Subtracter towered over me, glowering down at me with a stern expression. She wouldn’t ordinarily be tall enough for that, but she floated about six inches off the ground, and I’d been forced down into a seated posture.
Each of us, in Fourth Fist, had our own particular bugbears, our own idea about who bore the lion’s share of the responsibility for the nightmare that was the Regime. Mine was Remover, of course, but Dale’s case for Subtracter had been genuinely persuasive.
With Prevailer, you knew that She was smarter than She let on. There was an intelligence there that you could reach out to, sullen and cruel though it might be. Plus she seemed to be genuinely fond of Dale, and I wasn’t a hundred percent sure he didn’t reciprocate, to some degree. But Subtracter was exactly the almighty dolt that she appeared to be, that strange combination of savage cruelty and supreme power that the Process had cursed the world with.
“You’re alive!” I blurted out.
I wouldn’t normally state the obvious like that, but it seemed like it’s what she was looking for, with the childish game of sneaking up behind us and then talking. It was always best to go along with Subtracter as far as you possibly could. This was the woman, along with Prevailer of course, who invented the sky burial.
“No shit!” she said, then slapped me viciously across the face.
I bit back a scream as one of my shades, a hero who’d opted out of a life in the Union in order to accompany me on a mission to save the world, died in an instant to an idiot’s spite. I forced myself not to give her any visible reaction.
The great peril of Subtracter was that defying her whims was suicidal, but going along with them wasn’t necessarily safe. The woman was a fucking plague.
“They- they think you aren’t, back in Shington,” I said. “Second Fist asked us to come here to see how you got taken down.”
“I wanted them to think that,” she explained, thankfully not striking me again, “I got those assholes right where I want them.”
In an ordinary conversation I might venture something of a wisecrack here, but with Subtracter that would only cost me my comrades. I remained silent and waited for her to expound on what she meant by that.
“Who’s this asshole?” she said, abruptly, jerking a finger over her shoulder at Mario.
“We’re using a body double,” I said, instantly, before he could get himself into any trouble. “Didn’t want to put 3 of us into a situation where we were told there was someone who took you on.”
I wasn’t entirely sure she’d go for this, and getting caught lying to her would be incredibly bad, but I’d made the split second decision that this was better odds for us than trying to sell the idea that Mario was Nirav somehow shapeshifted.
She didn’t say anything for a long moment, looking form one of us to another, then over to Krishna.
I started to second guess myself. Maybe we should have stuck with the idea that Condemner was experimenting with his form shifting power, or come up with some other explanation that wouldn’t leave Mario so damn expendable. He’d saved us, and he deserved a lot better than getting splattered because Subtracter wanted to put an exclamation point in one of her sentences.
“Where’d you get him?” she finally asked.
“Just found him around,” said Preventer.
I winced inwardly. She’d been too fast, too nervous. It should have come slower, like we had to think back a bit. Subtracter might be dumb, but she was a bully with a bully’s instincts. She could scent weakness like few others.
She looked back over to Mario, and I could feel his end teetering on a knife’s edge. Was I really going to stand here and do nothing while she took another life, just to prove some inane point?
I spent a fruitless moment cursing my decision to leave the Knights’ weaponry with the infiltrators back in the city. One Blessed Gun right here might let me defy her, or at least try something. Subtracter was incredibly fast, of course, but I didn’t think she was actually bullet fast.
“Whatever,” she said, then looked back to me.
I foundered for a second, trying to figure out what she wanted from me, then defaulted to the usual approach I took with her.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“You gonna go back into Shington, then you kill Deceiver. I’ll take the rest of their crew out once I can trust my own eyes.”
I ground my teeth, seething inwardly.
Back before the end of the world, of the old world, I mean, I used to play video games a little. One conceit of the old games was that when you were messing around on side quests the game would never just end because you ignored the main thing.
Reality, of course, suffered no such constraint. Second Fist wanted us to do their bidding here, now Subtracter wanted us to go back there, and all the time Remover’s endgame was presumably rolling onward.
“Won’t She be displeased about that?” Preventer asked. “The Fists aren’t supposed to fight one other, and whoever wins we’ll be depriving Her of our strength.”
Blink-quick Subtracter was across the room looming over Preventer, hands curled into fists of her own.
“She’s dead!” Subtracter snarled. “I’m in charge now.”
It said a lot about how indoctrinated I was, how beaten down I’d been by Her reign that I’d never really considered this. Even now my first thought wasn’t ‘how’d She die’, but rather ‘how did Subtracter convince herself that Prevailer was dead’.
“She’s dead?” I asked. “How did that happen?”
There were two reasons I was daring to question her now. The first was that she was over by Preventer right now, which meant that if she got heated she might just fly back over and loom again instead of striking. The other was that I was asking for a clarification, letting her be the center of attention by enlightening us, rather than asking her to change her mind.
“Torturer,” she said, “I dunno why she didn’t just warp out, but the zone swallowed up her sanctuary when it moved.”
I nodded solemnly, mind racing.
Prevailer only had Ultra Toughness One. She could live on the edges of Torturer’s halo, but only the very fringes. If She’d been unwilling to teleport away then She could certainly have fallen to Her own servant, but it made no sense on just about every level. Even if She wouldn’t use her gift, why not just walk away?
In any case, if She was dead or just not communicating…the implications were limitless. Subtracter was moving against Second Fist in full confidence of Her absence, and whoever won that fight the Regime would be down a major asset.
It dawned on me, after a second’s contemplation, that there was no Regime, not really. The Third Defiance had proven that it was bound up in Her person, that She could reconstruct it from scratch if need be. The opposite would also stand to reason.
“Yeah,” I said, mind only half on my words, absorbed with the implications of Subtracter’s message, “Nobody can survive Torturer’s gift.”
And all of a sudden I had it. The pieces fit together.
We were here looking for Remover. We expected that she’d be in Shington because that was where she needed to be to taunt Preventer with Thui, and because that’s where the old world communications tech was that she might be repurposing to make her broadcasts to the Union’s satellite.
Say that was all true, and that she was in Shington. Why had no one seen her? Change the question up. Why had the Union moved Torturer? It seemed a clumsy piece of tradecraft virtually guaranteed to provoke awe inspiring retaliation.
But they’d done it, and Mario had just reminded me that the Union was likely acting on precog orders, at some level. And Remover was hacking the precogs. So assume that Remover had been behind the relocation of Torturer, in a more direct way than my usual habit of assuming that she was behind everything.
‘Nobody can survive Torturer’s gift’, I’d said. But my working assumption was that Remover was like Condemner, not really a person so much as a person shaped glove. What if a being like that didn’t really feel pain? No soul to torment? Or maybe it could warp Torturer’s gift like it did the precogs.
I didn’t need the details. I had the gist of the thing. Remover was sheltering inside of the no go zone created by Torturer. All I had to do was figure out how to survive in there and I could finally confront the author of all this horror.
“You link back up with Indulger,” said Subtracter. “You hit Second Fist, get Deceiver. I’ll finish them off.”
I wrenched my attention back to the present with alacrity. Revelations would have to wait until I was away from this maniac.
“We’ll take care of it,” I said, “But the Knights will be a really hard problem. Can your Pantheon friends here help out?”
My off the cuff calculation here was that getting to show off by bossing around the Pantheon would be pleasing to her to a greater degree than us asking for help would be annoying, and that therefore this request would generally make her more favorable towards us.
“Huh?” she asked.
“We can take them, Fist to Fist,” said Preventer. “But they’ve got all those fucking daggers around. It won’t be a fair fight if they swarm us. We’ve got to up the numbers on our side.”
I didn’t think this was as much an attempt to appeal to Subtracter’s reason as it was a simple distracting of her attention onto someone she couldn’t hurt. Nevertheless, I felt a brief surge of gratitude.
“You are going to be my Fist,” snarled Subtracter, “When I tell you do something I don’t want you to turn around and tell me to give you things. I want you to do the thing!”
“And we will,” said Preventer, “We are your fist. No debate there. But when you pick something up you sometimes use both hands, right? You’ll get a better outcome if you use all the tools at your disposal.”
Krishna shot her a killing glance at being called a ‘tool’ in a fashion that she wasn’t able to reply to, and I could feel where she was coming from. You had to be invincible to be so petty at such a perilous time.
“What can our Host members do about the Knights?” asked Krishna, “Don’t you know that these are the serious ones? The ones with blessed guns? It won’t help for us to walk into bullets for this.”
Subtracter held up a hand.
Silence fell as we waited on her pleasure. I could see her lips moving a bit, her face doing the blur twitches that meant that she was using her enhanced speed to give herself time to think.
This was, honestly, one of the abilities of Ultra Speed that I most envied. I felt like sometimes the reserve sort of pushed past my ability to follow them. It would have been nice to be able to have the time to devote myself to each one of their arguments.
“A fight between you and Second Fist,” she said at last, “Should be all about Indulger burying them from outside of their ability to fight back. His gift goes for miles, right? So just crush them from far away, grind up the land like a grinder until they are gone. Once Deceiver goes then I’ll take care of the Knights, and we are all good.”
I blanked for a second, as my mind put together the missing piece of my plan. Dale’s gift outranged Torturer’s. He could shuffle her off somewhere out into the wilderness, or down into the ground if there were people all around her. With his help I could search her zone, find Remover and maybe stop her.
“You are going to kill the Knights?” asked Preventer.
“I’ve always hated those bitches,” said Subtracter, “Daggers that front like they matter. I’ll take them apart as soon as they don’t have Deceiver to hide where they are aiming from me.”
I wasn’t about to waste any tears on the Knights, a racist organization at least two centuries passed its time, but I did think Subtracter might be underestimating the degree of danger they posed. She dodged bullets, as far as I knew, by dodging where people were aiming, not by actually side stepping while they were in flight. If she thought that Deceiver was the only reason it would be hard to take on the Knights then she was kidding herself.
Her new Pantheon buddies could have told her something about the effectiveness of firearms, if she’d bothered to listen to them. They’d been getting slaughtered by combined human/Ultra forces for a generation.
“I understand,” I told her. “I’m sorry, I was confused before. We’ll cut through Second Fist and take out Deceiver, then signal you, and then you mop up whatever remains. I get the plan now.”
“You won’t need my followers?” asked Krishna
“MY followers,” reminded Subtracter.
“No,” said Preventer, “We’ve got this. It’s time those idiots learned who the real power around here was.”
The real power in the Regime, not counting Her of course, should be Third Fist. When they got back this whole power struggle would have to happen again, if Remover hadn’t turned the board entirely upside down by then.
“How long do you think that’ll take you?” asked Subtracter, at almost exactly the same time I asked “How should we signal you when it’s done?”
We paused for a moment, I could see Mario tensing up, petrified that she’d take that as insolence and execute him to dunk on us.
“Leave a ghost here,” she said, after a long moment, “And zap it back into yourself when Deceiver hits the floor. She can’t fake that, since you are the only one who can make the ghosts return.”
Subtracter knew the details of our gifts, naturally, and this was a typically gift centric way of overcomplicating a signal. It would serve well enough, however.
“We should have it done by evening,” I said, “Might be sooner, depending on how on the ball they are, but it won’t be later.”
I indulged in a brief moment of regret. If I’d only come up with my theory about Remover being in Torturer’s zone before we went to see Second Fist all this stupidity could have been avoided, but now we were entangled in this nonsense.
“We won’t fail you,” said Preventer.
I ran through the complexity of the situation ahead of us in my mind.
Second Fist, with Answerer in charge, was waiting on us to deal with the Pantheon, in particular to get rid of whoever got rid of Subtracter. They had Indulger, who we needed to get to Remover. They wouldn’t give him up unless we convinced them we’d done their bidding. Subtracter, by contrast, was willing to take on Second Fist, so long as we did the hard part up front. Both parties knew very little about the other, and they both had backup, from the Knights/Pantheon respectively.
Floating around this clusterfuck was the possibility of First Fist taking action against us, which might be an opportunity or a game over, depending on the action and our state when it hit, and Third Fist returning from their previous mission. The perverse part of me suspected that they’d immediately grab us and give us yet another set of orders.
“That’s You” said Subtracter.
I carefully didn’t roll my eyes.
“We won’t fail You” I promised.