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.