Processing…

 

Materials exchanged:

The Facilities consume effectively no resources.  They are supplied by means of Copyer’s powers.  The Company Men replicate the resources that they bring with them from other Facilities, and further replicate themselves as need arises.

The Company bases do output resources, however.  Most notably in the form of the ubiquitous Protein Powder, which forms the basis of the survivor’s diets in the collapsed regions of our Union’s adversaries.

It is widely believed that this powder is made from the physical remains of subjects killed by the Process, but our research indicates that this is merely a fable.  It is replicated like all of the Company’s other supplies.

Subjective experience:

Volunteers undergoing the Process are sedated by Company Men before being brought into the operation theaters.  These brave souls remain unconscious throughout the procedure, and the majority die in this manner.  Those few who survive awaken as Ultrahumans.

Recording devices placed on volunteer’s persons have proven fruitful.  The Process appears to possess 2 stages.  In the first, a variety of injections are made to the individual’s brain, by use of an exceptionally fine needle extended through the ocular cavity.  Analysis of the recordings suggests that the chemicals in question are a variety of fairly commonplace substances, listed in Appendix A.

In the second stage of the Process, the Chens attach electrodes to the Ultras skull, and apply a series of electric shocks.  These electrodes are attached at and within the subjects ears.

Those subjects who expire do so immediately after the shocks are applied.  The remainder are given a series of tests for obvious physical Ultra powers, and then returned to a waiting room.

Observation:

It is not difficult to observe all aspects of the Process’s operation.  The Company strives for secrecy, but their technology is primitive, and we have long since penetrated their countermeasures.

To this agency’s immense frustration, however, this has not led to use being able to replicate the Process.  The same chemicals, the same shocks, administered by our agents lead to nothing but death.  No Ultrahuman has ever been created outside of the aegis of the Company.

After a truly morbid amount of trial and error we have determined that we are not making a mistake in our replication of the Process.  There must be another component that we are missing, but it is not legible to any means of observation that we currently possess.

We regret to report that we consider further research into the Company’s Process to be not worth the cost in lives, and request that this project be terminated.

Condemner 4:3

We spent a few days settling into Redo.

We didn’t really need to.  Indulger’s gift gave us caves whenever we needed them, and we had experienced no particular difficulties while travelling on the road, but Haunter insisted.

“It isn’t about actually settling in,” she told us.  “It’s about letting the word spread that a Fist is in town, and giving everyone time to get their heads around it.”

“Won’t the bad guys get away without fighting us?” asked Dale.

It felt oddly bloodthirsty for the big man, until I remembered that his notion of ‘fighting’ generally didn’t involve anyone dying.

“We aren’t here to fight anyone.  No one in their right minds will fight us.  The only way that a fight will break out is if we surprise someone, scare them.  If we take our time, the remaining Pantheon forces will make up their minds and either slip away or surrender.”

Nobody argued, and so we went with that.

It was a pleasant few days.

Indulger threw himself into the construction process, really going all out to make our building everything that it could be.  It ended up a four story mansion, eating up the entire block he’d made it out of.  We had all of the amenities that his gift could manufacture, which mostly meant lots of space and some scavenged furniture.

Most importantly we had location, that central component of real estate quality.  Our den was just a block away from the old Company Facility, which would presumably be repaired whenever some of Copyer’s guys made it out here.

Jane poured her energies into a different kind of construction.  She had rescued the spirits of the victims of the previous battle, and now she gave them back to the city.

She send the ghosts out, a dozen at a time.  They found their loved ones, those who hadn’t departed before we got here, and they brought them back to our sector.  We began to form the nexus of a new city.

These people were in absolute awe of Jane.  Having lost their families, their children and friends, in the battle they had been drowning in despair.  To have the dead returned, to get to speak, even if only for a few minutes every day, with the departed…  It was incredible.  They practically worshipped her.

I could see their point of view, to be honest.  The Regime had a number of Ultras who could duplicate Condemner’s destructive power.  I was nothing new, a living weapon, sharper than most but fundamentally similar.  But Haunter…

Jane had unhappened, to some degree, the battle.  The casualties were in their community again, bringing back a wholeness that should never have been able to return.  It was unthinkable.

Prevailer couldn’t do this.  She could only destroy.  None of Her goons could either, not on this scale.  Linker came the closest, and even that mighty ability was limited to elite commando squads.

It was humbling.

Preventer spent her time among the survivors.  She questioned them ceaselessly about the other two enclaves, determined to learn everything that she could about the rivals squatting out in the suburbs.

Jane had been adamant that Preventer not mistreat those that she interviewed, but she didn’t need to worry.  Haunter’s gifts had won us such goodwill that people tripped over themselves to tell us what they knew, freely speculating on anything that they couldn’t immediately confirm.

The human only enclave was still calling itself Redo, despite having relocated to a nearby burb.  They had a sort of unofficial council, composed of the oldest and most respected people, calling their shots.  Deng and Earl had been loosely affiliated with them, watching over the city center in case the Pantheon returned.

They were also, for the most part, trickling back.  News of our presence, and Haunter’s gift, was drawing them like moths to a flame.  ‘Redo’ probably didn’t need explicit action to bring back into the fold.

Dover, the burb where the Ultras were, was another story.

The Pantheon remnants, contrary to Haunter’s predictions, didn’t slip away.  In fact, humans began to let us know that the Pantheon Ultras were forcefully keeping the people in Dover and preventing them from joining us.

I was actually looking forward to getting some action in by that point.

While Preventer had searched for information, Indulger had constructed and Haunter had renewed the spirits of an entire population Fisher and I had been mainly loafing around.

Part of this was simple logistics.  Our gifts didn’t lend themselves to constructive uses.  There really wasn’t anything about rebuilding a city that required the use of a terrifying flame demon or whatever one might call the Hook.

But another part was temperament.

I couldn’t go among the people of Redo without hearing Earl’s voice again, pronouncing nonchalantly that the population had been absolutely decimated by the fire.

The people didn’t blame me.  They didn’t know.  As far as they understood the battle it had been a falling out among the Pantheon forces.  Thor and Krishna, scrapping for control, until Prevailer arrived to take advantage of their distraction.

No one reproached me.  No one disturbed me.  And I couldn’t take it.

The guilt gnawed at me.  Betty’s whispered reassurances couldn’t blunt my knowledge of what I’d done.  The lives that I’d taken, in such a pointless cause.

I avoided the humans.  I simply stayed in our den, shooting pool, throwing darts, and sporting with Betty.

She seemed content.  I knew that there was something there, something that she didn’t want to talk about, but I was too caught up in my own angst to confront her about it.

In truth, I was too busy seeing to my own sorrows to pry into hers.  She seemed content to hang around with me, and I didn’t dig further.  It was too convenient.

Two days flew by.

None of us were surprised when Preventer called us together to talk about Dover.  It had been on everyone’s mind.

“Why are they still here?” asked Haunter.

It was the central question, and not one that we had a good answer for.

It would take dozens of Ultras, or at least the kind of Ultras that the Pantheon used as foot soldiers, to have any shot at taking down a Fist.  Perhaps a hundred or more would be required.   The humans told us different numbers, but our best guess had Dover’s force at just 7 Ultras.

With those odds, there was no chance that they could triumph.  Further, we knew that this group didn’t have an Ultra with powers comparable to our own, because they would have taken action when Redo fell.  They knew that they couldn’t beat us, and what’s more, they knew we knew.

“According to the people that I’ve been asking, they are totally unconcerned with our presence.  Their boss has been forbidding people to come to us, but as far as anyone can tell they haven’t taken any actual precautions against conflict with us.”

Preventer seemed incredulous, just baffled.  I’d often observed that behavior that didn’t help out the person who was doing it had that effect on her.

Rebeccah’s worldview was generally populated with people looking out for themselves.  When she found someone who cared about something more than their own life, she was always flatfooted.  Whether it was the spite that consumed the Union officer or the heroism that Jane’s shades had displayed it was all the same to Rebeccah.  Madness.

“What if they are Thor’s troops?” asked Betty.

That had potential.  The followers of a vanquished Pantheon warlord wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed into another chief’s camp.  Particularly not if they were lieutenants or otherwise highly ranked enough to share their bosses grievances.  With Thor out of the way his chief henchmen might well be in for some payback if they returned to the Pantheon proper.

“Still doesn’t explain why they are letting a human boss them around,” I said.

That was the central enigma of  Dover.

We’d been prepared for Pantheon remnants.  Haunter’s plan had been sound.  Like wild animals, more scared of a traveler than he was of them, we had merely to make our presence known to set them to flight.  It should have worked.  The idea that anyone would willingly confront a Fist was absurd.

And yet our ever growing band of residents insisted that the Ultras hadn’t left Dover, and further insisted that a mysterious person was in charge.  Someone who the Ultras insisted was not one of them.

“I guess we’ll have to go see what’s going on.  I don’t want to tell Her that we couldn’t get the whole city back.”

Indulger’s suggestion carried that day, and we moved out.

Dover was just a few miles outside of Redo’s urban areas.  The refugees of our attack clearly hadn’t been in any condition to travel.  They must have simply latched onto the first ruins that they’d found.  An old school building and its surroundings formed the settlement.

I was surprised at how fortified it look, honestly.

They hadn’t had very long to work at it.  Just a few weeks, and yet a substantial rubble wall marked the edge of Dover’s demesne that faced Redo.

We halted at a distance, letting Indulger’s gift do our recon.  Indulger had taken us out of Redo with his usual rock sliding method, and we’d stayed on the wreckage of the main road.  We had stopped close enough to see faces on the wall, and we knew that they could see us.

Five people with Sigils generally meant one thing.  They would know what had come for them.

I hunkered down behind Fisher’s Hook, shaking with nervous energy.

I had no desire to call forth Condemner.  These people had already suffered his predations once before.  And yet, without that might, I found myself wondering if I could pull my weight on the team.

I had my Ultra speed, true, and I could use a limited degree of Condemner’s flame energies.  But that was hardly sufficient to allow me to contribute as a member of a Fist.

I wasn’t concerned with being remonstrated by the others.  None of them were the sort to criticize someone who was trying his best.  It was a more fundamental fear.

Condemner was our trump card.  If I couldn’t do my part, would he have to be used more often?  Would I have to hear, again, that most every family had lost someone?

I wasn’t sure I could bear that.

Pussy.

Condemner’s gibe coincided with the people on the wall letting down a rope.  A woman slid down it, approached us.

She wore an ordinary enough survivor’s outfit.  A tattered vest, jeans that had seen better days.  A gun at her side that was practically a cannon.  But that wasn’t what drew the eye.

She had zebra striping, black and white, running up and down every inch of her exposed skin.

“Prevailer’s dogs” she greeted us.

Despite the hostile phrase, her body language wasn’t saying ‘threat’.  Using my Ultra speed to see her microexpressions didn’t detect any sign of tension either.

Ordinarily I could read someone in a situation this stressful like an open book.  But this woman was blank.  Her features, black or white, were placid and even.

“Prevailer’s Fist,” corrected Preventer.  “Sent here to smite Her enemies, and shield Her servants.  Which are we speaking to?”

“You’ll have to ask Andy about that,” she said.

As I watched, the white and black striping on her body suddenly pulsed, stretched and intermingled.  Betty’s Lure drew back in alarm, stepping between me and the city’s emissary.  I had been trying to step around in front of her, but settled for stepping forth and placing myself side by side with my girl.

None of the rest of the Fist moved or reacted, and I suddenly realized what the black and white pattern was.

Static.

Turned 90 degrees, and on a person instead of a screen, but the overall effect was definitely static.

A voice came from the woman, and it definitely was not the one that she’d just used to address us.

She held her mouth open, lips and jaw unmoving, and the voice rolled out of her like she was a can on a string that a child might use to communicate with his parents below.

“A Fist.  What an honor.  Peggy Martin sends her best.”

We could all hear the lack of capitalization in that sentence.

“This doesn’t have to be violent,” said Haunter.  “We are taking this city back into the Regime, but She hasn’t told us anything specific in regards to the Ultras that are already here.  You can leave town, we won’t chase you.”

Haunter spoke evenly, solemnly.  Someone unfamiliar with her wouldn’t have noticed her trembling, but to me, with my sped up perception, it stood out like a beacon.  Haunter was afraid.

I didn’t think that she was afraid of this fight, in particular.  No matter what was broadcasting through this strange Ultra we’d be fine.  I got the impression that she was afraid of fighting, in general.  Of losing more of her shades the way she lost the Colonel.

I’d known that she needed to talk, but now I resolved to force the conversation, the next time we were in private.  I had to sound out Haunter, get her settled.  If I, the man who killed this town, could force myself to keep moving forward then the woman who’d saved it from my stupidity could certainly forgive herself as well.

“I have not undergone the Process.”

The voice was strange.  A bit too high for a man, too low for a woman.  Andy’s voice had a sort of hook to it.  There wasn’t anything that I could point out, that would stand alone to explain it, but it was a voice that pulled at the mind.

“You are talking through someone else though.  You got to be an Ultra.”

Indulger didn’t seem affected.  Not by the voice’s subtle strangeness, and not by the memories that gripped Haunter and I.  Not for the first time I blessed Dale’s straightforwardness.

“Tess, or Transmitter to use her Company designation, is making this conversation possible.  I have done nothing to bring it about.”

“Fascinating,” said Preventer.  “Young lady, you have a future with the Regime.”

I didn’t comment on the fact that Tess appeared to be older than Preventer.

“I’ll do what Andy tells me,” said Tess.

Interestingly, when she spoke on her own behalf, the static pattern returned to ordinary zebra striping and her mouth moved.  I wondered whether that was an automatic part of her gift, or whether she could use either voice freely, and fool people.

“How are you in charge, if you are not an Ultra?” asked Indulger, tiring of all of the dancing around.

I blessed him, inwardly.  We could have talked a while longer before getting around to that point.

“The Ultrahumans seem to believe that my lineage should inspire loyalty, and I’ve agreed to attempt to provide with direction during this trying time.  I believe it is what my father would have wanted.  What expertise I have will be directed towards their wellbeing.”

“Your father?” asked Haunter.

“Dr. Chen.”

Calamity Explained

Dear Diary, you are still not real.

So, last time we (didn’t) talk, I mentioned that there was an aberration with Fourth Fist, and it would be necessary to purge them.

This ended up your typical (2 birds, one stone) setup that I like to arrange.  That is, if you throw a rock at a bird and put another bird near it, you are more likely to hit at least one.

If all went well (for me, not them) during their meeting with the Union, Fourth Fist would end up dead except for Preventer, who would be on ice a particularly nasty cellar.  Prevailer was going to lose interest in Indulger, what with him having been killed by wimps and all, and I’d put the whole messy business behind me.

That was one bird.

The other requires a bit more talk about my gift.  I never talk about my gift, but since you aren’t real, and I’m not doing this, I guess it doesn’t hurt to make an exception.

I can ask my gift what a given scenario will look like, and I see it play out into the future.  For example ‘What will happen if I go and get a beer from the fridge?”  That kind of thing.  I see it as a kind of all-sensory movie, played out much faster than reality.  I can dream up pretty much any hypothetical and see how things would go if the conditions that I gave it play out.

Thus, Answerer.

But there are a few limitations.  The most obvious is that if I change my actions away from the initial premise, the whole future is invalid.  That is, if I DON”T go to get a beer, I’m not going to see a bug on the floor, run into Daniel, etc.  The reality that I see is contingent on me being able to bring about the preconditions that I gave it.

This also applies as the vision goes on.  If I see myself going for beer through a door, and instead attempt to do so by getting a Knight to cut a hole in the wall, things are going to be different.  If I want a vision to come to pass, I need to keep playing my part.  I’m very practiced at it.

Another limitation is, naturally, other precogs.  I abort as many of these as I can (As do the rest of us.  We are a rather selective sorority.) but the world is a big place.  Precogs fuck with each other’s gifts something awful.

Basically, whoever asks last knows what is really going to happen.  The change to their behavior of their vision will render inaccurate the vision of the others (which gave them the result as though the first party didn’t actually have a vision).  I don’t know if I explained that well enough, but I understand it, and you don’t exist, so we’re good.

This is, in a nutshell, why I rarely try to use Fifth Fist for anything.  Predictor’s foresight is constant, he doesn’t have to ask his gift.  Therefore, in cases where both our gift’s apply, he trumps me.  What I have going for me is that I can forsee anything I can think of, while he is limited to his own welfare.  He basically has an amazing danger sense, while I am a mix of prophet and God.

Sorry, tangent.  Back to the second bird thing.

So, when I REALLY care about something, I can basically refresh my gift’s vision constantly.  Asking the same question over and over, stopping the ‘film’ one sec into it.  It’s basically scrying, I get a real time view of a second ahead of time for an event I care about.

I did that for the meeting of Fourth Fist and the Union.  After the invalidated visions around Fourth Fists inauguration I made certain to pay close attention.  If something was going to ruin my answers, then I wanted my best shot at figuring out what it was.

Almost right from the start, the negotiation deviated from my foresight.  I foresaw that Fidel clown angry, but in control.  But during the actual event he was essentially a madman.  He provoked Fourth Fist to resistance, and the battle transpired in a way that caused his unit to be annihilated.

My visions of the inauguration were similarly fucked with.  Subtracter and Mangler were both out of character for a little while after.  Prevailer actually ended up punching Subtracter’s teeth out!  I’ve developered a working theory as to what is going on.

This is the last flaw in my gift, the one that comes up most rarely.  My visions are only as good as my senses.  I see and hear the futures.  But if something is happening that can’t be seen or heard, then it can invalidate my forecasts.  Anything soul to soul is the best candidate for this sort of thing.  I believe that my gift sees, fundamentally, the world.  The less tangible, the less ‘actual’ something is, the harder it is for my gift to take into account.

Fourth Fist are the eye of this storm, but the actual manifestation is altered actions of other people nearby them.  The logical guess is that someone in Fourth Fist is capable of messing with people on a level that I can’t detect, which causes my forecasts to go awry.

This is very nearly a worst case scenario for me.  What if they do it to Her?

Bitches got to go.

Condemner 4:2

Redo was a wreck, but that was nothing new.

Even before our battle with Thor’s followers, the city had squatted in the ruins.  Foot traffic meandered down blocked streets, through cracked buildings and around toppled edifices.  Remover’s ancient work, or so I’d been told.  The ruins of the old world, repurposed to serve the new.

With such a warped foundation, even the present devastation didn’t really present a huge difference.  Prevailer’s explosions had left craters, tossing rubble onto other rubble.  My other self’s wrath had melted down a scar of material across the heart of the city, leaving a broad thoroughfare that slashed across the existing lines.  Thor’s forces had done their level best to destroy one another, without a thought for collateral damage.  And yet, for all that, we hadn’t left much of an impression.

The silence, the absence of life, then, drove home to me how fragile and easily forged the testimony of my senses was.

To an outsider, like myself, the city might look essentially identical to how it appeared before the struggle.  To the inhabitants, the change had apparently been severe enough to drive them to set out for greener pastures.

We held a brief discussion.  Preventer was explaining why we wouldn’t find anyone right about the time when Indulger told us that his powers had located a remnant populace.  Haunter seemed to perk up a bit at that news, but in a way that seemed somehow ominous.

Preventer led the way into the inhabited segment of the city, Indulger using his gift to clear her path.  Something about the way that she walked made me realize that despite being invincible Preventer didn’t have a lot of experience with people standing behind her.  It seemed to make her nervous, so I moved up alongside her.

“Nirav, get back,” she told me.  “You aren’t bulletproof.”

“Nah.”

She looked at me curiously.

“Betty and Dale have died.  They told me that it isn’t a big deal.  I’m not afraid.”

Preventer bought that, and let me lead the way alongside her.  The rest followed a good distance back.

We walked for a time in silence.  The only sound was the strangely liquid ‘crack’ that accompanied Indulger’s manipulations of the terrain.  Rubble parted before us as we traveled, and I noticed that he wasn’t bothering to put it back into place afterwards.

That meant that we were basically building a road through this city, or a path at least.  I resolved to consider the matter a bit more when we had a better understanding of who was going to be living where, but my first impression was that Indulger’s gift would make the construction part of this effort a cinch.

One of Haunter’s shades dashed up.

“Dale says it is right ahead,” he told us.

I recognized Joey from a few conversations on the bus.  He was one of Jane’s more important passengers.  I was surprised that after what had happened to the Colonel she was letting her friends out in anything but the most controlled of circumstances.

“I want that one…”

I ignored Condemner’s gibe, and fixed my Sigil firmly in place.  The message meant that we were starting to get close enough that first contact was imminent.  The plan had been for Preventer to get a clear understanding of who was still in the city before the rest of us moved in and introduced ourselves.  I guessed that my involvement hadn’t materially affected anything.

Our first sight of the people of Redo was a big fat guy with a gun trained on Preventer.

I dropped back a pace, let her out in front.  For all my big talk it was still awfully intimidating to stare down the barrel of that kind of hardware, even though it looked like it had seen better days.

Preventer, by contrast, didn’t so much as slow, simply walking towards the man as though she hadn’t a care in the world.

“Halt!” he shouted, getting his gun ready to shoot in the cool way that makes that ‘Chuh-Chak’ noise.  I’d seen some of Jane’s passengers do similar things when they acted out old movies for us.  It was very intimidating.

Preventer kept walking, and the guy pulled the trigger.

I dived behind cover as the shotgun fired, my Ultra speed giving me the instant’s warning that let me get out of the neighborhood of his target.  I scrambled ten feet and took refuge behind a toppled wall.

I heard Preventer’s laconic “Waste of bullets”, before I heard another enormous blast.  This was followed by a few smaller, sharper bangs.  It sounded like there were at least three or four guns firing.  I clutched the ruin and waited for the shooting to stop.

It didn’t take long.

I hadn’t really seen Preventer’s Ultra toughness in action before.  I didn’t know exactly what our attackers were seeing, bullets bouncing off or just stopping and falling to the ground.  They certainly weren’t seeing what they’d hoped for.

I poked my head out once the gunfire died down.

Preventer was standing right where I’d left her.  The fat guy and another smaller guy had both taken the Posture in front of her.  It seemed safe to come out.

“What were you thinking?” asked Preventer, indicating her Sigil.  “Attacking ME?”

The fat guy answered without looking up.

“This city has been held by enemy forces for a long time, Boss.  We forgot that hats meant Ultras and…”

At the same time his buddy was saying, “We had to make certain that you were really Ultras, you wouldn’t want us falling for imposters and…”

I wasn’t sure that Preventer had made out what they were both saying, but she didn’t seem to care all that much.

“What are your names?”

I had the powerful impression that Preventer had run through roughly this scenario a few times before.  Ordering around humans wasn’t as foreign to her as it was to the rest of us.

“Earl,” said the fat one.  He relaxed the Posture as he spoke, wiping his forehead with the back of one hand.

“Deng” said the smaller of the pair.  He didn’t relax an inch.

I could tell from their body language that these weren’t real names, but I didn’t press.  This wasn’t a lie important enough to reveal that I could see right through them.

We began to question them, get the story of the survivor encampment.  It wasn’t anything terribly surprising.

After the battle had gone down, and the fires had died away, the people of Redo had no leadership.  The Ultras on the Pantheon’s side had bailed, heading south and west in order to regroup.  Prevailer had warped back east, and we’d trailed along behind her.  The humans had been the only ones left.

It was a bit sobering to think of that.  After all of the fury that my other self had wrought.  After Prevailer’s assault, and the grotesque collateral damage, there had still been people left.  I felt like I was at the edge of a revelation there.

Lacking Utlra power to keep them together, and with the Company driven out of town, the humans of Redo had splintered.

Most of the families were broken up, Earl and Deng told us, because of the horrible fire.  Everyone who remained had lost someone.  Some left to find KEM.  Some left to find a village or another city, anywhere that wasn’t exactly on the fault line between the Regime and the Pantheon.

I felt a pang at that.

I’d been trying not to think about what Condemner had done in Redo.  I had let myself believe that, because we had delayed a few days for Jane to forge her pacts with everyone in the city, it had somehow been ok that Condemner had run amok.  Their words were like hammer blows in that artifice.

“Everyone who remained had lost someone.”

When it was said so nakedly, all of my sophistry was powerless.  Yes, the souls might have survived, trapped in Haunter’s reserve.  Yes, it had led us to Linker, and immortality.  We could theoretically do something now that would make up for it.  Yes to all of that, and still.

“Everyone who remained had lost someone.”

I had done that.  My weakness, my truer self.  I had slaughtered these folks, looking for energy to use in a pointless fight, waged at the behest of a woman I was too afraid to stand up to.

It was a sobering moment.  I fixed my mind to the present and pushed it aside.  There’d be plenty of time for dwelling on my actions when we weren’t in the midst of anything.  It mostly worked.

“Who went where?” asked Preventer, even as she tapped one heel twice on the ground, which was the signal for the remainder of our group to join us.

If they had seemed cowed before Preventer, they practically groveled when they saw that a Fist was here.  Earl and Deng fell over themselves to tell us anything they knew, anything they suspected, just please don’t hurt them.

It was my first time really experiencing the whole ‘near-worship’ thing.  Back in Bany I’d been undercover, and in Shington people were pretty jaded by the Inner Circle’s immediate presence.  But watching these random trigger men grovel finally made it click for me.

They literally thought of us as Gods or Demons, as mythic creatures.  We weren’t Dale, Betty, Jane, Nirav and Rebeccah to them.  We weren’t even our Ultra names.  We were Fourth Fist, which made us of a piece with Her, with the Pantheon, and with all of the other capital name concepts that they’d made up their mind were too big for them to deal with.

It was a heady experience, and I was already dealing with too much other stuff.  I felt myself sliding, not exactly into Condemner’s grasp, but more into a fugue state.  I couldn’t deal with what I was feeling, so I tried to blank it all out.  I simply observed for a moment.

At least with the humans in such a cooperative state of mind it was easy to get information out of them.  Jane took care of the questioning.

While she was doing that, the Hook came up behind me and wrapped a tendril around my shoulders.  I reached up and stroked it with the edge of my thumb, lightly and briskly.  I knew that Fisher liked for the Hook to be touched sometimes, but I didn’t think that’s what this was about.

This was about her knowing that I was upset, and trying to cheer me up.

It worked.

Ordinary people might be scared of me.  I might have done terrible things.  But I would try not to do them anymore, and the person who knew me best loved me.  Simple reassurances, but they seemed effective.  I stroked the Hook’s tendril, and centered myself again.

Preventer approached me, offering a slight smile.  I managed to grin back, carefully rebuilding my sense of self.

“Just mate with the bitch.”

“Not used to ordering people around?” she asked.

I hadn’t mastered myself entirely.  Speaking seemed a bad idea.  I settled for a slight nod.

“It gets to be routine.” she told me.  “When you’ve done one interrogation you’ve done them all.”

She paused, examining me a little more closely.

“Or was it the gun?”

I shook my head, relying on the coordination that came with my Ultra speed to help me keep everything on an even keel.

“It wasn’t the gun.  I just hadn’t really put together how all of this was playing out before.  That guy thinks of us like he thinks of Remover.”

Preventer nodded once, then pursed her lips and shook her head.  I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant.

Haunter pulled us back to the main group before we could talk further, and started sharing the stuff that she’d gotten from the survivor community’s guards.

“We are looking at basically three kinds of survivors.  Two of them can probably be retrieved.”

“What’s the third?” asked Fisher, immediately.  She was always alert for things that could get us in trouble with Her.

“Some people lost everything in this tragedy.  They left without direction.  Told no one where they were going.  Just drifted away.  Some of them might have killed themselves.  Others might still be moving.  In either case, we aren’t going to get them back here.”

Preventer nodded, slowly.

“It’s the rational course of action, after all.  I’m perpetually surprised that ANYONE lives in these border mudholes.”

None of the rest of us said anything, but I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only one remembering our nights out drinking in this mudhole.  It hadn’t been the cleanest town, but life under the Pantheon didn’t seem particularly awful.

This thought led, obviously, to another thought, about whether our visit had been particularly awful, with a special emphasis on what the people that Condemner had devoured had thought.  I cringed away from it, refocused my attention on the present.

“Uh, ok,” said Dale.  “What about the two types that we can probably get back?”

Jane nodded, plainly expecting this question.

“The first are the easiest.  A large contingent of the survivors have decamped a few miles down the road.  They are basically squatting in a suburb until the survivors here give them the go/no go sign.  As long as we make strides to repair the damage caused during the incident they should drift back in over time.  We’ll have a Company Facility, and they won’t, after all.”

“We can just round them up,” said Fisher.  “No need to wait for them to drift back in.”

My hand tightened for a second on the Hook’s tendril, and I spoke up.

“I’d like to avoid coercing the humans if we can.  The city will be nicer if the only people in it are the ones who want to be here, yes?”

There was general nodding at my words, but I understood that this wasn’t really a point we could hold on indefinitely.  If people didn’t begin coming back in a decent period of time we’d have to head over to their refuge and shanghai them.  It didn’t sit well with us, but we all understood that showing weakness to Third Fist was not an option.

“The other…” said Jane, “is more complicated.”

“Pantheon loyalists?” asked Preventer.

Jane shook her head.

“Not…precisely. I mean, kind of yes, but also kind of no.  It is hard to describe, exactly.”

I made a ‘give it a try anyway’ gesture with my hand.

“A number of Ultras survived the battle with Thor on the Panthon side, but didn’t get evacuated with Krishna when she escaped.  They weren’t important enough for Her to track down, so they ended up idling in the city.”

I could see where this was going.

“And they’ve taken command of another sizable set of refugees and are ruling the roost out in another suburb.” Jane finished.

Preventer shook her head, sourly.

“I’d been hoping to avoid another Ultra fight for a while.  Do some social engineering, get in touch with some contacts.”

Dale gave a philosophical shrug.

“Who is the lead Ultra that we have to deal with?”

Jane gave him a strange look.

“That’s just it.  This group was gathered by Ultras in the aftermath of the fall, just like I said…but the leader is a human.”

The Regime/Pantheon Front: Misconceptions

It can be difficult for those of us fortunate enough to live in the Union to follow the progress of the ongoing conflict between the Regime and the Pantheon.  Several difficulties exist which seem to lead, with relentless regularity, to misapprehensions.  This text is an attempt to directly address these errors.

1: The Regime and the Pantheon are fighting over great swathes of territory.

Back before the Ultra crisis commenced a useful way to indicate where one government or another held sway was to use lines on a map.  All of the land between X and Y belongs to the nation of so-and-so, etc.  That is no longer the case.

In truth, the large stretches of the former United States which we color in the deep red that our cartographers have elected to use in order to represent the Regime’s grasp are predominantly ungoverned in any meaningful way.

The Regime’s actual zone of control is more like a series of islands in a sea of anarchy.  They rule only the cities, and exercise very little influence over anything else.

This naturally invites the question of what a city is, in the Pantheon/Regime sense.  Why would Ultras be found in one area but not in another?  The answer is remarkably simple.  A city is any settlement built around a Company facility.

The Regime sets down Company facilities in any area that its leader deems significant, and fights to control the people thus attracted.  The Pantheon more or less embraces this model, at least in the Americas.

2: Citizens of the Regime and Citizens of the Pantheon are two distinct groups of people.

This one is perhaps a bit more understandable.  We would never dream of bowing to a foreign power (I assure myself), and consequently we model the benighted rubble dwellers unfortunate enough to inhabit the conflict zones after ourselves.  This is an error, however.

My sources assure me that the most fervent hope of anyone living near the frontier between the warring powers is that one of them is victorious, and pushes the battle lines away from their environs.

This may seem hard to believe, but recall that the Pantheon and the Regime, at the level where they interact with ordinary people, are surprisingly similar.  In either case the people inhabit the bottom rung of a ladder which can only be climbed with the aid of the Process.  In either case their welfare will depend on the disposition of the Ultras immediately above them, which is more or less a crapshoot.

My contacts told me stories of a small settlement near Sonora which changed owners 4 times in 2 years.  Conversation revealed that the inhabitants were only aware of two of these.

3: Everyone in the cities is always getting killed by Ultras

I’m exaggerating, but not by too much.  People act as though the Ultra Powers territory is literally hell on earth.  In fact they resembles many other totalitarian states that have come before them.

The sad truth of the matter is that if a hypothetical space alien were to spy on a Union city and then on a city of the Regime the main difference that they would spy would be that ours wouldn’t be a ruin, and that we’d have power, vehicles, etc.

That is to say, there is a strong distinction in terms of setting, but far less of one in terms of the day to day occupations of human existence.  Every day does not see a Decimation.  Most days the people of the Regime live lives consisting of the same tedium that you would feel if you disabled your NET access and wandered off to life in a pile of rubble.

 

Ultimately, the best advice I can give anyone seriously interested in our neighbors to the west is this.

Consider carefully the plausibility of what you hear, particularly if it speaks to our own superiority.  Information which reaches you has gone through several exchanges, most likely, and each of them had incentive to make us sound better.  The truth is always more prosaic than you think.

Condemner 4:1

Ever since the meeting with the Union, I had been paranoid about meeting places.

Our report to Subtracter had been a perfect example of the kind of meeting place that someone who doesn’t care about the terrain sets.  We’d met up with her on the edges of Shington, along an unremarkable stretch of road.  She’d dropped down out of the clouds and listened to our debrief.

Fisher was, if anything, even more cautious than I was.  She had her Hook watching behind us even as she put her arm around me.  If anything happened, she’d let me know instantly.  I wasn’t going to be caught off guard again.

I hadn’t told her, but I knew that she could tell I was worried about her.  She’d been sullen and withdrawn since the fight with the Union, and then there was the rather memorable fact that Subtracter had killed her back in the Castle.  We clung to one another, tense and frightened, for the duration of that conversation.

It wasn’t a long time to wait.  Preventer had given Subtracter a brief account of what went down.  Subtracter thought us getting ambushed was funny.  Preventer tried to apologize for not getting the peace deal hammered out like we were supposed to, but Subtracter said that She had a rule to never punish people for killing other people.

No one really knew how to take that, and a bit later Subtracter was giving us another assignment.  We were supposed to go down and help out on the southern front once again, Pantheon troubles or some such.  I didn’t see how that could be, given what my other self and Prevailer had done in Redo, but we knew better than to question Subtracter.

We didn’t even have time to get into the city.  Preventer seemed really anguished about this.  I think she was planning on talking to friends or something.  Jane was tormented, wracked by guilt.  I had tried very hard not to think about the souls that Condemner had stolen from her, nor the anger that she must be containing.  I stayed out of her way as much as I could.

That was easy enough, the rolling road that Indulger used to shove us along was big enough that we could separate out easily enough.  Preventer and Indulger stayed together, as did Betty and me.  Haunter sulked alone, everyone understood somehow that she was close to an edge of some kind.

It was looking like this meeting would be another of the bad ones.

Subtracter hadn’t specified ‘how’ we were to pitch in on the southern front.  I was coming to realize that specifying how things happened was not really in the Regime’s wheelhouse.  Fisher suggested that we ask Third Fist what kind of help they could use, and between Haunter’s despair and whatever Preventer was dealing with her motion had carried the day.  We got in touch with Third Fist and they set up a meeting place.

The coordinates that Leveller had sent us led us to the coast, which I think we all saw coming, but I don’t think anyone realized that she’d built an ice palace.  I hadn’t even known that her gift let her make water into ice, much less hold so much of it.

The palace was enormous, at least the size of the Castle back up in Shington.  It gleamed and steamed in the heat of the Gulf, but stubbornly refused to melt away.  Icy tatues of Third Fist stood out from the walls, the warriors of the Regime picked out in heroic poses and shades of blue and white.

An isthmus or sandbar let out to it.  The castle proper was actually out in the ocean.  The waves parted from the path like the old texts that Elder Tanya had read from, with Moses parting the Red Sea.

A week ago we’d have probably walked right up into their power, crippling Indulger by pulling him from land before things even got started, but we’d all had about enough of that.  We conferred a minute, before taking Preventer’s suggestion.

Indulger took a knee, working his hands into the sand of the beach.  There was a faint rumbling, as the land responded, and then a much louder rustling, as the beach was crowded out of the way by an emerging stretch of earth.

Stone rose beneath Indulger’s hands, rose beneath us all.  A sort of artificial shelf, or whatever you’d call it, like a snake of stone, coiled up beneath us.  We rocked a bit, but the ground swayed to compensate, the stone shifting under our feat as it felt us lean one way or another.  Soon we were comfortable, and Indulger grunted, causing the peninsula to extend into the palace.

An unholy cracking and tearing sound emerged, as Indulger’s spear of stone unceremoniously tore into the palace floor beneath us, shouldering Leveller’s creation’s elegant flooring aside and driving a crack into the heart of the structure.

I had no fear that we would collapse the place, but it was impossible to deny the chill as I realized that Leveller might.  If she took this as an affront, then things would go bad, quickly.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have walked into her domain then.”

Condemner had been communicating more and more with me.  His voice arising from my subconscious like some imp from Elder Tanya’s tales.

I ignored him, looking around the frozen foyer that we had forced our way into.

There were a trio of doors, one to either side and one to the front.  I began to suggest that Indulger expand the stone ramp that we were on when Haunter took action.

A wave of her hand saw three shades dispatched.  I caught glimpses of gansters, scavengers and the like.  Rough men brought forth to serve the woman who was their home.  They approached the doors quickly and carefully, examined them for a moment, and then returned to Haunter.  All three saluted, and then sank into her form.

I’d never seen her shades salute her before, but before I could ask what it meant she spoke.

“The doors are fake.   Leveller can open anything she wants.”

We stood for a moment after that, digesting it.

“So, we are supposed to be knocking on the doors, and then what?” asked Preventer.

Indulger shrugged.  He held up a hand, made a ‘knock knock’ gesture.

The fortress shook, convulsively.   Only the ground shifting in counterpoint to it kept us from toppling over.

The shaking died away.

“Let’s not…” I began, when the door ahead of us turned to water and splashed across the floor.

Steam hissed out into the air, haloing Third Fist as they walked out to meet us.

They didn’t break stride, didn’t break ranks.  The Regime’s greatest warriors walked straight up and stood arrayed before us.

None of them stepped off the ice.  None of us stepped off the rock.

Leveller spoke.  Her voice bubbled out of the water that surrounded her, giving it a strange, bass quality.

“We got your message.  I whipped up this little display to greet you in surroundings…appropriate… to your newly raised station.”

We’d talked to Indulger about his manner of speaking and it payed off now, as he didn’t respond to this.

“I hope that I didn’t give offense,” Leveller continued.

I tried not to gawk.  Third Fist had been openly contemptuous at our tryout, had ultimately sided against us becoming a fist.  We’d smashed our way into her castle instead of just walking in, and she was trying to mollify us?

“No.” said Preventer.  “No offense was taken.”

“Well, thank Her for that,” said Mover, sarcasm dripping from her tone.  She, at least, hadn’t softened her attitude since our previous meeting.

Leveller shot her a look, then regarded us once again.

“I’d like to start things off with you on a new foundation, now that you are a Fist.  I’ve been to Redo, seen your work.  We clearly underestimated you.  I’m sure that you will serve Her with distinction.”

“Yeah,” said Indulger.  “That’s what we are trying to do.”

He crossed his arms.

That’s where we were at with Dale.  Short sentences when he knew that he was right, and power pose body language, to emphasize his size.  Fisher had been working with him.

“Wonderful.  Why have you come to see us?” asked Leveller.

Even while she was talking, I was keeping a close eye on the actions of the rest of their Fist.  Killer was sitting on a jagged ice section which had splintered when  Indulger had knocked.  She did finger guns at me when she saw me looking, and I forced myself not to react.

Blaster and Evolver were hanging back, still standing by the door that Third Fist had walked out of.  Leveller and Mover were the only two who had moved up to deal with us directly.

“Subtracter asked us to lend a hand on the southern front, and we didn’t want our operations to run up against yours.  Do you have anything in particular that you could use our aid with?” Preventer asked.

Mover and Leveller moved together, conversed in low tones.  Fisher would be able to hear this, of course.  Her Hook had incredible senses.  She could tell me what they’d said afterwards.  For now I stood my ground and tried to meet the stares of the back three.

There was animosity there.  It wasn’t First Fist’s blank and all consuming hatred.  It wasn’t even the deranged, damaged ferocity that the Union man had shown.  This resembled what I’d seen in the Castle, when the Knights had thought I wasn’t watching.  A bone deep contempt.

I’d heard rumors about Third Fist, about the only Fist with no men in it.  I resolved never to put myself at their mercy.

“So…like I said, we’ve been to Redo, seen your work.”

I refocused on the main two.  Leveller was speaking again.

“You did an excellent job of taking out the enemy.  We could hardly have done better…”

“But?” asked Betty, taking the cue with a natural grace that made the situation seem much more like a civil conversation and less like a hostile negotiation.

“You also took out a lot of the daggers.”

I looked away from the other side for a moment, searching my comrades to see if any of them knew what that meant.  From their faces, no one did.

“Subtracter told us that it was always going to be fine to just kill everyone.” I said.  It felt like invoking Subtracter’s authority strengthened our position somehow.

Leveller nodded.

It was Mover who spoke.

“Sure, sure, but that doesn’t get you out of fixing the consequences of your mistakes.”

“Mistakes?” asked Preventer.  She didn’t give the words any particular threatening inflection.  Still, the question was unquestionably a bit pointed.

“So, you are the Pantheon.  You want to get back at us for the loss of Redo.  What do you do?”

Mover asked the question like we were particularly dense children.  Seemed like Leveller’s newfound civility hadn’t extended as far as Mover.

“I strike back, take down one of our Fists and teach the Regime the consequences of messing with it.” said Preventer.

Leveller shook her head.

“It is comparatively rare that an enemy will actually strike at a Fist.  I take it you got attacked up north, but  that that’s not common at all.  The women in charge of the Pantheon’s movements aren’t dumb.  They prefer to expend their grunts on people who stay dead when killed.”

“That makes sense,” said Preventer, “but I don’t see what that has to do with our work in Redo.”

“Would you attack Redo now?” asked Mover.  “Kick some sand around, bounce some rubble?”

I saw it, all of a sudden.  We’d killed the Pantheon’s Ultras in Redo, true, but as far as everyone knew we’d also killed the civilian populace.  Haunter had only ‘saved’ them in a very particular sense so that was even mostly true.

By doing so we’d eliminated Redo as a point of contention.  The Company Facility wouldn’t be reoccupied if there was no one there, and the city would join dozens of other such settlements dwindling away in the desert.

“Of course, nothing has REALLY changed,” stressed Leveller.  “The enemy could always have moved east around Redo and struck whatever they chose, just as they can now.  The Pantheon, however, generally prefers to attack the outermost target, likes to conquer land like they are peeling an onion.”

Haunter spoke, startling all of us.  Her voice was hoarse and low.

“When we were sent to Redo, you expected us, not yet immortal and outnumbered twenty to one, to capture it intact?”

Leveller gave her a pained smile.

“I expected you to die, to be honest.  I didn’t think much of you at that time.  I certainly didn’t think that you’d succeed well enough that She would intervene, and we’d end up with a big hole where there once was something to pass back and forth.”

Preventer coughed, delicately.

“Now that we understand the pain point, what might we do to rectify the situation?  As we mentioned, Subtracter has dispatched us to the South.  You are the acknowledged experts in this field.  If our actions have brought about a difficulty, then perhaps you could let us in on how we might provide relief?”

Mover gave a sharp nod.

“Now you are getting it.  What we’d like you to do is very simple, and eminently within your power.”

Considering that I didn’t think Third Fist knew that we’d had most of the enemy in Redo fight each other, and Prevailer’s backup for the last part, I wasn’t too confident in her estimate of our power.

“You can-“

“We can fill the city back up, right?” asked Haunter.

As soon as she said it, the matter was obvious.  Cities in the Regime were just places that there were Company Facilities.  There were plenty of little places outside of them where people kept their heads down and tried to live as their ancestors had.  They lived in dread of a knock on the door, the knock that we would bring.

Leveller nodded.

“We hate to work so far from the sea, but with Indulger’s power you are no doubt unfettered by such limitations.  If you are looking to be of use on the southern front, then the best thing that you can do for us is round up a few thousand daggers and get to work on rebuilding Redo.”

“It will be a pleasure,” said Indulger, “to help the citizens of the Regime embrace the better life that the cities offer.”

Crickets.

“Sure, but mostly I just want the Pantheon to have something to attack when they come for payback.  Could you guys fight them off if they come while you are there?”

That wasn’t really a question.  Leveller knew that Her view on Fists that ran from the enemy was extremely dim.

“It will be a pleasure,” said Indulger again.

This time it didn’t sound like he meant it.

Conversation with a new reader

Q: What is your story about?
A: In the near future, someone has figured out how to make superhumans.  They’ve taken over and ruined everything.  Some of them are trying to fix stuff.

Q: How was I supposed to get that from a title like ‘The Fifth Defiance’?
A: The dictator refers to rebellions as ‘Defiances’, and this is the fifth one.

Q: Is the dictator a superhaman?
A: Yeah, she is Prevailer, the most powerful of them.

Q: Should I take the fact that there have been five rebellions to mean that this government is not a bastion of reason and sensitivity?
A: Yeah, it is generally oppressive.

Q: Who is being oppressed?
A: People without super powers.  There is a two tier setup where the Ultras, which is the people with super powers, and their flunkies are in charge.

Q: Lame.
A: Yeah.

Q: So our heroes are normal humans?
A: No, the only people powerful enough to rebel against the Ultras are Ultras themselves.  In fact, they are Ultras who are part of this government.

Q: So this is a collaborator story?
A: Yeah, that’s a fair way to describe it.  People trying to take down the Regime from the inside.

Q: Is your evil empire really called ‘The Regime’?
A: It is.

Q: Anyway, if your story is set in the future, is the technology more like sci fi or more like present day?
A: Present day, in the Regime anyway. The upheaval pretty much put a stop to technological progress, and also there were other factors I don’t want to get into right now.

Q: Wait, there are places outside of the Regime?
A: Yeah, it only covers what was once the east part of America and Canada.

Q: Are other countries also infested with these Ultras?
A: Yup.  There are two main ones.  The Union is a place where Ultras and humans work together (kind of) and they have a society that is a lot like what we have.  The Pantheon is a warrior patchwork of Ultra led states that are basically mini-Regimes.

Q: Are there any wars going on?
A: Yeah, everyone is at war with everyone else.  The Pantheon are trying to take over the world, the Regime is unpredictably hostile and the Union is trying to fight back against everyone who keeps attacking them.

Q: So, I’m going to read about the adventures of some people who work for an evil government, but are trying to overthrow it, in a world where it is at war with everyone?
A: Yeah, but the first story arcs for each character just introduce them, get them to where they are going to meet up with the rest.  The actual working together and for the gov part comes a ways in.

Q: Story arcs?  What’s the update setup like?
A: Wednesday updates are named after the viewpoint character.  They are 2.5 k long.  Sunday updates are like this one, just supplementary stuff.

Q:This one?  What are you talking about?
A: Got to go.