Indulger 5:1

This time She wanted to talk afterwards.

She lay sprawled across my chest.  A slip of a thing.  Sweaty and slightly warmer than I was.  I had an arm around Her back, my other arm bent back so I could rest my head on it.

“What’s under your skin?” She asked.

She had an ear to my heart, maybe listening to it, and was looking up at me along my chest.  I dug my chin into my throat to look down into Her face.

“Nothin,” I grunted.

Prevailer seemed to like it when I acted brutish, dumb.  She probably knew that I was acting, but my general rule, ever since Redo, was to not worry about what She knew, and just do what seemed to make Her most happy.

She reached a hand up, lazily, and cupped one ear.  She used it as a handle to tilt my head towards Her, painfully digging my chin into my upper chest.

“Kiddo, I can tell when someone is bothered.  I’ve been at this for a little while now.  Lying to me isn’t a great idea.”

“First Fist…” I managed, words hard to get out with my teeth jammed together by the pressure on my jaw.

She let go of my ear, let my head fall back.

“They attacked us, right before I got here.”

She didn’t, as far as I could tell, react.  I could tell a lot, since She was resting on my body.  Not even a twitch.

We’d talked this over.  Haunter had wanted me to tattle right away, first thing.  Try and get Her to kill off First Fist.  Fisher hadn’t thought that would work, and I tended to agree with her.  We’d settled on the ‘see if I can get Her to ask what was up and tell Her in answer to that’ plan.

“How many did they get?” She asked.

“None…” I said.

“Then they didn’t attack you.” She stated.

She said it like She was saying Her name, or that up was up and down was down.  Just speaking a self evident fact.

“They killed one of our…” I trailed off again.

‘Friends’ didn’t work.  Prevailer didn’t really approve of the concept.  ‘Servant’ or ‘Dagger’ led to me pretending to be a much harder person than I could ever really pull off.

“Daggers?” She asked.

I nodded.

She rolled Her eyes.

“Dale, if Karen ever actually tries to kill you, you’ll be dead.  She’s been with me a long time.  You guys have been with me for a few weeks.  You aren’t on their level.  This was just…I dunno, some kind of hazing.  I’ll ask her.”

“Ok,” I said.

There wasn’t really anything else to say.  Remover and her crew backing down after Thui had gotten killed had kept them away from the line of no return.  We couldn’t prove that they attacked us with no damage.

I was also kind of worried about how Prevailer’s chat with Remover was going to turn out.  Remover was really smart, smarter than Her for sure.  She could probably spin the story in such a way that we’d be the ones that Prevailer got mad at.

“Heh, hazing, that reminds me…” She started saying.

I stayed carefully still.  I’d never really seen Her decide to tell a story before, but the obvious thing to do was pay careful attention.  Plus, any movement that I made would jar Her, which wasn’t really safe.

“Way back, way before your time, there was a college.  I didn’t go there, but I lived nearby, and the stuck up little shits that went there were always coming into my bars.  They had lots of money, from their mommies and daddies, so the bartenders loved em.  But what I loved was this one night, early in the semester, that I’d learned about.”

I was having a lot of trouble following this.  I knew what ‘money’ had been, of course.  I was aware of most of the concepts that she was using, or I could figure them out from the words around them, but the whole things wasn’t exactly coming together.

“The girls would come out to this bar, right?  They’d get here and they’d get drunk, and their boys from the frat would be here too.  Everybody drinking.  Then they took out the blindfolds.”

She saw the look on my face.

“No, not for some kind of sex thing.  It was like about trust or whatever.  This was the first time they’d met, and people who liked each other were supposed to find each other blindfolded, just by their voices and what they were drinking or something.”

I still wasn’t really following, but Prevailer around a bunch of blindfolded people didn’t sound like a story that was going anywhere good.

“The point was, people were handing drinks around, giggling and shit, trying to find the right boy or girl to hook up with.  I’d slip in after it had started and just take the drinks they were handing out.”

She slapped my side and chuckled, remembering the faces of people who had been dead for decades.

“Wow, that was smart!” I said.  “You sure got them.”

She seemed to realize that I wasn’t in the spirit of this.  I was being very careful not to let sarcasm get into my tone, but I must have messed up somehow.

“Look, I hated these twerps, right?  And they were all blindfolded.  But, and this is what made me think of this from what’s going on with you and Karen, I didn’t kill them.  I didn’t even rob them, except for the drinks thing.  It was just hazing, get it?  Just play fighting.”

“Ah, I see now.” I said.

She peered at me for a long moment, then turned Her head to the side again, put Her ear to my chest.

“You think you do,” She murmured.  “You can’t possibly.  I’ve tried, from time to time, to tell someone born in my world about the old one.  It just can’t be done.  No matter how I try, you can’t really get it.”

“Try me,” I said.

I’m not sure, exactly, why I said that.  I just sort of ‘felt’ that She wanted me to engage with Her stories at this point.  It felt like I was safer by being an active participant than I would be by passively agreeing that I couldn’t ever understand.

“Ok, sure…let’s see,” she mused.

She traced circles on my side with Her hand.

“The biggest difference is that the strong people weren’t in charge.  I don’t mean Ultras, those weren’t around yet.  I mean, look, the daggers with guns are more dangerous than those without, right?”

I nodded, confident that she’d feel the motion without needing to look at me again.

“So you’d think they’d be in charge, but they’d never admit it.  The cops…do you know what cops were?”

“Knights of Purity?” I guessed.

“No, hah!  The Knights were little bitches back then, they needed cops to protect them from random people whenever they had their marches.  No, the cops were guys with guns.”

“And they were not in charge?” I asked, tying this part to her earlier statement.

“They were, I mean, they had the guns, but they acted like other people were in charge.  It was always changing.  Teachers would tell you what to do, lawyers would, basically anyone.  But these guys didn’t have any guns of their own.  But you had to do what these wimps said or they would call the cops on you!”

“Why did the cops go along with that?” I asked.

I actually knew the answer to these.  I’d talked with enough of Haunter’s shades to have a basic idea of what cops were and how cops worked.  But it was clearly something that She wanted to explain to me.

“They were afraid of guys with bigger guns, soldiers like the Union has.  Those guys were afraid of planes or drones or some shit, I don’t know.  I puzzled about it for a long time, but I never figured out how the weakest people were in charge.”

“Well, You set it right, anyway.” I ventured.

“Mmmm,” she made a sort of humming sound, “I did do that.”

We lay in silence for a moment or two.  She seemed content to be idle, and I certainly wasn’t about to try and prod her into motion.

“Aside from First Fist, though, something is still bothering you.” She said.

I took my time answering that.

“The skulls, I guess.  What’s up with those?  The new Snitcher, this Spyer, he sees through skulls?”

She laughed.

“Nah, no such thing.  Spyer!  Ha!  I haven’t found anyone even halfway qualified to replace Snitcher.  Nobody so far has been anywhere near as useful as he was.”

“Then why…”

She cut me off.

“To make everyone THINK that ‘Spyer’ is watching them.  Make em a little crazy, like I’m always watching.  Keep em from planning anything.”

I tried to figure out how to phrase my dismay at this idea.

“That seems like, hmm, a lot of faith to put in them not figuring it out.  Won’t they eventually get wise?  I mean, after the first time they do something that should make you mad in front of a skull, won’t the game be up?”

She moved her head sideways, tapping the top of it against my collar bone.

“Some will.  Others will still believe, think we are playing a longer game.  A third group will make up something twice as scary as anything we could even come up with.  Nobody will have any facts about it, so there will just be a bunch of people trying to prove how smart and insightful they are by explaining the skulls to everyone else.  It’ll be hilarious.”

“Haha, yeah, you are right.” I said.

I was worrying that this might be too much sucking up, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say in the face of that.

She seemed to sense something about how I felt.

“Hey, seriously.  It is to punish the daggers for letting in the assassins that killed Snitcher.  We can’t let that go, it would make us look weak.”

Greatly daring, I shook my head slightly.

“Nobody will ever think that you are weak.” I said, meaning every word.

That seemed to mollify Her, and She subsided once again, lying against me as though She’d happily stay here forever.

“Dale,” She said.

So much for that.

“Yeah?” I answered.

“This thing with First Fist, can you guys get past it, if you need to work together on something?” She asked.

“I… I don’t think so.  Jane and Preventer, at least, really can’t stand them.  Sorry.”

She looked up again at that.

“Wow.”

I jerked in a convulsive panic, realizing what I’d said.  How long had it been since someone had told Her ‘no’.

I was frozen in place for a heart stopping moment, fighting visions of Her tearing me in two.

“Your team can’t stand them, huh?” She asked.

“I didn’t mean.  I mean, of course we…I mean, if you order us to work together then it would be weak to not do what we are able to work…” I was babbling.

She cut me off, resting a finger on my mouth in a ‘shush’ gesture.

“It’s fine.  It’s all right.  If you can’t work with Karen’s gals, that’s useful to know.  I’ll find another group for you to work with.”

I said something or other about that being very considerate of Her, still mentally boggling at my own slip up.

“I don’t have Linker anymore, remember?  If one of my Fists kills another, and I kill the ones who did that, that’s a real pain.  So I’m trying to make sure that I don’t waste you like that.  I can’t just go around making new Fists right now.”

I nodded.  Prevailer admitting that She couldn’t do something was also not a thing that happened every day.  She was being much nicer than She was supposed to be, mixed in with terrifying talk about how putting skulls on walls made sense.  It was making it very hard for me to know what to do.

“Which Fist would y’all be comfortable working with?” She asked.

I froze, suddenly paralyzed by uncertainty.  We hadn’t considered this, hadn’t game it out or anything.  I didn’t have Haunter or Preventer to ask.

“Working with…at what?” I asked.

“Pretty much what you guys tried up north.” She said.  “Diplomacy, talking stuff out.  I want you guys to be my mouth.  You are cute, people will like you.”

There wasn’t a lot to say to that.

Prevailer spoke again.

“I felt bad when your mission was such a crap shoot.  Union didn’t want to talk.  I don’t see any reason we can’t try the opposite, right?  If the Union doesn’t want to chat, maybe the Pantheon will go for it?”

“Uh…” I hesitated, “are you actually interested in having peace with the Pantheon?  I thought the whole thing of the last time was that you wanted to fight the Pantheon alongside the Union.”

She laughed, a surprisingly joyful sound.

“Haha, yeah, you got me there.  But the Pantheon doesn’t know that, right?  So maybe they’ll bite for a cease fire.  They are losing enough people here for it to be an attractive idea, anyway.”

“So we are lying to them?” I asked, trying very hard not to sound like I was judging or anything.  I was trying to give the impression that I just wanted to understand our mission.

“Kind of,” She said.  “It is true that I’d like to not fight them here for a bit, I’m pretty focused on the upcoming big fight between the other two countries.  I’ll probably take them on during that, or maybe before.  You can let them know that if you have a problem with tricking people or whatever.”

“Ok, well, we would probably work best with Sixth Fist,” I said.  “They seemed like they were on our level when we spoke with them during the interview.”

I had been thinking about this while she was talking about Her motives, but hadn’t come up with anything really clever.  Sixth Fist was the nicest Fist, so I’d prefer to work alongside them.  I’m sure it wouldn’t be what Preventer would come up with, but they didn’t seem likely to try and kill us.

“Great! That’s settled then.” She said.

“Your team and Sixth Fist will go and meet with Zeus and his pals, let them know that I’m calling off our fight for a little while.”

“Go and meet the Pantheon leaders?  Are they gonna let us do that?”

She shrugged.

“Tell em you want to talk to the big bosses.  Kill em if they won’t make that happen.”

“But, the Council is in Australia, right?  How are we going to get them to come all the way to the Regime?”

“No,” She said.  “You are going to them.  We are rebuilding an old boat, you just ride that all the way to their capital.  Easy as pie.”

I didn’t try to react, but She read my face again.

“Don’t worry.  Adder will be going with you.”

Asset Recovery Outcome

Marian,

Agent Daria, (ref: The Dragon) has been recovered intact from the crashed remains of Commander Martinez’s Deliverer.

I use the phrase ‘intact’ rather than ‘alive’, because it seems most appropriate.  In order to endure the disastrous fire which wracked the vehicle in it’s final moments (ref: Condemner, ref: most recent Regime truce violation) she must have used her gift on herself.  She was frozen into a state of complete immobility, and thus was unable to be damaged in the destruction.

We have returned her to a nearby Facility, and are monitoring her state closely.  My hunch is that she set her gift’s manifestation on a time limit, and that it will, some day soon, return her to an animate state.

Controlling her information, when she returns to wakeful service, will be vital if we wish to retain the services of this vital asset.  Psych eval yields a 44% chance that she will set out on a suicide mission against the Regime assets (ref 4th Fist) who took the lives of her unit in their treacherous ambush.

I think we both understand that this would be a tragic waste.  I’m given to understand that Agent Daria was once the key member of your personal protection detail.  I’ll send her to you as soon as, and obviously if, she returns to her animate state.  I’m sure you’ll know what to tell her.

–Isaac

 

Preventer 5:1

Jane slammed on the breaks, nearly tipping our confiscated truck with the abrupt force of our stop.

“What’s the big idea?“ asked Dale, but she was already opening the door and jumping out.  We followed in a rush.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

For answer, Jane simply pointed up.

Nailed to a building’s side, about ten feet above the ground, was the unmistakable shape of a human skull.

“The fuck…” exclaimed Nirav, even as I let my gaze go further into Shington.

At the next intersection was another one, at the corner beyond was a third.  I turned my head, peered along the outskirts’ edge, and was easily able to locate four or five more.

“Really?” asked Haunter, in a tone of disbelief.

I couldn’t think of a useful reply to that, so I simply started walking.  We were pretty close to where we’d have to abandon the truck anyway, and if something was going on I wanted us ready to fight, which meant that I wanted Dale on terra firma.

“They are real,” said Fisher, answering a question that none of us had actually been asking.

My first thought was quickly disproved.  I saw a guard peering out from the shadows of one of the buildings, rifle in hand.  He declined to emerge and engage with us, to challenge or otherwise, but it was at least proof that someone was still alive in the ghoulishly decorated capital.

As we moved deeper in we saw more people, clustered in doorways or moving swiftly down the streets on furtive errands.  To a man they seemed hushed, dazed.  Their gaze flinched away from our sigils, and those we drew near to dropped into the Posture.

It was one of these folks, an older black man, that we finally put the obvious question to.

“What’s going on with all the skulls?” asked Indulger.

It was an admirably brief, noncommittal statement.  It didn’t condemn what must have been an exercise of Her authority.  It didn’t box us into punishing this guy if he turned out not to know.  It was simply a request for information.

“The Decimation,” the man said.

We looked at one another.

“Decimation should be just ten, right?” asked Nirav.  “This is…”

He stopped, beginning the process of estimating how many must have fallen to thus ornament the city’s streets.

“It’s a lot,” he finished, a bit lamely.

“She was very angry that Snitcher died.  She is punishing us for our failure and our weakness.”

The words had a rote quality to them, a phrase oft repeated.  No doubt She had Knights and such out and about in the city, driving the point home.

Haunter leaned down, took his hand in hers.

The man trembled, visibly.  He shook and looked frantically at the ground, as though begging it to swallow him up.

“The Regime killed these people, correct?” asked Haunter.

He nodded, jerkily, up and down.

It was a pretty dumb question.  Who else could it have been?

“The Regime did this, right?  Answer me!” pressed Haunter.

“Y-Yes!  They killed them.”

As soon as he agreed Haunter was dropping his hand, turning to face the rest of us.

“We need to be very careful in Shington,” she told us.  “I’ve never heard of anything like this before.  People will be frantic to gain Her favor, and with it some shred of safety.”

I didn’t really want to have a conversation with Haunter about our feelings on Prevailer, and the importance of maintaining Her good regard, on the streets of Shington with a dagger present.

“Let’s go to my place,” I suggested.  “We can rest a bit before we report to Her this evening.”

Everyone agreed, and I started leading us through the city.

The layout hadn’t changed much, which, after Redo, was a bit of a relief.  I never would have thought that I could get used to human skulls staring at me from every corner, but I quickly found them slipping from my attention, becoming just another part of the scenary.

What could they mean?  Her aesthetics had always been blunt, brutalist, but never actively macabre.  Putting human skulls everywhere was like a parody of Her, the kind of thing that Her enemies would tell themselves She was plotting.

If Prevailer had wanted this kind of thing, it would have been this way from long ago.  If She was angry about Snitcher’s death, then She’d be taking revenge on the killers, not on random people.

A twinge of especially fierce pain from my jaw distracted me for a moment.  I clamped my teeth shut firmly and kept walking, trying not to tense my shoulders or allow the others any glimpse of my weakness.

I had, by dint of good fortune, avoided the worst case scenario.  The unending hell that would be a complete inability to heal my jaw had not come to pass.  But what had happened instead was almost worst.  I had long periods of numbness, followed by the occasional jarring spike of agony.

I had no idea about the metaphysics of it.  In a burst of sublime irony I’d sent the only one who probably could have figured out what was going on away.  Andy was on his way to the Pantheon now, and that left me to guess and grope about how the interplay of my gift and Hers had created this fiasco.

Maybe Her gift was constantly wearing at mine, provoking these flashes of anguish whenever it wavered?  Perhaps it was my gift whose power varied, occasionally wearing down at the effort of compensating for Her torture and allowing me to feel its full brunt, before rallying and rushing to my defense once again?  No way to know.

The fit passed a few seconds later, to my immense relief.  They never lasted long, but I’d had one last for almost a full minute once.  I’d considered trying to time them, figure out if they were growing longer or shorter, but that seemed like a sure ticket to madness.

Jane stopped us once again in a busier intersection, near the Lair’s actual gates.  She grabbed a young woman by the hand, looked into her eyes.

“Can you tell me what is going on?” she asked.

The woman shook her head, but Jane didn’t let go.

“You aren’t in danger,” she said, then corrected herself.

“You aren’t in danger from us.  Tell me what has happened, why are there all these heads stuck up on all these buildings?  Is it First Fist?”

“Yes, No…” the woman said, obviously panicking.  “We are being punished for Snitcher’s death, for our failure and our weakness.”

This time Jane didn’t relent at the catch phrase, peering down at the woman as though she could see into her soul.

“What failure?  What weakness?” she asked.

“We failed to stop Snitcher, who saw through the eyes of the living.  We were too weak to see when the enemy came among us.  Now the dead do the watching.”

Still Haunter did not relent.

“These,” and she indicated the skulls with a wave of her other hand, “are watchers?”

“Yes!” gasped the woman.  “They watch for killers come to harm Her.”

Jane let her hand go, turned to the rest of us.

“A new Snitcher?” asked Nirav.  “One who can only see out of dead people’s skulls?  That sounds kind of…”

“Convenient,” I finished, making sure to leave no opening for any of them to criticize our leaders while we were surrounded by what might well be their listening devices.

“Huh?” asked Indulger.

“Very convenient,” I stressed “that we will be able to watch anywhere in the city, thanks to the new Snitcher.  That will be very useful for protecting the Inner Circle while we are in Shington.”

He still didn’t get it.

“Why does the Inner Circle need our-“

He cut off as Fisher stepped on one of his feet.

“Because,” she said, emphasizing the ‘cause’ “of the humans’ failure and weakness.  Didn’t you hear them?”

Dale finally seemed to understand that we might have an audience, and he fell silent as we continued to make our way to my house.

I felt a burst of nostalgia, seeing the place.  It was spoiled by the guests awaiting us on my porch.

First Fist had come to greet us.

Pursuer had made himself a sort of nest out of what had once been my hammock. He’d mashed and crushed and burrowed himself half way into the porch, leaving his head and shoulders protruding out and peering in my direction.  Remover was standing on the steps, one hand placed lightly on a railing and the other one extended in a jaunty wave.  The lesser three were in a group off to one side, tormenting some poor guy.

“Heya!” called out Remover.

None of us called back, but we trotted up to meet her.  We all knew the necessity of keeping ourselves under tight control before the eyes of the Regime’s foremost killers.

At least I hoped we did.

Haunter had been on edge, again.  Woman was damn flighty.  Maybe this was the day her martyr complex would take hold.  Indulger was a danger of the other sort.  He might just blurt out something inconvenient without thinking twice.

“Karen,” I greeted her.  “Thanks for coming out to meet us.”

Using her old name was a small verbal jab, a way of getting her focused on me.  Obviously I didn’t really want her focused on me, but it was narrowly preferable to letting her attention wander to the others.

“Preventer, the mighty duelist, good to see ya!” she said, false cheer streaking her tone like veins of inferior material in a stone column.  “We wanted to be the first ones to welcome you back to Shington!”

“Thanks Remover,” said Indulger, matching her tone.  When he did it the same sound somehow didn’t sound fake at all.

“Is Alerter recovered from her thrashing?” I asked, trying to score a few more points.

“Which one?” asked Remover.  “The poor thing is a bit battered lately.”

I began to reply, but was distracted, as Pursuer grunted at me, and began to shake back and forth.  His shoulders moved in repetitive back and forth motions that left little doubt about what his arms were up to, underneath the porch.

I blanched before I could control myself, and Remover gave a small chuckle.

“I’m sorry, so sorry.  He’s just… I think he really likes what you’ve done with your mouth.”

I wasn’t the only one who could score points.  I clenched a fist and only narrowly kept myself from doing something dumb.

“Hey, what are you all doing?”

Haunter, behind me, had drifted away from where I was talking with Remover and was approaching the other three members of First Fist.

I stepped back, so I could keep Remover and Pursuer in my field of vision as I looked over at Jane.  My heart sank.

The man they had captive between them was battered and ruined, but he was also unmistakably Thui.

“Just havin some fun,” said Alerter.

“We told your boy that he could live till you got back.” Her voice hissed in my ear, carried to me by her mastery of sound.  “If you hadn’t come back he’d have stayed alive.”

“Fun?” asked Haunter.  “You are torturing a Regime citizen for your own amusement?  How wasteful.”

I strove for rationality as my heart raced within me.  Thui, here.  At the mercy of First Fist.  I fought off the impulse to beg, to threaten.  Any reaction would weaken me, would let them portray us as soft.  I had to be stone.  I had to.

“Aaaagh!”

His voice filled my ears, as Alerter’s gift serenaded me with what must have been his past screams.

“Not just for fun,” said Averter.  “We are looking for info on who killed Snitcher.  This guy might know.”

“You expect me to believe that you picked Thui up at random, just because…” I was relieved that whoever was talking trailed off, before I realized that it was me.

“You know this guy?” asked Remover, a small smile spreading across her face.

According to rumors, this was the expression that she’d worn when she Toppled New York, when she returned from the dead in the Second Defiance and hit the Allied Forces’ field hospitals.  The smile of a demon, relishing the suffering that she was causing.  The smile of someone who’d found a weak point, who was about to drive home the knife.

“That one was from when we tore his balls off.” Alerter sent.  “He regretted shooting me in the Court after that, you can fucking bet.”

Jane advanced on Thui, on the three of them.  She reached out and took his forehead, pulling his broken face up to where he could meet her gaze.

“You don’t know who killed Snitcher, do you?” asked Jane.

Thui mouthed something in response.  I couldn’t catch it.  Maybe Alerter was blocking his voice from me, or maybe he was just too far off.  I could see how his jaw moved when he tried to speak though, broken for sure.

I didn’t even flinch as my mouth released a fresh gout of agony.  Not with Thui, broken before me.

“He doesn’t know, so this is a waste of time?” asked Haunter.

Remover moved her hand, and one of her disintegration tendrils extended from it, slowly lazily extending down towards Thui.

“Now what could stop that?  What could stop Remover’s beam from reaching this dagger?  Only something that was basically invincible…”

I swayed to my feet, took a step towards the beam.

Dale’s hands closed on my shoulders, holding me fast.

The neon green tendril drew closer to Thui, slowing as it did so.

”Well, if he has persuaded you that he doesn’t know…” drawled Remover.

I didn’t need to look to know that the grin was back in full force.

I could see it all happening before me.  I’d throw myself into her beam, perhaps I’d die.  I’d never tested my gift against hers.

My death would leave my Fist without an anchor, without someone who could survive Pursuer’s wrath.  First Fist would kill us here, tell Her we were traitors or whatever.

“Aaaagh!”

Alerter serenaded me with the sound of Thui’s anguish, left inaudible whatever words of encouragement Indulger might be trying to give me.

I took a step, shrugging out of Dale’s grip.  I couldn’t…

Haunter tossed Thui into the beam.  He fell in two halves, a fountain of blood erupting onto the lawn.

I dropped to my knees, my shriek of rage imprisoned within my chest, utterly unable to process what had just happened.

”We done here?” asked Haunter, utterly cold.  Utterly callous.  Without a care in the world.

“Not quite,” said Remover.

This didn’t change anything, it didn’t…they could still just attack, Remover was close enough that she’d get me with a beam before I could…

“We better hurry up,” said Dale.  “Peggy told me to come straight to her once we got back.  She was real serious about it.”

Remover’s hand dropped to her side.  Pursuer stopped shaking.  Alerter’s gift stopped ringing in my ears.

“Peggy?” asked Remover.

“She told me it was ok to call her that when we were making love a few night ago” said Dale.

There was a long, frozen moment.

Karen was Prevailer’s best friend.  She could probably get away with destroying another Fist.  She would definitely not survive box blocking Her.

“We’ll just be going,” said Remover.

Transcript: 4

P: Hey, you remember Andy?

R: No.

P: The doc’s doll?

R: Oh, yeah, I remember now.  It fixed my gift back in the day.

P: I killed her again.

R: What do you mean?

P: She was alive, locked in a basement.

R: Wow, that’s crazy

P:I know, right?  From what she says the doc made a bunch of bodies for her.  Could be more.

R: Shit, that would be super useful.

P: Huh?

R: We could catch it and make it tune our gifts.  Averter sucks.

P: I don’t trust her.

R: Use hostages or Torturer or something, it’s a pussy.

P: I’ll think about it.

 

Fourth Fist: Meditations on Redo : 2

Haunter

I am prey to a dark suspicion.  I put it aside, long ago.  I told myself, errantly, that Prevailer’s coming had, if nothing else, entirely disproven this idea.

We get what we deserve.

Such a small crumb of consolation to wrest from the jaws of apocalypse.  Such a nugget of worth, a tiny silver lining on a storm that has raged for decades.  We can’t possibly be being judged, assessed or measured, because no one could possibly be vile enough to merit Her.

And yet it returns.

When I spoke with Andy, I could almost see Her there.  Almost hear Her porcine voice, speaking with unearned authority the well rehearsed lines of tyrants past.

“You know best.  Use his gift, who cares what your followers want?  It is YOU who matter!  You who decide!”

I quashed those phantoms, pushed Her image aside and dealt with the matter exactly as I ought.  I took my time, took every precaution.  I reassured myself of his intentions, gathered knowledge of what he could do, and where he came from.  I searched the situation thoroughly for pits and snares before I stretched forth my hand.

I queried my passsengers.  I set up a poll, I let them have their say.  I tallied their thoughts, the wishes of those that I save from destruction.  I spent days doing so.

And then, as my careful pace finally brought me near to the conclusion, the goblet was snatched from my lips.

Krishna displayed the deranged savagery of the outside world, same as the Union commander.  Her attack had little merit, whatever Condemner’s complicity, gained her nothing.  It was executed without care or forthought, placing her person in savage jeopardy.  It worked anyway.

The world, once again, smiled upon the bigots, the savages.  They have inherited our beautiful countryside, and turned it into smoking ruins.  They have made their nests in the buildings that we called home, and smeared them with filth and rutting chaos.

Prevailer was here.  Hours ago.  She stood before me.  The fiend Herself.

She stood, and She turned aside.  She watched, drunk with profane lust, as Dale sported for Her amusement.  Unconscious of any peril She toyed with Preventer, torturing her as a spitful child torments an insect.

She turned Her back on me.

If I had only acted on my own instincts, earlier.  If I had only told Andy to imbue me, at whatever cost, with the ability to channel all of the fury of my reserve into one strike…  I could have done it.  Her back was turned.

One blow through the back of Her head, dreadlocks flung aside by the force of my strike.  Her skull shattering, Her brain, and the connection to Her monstrous gift, obliterated in an instant.  The rape of my world, the death of my people, avenged.  I can see it still, in my imagination.

Instead I stood, and did nothing.  My caution had served me well.  I was in no danger.  I stood at Her side as She tortured one of my friends, and prepared to rape another.  I did nothing.

We get what we deserve.

Indulger

She talked to me, after.

She said so many things, murmuring threats and pleas, muttering Her way around what sounded kind of like rehearsed phrases.

I couldn’t follow all of it.  I wasn’t sure if She knew that I was awake, so I was staying super still.  Part of the reason that I couldn’t make out Her speech was that She wasn’t talking loudly.  I think She was mostly talking to Herself.

But another part of why I couldn’t get it was that it didn’t really make sense.  She was obsessed with being strong, with being powerful, it sounded like.  Lots of talk about crushing your weakness and stuff.  But all of the strong people that I’ve ever met don’t act like that.  They don’t think about being strong, they just are that way, automatically.

From what She was saying She doesn’t see strength as a thing with complications, or nuance.  There is just people who are strong, which she likes, and those who are weak, which lets her hurt them and somehow makes it ok.

I think She knows that’s wrong.  It’s not exactly that She’s stupid, it is more like She is a kid, fingers in her ears and shouting so the grown ups can’t contradict Her.

It is super scary, to hear Her with no filter on.  To know that the strongest Ultra on the face of the world is so insecure, so frightened. I’d almost rather that She was the untouchable queen that She wants everyone to think She is.

I was proud to let Krishna get away.  Proud to let her Ultras escape from Prevailer.  I’m still proud of that even though we might end up fighting them some day.  I feel like, for some reason, we are all kind of on the same side now.  Like they are on my side, or I am on theirs.

I thought that my spirits would lift when Prevailer went away, but they didn’t.  I just lay there, trembling.  I knew She’d be back.  She’ll come back whenever She wants to.  I’ll never be safe again.

I tried to tell myself that that wasn’t true, tried to drop off to sleep, safe in the knowledge that She might have warped to anywhere.

I woke with Her hands on my head, picking me up to deliver a message.  She wants us to go back to Her Lair, to Shington, to the center of the Regime.

Krishna and the Pantheon can’t help us there.  Preventer and Jane can’t be smart enough there.  I’m going to be with Her there, with all of Her anger and all of Her fear and all of Her sadness.

I don’t feel anything about that, not really.  I’m not letting myself feel angry or frightened.  I chose this, there in the ring.  It was the price of getting Krishna away.  It might be that distracting Her can help more people.  I don’t feel anything about this.

If I tell myself that enough times it will be come true.

Preventer

My fucking lip!

I can still feel the pain, still feel Her fingers rooting carelessly through soft tissue to grasp my teeth.  Still feel the ache as She yanked them out.

This isn’t a metaphor or a figure of speech, I am still hurting.

My gift should be protecting me.  I shouldn’t have to suffer this.  Even if it couldn’t stop Her from tearing my mouth apart it should be within my gift’s capabilities to numb the pain.

Her gift hasn’t acted on me for hours.  Its lingering echo can’t possibly be stronger than Ultra Toughness three, can it?

Can it?

I focus on my ire on that prospect, that Prevailer’s might so far outmatch my resilience that it will take hours to heal from any wound she inflicts, in order to distract myself from a far more terrifying possibility.

Perhaps my indestructible form CANNOT heal.  Perhaps my perfection, unmarred since I emerged from the Process, is a form of stasis.  If so, then there may be no mechanism for returning to a prior, undamaged condition.  Why would I need it, after all?  If I cannot be harmed, what need have I for healing?

If this is how my gift operates, then I will need to become accustomed to this pain.

The thought repels, but I will not let it appall.  I am no beast, to be ruled by emotion.  No animal, to be goaded by the whip.  Reason alone defines my path.  Reason alone brought about this victory.

Let Prevailer take my lip, afflict me with this torment.  Let me lose the teeth from my head.  What of it?  For, even in Her very shadow, I have achieved the beginning of Her end.

I had to kill Condemner, to silence the fool, before I could verify the report, but I know of no reason why the plan should have gone awry.  Condemner, more than likely, delivered Andy intact to Krishna’s forces.  Even now the false man is being trundled across the distance, ever closer to the heart of the Pantheon, ever closer to those who can properly utilize his bizarre meta-gift.

And all of this achieved without the slightest bit of knowledge from the fools that surround me.  Beneath their very eye, and my hand moves unseen and unchecked.  They even thank me for taking care of Condemner, gave me their thanks for silencing the only person who could have given me away.

Fisher has rendered me her strange gratitude.  Nirav’s return, in the absence of his terrifying controller, is all that she has desired.  Jane extends me her sympathy, powerless to resist the impulse to wipe away every tear, to comfort the one who suffers.  And Dale, when he returns, will surely regard me with the same bland benevolence that he gives to all.  Perhaps he’ll even be grateful that my suggestion, the Ultra Fight, worked out.

Yes, a triumph.  This is an unmitigated triumph.  I would be a fool to regret what has come to pass, merely because of the anguish which clenches my jaw and makes mud of my thoughts.

I have willed this.

Nirav

He was like a sound that I didn’t know that I was hearing.  Like a ringing in my ears which had grown so customary that I had ceased to register it at all.  That was how he crept up, how he took me without raising an alarm.

I had been gulled into tranquility, a victim of Condemner’s patience and subtlety.  He moved on our shared soul not as a conflagration, but as a spark.  He took my volition, my awareness, all of my being, one step at a time.

Long before my eyes became his flames he had been influencing my movements, easing himself into my consciousness and evicting me, little by little.  The possession was effortless, subtle.  I had no warning, no way to fight back.

I have few memories of his actions, little recollection.  I recall him smiling my smile, speaking my words.  I recall him and Andy, him and Rebeccah… him and Betty most of all.  But I have difficulty remembering which actions occurred in which context.  Which betrayal was committed against who?

I strive to push these flashes aside.  Betty’s voice breaks as she assures me that it’s over, that he’s gone.  The Link never included him, and now he has fallen into the Hell that always awaited him.  I nod and assent, but I’m not so sure.

If he was really gone, then wouldn’t I be gone with him?  I’m…a way that he sometimes is, a mask or a role that he invented to keep his human form safe.  I’m a way of thinking, a set of relations with other people.  I’m as false as my flesh.

If Condemner was gone, really, truly gone, then I should be dead.

He’s here.  He has to be.  Putting everything else aside, I’m simply not lucky enough for him to stay vanished.  He’s hiding, lurking.  Behind my eyes like always.

I can’t feel him, can’t hear his words, but that means less than nothing.  He’s always been capable of subtlety, this last experience has reinforced that lesson, if I’m ever tempted to forget it.

Perhaps he sleeps, perhaps he bides his time.  But I will not succumb again to the delusion that I am the master of this conjured flesh.  I will not fool myself, nor those around me, with assertions of sanity and friendship that I cannot back up.

I will fix, as the unalterable pole of my thought, as my Guiding Star, this simple principle.  Condemner watches.  He is present, observing me and testing me, awaiting the opportunity to once again usurp my place in the world.

I am never alone.  I am never safe.  I will never be fooled again.  Condemner is here.

Condemner is here.

Fisher

I did it.

Preventer did it.

Whoever gets the credit, the fact is simple.  Nirav is saved.  He’s finally free.

I’m not simple minded.  I know, from bitter experience, how linked the movements of body and soul may be.  Strip me of my war form, and I’m a doll.  Strip me of my Lure and I’m a beast.  I understand that Nirav, the mind that accompanies the flesh I’ve come to prize, is not a soul entire.

He will be wounded, his sentience torn by the loss of the deeper mind which has been stripped from him.  He will be traumatized, suspect.

But that will pass.

The Link has torn his soul, perhaps, or maybe just rotated it so that the pleasant portion is the part that protrudes into our world.  Snitcher’s gift, mighty beyond all reason, functioning as do-it-yourself therapy.  Who’d have thought it?

I’m not a fool, of course.  I know that this might not be as simple as I’m making it out to be.

If his soul is rotated, whatever I might mean by that, then it may one day rotate around again.  If it is torn, then there is nothing to say that it will not knit itself together again.  No one knows how any of that works.

I don’t place my faith on this miracle.  This doesn’t have to be happy ever after.  I don’t need anything more than I’ve already received.

I’ve learned the basics of his condition, and even if his present state is only an oasis in a much more desolate terrain I still know enough to keep him here.

When Condemner takes hold of him, I can sense it through my shadow.  I can feel the creature’s warped objectives, the strange hungers that drive it.

When that happens, I can bring Nirav back to himself by slaying his body.  The Link is eternal, forever anchored to the moment of its creation.  Whatever may come to pass in the future, we can always pull Nirav back to this state, free of the beast’s grasp.

I say ‘we’, but the truth of the matter is that, beyond our partnership, I am more unsure of the rest than ever.  Preventer, newly maimed, has shown herself ready to slay one of us at my say so.  Jane is sulking again, no doubt bewildered by this fresh betrayal.  And Dale… Dale is Hers.

I know Her ways.  She will bring him to Shington, to Torturer.  He will be conditioned, as I have been.  His spirit, the odd innocence about him, will crumble away.  I will see the change to his priorities, witness the resolution never to approach that dread being again rise to the forefront of his thoughts.

It is inevitable.

But for all this looming uncertainty, I feel more centered, more grounded, than I have in a while.  I have faced the loss of the Hook.  I have faced the loss of Nirav.  I have been tested, weighed and measured.  And I have been found fit.

The Hook is returned, Nirav is redeemed.  I am safely Linked with mighty comrades.  I will not fear this uncertain future.  I will not dread tomorrow.

And, if I am fortunate, and Condemner is as banished as this moment implies, tomorrow will not dread us.

 

Satellite Coverage

It is a hotly contested question, among the Union’s enemies, to what degree the last nation of the Old World maintains a presence in the orbital arena.

There is no question of either of the other two ultrapowers commanding such advanced technology, of course.  During the First Defiance the mass exodus of the intelligentsia stripped the Regime of America’s scientific caste, and the Pantheon’s bellicose beginnings performed a similar function.

The brief reign of the so called Space King is thought to have brought about the destruction of all assets in place in 2155, so any Union satellites would have had to either survive his mania or have been launched since.

There is no question that the Union has the technology to put things in orbit.  Equally, there is no question that no foreign spy has ever observed a launch, or found any information that would suggest that such a thing has taken place.

The Union’s government, of course, is silent on the subject.  There is no advantage to be gained by boasting of such assets, after all.

Thus, the dilemma runs as follows.

The case for:

The Union MUST have satellites, because their scouting ability would confer an exceptional advantage, and the Union needs all the advantages that they can get.  As for the the lack of observation, that merely means that they’ve developed a different, less conspicuous means of deployment.  Perhaps an Ultra just flies them up.

The case against:

The Union MUST NOT have satellites, because they display no sign of satellite capabilities.  They don’t launch orbital strikes, don’t seem to know the movements of their foes at all times, etc.  Further, the reports which make no mention of satellite capabilities include the type of grade A intelligence assets that you’d think would be correct.

Such a consensus as there is, in this regard, is narrowly in favor of secret orbital devices.  It is marginally easier to believe in an impossibly proficient Union than it is to believe in one so dim as to ignore the obvious advantages that the ultimate ‘high ground’ would offer.

If this is the case, one must wonder what reserves the Union is saving these devices for?  The moon is a testament to their foe’s ability to strike the heavens, but if the Union is willing then there is no reason that the sky can’t strike back.