Haunter 4:4

“Ok, so this is obviously a trap, right?”

I looked around at the others, anticipating nodding heads.  I was unpleasantly surprised.

“What makes you think that this is a trap, Jane?” asked Dale.  He had a sort of a hurt look on his face, so far as I could tell behind the mask.

“What makes me…” I trailed off, unsure where to start.

“Jane, I understand that you lost someone dear to you when our negotiations with Commander Fidel went south,” said Preventer.  “But you can’t let that disable your ability to trust entirely.  Surely the world contains SOME sincere individuals.  We can’t just go on thinking that everyone is trying to get one over on us.”

I gaped, looking to Nirav and Fisher for support.  Nirav stared back, expressionless behind those stupid sunglasses.

“What would they gain from a trap?” he asked, with deceptive innocence.

“I’m not…I don’t…”

I sputtered for a moment, then held up a finger to buy a second.

When I’d pulled the Fist in for a huddle to relay Krishna’s insane proposal I’d anticipated spending most of the time we’d be talking trying to figure out what her agenda could have possibly been.  I hadn’t spent any mental cycles actually working out justifications for WHY we would reject the idea of a sports match that resembled combat with our mortal enemies.  It hadn’t, frankly, seemed like it would be necessary.

“I’m not sure what they would gain from a trap,” I told Nirav.  “It could be any number of things.  Or the real goal could be that we do as Krishna asks, and let them mingle with their former subjects.  But I shouldn’t have to know the enemies plans in detail in order to get your assent on foiling them.”

Preventer spoke again, still with that same patronizing false empathy.

“When we are betrayed there is an impulse, an entirely understandable human impulse, to close ourselves off, to hide behind a cynicism.  But, Jane, that’s not you, is it?”

I looked her straight in the eyes.

“I’m not hiding from anything.  I’m not letting the Union situation cloud my judgement.  I’m applying cold logic to this situation, with the aid of a cast of thousands, including a few experts on game theory.”

Preventer gestured at me to go on.

“Look.  We gain nothing from this, nothing at all.  Say that they are entirely on the level.  Say, for just one minute, that Krishna has lost what little mind she has and wants to get together with the enemy army, with us, for a wargame, in the middle of an ACTUAL WAR.  Let’s stipulate that that’s so.”

I had their attention, at least.  Their gazes were locked on me, intent.

When Preventer was outvoted she tried to shout everyone down, browbeat us.  It never worked.  We were an obstinate crew, hard to turn once we set our minds.  I’d always known that if I ever found myself the lone voice of reason in our group that I’d have to use a different tactic.  Talking them through the implications of what they were proposing seemed like the best one.

“So, since they are being truthful, nothing crazy goes down at this Ultra Fight.  We build an arena, Dale scuffles with some Pantheon warriors, and we head on home at the end of the day.  Nothing gained.”

Dale opened his mouth, but I continued speaking before he could interrupt.

“But think what we’ve lost.  They have detailed knowledge of Dale’s power, which they would otherwise lack.  They have observed every one of us at close proximity, which will prevent us from using the infiltration strategy from last time on them ever again.  They’ve regained contact with their Redo personnel, and potentially profited from that meeting.  That’s three serious consequences, and we haven’t even started talking about what might occur if this is a ruse.”

Dale looked to Preventer, who took up the verbal gauntlet that I’d put down.

“Haunter, I think we have to consider that Dale’s power is public knowledge at this point.  He attacked Krishna’s forces with it during the battle, and now he’s used it to rebuild the city.  They’ve got to know what he can do.”

She looked away from Dale then, focusing on me.

“As for getting to know us?  I’m gonna call bullshit on that one.  If you cared about protecting our anonymity you would never have agreed to this meeting in the first place.  We’d have used Transmitter or something.  That’s not a sincere objection, and you know it.”

Dale interrupted.

“Jane, I feel like maybe you aren’t an Ultra Fight fan?  I bet if you attended one of my events I’d win you over.  They are so great.  It is like fighting, but instead of people dying we just have a great time and make everyone happy.  I think it is not fair for you to say that making everyone happy isn’t a gain for our team.  Isn’t that what we are trying to do?”

“It isn’t that simple!”

I took a deep breath, controlled myself.  Shouting never helped anything, and I’d been dangerously close on that last line.

“It isn’t that simple.” I repeated.  “I know.  I’ve tried.  Just helping people out, just entertaining them or carrying them in my reserve…that’s what I’ve done, for all this time.  I’ve spent my LIFE trying the ‘just help people’ approach, and I’m here today, doing this, because that approach doesn’t work.”

I paused, searching for a key that might unlock this, something that might make them see sense.

“Preventer, you told me that you were attempting to get our subjects entertained, back in Shington.  Some kind of sports thing, right?”

She nodded, her expression guarded.  Something was off there, but I didn’t have time to consider the matter further.

“What was the hardest part of that?  Like, why was it so hard to accomplish?  What was in the way?”

Everyone looked to Preventer, waiting for her answer.

This was risky, letting Preventer take the thread of the conversation, but I’d never seen a lecture convince anyone.  I had to engage with them, get them to see why what they were proposing was insane.

She looked up at me.

“I had to get the Regime’s agreement not to spoil everything.  Otherwise Subtracter or whoever would have ruined it.”

“Yes, exactly.”

That had been about what I’d figured.  My argument was on track.

“Dale,” I turned my focus back to our leader.  “If you just help people, then they are better, right up until someone comes along who just hurts them.  Remover or Her, whichever.  It is so much easier to hurt people than it is to help them, there’s just no way that we can cancel out what the bad guys do by just doing good.  We have to actually…”

I paused, letting the implications of Snitcher’s death roll through my mind.

“-actually stop them.  We have to stop the people who are fucking everything up.  That’s why I joined the Fist, so that we could get on the inside and put a stop to all of this.  That’s the prize we have to keep our eyes on.  We can’t afford to get bogged down in whatever this is.  We have to stay focused on taking down the Regime.”

I wasn’t sure that I’d ever actually said the words aloud to everyone.  It felt good.  Even better was that no one recoiled and tried to distance themselves.  My Fist, like me, had thrown caution to the wind.  If Krishna had lied about Snitcher’s death…

I pushed the thought from my mind before I could complete it.  I needed this.  Needed to speak my defiance aloud.

“Well said!” gushed Nirav.  “And I agree with the general principal.  I’m just not sure how it applies to this particular situation.  Can you help me out there?”

It was like cold water, breaking the mood that I’d been working towards in an instant.

“We’d be putting everything that we are working towards, the whole mission, at risk.  And for what?  For nothing!  We gain literally nothing from this endeavor.”

Nirav frowned, his forehead wrinkling in a manner that I was unused to seeing.

“Not literally nothing.  Unless Indulger’s morale, the morale of the people of Redo is literally nothing?”

Nirav was the one who was really throwing the whole balance of the group out of whack.  I focused on him for a moment.

The setup had always been stable.  Indulger’s decency had him taking my side in most arguments, and Nirav would generally follow along.  I’d always known that Preventer might one day sway Indulger, but with Nirav and Fisher on my side I’d still been confident that I’d prevail.

How had things gotten this badly out of whack?  I could understand why Indulger would want to take Krishna up on her offer, his passion for professional wrestling was something that we’d all come to understand on those long bus rides.  But why would Preventer and Nirav buy into something this crazy?

“No, of course.  I misspoke.  It isn’t literally nothing.  It’s nothing…in terms of progress for our mission.  In terms of bringing down Her and all Her works.  It’s the kind of good that I used to spend my time doing, and I’m telling you, small improvements don’t last.  Sooner or later the Regime will kick over any sandcastle that we make.”

I was thinking while I rattled that little speech off.  It wasn’t going to work, it was nothing that I hadn’t said already.  I had to understand their real reasons in order to get them back on board.

Preventer first.  Why would she agree to this exhibition?  She despised violence, aped a scientific, clinical demeanor.  She saw herself as an intellectual.  Why support a sporting event?

Well, why did Preventer do anything?  She must benefit somehow.  But I couldn’t see any way that she could gain anything from this kind of low brow entertainment.  It didn’t fit with my models of her at all.

“Haunter, when I was reluctant to meet with the Pantheon it was YOU who persuaded me.  You pointed out that we have nothing to fear, no risk at all.  With my gift we are safe from anyone save Her.  With Snitcher’s passing we need not quake in fear of provoking Her judgment.  Don’t you think that that logic still applies?”

Shit.

Had her earlier objections been a setup for this?  That didn’t make any sense.  There was no way that she could know what Krishna would propose.  And it didn’t address the crucial ‘why’ of her behavior.  I still didn’t have any idea of what she was after.

“Well, I mean, there’s a difference between a brief conversation, where we might gain useful information, and a prolonged period of cooperation.  If She learned that we cooperated with the people that we are supposed to be fighting…”

I’d lost them.  I could recognize the looks going from one to another.  Fisher was practically rolling her eyes.

Whether it was the apparent hypocrisy of arguing that Preventer had pointed out or whether it was something else, it didn’t matter now.  I didn’t need the Jury’s confirmation to know that the group had come to a decision, and the rest of the conversation would just be them getting me around on the subject.

“Jane, I really think that if you just give it a chance you’ll see…”

I nodded as Dale started talking, repeating whenever he got to the end of a sentence.  We were doing this.

“Jane,” Irene said, “The Jury is pretty sure that Preventer knew Nirav would go for this before he even spoke up.”

Now THAT was interesting.

If Preventer had talked Nirav on board with this crazy plan ahead of time, then the whole conversation took on a totally different meaning.

First off, in order to get him to agree beforehand she’d definitely have had to know about Krishna’s offer before it happened.  How?  The only answer that made any sense was that they’d been in contact.

And that wasn’t exactly surprising, when I thought about it.  Preventer had revealed, during the attack on Redo, that she had Pantheon connections.  It stretched belief that they would be to Krishna, but maybe she’d been able to friend of a friend her way up the chain, get a message to the warlord and arrange this.

Cast Preventer as the author of this whole situation, and the question of how she benefited was easier to solve.  If this was premeditated, then she could have alerted Her.  Prevailer might warp in mid match and start killing.  We’d look good in Her eyes, and that was something that Preventer valued.

Or this might be all about getting some face time with Krishna.  They could sit together in the spectator’s area or something, hash out an arrangement with the kind of detail and precision that you only get while face to face.

Or any number of other things that I hadn’t thought of yet.

“You got it, you convinced me.” I told Dale, breaking up the end of his entreaty.

If this was some kind of play cooked up between Krishna and Preventer, then there was only one thing for it.  I had to figure out the arrangement, and perhaps expose it.

“Great!” Dale seized me by my shoulders, nearly hard enough to destroy one of my shades.  He relaxed his grip just in time.

“I just know that you’ll love this.  Ultra Fight is the best thing in the world, and I’ve been hearing great things about the SouthWest region.  Maybe Red Alice will be here!”

The name meant nothing to me, but I smiled up at Indulger.

“I get to be the one who tells Krishna!” he said, and left the huddle in a whirl of enthusiasm.  He began to enthusiastically shadow box the air, before dropping an imaginary enemy in something the reserve informed me was called a ‘hanging tornado back splash’.

Even knowing that he was being used, I still felt good for him.  Dale’s happiness was something pure, something good.  He took a genuine pleasure in his life, and it lifted my heart to see it.

I looked over at Preventer, who smiled back at me.  My heart sank right back down.

“Jane, I’m glad that you’ve come around on this.  I hate it when we are at odds, and I really respect your intelligence.  When you back me up I feel certain that I’m making the right move.”

I gave her a crooked smile.

“Indulger’s words moved me.  He’s right.  You are right.  We have nothing to lose, so why not give the people a show?  It certainly beats fighting Krishna and her crew.”

Nirav nodded, solemnly.

“I had enough of Ultra warfare the night we took Redo.  I’ll never forget how Condemner feasted that day.  If you hadn’t contracted those people…”

He shuddered.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told him.  “It’s all in the past now.”

I fixed my gaze on Preventer, hiding her malice behind a wide smile.

“The present is what matters.  What we do here and now, this very day.  That’s what we need to focus our minds on.  What we need to prepare for.  We can’t do anything about the past, but the present is ours to shape.”

Preventer nodded, either oblivious to my deeper meaning, or in full agreement.

“To be honest, I’m looking forward to this matchup.  It feels like it has been a long time in coming.”

Ultra Fight

Ultra fight, in one form or another, has existed ever since the Ultras themselves became public.

It’s an obvious idea, right?  You got two people who are Ultra strong, you want to see who is stronger.  You got someone who is Ultra fast, you want to see if that trumps strength.  And so on.

Initially, back in the old world, these were entirely safe affairs.  There was the occasional accident, but overall it was as safe, for the participants, as any similar combat sport.  There was even a push to lump it in with boxing at one point, although that fell through.

After the collapse the Regime had a different take on Ultra Fights.  They became a sort of ritualized dueling mechanism.  Tallies became associated with the fights, serving as a sort of a record of a fighter’s kills.

This collapsed pretty quickly.  People don’t play by any rules when their lives are on the line, or at least people with Ultra powers rarely do.

Ultra fight experienced a soft restart a few years later, as a method for bored Ultras to entertain themselves and their subjects.  It bore something of a resemblance to pro wrestling, the fake sport of the old world.  Matches weren’t to the death, weren’t real.  The audience knew this.

Simultaneously, and confusingly, a brutal combat sport for Ultras was making its way into the Regime from the Pantheon.  Ultimate Fight was a sort of throwback to the old days, a genuine physical contest, but carried out only to unconsciousness or submission.

The contrast between the Ultra Fights, which were staged spectacles, and the Ultimate Fights, which were brutal struggles, was never fully resolved.  Both hobbies had their partisans, and the citizens of the Regime would be forced to watch whichever was presented.

Nowadays an Ultra Fight may refer to either a staged fight performance or an actual non lethal fight between Ultras.  In addition, the lines between the two have been known to blur, with visiting Ultras throwing ‘serious’ matches with a town’s Boss in order to avoid giving the daggers any ideas.

Still, one thing is certain.  When you attend an Ultra Fight you will witness a gripping spectacle, a battle between demigods.  It will be an experience that you never forget.

Haunter 4:3

“Why would we agree to that?”

Preventer’s question wasn’t exactly what I would have lead off with, but it was a start.

“Agree to talking?  Because communication is good?” said Fisher.

“Communication is good?” I asked.  “That’s all we have as a defense of our species’ great strengths?  It’s ‘good’?”

She had the grace to look a bit ashamed.

“Come on, I was on the spot.”

I turned to face Preventer, who’d been nodding tolerantly along to our back and forth.  She caught my eye, raised an eyebrow.

“She’s right, you know.” I said.  “Communication IS good.  It helps people find common ground.  It allows negotiations to happen.  If people talked more, fought less, the world wouldn’t be such a shit hole.”

Preventer chuckled.

“I like the world fine.  I even like talking fine.  Look at me, I’m doing it right now!  But I don’t see what we have to talk about with the Pantheon, with whoever Krishna sent.”

“Turn the question around,” advised Nirav.  “Ask what we have to lose.”

“Our lives,” said Preventer, flatly.

Indulger looked a bit startled at that.  He opened his mouth as though to say something.  Nirav and I caught one another’s eyes, but neither of us stopped him.

“Preventer,” he said slowly, “you are invincible.”

The words had an odd effect on her.  She started to respond, cut herself off, and then repeated the process.

“I know, of course, I mean, you don’t have to tell me about my own gift.  I’m just saying that there’s no reason to take a chance when we don’t have to take the chance.  I mean leave it to chance. I mean…”

She trailed off.

Indulger continued.

“Preventer, you were ok with attacking Redo, when we didn’t have the Link, and now you are not ok with talking to less people than that?  I don’t get it.”

I’d never seen someone literally sputter before, and I still didn’t now, but Preventer came close.  Her eyes shot from one of us to the next, her hands made little spasm motions, and she closed her mouth for about twenty seconds.

“Preventer…” said Fisher, softly and gently.

“Fine, let’s go talk to the enemy.  Whatever.”

The rest of us exchanged looks.  Preventer was usually more stubborn than that, and plainly there was something up with her, but now wasn’t the time to go into it.  I gave Indulger a nod, and he began the process of platforming us out of the city.

Indulger’s platforms could cover ground very rapidly when he felt like it, but this wasn’t one of those times.  The stone slab crept along at a pace somewhere between ten and thirty miles per hour.  We swept out of the city’s rubble and into the dusty outlands, towards the waiting convoy.

Indulger had said 8 or 9 trucks, and it turned out to be eight.  One was larger than the others and had another load attached, which explained the discrepancy.  Indulger had told me that his gift was somehow foreign to him, prone to conveying information as though he was interrogating a separate personality rather than simply allowing him to perceive the information himself.  Naturally he’d have trouble with a set of inputs where one was demonstrably different than the rest.

To the eye, however, there was little mystery to these vehicles.  I’d seen them every day on the highways of my youth.  They were big rigs, built for hauling cargo long distance.  I could even see an old department store logo on the sides of a few, faded with the passage of decades.

The contrast to the Union’s transport, that strange flying building, was profound.  I could only hope that the negotiation to come would not end the same way.

Strike that, I’d do more than hope.

“When we stop, I want two squads out and on our flanks, draw a bead on anyone on the other side who looks like a juicy target.”

Murmured assents came through as I let the squad leaders respond.  The rotation had paused when the alarm was raised, and hadn’t resumed since.  I didn’t need that distraction.  The Jury was the only ones who needed to speak in a situation as tense as this.

“What do you think they want?” asked Indulger.

The truck that had been doing donuts and such in front of the rest had stopped, clearly seeing us and realizing that there was no further need to ‘write’ on the ground.

“Hard to say.” I responded.  “But, as Betty so ably pointed out earlier, conversation is good.  We’ll let them tell us why they are here.”

We pulled to a stop before the trucks, eyeing them nervously.  They were stopped, engines still and cold.  A lady was sitting on the hood of one of the trucks, waving us over.

After the fiasco up north, that fucking catastrophe, we’d had some long talks about how we’d go about negotiating if it ever came up again.  I headed over to speak to our visitors, shades spreading out from my sides.  Nirav and Preventer came with me, leaving Indulger and Fisher in the back.

In case of trouble Indulger could sling us about with his ground manipulation abilities, and in case of catastrophe I was supposed to feed Nirav from my reserve, providing him with the brute power necessary to see us through any conflict.

I wasn’t actually sure that I could bring myself to do that again, mind.  Only the Colonel’s sacrifice had driven me to it the first time.  Even thinking about it was painful.  They’d given up their lives for our temporary tactical advantage.

“Hey Jane!” called out the woman on the hood.  “Over here!”

I strode up, stopping about ten feet from the front fender of her vehicle.  I looked up at her, taking her measure.

The woman who was talking was slim, almost boyish.  Dark complexion, Indian most likely.  Short too.  She had a haircut like Remover’s, long bangs, but instead of the fiend’s green dyed hue her hair was a strange translucent grey color.  She had piercings in her nose and lip.

I recognized her from descriptions that I’d overheard in Redo.  This was Krishna herself.

“Krishna,” I greeted her.  “To what do we owe the honor?”

I put some sarcasm into my voice, but I was actually pretty curious.  She had a reputation as a tactician, as an organizer.  Heck, some stories made her out to have Ultra Wisdom or something similar.  I wouldn’t have imagined that talking to a fist face to face was in her wheelhouse.

“Oh, you know, just thought I’d drop by.”

On ‘drop’ she pushed herself off the hood, landing in front of us.  She strutted up, extending a hand.

Our eyes went, almost involuntarily, to Preventer.  Krishna could offer to shake our hands, presumably thanks to a dossier or something similar telling her our powers.  But to reciprocate would be to risk falling under whatever her gift might do with flesh contact.  My own power constituted an ever present reminder that many gifts required flesh to flesh contact.

Preventer extended her hand, confident in her gift, or just not worried that the Pantheon warlord would try anything.  The two women were almost of a height, though Krishna was a bit taller.  They shook for a moment, then let go.

Krishna looked around at the shades, then back to me.

“Haunter, Jane, whatever you want to call yourself, I’ve wanted to meet you for quite a while.  Your gift is one of the most fascinating that I’ve even heard of, and I spend a considerable amount of effort chasing down rumors of intriguing gifts.  To command the dead must be quite an experience.”

“You might learn what it feels like, soon enough” I answered.  “You’ve got to know that She will be watching soon, if She isn’t already.”

Krishna clapped hands to her face in mock dismay.

“You mean, out of your eyes?  With Snitcher’s power?  Then you haven’t heard the news?”

I glanced to Preventer, who shrugged.  She seemed to be more calm now that the meeting was actually taking place than she had been when we’d been considering it.

“News?” I asked.

Krishna made a ‘cross your heart’ gesture over the left side of your chest.

“We got Snitcher, he’s snitched his last.  Shot through the head.”

“What?!” shouted Nirav.

It was easy to forget just how young he was.  I’d been thinking the same thing though.

“Snitcher is gone?” I asked.

Had the news that I’d given out to the Union about Snitcher’s double identity made it into the hands of someone with the wherewithal to act?  Or had this just been a coincidence of timing.

Preventer started to speak and I looked right at her face, consciously fighting back the reflex to avoid seeing anyone’s lips move.

“When you say that you ‘got’ him, are you claiming responsibility for this action for the Pantheon at large?”

Krishna was already shaking her head.

“No no no, I didn’t mean ‘we’ the Pantheon.  I meant ‘We’, as in everyone else.  The ‘we’ that you refer to when you say ‘we’ hate Her.  That’s the ‘we’ I meant.”

It was strange to hear a woman from the Pantheon using the capitalized pronouns, even stranger that were watching someone mock Her without fear that She’d warp in and kill them.

“I don’t hate Her,” said Nirav, audibly nervous at the direction this conversation was going.  “She rules our nation, protects us from our enemies.”

I put a hand on his shoulder, reassuringly.

“She doesn’t really care what people say, Nirav.  As long as we obey Her when it matters, She’ll forgive a lot of griping.”

“Does telling yourself that make it easier to be a slave?” asked Krishna, in a voice full of false innocence.  “Is it really comforting to know that your master doesn’t care what you say?”

I was stung, but before I could answer Preventer spoke up.

“Thanks for telling us about Snitcher, Krishna.  But I’m sure that’s not why you came.”

Krishna pointed to her nose with one hand, to Preventer with the other.

“Right, yes.  Sorry.  I got distracted.  Anyway, the reason for my visit is simple.  A lot of my gals wanted to visit Redo, see what you’ve done with the place.  I was hoping we could arrange something along those lines.”

“What?” I asked.

“We were here for a long time before you kicked us out.  A lot of my people know people in Redo, or have loved ones there.  Heck, a few of em got kids.  We were hoping to work something out, where one or two of us could roll up to visit every once in a while.  If any bigwigs are in town just pass my gals off as Regime.”

The Jury hastened to assure me that, yes, that checked out a bit.  At least to the extent that a number of the souls that I’d pacted in Redo had spoken fondly of Pantheon members who hadn’t ended up with Andy it checked out.

“What do you get out of this?” asked Preventer.  She didn’t seem mad, just…incredulous.  I felt like most of her attention was still on processing Snitcher’s passing.  To be honest, I could hardly get my mind round the news myself.

Snitcher was dead.  Linker was dead.  The Regime couldn’t make any new Fists.  It couldn’t spy on the Fists that it had.  A pillar of the system had fallen, and I felt like I was looking up at that roof, hoping that it wouldn’t collapse one me, but also kind of hoping that it would.

A brief flash of panic swept through me at the thought that since Snitcher was Linker perhaps our Link was gone, but I could feel it as strongly as ever.  I had the same instinctive knowledge of my Fist’s position that I’d had when I woke up that morning in the Castle.  We were still Linked.

“Nothing much,” Krishna replied.  “Just happy to help out my rank and file.  Key to a long career you know.  Got to keep the grunts happy.”

I didn’t believe that for a second.  Krishna would have spent every life under her command in a heartbeat if she had to.  No one without that kind of ruthlessness could have risen to command dozens of Ultras with a power that didn’t help her in combat.

“The Colonel often said similar things,” said Joe.  “She might be on the level, or at least invoking something that is real.”

Krishna looked straight at me and winked.  It was very much a ‘listen to him’ kind of wink.  She could hear my reserve.

“What’s in it for us?” asked Preventer, sullenly.

“Nod if you can hear me.” I sent, broadband, to the whole reserve.

The Jury was feverishly debating whether the wink had meant what I thought it did.  The verdict was presently split, but I knew what I saw.

Krishna showed no sign of nodding.

“What do you want?  Honest question here, not being snide.  What would you like from the Pantheon, that you can’t get from the Company Men or your masters?”

“Nod if you can hear me!” yelled Joe, internally.  Still no response, nod or otherwise.

I muted the whole reserve, Jury included.  I wasn’t about to risk my communications with them being intercepted.

“Not a lot from you.  Just don’t attack us, and we are pretty much fine,” said Nirav.

I indicated my agreement with a shake of the head.

“Now that’s one thing I can’t exactly promise, for a reason that I’m sure you are familiar with.”

We waited quietly for a moment, and she realized that she had to continue the explanation a bit more than that.

“Just like in the Regime, Pantheon units aren’t exactly in charge of our own missions profiles.  If Zeus gives us the Go command…”

She trailed off.

“So, if you can’t offer us peace, and you have nothing material to offer us, what is the point of all this?  You showed up to negotiate, and you expected us too…”

I trailed off, not really sure how to end that statement.  What was she playing at?

“Oh, I’ve got something to offer you.  I’m pretty sure that you’ll get a kick out of it.  It isn’t that big of a deal, really, but it is something that you don’t have here, and I’m pretty sure you don’t mind my people visiting anyway.”

“What is it?” asked Preventer after a moment.

Krishna pointed at Indulger where he hung back, prompting a friendly wave from our leader.

“That big guy, that’s Dale, right?  The guy who beat down Pursuer?”

“It’s Dale, sure.  But I can’t speak to who is in his Tally.  The subject hasn’t really come up.”

“I don’t care about his Tally.  I’m sure you are all deadly fighters.  I’m interested in him as an Ultra Fight aficionado.  And I’m not the only one.”

“Where are you going with-“

Krishna cut me off.

“He’s not the only luchador around.  I’ve got a bunch of people in my crew who’d love to put their masks up against his, pro graps style.”

“Wrestling?” asked Nirav, a bit dumbfounded.

“You got it.  If you let our people tie up some lose ends with the citizens of Redo, no one getting hurt or nothing, just say some goodbyes and the like, then we’ll work with your man Dale to put on the best damn Ultra Fight you’ve ever seen.”

Deaths of the Inner Circle

Here are my thoughts on what it would mean if the Demon lost any member of her inner circle.

Prevailer:

If the Demon herself dies, then an enormous opportunity arises.  The only thing that would stop us from unifying the world at that point would be if the Ultras of consequence fall into the Union’s hands.  To that end, it would be incumbent upon us to snatch up Copyer and Linker, immediately.  Cassandra’s vendetta aside, Answerer would also probably be useful to collect.  Remover and Adder should be killed as quickly as possible, lest they follow through on Prevailer’s apocalyptic threats.

The remainder of the Regime is much less important.  Many will likely join up, functioning as lesser lights in our Pantheon, holding the Americas for us.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile to let one or more onto this Council, in time.  By contrast with the previous actions, it would be of little consequence.

Adder:

Adder’s death would, in and of itself, hurt the Regime badly.  Its industry, such as it is, is primarily Adder generating materials which Copyer replicates.  A system akin to our dear Gaia’s efforts.  If he was lost the Regime could no longer add materials to the set that it could replicate.

Further, Adder is precious to the Demon, and she would likely be unbalanced and lash out if he were to perish.  It is my personal belief that Adder’s passing would lead to the Great War, and consequently I would urge you, upon receiving word of such, to muster the Army of Sunset as swiftly as you can.

Subtracter:

The death of this brute would be of little moment, save for lowering the casualty total that would be incurred by a power which subdued the Regime after Prevailer passed on.  Her combat strength is prodigious, but nothing that we haven’t dealt with before.  It isn’t Subtracter who holds back the spawn of our camps.

In fact, the Regime would probably be more effective in her absence.  Intelligence reports that she is the primary counter to Adder’s wiser and more effective council, and her absence might let him manipulate Prevailer more effectively.

Snitcher:

Snitcher’s death would allow unprecedented opportunity to engage the Regime without engaging the Demon directly.  It is Snitcher which she relies upon to let her know when to use her accursed Gift to go forth to battle, Snitcher who polices the actions of her underlings.

In his absence, and considering the centralized nature of power in the Regime, it is likely that the Demon’s forces would be paralyzed.  She wouldn’t be able to take action in response to an attack or provocation until word was brought back to her, but owing to Snitcher’s utility there is no one who has that responsibility.  It would take them weeks to cobble together a mostly functioning command and control system, and in the meantime the Regime would be essentially on autopilot.

Linker:

Linker’s death would mean the end of the Fist system, which means that Prevailer would be an army of one.  Her subordinates would no longer be able to engage their more numerous adversaries, and attrition would swiftly destroy her vaunted Fists.  This would make acute the danger of Prevailer’s omnicidal threats, and would require her to be dealt with immediately.

As with Adder, I recommend attempting to take Prevailer’s life as soon as Linker is confirmed dead.  There will be no second chance if she realizes that she is defeated.  Peggy Martin will absolutely destroy the world in a fit of pique.  She must never realize that she has lost until she is dead, and Linker’s destruction would be a giveaway that even one as dim as Prevailer wouldn’t fail to understand.

Torturer:

Torturer’s death would have a difficult impact to measure.  Would the traitors restrained by her conditioning retain their freedom of action?  Or would the implanted fear remain?  There is no way to know.

Worst case, Torturer’s absence does almost nothing, save to stop our foe from creating any more sleeper agents.  Best case, a sizable segment of her populace becomes even less loyal than they currently are.  We’d expect sizable leaks at that point, but I believe our penetration of the Regime network is currently sufficient.  It is difficult to see a material advantage to Torturer’s passing, save that the fear of one day being subjected to her power would pass from us.

Copyer:

The Regime could not exist without Copyer’s gift.  If he were to perish, starvation would scythe the Regime down to its core components in short order.  It would be an appalling waste of human life.

The Union maintains an agricultural capability commensurate with their technical edge.  We have Gaia and a few others.  The Regime is ENTIRELY reliant on the protein powders and replicated medicines of the Company.  If Copyer dies, the Regime goes with it.

It is unclear what Prevailer and her elites would do in that case, but the locust scenario seems most likely.

Answerer:

You know the discussions we’ve had about how influential the Demon’s pet actually is.  I’m a skeptic.  Its death would presumably cause the Regime to lose some of its efficiency, become more clumsy in its dealings, but it is hard to imagine how that could be the case.

Given how inept the Regime is, on a day to day basis, it is clear that its resident soothsayer is just as unreliable as ours.  Divinations is overrated.  I wouldn’t expect any particular action as a result of Answerer kicking the bucket.

In service,
Itzamna

Haunter 4:2

The decision was too important to make on my own.

Andy’s session had gone surprisingly similarly to how I’d envisioned it.  We’d held hands while I talked about my gift, explained the uses that I put it to and such.  I’d felt a sensation that was hard to describe, kind of like an inner warmth that shifted within my flesh?  It never got all the way to burning, but I could definitely feel that his gift was doing something.

From what he said, however, he hadn’t actually made any changes.  Our interview had been all about him discovering what capability for change was available, and making that information known to me.

It had been a lot like what I’d speculated, actually.  He could increase the amount that I could manifest, or the solidity of my manifestations.  He wasn’t actually able to extend the ease with which I made connections, for reasons that he couldn’t explain in any manner that made any sense.  There was also another ability that he could give me, one that I hadn’t really given any thought to.

In the same way that he could improve my ability to manifest shades, he could also upgrade my ability to let them possess me.  He could make it faster, letting me put them on and off as fast as I could think it, and he could increase the total amount of shades that I could wear.

A tempting offer, to be sure.

Andy had made it clear, without that ghastly smile for once, that there was a price to this.  I’d need to pick another trait to weaken in order to compensate for the one that would grow stronger.  I could manifest more shades, but lose the ability to wear them at all.  I could make my shades more solid, but manifest less of them.  And so on.

I’d decided to sleep on it, and, the morning after, found myself daunted by the responsibility.

The Colonel was gone.  The mission was mine.  There was no reason to think that Andy would always be around to fix this if I messed it up.  Using Andy would, in all probability, factor heavily into whether I was ultimately able to save my passengers or not.

They deserved a say.

Looking out over Redo from our barracks, watching the sun come up, I addressed the reserve directly.

“Go back to the start of the Rotation, and tell me what you think about this.  You all heard what Andy said, you’ve all lived this misbegotten life with me.  If you were me, if you were the one who was responsible for all this, what would you do?”

I kept them hushed for a second after that, thinking about my next words carefully.

“This isn’t a vote.  I’m not trying to pass the responsibility onto you.  I’m done with that.  My gift, my choice, is ultimately how this is going to go down.  Whatever I decide, it will be on me.  But I believe in democracy.  I believe, fundamentally, that the wisdom of the masses is a real thing.  This pertains to your futures, so your domain expertise is something that I’d like to avail myself of.”

Another hush.  Outside, a kid was playing a makeshift bowling game with a round rock and a bunch of suspiciously regular rock pins.  Indulger’s work, almost certainly.

“Don’t use your time to tell the people who went before you what to do.  This isn’t about you arguing with one another.  Don’t expect me to respond, there are too many of you.  Speak your piece and let the next one go.  Irene will be tallying your input, taking note of any particularly eloquent arguments that anyone comes up with.  You will be counted, heard, if you speak.  Go.”

With that, I relaxed the restrictions and let the rotation commence.  I listened long enough to hear that things were going smoothly, then pulled my attention away from it with the ease of long practice.

The day wore on.

I spent it in a leisurely fashion, bumming about.  I manifested shades as requested by the people of Redo, making certain that I didn’t choose any that would interrupt the rotation.  The former inhabitants of the town were clustered at the end of the order, so that wasn’t terribly hard.

Truthfully, this was the lot of the mighty Ultras of the Regime.  We were beings of fear to the rest of the world, often imagined or portrayed as malevolent demons or Gods, and yet on any given day we were likely to be amusing ourselves in idleness, the same as the privileged of every land.

I’d long since gotten used to it.  The world of my birth would regard an aristocracy determined by a medical process as obscene, indecent.  The Ultra Force had felt a genuine obligation, an onus to make the deaths of their fellows in the Process count for something.  We had channeled that fervor into public service, into defense of country, into anything that came at hand.

Our children’s children had none of that.  I’d never seen Preventer betray any sign that She was conscious that the world didn’t owe Her absolute comfort at all times.  Indulger, well, he might be excused on grounds of general inability, but Fisher and Nirav were similarly heedless.

I headed down to lunch, bemoaning the fate of the present.  I was aware that I was fulfilling a very particular stereotype about old women, namely that we are  dissatisfied crones grousing relentlessly at those who replaced us , but I didn’t particularly care.  It was something to distract myself from the rotation’s deliberation.

Indulger called me over as I arrived at the ground floor.  I took a seat beside him and Shover.

“Jane, are you doing all right?” he asked.

Shover looked a bit scandalized at a Fist using human names.  Or rather, since she had been Pantheon up until recently, Gods using mortal names.  She didn’t say anything though.

“Not really,” I told Indulger.  “I’m…”

I thought for a second about how to phrase my dilemma in a way that Indulger would understand.  Ennui?  Angst?  A growing realization that I might have been fooling myself for half of my life?

“Sad.  I’m really sad.”

Shover spoke up.

“That’s awful.  It’s like the famous story about the guy who went to see a shrink, and the shrink told him to go to a clown, but he WAS the clown.”

I was a little surprised that she knew that one, actually.  Or what a shrink was.

“What do you mean?” asked Dale.

“Haunter made everybody happy by bringing back the people who got burned up, but now she’s sad and there is no one to bring someone back to make her happy.”

From the way she phrased things, I suspected that Dale had met a kindred spirit, or at least someone who shared his rather limited vocabulary.

“Can’t you just bring them back yourself?” she asked.

“Shover,” I said.  “I’m not sad about any particular person dying.  I’m sad…. I guess I’d say I’m sad that people die, in general.  Not that we don’t have one person still with us, but that I don’t have a lot of people still here.  I’ve lived for a long time, and a lot of people are missing that I wish, very much, were around right now.”

Dale nodded his understanding.

“That has got to suck.  It’s too bad that you couldn’t bring them back.  Are you blaming yourself about that?”

That was unusually perceptive for the big man.

“Maybe a little.  I mean, not really.  I’m not holding myself responsible for not putting everyone who died into my reserve.  I’m just…I just wish that things could be different, you know?  My gift proves that there isn’t some grand purpose to death.  It’s just an accident of the way things are.  If She had gotten my power instead of Her strength, maybe we’d be in a deathless world by now?”

Shover shook her head.

“I think She would just use it to bring dead people back and torture them again or something.”

“I meant the first Ultra having a gift like mine, not Prevailer in specific.  I guess, I mean…”

I was having trouble saying it in a way that they would understand.

“Do you wish that you were the first Ultra, instead of Her?” asked Shover.

“Well, obviously, but that’s not the core of what I’m saying.  What I mean is this.  My gift exists, so it might have been the first one.  It might have been what set the stage, what changed the world.  Not brute strength, not the power to kill, but the power to prolong our existence.  This could have been a golden age.  It isn’t, and it isn’t because of any profound reason.  I don’t suffer like this for any profound reason.”

I moderated my tone, kept myself from breaking into a shout.

“It’s just bad luck.  All of it.  The world is a ruin, half of everyone is dead, and we live under the thumb of a madwoman, all because of one tiny piece of bad luck.  And that makes me sad.  I’m numb to the facts, but talking to Andy reminded me of how meaningless it all is, so I’m sad.  You get me?”

Shover nodded, got up and scurried away.  I couldn’t blame her.  If I’d run into a Fist raving about how unfair the world was in public I’d have had to walk off too.

Dale didn’t go anywhere, but he sat silent for a long time.  His brow was furrowed in thought.

I didn’t mind the silence.  I stuffed some rations in my mouth, enjoyed the quiet.  Venting was cathartic, but it didn’t really change anything.

Nirav approached us, wearing shades he’d swiped from some old gas station or other.

“Dale, come outside for a sec.  Some people said that they saw some trucks coming into town.”

Indulger was out of his chair in a heartbeat, striding towards the exit.  I followed right along with, introspection momentarily banished.  Trucks meant one of two things.

“Regime,” he said.

I put my hand out, grabbed him by the arm.  He looked down at me.

“Are you sure?  We have to be more careful.  What makes you think they are with us?”

He grinned.

“Company trucks, and coming from the Northeast.  But mostly the Company trucks thing.  They use a particular one, just duplicated over and over.  One of the wheels is not aligned right.  I learned that a long time ago.”

“That’s evidence,” I said. “But not conclusive.  I wouldn’t put it past Krishna to circle around and have some of her goons hijack a Pantheon truck or two.”

The rest of the Fist had gathered round as we spoke.  We’d all been at headquarters, and we’d arranged a ‘meet out front’ system in response to any kind of trouble.

“It is almost certainly the Company” asserted Preventer, “but Haunter has a point.  No reason to be anything less than safe.  Let’s meet them in force, shall we?”

Indulger took us through the city on one of his platforms, skimming the stone across the surface of the old roads, merging it through the rubble.  The novelty of this kind of thing had long since worn off, and we simply clutched at the surface beneath us and prepared to meet our guests.

It didn’t take long to intercept the Company trucks.  There was only one navigable path into Redo for a wheeled vehicle, and we met on it.  They stopped, by fell coincidence, near the building we’d sheltered beneath while we planned Thor’s ruin.

Company Men climbed out, recognizable anywhere by their uniformity and our long familiarity.  One of them walked over.

“Hi” said Dale.

“Greetings Indulger.  We’ve been dispatched to reoccupy this city’s Company Facility.  Honorary Vice President of Operations Martin has tasked us, by proxy, with resuming Processing operations.”

“Ok.” Said Dale.

The Company Man stood silently before us, content to let us lead the conversation.

“I’d like to inspect your vehicles.” I said, before I could stop myself.

I didn’t really suspect that anything was wrong in a Company vehicle.  It was something else.

From the moment that my session with Andy had ended I’d been haunted by a vague suspicion that the world would find a way to strike at me before I could consummate my intentions.  I wasn’t sure if, at my very core, there wasn’t part of me that hoped for an interruption.  But that part of me would never gain ascendancy.

After the ambush with the Union no one accused me of being too careful.  The Company Men stepped aside and let us check over their trucks.

Nothing untoward seemed to be present.  They had some protein powder, a bunch of what the Jury told me were authentic equipment that biologists would find useful.  Nothing was amiss.

We waved them on, huddled up as they passed.

“I’m actually glad that we double checked,” said Preventer.

I’d expected her to take the opportunity to make a dig at me about jumping at shadows.  Even the worst people will occasionally surprise you.

“No reason to take chances,” said Fisher.  “We weren’t doing anything important anyway.”

That provoked general agreement, then suddenly Indulger held up a hand.

“More trucks, Southwest.  Probably Pantheon.”

I didn’t even feel surprised.  Somehow I’d known.  If Andy raised to my lips the cup of salvation, then of course it would be dashed away.  My burden was not one that I could ever set down.

“How many?” asked Fisher.

“Just 8, 9.  Sorry, they are far away, I don’t have very good sense at that distance.”

“Just wait a second,” I said.  “They’ll be closer soon enough.

This black mood was different than the blankness that had enveloped me after the incident up north.  I wasn’t numb now, I was angry.  The ire that I’d been trying to communicate to Dale and Shover was still in me, and now it found its utterance.

“I’d like to say that I don’t know what possible reason would drive Krishna to send her forces against us, but that’s too kind.  I know the reason.  It is the same damnable reason that set us against Thor.  The orders of her master.  Well they’ve-“

Indulger’s hand descended on my head, patting the top of it like I was a pet.  I fell silent, startled out of my gathering monologue.

It is easy to forget just how big Dale is.

“They’ve stopped,” he said, giving me a quick, apologetic look.  “Except for one truck the rest have stopped.”

“Some kind of stratagem?” asked Preventer.

Indulger shook his head, frowning furiously, all of his concentration bent upon his gift, trying to decipher something that only he could sense.

“The lead truck is out of control?  I’m not sure…” he paused a second.  “No, wait.  I’ve got it.”

When Dale realizes something the smile which crosses his face actually transcends that stupid mask.  You can actually SEE the idea take hold, the pieces come together.

“It is spelling out words.  They are trying to talk to me.  They want to talk!”

Ultra Beasts

The first use of the Process, of course, was most likely not on a human subject.  Dr. Chen’s renowned pacifism would have driven him to risk animal lives before allowing a person to be put at risk.  Indeed, were it not for the famous accident that created Prevailer, it is not clear whether he ever would have made the leap to human experimentation.

It is fascinating, then that more is not known of the results of these early animal experiments.

Common sense would dictate that they must have shown some success.  The good doctor continued his research, after all, and presumably was enough of a scientist not to have done so if his initial results were not encouraging.

And yet the public’s eye never lighted upon the fruits of these efforts.  Even when the Ultra Force was public knowledge, even as cameras flitted around these men and women, and the most meager scraps of information were spread far and wide on the net, no word was ever spoken of animals with Ultra gifts.

A contradiction, then.  Reason tells us that they existed, but the evidence cannot be found.  Perhaps the answer lies, as with so many matters pertaining to the Regime’s origins, in Remover’s manipulations?

Perhaps, but it feels unsatisfactory.  Could even the clout that she once commanded, the ferocious intellect that she is known to posses have shrouded the truth so thoroughly against so many prying eyes?  It feels doubtful.

Then, too, there is the Company Man’s answer when asked to Process a dog or cat.

If you ask the Company Men to fly the earth out beyond the reaches of the solar system, to turn back time, or to bring the dead back to life, they will say, invariably, “That is not possible at this time.”

It is a rote response, given in answer to any question that takes them beyond the bounds of their instruction.  You might have heard it for yourself if you asked them to defy physics or the Regime.

But ask one to use the Process on a beloved pet.and they will say “That is not possible.”

Why the distinction?  Why did the mind that scripted their responses differentiate that particular line of inquiry from so many others?

While we are asking, why does Pursuer look like a werewolf?  What gave the canine impression to the forces that sculpted his form?

Vague hints, suspicious denials…all reminiscent of the recorded controversies that bored dilettantes manufactured about nonexistent extraterrestrials in the olden days.  And perhaps this is nothing more than that.  It’s the most likely answer, after all.

Perhaps the Process needs a human body to manipulate, a soul to bind.  There’s no reason it can’t be so.

If so, the only Ultra Beasts that we’ll ever see will be those we are familiar with, the two legged kind who rule over us.

Haunter 4:1

The dilemma pulled me back to myself, a day at a time.

It had been easy, in the wake of the Colonel’s death, to fall away from the world.

I hadn’t precisely gone catatonic, but I’d definitely entered something resembling a fugue state.  I’d been play acting at being myself, role playing the person that would get me through any situation without having to think.  It had been easy to act mildly disapproving to the Fist, curt and unbending with the reserve and pass my days in profound numbness.

Irene and Joe had known that my straits were more dire than they appeared, of course, but after an early intervention had prompted me to shut them down they’d wisely refrained from addressing me directly.  Their caution was warranted.  In the state of mind that I’d been in, I might have killed them, just like I’d killed the Colonel.

It would have taken a conscious thought to say that I’d resigned myself to this, so I hadn’t technically done so, but I regarded the future with no more concern than I did the present.  I shambled through life, responding to my colleagues with a half hearted simulacra of the woman they’d come to know, to Prevailer’s scorn with downcast eyes and a shameful submission.  Even the news that we’d be returning to Redo, seat of our infamy, didn’t truly stir the waters of my soul.

It wasn’t merely the absence of the Colonel that undid me.  Truth be told, he’d never spoken all that much.  Our bond hadn’t been in the day to day.  It wasn’t even what he represented.  It had been a long time since I’d honestly considered my mission to be carried out under the military’s auspices.  It had become a personal quest decades ago.

No, what had struck me down was the simple, relentless passage of time.  The Colonel died…and the sun still came up.  I still grew older.  Prevailer still reigned, and the Union had been revealed as unworthy of the hope that I’d long placed in it.

When Tom had died, for a brief second, I’d felt something other than sorrow.  It had been relief.  It felt traitorous to admit, but some part of me envied him, finally at rest.  His tour was ended, his service complete.  I lingered on.

In that relentless passage of days I could see my future.  Shades that I’d come to know and cherish would fall in Prevailer’s service, only to be replaced by a never ending sea of those that I must save.  My heart would mend, only to break again as another family was stolen away by a world gone coarse with cruelty.  I would grow older and older, needing to steal the strength of ever more of my reserve merely to maintain my existence.  Nothing would change until the end.

And the end would be pitiful.  Someday some Fidel or other would ram a spike through my chest, drain my reserve and condemn us to the grave we’d cheated so long.  It wouldn’t be Remover, or Prevailer, just some idiot New World savage, unable to even understand what they were destroying.

As the days had crawled by I’d struggled with that vision, wrenched my mind about in anguish trying to deny the obvious truth, that when I looked forward at that lonely grave I felt only longing.

The first crack in the ice came when I restored the people of Redo to their loved ones, if only partially.  It was still part of my routine, of course, or I couldn’t have managed it, but it was the best part.  Even before we struck out for Dover, the opportunity to help people, to let them see their spouses and family members again every day, had done me a bit of good.

It couldn’t break the grip of my despair on its own, of course.  The demons which tormented me had their answers for such moments of bliss.  They pointed out that this was just a stopgap measure.  That one day She would drag me off to commit atrocities on some far corner of the globe and the people here would be doubly bereft.  They reminded me of similar experiences in the past, and the heartache when I’d had to leave communities that had become dependent on me.  These arguments stuck like arrows in my mind.

But even this dull ache was better than the numbness.  Bleak thoughts of the future were nonetheless thoughts.  Sorrow and regret were still emotions.  In the days before Dover my fugue was already starting to crack.

The deathblow to my despair was struck when Andy had revealed his nature, his story and his function. The haze that had gripped me had grown out of an eternal sameness.  It couldn’t survive novelty, the tantalizing possibility that the end of my quest could be within reach.  By the time Preventer and I had interrogated Andy in that basement I was almost wholly myself again.

I devoted the days after to questioning Andy’s followers, seeking, with the Jury’s aid, to confirm his story.

Transmitter had originally been gifted with the power to hijack the sensory input of anyone that she touched, slaving their perceptions to her own.  Working with Andy, she’d lowered the band that her gift affected to vision and sound, and gained the ability to observe their location even as she showed them hers.

Beamer, the cyclops guy, had a gift which allowed him to shoot a projectile out of his eye.  It was apparently a burning plasma, some kind of tear.  Inferior to a gun, for most intents and purposes.  Andy had moved his eyes, which used to be on his hands, onto his face.  Apparently the reason that Beamer’d asked for one giant eye in the center rather than the normal configuration was that the added size of his eye allowed him to see while launching a tear.

Rememberer was the other bodyguard, on account of her possession of second degree Ultra Strength.  Her primary ability was an absolutely perfect memory.  Her gift let her rewind her past to any point, and experience it again in real time.  The only flaw in this arrangement was that she could only keep about a week of it in her mind, before it dropped away again.

Apparently something about her gift interfered with the transmission of memories from brain to soul.  Andy had been able to sacrifice a day or so of the total time that she could keep on hand and in exchange given her the ability to store selected instants into her long term memories.

Shover had a minor telekinetic ability.  She could cause weak impacts to objects along any vector, but only one object at once.  She’d asked Andy what he could do with her power, but apparently she hadn’t liked any of the options.  When I spoke with her she seemed to think that he’d been holding out on her.

Jumper could launch herself into the air along any vector that she could imagine.  Andy had limited the range on her ability drastically, but given her a promise that her gift would take care of landing.  Apparently before his intervention that hadn’t been guaranteed.  Despite losing a lot of distance it was still a gift that could take her several miles, though, which made the ability to absorb the impact very impressive.

Fryer could raise the temperature of anything he touched, basically just set things on fire.  Andy had switched his gift from being constantly on along the surface of his hands to working anywhere on his body, and only when he willed it.

None of these gave me exactly what I was looking for, but they were all encouraging.  Most importantly, the stories were all consistent.

I asked them questions about each other, questions about their powers before and after Andy’s intervention and questions about the outcome of his work on the others.  Their answers all passed the Jury’s sniff test, aside from some minor shiftiness that I’d learned to disregard.

Either they were a group of exceptionally well coached spies, or Andy’s ability was the genuine article.  My own belief was that they weren’t trying to fool me.  I wouldn’t have put money on ANY nation being able to prepare a half dozen agents to fool the Jury on a complicated topic like this, much less the Pantheon.  Far simpler if the reason that they sounded sincere was that they were.

At last, after decades of searching, I’d arrived at a turning point in my long path.

If Andy could alter my gift, then perhaps my passenger’s salvation had arrived.  Several of the Dover Ultras’ stories described almost precisely what I needed.  Wholesale alteration of a gift, bending it to a related purpose.

I was just about ready to speak with Andy about scheduling a session to work on my gift when Irene raised the obvious question, what did I actually want him to do?

It was a more complicated question than it sounded.

My first impulse had always been that the main problem with my gift was the limit on the number of people that I could manifest.  If that could be removed, then I could simply manifest the entire reserve, and never draw them back in.  They could lead normal lives, so long as they avoided any strong impact.

But imagining that scenario now, with it quite possibly being something that could actually happen, I was painfully aware of the limits of what it would bring about.  Yes, the grave would be denied, for a time.  My reserve could walk the world again, or at least the padded sections of it.  But I’d be a helpless old woman in their absence, and when I died they’d very likely cease to exist as well.

Thinking about the shade’s fragility raised its own temptations.  A few of my veterans had longstanding complaints about the impossibility of carrying out combat in the forms that I manifested.  It was easy to see their point.  A fall down a hill was death.  A stumble on a tree root, death.  A hundred and one things that a human soldier would disregard could end my shades.

What if THAT was the aspect of my gift that I asked Andy to work on?  Improving the durability of my shades, such that they could live entirely human lives, not fearing to be popped.  My manifestations would at that point be literal extra lives, bringing back the departed into the human condition, rather than leaving them stranded in fragile husks.

This would drastically improve the quality of life in my reserve.  Time spent in the real world would be actually worth living again, not overshadowed by the constant fear that a sudden impact could spell their end.  But, ultimately, it wouldn’t progress my mission any closer to its conclusion.  The reserve would still rest within me, and perish when I did.

Joe had broached another possibility, one that I hadn’t even been thinking of.  What if Andy could ease the requirement to link humans to my reserve, allow me to catch people without skin contact and agreement.  If my gift could work by vision then I could save whole crowds at once.  Conceivably given the cooperation of relevant authorities, I could give the portion of humanity which lived in urban surroundings a second chance.

Delusions of grandeur, to be sure, but the mere possibility of such things had never been so real before.

I broached the subject with the reserve itself, of course.  I had no wish to imitate Her tyranny, even within my own mind.  Their response was predictably scattered.

The majority, however, aligned behind the most obvious possibility.  They would like me to be able to manifest more, far more.  It made sense.  More manifestation capability was more hours of life for them.  Most people, if sentenced to a lifetime sharing my senses, would grasp at such an opportunity with instinctive fervor.

There was actually another possibility, that I didn’t let myself consider too deeply.  What if Andy could alter my gift such that it worked on Ultras.  If so, would my existence become, like Linker’s, an asset that nation’s had to take note of?

I wasn’t sure if the prospect was thrilling, or terrifying.

But, at the very least, it wasn’t boring.  I was feeling entirely myself again by the time I got Andy alone, buttonholing him into the same run down basement where Preventer and I had first breached his mysteries.

He showed no sign that anything significant had happened.  He was still a grinning idol, a Cheshire cat without the Wonderland.  It was as though the past four days hadn’t even occurred.

“Just you this time, Jane?” he asked, making a show of looking around.

“Preventer isn’t hiding behind the rubble, if that’s what you are asking.  I’d like to talk to you in private.”

“I bet I can guess what you want to ask me,” he said.  “You’d like me to modify your gift.”

“Actually, I’m wondering how you came to be in Redo.” I deadpanned.

In truth, I’d been about to ask him pretty much word for word what he’d guessed.  Just, something about the way he’d said it, combined with the perpetual smile, made me want to burst his bubble.

I needn’t have bothered.  His smile didn’t waver even a little.

“As you’ve probably already guessed, I was looking to encounter you.  I have seen all of the other Fists, over the years, and the rumors about you guys kind of resembled those that I heard about Sixth Fist, back in the day.”

“Rumors of rebellion?” I asked.

“Just so.”  He gave a satisfied nod.  “My sources indicated that Peggy might have relaxed even Her famously lax loyalty standards this time, in search of greater power.  It seemed like you might need my services.”

“Sure, I can buy that.  Hear of a new Fist, go to meet them, makes sense.  But why Redo?”

He paused a few seconds, scratching his chin.

“Call it…a test, if you will.  If a new Fist really WAS formed, and my sources weren’t just speculating, then I decided to head to the scene of their first battle, and put what aid I could muster behind the humans drawn into your squabbling.”

Ah, a morality test then.

“If you were worth knowing, then sooner or later you’d be back here, striving to put right what you had wrecked.  I was willing to wait as long as it took you to return.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

I couldn’t imagine First or Third Fist doing anything like what we were doing with the Dover refugees.  If they’d been tasked with building a city back up they’d have just gone village hunting, driving herds of people into wherever She wanted them.

“Does that satisfy your curiosity?” he asked.

I gave him a broad grin of my own.  Creepy smiles aside, I liked Andy.  Meeting someone who remembered America was nice, or course, but it was more than that.  There was a bedrock decency too him, or at least it felt that way.  Fundamentally, I saw him as being on the side of the angels.

“It does indeed.” I responded.  “Now…I’d like to talk to you about modifying my gift.”