“Finish them!” I roared, and my crew suited action to words.
It wasn’t very difficult. These people were less numerous and less powerful than those we’d faced before, and while our own survivors had dwindled there was a weird characteristic of Ultra forces that made that less of a concern than it might have been.
Imagine that you faced a hundred enemies, and you had a bunch of friends with guns. Say that half of them were bulletproof. You start shooting, and you kill five, then ten in the next salvo, then you do some amazing shooting and you get 25 in the next volley! You are feeling incredible, top of the world, but we all know that you can’t get more than ten more, just because that’s the total limits of those it is possible for you to kill.
This happens with Ultras. For a given attack, you can affect a certain variety of our kind. Once those susceptible to it are dead, you are just making us mad, you need to switch things up if you want to do any more damage.
What King Arthur was doing here flew in the face of modern military doctrine. He’d started with his heavies, then followed it up with less augmented troops. Anyone that was vulnerable to them would have already died in the first wave.
I pushed forward, thrusting my way gingerly into the back of the melee, trying to find an opponent who wasn’t quite dead. I couldn’t be gimping my way along here any further, couldn’t risk angering Her with my passivity.
I found someone bleeding out on the ground, put a hand to their head, but they didn’t have ‘Living’, as one of their tags, so I pushed on.
Or, at least, I lurched on. Bending over to touch a person laying on the ground had been easy. Straightening up was apparently something my body and I were going to fucking negotiate about, so I sort of zombie staggered forward, grabbing one of my Ultras from behind.
She did a spinning backfist kind of move, but fortune was with me, and she didn’t have any Ultra strength, so it just sort of glanced off of my head. I hadn’t stopped my forward momentum, so we both started to topple, ramming into the minion she’d been fighting and sliding down to the ground in yet another undignified heap.
Even as my hands scrambled around, looking for exposed skin on the Ar Harbour gal, I was ruminating on how many times I’d fallen over today. It had to be some kind of tragic record.
I got my hand on her wrist as she planted it on the ground, trying to scramble back up, and I killed her with my gift.
Immediately I felt both better and worse. Better in that I was ‘living’ for two once again. Everything was clearer, crisper, and, critically, the pain in my chest felt half as bad. I stood without difficulty.
Worse in that I wasn’t able to push my thoughts down random tangents any more, and I was looking at a giant red mess that had once been a few dozen people.
“Listen up!” I shouted, and then I repeated myself as people started going quiet.
There weren’t that many of us anymore, and no one on the other team was saying anything, so I could finally do some commanding.
“Force rules the world!” shouted one particularly enthusiastic warband member, so we did a round of the call and response, but I cut it off after one.
I looked around at the group, acutely sensitive to how badly this could all go.
My life had ended, in most of the ways that mattered, when Subtracter and some goons had showed up at our village and done basically what I was doing here. They killed everyone who resisted and then terrorized and bullied the rest of us. My brother had been a ‘sky burial’ which is what Ultras call it when we throw a dagger into space. Another Ultra who’d seen it had started an argument about whether or not Subtracter hit the moon, and another dozen people were dead by the end of it, none of them Ultras.
I’d always told myself that I would rather die than become Subtracter. We had killed, yes. In the Regime’s service, yes. But thus far the only ones who had died were those who had attacked us. They’d chosen their fates, no different than if they had walked off a bridge.
But it wouldn’t stay that way. Not unless I was very careful. My crew’s blood was up now, they’d all lost friends. I had to do this very carefully.
“Everyone!” I shouted again. “We are going in after the enemy leader now.”
Another cheer interrupted me, but I gave them a throat cut gesture and they fell silent.
“We are going after the enemy leader,” I repeated, this time in a non shouting tone. “This King Arthur. She is probably up on the second floor, if any of you have been noticing those trails that come out of the enemy when they fall.”
No one spoke up, but I couldn’t believe that I was the only one who’d seen them.
“When we go in there,” I continued, “We are going to be facing whatever daggers she’s gifted, plus a lot of other daggers waiting their turns to be buffed, ok?”
Lots of nods, they followed.
Regime people, people of the new world in general, they weren’t actually any dumber. It was just easy to make myself think that, because everyone was so fucking ignorant. But it wasn’t stupidity. There wasn’t something in the water. They could reason just fine.
“We don’t have to kill the daggers,” I said. “No glory there. We are taking out King Arthur and anyone her gift has augmented, ok?”
People nodded and there were a few muttered answers, but I could sense the lack of enthusiasm. It wasn’t enough.
“Look,” I said. “You all saw how Smasher died, right?”
Now I had their attention. They had revered their captain.
“She stopped THINKING!” I emphasized. “She went with her gut, and they capitalized. We can’t do the same thing. Reason is what brings victory, reason is what we need!”
I was half dreading another round of the Regime’s mantra, but they didn’t interrupt, faces tight and intent on my next words.
“Time spent swatting daggers is time wasted! It lets Arthur make another Knight, or two more! We won’t give her that chance!”
Jumper spoke up.
“But if the humans are in the way…”
“They won’t be!” I insisted. “We will yell for them to take up the Posture. They’ll do it. They don’t want to die. The helpless ones don’t have anything to gain from annoying us. They will take the Posture, and let us focus on the ones who think they can win.”
I could see that there were still some doubts, but it wasn’t like I could talk forever after pointing out that waiting made the enemy stronger.
“Inside!” I directed, “And yell as you go, tell them all to take the Posture, or die!”
I wasn’t the first through the door, but I wasn’t the last either. I passed into the interior of the building in the same rush as everyone else, and stopped alongside them to boggle at what awaited us.
The building had started its life as some sort of chain store, and it was still somewhat recognizable as such, even with all the furnishings gone.
I’d never really thought about just how large one of those stores would be, if you took all the shelve and merch and stuff out of it, but the answer turned out to be huge. Just vast. The entire block was this one store, and the entire store was this one room.
This one room and all the people inside it.
We had come through, the little knot of us, shouting for everyone to ‘get down’, ‘get in the Posture’, and similar.
Everyone was already in the Posture. And I did mean Everyone.
There had to be two or three hundred people in this room. Women and men, a few kids. Old people. Young people. No fucking infants or toddlers, thank God for small mercies. Everyone sitting silently in the Posture.
They were randomly spread around the room, seemingly, clumped up in what looked like family situations. They were thickest around the spire.
The spire, or really, the staircase, was the only feature of this enormous room. It was a huge spiral staircase that rose up around an elevator. It would take us to the second floor, where Arthur would be waiting.
An Ultra pointed a hand, and I slapped it down. That wouldn’t actually stop her from manifesting a gift, of course, but the gesture seemed to break whatever impulse she’d been operating on.
I had to be very careful here.
The second wave of Knights had been half the size of the first, and much weaker. Earlier, I’d thought that there had been no point to that attack, but maybe it had been about buying time to set this up.
I took a step forward, moved up to the edge of my little knot of guys.
It wasn’t just the doubled senses. The tension in this room was real and genuine. I locked eyes with one of the kneelers, saw an intensity that was either frenzied panic, utter hatred, or most likely some potent combination of both.
My first impulse was to order everyone up and out. But what the fuck would I do if they just sat there? She would expect me to start a slaughter.
My next was for us to just start walking through them, just disregard them. But I’d already been ambushed from all sides once today, and I wasn’t looking for a repeat performance.
Arthur was playing for time, before and still. I had the sickening feeling that she was concentrating her gift on one person, trying to rig up a champion that we couldn’t affect, or something equally horrible. She needed to be stopped, and fast.
Once Arthur was gone none of this would be a problem. My Ultras wouldn’t necessarily snap on the civilians if they didn’t have the lurking fear that any of them might be able to kill us. I could take control with the usual light bullying, without worrying overmuch over it turning into an atrocity.
Someone shifted on the other side, and I snapped my gaze over. They were just repositioning slightly, adjusting their Posture. But it made me realize how tense I was, that we’d been just standing here gaping for like a half a minute.
“Imbuer!” I yelled. “King Arthur, whatever you call yourself, you need to-“
I was interrupted by a wild yell from up on the second floor, a man’s voice, so presumably not my adversary herself.
“Nazi says what?”
I clenched a fist. Just standing here and getting taunted would piss Her off. I had to do something, but a lot of roads here led to these people getting slaughtered, my death, or, somehow, both.
Note from QM: Another write in plan. I’m out of the country for the next week, so I’ll start work on the response to this on the 15th. I’m sorry for the delays, things are crazy around here!