probably not everything. In fact, definitely not. He probably lied to his diary. Ordinarily it was a huge annoyance, but at this instant it was clutch.
“I’ll have to use Dandelion.” I said, decisively.
‘Dandelion’ was actually the codename for the operation to evacuate the North American continent, to be used in times of absolute crisis. I’d picked it out of my memory as the first ominous secret operation I could think of that Beth wouldn’t have clearance to know about.
Beth nodded, sagely. I carefully refrained from giving a victory fist pump.
Dana definitely knew I was full of shit. Mario probably did. They’d been with me long enough to read through me. Neither of them would say so in front of Beth, though. There was an unwritten code. Soldiers before spies, basically.
“We’ll need to rig up transport, once we have them restrained.” I continued, basically off the cuff.
“Not a problem,” responded Mario. “We can use a Zipper.”
Bless his heart.
“We are NOT bringing Regime prisoners onto a Zipper!” insisted Beth. “They are top secret craft, and a vital strategic advantage. It would be completely unacceptable even to employ Zippers in situations that would allow the enemy to intuit that they exist, much less bring them onboard!”
“Quite right.” I said. “We’ll use a Deliverer.”
“Are we sure that…” began Dana, and the conversation drifted off into the details of how to transport them once we’d captured them.
Beth loved to bust bubbles, and giving her the opportunity to cite regs at him had been a stroke of genius on Mario’s part. She’d fixate on this transportation debate now, and probably not return to the earlier part of the conversation where she’d faked knowing what a code word meant.
This was only a prerequisite hurdle cleared, of course. With Beth on board, or at least not protesting to Isaac, I could go forward with the attack. Or the abduction, as it was apparently becoming. But I still had to actually figure out a way to subdue or destroy a woman that reality treasured more than the earth itself.
To my knowledge, no Ultra with Ultra Toughness Three had ever been killed by anyone except Prevailer. They were ontologically invincible, totally and completely proof against harm.
I thought about Preventer’s file again. She was a modern day Mengele, killing people in dubious experiments. Useless. She had little to no military experience. Useless. She was a member of Adder’s coterie. That might be something. Adder’s followers tended to be more cautious, more caring.
Caring…now there was an idea. This Fist was new. Perhaps the ins and outs of immortality hadn’t sunken in yet? Might she allow us to restrain her, in exchange for her comrade’s welfare?
The gas station loomed again in my thoughts, but this time I embraced the memories. Remover had taught me that concern for others was a weakness that could be exploited. Could I turn that lesson against her peer? Why not?
The world might not let us hurt an Ultra with Preventer’s gifts, but there was nothing in her power that suggested that she couldn’t surrender. Given the choice between watching her last remaining comrades suffer, and coming quietly, might she not accept?
I didn’t need to be sure, I just needed to have a chance. The world didn’t deliver certainties. Not to humans like me, and I’d long ago decided that the Process was a sucker’s bet. But this pampered bureaucrat. This scientist wannabe. A bet on her being tight with the first friends she’d ever had? That was a bet I’d take any day.
The plan began to unspool in my mind. Maybe the inability to kill her was actually for the best. What would destroying Fourth Fist again actually gain us, anyway? We’d probably just called Her down on our heads. But if we could CAPTURE it…
No one had ever captured a Fist. Snitcher could see through their eyes, and backup, in the form of Subtracter or Prevailer, could be there in a flash. But this was a Fist that was coming out for diplomacy. A Fist that She would expect to be in boring meetings for days. In other words, a Fist that she would not bother to watch closely.
If we jumped them quickly, subdued them without exciting Snitcher, and got them into the dark, then we’d be in business. We had nighteyes, but the Regime didn’t. Snitcher wouldn’t see a damn thing, and we could disappear into the world at large. Fourth Fist wrapped up and delivered.
How many mysteries of the Link would a captive Fist reveal? What vulnerabilities might we discover? Perhaps this would be a turning point in the whole war.
Remover had told me that I didn’t matter, that nothing a dagger like me did would ever change anything. I’d lived since that day with the intention of making her choke on those pompous words. But, when I was honest with myself, I knew that revenge was petty, venal even.
By capturing Fourth Fist, revealing their secrets and dismantling the Fist system I would be saving the world. Now that was a motive I could be proud of.
And making Remover mortal, and then dead… that was just icing on the cake.
Just a reminder that in November I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo, so there will be interludes from various side characters rather than full updates. If there’s anyone you want me to make sure to include, just let me know in a comment.
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