Fourth Fist rose out of the very earth before us.
They didn’t come up individually. They weren’t smeared with mud or lacerated by the rocks they’d passed through. Rather, it was as though a bubble of air had traveled through the ground, a sort of mobile cave in which they’d passed the time. Its edges made a kind of ripple in the ground for a moment, and then all was smooth once more.
The leader, Indulger, was unmistakable. He was a bull of a man, huge and rippling with muscles. Blotchy skin, crisscrossed by veins, his hair and eye color obscured by the mask with which he asserted his station. He was standing with his arms crossed, and the height difference made him look down on me, despite my position on the first step of the porch. The very image of the Regime’s contempt and cruelty.
The other man of the group was a much smaller presence. Condemner stood awkwardly to one side, one hand resting on a hip. He was slight, narrow faced and smiling. He had curly hair and his Sigil looked like it had started life as a golf hat. He had a gun at his belt, but not in a way that suggested that he had any particular intention of quick drawing it.
Fisher was probably the most striking of the group. A buxom blonde, she was unquestionably the hottest woman that I’d ever seen, and she was wearing the sort of thing a porn actress portraying a soldier would wear before the movie got to the good part. Her sigil sat delicately atop her head, a lady’s formal hat, worn deliberately askew.
She was the most obviously vigilant out of the bunch, openly looking around as they rose from the ground. The rest of them were staring straight at me, but Fisher, at least, was being somewhat cautious.
Her Beast was helping with that. It was a ghastly sight, ten feet tall and shiny black, like a monstrous cross between a beetle and a great ape. More eyes than a creature should need surveyed the area, and maws opened and closed as though it was trying to chew on the evening breeze.
Preventer, by contrast, was utterly unremarkable. She was a tiny woman, with pallid waxy skin and short black hair. Her outfit was similarly plain, corduroys and jeans, both several sizes larger than she needed. It looked like she was about to be swallowed up by the clothes, just pop her collar and sleeves and vanish into her shirt like a turtle into its shell.
The last member of the crew, Haunter, was the oldest woman I’d ever seen. Her face was deeply lined, almost furrowed. She had on an old cowboy hat, tied with a cord under her chin. Her hair was a frizzly grey, and her hands clutched one another as though to stem a tremor.
Only the eyes betrayed the Ultra within. Only the eyes made it clear that this was no aged matron, in need of shelter from a harsh world. One glance at those bright points revealed that Haunter was a piece with the world’s harshness. She was old, but age had not touched the core of her. Only her weaknesses had aged away.
I saluted them, straining to avoid revealing any hint of my hatred. There was a certain trick to saluting, a way to use it to indicate profound disrespect, and it took everything I had not to use it now. I would not chance warning them off for petty personal satisfaction.
My escort saluted as well. Dana’s blade limbs creaked and rattled as they snapped through right angles to arrive at her closest approximation. Aimee, Leslie and the other obvious Ultrahumans followed suit, and then, in proper sequence, my human forces.
The salute passed around the clearing, progressing from one soldier to the next with a pleasing exactness. All told I’d brought forty five combatants to the parlay. Officially, only 5 were Ultras. Dana and her squad were all obvious, and were presented as the Ultrahumans that they were. Slotted among my more conventional troops, however, were another 6 Ultras, dressed identically to my human forces. We had them outnumbered more than twice over in terms of augmented personnel.
They looked around then, and I tried to guess what they were thinking. The clearing, its air brisk with northern cold, wet with the promise of snow. The trees and crumpled buildings of the nameless small town that we’d selected as a meeting place, none grand enough to merit a second glance. And then there was the Deliverer.
Boxy and bulky, it dwarfed the small sheds nearby. It towered nearly three stories up, and was roughly cubical. I had instructed that it be set down in bunker mode, and I was hoping that the Fist would think it was a building. It pretty much looked like one, with the lifts packed away and the aerons on the other side.
“Commander” said Indulger.
Even his voice sounded like a monster’s. Deep and sinister. If someone spoke to me in that tone, ordinarily, I’d think they were doing an impression of a video game bad guy. With this guy’s frame and bulk, I got the feeling that it was genuine.
“Indulger” I responded.
There wasn’t exactly a protocol for this kind of thing. Each Fist had their own ways. I only needed to keep this going for a little while, and mirroring their demeanor seemed like the most likely way to avoid mishap.
Haunter snapped a salute, every bit as military as my men’s had been.
That wrong footed me for a moment. I’d been about to launch into my opening statements, but instead I just stood there for an instant, and their leader spoke into the momentary stillness.
“Oh, sorry about that. Jane tried to tell us that we were supposed to salute, but she didn’t think any of us got it quite right. So she’s doing it for all of us.”
His voice was still deep, but it was kind of hard to be intimidated by it now. It seemed childish, almost dimwitted.
“Quite all right,” I responded, mirroring politeness for politeness. If that was how they wanted to play It I could go along with that just as well I could do the icy formality thing.
“Great,” he said.
I couldn’t think of an answer to that, and just kind of stood there, deciding.
Once again, they interjected before I could decide what to do.
“I’m sorry for Indulger’s uncommunicative nature, Commander,” said Preventer. “What he’s trying to convey is that we are beyond thrilled to be here, on this historic day, when peace shall be established between America and the Union.”
I managed to avoid pulling a face at a description of the latest treaty, which had eleven predecessors, all broken by their side, as historic. I couldn’t however, keep from raising an eyebrow to hear the Regime referred to by its former name.
“Just so!” I responded, before anyone else could start talking. “This day will be long remembered. This futile fighting must end.”
I wasn’t entirely lying, I assured myself. For these five, at least, the fighting would be over very soon.
Preventer smiled and nodded, but didn’t say anything further. It was Indulger who took up the reins of the conversation.
“Yeah. We don’t need to fight the Union for a while. You guys must have better stuff to do also. Let’s sign the paper.”
Before I could correct him, Haunter seized Indulger and pulled him back, whispering in his ear. It was a strange visual, the aged and shrunken woman dragging the roided out bodybuildier back onto his heels. There was something parental about it.
“Our leader didn’t mean, of course, that we had to jump directly to the official signing of the treaty without giving you a chance to tell us what you want, Commander,” purred Fisher, leaning a little closer than I was comfortable with.
“I’ve been instructed to inform you that I’ve been told to inform you that…”
I took a hold of myself, wrenching my eyes away from her. Haunter and Indulger were finishing up their whispered conversation.
“..been told that, as ever, the Union stands ready to commit to a ceasefire without any compensatory demands. Our nation is eager to bring an end to this senseless and wasteful struggle, and welcomes the opportunity to reestablish prosperous relations with our southern neighbor.”
Indulger seemed about to say something, but Haunter preempted him.
“Surely, Commander, you wish for us to continue these discussions inside?”
“Of course,” I said, and turned to head within, gesturing for them to follow.
My mind churned madly. How to get the Fist to agree to come inside, where Indulger’s powers would be nullified, had been a matter of hours of debate. Mario and I had gamed out multiple scenarios, consulted with Isaac’s psych profiles, and come to the brink of a fist fight.
And now they suggested it.
I was missing something. There was no strategic edge to this demand. No REASON for it at all, that I could see. What could they possibly gain that was worth the loss of Indulger’s power?
They’d slipped up. That was the only explanation. These rookies had gotten lost in some tactical labyrinth of their own making, or allowed some petty grievance to drive them to score points against one another in defiance of all tactical sense. The exact details didn’t matter. The point was that the prey was coming, of their own will, into the jaws of the trap.
I led them into the “negotiation room”, held squarely in the center of the Deliverer, surrounded by the inertia-proofed walls that allowed for the vessel’s unique rapid transit. It was decked out as you’d expect for a meeting room, with a wide table in the center and chairs around the edges for flunkies and hangers on. We filed in quietly.
I sat at the center on my side, with Dana to my left and members of her squad filling out the rest of “our” chairs. The Fourth Fist sat across from me, with Indulger facing me directly and Haunter and Preventer to his immediate left and right, respectively.
“I’m sorry that we weren’t able to get this place set up perfectly. To tell you the truth, your offer of negotiations was something of a surprise.”
I was mostly just talking to take up time now. Our supporting forces had been caught off guard by the fact that we’d proceeded directly inside, rather than taking a half hour or so as planned. They’d be filing in even now, and I wanted to let them get to the access hatches before anything consequential was said.
“No, this is great,” said Indulger, looking around with wide eyes. He seemed every bit the country bumpkin. “Everything is so clean!”
It wasn’t, actually. We’d taken pains to muddy the ship up a bit, splashing gunk here and there, and weathering what furnishings we could. I guessed that living in squalor had left the Regime’s Ultras with an eye for the genuine article that we hadn’t been able to entirely fool.
“Anyway,” I said. “I’d like to say that it is an absolute honor to represent the first foreign power to congratulate you on your ascension to Prevailer’s favor. There are a lot of Ultrahumans in the Regime. You five must be something special to have garnered the nod.”
Surprisingly, their faces fell a bit at this, some awkward shifting.
“Thanks,” said Indulger.
“So…” Dana said, her voice squealing a bit as the hinges on her jaw pushed through their proscribed arcs. “Shall we get on with it?”
That was the signal. I’d stalled long enough. Dana had a comband implanted inside her ferrous form, and she’d been pinged that the ship was taking off.
This was the crux of my kidnapping scheme. This was the reason that I’d brought them inside a Deliverer. These craft have only been in use for a few years. I had bet it all on the notion that the Regime had never seen one before, or hadn’t briefed its killers on them if it had.
“Yes, let’s.” said Preventer.
They didn’t leap to the attack. They didn’t reveal some hidden trap. They didn’t seem to have any idea that the cube we were in the center of had risen from its resting place and was carrying us north at a rapid pace.
I’d done it. So long as the ambush itself went properly, I’d broken the Fist system. Snitcher had seen their location on the way in. He couldn’t know where they were now. Which meant that She couldn’t know. Which meant that these five were on their own.
“Commander Martinez mentioned before that the Union places no preconditions on an immediate peace,” said Dana. “Is it too much to hope that Prevailer is of similar mind?”
We didn’t really need any more time than this. We were already miles away from the location that Prevailer would be warping to if she tried to come to their aid. But I’d take all the time that I could get. Besides which, their negotiating instructions, the things that the Regime demanded for its latest Danegeld, would be of interest to Marian and our mutual leaders.
“Alas,” said Condemner. He had a surprisingly youthful voice. “She requires a gesture to indicate that your leadership understands the world’s changed condition, and awards her the respect that she deserves.”
It was going to be a pleasure putting these guys down.
“Naturally.” I responded. “What form is this ‘gesture’ to take?”
“She wants to help you in your war,” said Indulger.
I was struck dumb once again. I just sat there, not saying a thing. Then…
Haunter spoke up.
“Prevailer believes that the Union lacks a proper understanding of the true nature of power. She believes that the easiest way to teach a dog is with the whip, but to teach men you must use a lesson plan. She intends to show you, all of you, that her power is beyond imagination.”
Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined this. Prevailer, ‘showing her power’, by defeating the Pantheon! Prevailer, saving the Union! Had her madness progressed so far?
It wasn’t out of the question. Her military actions had never had any logic behind them before, and it was obvious that she had no interest in destroying either of the nations that she warred with. It could be that her ego was so fragile, her insecurity so vast, that she needed to hear her name chanted, needed our explicit adulation. It wasn’t beyond imagination that she’d come to the Union’s aid just to hear us choke on our thanks.
But it must be a trap. Things didn’t work out this way. Evil didn’t suddenly offer to fight other evil. Peggy Martin didn’t suddenly become a defender of civilization.
But could I take the chance? If this was a genuine offer it could be a game changer, a saving grace for the Middle Eastern Front, at a time when by all accounts we were in dire need of such a thing.
Surely it was a trick, a trap of some kind. I couldn’t immediately think of something that she would gain from this, but there must be something.
Dana coughed slightly, the sign that the squads outside of the room were in place. At my signal they’d burst in and take our foes in to custody.
Mario tapped his finger on the desk, catching my eye for a moment. He’d been spared by Indulger once, he and all of the men who were with him, even after they’d assaulted him.
In the gas station, in the part of me that would never leave that place, Remover’s words echoed again.
“You’ll just bitch out. You’ll make up a reason, you won’t go through with it. You know that you are weak, that you don’t matter. I’m letting you go, because you are poison to anyone dumb enough to depend on you.”
Fourth Fist was quiet before me, watching me take in their leader’s offer. Little knowing I was weighing their fate, and perhaps the fate of the Union itself.
I opened my mouth and spoke.