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.
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.
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 am not precisely an Ultrahuman.”
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.