Betty’s Hook

It’s hard to describe just how Betty’s other self looks and operates, but we’ve been together long enough now that I feel like I can make a credible effort.

The first thing you got to understand is that this isn’t a separate creature that she conjures up.  It is just as much real, just as much her, as her human form is.  She sees out from both of their eyes at the same time, if you take my meaning.

So, the beast.  Or, the Hook, as she likes to call it.

The Hook is made out of a sort of dense black flesh.  It doesn’t weight nearly as much as you’d think it would.  It’s lighter than the stuff people are made out of, but the Ultra Toughness keeps things from cutting too deep into it.  It isn’t very sensitive to touch, I have to rub it really hard for her to be able to feel any of it.  The texture is very rubbery, and leaves a kind of chalky residue.

It’s about ten feet tall, but hunches over so much that that’s rarely visible.  It has 5 arms, three on the right and two on the left.  Three of these arms are basically swords on the end of limbs, just talons for fighting with.  The others, the lowest ones on each side, have fingers and thumbs for more complicated manipulation.

These arms are LONG, like ape long.  They reach down and brush its shins if she lets them hang idle.  She can claw people from way further than they can hit back.

In addition to the arms that come out of the shoulders, it also has a number of smaller grabby tendrils that come out from its collar and chest area.  These are about as thick around as a baby’s arms, and basically work like an octopuses tentacles.  They don’t have joints, they just turn at any point like snakes.

The Hook has a mouth, but it doesn’t actually go anywhere.  It is just a thing for biting.  There’s a sort of pouch in there where she can put stuff, but no actual stomach for things to go to.  There’s a few ridges of spikes on its face, those are some of the few spaces where it has a good sense of touch.

The two big eyes are about where you’d expect them.  They are compound eyes like bugs have.  Betty can make them give off a faint red light if she is trying to be scary.  These aren’t its only eyes though.

All over its body, in recess and such, there are a bunch more other eyes.  Simple things, that see mostly in shades of grey, but they let her extend her awareness to basically all directions around the Hook.

Its legs bend backwards, like some animals.  It is kind of gross, actually.  Very fast though, it springs around like a huge grasshopper or something.

Ultimately, it basically looks like a monster.  People who don’t know Betty probably think that it is just a beast.  I always feel sorry for people who can’t see into the hearts of those around them.

Fisher 4:3

Having no other plans or options, I set out in pursuit of Condemner.

I wasn’t entirely at a loss.  The Link pointed me in his general direction, and I’d been in Redo long enough to pick up the lay of the land.

I folded in the Lure and let the Hook run free, dashing on all fours and bounding over obstacles.  I was a dark blur in the evening air, a nightmare glimpsed from a distance, best left alone.

What I lacked was time.  I was faster than Nirav over this kind of terrain, and presumably faster than the Pantheon member in robes, but they had a huge head start.  Enough to make it to Andy’s location, and then to take action before I arrived.

I felt a chill deep within at the thought.  Haunter was fixated on Andy.  It had become important to her, somehow.  If Condemner did something to Andy and she blamed Nirav the Fist might well shatter.  I wasn’t sure how exactly that would work out for the rest of us, but I had no desire to find out.

I took a corner at speed, and passed a pair of humans.  They cowered and screamed as I ran by, and I was shocked to realize how hard it was to restrain the urge to extend a claw and savage them.

I fought back the Hook’s bestial impulses with reminders of what was at stake.  I couldn’t slow down enough to take my other body out into the world, to balance out the Hook’s bestial instincts with my thoughts.  I had to win this on its level.  I pushed against my fight or flight reflexes with desperate concentration, picturing Nirav, alone and betrayed by his own form.  Picturing Torturer…waiting for my failure.

It was enough.  I moved on without slowing, letting the bystanders recede into the night behind me.  They were inconsequential, in comparison to what I sought.

I drew nearer to Condemner, the Link grew stronger.  He was at rest, or at least not exerting himself.  He was receiving sensations from his hands and feet, so he yet retained his human form.  I had either missed my chance entirely, or they were doing something far slower than simply destroying Andy.

I stopped then, slowing and rolling aside into an alley.  Condemner was a few houses down, close enough that I’d be in danger of being spotted if I moved any closer.  Close enough that I’d have to start looking out for the woman in robes.

I eased the Lure out of the shadows, felt my mind slide back in to gear.

With sharper thought came a momentary burst of alarm.  If I could sense Condemner through the Link, then he could sense me.  He’d have been tracking me all this way, and would know, roughly, where I stood even now.

I fought it back, reasoning that the one who was linked was Nirav, and it was Nirav’s body that I was feeling.  The usurper wasn’t part of our little family.  I had to trust that he couldn’t use the Link.

I poked the Lure’s head around the corner, scrutinized the most likely buildings.  My sense of his location seemed to be coming from a mostly ruined structure, one that Indulger hadn’t yet got around to repairing.  It was probably a grocery store or something at one point.  Something big and single storied, anyway.

I peered about, looking up on roofs and into dark crevices.  No sign of the girl with the robes.  No sign of Nirav.  The night was still and quiet.

I moved the Hook out into the street, my gaze sliding nervously across the face of every building.  I still saw nothing.  There was no one out here but myself.

Nothing for it, then.  I pushed the Hook ahead, low the to the ground and ready to dodge.  I followed myself at a distance with the Lure, stretching my shadow out as far as I could manage, ready to retract either of my bodies at a moment’s notice.

A laugh sounded from the building I was creeping towards, sharp and biting.  I flinched and cowered, but it wasn’t followed up with an attack.  Instead a hum of distant conversation began.  The laugh had been directed at someone else.

I abandoned my attempts at a low profile, and pushed my forms ahead as fast as I could while remaining quiet.  If she were watching, she’d see me, but I was gambling that the fact that she was talking to someone else meant that she wasn’t watching the street.

As I got closer I could hear her voice, high pitched and nasal.

“…talk and no game.  If you are still in town we could destroy this Fist toni-“

I made it right up to the edge of the building as she fell silent.

At first I thought that I’d been noticed, but a quick look into the great ruined lobby showed no such misfortune.  Rather, Krishna’s servant had fallen silent because the device in her hand had interrupted her.  She was standing with her back to me, but I could tell from her posture that it was a communication device, and that she greatly respected whoever was on the other end.

I coiled for a pounce, inwardly praising my good fortune in coming upon her unawares.

“I understand.  I understand.”

Whatever she understood wouldn’t help her now.  I sprang towards her with a savage grace, the Hook’s claws spreading wide.

I didn’t exactly expect this to work.  An Ultra fight tended to be a protracted affair, a brutal slugfest where you learned one another’s powers and chipped away at their endurance.  Still, I felt a brutal pang of disappointment as the Hook rebounded from her back like a dog that tried to tackle a train.

I was rolling away immediately, pulling the Lure up to the edge of the building to get more eyes on her reactions.

She turned around, slowly.

“I’m gonna have to call you back,” she said into the box she was holding.  “That thing where I said I captured a member of their Fist?  It’s prolly gonna end up being two.”

The arrogance of this girl.  I tried not to let her nonchalance intimidate me as I sized her up.

She was young, incredibly so.  Almost certainly still a teenager.  She came from deep in the Pantheon, her skin was the same hue as Nirav’s.  Her height made her gangly, awkward.  My general impression was that she was prey.

She hung up her communicator, held up a finger as though to ask the Hook to wait.

I circled, trying to get her back to the opening, and the Lure.  She obliged, moving in an answering circle.

“Hey, wow, you are super ugly,“ she said.  She didn’t have much of an accent.

The robe thing wasn’t a dress.  It was a toga.  She was wearing a fucking toga, and some leaves around her head.  I was having a fight with someone who was basically cosplaying an old movie god figure.

I moved the Hook towards her, slowly and menacingly.  I brought it up to its full height so that I loomed over her.

“You are Condemner, right?  That’s your slave name?  I’m super glad I get to kill-“

I slashed her across the face, mid speech.

“-you.  I’ve never killed such an ugly monster before.”

My talon rebounded, making no impression at all.  It was like I’d hit Preventer.

“Hey, come on, ugly.  I was talking.  Don’t you even know not to fight while someone is talking?”

There was no way that she was Ultra Tough Three.  She couldn’t be.  I couldn’t be so fucking unlucky as to slam into the first invincible Pantheon operative since Mithra.

“I’m Hera, by the way.  You know who that is?  She was the best Goddess, the ruler of all of the others.”

I needed more power to hurt her.  But if I pulled in the Lure I couldn’t dodge into my shadow if things got bad.

Hera put her device away, pulled out a fancy looking knife.  It didn’t look incredibly sharp.

I stepped the Hook up again, stretched my tendril out towards her in a slow, almost inviting, movement.  I wanted to see how much power she could put out.  Having a tendril sliced off wouldn’t matter very much, and I could cut it off myself if she just started dragging me in.

She reached out with her empty hand and tapped her finger against the end of my tendril.

“Are we making a pinky promise?” she asked.

I wrapped the tendril around her hand, crushed with all of its force.

She looked at it curiously, then wrapped her own hand around it as well.

“Shake,” she said, suiting action to words by pushing my tendril up and down in a vigorous handshake motion.

The strength of her grip crushed my tendril to a rag of flesh.  The Hook felt no pain, but I still winced to see my form wrung out like a dishrag.

I sprang the Hook back, tearing the tendril away in spurt of dark fluid.  Who was this bitch?

Ultra toughness that I couldn’t scratch, and Ultra strength to boot.  Why had nobody heard of her before?

Even as I was thinking this she blurred forward, fast as Nirav.  I tried to leap aside, but the Hook was still settling in from my backwards jump.  I hung motionless before her for a fatal second.

She reached out and tapped the Hook’s carapace, stepped back at the same time that the Hook’s leap began.

Ultra speed too?  She had the Subtracter package?  Hera was bullshit.

“Wow, I’m so much more powerful than you, huh?  That must suck real hard.”

I paused, torn between the desire to retract the Hook and slink away with my other form and the desire to retract the Lure and tear into this bitch with my full power.

“Betty!” came a pained cry.

I didn’t look at the deceiver, didn’t drop my focus for a second.  As a result I was able to avoid it when Hera stepped forward and kicked high.

I stepped to the side, easily pulling the Hook out of the line of her strike.  The blow had been slow, easy to dodge.  Why hadn’t she struck at full speed?

“She’s…she’s only strong OR tough OR fast.  Not all at once.”

Now I could see Condemner, wearing Nirav’s face with a mask of bruises.  He sprawled on a large piece of rubble, about ten or twenty feet away from the struggle.

That explained a lot.  If I could believe it.

Hera moved in on the Hook again, slashing with her knife.  I backed away, pondering.

It would explain why I’d bounced off at the start.  Naturally she’d keep herself durable while she wasn’t fighting, to protect against surprise assaults.  She probably also kept it up during the early strutting, trying to make me despair of hurting her so that she should shift it into something more useful.

I’d played right into her hands with my test of strength.  She’d shifted her power up, without fear, crushed my tendril while I hadn’t pressed the attack, mesmerized by the impression that I’d developed of being unable to harm her.

I met her rush, clawing at her with my talons.  As expected, it sliced off.  More importantly, her own slash glanced from my hide.

“Yes, that’s the way!” shouted Condemner.  Or maybe Nirav.  I couldn’t give it any consideration right now.

We scrabbled at one another for a moment, claws and knife chipping and sliding, then backed away, as though by mutual consent.

“I knew I should’ve kept you unconscious,” she snapped at Condemner.  “You’ve made this a little harder on your friend.”

This was something of a stalemate.  As long as she kept herself Ultra Tough I couldn’t harm her, but she also couldn’t harm me.  I’d have to lure her in somehow, get her to use her strength.

I bounded into the air, much too high.  You don’t generally want to leap in a fight, as you lose contact with the ground and can’t change direction.

I was hoping that she’d take the chance and step up for an Ultra strength punch to my torso.

She did.

Her fist slammed into, and then through, the Hook.  I shot her with the Lure’s gun, spraying bullets wildly into Hera’s body.

The Hook slid back into shadow even as she slumped to the ground, bleeding heavily.

I wanted to reload and take the headshot, but what I actually did was sort of slide to the ground and moan.

Waves of pain pulsed from inside of the Lure, an anguish so overwhelming I nearly puked.  That had fucking hurt.

I’d only experienced this kind of pain once before, when Subtracter had killed me, and that had been swift.  This was enduring.  I rolled to the side, desperately waiting for the agony to stop.

“Betty, Betty are you ok?” yelled Condemner.  It sounded like he was getting closer.

I needed to be mobile, needed to be active, but my form was not cooperating.  All I did was lay there and wretch, the phantom agony emanating from the center of my chest.

What had Hera done to me?  Why was the Lure suffering from a blow that the Hook had taken?

Her Ultra Strength, at its peak, must have reached three.  I’d heard rumors that the universe, or whatever, actively blessed the damage that was meted out by sufficiently strong Ultras.  It would ensure that the harm they strove to inflict found its way to the victim.  Perhaps that’s what this was?

I felt Nirav’s hands on me, turning me faceup.

“Babe, what’s happening to you?  What’s got you?”

He was battered and bruised, but concern rang through his words.  He had ditched the stupid shades, and no trace of Condemner’s disdain showed through his eyes.

I convulsed as a fresh wave of agony forced its way through the Lure’s frame, through my body.

“Andy…did she…?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “She killed him.  I tried to stop her, but it took me too long to figure out how her power worked.”

“Why,” I coughed and sputtered.  “Why…Condemner?”

For a moment confusion filled his face.

“You know why I couldn’t use Condemner!  I’m not going to kill the people of Redo!  How could you even-“

He cut off as I reached a hand up and placed it across his lips.

“Why…Condemner?” I asked.  Making my meaning clear.

“I’m not Condemner!” he protested.  “How can you even say such a thing?”

I gave up, letting my hand fall back down onto my body, relenting and allowing him to fuss over me.

I was too weak to fight, if Condemner was really in control then I’d be dead momentarily.  If Nirav had seized back his body then I was in good hands.  I stopped considering the world around me, permitted the Lure to curl up into a Fetal posture.

Nirav was holding me, cradling me in his arms and speaking softly.  I didn’t let myself hear his words.  I couldn’t trust him, couldn’t let myself forget for one moment that Condemner might be behind those brown eyes, leering out at a flammable world.

It was another voice that brought me out of my misery, forced me to pay attention.  One of Haunter’s ghosts was calling out from down the street.

“She is here!  Everyone!  Prevailer is in Redo!”

Limitations of the Classification System

The classification system is actually a leftover from that brief, halcyon time when our ancestor’s civilization and Ultrahumans coexisted.  It was an attempt to categorize Ultra gifts, basically to let people know what a given Ultrahuman might be capable of.

There weren’t, originally, supposed to be just 3 categories.  In fact, they didn’t want to do categories at all.  The design was supposed to measure Ultras output, speed, etc, just like they measure everything else.  Instead of ‘Ultra Speed 2’, you’d have a top speed in kilometers per hour.  Instead of Ultra Strength 1, you’d have the amount of force they could put out.

What went wrong with this scheme was that Ultra gifts didn’t cooperate.  An Ultra’s strength didn’t seem to be a consistent amount of pounds per square inch, it was maddeningly inconsistent.  The degree of force an Ultra could output seemed to be affected by how difficult it LOOKED, rather than how difficult it actually was.  An Ultra might heft and throw a car with all of his effort, but easily shove aside a small cube that was actually considerably heavier.

Speed and Durability was similarly vexing.  An Ultra could outrace things they thought of as ‘fast’, but their time when they were doing what they thought of as their ‘top speed’, didn’t really bear any relation to what they could put out when they were needed to.

Ultimately the 3 tier classification was simply an admission that that was as granular as they could get.  It’s a lousy system of measurement, and the borders are extremely porous (particularly in Ultra Speed, where reaction time and top speed are only loosely related).  A strong 1 may be stronger than a weak 2.  They were just both initially categorized wrong.

Our own Union, of course, has a far superior method of categorizing Ultra abilities.  But spreading such a system would be to squander an advantage, and in such trying times our leaders have decided that we cannot afford to do so.


Fisher 4:2

Condemner, in Nirav’s body!

My form didn’t betray me this time.  I absorbed the shock in cold, calculating silence.  I kept the Lure pinned to the ground, my awareness fixed firmly on the tendril of darkness sliding from shadow to shadow within.

How could this be?  If Condemner could take control of Nirav without transfiguring itself into a tower of flame, then why hadn’t it done so previously?  What had changed to allow this calamity?

Most importantly, when had this happened?

I hadn’t read Nirav’s desires for a long time now, since well before the Union debacle.  How long had I been deceived?  How long had I been dallying with the creature who replaced Nirav?  How had I not known?

“Maybe a dog?” said the female voice.  There was a general murmur of agreement.

Now that I had a sense of their souls I could connect them to their voices, somehow.  This was the woman who was more selfish than committed.  The one whose top priority was protecting her own life.

Good luck with that, bitch.  No one with any part in this was going to make it out of this unscathed, I vowed to myself.  None of them were going to walk away triumphant.

“No dogs in town,” said Condemner, in Nirav’s voice.  “I think, anyway.”

I couldn’t meld entirely into the shadow.  I always had to have one of my forms outside of it.  Consequently, I had to get out of there.  If they opened the door and found the Lure at their feet it would all go to shit.

But I couldn’t make myself move.  I NEEDED to know what was going on here, needed to understand.

“Was it you, Mae?” asked another voice, one whose soul I hadn’t yet sounded.  “One of your conjurations?”

“I haven’t drawn any yet,” said a third voice, presumably this ‘Mae’.  “That wasn’t on me.”

I finally pulled my shadow back, slipped it around to the side of the building.  Mae was the first woman that I’d sensed, the more dedicated of the crew.  It sounded like, counting Condemner, there were 4 Ultras in there.  That was more than I was comfortable taking on.

Footsteps approached the door, and I pulled the Lure into my shadow just as I pushed the Hook out of it, safely out of sight in the alley.  I kept an ear to the wall, desperately trying to hear what they were saying.

“…thing” said Mae.  “Nothing … here that … see.”

“That’s ominous,” said Condemner.  “Something’s up.”

I needed to think.

Earlier I’d talked about running for help with the Pantheon had the numbers on us, but that was before those explosions.  If She was with the rest of the group then I certainly couldn’t go back to them.  Who knew how She’d react to the idea that one of our own had betrayed us?

Even if those explosions weren’t Her, they were definitely something, and the rest of the crew would be dealing with that.  If I approached them to deal with this problem they’d probably just want me to help them out first, and we’d lose our shot at whatever this was.

Wait, what was I worried about?

I heard the door close again, presumably they had moved back into the house.

I mean, honestly, what could actually happen here that would be so bad?  What was the threat?  Condemner was exposed now.  When things calmed down and I told the rest of the Fist that he was supplanting Nirav they’d agree that he had to go.  We could kill him at a time of our convenience, let the Link bring Nirav back.

I felt nervous just considering that, but at some point were going to have to trust the Link.  There wasn’t any way to restrain Condemner, not if he was running around dealing with outside powers and not telling any of us.  He had to go.

I couldn’t die while the Fist survived, so the threat wasn’t to me.  That went twice for Condemner.  The version of him that we all liked was Linked.  The only thing in peril was the monster at the core.  No, the real threat here was to Andy.

Andy wasn’t in any Link, and their plan clearly involved it.  That was where the threat lay.  That was what I had to protect.

I moved down the alley, away from their door.  I needed to think.  Where was Andy, right now?

I’d seen him earlier in the day, before Indulger had sensed the Pantheon.  He’d been over on the other side of town, back past the Company Facility.  Near the edge of town by the Ultra Fight.

I took a step, then stopped.

He’d have been moved.  No doubt in my mind.  Indulger had the Dover Ultras brought out to make sure Krishna didn’t pull anything.  We’d been worried about something jumping off at the fight.  So Andy, if we were treating him as any kind of VIP at all, would have been stowed somewhere far away.

I wracked my brain.  Haunter would normally be in charge of that kind of thing, but she’d pulled in her shades for some kind of vote or other.  Preventer had been distracted lately, so it would’ve fallen to Nirav and I.  I hadn’t arranged anything, so it must have been him.

I turned back, let the Lure creep down back down the alley towards the porch I’d been crouching on.

As soon as I got closer I could tell they were on the move.  Stopping to think had saved me from losing them utterly.  I could still see them dashing away down the main street.

Nirav was in the lead, his form blurred by his Ultra speed.  Condemner, I reminded myself.  The soul driving that body was not the one with whom I had sought comfort.  It was the demon that tormented him.

The woman immediately behind him was the strangest of the set.  She was taller than Condemner, and wore a sort of long bathrobe thing, with a weird hem I couldn’t make out the details of.  She didn’t seem to run as much as bound from place to place, using long low jumps.  She was mostly paying attention to the sky, and had on a sort of halo thing.

The next lady was wearing a much more sensible outfit, seemed like a sweat suit kind of thing, and jogging along in a regular human manner.  Nothing about her struck me as weird, she must be in the Pantheon’s equivalent of civilian clothing.

The last woman was wearing pretty much the same thing, but she was also hovering a few inches off of the ground, and seemed to be skating along.  Or at least using skating like motions to shoot through the air.  She was progressing backwards, facing towards me and skating along with the others.  Plainly the rearguard, and definitely not in the back because she was the slowest.

They were moving fast, and I had to make a split second call.  If I tried to follow without being seen I was going to lose them.  I decided not to let that happen.

The Hook lurched around the corner into the street, and I set out in pursuit.

The skater spotted me almost instantly, and cried out to the rest.

Condemner gave a yell.

“Help!  Betty, help!  These guys are Pantheon!”

Even as he was saying that the lady in the tracksuit and the skater reversed direction and set out towards me.

I didn’t slow.  He wasn’t fooling me, but I wasn’t about to have a conversation when a fight was in the offing.  Leave that to Indulger and Preventer.

The skater was much faster than Tracksuit, and barreled right at the Hook, like she was going to try and ram her way through it.  I was eager to oblige.

I leapt the Hook into the air as we closed, reaching out with my talons, aiming right for her neck.

She turned without killing her momentum, sailing off to one side and down, just under my claw.  Something cut along the Hook’s side as she shot by, but not deeply enough to do any real damage.

I turned my lunge into a sort of roll, coming to a stop before I could get near Tracksuit.  How the hell had she evaded me?

The turn wouldn’t have made me miss on its own, she’d been rotating, the invisible surface that she was skating on turning sideways to pull her head out of the way.  It seemed like she could freely control her orientation while gliding.

I still wasn’t sure what exactly had hit me, some kind of short range projectile or other, probably coming from her feet.  I didn’t have time to puzzle it out as Tracksuit barreled in, fists swinging.

I pulled the Hook back a bit from her, dodging her short hooks with distance.  I was definitely faster, and I had a lot more reach.  I slashed her across the belly with a claw, felt it chip and scratch rather than disembowel.  Ultra tough then.

Eyes in the hook’s back let me see the skater coming around for a pass by my rear, and this time I got a good look at her weapon.  She was skating on an imaginary vertical surface, and the lines that her feet made shot out into my back, cutting small chunks from my armor.

I couldn’t take a second to dodge her, Tracksuit hadn’t slowed or backed off.  I didn’t know how hard she could hit, but her willingness to take my slashes in order to try her own shots made me not want to find out.

Thankfully the woman in the robe had left, apparently ‘chasing’ Condemner.  Three on one (or God help me four) would have been too much for me.  But I might be able to handle these two, if they didn’t have more abilities that they hadn’t shown yet.

I continued to fall back from Tracksuit, lashing out from time to time with a long limb to try and chip away at her.  It wasn’t hard to avoid her swipes, but doing it while my attention was focused on the skater tasked me to the upmost.  Fortunately she came around for another pass before I could be pressed too far.

She had no idea that I could see out of the back of the Hook, no concept of the structure of my legs.  She came perilously close to my back to launch her slashes, far too close.

I bent my knees wrongways, and sprang straight backwards away from Tracksuit, graspers rotating about the Hook’s shoulders in ways that no living being could duplicate.  My leap carried me across the T of the skater’s path, made her momentum carry her directly into the path of my swipes.

This time I’d accounted for the altered angle that her gift put her at.  I swung at the correct angle and…missed.

She’d canceled her gift for a split second, let real gravity drop her to the ground beneath my swing.  She rolled smoothly under my slash and came up in a combat roll, already accelerating away again.  Tracksuit’s relentless pursuit prevented me from springing in the moment that she was getting to her feet.

I wanted to scream with thwarted rage.  Condemner and the robed girl were getting away.  Haunter and Preventer were handling who knows what at the Ultra Fight, and I was stuck here, getting slowly worn away by these bastards.

I advanced upon Tracksuit in a rage, putting my weight into my blows.  I’d just kill this bitch and then-

I discovered my mistake instantly, as she stepped into my shot and struck a simultaneous hit on my upper abdomen.

I flew backwards, a vast crater smashed into the Hook’s chest.  I careened off of a wall and only barely kept myself from getting entangled in the debris.

Even as I got back to my feet I felt the skater’s slash hit me again, another chip away from my armor.

I took stock.  My chest was cracked where Tracksuit had hit it, my flanks somewhat dinged up from where the skater’s slashes had eroded my armor.  The Hook was still in fighting form, but any more hits from the bruiser and I’d be in jeopardy.  Closing with her had been a colossal mistake.  I could beat her, as long as I could strike and retreat, but if I tried to stand and swing with her she’d go right through me.

I returned to my earlier strategy, retreating from Tracksuit and landing the occasional blow, trying to wear her down.  I needed to change the game.

The skater flayed my sides again, another close pass.  I couldn’t keep taking those hits anymore.  I had to do something about it.

I made an abortive spring at her, and was unsurprised as she pulled back.  She’d taken note of my capabilities, I wouldn’t be getting so close to her again.

Only one choice left.

I spread my shadow behind me, leaving it all along the ground.  I raised the Hook’s grabber arm as though I were about to trade blows with Tracksuit again.

Skater shot across my flank even as Tracksuit sprang in for the kill…and I wasn’t there.

I dragged the Hook down into my shadow even as the Lure sprang from it, from directly under Skater’s feet.  Or rather, from where her feet would have been if she was standing in a normal orientation.

She had time to avoid me, but she hadn’t been watching the ground, and her fixation on the Hook made her too slow to dodge.  I emerged from the ground and she slammed into the Lure’s knees with her face and upper chest, even as Tracksuit’s fists hammered the road where the Hook had disappeared.

Skater’s head snapped back, and her gift collapsed.  She toppled to the stone with brutal power.  Skating face first into someone’s leg’s will do that to you.  As soon as her fall stopped moving her I shot her three or four times.

“Bitch!” Tracksuit gave a feral scream.  She rushed towards the Lure, which I immediately collapsed into my shadow, rising behind her as the Hook.

She avoided my initial strikes, despite them coming from her rear, but all of a sudden the complexion of the fight had changed.  Now her pursuit wasn’t the dogged tread of inevitability.  It wasn’t a distraction from the blades of her comrade.  It was just the pitiful struggling of prey on a line.

I lashed at her from beyond her reach, struck with a speed and a precision that she couldn’t match.   I danced back from her strikes, feral and wild.  She was too slow.  She couldn’t avoid, couldn’t retaliate.  She’d be part of my Tally soon.

In frustration and terror she gave up defending herself and simply charged ahead in a berserk rush, but I just used my shadow and multiple bodies to pop out of the way.

Minutes passed.  I lost track of how many blows I landed before she collapsed, but I did count the three dozen times I smashed her head as she lay on the concrete.  I stopped when I saw oozing brain matter.

Only then, as I brought out my second form to ponder my next move, did I realize how much my rage had cost me.

I could have abandoned this fight the instant Skater went down, maybe even before that.  Could have just spawned the Lure off in an alley that they couldn’t observe, slipped away.  Instead I’d stayed here, taken out my anger on people who had nothing to do with what was going down.

Condemner had a head start on me, and he still had one accomplice.  There was no way for me to stop them before they got to Andy.

In Which Our Heroine Encounters A Setback

Dear Diary, still not real, yada yada.

Ok, so before I took over, before Adult Supervision was a thing, there was chaos, right?  You assholes ran around fucking one another willy nilly and there was no whole POINT to the fucking thing.  Nations went to war or didn’t dependent on asinine shit that no one could actually track and everything basically sucked.

I’ve fixed all that.  I put one person in ‘power’, and I move her around like a piece on a board and everything works out.  There are just 3 countries (and you have NO IDEA how hard Circe works to keep the Pantheon from splitting) and just one big war.  I arrange everything to be optimally safe as far as our collective future is concerned.  All is well.

What I’m getting at, here, is that I’m the fucking patron saint of Karmic whatever it’s called.  I do a lot of good, is what I’m saying.  And I don’t get why my reward for that is all of a sudden this rampant full contact buggery.

So, as you can imagine, shit is all kinds of fucked up.

More fully, my plan is off the rails at step A, and I had it mapped out all the way down to step R.  (Step R, in case you are wondering, was me smoking the last pack of Lucky Strikes that exist.)  I’ve been looking forward (pun intended) to that for some time, and successfully getting rid of Fourth Fist felt like as good a moment as any.

So, yeah, there have been some unforeseen developments.

The plan this time was simple.  I activate Prevailer to go and hit up Indulger for a booty call.  He says ‘No Thanks’, and she rapes him to death, then kills the rest of them in the kind of orgy of violence that I keep her around for.

What actually happened?  She rolled up, he said ‘Gosh I’d love to fuck a woman I hate with every fiber of my being.  That makes no sense.  Why don’t I do that?! Hurp Durp!’, and they are presently filling my gift with some serious low quality pornography.  Since this is a critical juncture I can’t very well look away, and so I’m being forced to witness, in real time, people literally screwing up the fucking program.

Sorry about my language, nonexistent correspondent.  I’m not incredibly fond of the present situation.  I’ll try to be more chipper.

Bright side, to the degree that there is a bright side of this debacle, is that this gets me out of a beating I was planning to take later on tonight.  I won’t lose that tooth, or get that fractured rib I’d been dreading.  So yay!  (That was the world’s smallest ‘yay’.)

The actual bright side is that I’ve narrowed down the problem with using my gift on Fourth Fist to Haunter and Condemner.  One or both of those two have something going on that occasionally prompts them to act in ways other than their own souls would dictate.  When this happens, they fuck up my visions.

I’m going to put these assholes on a boat with a nuke.


Fisher 4:1

There was a definite hierarchy in our little group, a kind of sorting.  It wasn’t official, but for all of that it was definitely present, unarguably there.

Haunter and Preventer were at the top.  They had plans, they had schemes.  Haunter was too much of a martyr, and Preventer too much of a bitch, for them to see eye to eye.  So separately they ruled, squabbling and fighting.

Indulger was next, the tie breaker between the pair.  He wasn’t very smart, but his certainty, the way that he had of becoming impervious to argument, that elevated him.  It didn’t hurt that his gift did the most for us, on a day to day basis.

Nirav and I were at the bottom.  Maybe it was our general indifference to what the group got up to.  Maybe it was the fact that, in different ways, we were both so much younger than the rest.  Maybe it was just that they had ready access to power, and we were so much more limited.  For whatever reason, we were afterthoughts, children in the eyes of the group.

Thus, we weren’t asked to attend the Ultra Fight that Krishna and her group had set up.  Leave that to the main people.  Our task was to handle the other end of the bargain, the favor that we were doing to the Pantheon, in exchange for playing along with Indulger’s obsession.

They were letting some of their followers go to tie up loose ends in Redo.  Nirav and I were going to make sure this wasn’t just a cover to slip something clever past us.

By definition, it couldn’t be anything too serious.  The Regime’s only real assets in Redo was us, and as a Fist we couldn’t really suffer permanent damage, due to the Link.  The Company Center was being re-established, so it being hit would be annoying, but not really anything that would justify such a roundabout sneak attack.  The Dover Ultras were at the Ultra Fight, so they couldn’t be targeted.  We were mostly there just to keep an eye on which residents they spoke with, mark them as potential Pantheon sympathizers.

Krishna’s group seemed to abide by the terms of our earlier agreement, at least at first. 2 trucks worth of people rolled into Redo at the same time as the remainder arrived at the wrestling event.  Nirav and my Lure watched them from a roof.  I kept the Hook on standby in the alley below.

“How many people do you think they can fit in one of those trucks?” he asked.

“Say…Six?” I guessed.  “The yellow one could probably fit a couple more.”

The yellow truck was noticeably bigger than the other.  It looked like it might have started its life out as a van, or some larger utility vehicle.  You could probably put a small mob inside it.

“Shit, Ok, twelve, fine.  So… let’s say, worst case, they are all Ultras.  What do we do?”

I looked over, into those ridiculous sunglasses.

“I guess that depends on how we are feeling, right?  If we are feeling nice we slip away, leave them to fuck around in Redo to their heart’s content.  We head back to the Fight and get the others, then they decide what to do.”

He thought about that a second.

“And…if we aren’t feeling nice?”

I gave a grin, the Lure’s picture perfect features lending me an air of innocence that had no basis in reality.

“There sure are a lot of people around.  Your dark side scoured Redo once.  We could let it go to work again.”

I kept the Lure still after saying this, hiding how important this moment was to me.

Nirav had been acting oddly ever since we dealt with the Dover situation.  Grimmer than usual, and definitely much less…taken, I guess would be the word, with me.  He felt like a different person, like he’d changed in a way that wasn’t natural in such a short time.  It was a bit obvious, but the Nirav that I knew would protest violently at any suggestion that Condemner be loosed.

He gave a slight, pained chuckle.

“Never again.”

There was a quiet finality to the way that the said it.  I felt my doubts recede.  He hadn’t changed THAT much.

“Sure, sure.  I was just kidding.”

Beneath us, the smaller Pantheon truck had pulled to a stop.  The yellow truck moved off towards the Company Facility.

“You get all the fun,” he complained.

I blew him a kiss, and dropped the Lure off the roof, catching it with the Hook’s snatching arm.

It was a given that I’d be the one to pursue the larger truck.  As long as the Hook kept to the shadows I wouldn’t alarm the populace, or rouse a commotion the way a known member of the Fist would.  I could follow without them learning of my presence.

Nirav, by contrast, would have a lot more difficulty with that.  He was limited to Ultra Speed in his human form, and his other form was anything but stealthy.  I was the obvious choice to take up the chase.

I folded my Lure into the shadows, and put all my energy into the Hook.  Immediately I felt the increased strength, the speed.  I made a note to do this more often.

It wasn’t very hard to keep up with the truck.  It was trundling along, the inhabitants stopping every few blocks to gawk at another marvel of Indulger’s reconstructive gifts.  They were taking their sweet time.

I kept pace without much effort, skittering across alleys and clambering through rubble, occasionally using the transition between Lure and Hook to fit through openings that I couldn’t get the Hook through.  It was comparatively easy going, and my gaze rarely left the Pantheon vehicle.

At first glance, these were definitely not Ultras.

The driver was a fat man, a rarity in these times.  He had no obvious deformities, and the generally befuddled way that he looked around wasn’t the kind of attitude that an Ultra from the Pantheon would pull off.  They carried themselves like warriors.  This guy looked like somebody’s useless uncle.

The woman in the passenger seat was more plausible as an Ultra, but, again, the attitude was all off.  She spoke to several of the Redo citizens that they passed by, and, going by her body language, didn’t condescend to any of them.  That didn’t really gibe with a culture where people named themselves after Gods.

None of this was proof, of course, so I continued to tail them.  They could simply be skilled spies, trained to act like what they weren’t.  It could easily be that they left driving to the daggers, and the important people just rode in the back.

Still, I felt myself relaxing, just a smidge.  It seemed likely that this truck’s mission was exactly as innocent as it appeared to be.  The Hook couldn’t actually calm its breathing and pulse, but that’s the general sense of what I was feeling.

After a bit more driving they pulled to a stop outside of the Company Facility, and got out onto the sidewalk.  The fat guy and the woman from the passenger seat didn’t open the door for the passengers, they had to do it themselves.  Another point against them being Ultras.

There were a total of 8 people crammed into the van, all told.  Mostly dudes, and mostly older.  I really wasn’t feeling these guys as Ultras.

I settled the Hook into a ruined corner easement atop the alley, and watched carefully anyway, determined to do this right.

They milled around for a while, talking to one another, and then got into a fairly fierce argument.  There was lots of finger shaking and shouting.

From what I could hear they were mostly grousing about the fact that the city’s layout had changed since Indulger had started rebuilding it.  They’d worked out a whole planned route, who they were gonna see and when, and now it was worthless.

Eventually they stopped arguing and headed into the Facility, clearly determined to seek help.  I didn’t have any way to pursue them without being spotted.

I could send the Lure in, of course, but I couldn’t trust that the lobby wouldn’t have some sleep deprived dagger lurking around, whose reaction would give away my position in the Fist.  Heck, I couldn’t trust that the Pantheon folks hadn’t heard descriptions of each of us before.  It was best to act as though they’d recognize me on sight.

I sulked a bit, crouched against a ruined building all alone, watching people who were almost certainly unimportant.

After a few minutes, which seemed like much longer, they came out and got back into their truck.  I dropped down and followed again, paralleling their journey much as I had the previous time.

It didn’t take me long to realize that they were headed out of town.  They’d given up.  This had been a complete waste of my time.

I was already getting ready to go and find Nirav when a line of explosions stitched themselves across the sky, east to west.

People screamed, the ones out on the street bolted for shelter.  I hunched the Hook over, lowering its profile as much as I could.  I was seized by an atavistic panic.  It was Her.

I couldn’t know that, of course.  There could be any number of explanations for blasts in the night sky, but my mind leapt there and wouldn’t break away.

I blinked aside memories of Torturer’s pit, and manifested the Lure.  At once my thinking became slightly more textured, more refined.

Whether it was Her or not, it was something important.  I needed to find Nirav, before whatever was going down got to the city.  Once we were together we’d figure out what to do.

It was funny that I felt no impulse to rush to the aid of the rest of the group.  I could rationalize it that they had Preventer, so they’d be fine without me, but the truth was that I just didn’t care about them as much.

I lost that introspection as I slid the Lure out of existence and ran out onto the main streets as the Hook.  The time for concealment was over.

Most people were hiding inside anyway, alarmed by the banging noises, no doubt reliving the trauma of the previous battle.  The few who might glimpse my fiendish shape flashing past would have no way to connect it to their rulers.  Moreover, I didn’t really care.

The smaller truck was where I’d last seen it.  I skidded to a stop about a block away, extruded both of my forms again.

I left the Hook lurking in the distance, moved the Lure up to the truck.  I didn’t see the Pantheon owners anywhere nearby.

I looked up at where I’d left Nirav, but it didn’t seem as though he was still watching from the rooftop.

The most likely outcome was that they’d left their truck, and he’d followed.  I brought the Hook over, settled the Lure atop it.

I used the Hook to sniff the ground, smelling Nirav’s familiar odor.  The trail was fresh and strong, a cinch to track.  I started off down the street, perpendicular to the direction that I’d come from.

He hadn’t gone far.  The scent lead me down an avenue, around a corner and up to the closed door of one of the few intact buildings in this part of down.  I stopped outside of it, and dismounted the Lure.

Putting my ear to the door I could hear voices, muffled but still mostly understandable.

“…those explosions?  It’s got to be Her!”

I’d recognize Nirav’s voice anywhere.

“… necessarily.  Lots of … explosions … panic.”

The second voice was a woman’s.  Softer and more difficult to make out.

“…got to change the plan.  There’s no way you are going to … Andy … if She is here!”

My blood ran cold at Nirav’s words.  What plan?

I could imagine innocent explanations, if I strained myself, but the most obvious answer was the most likely to be correct.  Nirav was conspiring with the Pantheon.  He was willfully putting me at risk of being subject to Torturer once again.

I felt the disquiet that I’d been feeling since Dover boil over within me.  Nirav’s twitchiness, his distance, even his siding with Preventer instead of Haunter.  It must all be due to this.  Some kind of sordid betrayal, committed without a thought of what it would do to me.

The Hook made a sound midway between a growl and what happens when you try and close a door that has warped from heat.  I gasped, jerking both my bodies at once.

I hadn’t meant to do that.  The noise that I’d made, through the Hook.  I hadn’t had the least intention of making it.  How the hell had that happened?

Not very many things could have broken me out of the anger that had been building inside of me, but this was one.  My own body, taking action without my intent?  The shock left me shaken, unsure of anything.

The voices had fallen silent, behind the door.  No doubt they’d heard my snarl, or whatever I was going to call that.  I subsumed the Hook into shadow and crouched down on the porch as the Lure, thoughts racing a mile a minute.

I couldn’t focus on my outburst for now.  I had to think through this mess.  Prevailer was here, or somewhere.  Nirav was inside this building, with some people from the Pantheon.  Those were facts, or close enough to them for now.

First question, was Nirav an enemy?  No.  It simply wasn’t possible.

Second question.  Were these Pantheon people simply more of the irrelevant tourists that I’d wasted the evening following around, or were they Ultras?  Nirav talking to them didn’t really tilt things one way or the other, but the fact that he’d mentioned a plan to them would make it more likely that they were Pantheon Gods.  Who would bother to plan with daggers?

Say that they were Ultras.  Go with that for now.

I stayed stock still, making no noise at all, listening with all my might.  I pressed the Lure against the seam, where the wall joined the floor, and sent my shadow questing silently along the ground, under the edge of the door frame.

If they were Ultras, and they were talking with Nirav, mentioning Andy, then this was serious.  Maybe he was going to hand the creature over.  Maybe he was just pointing it out for them to kill.  I didn’t really care.  He was betraying the Fist, and if anyone else found out about it there’d be hell to pay.

I felt my shadow brush someone else’s.  Their first priority was obeying a leader figure, seeing that its will was done.  Their second, preserving their own life.  Lastly, accomplishing their mission, capturing a target.

That fit with what I’d figured.  Pantheon operatives, here to capture Andy.  I pushed my shadow deeper, sliding past that person and groping blindly in search of others.

The next person was another stranger.  Same priorities, generally, as the first.  Only difference was that she had the order changed so that self preservation was foremost.

Lastly, I felt my shadow slide across Nirav’s familiar form.  I’d promised him that I would never read his desires.  It didn’t even sting a little to break that promise.

Instantly I realized my mistake.  Nirav’s priorities looked nothing like those that he’d always had before.  Nothing whatsoever.  There was no need to protect or impress me, no desire to serve his newfound family, not even the driving need to win control of his form from his other self.

Instead I felt a violent need to conquer and subjugate, to rend and destroy, to lay waste and be seen doing so.  The urges of an utter monster.  The priorities of Condemner.

Incident Report : 2

I’m having some serious deja vu here, but once again I’m writing to you from a vehicle fleeing Redo, with Prevailer in my rear view mirrors.

The mind boggles.

The situation unfolded like this:

1: Condemner made contact with us using smoke signals, an old Valkyrie code.  He informed us that he’d discovered an Ultra with a meta gift, one that can strengthen the gift of others.  He informed us that he was interested in letting us acquire said Ultra, one ‘Andy’.

2: I’m reasonably certain that Condemner is a cat’s paw in this situation, but I couldn’t tell whether it was Preventer or Haunter pulling his strings.

3: I believe that this is the same ‘Andy’ whose services we lost a few years back.  It seems like reacquiring him would be extremely useful.

At this point I made a judgement call, and set in motion a plan to get agents into Redo.  I asked for a parley with the Fist, and arranged a spectacle to divert attention.  This got them out of town while my agents went after Andy.

During the event I engaged with Preventer and Haunter, but was unable to determine which of them was our silent partner.  Most likely Haunter, as her disgust for Prevailer nearly boiled over openly later on in the evening.

Just a little while ago Prevailer, in fact, showed up.  Fortunately the reports of Snitcher’s demise appear to be accurate, and my gift allowed me to take advantage of the fact that she had no idea who we were.  I was able to escape when she became distracted.

A few interesting side notes about Prevailer’s appearance.

1: She injured Preventer, which verifies that Preventer’s invincibility is in fact out matched by Prevailer’s power.

2: She seemed enamored of Indulger, to the exclusion of most other concerns.  If I’m any judge of such things, she will likely be predictable in this regard for a few months, at least.

I’ll send along another report later on if my agents return with Andy.  I sent Spring, Maewyn, and a new girl I just picked up recently, who I’m calling Hera.  3 Ultras should be enough, considering that most of the Fist was in no position to interfere.

For now, I’m mostly just elated to have escaped from Prevailer’s immediate proximity.  A very fortunate day, and a lot of interesting possibilities.

Indulger 4:3

It seemed like there should be a rule or something, like a referee should just put a stop to it.  Prevailer couldn’t just come BACK to a place.  Not at the worst possible time.

But there wasn’t, there couldn’t be.  If people could make rules to stop Her from doing stuff She wouldn’t be Prevailer.

Her arrival was a little different from last time.  This time we saw Her coming, a flash of explosions knitting their way across the sky from the east.  People gawped and stared, but even coming by a bunch of little warps She was upon us before anyone could do anything constructive.

I shrank back behind one of the trucks as She flashed into existence in front of Krishna.

Everything was over.

Why had we believed the warlord when she said that Snitcher was dead?  We’d fallen for that like a bunch of idiots, and now we were fucked.

Thor couldn’t touch Her with his best, and Krishna only had ten.  She was done for.  We’d been playing around with them instead of fighting them.  We were done for.  Why had we gone and done such a stupid thing?  Why had I listened to Preventer?

I looked over at Space Devil.  She was holding her head in her hands, breathing hoarsely through her mouth.  We’d never get to have our bout now.

I peeked back out.  I had to.  Krishna had played fair with us.  She hadn’t tried to set up an ambush, or sneak in any tricks or anything.  She’d been motivated by the same thing that I was, a desire to entertain people, to snatch a moment of decency from this terrible situation.  Or at least I thought she had.  Anyway I owed it to her to see her last moments.

Prevailer was actually a little shorter than Krishna, who’d shot up out of the big chair when She was first sighted.  The warlord looked down on Her, hands held loosely at her side.

I could tell that all of her Ultras were waiting to take their cue from her.  Would they scatter, hoping She wouldn’t bother to hunt them all down?  Would she ask them to launch a futile assault?  Go out in a blaze of glory?

Lots of followers wouldn’t take orders like that, but I had no doubt at all that Krishna’s would.  The feeling that I got was that Judith and the others loved their boss.  They’d die with her if she asked.

Krishna dropped her head in a low bow, and then crumpled to the floor, her hands coming up into the Posture.

I couldn’t have been more surprised if the two had started making out.  THIS was how she wanted to end her life?  In total submission to her nation’s archenemy?

The Posture spread like a wave, everyone in the crowd dropping to their knees, hands rising to cross behind the neck.  I didn’t join them, instead still peering out from between the trucks.

Prevailer raised a hand to Her neck, scratched it.  Then walked right past Krishna and sprawled down into the big chair.

“Get back to it,” She said.

She hadn’t raised her voice, but everyone had heard Her.  We’d fallen deathly silent.

This didn’t make any sense.  Why would She want to watch Pantheon members grapple?  Why wasn’t She killing them, killing us, for the mockery that we’d made of Her war?

People started to stand, nervous glances flicking back to the chair where She was seated.

Something struck my mind then, something weird.  The line of explosions as She’d warped here had come from almost straight East.  But if She’d taken a straight line from the Lair it would have been much more of a North East kind of direction.

I was shelving the question of why She’d used small hops at all.  That was for later, if there was a later.

And then it all clicked.

Krishna had been right.

Snitcher really was dead.

She hadn’t come here to punish us for dealing with the Pantheon.  She hadn’t had any idea what we were up to.  She’d had to ask where we were!

The reason that She came from the East is that She’d gone to Third Fist first, got our location from them.  It all made sense.

I looked back to the ring, watched the featherweights renew their bout.  There was still hope for us after all.

It was mostly thanks to Krishna’s quick thinking.  I couldn’t even imagine how scared she must have been when She had warped down in front of her, but she must have kept her head and realized that the only way out for any of us was if Prevailer never learned that the Pantheon was here.  She’d kept her troops in line, and bought us this precious time.

I looked over to Krishna, hoping to see her slipping away, and couldn’t see her for a moment.  Prevailer was lounging in the chair, talking at Haunter and Preventer.  Condemner and Fisher weren’t here at the moment, they must have slunk back to Redo a while back.  But where was Krishna?

It took a sec to realize what had happened.  Prevailer had needed a footrest, and Krishna had been kneeling right there.  She had Her feet up across her shoulders, grinding Krishna down into the mud.

That was some rotten luck.  None of the Pantheon Ultras would leave while their boss was trapped, and at some point Prevailer would probably get around to asking why this random person had been in the big chair before She showed up.

Cheers drew my attention back to the ring.  One of the featherweights was straddling the other against the corner ropes, launching punch after punch down into her exposed face.  The audience was counting along.

A glance confirmed it.  She was counting along too.  She was watching the ring.  Someone being punched in the face was doing it for Her.

Space Devil grabbed my shoulder, and I looked back into her wide eyes.  She didn’t say anything, but I could tell what she was thinking.  Considering our new audience, we’d have to alter the booking.

“Ok, shit.” I said.  “I’m going to have to win.  No way does the Fist lose when Prevailer is watching.  Ok?”

She nodded, impatiently.

“And I think…Shit, I dunno.  Should we make this a squash match?  Do you need to get beat the fuck up?”

I felt super awkward asking this, but that was buried under all of my being afraid of my terrifying boss.

A squash match is a special kind of Ultra Fight where the goal isn’t to have a thrilling battle, but rather to build up one of the participants as a big deal.  It’s just one person kicking the shit out of the other.

They can be done well, certainly, but mostly I thought they sucked.  It was a pretty lame way to get heat on a fighter.  And you would NEVER do one at the climax of the evening.

Devil worked her mask, loosening it a bit so she could speak without having to shout through the muffling.

“Will that satisfy Her?”

Even foreigners knew to do the capitalizing thing.

“I don’t know.”  I looked back to the ring, where the featherweights were working a submission hold.  Prevailer looked markedly less interested, was actually talking to Preventer again.

“It seems like She likes punching, not so big on grappling.  Can I punch you a lot?”

There were subtler ways to ask this, but we didn’t have a lot of time.

“I’m not Ultra Tough, but I am Ultra Quick,” she said.

That wasn’t ideal for a squash match.  I’d kill her if I hit her as hard and as often as I’d need to in order to make it look one sided.  There were a lot of grapples and finishers that only LOOKED brutal, but Prevailer didn’t seem to give a shit about submission moves.

A spray of blood and a stifled scream from the big chair caught my attention, took my breath.

Preventer was clutching at her cheek, a big old dose of what we’d call ‘color’ in the business running down her face.  Prevailer was laughing and shaking something in her hand, maybe a tooth?

Preventer stifled her screams after that first one, clutching her mouth with both hands and shaking her head rapidly from side to side.  Was this the first time that she’d ever been hurt?

It had to be, at least since the Process.  Her invincibility was proof against anyone else.  This was her first pain in years.

It might have made me a bad team leader, but I couldn’t make myself care.  Preventer hadn’t really seemed to care when I got hurt, and I had a lot on my plate just now.

I refocused on Space Devil.

“Ok, after this, we go out there, and basically we are gonna run the original plan, just in reverse.  Ok?”

She nodded slowly, seeming to give it deep thought.

“So, I mostly beat you up, then you come back and win?  Ok, I can do that.”  She seemed relieved to have a plan.

I put my hand on her shoulder, lowered myself down to her level.

“You got to be fast, keep punching me, never let me touch you.  Ok?  I’m the face, you are the heel.  You are just an annoying fly that zips around and I can’t swat you.  When She is good and ready to see me win I’ll use my gift to grab your feet, then I get my hands on you.”

“And then you kill me?”

I dropped my hand off her shoulder, rocked.

I’d never killed anyone in an Ultra Fight before.  I could barely bring myself to kill people that were actually trying to kill me!  And Devil, or, to be real about it, the Pantheon soldier wearing his uniform, was being totally matter of fact about dying.

“No, I’d nev-“

She held up a hand to shush me.

“She’s gonna want to see blood.  If it gets the rest of my team away, then you feel free to take me apart, ok?”

Before we could keep this conversation going I heard a sudden change in the crowd noise.

I looked back out through the slot between the trucks, saw that one of the featherweights had triumphed over the other.  She was looking at Her, now, and Prevailer was holding up a hand in the old gladiator Thumbs up/Thumbs Down motion.

There was no doubt whatsoever in my mind which way Her thumb would point.  My gift lurched into action before I even had the chance to make the conscious decision.

A ripple of mud and earth shot out, shaking the arena and tossing victor and vanquished out, like so much trash.  I even managed to toss them out on the other side of the ring from Her, so that they were out of sight, and hopefully out of mind.

At the same time as I sent out the wave I shoved the truck aside and dashed out to the ring.  Really it was mostly my gift that moved the trucks, but since I looked so big and strong people wouldn’t take the time to figure that out, or at least I hoped they wouldn’t.

I bounded up over the top of the barrier, raised my cupped fists above my head in the classic champion pose.

“Representing the Regime …. InnnnnnDULger!” roared Judith, who had sort of moved into a ring announcer position.

I winced inwardly at the whole ‘Representing the Regime’ thing.  We absolutely did not need to be stressing that connection right now.

Prevailer put two fingers in Her mouth and gave a wolf whistle.  I caught her eyes for a second and suddenly realized why she must have come here.

This was a booty call.

Before I could think too much about that Space Devil made her entrance, flashing from place to place with blurring speed.  She had poise, showmanship.  I wished for just a sec that we’d actually gotten to do the match the way I’d wanted to, with her going over.

She jumped up on the ring and ran around on the ropes, flashing from post to post like an old movie special effect.  The crowd’s cheers were still sullen, everyone was still mostly paying attention to Her, trying to guess what sounds She would want to hear.

Judith rang the bell, and we set to it.

It had been super easy to say that Devil should hit me an awful lot, but it was much tougher to actually endure.  If she’d had any Ultra Strength at all I’d have been killed.

Devil wasn’t just Ultra Speed One, or, if she was, she was on the high end.  It was like fighting someone who is going in fast forward, while you are struggling just to move at regular speed.

She absolutely rained punches down on me, five or six landing between each of my motions, slipping away like a shadow from every lurching swing I pulled off.  It was a brutal lambasting, one of the worst beatings I could remember taking.

I staggered back, which didn’t help, and sent another wave of ground crashing toward her.  She was up and over it in a heartbeat, dropping an elbow onto my shoulder from the crest of the wave.

I roared with pain, mostly pretend, and tried to throw a clothesline at her.  She slipped under without difficulty, continuing to rattle my rib cage with a never sending series of rights and lefts.

I tried a kick, and it sailed right by.  My costume’s midsection slid off somewhere in the middle of the endless string of blows, and Prevailer gave another two beat whistle.

Enough of this.  I set my gift to catching her, turned the ground against her feet and dragged her down.  She danced away for a second, but with nothing but more of my hostile ground to stand on she quickly succumbed.

I towered over her, my gift continuing to suck her down into the earth.  I wasn’t sure, actually, whether I’d genuinely snagged her, or whether it had only worked because she let me.  It didn’t matter now.

I raised my fists high, the very picture of a beast enraged by the constant stinging of an insect, and then slammed them down on her exposed head, the only part of her that was left above the ground.

Really, though, I didn’t smash her skull or whatever.  My gift simply parted the ground a little under her, letting me drive her down into a little cave I’d made for her, safe and sound for the most part.  Her head was probably not feeling great, but that was fucking fair for how much she’d rung my bell.


I nearly leaped out of my skin as Prevailer appeared in the ring with me.  The explosion of Her old body had tossed Haunter and the rest of the VIP section off their feet.

She grabbed me by the chin, pulled my head down to where I was looking into Her eyes.

“You game to go one more round?” She asked.

I honestly couldn’t tell whether She wanted to fight or fuck.  Either, probably.

I forced myself to give a big grin.

“Don’t like an audience,” I managed.  It was hard to talk when someone was holding your jaw so tightly.

She threw back her head and laughed, a sort of rote, hollow sound with what seemed like a little bit of actual pleasure.

“Neither do I”, She said, looking around.

Everybody took off like, well, like Prevailer had just asked them for privacy.  I saw some of Krishna’s guys carrying her into one of the trucks, so it looked like the explosion hadn’t killed her.

She pulled me in for a kiss as all of her victims raced away.

All but one.

The Singularity Barrier

In the old world there was an idea that the age of man had more or less come to an end.  They were right.  The only error was the identity of our successors.

Technicians of the past mastered the ability to design expert systems, computers which counterfeited thought using pattern recognition, repeated simple calculations and similar shortcuts.  These systems became the world’s greatest game players, controlled industrial systems and organized the world’s internet.  It was widely believed that the path to true artificial intelligence lay open.

‘Widely Believed’ may not cover it.  The world accepted it as a fait accompli.  The question was not whether our creations would surpass us, but when.

Some Luddites and other throwbacks expressed the opinion that the Singularity (the moment when computer systems became truly sentient), must be prevented.  This was an unpopular position, but it was at least held.  It doesn’t seem like anyone even imagined the actual outcome, the brute law of nature which would dash the dreams of AI forever.

Advances in other fields have revealed the sordid truth.  Cognition is beyond our understanding, perhaps beyond the limits of what we CAN comprehend.  It is carried out somehow ‘outside’ of the observable universe, impulses ‘beamed’, if you will, to our brains.

Subsequent decades sketched out the limits of computer systems’ capabilities.  Machines can replicate the choices that men program into them.  They can apply rules, again created by mankind, to those choices.  But there it ends.

A machine might triumph at chess, but it could never be made to desire to do so.  It might organize an airport, balance the books of an accountant, but never question the necessity of such things.

That did not make such engines useless, of course.  Even in the present day the Union deploys expert systems and their attendant drones when its dwindling manpower fails it.  The expenditure of treasure, rather than lives, is more comfortable to that last remnant of the old world.

But such efforts are makeshift, at best.  The machines are still governed by physics.  They cannot compete with Ultra Tough adversaries.  They are still directed by electricity, rather than by the incomprehensible impulses of the soul.  They can be enslaved by Ultras with the appropriate gifts.

For all the dreams of a bygone age, the truth is that man, and not machine, shall write the final chapter of our sullied globe.