I stood stock still for a long moment, thinking carefully.
The area ahead of me was empty city, pretty much by definition. Torturer’s gift had driven everyone out, and absent ridiculous coincidence no one was going to walk up and dare the edge of it in the few minutes it would take for me to find and deal with Remover.
This might be us vs. her, just a straight up confrontation. That was the easy assessment, but there were complications.
Most obviously, no reason to think I was special. I’d been trying to force myself to keep this in mind. I had no reason to believe that there weren’t other people all around the other sides of this dome, all ready to charge in.
Worst case, most problematically, it could be the rest of First Fist. I knew Pursuer and Alerter had been some distance away fairly recently, but Avoider and Attacker could easily be nearby.
But ultimately, I could throw all that into the same bucket as ‘what if there is no way whatsoever to beat her precognition’ went into. If she was making intelligent use of her resources, and if she wanted to fight, then I was toast no matter what I did. I had to proceed as though that wasn’t the case.
Torturer’s zone falling when it did was compelling evidence that she wanted more than my death. Exactly what more wasn’t clear, but it did give me the advantage, since the feeling was far from mutual.
A squad of shadows emerged from my reserve, exchanging nods and glances with one another before moving off into the surrounding ruins. We all knew that this was the big one, very likely the most hazardous thing we’d ever done. There had still been fierce argument over got to be the first to be dispatched, people fighting furiously over the most dangerous assignments.
They would fan out, move around the perimeter. If Remover met me at the center, which I thought was very probable, they’d be all around us, rifles ready. It felt appropriate that she meet her end in a Sniper Court kind of situation.
God, I hated Remover. I’d always hated her, and it was immensely freeing to be finally able to act on that feeling. I was about to kill the literal worst person ever.
I started forward into the ruins, after the footfalls of the shades had died away. I moved cautiously, taking my time, looking carefully around before I stepped through each archway, around each corner.
I caught a glimpse of the neon green of Remover’s gift, reflected in the window of a long abandoned building. It was right up around a corner, just about where the middle of Torturer’s zone had been.
I picked my way forward, letting shades guide my steps and control my motions. Stealth was probably pointless against someone who knew the exact moment, down to the second, that I’d showed up at the edge of this zone, but the same old tired argument that kept me moving forward all this time still applied.
A figure sat englobed in the green neon streaks, resting in a plastic yard chair set up across from another, vacant chair. An improvised table, some kind of drum with a sheet of rotting wood, rested between the two.
I ducked down the instant I saw the scene, then moved carefully back into spying position. Nothing had moved, not a single thing had changed.
The green globe around her wasn’t a monolith. It was made of a series of beams, each chasing the tail of the next. They orbited her like planets, like comets, admitting only the briefest glimpses of the woman inside.
The strangest thing about the whole tableau was that the other chair wasn’t on my side of the setup. I’d come up behind and to the left of her. If you were going to go to all the trouble to arrange this whole fancy setup with the chairs, just absolutely rubbing my nose in the fact that you saw me coming, why would you fuck up the orientation? It would be like Predicter writing one of his idiotic notes and making a spelling mistake.
“Shoot the bitch,” jeered Joe inside my mind, and honestly? I was tempted.
Like, why couldn’t I just fucking shoot her? We weren’t that far away, and the swirling barriers were a static obstacle, nothing that a marksman couldn’t beat if they tried.
There had to be a reason not to do it, but I honestly couldn’t think of one. If she was predicting everything then I’d fail, etc etc, but seriously? Why not try it?
I let the reserve take over, raised the gun and leaned carefully against the debris I was resting on. The streams of green energy rotated before me, frustratingly inconsistent in their speed.
A moment later the gun fired, always so much louder than I remembered, and Remover’s energy globe dissipated.
I didn’t think for a second that it was that easy, and I threw myself up and around the corner almost on instinct, scanning the terrain all around me for an ambush.
Nothing. Silence and moonlight, a gentle wind.
None of my shades had fallen, so the area around me was clear, or she’d slipped by them somehow. I ventured another look over the wall.
The figure sat slumped, unmoving.
“Not her, shit, sorry. We should have noticed, wrong color hair. Sorry, the glare from the beams…”
I slipped over the broken wall, moving carefully, soundlessly, closer to my victim, still trying to keep every part of the terrain around me in sight.
The woman in the chair was gaunt, emaciated, and gruesomely dead. She’d been a corpse when I got here, her guts torn open and shredded.
Torturer, at peace at last. So that was how Remover had arranged for her barrier to fall at just the right moment. She’d sent her tendrils in and killed Torturer with them when I’d needed it.
Presumably the whole orbiting thing had been to draw me into shooting her, and then having them dissipate had been to lure me into moving up and examining her.
I was in motion before I finished the thought, leaping across the table and hustling up another ruined building, taking a high position and risking a look across the rooftops.
More nothing. No movement anywhere.
Remover’s beams, or tendrils, whatever I wanted to call the streams of energy from her gift, they could be actively directed, or they could be instructed beforehand. A beam that was still touching her she could control like it was her own form. A beam that she’d sent out, on the other hand, would only ever do exactly what she’d intended when she released it.
This had always seemed like an enormous weakness, and a lot of people had taken advantage of it over the years, killed her without too much trouble. But, when I thought about what I’d just seen…
The beam’s orbiting Torturer’s corpse had dissipated exactly as I shot, and she’d been nowhere near them. She’d known, ahead of time, just when I would shoot. Just like she’d known when I entered the zone.
I twitched violently as every one of the shades who’d been patrolling the surrounding areas suddenly died. I felt all of them cease, simultaneously, without even a split second’s difference between them.
“Beams through the ground,” I whispered, “Just come up right under a shade’s foot, nothing to see coming, no way to stop it.”
I dropped back down to the ground floor, then down to one knee.
There was no way to beat that. She knew where all of them would be, and I’d known that, and I’d still sent them out. I’d just figured that there would be something we could do, some way to make a difference, and Remover had killed them without effort or compunction.
I raised my head, looked back at the table and the two chairs.
Should I send out more shades? Try to set another bomb?
Nothing would work. Nothing could stop her. There was no way to win against such absolute foreknowledge. The whole world was trapped in her web. I could no more kill her than any of the Union’s endless lines of agents had been able to stop Her.
I walked listlessly back over to the table, sat down in the chair without the corpse.
Kill myself? Just to spite her? I’d never believed that I could consider such a thing, but in the moment it was all I could think of. What other power did I have in this situation? What other course of action could so much as slow this kind of being? I knew she wanted me here. Was that all I could deny her?
More of Remover’s beams slipped soundlessly into the cleared area, burrowing with shocking immediacy out of one of the walls.
I stayed motionless, watching them draw nearer. Calling Remover’s bluff. She wasn’t about to take me out now, not after all this foreplay.
I didn’t flinch as one drew near me, didn’t twitch a muscle as it spiraled and circled around me while the others hovered nearby in the air, motionless.
It was hard to avoid personifying them. Serpents, worms. But they were more terrible than any beast. They were the will of an evil being, tiny voids moving at the direction of the world’s molester.
The one that was circling me moved suddenly, swiftly, across the table, joining it’s brethren in the annihilation of Torturer’s corpse.
It took surprisingly little time. Inch thick streams of energy, just three of them, dissolving all matter that they touched. They whirred busily around one another, and in a matter of less than a minute Torturer’s remains were gone away, save for a stink on the wind.
She’d suffered for decades, at this thing’s accursed whim, and it unmade her in a minute, without regard or regret.
The beams faded away, and I was sitting alone again.
I didn’t move, didn’t call out, just sat there staring, mind running uselessly around and around on the same problem.
How could beat someone with perfect foreknowledge? How could I get someone who’d played the world for decades?
Remover slipped daintily over the rubble across from me, gliding easily toward me, her stride the confident tread of an athlete, her form utterly untouched by her decades in First Fist.
Where I was lined, she was smooth. Where my outfit was grubby, hers was bespoke. She looked every inch the federal agent that she’d once been, or even the model that she’d been before that. Her trademark neon green hair was even nicely styled.
“Hi Jane,” she said. “Glad you could make it.”
I leaped to me feet and shot her in the face, pumped bullet after bullet into the grinning fucking ghoul.
She convulsed in her seat, rocked back by the impacts.
No, rocked back because she’d rocked her chair back, utterly untouched by the impacts. She’d just been play acting being shot, twitching back and forth like a bad actor as I pulled the trigger.
I subsided back into the seat, gun dangling in slack fingers. How the fuck had she done that?
She sat up again, a shit eating grin plastered across her face.
“I guess it’s not mutual, huh?”
I desperately wanted there to be something inhuman about her. Maybe an emotionless way of speaking, or a distance to the eyes. But it was hard to see people’s eyes at night, and she sounded like she always had. Nothing of the otherworldly evil of her was visible or obvious. This was just the same prick that had always been here.
“You could say that,” I said, trying to keep a tremor out of my voice.
How had she blocked the bullets? This bitch got shot all the damn time.
“Little beams, very quickly,” she said, “Just removed the bullets micrometers away from me.”
She still had a big ole grin on, like we were coconspirators, or bosom chums. She wasn’t literally reaching across the table and nudging me in the ribs, but that was her basic energy.
“Whatever you fucking want from me,” I grated out, “Whatever you think you are going to get out of this, we’ll resist you to our last breath!”
I practically snarled the last, but her leer never wavered.
“I dunno,” she said, dubiously, “My track record is pretty great. If I were you I’d bet on me.”
“No time, no time,” she said, “Plus, you’re fugly as shit.”
“Someone is going to stop you,” I said. “I don’t care how powerful you are, how much bullshit you pull. You fuckers are going to pay for what you’ve done to us.”
She made a flapping mouth gesture with one of her hands, rapidly tapping thumb to pointer and middle fingers.
She aimed her other hand like a gun at me, and a thick lance of her energy leaped out of it and burned through my chest.
I screamed and kicked sideways, rolling out of my chair, but the beam stayed with me, in me. Spirits were ripped out of my reserve in a wild rush, a chorus of death screams echoing soundless in my mind.
It died away after a long moment, and I crumpled to the ground, clutching myself, trying desperately to fight back sobs.
Nearly all of them. All of the heroes who’d accompanied me across a hundred battlefields. All of the people I’d saved along the way. Joe. Irene. Kevin.
All of them were gone. Torn away in a burst of light by the devil herself. There were maybe a few dozen people left in my entire reserve.
I glared up at her. She hadn’t moved from her seat, her only motion to blow imaginary smoke from the finger she’d shaped into a gun.
I rushed her, throwing myself at her low for a tackle, my thoughts full of vague fantasies of grounding and pounding her.
She was on her feet by the time I made it there, rising smoothly into a fighter’s stance and slapping a hand lightly to my head.
The legs I was grasping towards disappeared as she leaped over me, shoving my head down into her chair and murdering another of my comrades with the impact as she did so.
I pulled myself to my feet, fists up, and swung on her.
I didn’t have fighting experts to guide my hands any more, no boxers or martial artists. We traded a half dozen blows in a few seconds before I pulled back, utterly outmatched.
Beating someone with perfect foreknowledge of the future in hand fighting was completely beyond me. My fists had never reached her, brushed aside by her guard. She’d struck me at will, each blow landing exactly where I’d pulled back from defending, reading my moves even before I’d made them.
My one attempt to gather my shades for an unblockable blow had only cost me more friends, as she’d clipped my chin in the precise instant that I’d summoned them into me.
She’d killed a dozen shades, two dozen. I hadn’t even mussed her makeup.
I let my shoulders slump.
“What do you fucking want?” I grated out.
“Giving up on not doing what I want?” she asked, voice still bright and kind, “Great! Take a seat. Or we can keep fighting if you prefer.”
“You know what I’m going to say!” I snarled, “Stop your bullshit! What the fuck do you want from me!”
“Take a seat,” she said again, lazily pointing an index finger at me in the same ‘gun’ gesture from before.
I positively ached to just give her the middle finger. Just tell this bitch to fuck herself once and for all. But that had never been me.
I’d crawled through all my years in the Regime, licked fascist boots to save lives when I could. I couldn’t throw the last remnants of my reserve into the afterlife for nothing more than spite.
I sat down across from her.
“What do you want from me?” I asked, yet again.
“Nothing!” she said. “You’re done. You’ve done all I wanted of you.”
Then why all of-
“It’s like you always say,” she said, “You aren’t special. I agree! You are nothing, Jane Trent. I’ve never been interested in you, not one bit.”
I just stared at her.
“They are called the Jury for a reason, Jane,” she explained, patronizingly, “And I’d like them to earn the name, here at the end.”