I wasn’t Nirav, but I still had his memories. When he was among the Righteous they’d shared a saying that I thought was very important.
“You can’t make up for failing to prepare by trying very hard.”
It was tempting to think that the fate of the world was about to be decided. The Grand Host against the Intervention Groups. A grand clash to take everything. ‘Winner Take All’, as Dale’s old stories would have it. But that was nonsense.
The Union had fallen, or withstood the attack, long ago. Either one side had the victory, or the other did. The answer would have come out of the Process a few years back, or out of the fertile minds of the Union inventors just yesterday. Some gift, some gun, some factor that no one could forsee. It was on its way, even now.
One side or the other had more men, or better ones. They had prepared for this, had gathered sufficient force. The other team, the ones who would lose, had not. They might have thought that they were ready, but they were about to be disabused.
The battle had already been decided, in the preparation and gathering of forces. All that remained was for events to take the only course that they could. The present was like a river, but the past was like a channel cut deep in the ground, forever directing and controlling it.
The future, of course, was a fire.
I grinned at the thought, pulled myself out of my reverie. I poked at the screen, pushing on words and trying to make it show me different things. I wasn’t Jenny or any of her ilk, didn’t have any knowledge of the old world’s technology, but while we’d been shacking up in the Union embassy I’d picked up some of the basics. You pressed your finger into stuff you were curious about.
I pushed on some things up at the top, and lists of more words came down. I pressed those, and the view changed. They were viewer names, and the screen was now showing me the views from them. I pressed them rapidly, sending my viewpoint skidding all around the cubes of the building, trying to figure out where the others were.
I found Andy first. He was crouched down in a little bubble, huddling in a corner as people around him handed out weapons. I could see the telltale sign of Ultras among them. The Union might swear that their assets were equals, but in a pinch you could always tell the wolves from the sheep.
My smile grew strained as I noted the patches on the jackets of the two ladies standing over him. It was hard to tell at first, but after I made an unpinching motion on the screen I could see that they had been decorated with what looked like silver fists. Gauntlet members.
I flipped the view again. Bingo, a captive slumbered in the middle of a tank in a cell, lines feeding into her veins and connecting her with various machines.
I flipped again. Empty cell.
Another flip, another empty.
I started to move more rapidly, my hand moving faster than reality would normally allow. Shot after shot flipped by, my map of the structure filling in.
I felt my mood darken. The facility was almost empty. There were only like twenty captives in here. There were more guards than that!
I’d been cheated, duped. Predictor. He must have known about this, must have led me on for some reason. If I burned him, would I be playing into his hand somehow?
I felt again the ache of Nirav’s form as Fifth Fist fell upon him, felt his despair and powerlessness as they’d bundled him up and dragged him away.
All of a sudden I didn’t care about Predictor’s plans. I didn’t care about whether doing so would somehow help him, or get me in trouble. I decided to burn him up, next chance I got.
And that chance would come soon.
I spun the view again, whipping through room after room. Where were they?
I got to the bottom of the room list without seeing them. I hadn’t even seen any evidence of them. Not just no Ultras, I didn’t see any rubble or corpses. How was that possible?
I took a step back, away from the viewer. It had betrayed me, somehow.
It made sense, when I thought about it. I’d only had to battle one Ultra, a few daggers. Nothing like the force that should have descended upon me. If everyone could make their screens show stuff from other places in the building, then that didn’t make any sense. The screens were being blocked.
This must be that hacking that they’d talked about. They’d gotten Haunter’s technician shade to use one of the machines, and her computer powers were too strong for the Union gear. The screen was showing lies.
I kicked myself for falling for it, even for a moment. Putting my faith in human technology was idiotic, like worshipping rocks or wind. It was just matter, just stuff. How could I rely on something that I couldn’t punish?
I turned back to the hall, then stopped.
I knew the basic route of things now. I could go back out there, follow on Betty’s trail and get to the occupied portions of the jail quick enough. I’d no doubt cause a ruckus and get in a few fights, just like Predictor wanted me to.
I called upon my gift, instead. Heat rose from my shoulders, warping the air above me. Flame devoured this facsimile of a form, tearing away Nirav’s likeness and revealing my glory once again. The sullied world shrunk back away as I towered forth as an inferno.
Despite my grandeur, the hall remained inflammable. The pickings were slim. The all consuming blaze that I imagined was not to be.
But I wasn’t limited to the halls.
If focused my wrath, instead, on the viewer machine. I poured over it, flamers licking into its casing and burning up the strange crystals inside. It sparked and flared as it faded, but I payed it no mind. I had other, deeper concerns.
In the back of it I found what I sought. A black cord linked it to the wall. I shrank myself down, greatly reducing my power expenditure, and seared along it, blazing my way through some kind of plastic guard and into the recesses of the area between walls.
Now this was more like it.
I blazed along the filaments, leaping from one to the next and leaving them in ruins beyond me. There were no guards here. No one to stop me or impede me, and with every strand I sundered the jail grew weaker around me.
I wondered, idly, if it might fall out of the sky at some point.
The thought was arousing. It would be a shattering explosion, an instant inferno. Those Ultras whose gifts did not defend them would not survive it, and for the humans there would be no chance.
I couldn’t exactly smile in my true form, but I tried my very best.
I began to spread myself. Rather than traveling in a line, I expanded, burning every filament down to melted lumps, leaving the jail’s inner workings in ruins.
I was still seeking, of course. I still peered out of every plug I reached, but now I didn’t exactly care if I failed. What did it matter, if I couldn’t find Predictor? I’d get him anyway, or at least the crash would.
As soon as I had that thought, of course, I found him.
I saw them in an instant, already sweeping on towards the next plug. I doubled back in a flash.
There they were. Zilla, Predictor and Slicer, striding across an empty room. A line of corpses stretched behind them, and the rooms ahead were full of desperate guards.
I didn’t care about any of that. I poured out of the wall, exploding out in front of them in a sudden flash.
“YOU!” I thundered, my voice created by the crackle and char of the objects I was consuming.
“Shit!” yelled Slicer, pushing him back behind her.
Zilla just cocked her head to one side, utterly unafraid.
I stopped myself, simmered for a moment, and took my human form once again.
Predictor tried to poke his head out from behind Slicer, but she stayed between us, backing him into a corner. Zilla stood stock still.
I didn’t say anything for a moment, content to regard the room. We were in a sort of a narrow antechamber. The door behind me had some Union guards behind it, but it was closed and barred. The archway behind them opened wide, the door that sealed it already having been slashed down by Slicer.
There was a desk against one of the walls, blazing softly at the edges from where I’d burned through it, the device that had been displaying on it lying in ruins. There was also a chair, overturned and spilled out on the ground between us.
“Surprised to see me?” I asked.
His chuckle was utterly predictable, and it got Slicer to let him stick his head out. He glared at me from around her shoulder, eyes alive with mirth.
“Of course,” he said. “How could I possibly have predicted that you would come here? You are so unique, so impossible to forecast. Why, I guess that you, among all beings, have got some of that free will the ancients were so proud of.”
I disregarded his mockery. Even beaten he would act so. Whether there was a trap or not, his manner would always hint at one. It was the obvious play for him.
“All men can fail,” I told him. “It is at the core of what you are. You only get one chance at every moment, and no matter how much your gift lets you rehearse it, you can never take it back.”
“The fuck?” asked Slicer, who hadn’t relaxed from her battle stance one bit.
“Oh Nirav,” said Predictor. “I’ve missed you. We haven’t really spoken, not since we kicked the shit out of you back in Nectady. Tell me, did you ever tell the rest of your Fist about why we did that?”
I clenched my fists, shuddered with anger.
“You know, that we figured you were so useless, so stupid and angry, that you would sabotage any new competitor we saddled with you? I’m sure you’ll be happy to know you’ve lived up to our expectations!”
“Enough!” I said. “Enough talking, you preening jackass. I know you didn’t predict my coming, and even if you did I’ll-“
He cut me off.
“And even if…” he mimicked my voice, but made it high, like a girl’s somehow.
“You really think I didn’t see this coming?” he asked. “You think that just changing your mind ten times in a second means you are somehow hard to foresee? It doesn’t. Your whole gimmick of rapidly changing objectives just makes you a fool who will always fail.”
“I’m not going to fail!” I grated out, moving my hand up.
I was trying to see what they would do, what they could do. The best thing for them was to hit me with water, or steal away the air, to seal away my true form. But I could change far faster than they could act. Aside from that, it was a simple matter of avoiding Slicer’s blades. There was no way for them to win, I assured myself.
“What would it even mean for you to succeed?” he asked, sounding sincere for once. “What would that be, for you, as fast as you swap out objectives? Would you killing us be your success, or is it bringing back Andy? Or are you trying to-“
He stopped talking, all of a sudden, and then he and Slicer toppled over to the ground, blood bursting from their mouths.
I stared for a second, wary of a trick.
“Wow,” said Zilla. “And they say I talk a lot.”
I looked to her again. She hadn’t moved from where she’d been. Hadn’t so much as twitched. Whatever she’d done, it hadn’t needed anything from her form.
“You,” I said. “You just…”
She walked right up to me, reached out a hand.
I shrunk back. What was this? How had she…
“Oh, right?” she said. “You and Fisher. I can respect that. The monogamy thing. Not a lot of people go for it, nowadays, but if that’s what gets you off, then I say more power to ya! Plow that same field till you hit magma!’
“You could have done that at any time?” I asked.
For some reason I couldn’t look away from her hair. The slight changes to her form continued apace, the ‘fire’ on her head burning its endless sequence, as the reds and whites mixed and mingled across every strand.
“Sure,” she said. “But I thought he was bringing something to the party. Plus Slicer was pretty good in bed. I dunno, they weren’t the worst.”
I didn’t take my eyes off her, didn’t let her touch me, just shrank back.
“But I listened to him yammering on at you, and I just couldn’t shake the idea that dropping him mid rant would be hilarious. So I did it.”
“He would have seen that coming,” I said. “He’s going to be really angry at you, when he comes back.”
“Come back?” she said. “I thought if I killed all five they stayed gone. Isn’t that the way with you guys? I was pretty sure that was it.”
“Well, wait, are you saying…”
“Sure,” she said. “I figured I’d just take all five of em, no reason to waste time tomorrow if we are thorough today, yeah?”
“Good point,” I said. It was, honestly.
“Now,” she said. “Let’s be about-“
“Why are your forces attacking?” I asked.
I don’t know why I asked that. It was one of the times my body just does things. I like to think they are my entity, taking direct control, but it might as well have been anything. I feel like I should be more concerned about it than I am, but maybe it is also making me not care.
“We are looking for Andy,” she said, slowly.
“No, not that,” I said. “Please don’t use your gift on me or whatever, but I mean, why did you order the Grand Host to attack?”
“The Grand Host is attacking?” she asked. “Without me? That’s…”
I waited a sec after she trailed off.
“That’s not good,” she finished. “It might mean…”
She trailed off again. People do that around me, I’ve noticed. I think they start talking because someone is there, but stop when they remember who I am.
I looked down at Predictor, at Slicer, feeling a vague sense of anticlimax. I’d really wanted to kill them.
I used a toe to flip him over, and was somehow not surprised to see a note in his hands.
“What’s that?” asked Zilla.
Her shoulders slumped a bit as she saw it.
On the paper was written, in pale wet ink.
“Of course I can tell you why the attack is happening it. It is because”
The rest was washed out by his and Slicer’s bloodstains.
I wasn’t Nirav, but I still had his memories. When he was among the Righteous they’d shared a saying that I thought was very important.