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.”
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?”
“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 she pointed at Dragon.
“They don’t get sent to the front line. They get hoarded, a few at a time. An entire 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?”
“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.