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.