I’d had time to read up on the guns that the skiffs carried on the front, back when we were squatting in the Union embassy. It wasn’t classified or anything, the Union was generally pretty blasé about computer security, reasoning (mostly correctly), that their enemies didn’t really have any interest in such things.
It was clearly a descendant of the rapid firing guns carried by certain helicopters or VTOL craft back in my day. I couldn’t make it the particulars, it seemed like the barrels were traded off mid fire between various spinning cylinders, but the scientists in my reserve had assured me that it would be brutally lethal.
They were not wrong.
“Brrrt!” went the gun, and my world exploded around me.
I have, in my travels, lost a lot of shades. Sometimes I lost one or two. A few times I’d lost dozens at once, to attacks like Death’s plasma beams. But I’d never taken losses like this.
The guns only fired for a few seconds, and I lost a fourth of my reserve.
Dale toppled to the ground, one leg falling in the opposite direction. Stone dust and shrapnel rose up around us, a choking fog conjured instantly by the partial demolition of the solid earth we were standing on.
Only Preventer stood unscathed, not so much as moved by the fusillade.
I gasped, spat, reeled. The Jury was in a tumult, its membership suddenly reduced, and the reserve’s discipline had broken down. My mind was assailed by the cries of dozens, of hundreds of my passengers, wailing for lost loved ones and screaming in mindless fear.
I couldn’t do anything, I simply stood, muting passenger after passenger as I strove for control.
I knew that the guns could ring out again at any second. I knew I should be releasing shades, fighting back, but I just couldn’t act, I was frozen in the moment, unable to confront the calamity that had just taken place.
I’d been so close. Andy was RIGHT THERE. Thousands who had trusted me. Thousands I’d carried across the world, across the decades, and they were gone in less time that it took me to snap my fingers.
I couldn’t process it. Couldn’t take it.
“Remember me?” yelled the voice again.
I managed to move my head, wide eyes seeing a figure standing up out of the skiff’s front disembarking port.
“No!” yelled Preventer, walking towards the perpetrator of this atrocity.
Some part of me realized that she was trying to draw their fire, to put herself foremost in the enemy’s eyes and mind, to save Dale and I from further assaults.
Part of me wanted to let her know that it was useless. That I’d already been ruined, that there was nothing to protect anymore.
This time we weren’t touched. The enemy must have selected Preventer as the primary target, the skiff’s AI ensuring that she would take every shot, for all the good that would do.
So, whoever this was, they were stupid.
It was the beginning of my return to agency, a single thought that wasn’t tinged with despair. I fought back against the fatalistic part of me, pushing the despair away with the needs of the moment.
“You ought to!” yelled the other party. “I’m the one you left alive, you sick freaks! I’m the one that got away! I’m here to see you pricks pay!”
The one we left alive?
My mind flashed back, not to the most recent embassy calamity, but to the one before that. To the first time we’d been ambushed by the Union, the time that I’d realized that just because someone shared my belief in a democratic system it wasn’t any guarantee that they stood apart from the world’s descent into savagery.
“Got away?” yelled Preventer, still walking towards the ground beneath the skiff. “I seem to recall you froze yourself in your own gift.”
Froze herself, wait, that was right. The woman who’d defended Fidel’s soldiers, the one who didn’t let us shoot back. She’d been a match for Condemner, before he fed on my reserve.
“That’s right, bitches!” shouted the figure silhouetted against the skiff’s interior lights. “You can’t keep the Dragon down!”
I was in motion almost before she finished the last words, walking forward as well.
Some part of me knew that she could finish me off with one more salvo, but that part wasn’t in charge.
I’d been certain that the Union would catch up with us sometime. The thing we did to Meghan and her associates had been an abomination, and on some level I knew I’d have to pay for it. When she’d fired on us a part of me had understood that we deserved it.
But this woman, this Dragon, she was the one who had ambushed us in the first place! She was the reason that all of this had been necessary. Her idiot savagery had spoiled our first contact with the Union, had driven us to these extremes.
“Is that your name?” asked Preventer, shooting me a worried glance.
She didn’t actually nod her head at me, but I knew what she was thinking. She wanted me to let her handle this, to stay by Dale and hope he recovered in time.
“Is that my name?” asked the Dragon. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
She gave a hollow laugh, waving a hand expansively.
“Doesn’t that make me sound like one of those God bothering sluts?” she asked. “Like I’m about to try and make people give me the capital letters like your master?”
More laughter, edged in a way that made it clear that this was about contempt, not amusement.
“Listen,” said Preventer, after she had gotten close enough that it wasn’t necessary to shout any more.
“Listen, you don’t want another ass kicking from us. The Grand Host is marching. You should join them. Picking a fight with an invincible Fist will just cost your Union an asset.”
She said this all calmly, almost diffidently, like it was no great shakes to her which way the woman decided to go.
“Oooh, the GRAND HOST!” the Dragon snarked, making air quotes with her fingers. “I’m so scared! How ever will we beat so many assholes at once?”
“These aren’t just the usual Pilgrims,” I said, finally having recovered enough composure to trust myself to speak. “These are survivors of your previous attacks, bulletproof, one and all. You are going to need every asset to take them on.”
She was silent for a long moment, and I braced myself to jump aside if she fired, knowing it would be useless, that I couldn’t actually avoid bullets.
“We are going to need assets?” she said. “You think stacking up these fucking savages is going to mean a damn thing? That they have anything like a chance against our science, against our industry?”
She jumped down out of the skiff, her fall slowing just before she landed.
Yep, an idiot.
“Maybe they do, maybe they don’t,” said Preventer, “But your sides have better odds with you alive on it, right? Why risk that against us? You can’t kill me, so you can’t kill any of us?”
Dragon just waved her hand, and Preventer froze in place.
“I don’t need to kill you,” she said. “That was never the plan.”
I spawned a pair of Veterans, charged towards her as they split away from me.
Pointless, I bounced off a wall of frozen air, which also stopped their fire. Dragon didn’t even look at us.
“Your gift is a good one,” allowed Dragon, still talking to Preventer. “It must be nice to be invincible, and you are right that I can’t kill you, which would normally make this pointless.”
I didn’t like where this was going. I stepped back away from the barrier, only to bump into another one that had sprung up behind me.
“Normally,” she said, and turned around to face me, giving me a grin that I could only think of as ‘evil’.
“Listen, um Dragon,” I said, realizing too late that I’d silenced the Jury in my frantic muting in the aftermath of the skiff’s attack.
“You don’t want to do this,” I managed, distracted by inward efforts.
She raised a gun, almost lazily, and shot me in the gut, popping a shade out my back.
It was an eerie mirror of Fidel’s crime, to the point that it had to be deliberate.
“They don’t come back, do they?” she asked.
I didn’t answer directly, simply spawning a line of troops to fire on her, uselessly stitching impacts against the barrier that surrounded me.
She shot me again, her bullets the only things that could pass through her gift’s frozen zones.
“Dragon, there’s no…” I trailed off, trying to find a line of argument that might persuade her.
She gave another hollow laugh.
“Your bitch Link ain’t shit,” she said. “I’m gonna pop all your guys, you’ll just be a human again!”
“These are people!” I shouted back.
She shot me again, and then a fourth time.
“STOP!” I shouted.
She responded by shooting me again, despite my efforts to jump aside. She simply waited until my jump finished then shot me at the end of it.
I gave an inarticulate scream as I bumped up against the edge of the frozen air.
She screamed back, the mockery clear in her voice.
“That’s what YOU sound like!” she said, raising the gun again.
I flinched back, trying desperately to think of something I could do. None of my passenger’s abilities could get through the barrier. But maybe…
I threw myself towards her just as she fired, trying to time the shot such that I passed through her gift in the instant of intangibility, as her victim slipped out of my body.
No luck, I just bounced off. I must have fucked up the timing.
“Yeah,” she said. “I thought you might try that. There’s 2 zones, dumbshit, even if you clipped through one you’d still be stuck, and then I’d just make a third zone.”
I gathered myself to try again, not having anything better to do.
“Anything? I asked the Jury.
“This is optimal for now,” they responded. “Keep her talking, keep her taking one at a time. If she gets back into the skiff its all over. Keep her on the ground, wait for Dale.”
I risked a glance at Preventer, hoping to see her making another one of her super barriers, but she didn’t seem to be.
I couldn’t blame her. Preventer was many things, but courageous wasn’t one of them. The skiff could fire at any time, she wouldn’t drop her invulnerability in this kind of situation.
“You fucker!” I shouted. “You and that asshole Fidel fucked everything up! You could have had Her helping you against the Grand Host!”
“We don’t need Her help!” she shouted back, firing a wild spray of bullets that mostly didn’t hit. “We don’t need your help! It was a trick! It will always be a trick!”
I dropped back, sensing an opportunity to stall.
“It was NOT a trick,” I told her. “You screwed your government out of its best chance.”
She looked straight at me for a long moment.
“Do you really believe that?” she asked.
I waited as long as I dared before answering, every heartbeat another chance for Dale to take action.
“I know it,” I told her. “She gave us her favor, the new Fist favor. We used it to ask her to make peace with you.”
She sneered dismissively.
“It’s true!” I shouted. “That’s why we keep trying to make peace with you guys! We are trying to HELP you!”
She was about to say something else, when, to my immense relief, the ground underneath us started to rumble.
I flipped her off as I started to sink.
The sinking stopped before it got past my ankles, and she returned my salute, and shot me again.
“Absolute zero, bitch!” she shouted. “Nothing can move it, that’s just basic science!”
I looked around in desperation, ignoring Dragon’s misperception.
Dale was heading towards us, but rather than his usual brainless charge he had sunk himself about halfway into the ground and was using his gift to drag himself along.
How many of these frozen zones could she make anyway? She was imprisoning Preventer, and apparently wrapping me in two separate zones, as well as using the her gift on the ground under both of us to stop Dale from striking at her.
“You are that Union girl!” yelled Dale. “The one we left alive!”
She gave him a sickly, poisonous smile.
“You ‘left me alive’?” she asked. “You mean you couldn’t penetrate the frozen zone I encased myself in. I saved MYSELF from your treacherous attack.”
Dale looked confused.
“Did you forget or something? Condemner is way stronger than you. He busted down your stupid frozen zones. You are only alive because we decided not to burn you up.”
It had actually been that we were desperate and reeling, frantic to get Condemner back under control, and that burning through her zones had taken the sacrifice of the lives of my reserve.
“NO!” she shouted. “I survived due to my own strength. You can’t break my gift! No one can!”
There was something not entirely sane in her voice, something that had a lot more in common with Death and her minions than it did with the culture that that Meghan and the rest of the delegation had come from.
“Did you lose your memories or something?” asked Dale, confusion obvious in his tone. “I’ve heard that that can happen when proud people lose so badly.”
“I DIDN’T LOSE!” shouted the Dragon, all fury now.
She gestured, and Dale shuddered to a halt.
He tried to raise a hand, but bumped into yet another of her frozen zones.
I tried to dash forward, only to slam into the barrier around me, which was still present.
“I CAN’T lose!” she said. “I’m the Dragon! I’m unstoppable! My gift is unbeaten, unbeatable!”
Dale glared daggers at her, and the ground beneath her rumble and roiled, but not spikes rose up into her, it didn’t fall away into a pit or anything like that.
She smirked at him, her composure seemingly returning a bit.
“Try all you like,” she said. “I actually prefer it like this. Why don’t you watch as I shoot this old bitch’s gift away?”
She suited action to words, turning away from him and raising the gun towards me again, then suddenly stopping.
I couldn’t stop myself from flinching, though that was more about trying to provoke another round of gloating than it was anything else.
“You know what?” she said. “I don’t need the gun.”
She reached out towards me, and I felt the frozen air in front of me start pushing me back.
“You don’t-“ I said, before the pressure suddenly appeared on my back as well. She was ringing me tightly, setting up for a squeeze.
“I guess the hard part is making sure you don’t pop out, right?” she said. “I guess we’ll just have to experi-“
She cut off all of a sudden, as explosions of dust and rock rose up from beneath her.
How had he pushed through, and then I realized that it wasn’t Dale’s gift, or wasn’t only Dale’s gift.
It was Bull who rose up beneath her. Bull whose battle form grabbed ahold of Dragon, wrenching her down with an undignified squawk.
Bull had Ultra Strength, and apparently it was enough to bust through Dragon’s freezing gift. Dale had moved her through the ground during all this, and now he’d raised her up.
Dragon tried to say something, seemed to be doing something else with her gift, but Bull already had her in her grip, was already grabbing ahold of her head and ripping.
The corpse toppled to the ground, and Bull glared wildly around.
I only had eyes for the skiff, and for Andy, who was looking warily out of the opening in the front.