Regime Quest 52

Day 17:

 

Morning:

I was going to have to find a new way to contact my contacts. That was the long and short of it. There had to be a way that was clandestine, secure, and most importantly didn’t fail to work half the time.

It was a petty thing to gripe about, all told. It wasn’t like I’d been found out by Snitcher, or caught up in one of the Regime’s frequent attempts to purge KEM sympathizers. It could be a lot worse.

But there was something about having a deadline, a literal deadline. In a little under two weeks, odds were I was going to die. It clarified things, parted the fog, so to speak.

It made me resent, violently, waiting for a contact in this dingy tavern and realizing that, once again, it wasn’t going to happen.

No doubt there was good reason. No doubt he was detained by an Ultra to carry rocks, or warm a bed. It almost certainly wasn’t my contact’s fault.

But it wasn’t going to happen again.

In fact, it wasn’t going to happen this time.

I fixed my gaze on the door where he would appear, cleared my mind, and WILLED him to come walking through.

Nothing happened.

I broke into a chuckle and took a sip from my drink. At least I’d tried. Now I could scratch ‘force people to keep appointments’ off of the list of minor gifts I might not know I had.

 

Afternoon:

I hadn’t done my recruitment speech nearly as often as old world politicians had been forced to, but I was beginning to get the slightest hint of their pain.

Hype up the crowd, check. Invoke Her name. Check. Force rules the world, call and repeat, check and check. Glory and Honor (whatever those might actually mean for any individual Ultra), check and check. Subtly imply people who don’t join up are pussies, check. State it outright for those that subtle flies over the head of, sadly checked.

Something about the process almost forced a cynicism and contempt on me that I tried not to dwell on. I’d always striven to avoid looking down on the Ultras of the Regime. I hated them, sure, for their cruelty and their nihilism. I hated their actions, and the characters that allowed those actions to transpire.

But contempt was something else again. It bred the believe that I was something other, something better. It would, if I let it, cultivate a false sense of security.

And yet, it was so very hard to avoid it. My pitch, essentially, was ‘come fight strangers. Half of you will die, and the other half will get to do it again in another month’. Absolutely no one who was doing a cost/benefit analysis would jump at this chance, and yet every time I did the speech people did.

What did they think they were getting out of it?

Some, if you somehow forced them to answer the question honestly, would prattle of glory, which was nothing but a chimera, the old people pleasing impulse rising up to kill its host. Some would talk about rising in the ranks, but I’d risen as far as one could in this gig, and I could see nothing here worth wanting. The most honest would probably admit that their lives were empty and meaningless, that the same boredom that drove them to the process now led them to kill for the thrill of it.

My antidote to the growing feeling of superiority was simple. I reminded myself that I had slaved and killed to become Warlord. The fools I was mocking were only making smaller copies of the decision that I’d made myself. Who was I to say that there weren’t Regime antagonists among them, dreaming as I had of becoming Warlord and sabotaging our efforts?

I shook the dark musings aside as my speech came to its end and I went down to the Yard to shake hands and welcome my new cannon fodder. It was the least I could do, almost literally.

Eleven more Ultras joined up to strike as Phis. It was a start.

 

Evening:

“Erupter, this is Replayer and Owner,” I told her. “Your new peers in my Posse, and the fellow architects of our glorious victory.”

“Honored to meet you all,” she said.

Replayer rolled her eyes, while Owner looked politely attentive.

“What we usually do in the evenings,” I continued, “Is talk about how our tasks of the previous day went. Then I give the orders for the next day, and we rinse and repeat.”

“Rinse?” she asked.

“Like…never mind,” I said, “We do the same thing every day.”

“I’ll start,” said Owner. “Training went just fine today. I’m starting to separate everyone out into squads, like we did last time.”

I thought ‘like we did last time’, was a not particularly subtle way of reminding the others that she was the only one here with any experience, but let it go. Owner was no doubt feeling the pressure of Replayer’s fairly obvious lack of respect for her. She’d be keen to make sure Erupter knew her as a valuable and competent Posse member.

“No trouble with disobedience?” I asked. “No problems with the newcomers?”

“Nope,” she said. “I think that message may have finally gotten through, although, of course, we’ll have to wait and see if the new people catch on as well.”

“Message?” asked Erupter.

“Some of the Ultras in the warband,” drawled Replayer, “Seem to feel like they don’t have to respect Owner, just because-“

“And they’ve been taught otherwise,” I interrupted, firmly. “I’m glad to hear that they are finally starting to internalize it.”

I looked over at Replayer.

“How’d your task go?” I asked. “Any good Ultra potentials for the Posse?”

I called it a task for roughly the same reason that Owner had emphasized her experience, just trying to impress on Erupter the relative status of everyone around the table.

“Nope,” she said.

I guess, technically, that was an answer, but it really wasn’t what I was looking for.

“No new potentials?” I pressed, “Nothing at all?”

“It seemed like I was going about it all wrong,” she said, “You know, rushing around chasing everyone, so I decided to be a bit smarter about it.”

This should be great.

“I told folks that people who thought they were Posse material ought to come to me, told them what show I’d be at, figured I’d let the trash take itself out, you know?”

“And nobody came?” I asked.

“Pussies,” she said.

I looked over to Erupter.

“How did your recruiting go?” I asked.

“I didn’t start that yet,” she said, forthrightly. “I was worried that I’d mess up something.”

Ultra toughness protected me from headaches, of course, but I felt like I might be getting one regardless.

“Messing up something?” I asked. “What would you mess up?”

“Like, am I allowed to tell them the target?” she asked. “And am I supposed to be looking for Posse members too?”

“It’s fine to tell them the target,” I said. “And if you see a Posse member potential, then I absolutely want to know about it.”

“Oh,” she said, “Thanks for clearing that up, Warlord”

And God help me, she saluted, fist to temple.

I massage my temples for a long moment, fighting the phantom headache.

“And Warlord?” she asked.

I looked over at her.

“What is the target?”

 

Day 18

12 days until next battle

 

Ultra rolodex: (#/#/# is Ultra strength/speed/toughness)

Tracker – Running buddy, 1/0/1, Creates tracks, and can move things on them

Shower – Adder’s protégé, 1*/0/1*, gains strength and durability from witnesses

Echoer – Singer I am a fan of, 1/1/1, can duplicate any action that she sees

Bubbler – Operates Ultra clinic 0/0/?, traps things in bubbles that heal and move them

Sucker — Ultra entertainer, ?/?/?, pulls objects/people towards her at incredible rate

Gunner — 0/0/1, she shoots tracking Ultra Blasts at roughly Ultra Strength One

Chiller — 1/0/1, can freeze any object she touches, leaving them brittle and easily broken

Cutter — 1/1/1, she is a brutal front line combatant

Swimmer — 1/0/1, she can ‘swim’ through solid surfaces

Burner — 0/0/1, she can summon Ultra fire from anywhere that she can see

Maxxer — 0/0/0, she can augment the gifts of other Ultras, pushing their gifts

Puncher — 1/0/1, her strength and speed both go up when she repeats her movements

Maker- Friend, and protégé of Snitcher, 0/0/1, can summon the spirit of things

Clawer – Ultra fighter 2/0/1, melee combatant, deadly hooks for hands

Stopper – partner of Clawer, 0/0/0, steals form’s velocity by looking at them

Sticker – Did dentistry for her brother, 0/0/2, Creates slime, can choose its stickiness

Grower – 0/*0/1, an outside Ultra I sponsored into the Lair, has a bullet blend from me, can rapidly increase the size and mass of objects

Joker — 0/2/0, a woman who can change what other people/herself look like

Stormer – 0/0/*, a woman who controls weather, does so for Regime big shots

Stomper – 2/0/1, can blast herself along with explosive stomps, problems with authority

Sworder – 1/0/1, Replayer’s flunky

Singer – 0/0/0, Buffs listeners with 1 in Ultra strength/tough/speed

 

Union List

Vower – 0/0/?, a woman who can enforce oathkeeping

Caller – 0/0/0, a woman who can grant and use telepathic communication

Nailer – ?/?/?, a woman who can merge objects and people into composites

 

Hater – X/0/X, a woman whose effectiveness depends on how much her enemy is hated, and by how many people

Resister – */0/1* Grows steadily more effective vs. each opponent

Finisher – 0/0/0 Can rapidly kill wounded foes in her line of sight

Limiter – ?/?/? Makes ‘rules’, or ‘shields’, that restrict her enemies, unlimited range, limited by being ‘used up’ by target’s attempts to take the banned action

Murderer – 0/0/1, Death Touch

 

Assets: (physical)

1 truck

1 sedan

Owner’s Shington Store

Packer House

Fog Machines

Lasers (diverse)

 

Posse: (4 slots, 3 filled)

Owner (trusted friend, housemate, gift hard to describe) 0/0/1

Replayer — 1/2/0, she can ‘step back in time’ to undo damage that she takes

Erupter – 0/0/2, a woman who retaliates against attacks on herself

 

Warband:

16 Veteran Ultras, 27 Rookie (that is, haven’t worked with me before) Ultras

Hexxer, Peeler, Guager, Soarer are notably less evil than the rest.

Driver, Defender and Infecter possess interesting capabilities.

 

Blender AP: 6/10 (9 – 3 +0 -3 +2 +1)

 

Actions cost 3, return 2 on success 0 on failure unless otherwise specified, Blender gains 1 AP every morning

 

Available Actions:

 

Union Kill List tree, if you feel any indication to play along with their proposal (note that KEM/Resistance missions tie in well with these matters)

Get basic info on 4 Ultras (indicate names, this is a gossip based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Get detailed info on 1 Ultra (indicate name, this is a ‘track them down and speak with them’ based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Kill an Ultra from the list (indicate target name and your basic method, may cause rebellion or discontent in any Posse or Warband assets you use, may not, use your best judgement and be clever)

Send Union a Message (indicate text of message, this is actually a Resistance action, but I’ve placed it here for ease of use)

 

Posse Recruitment tree

Meet more Ultras (describe method, adds d6 to contacts)

Get to know specific Ultra better (describe method transitions Ultra to potential Posse member)

Invite Ultra to Posse (must have got to know target first, if accepted, Ultra joins Posse)

 

Warband tree

Get more Ultras (describe method, adds Ultras to warband of quality/quantity dependent on method)

Train warband (describe method, makes QM kinder to Blender in combat sections re: her troops actions and numbers)

Task warband (describe, needs Posse member or Blender to lead them, sets warband to a task)

 

VIP tree (Used for Regime Luminaries)

Visit VIP (explain, explain Blender’s motives and methods) (only returns 1 AP on success)

 

Contacts tree: (Blender currently believes morning is safer from Snitcher)

Get info from contacts (specify KEM or Resistance, method if different from usual dead drop)

Request mission from contacts (ask KEM or Resistance for action) (This can go in either direction, asking them to do something from you, or asking if they need you to do anything for them.)

 

Relax tree: (Actions which, on balance, regain AP)

Lay still: Cost 0, auto succeed, returns 2

Relaxation activities, Cost 0, returns 3 on success, 1 on failure

Healing work, Cost 1, returns 6 on success, Snitcher hazard

Blisser session, auto succeed, returns 4 per timeslot, cannot be ended until Blender is back at 10

 

Miscellaneous action: (Anything not covered above, scavenging, info gathering in person, etc, describe what Blender is going for)

 

Player Input:

Blender Morning Action

Blender Afternoon Action

Owner will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Replayer will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Erupter will take either an afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

 

Mario 1:2

We left the lair of Second Fist with a quartet of Knights in tow, directions to the Host’s encampment, and no Dale.

Haunter and Preventer weren’t outwardly affected by his absence. They walked with an air of mild impatience, their demeanor pretty much indistinguishable to how they’d acted when we’d been walking in, despite the fact that their buddy was hostage to their success in a nightmarish scenario.

“Who are you guys?” I asked the nearest two Knights, remembering at the last second to make my voice cold and cruel, trying to channel the Condemner that I’d seen in the files. I wasn’t sure if Second Fist had filled their pawns in on what was going on with me, but as Haunter would point out there was no upside to removing the mask.

“Berta,” came the muffled response from the one on the left, “Dame Berta.”

She sounded young, but it would be hard to tell.

Ordinary Knights of Purity wore full length hooded robes, along with skull masks. It was probably the most famous uniform in the world, and these were their superiors, their elites.

They looked very little like the ordinary Knights. They had very clearly been copying the Union’s style.

They had rigid padding along all of their major limbs and torso, swathed in multiple layers of cloth, all died in the same vivid red as the ordinary Knights. They had full cloth masks that went over their whole heads, like ski masks, instead of the normal hood and front mask setup. The eye and mouth holes were covered over by thinner materials, leaving their faces as suggestions, silhouettes.

I couldn’t see an inch of exposed skin on them, anywhere.

In place of the typical scythes they had stubby little submachine guns, of a make and model I couldn’t identify, which they slung over one shoulder as we hiked.

My understanding that all of these gear was blessed to at least an equivalent of Ultra Strength and Toughness of two. Our escorts were faintly terrifying.

“Sir Darby,” said the other, his voice gruff enough that I was pretty confident he was concealing fear.

“I’m Nirav,” I told them. “Who are the two in front?”

I indicated the ones walking alongside Haunter and Preventer as I spoke.

“That’s Ser Seth,” said Darby, “He used to work alongside Haunter before she was even in the Fist.”

Berta turned her head sharply, plainly surprised that her partner had volunteered that information.

“And the other is Dame Agnes,” she said. “I don’t know her.”

I almost thanked her, before remembering that in the Regime basic decency would prompt suspicion.

I settled for a noncommittal grunt.

We marched on in silence for a while, filing quietly through the Regime’s capital like we owned the place. Ultras and humans alike stood aside as we stomped through, obviously sensing that it wasn’t a good idea to get in a Fist’s way.

“Do we have a ride?” I asked, when I couldn’t take the tension anymore.

Preventer looked back over her shoulder, raising a single eyebrow. I wasn’t sure what she was trying to tell me.

“We’ve got one,” said Darby. “It’s a bit rickety but-“

“That’s fine,” said Haunter.

Agnes took the lead, turning us off at the next hole in the rubble, then pointing to a battered pickup sitting by the side of the road with a few others.

“I usually ride in the back,” said Darby.

There were a few people hanging around the vehicles, with some Ultras among them. Presumably they were here to make sure nobody took off in one of their only functional cars. In Adder’s absence I imagined that those were starting to get a little scarce around here.

“Is there gas?” asked Preventer.

“It’s just down the way, right?” I asked. seemingly unable to stop myself from fucking talking, “Like 20 minutes drive? We don’t need a lot of gas.”

“Fuck off!” yelled Haunter at the people waiting around the vehicles.

They didn’t need to be told twice. People bailed with alacrity, plainly unwilling to offend a Fist that merited an elite Knight escort over some ratty old cars and trucks.

Haunter spawned a few of her shades as we approached.

“Find any keys laying around,” she told them.

That was a bit strange, I thought. The other times I’d seen her send the shades out they’d gotten their marching orders before they appeared.

“We can ride in the back,” volunteered Darby, who was about as bad as I was at the whole ‘strong silent’ thing. “Two of us always have to.”

“You will,” said Preventer.

“Is the truck blessed?” asked Haunter.

“I don’t think so,” said Berta. “I’m not even sure how that would manifest.”

Haunter manifested another group of shades.

“Take the other vehicles,” she told them. “Fan out and start looking for First Fist.”

“What?” asked Seth. “That’s not part of our mission.”

“It’s a side thing,” she told him. “It’s-“

She might have said more, but Preventer tapped her wrist where a watch would be, and Jane stopped talking, then everyone was moving.

The shades tackled the Knights, the ones who’d gone to check on the vehicles coming in from behind even as the ones she’d just spawned grabbed for their arms.

It was over in an instant, more and more shades pouring out of Haunter and piling in around the Knigths, swarming and seizing them.

“What’s-“ I asked, but Haunter took my hands and turned me away.

“It’s alright,” she said, “Just look into my eyes and breathe.”

Behind me I heard muffled struggling. I could imagine easily enough what was going on, imagine the mob of ghosts pulling at the blessed uniforms until flesh could be exposed, imagine ghostly knives sliding in and out.

Bile rose in my throat as I tried to look back, but Jane had me by the temples, keeping my eyes locked on hers.

“In and out,” she said, “Easy breaths. Nothing’s stopping you.”

I hadn’t stopped breathing, had I? I let out a breathe and was surprised to find that it was a hoarse gasp. Were the Knights gasping out their last behind me?

“In and out,” she said again.

“I’ve seen violence before,” I told her. “You don’t need to coddle me.”

She took a step back, releasing my head.

I turned around, unsurprised to see that the Knights were shapeless masses of red fabric, strewn across the ground, while the shades stood over them, reaching down to strip off their gear.

“Darby, Agnes, Seth and Berta,” she said, pointing to a quartet of shades whose body types basically mimicked those of the Knights they’d just killed. “Get your gear on, get the bodies into the bed of the truck. We’ll dump them a few miles out.”

“Wait,” I said, “Are you going to try and fool the Knights? Don’t they probably have passwords or something?”

“Shut up,” said Preventer, absently and without heat, already striding towards the truck.

Haunter rolled her eyes at her.

“We are probably not going to be coming back here,” she said, “But there’s no point in closing that door. If Krishna and the Host don’t know what we need, then we’ll have no choice.”

That made sense but…

“Then why?” I asked, pointing to Seth, Darby and the others.

Haunter steered me towards the truck as we spoke.

“We need freedom of speech and action,” she said. “Time is very short now, did you catch that? I’m operating on the assumption that the interference with Answerer clearing up is their endgame. I don’t know what we’ll need to say to Krishna, but it might easily be something the Knights couldn’t hear, and I don’t have time for anything fancy.”

I settled into the middle seat, despite being bigger than Preventer by a good bit. Jane took the wheel herself.

“They are going to be able to tell the Knights apart,” I said again, “They’ll have a password or something. We’ve tried to infiltrate the Knights before, and they’ve got Answerer.”

I shut up, aware that I was babbling a bit.

“Probably,” said Preventer, “But like she said, we might not come back here. This is just a contingency.”

“We have to come back here,” I said, “To get Dale, right?”

Neither of them answered.

“You are kidding me,” I said.

I settled back in the seat as they didn’t answer.

I’d known the man for barely any time at all in comparison to them, but it still rubbed me wrong to think of abandoning him to Second Fist’s mercy, or lack thereof.

“Earth may be destroyed in twenty four to forty eight hours,” said Haunter. “Dale would understand.”

I sat back, suddenly focusing on the fact that Haunter had just killed four people without batting an eye, to possibly save some future time.

Preventer had told me to shut up, had that been her way of asking Haunter to kill me, would they do that just to save the few minutes it would take to keep me up to speed, or to make sure I didn’t blow their cover?

I kept my breathing steady and even.

“We are going to go and speak with Krishna,” said Haunter, “But I’m sure you understand that what we care about in here is whether anyone in the Pantheon knows where our targets are, correct?”

“Right,” I said. “That’s why the Knights had to go. You aren’t going to be working to get them not to attack Shington, you are going to be interrogating them about where First Fist is.”

“We’ll modify our approach based on what we find,” said Jane, nodding. “But that’s our priority. If they know, then we dial in on getting them to tell us.”

“But don’t we also need to stop them from attacking?” I asked, “Just so they don’t provoke Her?”

“Yes,” said Preventer.

“So that’s two primary objectives then?” I said, “Both absolutely, fate-of-the-world level important?”

“Yes,” she grated out again.

“I’ll shut up now,” I said.

“It’s fine if you keep talking,” said Jane, immediately, “The Jury is saying a lot of the same things. You can trust me, still. We aren’t about to kill you.”

Had they somehow read that I was worried about that in my body language? I knew Haunter’s ghosts had a lot of skill in reading people, and also that she let people over and under estimate just how effective that was.

We pulled out of the parking lot, driving down the road at a medium pace.

It felt strange to ride a car after so long with a skiff at my beck and call. Even Indulger’s cave based travel method hadn’t felt quite like this. The land rolled past the windows, but we didn’t rise up into the sky, and everything went so slowly.

“What do you think the odds of this working are?”

“Zero,” said Preventer, “But also kind of good.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Haunter shot her an unfriendly glance.

“You established that the Union didn’t know where Remover and her crew were,” she said, “And it doesn’t seem like the Regime does either, based on what Second Fist said back there.”

“Although they could totally be lying,” I put in.

“As could you,” said Preventer, “Come to that.”

I bit back an angry retort. If betraying my civilization and freeing them from prison didn’t demonstrate my good-

“I’m kidding, man,” she said. “Ease up.”

“So you are saying that they may have sought refuge with the Pantheon?” I asked.

“There are a few factors arguing for it,” said Haunter. “How did the Pantheon suddenly defeat Subtracter? How is Krishna, an Ultra of no particular power, suddenly in charge? Why did they come together in a Host, and why did they move on Shington? They wouldn’t normally do any of those things.”

“They’ve tried to mass before,” I objected, “Back in the Fourth Defiance.”

“How’d that work out for them?” asked Preventer, with a cruel snigger. “Even the dumbest Pantheon commander knows nowadays that gathering in huge groups is an invitation to be shattered, by Her or Third Fist or Subtracter.”

“So if they are massing now, you think it might be because they have an assurance that all those factors won’t be here to stop them.”

“It’s about adding the factors up,” she said, “About covering all the bases. It’s still more probable, in my eyes, that First Fist is back in the Lair, but conflict with Second Fist means we can’t be the ones to check on that.”

I looked back into the bed of the truck, suddenly realizing the implications of that.

Sure enough, the fake Knights hadn’t got on with us, just loaded the naked corpses of the real ones in.

“They are going back into the city,” she said. “They’ll investigate as well as they can. I wish it was us, but this is the best I can do for now.”

I hadn’t thought about it, but of course a full body covering would let a shade masquerade as a normal person.

“Can they stay out of your reserve for that long?” I asked, “Your file says-“

“It changed recently,” interrupted Preventer.

I almost asked after that, which sounded utterly fascinating, but geeking out over the weirdness of Ultra gifts fell pretty squarely in the ‘after the world is saved’ category.

I was forgetting something, I replayed the conversation back a bit in my mind, trying to remember what I’d been about to ask about.

“Wait, ‘zero and also kind of good’?” I quoted. “How does that make sense.”

Haunter heaved a long suffering sigh.

“Zero because Remover’s pitched a perfect game this far, and there is absolutely no reason to think that we are any different from anyone else who struggled in their webs over the years.”

“But you’ve got all the shades,” I said, “They aren’t even in the world, so their interactions can’t be observed.”

I looked over to Preventer.

“And you are invincible,” I continued. “Wouldn’t your shield you from whatever they are doing?”

They looked at one another for a beat, then looked back to the road.

“We have a difference of opinion,” said Preventer. “But what Jane doesn’t want to say is that she thinks we are not immune to them, which I agree with, but thinks that we will find them, which I think is dumb.”

“Huh?” I asked.

“Look,” said Jane, “If I flip a coin and get heads, what’s the odds that it’ll be heads the next time I flip it?”

“Fifty Fifty,” I said, knowing this particular fallacy.

“Sure, and if I flip it a hundred times in a row, and it is heads every time, the odds it’ll be heads the next time?”

“Still fifty fifty,” I said.

“Come on,” said Preventer, “Imagine if I did this in front of you. You’d really put your money down after seeing that?”

When she put it that way…

“Wait, does the coin even have a tails side?” I asked. “A fair coin can come up heads a hundred times, but I’d think you were cheating at that point.”

“Exactly,” said Haunter. “Modified Watchmaker argument.”

“You think they want us to find them?” I asked. “But why wouldn’t they just-“

“See why she doesn’t want to have the argument out loud?” jeered Preventer. “Even the dagger sees how stupid this is.”

“What’s stupid,” said Jane, “Is imagining that we are the only ones who saw through their plan because we are just that clever. Or imagining that we, the only ones trying to find them, get a countdown conveniently telling us when we have to find them by.”

“You’re saying…”

“Look,” she said, “You buy that they manipulated the whole world, that they are fooling the precogs, right? That’s why you busted us out?”

The words poured out of her.

“So why wouldn’t she be able to manipulate us? Why would you think we aren’t still doing exactly what Remover, what Forbidding Entity wants?”

“But why would-“

Preventer chuckled.

“I don’t fucking know,” said Haunter.

 

Regime Quest 51

Day 16:

 

Morning: Healing Work

It was depressing how the parade of the injured and crippled never seemed to end. I’d been in Shington for years, I’d made myself available as often as I could during that time.

It scarcely seemed to make a difference. They came just as they always had, cradling splintered limbs and nursing the endless aches and pains to which the flesh is heir.

I saw them one by one, pulled their injuries and illnesses out of actuality and into whatever place my gift dropped it. They left healed, eyes downcast and mouths filled with thanks they could not utter.

At least there were few suffering from serious illnesses nowadays. Few plagues could finish their victims in the window between my availabilities. In their place were more of the beaten and broken.

Every time I was tempted to doubt KEM’s credo, I had only to remember my healing sessions. These were not, by and large, the victims of the Ultra’s sadism. Not the survivors of Ultra tortures or explicit beatings.

Those rarely survived long enough to seek healing.

These, instead, were the incidentals. The slave casually thrashed, the Garden girls, the boy who was just a bit too slow in coming back from an errand. The Ultras forgot about them the second they hit the ground.

I told myself that I would never forget about them, but they came in an unstoppable tide, and as far as memories went, I was only human.

Still, I did my best.

 

Afternoon: Invite Erupter to Posse

“It would be my honor,” she said, and that was that.

I spent more time hiking out to meet her, figuring out where on her patrol she’d be, than I did in persuading her. She was, sincerely, thrilled and honored to throw her life away for the chance to entertain Her.

I’d endured the company of Subtracter, my smile didn’t slip now.

“And who are the others in the Posse?” she asked. “Will they be joining me on my morning patrols?”

I smiled at the thought of Replayer’s likely response to that.

“You are doing a great job,” I told her, “I don’t think you need any more help. Nobody’s got past you so far, right?”

She beamed at me and nodded vigorously.

“Caught a few last night,” she said. “They told me where some more were. You want to come along for the fun part?”

I demurred.

“Warlord responsibilities, you know how it is.” I said, despite being fairly confident that she did not, in fact, know how it was.

“I understand,” she said. “I’ll make myself available for Her service every afternoon until our blessed mission.”

I undertook a wan smile.

“See that you do,” I told her, laying it on a little thick, “Force may rule the world, but we are the means by which this ancient truth is made manifest. We are Her Force.”

She smiled broadly, eyes shining with zealous patriotism.

“As the Warlord commands!” she barked.

I could get used to that, I thought.

 

Evening: Debrief Owner/Replayer

“Limiter is nothing,” sneered Replayer, at our usual evening meet up.

“Oh yeah?” I asked.

“I got with some of the Dolls,” she said, referencing the Ultra Gang, “And they thought she was pretty much a bitch, just a rainmaker, you know?”

“A rainmaker?” I asked.

I’d heard the concept before, but it seemed a bit too sophisticated for Replayer’s vocabulary.

“An Ultra who says they control the weather, right? But they don’t. So every day they come up with a reason why the weather is what it is.”

“Oh,” I said, “So like a fake.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Limiter seems to be really shady about what her gift can do, to the point that they joke that she doesn’t really have it, because it always seems to not apply.”

“Did you get those excuses?” I asked, dreading the negative answer. If she hadn’t, then I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d gained from her day. She was supposed to get more details about Limiter’s gift, not pass along someone else’s opinions about it.

“Yeah,” she said. “So, ok, the way it works is that she can pick a group of people, which can be however big or vague. Like, ‘all redheads’, or ‘everyone in that building’, or whatever, right?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Then she picks a thing that she doesn’t want them to do. Like, ‘punch anyone’, or ‘stand on one foot’, you see?”

“Sure,” I repeated.

“Then when they try to do that, they find that they can’t, they just stand there.”

That…woah. That sounded unbelievably strong.

“So what’s the catch?” I asked.

“It doesn’t work on any Ultra Toughness at all,” she said, “So no one important. And also her gift builds up strength, so to get a strong effect she has to go without using it for a while.”

“A ‘strong effect’?” I asked.

“Every time someone who is affected gets stopped from doing something, it eats up a bit of the effect, until it breaks.”

Owner gave a short whistle.

“So it is better the fewer targets there are, and the longer she waits to do anything, and also it doesn’t work on tough Ultras,” I listed.

“So she says,” said Replayer, “Lot of excuses for why she can’t stun the right people at the right time, you ask me.”

I could see why this was on the Union’s list.

“Alright,” I said, “Thanks for getting that info. I’m getting a better picture of her.”

Replayer made a fart sound, and I inclined my head in seeming assent.

“Owner?” I asked.

“Three new members,” she said.

I massaged my forehead.

“How many times am I going to have to teach these idiots to listen to you?” I groused. “Can they just, like, not learn that?”

“They did!” she exclaimed, hands rising in a mollifying gesture, “Everyone did what I told them. It was fine.”

“If it was fine,” I grated, “We wouldn’t have just three new members.”

“They did their best,” she insisted. “It’s just that people are used to the Warlord and her Posse doing the recruiting. Ultras are not as persuaded by just other Ultras as they are by main important people.”

“I’m with the Warlord,” butted in Replayer. “Want me to teach the Warband a lesson? They just need to try harder.”

I murmured something noncommittal, already planning out tomorrow.

 

Day 17

13 days until next battle

 

Ultra rolodex: (#/#/# is Ultra strength/speed/toughness)

Tracker – Running buddy, 1/0/1, Creates tracks, and can move things on them

Shower – Adder’s protégé, 1*/0/1*, gains strength and durability from witnesses

Echoer – Singer I am a fan of, 1/1/1, can duplicate any action that she sees

Bubbler – Operates Ultra clinic 0/0/?, traps things in bubbles that heal and move them

Sucker — Ultra entertainer, ?/?/?, pulls objects/people towards her at incredible rate

Gunner — 0/0/1, she shoots tracking Ultra Blasts at roughly Ultra Strength One

Chiller — 1/0/1, can freeze any object she touches, leaving them brittle and easily broken

Cutter — 1/1/1, she is a brutal front line combatant

Swimmer — 1/0/1, she can ‘swim’ through solid surfaces

Burner — 0/0/1, she can summon Ultra fire from anywhere that she can see

Maxxer — 0/0/0, she can augment the gifts of other Ultras, pushing their gifts

Puncher — 1/0/1, her strength and speed both go up when she repeats her movements

Maker- Friend, and protégé of Snitcher, 0/0/1, can summon the spirit of things

Clawer – Ultra fighter 2/0/1, melee combatant, deadly hooks for hands

Stopper – partner of Clawer, 0/0/0, steals form’s velocity by looking at them

Sticker – Did dentistry for her brother, 0/0/2, Creates slime, can choose its stickiness

Grower – 0/*0/1, an outside Ultra I sponsored into the Lair, has a bullet blend from me, can rapidly increase the size and mass of objects

Joker — 0/2/0, a woman who can change what other people/herself look like

Stormer – 0/0/*, a woman who controls weather, does so for Regime big shots

Stomper – 2/0/1, can blast herself along with explosive stomps, problems with authority

Sworder – 1/0/1, Replayer’s flunky

Singer – 0/0/0, Buffs listeners with 1 in Ultra strength/tough/speed

 

Union List

Vower – 0/0/?, a woman who can enforce oathkeeping

Caller – 0/0/0, a woman who can grant and use telepathic communication

Nailer – ?/?/?, a woman who can merge objects and people into composites

Hater – X/0/X, a woman whose effectiveness depends on how much her enemy is hated, and by how many people

Resister – */0/1* Grows steadily more effective vs. each opponent

Finisher – 0/0/0 Can rapidly kill wounded foes in her line of sight

Limiter – ?/?/? Makes ‘rules’, or ‘shields’, that restrict her enemies, unlimited range, limited by being ‘used up’ by target’s attempts to take the banned action

Murderer – 0/0/1, Death Touch

 

Assets: (physical)

1 truck

1 sedan

Owner’s Shington Store

Packer House

Fog Machines

Lasers (diverse)

 

Posse: (4 slots, 3 filled)

Owner (trusted friend, housemate, gift hard to describe) 0/0/1

Replayer — 1/2/0, she can ‘step back in time’ to undo damage that she takes

Erupter – 0/0/2, a woman who retaliates against attacks on herself

 

Warband:

16 Veteran Ultras, 16 Rookie (that is, haven’t worked with me before) Ultras

Hexxer, Peeler, Guager, Soarer are notably less evil than the rest.

Driver, Defender and Infecter possess interesting capabilities.

 

Blender AP: 9/10 (4 – 1 +6 -3 +2 +1)

Actions cost 3, return 2 on success 0 on failure unless otherwise specified, Blender gains 1 AP every morning

 

Available Actions:

 

Union Kill List tree, if you feel any indication to play along with their proposal (note that KEM/Resistance missions tie in well with these matters)

Get basic info on 4 Ultras (indicate names, this is a gossip based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Get detailed info on 1 Ultra (indicate name, this is a ‘track them down and speak with them’ based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Kill an Ultra from the list (indicate target name and your basic method, may cause rebellion or discontent in any Posse or Warband assets you use, may not, use your best judgement and be clever)

Send Union a Message (indicate text of message, this is actually a Resistance action, but I’ve placed it here for ease of use)

 

Posse Recruitment tree

Meet more Ultras (describe method, adds d6 to contacts)

Get to know specific Ultra better (describe method transitions Ultra to potential Posse member)

Invite Ultra to Posse (must have got to know target first, if accepted, Ultra joins Posse)

 

Warband tree

Get more Ultras (describe method, adds Ultras to warband of quality/quantity dependent on method)

Train warband (describe method, makes QM kinder to Blender in combat sections re: her troops actions and numbers)

Task warband (describe, needs Posse member or Blender to lead them, sets warband to a task)

 

VIP tree (Used for Regime Luminaries)

Visit VIP (explain, explain Blender’s motives and methods) (only returns 1 AP on success)

 

Contacts tree: (Blender currently believes morning is safer from Snitcher)

Get info from contacts (specify KEM or Resistance, method if different from usual dead drop)

Request mission from contacts (ask KEM or Resistance for action) (This can go in either direction, asking them to do something from you, or asking if they need you to do anything for them.)

 

Relax tree: (Actions which, on balance, regain AP)

Lay still: Cost 0, auto succeed, returns 2

Relaxation activities, Cost 0, returns 3 on success, 1 on failure

Healing work, Cost 1, returns 6 on success, Snitcher hazard

Blisser session, auto succeed, returns 4 per timeslot, cannot be ended until Blender is back at 10

 

Miscellaneous action: (Anything not covered above, scavenging, info gathering in person, etc, describe what Blender is going for)

 

Player Input:

Blender Morning Action

Blender Afternoon Action

Owner will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Replayer will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Erupter will take either an afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

 

 

Mario 1:1

It was funny, even with everything happening, even in the middle of a confrontation between two Fists, an event that my whole bureau had been feverishly speculating about as long as I’d worked there, I couldn’t stop thinking about my own motivations.

I thought that I’d made my own choices. I remembered my frustration at what I’d seen as the blinkered foolishness of the other branches, at their stupid insistence on squandering the opportunity that Fourth Fist represented while the Union’s survival was at stake.

That frustration had become outrage, and outrage had become, with the tacit permission of my direct supervisor, the impetus to action. I’d broken them out of jail and whisked them across the ocean, and now I was accompanying them on a desperate mission. It all hung together.

The problem was that there was another interpretation that hung together too.

Thinking about it the other way, I was just like the other mindwashed victims at the embassy. I’d come into contact with Fourth Fist back when I tried to abduct Indulger, and then again during the Martinez fiasco. Later I took action on their behalf that I insisted was at my own initiative, just like Meghan giving over her security codes.

In this other perspective the pattern was simple. Humans who encountered Fourth Fist became their puppets. I was a human who had encountered Fourth Fist, ergo I was their drone at this point.

It was a dubious mercy that that explanation was almost certainly the one my superiors would eventually believe, should they survive the present crisis. I’d go down as one more victim of Ultra nonsense.

I pushed the familiar worry out of my mind. Ultimately, the ‘am I brainwashed’ dilemma mirrored the ‘are we just playing into the precog’s hands’ issue. In both cases there was nothing you could really do about it, you could only act as you saw fit, and hope that the context of it all worked out in your favor, for a given value of ‘you’ that you happened to presently embody.

“Krishna?” asked Haunter, in a tone of voice that made it clear that she was really saying ‘really?’.

Refiner gave a solemn nod.

“I remember her,” said Dale. “She was the Pantheon person who almost got killed when She crashed our Ultra Fight. Her gift was Ultra smartness or something.”

He had a big, silly grin on his face as he said it, presumably thinking back to some good times.

I didn’t have any info on what he was referring to, but the idea that they’d done some kind of mock battle with the Pantheon stretched credibility a bit, even for Fourth Fist.

“She was a weakling,” said Preventer, decisively. “We never even saw her gift. Nobody in her whole crew could have threatened Subtracter, because if they had anyone that strong they’d have used them in the Thor situation.”

“You aren’t thinking,” snarled Refiner, or Deceiver through her illusions, “The Company has stopped supplying food. The Pantheon are feeling the squeeze. Her previous capabilities don’t factor into how strong she could be now, after her group has merged with so many others.”

“I don’t get how they could be hungry already,” said Dale. “Starvation takes, like, a while, right? Weeks or months or whatever? And most of them should be Ultra tough, so they couldn’t even starve. Why would they team up under one boss just because the Company is being dumb? Why not just wait it out, see if it fixes itself, for a while longer at least?”

“People don’t work like that,” said Haunter. “I’ve seen it in the old world, and it certainly hasn’t changed at all. Nobody waits around to secure their prosperity. At the slightest opportunity people will jump.”

“That’s what’s happened, anyway,” said Refiner, clearly not eager to hear more of Haunter’s ruminations on human nature, “The Pantheon warbands have splintered and reconnected. Many of them headed back down south, others carved out little fiefdoms or pushed up onto the Union. But there were always going to be some who decided to solve the problem at its source.”

“How could they know that She wasn’t still active?” persisted Dale. “Or did they maybe not care anymore because they thought that it would be better to be splatted than to starve?”

“Unclear,” said Answerer, breaking her momentary silence. I wondered if she’d been asking one of her inner questions even as we spoke.

“Futures where we gave assurances of food and aid didn’t seem any less dangerous than those where we simply threatened. The uncertainty about the whole project is difficult and fatiguing to penetrate.”

“And just what is ‘the whole project’?” asked Haunter. “How many Ultras are we talking about, and how far are they from Shington? What are we going to be working with?”

“Not that many,” said Refiner, at the same time as Answerer said “Two hundred and twelve.”

It comforted me, a bit, to see them talking over one another. A data point for Answerer genuinely being here and not just one of Deceiver’s illusions. Of course she could have counterfeited that just as easily, but I elected to believe that she had not. I couldn’t see much reason to bother with it.

“Not the worst odds we’ve ever dealt with,” said Dale, injecting a forced levity into his voice. “Things were way worse over in the Union.”

Haunter shook her head.

“Maybe not,” said Preventer, “I’m far from sure anyone we met during our time in the Union area could have taken down Subtracter. Maybe Death.”

“This is a foolish distraction,” burst out Haunter, aiming her appeal towards the apparition of Refiner. “It is First Fist that needs to be dealt with. We are only doing their bidding by attending to anything else. Just tell us where they are, please. It is literally important to the life of humanity.”

There was a raw, elemental passion in her words. Haunter spoke like a woman begging for the life of her only child, like someone in the grip of uttermost, surpassing sentiment.

But it meant nothing. Refiner just shrugged at her, entirely unmoved.

Answerer, at least, engaged.

“You claim that they counterfeits my answers, yes? So why would you trust any information I gave you about their whereabouts? Wouldn’t that just be more lies?”

“Maybe not,” said Haunter, immediately, “If it came from something besides your gift. They must have agents in town to keep track of Her, or you, or us. There are things they’ve left dangling here. There should be a way…”

She trailed off, aware that she wasn’t winning this one.

That was Jane Trent in a nutshell, I thought. She was a monument to the necessity of setting sentiment aside and acting only after careful consideration, her very life a sacrament and testament to this principle, and yet she found it so very hard to actually follow through on. The temptation to make an emotional appeal was seemingly irresistible.

“You want us to talk to Krishna,” said Preventer, changing the subject with her customary lack of subtlety, “Get her to back her minions off of Shington, and maybe while we are at it we should find out what happened to Subtracter. Is that it?”

Refiner gave a nod.

“They want the Company to return to its normal operations,” said Haunter, “And presumably some assurance that we won’t tell them to cease food supply again?”

“That won’t work,” said a voice.

It took me a long second to realize that the voice had been mine. I’d actually spoken up unprompted within a gathering of Fist members, of the cruelest and most powerful Ultras in the Regime.

“Why?” asked Preventer.

“The Company Men are dead, for the most part,” I told them. “People don’t take kindly to being told that there won’t be any more food or Processes, and the Company Men don’t defend themselves. Even if they started behaving again you’d have to get new ones back out to everywhere that needs them. It would be a huge mess.”

“They killed the guys who made them food?” asked Dale. “You are kidding me. Nobody would be that stupid.”

He sounded like even as he said it he was reconsidering.

“There’s another factor,” said Answerer. “You can’t actually give them what they want.”

“Are you serious?” asked Preventer. “You don’t have Her as a deterrent, and we are dealing with someone who can overcome Subtracter, and you still don’t want to budge on something that we absolutely don’t care even a little bit about? Are you genuinely insane?”

Haunter held up a hand, speaking quickly. Preventer’s invincibility might have let her forget that we were entirely at Second Fist’s mercy, but Haunter would suffer no such illusions.

“If we give in to coercion this time then in the future we-“

“No, that’s not it,” said Refiner.

Or, snarled, really. Everything the image did or said was just utterly sinister. Deceiver must have worked at it for a long time to get something so terrifying set up. It was like interacting with a drama’s special effect in real life.

“You can’t give them what they want because we don’t have it,” clarified Answerer. “Subtracter was in command of the Company. She’s the one who told them to stop working. She and Adder were the only ones Prevailer trusted with that authority.”

“And she’s gone,” said Preventer. “I suppose I can see how this could be complicated.”

“We can’t actually meet their demands,” said Haunter, “And we can’t threaten them with anything except Her wrath, given their evident power.”

“That’s not automatically true,” said Dale. “Like, they might have ganged up on Subtracter or something. Whatever they pulled to take down one Inner Circle member might not work on two Fists.”

Refiner sneered elaborately at Indulger’s numbering of Fourth Fist as a peer to his own, but didn’t press the point.

“We’ll work something out,” said Haunter. “And in exchange you will put your resources at our disposal as far as finding First Fist.”

I felt impressed that she managed to finish that sentence without letting her voice rise up at the end and make it a question.

Refiner barked a harsh laugh as Answerer shook her head.

“We aren’t stupid,” she said, “And I don’t need my gift to know that if I let you go now, free and clear, you wouldn’t waste a second in fleeing the area. You’d leave us to deal with the Union ourselves while you continued your ridiculous quest for a Fist that utterly overmatches you.”

I hadn’t actually thought of that, myself, but it was clear the second I put any consideration on the matter at all. The only leverage Second Fist had on us was our current predicament. If they let us out to go deal with Krishna that would evaporate.

“Are you really going to try and get us to do the impossible for you with our hands tied behind our back?” she demanded. “You want us to negotiate with a stronger enemy who we can’t actually give in to or fight off, and now we are going to be saddled with some kind of, what, insurance policy?”

“They are called Knights,” said Refiner. “You should be accustomed to their company.”

There was another shoe to drop, surely. Knights wouldn’t actually stop Ultras from doing whatever they wanted once we were away from their masters. Indulger could just drop us into the ground, if nothing else.

“We are bringing daggers along?” asked Dale.

The slur wasn’t really fooling anyone, at this point. Answerer had probably shared enough about Fourth Fist’s ideals and goals that they wouldn’t really believe that they looked down on the unpowered.

At least, I hoped they didn’t, for obvious reasons.

“They are,” said Answerer, “But you aren’t going anywhere.”

All three genuine members of Fourth Fist erupted at once, objections and accusations tripping over one another as they filled the air.

I didn’t join in, just stood silent and resigned. Of course Dale would be their hostage. Nothing else would make any sense.

He was their, or our, transportation, our shelter from retributive drone strikes. He was our most powerful combatant, and the leader besides. He was also the one that She was interested in, the one Second Fist would want, above all others, to ensure the presence of.

“What are we going to tell Krishna when she asks why the guy who put on the wrestling show with her people, the one who saved her life, the one who is officially our leader…isn’t here?” asked Haunter.

Her voice was sort of tired and plaintive at this point, as though the relentless disappointments of this conversation had finally broken her.

I knew better. Maybe Haunter had broken at some point in the past. There were some terrifying voids in the reports that kind of hinted at that kind of thing. But the woman who was currently leading Fourth Fist was past discouragement. She was faking, I felt it to my bones. For whatever reason her inner collective had decided that this was the right affect to put on her dialogue for the moment, nothing more.

We were, I supposed, lulling them into a true sense of superiority.

“Tell her whatever you like,” said Answerer, “But if you feel like trusting my gift you’ll stall for time. Tell her that you are doing the usual Fist deal, where you don’t all go to one place at the same time. Tell her Fisher and Indulger are staying in the city for the first few meetings.”

“And after that?” asked Preventer. “After we stall them for a while…you’ll swap out your hostage? Keep Haunter or me and let Dale talk to Krishna?”

“Not ‘a while’ “, said Answerer. “Two days. You keep them stalled for two days, and we move past the uncertainty in my gift. Everything will be clear again, and I’ll take over. I can’t see past the cloud well enough to do the timelines, but I can tell that things will clear up again on the other side.”

I couldn’t keep my eyebrows from rising, my mouth from opening. I did manage to stifle the urge to shout anything stupid, or to renew Haunter’s plea. They weren’t going to listen.

But there wasn’t a doubt in my mind why Remover’s interference would cease after a certain period. And the fact that we were apparently going to be tied up with this nonsense for that time was just an exclamation point.

The conversation went on, objections and denials, going through the motions, but I’d mentally checked out of it. They’d laid down the important things. Us three, Preventer, Haunter and myself, would be sent out to stall the Pantheon, with Dale’s life as insurance. We had to do it for two days, and then Answerer’s gift would be working again.

I was grimly certain that Answerer was right, if not in the way that she imagined. If Haunter’s fears about Remover were true, and I’d bought into them enough to throw away my life and embark on this madness, then in two days the timelines would clear up, all right, because there would be no one left to complicate them.