Fidel 1:6

The gunshot hung in the air.

Even some of my men seemed startled.  I still had a half squad in the room, spaced out around the edges, covering the captives.  They’d known that I was going to apply pressure to Haunter, and still there was gasping and starting at the sudden blast.

“Bitch.  You really think I’m dumb enough to buy this talk of a secret-“

I was interrupted as Haunter let out a primal scream.

She reared back and absolutely howled.  Nothing preternatural about it, no Ultra power or anything, but the absolute limit of an untrained lungs capacity for noise, vented into a room already stilled by a sudden sound.  Everyone flinched.

When she lowered her head, I saw tears glistening unshed in her eyes.  Decent acting.

“Why did you…”

My turn to cut her off.  I raised the gun an inch, concentrating her attention.

“I’ll ask the questions, thanks.  Don’t forget the line of crap you were feeding me earlier, about how you are going along with me voluntarily, because we are all on Team Screw Prevailer?  Or are you going to go with a different one now?”

She worked her mouth, visibly straining with herself.

“Not cool, man!” Indulger yelled.

I looked over at him, helpless in Dana’s grip.  Her iron arms tight about his wrists and throat.

“We are doing the best answering that we can do, guy.  Why are you shooting?  What did we ever do to you?”

His dull monotone rose slightly in a gasp at the end, as Dana wrenched his back a bit.  I’d told her about the gas station, about how Fists acted when they had the upper hand.  She understood what they really were, or at least she understood my thoughts on the matter.  A good soldier.

“You would have me believe that Prevailer is afraid?  Putting aside whether or not I believe in a covert Pantheon force for now, I certainly don’t believe that if such a thing did exist, Prevailer would seek allies against it.  The woman who runs her nation from a ‘Sniper Court’ where anyone is free to fire upon her.  The woman who bullies and assaults the world at every opportunity…you would have me believe that she got so frightened of this secret army that she wants to team up?  Mrs. “Force Rules The World” herself?”

“Bullies are rarely brave, in the face of actual threats.  They prey upon the helpless.  It is my believe that Peggy Martin never outgrew the psychology of her youth, never changed, fundamentally, from the creature of the criminal streets that underwent the process so many years ago.”

Once again Condemner, the arson fiend, spoke with the most cultured voice.  He picked his phrases, made everything sound fine and reasonable.  He’d also killed Bany and Redo, that we knew of.  Hundreds, thousands dead at this guy’s hands, and here he stands bantering with me.  Guess his victims didn’t matter to him, we were just daggers, after all.

I cut off the train of thought as unprofitable.  I turned my attention back to Haunter, who had actually managed to squeeze a tear onto her leathery old face.  She was muttering to herself.

“…better.  Have to…”

I couldn’t quite make it out.  I shot her again.  Another image fell out of her back.  This time her power had conjured up a young man, I didn’t have time to make out any more details before he faded away.

Her mouth opened once more, but this time the primal howl didn’t come.  She just made a sort of choking, ‘gak’-ing sound.

“Yes?” I asked.  “I couldn’t quite hear you.”

By some supreme effort she mastered herself, bringing her face back to a more neutral position.

“I was saying, Commander Martinez, that you have to be better than this.”

I didn’t shoot her for that.  She was answering me, even if she was giving me lip.

“I HAVE to, do I?  I’m not sure you understand precisely what was entailed in allowing us to capture you.”

“No, I don’t mean…” She trailed off.

“Lost for words?  Can’t imagine how a filthy dagger like me is going to proceed without your special ‘Ultra’ insight?  I guess I’ll just muddle on through.”

“I didn’t mean…” she fell silent again, but just before I did anything she took up the tread of her speech again.  “didn’t mean ‘better’ as in ‘more capable’, I meant something like ‘righteous’.”

That threw me.  That was an old Christian word, I knew what it meant, but it didn’t seem to fit in this context.

“You lost me there, grandma.” I said.

“Righteous.  You are Union.  You are the good guys.  But this…this slipshod interrogation, murdering my passengers for nothing… this can’t be you?!”

Her voice rose as she said the last, eyes widening, looking straight at me.

“Come off it, lady.” I told her.  “We’ve got briefings on you.  I know that you didn’t feel a thing from those bullets, so you can just save the injured act.  I may just be a dagger, but I’m not stupid enough to fall for that transparent charade.”

“None of us have referred to you by that epithet”, Preventer informed me, “and yet you keep bringing it up.  I assure you, Commander, we credit you with an intelligence equal to our own.  If we lack regard for you, it is because you have, through your own barbaric actions, your treachery and cruelty, forfeited it.”

I glared at the invulnerable bitch.  She was the real problem here.  Easy to be calm, to keep your composure, when you knew for sure that there’d be another day tomorrow.   She didn’t know about Daria, about the Dragon.  She didn’t understand that there was every possibility that this was her last day in this world.

I considered having Paris drag her out now, but decided against it.  I wanted this.  I wasn’t sure what ‘this’ was, but it involved the whole Fist.  They needed to lose, every one of them.

I knew, on some level, that I was asking for too much.  I knew that I should just kill the rest, have Dragon freeze Preventer over and resign myself to getting some information and a Fist out of action for a while as the fruits of this operation.  But the image had taken possession of me.  I couldn’t stop envisioning First Fist getting the news that their friends, their peers, had fallen at my hands.  Had somehow died because of the man they disgraced and released, the dagger they thought would never be able to strike back.  I didn’t have a way to make that a reality, but I could FEEL it somehow.  She could die.  I was seized by an unreasonable certainty.

“Please…” said Haunter.  “Please, just be sane.  Just don’t be this hateful, murderous thing.  Let there be something in the world worth protecting, just one thing.  Let the Union be my America.  Be professional.  Be reasonable. Please.”

I looked at her for a long moment at that. If she was faking, she was doing a damn good job.  I heard a soul in her voice, a woman straining to express the truth that she carried within her like a torch down through the decades.  The ring of truth.  I didn’t say anything, just stared.

But, for all that Remover had thought of me, I did learn.  I’d learned at the gas station what a sincere voice was worth.  The radioed pleadings that I’d obeyed, the impassioned orders…. all of it a counterfeit of Alarmer’s creation.  You couldn’t trust impressions.  The vile could beg as easily as the virtuous.  They could say the same things, in the same way.

Feeling as though I was in slow motion I raised the gun again.  I looked straight into her watery eyes.  Not this time.  Crocodile tears would not sway me.

I shot Haunter, right between her eyes.

All hell broke loose.

Even as Haunter’s spirit popped out her back, doing a decent impression of a human with a head shot as it faded, other spirits were emerging from her front.

She’d shaped these into imitations of bygone military men.  American soldiers, rifles in hand and fatigues fluttering in ghostly winds about them.  They rolled from her person and opened fire on me with military precision.

Their bullets were stopped by the Dragon’s power, unable to move through the field of iced air that she’d left in front of me.  A veritable firing squad’s worth of ghostly bullets clattered to the ground before me, as wasted and useless as they’d have been if they were the images that they resembled.

My orders were carried out throughout the rest of the room, even as Haunter launched her doomed effort.

Paris lifted Preventer up over her shoulders and sprinted out of the room in a blur, soldiers diving from her path.  She’d have Preventer in Isolation before too long, unless something completely unforeseen were to occur.

Dragon’s coldfires flared again, but didn’t rush to attack Condemner.  He could barely bring forth his flames, he was no threat.  Dragon was primarily focused on the zero wall that was shielding us from Haunter’s bullets.

Indulger tried some wrestling crap and Dana broke his neck.  That shit didn’t work on my girl.  Not from someone who didn’t really have Ultra Strength anyway.  She backed away through the zero wall after doing so, began to make her way around the perimeter of the room to her place at my side.

Kelly didn’t move a muscle, and her power stopped the bullets that Haunter’s counterfeit soldiers sent her way as easily as it did Fisher.

My soldiers began to return fire, Dragon opening pinpricks for their bullets to pass through as she had for me.  Fish in a barrel, and Haunter’s constructs winked out as they were shot.

I was impressed by how well she did, even so.  Despite waiting until her men were helpless.  Despite the bullshit fake crying theatrics, there was steel at Haunter’s core.  She used her constructs like a first rate military mind.

They flipped the table, sheltered behind it, used Kelly’s field as another piece of cover, and continued their accurate, useless fusillade.  She used them like a real squad, with the kind of precision and focused excellence that we strove for in the Union.  Her images fought like heroes.

But when your tactical situation could be summed up as ‘surrounded in a wall that lets bullets in, but not out’, it didn’t really matter.  My men moved about the room’s circumference, carefully picking their targets, popping her shadows one by one.

She vomited forth another wave, and then another.  It didn’t help.  We shot them like we had the last set.

I made it my own goal to put the bullets through Haunter, when the situation allowed.  I maneuvered around the room’s edge, Dana at my side, trying to draw a bead on the hag when the whirl of shades and smoke allowed it.  I took shots over Condemner’s cowering shoulders.

“Atten-Hut!” boomed a voice.

We stopped, almost despite ourselves.  It was a voice that recalled basic training, a voice that summoned back the hard hearted, hard voiced men who had worked us over in our youths.  A military voice, a stentorian voice.  The voice of another one of her shades.

I felt a ringing anticlimax rising in me as I raised my pistol again.  But something about the way it held itself gave me pause, and apparently gave my men pause as well.

“I am Colonel Lewis, United States Military,” the shade announced.  “I hereby offer our complete and unconditional surrender.”

It wasn’t anything that the shade said that convinced me to hold up a hand, halting the fusillade, it was the look on Haunter’s face.  She looked like her puppy had just died.  A profound sorrow, even despair. it honestly looked like she was worried for this construct, despite sending so many of the others to be popped.

“Colonel?” I asked.

He simply nodded, striding towards me.

That was a rank in the old world militaries, I thought.  Something below general, above captain.  I wasn’t exactly clear.  We’d simplified things, but Haunter was clearly a history buff.

“I’m not about to have a negotiation with a special effect,” I told her.  “And you don’t get to surrender after you start shooting at my men.”

Haunter simply stared at me, her face a mask of misery.

“Commander,” said the Colonel shade again, “I want to tell you something, before you resume your operations, as one military man to another.”

He’d stopped short, standing in the middle of the room, roughly equidistant from the spot where Haunter cowered beneath the ruins of the table and the spot where Kelly held the Fisher beast at bay.  Condemner was between us, as was the wall of Dragon’s power.

I motioned for it to draw closer.  I wasn’t sure precisely what I was going to get out of humoring her, but there didn’t seem to be any harm.  I could resume the onslaught at any time.

No, I knew precisely what I was going to get out of it.  I wanted to hear her beg.  I wanted to hear the bitch beg.  Let it be through an imaginary Colonel if it had to, I just wanted to hear a Fist beg like my comrades had begged.

It would do her just as much good.

“Commander,” it said again as he drew closer, and I held up my hand, halting it.

I could see no weapons, but there was no guarantee that a ghost didn’t pack a suicide vest or something similar.  It could talk from right there.

“I wasn’t offering our surrender to you.”

Even as he said it, he was throwing himself forward.

I wasn’t caught unawares at all, hurling myself to one side.  The wall was still between us, no matter what her play was she had gained nothing by this.

The Colonel hit Condemner, who brought forth the tiniest fire from a frozen hand, the shade instantly went up in flame.

The Dragon’s power was greater than Condemners…so long as he didn’t take souls.

Suddenly a wave of flame burst forth from his frozen frame, a tidal wave of inferno, like hell unleashed, parting around the beings within the ring and breaking against the barrier.  I shielded my eyes, I’d have to put my trust in the  Dragon after all.

Not enough.  Even with a soul he didn’t have enough.  She was stronger.

I almost laughed.  Saved by the same bullshit lottery luck of Ultra power that I despised.  I saw the wave of flames crest…and then break.  Dragon strained, but she HELD.  This daughter of the Union, this first-rate Ultra.  She held.  The flames died down before us, and her shield of frozen air wavered slightly, but even draining Haunter’s construct hadn’t given Condemner the strength to breach it.

The flames died away in time to see Haunter feed him another dozen shades.

Condemner’s body flared, faded away, as a towering demon roared up.  Dragon’s shield cracked like glass as he surged against us.

Bullets ripped through it, but there was no man to shoot, just fire.  Dana stepped before me, flared white hot and melted.  The heat burned my face away.

I caught fire, and my world ended in anguish.

 

 

Holiday break

Hey readers, sorry for this.  I’m going to be traveling over the holidays, and I wasn’t able to get the updates for tomorrow or this sunday done ahead of time.  This means that the next time that I’ll post new content will be the 28th.

 

Thanks for your patience, I appreciate you sticking with me when I miss days.  I try not to do it often.

Snitchin’

“Show me the good part again.  The bit where the guy kicks my guy in the face.”

To the degree that I was able, I nodded.

That wasn’t much.  I had precious little motor control, these days.  Her Company Men had been aiming to leave me unable to move my legs, but spinal destruction wasn’t exactly a precise science.  I’d been losing functionality by degrees ever since, and now I was nearly a statue.

I reached into my gift, took the feed from Dale and rolled it back up again, looping it around the moment when the Union man had kicked him in the teeth.

She grunted, a dull, masturbatory sound.  She ground the broken pool cue that She was using around, issuing a longer grunt.

I kept still, leaving her senses linked to Indulger’s past.  I knew what would come next.  Prevailer would want to hit someone, to watch them hurt, and there was no one else in the room.

Sure enough, I felt Her fingers in my hair a moment later, pulling my head back.  She loomed above me.

“Show me something good”, She said, eyes thick with desire.

I’d been through this before.  I couldn’t save myself what was coming, not the ever escalating search for her particular brand of imagery.  Not the sympathetic assaults on my person.  Not Her perpetually startled fury when the nerve damage that she’d inflicted on my kept me from responding to her torments.  Knowing it was coming didn’t make it any better.  The possibility of Torturer floated before me, before I turned my mind aside.

I tried to cast my mind away, as She began to grind again.  I filled Her senses with every scene I’d ever recorded that had satisfied Her in the past.  It was immensely difficult, keeping the ‘good parts’ coming without distracting Her by switching things up too quickly, or annoying Her by lingering too long.  It required immense concentration.  But I had something now that I’d never had before.

Hope.

Greatly daring, as She began to grunt in sympathy to the blows that were being dished out in the visions that I showed Her, I used my gift on myself.  I took my sight, took my sound, away.

I took myself to an earlier part of the conversation, that I’d carefully distracted Her from paying attention to.  To where I’d been outed, where the Union learned that I was Linker.  To my only hope of salvation.

If that knowledge had left the room, and I had every reason to believe that it had, then very soon I would escape from Her clutches.

Presuming, of course, that the dead were beyond Her reach.

Fidel 1:5

We took a moment to reorganize the prisoners, shuffle them around.  I was proud that no one took the opportunity to unduly rough up the Fist.  That would probably come later, but discipline for now.

We’d worked out, ahead of time, how we’d restrain the group if we ended up taking them.  We put that plan into effect now.

Indulger was grabbed by Dana.  She restrained him by holding one of her claws around his wrists, wrenched around in the small of his back.  With no powers, that would take care of him.

Condemner was simply standing at gunpoint, a number of my unpowered soldiers, spread out around the room, were keeping an eye on him.  There wasn’t really a way to manually restrain someone who could become flame at any moment.  The best we could do was keep everyone well away from him, deny him any chance to get his fire on someone and power up.  There had been a contingency to kill him first, just to let them know that we meant business, but I’d decided to milk their cooperative mood as long as I could.

I’d used my big guns on Fisher, at least in terms of capture.  Both of her forms were bathed in orange light from Kelly’s gift, and she stood between them, consistently reapplying it.  It was a decision that I’d come to based on how talkative she was, relative to the others, and the innate slipperiness of her shadow abilities.

Paris was standing by Preventer, not exactly holding her, but very clearly up in her personal space and ready to take action the instant it was necessary.  Preventer’s blades shouldn’t hurt Paris, who was Ultra tough 1, and she had the speed necessary to take action if it was required at a moment’s notice.

With Preventer being invincible it had been necessary to think creatively about how to handle her if something came up.  Paris’s directive was my solution.  If she started a ruckus she’d be manhandled and hauled off out of the room at Ultra speed, removing her from this fight, and leaving her in a duel with someone that she couldn’t harm.  Paris would keep her busy and generally contained until we’d dealt with the rest.

That just left Haunter, who had been doing most of the talking.  She was another with no obvious restraints.  I’d left her standing alone, similar to how I’d handled Condemner.  If she made any trouble, she’d be shot.  That wouldn’t be damaging to the Ultra, of course, but it would mean the destruction of her constructs, and her psych profile indicated that she was desperate to prevent this.

“What would you like to know?” she asked.

Technically, it was probably against some kind of interrogator rule to let the prisoners ask the first question, but I didn’t really care.

“Everything.  Anything and everything that might be useful.  I promise you, as long as you are spilling, we won’t get bored of hearing it.”

I actually did have some very specific questions in mind, but I figured that before I got to anything that they might balk at I’d let them throw out whatever they liked.  It certainly couldn’t hurt.

“Very well.  The most pertinent and prized piece of information we have is simply this.  Snitcher is Linker.”

I let that hang in the air for a second.  It would certainly explain a few things.

“Interesting…” I said.

She seemed to feel that that meant that I needed some convincing.

“It is just different degrees of his gift.  The link that he uses to let him see through people’s eyes, the link that he uses to let the Fists pull one another back from death…just different ways to use the same power.  His gift lets him attach souls to one another.”

I nodded.  It made sense when I thought about it.

That didn’t necessarily mean that I believed them, mind.  This interrogation wasn’t really about gathering actionable intel.  I couldn’t trust a thing that they said.  But it would open up lines of inquiry, unlock future potential actions, that kind of thing.

“Go on,” I told her.

Haunter gave me a long look.

“Prevailer’s prison, where she keeps Torturer, and the more serious Ultras that she isn’t using yet…it’s located within a day of the Lair.  It is an underground facility of some kind, apparently old government in its construction style.  A good guess would be the bunkers under the old White House or something similar.”

I wasn’t terribly surprised by this revelation, I’d heard similar surmises in intelligence briefings.  Prevailer clearly had SOME kind of hidden base, and it could just as easily be an underground bunker as anything less cliché.

“Interesting.” I said again.

Preventer spoke up.

“Prevailer rarely deploys in the early evenings, or at night.  She prefers to do Her fighting early in the morning, it gets Her in the mood for the rest of the day.  If you engage Regime assets, then as a general rule you should do so as it get dark.  That way you run the smallest chance of encounter Her.”

More stuff we already knew.  More presumptions that the guys who were actually fighting against these scumbags fulltime couldn’t figure out their patterns, given decades of sampling.  I refrained from snapping at her with a minor effort.

“Why are you being so helpful?” I asked.

The other stuff wasn’t big, but the revelation about Linker’s identity, if it panned out, had the potential to change everything.  I didn’t feel like their will had broken, like they felt themselves helpless, so why were they cooperating so easily?  I didn’t like it, didn’t trust it.

“Make up your mind,” snapped Haunter.  “Are you questioning us or not?  Jesus, are you crazy enough to take the gamble that you can snatch a Fist right out from under Her nose… for information that you don’t even want?  That you are just going to squint at and walk away from?

I waved a hand at them, absently, and continued to think it through.

“Look, this isn’t complicated, guy.”

This from Indulger.  I looked over at the lummox, raised an eyebrow.

“None of us like Her or Her goons.  We didn’t want to become a Fist at all.  We want to fight against Her.  We will help you any way we can, man.”

Indulger managed to sound relaxed, even powerless and restrained.  It was either an incredible display of bravery, or the product of a mind so dim I wondered how he remembered to put his dumb mask on every morning.

“He’s basically correct,” said Preventer.  “Our motivations in becoming a Fist can be broadly described as ‘selfish’, and none of us has any warm feelings towards the organization which we are officially a part of.  There is no need for this unpleasantness, Commander.  We would cooperate with you even if you didn’t take such an aggressive stance.”

There it was.  They were attempting to lull us, get us to drop our guard.  An extension of the original diplomatic strategy.  It was almost disappointing, but I could make it work to my advantage.

“Fantastic,” I said, wryly.  “So pleasant to meet comrades where I expected enemies.  You will pardon, I trust, the precautions that I’ve taken.  Some people, not me of course, but some people, might think that the Regime’s killers were pot committed.  I’m sure you won’t begrudge a dagger his precautions, hm?  Since you share our ideals and all?”

Haunter rolled her eyes.

“There’s no call to be sarcastic about this.  We know that you don’t trust us.  We know that you are just pumping us for information.  What we are attempting to communicate to you is that we are fine with that.  Ask us anything, and we’ll answer.”

“Fine.”

I let the silence talk for a moment.  Looked everyone over.  Time to test this compliance in a real way.

“So, while we are all being pals.  What was up with this bogus peace overture?  Why does your boss feel a sudden need to pretend to want peace with the Union?

They looked at one another.  It was actually Condemner who spoke first.

“Commander, I don’t want to sound like we are weaseling out on the commitments that my teammates have so forthrightly offered you…”

Haunter looked like she was about to interrupt, but kept quiet at the last second, snapping her mouth closed.

“But we really don’t have as much contact with Her as you might assume.  Prevailer generally doesn’t confer with all her Fists on a day to day basis.  She doesn’t give us briefings or anything like that.  Instructions are generally tersely worded, with much being left to the interpretation of the implementing parties.”

It was easy to forget that he had Ultra speed, in addition to his fire powers, but that kind of eloquence on the fly helped make it more obvious.  Carefully explaining something, risking disappointment from a hostile party which presently had the upper hand and maintaining one’s composure all the while… it said a lot about his character.

“I’d like you to speculate.” I said, keeping my voice deadpan.  This time I looked to Haunter.

“I think…” Haunter said, and paused for a long moment.  I was just about to break the silence when she continued.

“That She is afraid.”

I couldn’t have been more surprised.  The idea that Prevailer might be acting out of rational self interest was simply something I’d never considered before.

“She wants to team up?  The woman who thinks that she is God.  The woman who cracked the moon…she is looking for a partnership?  THAT is your best guess?”

I couldn’t entirely control my tone.  It probably sounded slightly derisive, but I was aiming for ‘honestly puzzled’.

Preventer put her two cents in.

“Commander, have you ever considered how strange it is that the Union has been able to maintain its present borders?”

I looked over to her.  Preventer still didn’t look so much as slightly concerned by their predicament.  If the others were too dense to realize their peril, then Preventer made me think that perhaps I was the one that was ignoring reality.  She stood tall in the protection of her Gift, even now.

I controlled my loathing.

“Our borders are held by the constant, voluntary sacrifice of brave men and women.  The kind of sacrifice that a free society is built upon.  A courageous…ongoing…” words failed me.

“Yes, Yes…but really, why aren’t you all dead?”

I ground my teeth.  This Ultra, standing securely defended by her unfair powers, even as she denigrated the heroism of people whose boots she wasn’t fit to tie, she was everything that I hated in this world.  I fought the rage back, stayed in the moment.  It was good to know, on some level, that this kind of soul searing fury could be summoned up by something other than just my memories of First Fist.  I was more than my trauma, capable of partaking in new outrages.  Screwed up comfort, but there it was.

“If you have a point to make, Preventer…” I ground out.

“It’s probably racism.”

I blinked, nonplussed.

“I mean, what else could it be?  How else could you look at a series of battles where your forces are vastly outgunned, out matched, and yet maintain their position and not feel a rising sense of unreality.”

“Racism?” I repeated, still not sure what she was on about.

“The Pantheon is most of Earth,” she said.  “The Union, which is basically Europe, have been fighting them, on and off, since the First Defiance.  How come you aren’t all dead?  You don’t ask this, because your part of the world has been pissing on the rest of it for all of history.  But this isn’t an age of machinery or industry, or anything else you can cheat.  This is an age of Ultras, and they have so many more people than you.  If it isn’t racism, if a white Ultra is only as good as a brown one…why haven’t they beat you?”

“I’m stationed on the North American front, you bitch.  I don’t spend all my fucking time pondering the exact particulars of strategy on the other side of the war.  We win because we are an army, and they are a fucking horde.  We win because we are organized, because we are brave.  Because we are better, if you’d like to make it that way.  Because we are the defenders of a society that is worth something, while they are Zeus’s bitches, forced into battle at thunderbolt point.”

I’d lost my temper.  I knew that, but even now I was keeping myself from snapping.  I might be swearing at these shitstains, but I wasn’t ordering their deaths.  Not yet anyway.

“Put aside your arrogance, man.”  It was Haunter who spoke up.  “You are talking about an ongoing battle, where both sides can see the other’s moves and adapt.  Your forces have kept things in balance with an enemy who ought to have crushed you.  How do you think that is happening?”

“Why don’t you tell me, since you are so clever?” I asked.  I could feel the pettiness creeping into my tone, and I actually welcomed it.  Anything to quell my anger.  Point scoring was better than the blank desire to obliterate.

“Death’s camps never cease.  People are dragged in, Processed, and shipped to the training areas.  The Pantheon’s rate of Ultra creation exceeds yours.  Yet, somehow, those Ultras never seem to matter much.  They have quantity, to be sure, but no great quality.”

Haunter continued to speak for them.  I let her go on.

“Prevailer believes, or at least, I believe that she believes, that this isn’t a coincidence.”

She looked to the rest for confirmation.  The boys looked as lost as I was.  Where was she going with this?

“Look, you are Zeus, you take over the Pantheon, ok?”

I nodded.

“So you have to defeat the Union.  But if you send more Ultras, then She will have the Company raise its Quotas, let the Union make more Ultras.  Any ramp up you do, the Company lets the Union match.  Yeah, they might not be used to it, but press a society’s back to the wall and they’ll match Death’s camps in all but name.  Force doesn’t solve this one.”

I’d never really considered the matter from the enemy’s perspective, but listening to this was calming me down, letting me get myself back under control.

“So, what you do is, or what we think Zeus did is… you filter your troops.”

“What do you mean?” asked Dana.

I was supposed to be the only one who spoke on our side, but I’d let this slide.  I would only have asked the same question.

“Zeus takes power, and some time after that he gives orders.  Ultras to the front lines, sure, just like under his predecessor.  But only most Ultras.  Only the weaker ones.  The stronger ones he pulls back.  He keeps them close.  The ones with powers that in the Regime would end up being Fists, that in the Union would end up…”

And he pointed at Dragon.

“They don’t get sent to the front line.  They get hoarded, a few at a time.  An gang of rank 3 Ultras.  An army of them.  Years of them, maybe decades.  The forces that should have been bending Union lines, escalating the battle.  They are held in reserve.”

“But why?” I asked.  “Why does keeping them all together give him anything?”

Haunter gave a smile, for the first time since we’d ambushed them.  It was a rictus grin, skull like.

“There won’t be an escalation in the battle when Zeus’s secret army hits.  It’ll be over in an instant.  Imagine if they’ve got another Slasher.  Another Zeus.  Another Prevailer?”

I shuddered.

“Or, you know, ten of each.”

Oddly, that seemed less scary.  The idea of another Prevailer was terrifying.  The idea of a plague of them was too obviously unreal to be frightening.

“No reason that they can’t have that kind of power.  We are talking about the best of the world’s Ultras, held in secret for the moment when they can strike, when they can overrun the Union and not give you time to Process your populace.  When they can, with Zeus’ lightspeed attacks backing them up, kill Prevailer.”

I shook my head again.

“This is all just supposition.  There is no proof that the Pantheon has any kind of secret super powerful army.”

Haunter began to object, and I held up a hand to silence her.

The hand had a gun.  I shot her, popping one of her creations out of her back.  Enough carrot, time to get sticky.

The First Defiance

The actual end of the old world is mired in a great deal of controversy, but on the basic points there is broad agreement.  In brief, Peggy Martin responded to an unwelcome order by tearing her superior’s heart out in the middle of a crowded restaurant, and the situation escalated rapidly.

The first detail on which there is controversy is how that order (to perform a series of inspections of Ultra training facilities) came to be given.  The man who gave the order, who also has the distinction of being Prevailer’s first official victim, lacked the authority to deploy the Ultra force himself.  He would have been passing down instructions from above.

One theory holds that it was President Riker herself who gave the command, passing it off to her adivisor and so on.  She is known to have nursed a festering resentment of Prevailer throughout their time together in the Ultra Force, and might have availed herself of the temptation to humiliate her rival, now that she had risen to commander her.

The other suspect is more of Karen Austin’s manipulations.  While Peggy was generally given carte blanche for her checkered past, the same did not necessarily hold true of Remover.  If she had caught wind of the investigation that was mounting against her, it is entirely possible that she may have knowingly provoked Prevailer’s rebellion in a bid for personal safety.

Regardless of the source, however, history records in great detail what actually happened.  Prevailer murdered a federal agent in front of dozens of witnesses, and then continued to eat her meal as the body cooled on the floor.  Police arrived and attempted to arrest her, and were summarily slaughtered.  Prevailer ordered seconds, and began to kill indiscriminately when she realized that the restaurant staff had fled.  More police arrived, and her rampage expanded throughout the streets of Washington.

The command was given, in the midst of all of this, for the Ultra Force to take down its most powerful asset.  Approximately 70% of them made the effort, while the remainder either fled or simply declined to deploy.  Sentiment is often lauded on the human forces which would later deploy against the nascent tyrant, but how much greater was the heroism of the Ultra Force?  Unlike those who would perish later they KNEW what they were going forth to confront.  They did so anyway, and died as brave folks have done throughout history.

As for the initial clash itself, not much needs to be recounted.  Prevailer’s mobile struggle with the police simply transitioned into a similar harrowing of the Ultra Force, distinct only in the time that her assailants were able to evade her attacks, and the greatly increased collateral damage that Prevailer caused as she began to enjoy herself.  The infamous shot of Peggy Martin hurling the Washington monument like a javelin into the dome of the White House was shot during this struggle.

Days end is generally pegged as the last time that the crisis might somehow have been averted.  Prevailer seemed to grow bored of her rampage, and she transported herself to New York, in order to meet up with her date.  This romantic arrangement was likely the reason that she had initially refused to comply with her superior’s assignment.  In any case, the discovery that word had spread far and wide of her war against America apparently came as something of a shock to Ms. Martin, and when she realized that no one was coming to meet up with her for dinner and a movie she apparently began her anti government campaign in earnest.

For its part, the American Government had been basically beheaded during the first day of the Prevailer’s rampage.  The President was killed, the VP hospitalized, a majority of Congress obliterated.  There was a line of succession, of course, but it hadn’t necessarily been tested well enough to ensure that it operated in such an unimaginable situation as the one which transpired.  The civilian government passed the night in a series of anguished phone calls and texts, desperately attempting to discern who was alive and in charge, and organize what was to be done.

The military’s response, by contrast, was much more organized and efficient.  This is primarily due to the fact that its command and control structures hadn’t been Prevailer’s targets in her initial strike, and by the time she remembered that the Pentagon wasn’t in the White House the various generals and other military leaders had been rushed to a network of safe houses and the like, established in case of a terrorist strike.

Working through the night the military accomplished a heroic feat.  They had a joint branch task force called up and dispatched to the Washington area by afternoon the next day.  Fighter support, a few armored vehicles, and thousands of hastily deplaning soldiers.  It was a feat of mobilization that the world no longer supports, and that it accomplished nothing productive does not take away from the achievement’s scale.

The First Defiance proper occurred over the following two and a half months, as America’s military collapsed onto the country’s east coast, and pit itself against Prevailer in open battle.  The results, of course, are well known.  The world’s foremost Ultra found herself pitted against humans, and slaughtered them without compunction.  Telescope can still track the wreckage of tanks that she hurled out of orbit.  Scavengers still pass by the strange series of craters which resulted from Prevailer spiking planes into the ground like tent pegs, in an attempt to scar the world with a smiley face.

There were Ultras among her challengers, of course, but far less than one might suppose.  Patriotic citizens who Processed themselves during the war, Ultra Force veterans reconsidering their cowardice from the first day and allied Ultras hastening to the aid of the world’s preeminent nation, there were perhaps a few dozen in all.  They engaged the tyrant in a what seemed to be a few close fought battles, but nowadays, with the benefit of years of recording such struggles, we know what it looks like when Prevailer plays with her food.

The majority of citizen casualties during this time arose from Remover’s actions.  Escaping Washington on the first day, she busied herself with what became known as The Toppling.  She would approach an inhabited area, and manifest her disintegrating energies in broad bands, combing through the cities at knee level.  The architecture of the old world shared the fate of the society which spawned it, complete collapse.

It is a tragedy, of course, that no one thought to track down Remover and kill her in the midst of this confusion.  Everyone seems to have blamed Prevailer for the destruction of the cities, and to the degree that the disintegrating government had any policy it seemed to begin and end with confronting her.  No one put together the fact that some of the remaining Ultra Force were helping her until they had lost too many forces to usefully act against them.

The First Defiance officially came to an end when a minor government official, made President by virtue of the decimation of the hierarchy, bent knee and kissed Prevailer’s feet in a ceremony broadcast worldwide.  Prevailer issued her famous Takeeover Proclamation from a throne of rubble, shaking bloodied fists at an appalled world.

America, a nation born in revolution, had fallen to one of its own.  The superpower had been overthrown by an ultrapower, and the world was changed forever.

Fidel 1:4

Everything happened very fast then.  My teams entered and pounced without a warning.  The obvious Ultras came across the table, the others burst from side doors and their places among the non-augmented personnel.  We hit Fourth Fist like a clap of lightning.

Haunter didn’t have time to react, didn’t move or blink, as Paris and Lilah bore her down to the ground.  Both of them had Ultra Speed, and both had come from behind, but it was still an incredible accomplishment to down a Fist member with such ease.

Indulger was just rising to his feet when Kelly hit him with her ray, the orange light striking him squarely in his exposed shoulder and spreading to halo his body in a sort of inverse shadow.  Kelly’s rays held things in place, relative to her.  So long as she didn’t move, and nothing cut the beam, the Fist’s leader was our captive.  He wouldn’t even realize that time was passing, locked into her beam’s stasis effect.

Flames erupted from Condemner’s hands as the fighting broke out, but he passed up his only chance to fight back trying to figure out what was going on.  A rookie move, betraying their obvious inexperience.  He was shouting something as the Dragon bore down on him.

It had been a gamble, pulling her from Marian’s protection detail, but it had worked.  So far as I knew, no outside force had taken advantage of her absence to strike down our North American command structure, and that risk had yielded this situation in turn.  My Ultras would go into battle alongside an Ultra as strong as any we faced.

Daria merely extended a hand, only that, and Condemner was done.  His own flames, the honest red orange of combustion, vanished beneath a sheet of the Dragon’s coldfire, the strange blue white flames that froze and shattered all that they touched.  She left him alive but chilled to the core, a frost bitten statue toppling aimlessly to the ground.

Condemner was probably stronger than Daria, of course.  At the height of his power, gorged on the souls of the living, the Regime’s pyromaster would likely command greater power than even she could wield.  Therefore, we’d cut him off here and now, deny him the souls that he needed to fuel his gift, and end his contribution to the fight before it got started.  A chain reaction stopped at ignition, dying with a sputter instead of a roar.

Fisher was where the operation ran into difficulties.

It had been theorized that, given her beast’s omnidirectional gaze, she would be alert and active when the assault began.  Dana, Hank and Shelley had been assigned to her, bruisers all.  They could undoubtedly have overpowered her creature, save that as soon as they moved to tackle it the creature vanished, only to reappear across the room by Paris and Lilah, near where Fisher’s human form was taking cover.

Paris took one of its stingers full in the spine, the beast’s lash tearing and crushing its way into her upper back.  Not lethal yet, necessarily, Paris was a regenerator.  Regardless, it put her out of the fight.

Shots range out as some of the human personnel took action.  I’d been careful in my instructions, reiterated them several times, but the sight of a teleporting black nightmare beast had broken discipline down to its core component: ‘Kill the enemy before we die’.

Fisher’s monster showed no sign of caring about the gunfire, and I took my first constructive action of the ambush by hollering for the troops to cease fire.  Hank and Lilah weren’t bulletproof, and neither was I.

My voice vanished into a squall of yells, bellows and screams.  It mingled with the curses of the brawling Ultras, and the plaintive wail of those taken captive.  It feuded with the gunfire, before reluctantly bowing out.  In brief, it went unheard.

I rolled under the table, deciding that being accidentally shot by my own men would eclipse even my towering sense of martyrdom.  From beneath I could see Lilah still holding Haunter down, while Fisher’s beast’s legs fought a forest of knees and thighs, their shifts and movements bearing witness to a titanic struggle above.

Something was odd about the view.  Fisher’s beast slipped around in ways that weren’t possible, disappearing and reappearing at the end of an inky black tendril.  I tracked it to its source and found another person hiding under the table.  Fisher’s human form, taking refuge from the gunfire just as I was.

She offered an apologetic shrug, then blanched as I levered my sidearm at her.  I cocked the gun, which wasn’t actually necessary in a modern weapon, but it got my point across.  She raised her hands into the Posture, and the fight went out of her beast.  We had won.

It took a few moments for the tumult to die down.  Longer still for the “freeze right there!” and “why are you doing this?” to fade away along with the noise of movement.   Our Ultras slammed the Fist facedown on the ground, menaced them into silence.  All save for Preventer.

The invulnerable woman hadn’t moved a muscle.

Not a twitch, as we assaulted her comrades.  Not a single sign of concern as Indulger was bathed in the orange field.  Nothing.  No human reaction whatsoever.

Now she faced me, one eye raised, as though to ask what was next.

“Get down there with them.” I told her, gesturing to a space on the floor near where the others were being restrained.  Things had quieted down enough when I didn’t have to raise my voice to make it audible to everyone in the room.

She rolled her eyes, didn’t move.

Planning for this, we’d obviously had to consider this possibility.  It was, after all, the most obvious flaw in my plan.  Preventer could not die.  A Fist could not die if one of its members remained alive.  Preventer was part of the Fist. Therefore, The Fist could not die.

“Preventer.  You may be protected by your gift, but your friends are not.  Join them on the ground, or watch them suffer.”

I didn’t quite quote Remover’s words to me, but it certainly felt good to turn their spirit against the fiend’s minions.  How many times had the Union been forced to kneel by these deathless monsters?  How many times had they betrayed us, taken hostages?  Finally, we were not the victims.

“Commander Martinez,” she responded.  “I decline to obey you.”

Preventer’s voice was level, calm, considered.  She didn’t seem worried that it was only taking about half of my Ultras to restrain her friends.  Didn’t seem worried that we could kill them at any time.  The only consideration that could move this creature was its own welfare, and her gift assured that.  It was an almost perfect selfishness.  Almost.

I moved over to where Indulger was being held down.  The oaf had been seized with overwhelming numbers as the stasis wore off, slammed down to the floor even as he tried to work out what was going on.  Fear and bewilderment held his tongue even as he looked up at us, his face a sea of confusion.

I kicked him, carefully, in the face.

Brute that he was, it didn’t rock him much, but I saw what I’d been expecting, been hoping, to see.  Preventer reacted.  She’d twitched towards us, like she was coming to his aid.  It had been just for an instant, if I hadn’t been specifically watching for it I’d have missed it, but she’d reacted.  She cared about them.

It had been a risky guess.  Preventer’s bio indicated a person of monumental heartlessness.  She was utterly indifferent to pleas for mercy, to appeals to a higher cause.  But the Link, by all accounts, bound people together.  I’d bet my success on that being the case, and that flinch had just proven it true.  Preventer cared about her Fist.  She might know, intellectually, that they would return no matter what transpired, so long as she didn’t make herself vulnerable, but that knowledge wasn’t at the core of her.  She’d break, if we piled the pressure on.

Once again, the echoes of the gas station and First Fist returned, and again, I closed them out.  I had reclaimed those memories.  This time I was the one with the power.

“Preventer, join us,” said Haunter.

One of her guards nearly shot her, but he didn’t go through with it, instead merely raising his gun in a threatening manner.  I held out a hand, indicating that she should be allowed to speak.

Preventer, for her part, didn’t need a second invitation.  She strolled across the room like she was heading across the Sniper Court to present her case to their master.  Utterly in control, entirely confident in the bastion of her gift.

There was no effective restraints that we could put on Preventer, but putting her among the rest of them, mixed in with my Ultras, was the best that we could do.  If she tried anything large scale with her projections it would endanger her teammates.  If she continued to do nothing, then we’d ignore her as we questioned them.  ‘Question’ them enough…and she’d snap.

“What is this?” asked Haunter.

An ugly feeling welled up inside of me.  To hear a servant of the Regime pleading ignorance… it aroused a bullying side of me that I took pains to repress.

“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked.

“We came for a peace discussion!” she snapped back, old woman arrogance snaking through her tone.  She might have been my aunt, slapping my hand back out of the cookie jar.  I’d gone back and gotten that cookie.

“I know why you came.  It was a big mistake.” I told her, making things plain.

“Are you insane?” she asked.  She didn’t say it like she was asking sarcastically, or like she was actually wondering.  The way she said it was more like a statement.  She, a Regime butcher, was actually calling me mad.

“Funny how you suddenly care about the mental state of the folk that you are tormenting now that you are helpless.  You didn’t seem so worried about whether we might be crazy yesterday.”

“I’ve never met you before.”

Now she spoke with careful self control, obviously containing an explosive rage.  A good call, given that she was pinned down by Ultras that could snap her like a twig.

I was under no such constraint.  The ugly feeling that I’d been repressing rose up within me, settling like a mantle on my thoughts.  I actually felt a sort of grin pulling at the edge of my lip, but straightened my face into a businesslike mask instead.

“Yes, that’s true.  I’m just a dagger like all the rest.  You haven’t met me, so I must not be special.  I couldn’t possibly have anything important on my mind.  The Union couldn’t possibly be sick of your lies and your murders.  Call for peace and we’ll come running, isn’t that what your master thought?”

Haunter’s eyes narrowed, a basilisk glare.

“Listen, Commander.  This is a terrible error.  Your men are in grave danger.  At any moment She will-“

“She, She…all you Regime types.  Peggy Martin is not God.  You can refer to her as you do anyone else, you know.  The sky doesn’t fall.  And as for rescuing you…well, I doubt that.”

Haunter’s glare took on a look of exasperation.

“You are wasting time.  I’m not saying that she cares for us.  I’m saying that you brought too many Ultras together.  She can see out our eyes.  You know this!  Why would you take such a risk?  At any moment she’ll be here!  She won’t pass by this fight!”

I mimed a yawn, elaborately.  A few of the gals chuckled quietly, menacingly.  Dana rubbed together a few of her spines, the way that she did when she was amused.

“Well, until she gets here.  What say you answer a few questions?” I asked.  Obviously, it wasn’t really a question.

Haunter barely seemed to hear me.

“Soldiers of the Union, your Commander is off his rocker!” she said.  She cast her eyes around the room, looking from one smirking face to another.  “He’s going to get you all killed.  You have to let us go, get out of here!  If you are gone when She comes we can probably talk Her down, get Her to go back to the Lair, put this in the past.”

My rage climbed, and I stepped right up to her, bending down to kneel over her.

“She isn’t coming, dumbass.” I enunciated every word, my anger making me overprecise, terrifyingly careful.  I felt like I was on the edge of a vast chasm, and one slip would see me throw my self respect aside and take revenge.  A part of me wanted to do it.

But it was the lesser part of me.  I was a soldier of the Union.  Brutalizing an old woman to vent my spite simply wasn’t going to happen.

She simply looked at me for a long moment.  I got back to my feet.

“That’s right.  I don’t need you to ‘save’ us from the most obvious peril imaginable.  The arrogance of you!  To think that we don’t know how your boss operates, after fighting her minions for decades.  Let me set this straight.”

I walked over to Indulger, looked down at the big man, but aimed my voice to the team in its entirety.

“I am in control.   You are my prisoners.  You will answer my questions.”

“Don’t.” said Preventer, talking to Fisher.

I turned my head their way, inspecting the pair.  Preventer was unrestrained, of course, but both Fisher’s human form and her monster were being held down.

I thought about what I’d seen when I was under the table.  The blackness swallowing up the beast and spitting it out again.  Blackness…

I looked at their shadows, saw the connection.

“If Fisher moves through her shadow”, I said, “Kill Condemner.”

Fisher looked up at me, big eyes widening.  All of her form’s allure couldn’t conceal the hurt, the concern, the anger seething in her eyes.  I didn’t look away, let it wash over me.  Let them rage as they like.  It would change nothing.

“Enough of this,” said Preventer.

I looked over at her, as she rose to her feet.  Fool.  If she was going to fight she should have done it alongside the others.  Now we could try Kelly’s ray on her.  See if holding her still counted as ‘harm’ to the unknowable power which controlled Ultra gifts.

“Stop,” said Indulger, voice rough with the damage to his face where I’d kicked him.

“Indulger….” She said, plainly getting ready to disobey.

“Stop.” He repeated.  “We want to tell them stuff anyway, remember?  Let’s just answer their questions.  Nobody has to get hurt anymore.  We came here to make peace, after all.”

I almost laughed out loud.  Who did he think he was fooling with this act?  Did he actually believe that, after what we’d done, we might still be taken in by their diplomatic disguise?  That we might mistake these beasts for parties we could treat as informants in good faith?  Did he think that Preventer would listen to such nonsense?

“Alright,” she said, and sank once again to the floor.

The Regime’s Birth 5

With Mover’s action, the cat was officially out of the bag.  No one could dismiss or explain away the mysterious swap of acres of inhabited territory.  No one could even try.  It was apparent, to the dullest of observers, that physics was broken in some fundamental way.

The old world was interconnected by computer systems, every citizen of any note linked to every other by these devices.  Rumors of Ultras had been quietly pooling in the darker corners of these systems, like mildew in the edges of a shower.  Mods and administrators fought them back, pushed the consensus of the day, but they could never entirely be rid of them.  Every incident brought a few more eyewitnesses, a few more recordings.

When the swap happened, these stories could no longer be held back.  Every message board, every chat channel, exploded with vindicated witnesses, desperate to give their testimony.  The more mainstream media pounced on these accounts, broadcasting unimaginable stories that they once would have scorned.

Every politician, every leader, was bombarded with questions about the Ultras.  The public wanted answers, and demanded them at every opportunity.  In nation after nation, the leaders began to appoint task forces, dredge up accounts, and most of all search for actual Ultras to question.

They found them readily enough.  The shroud of fear that hid the Ultras of the world weren’t particularly impenetrable, in the face of intense public questioning.  The basic facts of Ultras began to trickle out.  The public learned of a subset of their physics defying abilities. Most particularly, it learned of the astronomical cost in lives that had been paid in order to create them.

World reaction was appalled.  30 lives lost for every one of these people?  Barbaric, unconscionable.  And who was behind it all?  Could their governments even pretend to be in charge, when such activities were taking place without their knowledge or consent?

The UN hastily outlawed the use of Ultras in war.  This didn’t actually work, but with the media’s collaboration is kicked the can a few more years down the road.  No one could really dispute that modern militaries had begun to collaborate heavily, if clandestinely, with their countries unofficial Ultra units.  But no one could conclusively prove it either.

A few terrorist activities occurred, primarily centered around religious sites.  A few regime changes looked suspiciously like they might have been dependent on Ultra firepower, but nothing concrete.  Nothing provable.

Primarily this was because Peggy Martin was working with the United State’s Ultra Corps.  She was, and is, the trump card in any Ultra on Ultra conflict.  The Ultra Corps dispatched her and their other operatives to anything that its intelligence service disapproved of, and she made the problems disappear.

Ultimately, this state of affairs was unsustainable.  The public wore through its tolerance for being lied to.  The ostensibly “secret” Ultra Corp suffered security lapses, leaks and simple witness accounts.  Other countries, those less officially tied to the UN, began to publicly employ Ultras in ‘advisory’ roles to their military forces, tiptoeing around the ban.

America’s president, Lindsey Riker, herself a former member of the Ultra Corps, announced the superpower’s repudiation of the UN ban in 2108.  Other nations swiftly followed suit, those who hadn’t already taken steps to arm themselves with Ultras frantically strove to catchup.  The world entered an Ultra arms race, with nations snapping up Chens and processing anyone that they could get away with.

The old world ended about a year later.