My gift protected me, entirely.
That didn’t mean that I could tell what was going on. The noise was so loud that I could hear nothing. The light was so bright I could see nothing. My world became a white blur.
Reason did not leave me, however. My mind was unimpaired.
I could feel my gift contemptuously refuting a great impact. I could feel the Strongboat evaporate beneath me, feel the water course frantically and randomly around me. I was in a great explosion, it was the only thing that made sense.
While I waited for the world to reorganize itself into a shape I could interact with I pondered what could have happened.
Had our Pantheon adversaries lashed out with a hitherto unseen, and mighty, gift? It seemed unlikely. If they had any such weapon they would have deployed it at the beginning of their attack, rather than waiting for later.
The Union was the obvious culprit. We’d been moving north, somehow, and they had presumably struck in an attempt to stop us from reaching their shores. A bomb couldn’t harm a Fist, of course, which made this more panic and stupidity. It fit right in with what I’d seen of their leadership in our negotiation session.
Things calmed down a bit, after a moment. The heaving seas were still not entirely still, but at least I wasn’t spending every second skidding from one wave into another. Someone was screaming.
I had vastly underestimated the size of the blast. A great ring of a wave was racing away from us, and high above us was the remains of what had to have been a mushroom cloud. The fuckers had nuked us!
I looked around, my first voluntary move in a while, and saw the source of the screaming. Haunter was bobbing up and down in the water about a hundred feet away, losing a shade every few seconds, screaming her lungs out.
My own gift kept me from sinking, but it wouldn’t propel me to my ally’s side. I expelled a barrier beneath my feet, and rode it over to where she floundered.
Her staring eyes found me instantly, even before I lifted her out of the water on another barrier. I tried to speak, but her screaming overrode me.
I held my hands up in the universal, ‘easy now’ gesture, both palms facing her. It didn’t seem to help. She lost another shade and convulsed, staring frantically at me and wringing her hands in front of her.
She shouldn’t have been damaged by the blast, unless all of her reserve was gone. That was self-evidently not the case. She must be suffering continuous harm, but I could see nothing attacking her.
“Cage! Put a cage around me!” she shouted, her cries taking a sudden turn towards the lucid.
I did so, bringing up four more barriers for walls and covering the top with yet another. It was more of a cube that a cage, but actually making bars and such would have been more complicated and taken longer, and clearly time was a factor.
No sooner had I surrounded her than she began to strip.
I looked away as she tore off her clothing, shedding it into a corner of the cube.
Another shade was lost.
She pointed frantically and shouted again, but the cube muffled her voice, for the most part.
I pulled the side slightly away from the rest so that I could hear what she was saying.
“Get them out! They are irradiated!”
I pulled the side barrier up a little ways, leaving a slot at the bottom where she could kick the tainted fabric away. It splashed down into the ocean.
She gestured again, and I closed her in there.
I really wasn’t sure about how radiation worked. Shouldn’t her body itself be irradiated? No, that would presumably have been transferred to whatever shade bore the brunt of the explosion. Or, shades, since it went on for a while.
I watched the cube for a long moment, and then another. No more of her shades were lost. Apparently my barriers stopped the radiation, which was a neat thing to learn.
The sea had calmed down, for the most part, and it was only by the faint glow of my barriers that I could see what was around.
What was around was a bunch of ocean.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. The Strongboat had been struck by a nuclear bomb. Only Ultras could survive. The boat itself was just so much vapor, at this point.
Maybe there were some of Refiner’s robes and scythes intact, sinking swiftly down into the depths of the ocean. It would depend on how his gift decided what skin color the bomb counted as. Even if it decided to protect them, it wouldn’t have saved the Knights.
Fisher was gone. Both of her forms would have been blasted at once. Nirav was gone too. I could feel both of them in the Link, along with Indulger. It was just the two of us.
Struck by that thought, I looked around. I could see very little. Shit.
Fader ought to be alive. She had been in image form, dithering over going back to flesh in order to get her hand wrapped up. An image wouldn’t have been thrown anywhere any more than Haunter and I were. She should be right here.
Plainly, she wasn’t, but the odds were good that she should be somewhere around here.
“Can you think of a way to signal Fader?” I asked Haunter.
She nodded, said something that the cube muffled.
I puzzled a moment over how she had heard my voice, if the cube was muffling sound between us, but then realized that some of her shadows were probably lip readers.
I gestured to my ear, then winced as the gash in my lips that She had torn flared up again.
It was a bitter irony that the mightiest weapon our race had ever produced should leave me totally unaffected, but a wound that was, ultimately, cosmetic made me want to writhe around on the ground in anguish.
By the time I looked up again Haunter had brought for a few of her shades inside of the cube, who had set up a whiteboard, seemingly composed of the same substance that they were.
“Barrier up, barrier down. She probably looking for 6th Fist surv.”
I didn’t like to take orders from Haunter’s creatures, but that was a decent idea. I concentrated for a moment, and emitted two much larger barriers, basically arrow shaped. I pointed them both at me, and then sank one down into the water beneath me and brought the other up into the sky above us.
Having done this, I sat down on my platform to wait. There didn’t seem to be a lot to do.
We weren’t all that far from Union territory, probably. When the sun came up I could see the shore, if I’d heard right. Whatever had been done by our attackers had pushed us way off course.
I could head there now, I guessed, but I didn’t see any advantage in arriving at the wrong nation with all of the useful parts of my team dead, my boat sunken and my last ally naked and frightened.
Haunter’s goons were gesturing again, another picture. This time the arrows were pointing towards an island silhouette.
“What do you want to do once we get there?” I asked. “Do you want to have another fight?”
She shook her head.
Her minions drew a picture of two stick figures holding hands, or shaking hands, one very obviously much shorter than the other.
“Negotiate with those assholes? Again?” I asked.
“They just nuked us!”
The shades pushed the whiteboard back into her, then took it out again, with no marks on it. They drew a question mark on the newly blank page.
“Who else could it have been?”
They quickly drew Her silhouette, recognizable by its baseball cap, and another one with a halo that presumably was supposed to be a stand-in for the Pantheon.
“They had just tried to attack us, and She wouldn’t use a bomb.” I responded.
Question mark again.
“Ok, sure, it isn’t like I know this for certain, but you have to concede that it is by far the most likely option.”
“Not true,” said Fader.
I about jumped off my platform. She had risen up out of the water behind me, silent and smooth as only something not quite real could be.
“I’m glad you are ok,” I said. “You must have been in your anchor form already when the bomb hit.”
“There wasn’t a bomb,” she said. “It was Adder’s power, I’m almost sure of it. Blinder would have known if a bomb was on the way.”
“Is she…?” I asked.
Fader shook her head.
“Light heals her, but there is no body for the light to fall on. She’d have been vaporized by that scale of explosion. Just nothing left of her at all.”
“Could the light from the nuke have somehow super charged her gi-“
She shook her head, almost angrily.
“I know my team. She’s died to conventional bombs before. No way she survived Adder’s tantrum, and Consumer was just as vulnerable.”
I started to say something else when she cut me off with a snap of her fingers.
“Consumer, of course! She must have been the one to set off the bomb. When she lost the Link it would have…oh wow, shit, I’m an idiot.”
“What about Consumer?” I asked.
“Her job was to watch us for signs of sedition, canary in a coalmine style. You know that she was a loyalist, so if we ever took steps against her it meant that we were getting ready to defy Her, get it?”
I nodded. I’d kind of pieced that part together.
“But the Link was the main part of that job. It was how she kept tabs on us, and how she knew we’d never get rid of her. When it broke she must have realized that we’d ditch her as soon as we hit land. Blinder might even have killed her.”
“So you think she stole Adder’s gift, blew us all up? She killed herself to stop you from, what, killing her?”
Fader was shaking her head.
“She had to kill herself, or at least try. Failing to monitor us would have brought her back to Torturer. Her mind…”
Fader choked back a sob.
“Her mind was always going back to that. She was kind of fixated, like brainwashed.”
“I see. So, when she couldn’t do her job anymore she must have snapped.”
Fader pointed over to Haunter’s whiteboard, where they had written, “Consumer was Tortured” in big block letters.
“Ok, if you are just going to write things, why were you making me guess at those dumb pictures?” I asked.
“Wait a sec, Twister!” said Fader.
I looked around, but didn’t see her.
“Surely she was blown up, wait, did she have Ultra Toughness Two?” I asked.
Fader nodded rapidly. It didn’t seem like she could weep in her image form, but I was sure that if she could she’d have been bawling at this point.
It was something I’d never understood, not really. People bound themselves together, and there was great strength in that, but why invest so much of yourself into it? Fader herself had just lost a hand, but I had no doubts whatsoever that she’d happily lose the other to get her friends back.
“So where is she?” I asked.
The shades started writing something, but I looked over to Fader for my answer.
“She could be anywhere. This is where people ended up who the blast didn’t affect, but Esther wasn’t nearly as invincible as you are supposed to be. The blast would have thrown her for miles.”
“So I guess I can’t let down the arrows yet,” I said.
“They are our best chance for being found. Can you keep them up for a while?” Fader asked.
It didn’t take any effort for me to keep barriers out, but I didn’t like doing it. Their destruction weakened my gift. Telling her that would get her to budge, but I didn’t favor the idea of anyone knowing about my weakness.
“I’ll keep them up,” I said. “It isn’t a big deal.”
She smiled for a moment, then pointed at the cube.
“They seem pretty insistent about getting to land. I take it that you disagree?”
“Less strongly since we decided that the Union wasn’t behind the bomb, but I don’t like the idea of walking into trouble most of my team down.”
“I think you can risk it,” said Fader. “The Union relies pretty heavily on technical safeguards, away from the front lines. I doubt Crete merits anyone who is a threat to you.”
“Well, tech can be a threat too.” I told her. “Unlike you, people can still move me. Last time I tangled with the Union they had someone carry me away from my team, presumably towards some kind of high tech freezing cell or something. I can’t take them lightly.”
“Tonight you can,” she said. “The EMP blast from that nuke means that they will have to replace any tech they have on the island anyway.”
EMP, shit, what was that? I’d heard the acronym before.
“Good point.” I said. “I hadn’t considered that.”
Fader saw something in my expression, looked a little guilty.
“Look, I won’t lie. I’m mostly just trying to find Esther. We know she isn’t anywhere nearby, because she’d have seen the glowing arrows like I did. We have no idea where she might be. I just want to go to the nearest shore, because I think that’s what she will do.”
“That makes a lot of sense,” I said. “Can she swim? Her body…I never really got a sense of her capabilities.”
That got a smile.
“Oh, she can swim alright. She once won a race with a speedboat. She just coils into a sort of spring and corkscrews through the water. If we are going to the same place, then she’ll definitely beat us there.”
“Nothing else?” I asked. I still had the sense that she was holding something back.”
“Well, just one other thing. The Union may not have as many Ultras as everyone else, but the one thing they do have is a ferocious focus on integrating their Ultras into the local communities and economy. It is very common for reserve Union bases like the one I’m hoping we find to be staffed at least secondarily based on how useful their gifts might prove to the human populace.”
I saw the light all of a sudden.
“They might have a healer stationed here, for when the daggers fall down or whatever!”
She gave an apologetic smile.
“Got it in one. I’d whistle, but it seems like that might be misunderstood.”
What? Oh, my teeth.
“How about some applause, then?” I asked.
We shared a chuckle, and I started the platforms moving towards the north.
“You really think you have a shot at getting the Union to give you back your hand?” I asked.
“If there is a healer around, and she knows what’s good for her,” she responded. “But the odds aren’t great.”
“I thought you said it was pretty likely that the Union would have a healer in a place like this.”
“Oh, yeah, they probably do NOW…but like I said, Twister is likely going to beat us to the island, and I doubt she will realize that they aren’t the ones who attacked us.”