Preventer 6:2

Out of habit, I walked along as the barrier moved me towards the shore.

I didn’t really need to.  It actually made progress slower than if I just stood still and let it float me ahead, since I had to reshape it forwards to catch my foot with every step.  I wasn’t in any hurry, though.

Fader just kind of drifted next to me.  I didn’t have any idea how fast her image form could go.  It was probably in one of my files, but I had been much more focused on her attitudes and history than her capabilities the last time we’d been by my house.  I’d figured that if I needed info on her gift, I could just ask.

“How fast can you go, like that?” I asked.  No harm in making conversation.

“About as fast as I can run,” she said.  “But I can go in any direction at that speed.  I don’t slow for turns, I can go up or down, makes no difference.”

Must be nice.  It would be petty, of course, to complain that the gift that made me invulnerable move me around slightly more slowly than the gift that made her invincible.

“I wish my own gift was a bit faster.  I fall off if I move the barriers much faster than this though.”

Never let it be said that I was not petty.

“No rush, no rush.  Actually, I am kind of glad we are taking it slow.”

That was a bit weird.  A few moments ago she’d been worried about Esther spoiling things for us before we actually got to the island.

I looked over at her, pointedly not putting the cube that I was dragging Haunter along with in my field of view.  I was ‘rolling’ that dice along, very slowly, and it was no doubt annoying her to no end.  I’d lose plausible deniability if I had to explicitly ignore whatever signs she had her slaves waving around.

Fader saw the look on my face, put a hand up.

“Yeah, I know, I know.  Earlier I was all about us getting there fast.  I’m not making a huge amount of sense right now.  To be honest, it is a bit hard to hold it together.  You don’t know, I mean, you can’t know, how the Link is going to change you guys.  I haven’t been alone, like, really alone, in decades.  It is taking an awful lot to not just sink into the ground and throw myself a pity party.”

It was weird to think of Fader, famous for being impassive in the face of Her slaughtering people by the dozens to try and get her to become real again, getting all weepy.  She didn’t look it, but I couldn’t really see a reason for her to lie about it.

“So, what is our strategy going to be?  We are basically a team of all anchors at this point, assuming we don’t meet up with Twister.  Our offensive capacity isn’t exactly what you’d expect.”

Fader looked momentarily alarmed.

“Uh, I’m thinking our strategy should be to walk up and start talking.  Like Adder said.  If She is going to be angry with us for being off of the Pantheon diplomacy mission anyway, no reason not to make common cause with the Union.”

I tensed as my mouth flared with pain, took a few steps before replying.

“We actually tried to be friendly with the Union once.  They ambushed us like chumps.  I’m not in love with the idea of a replay.”

Fader considered a moment, taking her time to word her reply just right.  She looked over at Haunter’s cube and repressed a chuckle.

“Nobody is saying put ourselves in their hands.  If they want to fight two invincible Ultras they can lose as many resources as they’d like.  I’m just saying that we should talk it out first.  We wouldn’t gain anything by fighting them.”

All of the rumors said that Sixth Fist had been the least combative of Her fists.  It looked like losing the Link hadn’t changed Fader’s instincts.

“I guess I can live with that,” I said.  “So you want to walk up and ask to talk to their leaders, begin peace negotiations or whatever?”

She shook her head.

“No, I’m thinking more of a middle ground.  It feels like just explicitly deserting and joining up with Her enemies might make Prevailer warp out here and throw her weight around.  I’m thinking we tell them that we are a Fist from the Regime, here on a secret mission from Her.  Tell them nobody has to get hurt, they just don’t bother us and we’ll get along fine.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works.  The Union protects its people from us, right?  That is what they are selling the daggers on anyway.  I don’t think they can just let us walk around on their turf without a challenge.”

Fader looked taken aback for a moment.

“I forget, sometimes, how new you are to this.  You haven’t done a mission in the Union before, have you?  Outside of the diplomacy thing I mean?”

I made a kind of nodding motion that was supposed to convey agreement and annoyance, in roughly equal measure.

“I’m not trying to big league you here.  I’m just saying that, if you did, you’d realize that the Union maintains a pretty tight control on their information.  The civilians aren’t going to hear about anything that the military doesn’t want them to hear about.”

“So, we land, tell them to bug off, and that’s that?” I asked.

“Look at it from their point of view.  Preventer and Fader are sitting around on the edge of your turf.  The Pantheon is maybe a month or two away from campaigning season.  You want to lose some Ultras?  Or is it easier to just leave us be as long as we don’t attack anyone?”

I could see the sense in that.

“Of course, this whole conversation is moot if Twister got there ahead of us.  She’ll tear whatever garrison they have here apart.”

“You don’t think the garrison can take on one Ultra?” I asked.  “I thought the Union were tougher than the Pantheon, all things considered.  Esther isn’t in a Link anymore.”

She gave a sad smile.

“You don’t know her.  If you let Haunter out to talk she’d tell you about the fight on the deck.  Twister is a stone cold killer if you piss her off.”

I shrugged.

“Fair enough.”

We walked a couple hundred more yards in silence.

I could see the dark bulk of the island ahead of us now.  There were no visible lights, no sign of motion that I could see.  It might as well have been entirely uninhabited.

“That EMP thing,” I said.  “Does it affect guns?”

“No, it shouldn’t.  They weren’t that close to the blast, and I don’t think even Union guns need their delicate parts to fire.  They might have lost some aim assist, but they’ll still send bullets out the front when you pull the trigger.”

“I meant my gun,” I said.  “We were at the heart of the blast, is my gun going to work?”

She looked at me strangely.

“Your gift should have shielded it, right?  Same as it did for your clothes?  I don’t know the particulars of your gift, but I can’t see why your gun would be damaged if the rest of you is intact.”

“I guess it depends on whether it counts as ‘harm’.  My makeup stays on me, but bullets bounce off.  I’m trying to work out if this phenomenon counts as more like a change, which would probably work, or more like damage, which wouldn’t do anything.”

Fader made a shooting motion, shrugged again.

“Oh, I can’t just shoot it now to find out.  I keep the firing pin in a separate holster.  It takes a few minutes to get the gun ready to fire.”

“Why?” she asked.

I just grinned at her.

A few paces later she made an ‘ah-ha’ sound.

“I get it.  You are like me, immune to damage.  So you don’t care about defending yourself quickly.  You can take all the time you want to get ready to fight.  But if somebody strips the gun off of you, picks your pocket or whatever, it is useless.  Neat.”

“That’s part of it,” I allowed.  “But mostly it is just about my temper.  With my gift there is no excuse for not taking my time and thinking through significant things, and shooting someone is definitely that.  I use it to enforce a kind of discipline on myself.”

“I can see that,” she said.  “It isn’t quite the same for me, of course, but I also find that my gift gives me the time to be careful.  I think the reason Fourth Fist is so violent is that they don’t have an anchor like one of us, so they have to be ready to kill or be killed at any moment.”

It seemed like she had boxed up whatever trauma losing Blinder, Consumer and Charger had caused, at least for now.  She was talking easily, almost casually.  I hoped she could keep it up until my Fist came back in the morning.

“Makes sense,” I said, and left it at that.

More walking.  We were only a few miles away from the shore when she spoke again.

“Can you get Haunter over here?  We need to make sure she’s on the same page.”

I stopped and pulled the cube round in front of us.  Haunter didn’t look any the worse for wear from the slow tumble I’d subjected her to, but she did give me a death stare and a raised middle finger.

I thought for a sec about how to open it in such a way as to allow minimum radiation in.  Shaking her up was all well and good, but if I cost her a shade she might actually do something.  I ultimately settled for separating one of the walls slightly from the rest of it.

“Get that all out of your system?” asked Haunter.  “Maybe I’ll forget that you shopped Andy to the same Pantheon clowns that just tried to kill us if you turn me over again.”

“What?” asked Fader.

“You know what,” I said.  “Let’s air this out.”

No one said anything, both of them looking to me.  I crossed my arms, grimaced through another surge of pain from my jaw.

“Yes, I turned Andy over to the Pantheon.  I used Condemner to do it, and I killed him to keep you from finding out.  If you were at all serious about overthrowing Her you’d have been right there with me.  Zeus is the only one who might have a chance at stopping Her.  He needs to be tuned up by Andy.  Keeping him for ourselves would have been profound selfishness.”

It took a while before Haunter replied.

“Why didn’t you ask me?” she said.

“You never listen to anyone but your ghosts.  The rest of us aren’t real to you, not like they are.  You’d never have taken my words to heart while your flock clamored to you for help.  That’s not who you are, and you know it.”

I couldn’t see, with the barrier in the way, how she was taking this.  Her voice was calm and steady, however.

“I do listen to you, Rebecca.  So do my passengers.  We listen very carefully.  We hear more than you realize that you are saying, in fact.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but I wasn’t about to beg her to clarify.

“So, are we good?  This is a rare opportunity to talk while the others aren’t around.  Are you satisfied about the Andy thing?  Anything else you want to bring up?”

Once again she took her time in responding.  I could only imagine how all the daggers she had stuffed in her head were debating.

“I’d hoped, when I saw your feelings for that boy at your house, that you might have been influenced by the Link.  I’d hoped that you might be adopting our values as your own, that this might become a true partnership, rather than a mere Fist.”

“Leave Thui out of this,” I told her.

“I’m satisfied.  You are what you are, and I’m going to give up on hoping that you ever grow up.”

That stung a bit.

Fader spoke up before we could get into things anymore.

“Ladies, do we really have to do this now?  We are probably being watched even as we speak.  We are the only glowing thing on the ocean, and I guarantee nobody on that island is sleeping tonight.”

“Fine,” I said.  “Let’s talk about what we are going to do when we get there.  Fader has suggested that we land on the island and basically just wait around for the rest of the Fist to get back.  If we are lucky, we might even find Twister.”

“That’s alright, as far as it goes, but may I present a slight modification to that plan?  My shades have been gaming this while you were spinning me.”

I felt a trace of shame as she mentioned that.  It had been a childish act.

“Once we make landfall, I’ll send out some shades.  They’ll locate the island garrison and see what we are dealing with.  Then you go and speak with them, assure them that we mean no harm.”

“That’s actually what I was thinking too,” Fader interjected.  “I didn’t want us to just skulk about, we need to assure the Union that we aren’t here to take them out.”

“I thought you said they wouldn’t fight us if they didn’t have to?” I asked.

“Oh, sorry, I can see where I wasn’t clear.  I meant that they won’t go out of their way to hit us once they know we aren’t after them.  They will definitely think we are against them at the start, and after that explosion there will be reinforcements on the way.  We need to get them out of frantic defense mode, and back into the usual détente.”

“Alright,” I said.  “I’m the obvious choice for negotiations, I agree.  They can’t hurt me, and even if they somehow do I’ll be right back as long as they don’t take out Jane.  But I’m not sure I can do it.  I only speak English.”

Fader chuckled.

“They’ll understand English, don’t worry about that.  But to be perfectly sure we could have one or two of Haunter’s friends go with you.  They still understand the languages they knew in life, right?”

“Yes,” said Haunter.  “The people in my reserve can speak and act as they will.  I exert no control.  I can certainly find a translator or two for Preventer.”

“Alright,” I said.  “So I tell them that we are from the Regime, we come in peace.  Seems simple enough.  Tell them as long as nobody gets in our way, nobody gets hurt.”

Fader looked relieved.

“They will almost certainly accept.  No point in fighting with us.  They say yes, and then we camp out and wait for your friends to return, and then we decide what to do next.”

Creation of the Union

It is hard to pin down the exact origin of the Union.  Officially, the European Human/Ultrahuman United Alliance began in 2131, twelve years before the Third Defiance.  To use this as a jumping off point, however, would be a bit absurd.  The Union’s official birth was merely formalizing an arrangement which had already existed.

The true antecedent of the modern Union was not so much the old European Union, as it was the broader concept of the First World.

As with so many of our current woes, the blame for the shape of the modern world can be laid squarely at the feet of Peggy Martin.  In particular, the deciding factor in the placement of the Union / Pantheon split is largely due to Her instinctive dislike of law enforcement.

Prior to the fall of America, in the early 2100’s, Prevailer (or the woman who would become Her) was still searching for further victims of Her creator’s Process.  He had reportedly requested that She find him terminal patients, and She had instead located the assorted ne’er do wells and rogues which had formed Her social circle.  Most importantly, She had found Copyer.

Not much is known of this member of Her inner circle, but his influence is plain, even from the earliest days.  He copied Dr. Chen, and the being who would become the Company Men.  These were sent out into the world, to continue the work.  The instructions that they received determined the fate of the world.

We may never know exactly what they were, but it is very unlikely that She thought the matter through carefully.  This was not a tragedy brought about by direct malice, rather it was born of her thoughtless contempt.  She sent them to the parts of the world that She thought of as less likely to get in touch with American law enforcement, and instructed them to continue Her pattern of using the Process on those on the outskirts of society, criminals and the like.

The earliest known Ultra activity, therefore, was largely kept from the Union’s borders.  The Copied Chens were active throughout Africa and Asia, and Prevailer herself was spreading Ultras in America, but the territory that would become the Union was initially untouched.

Remember, at the time, nothing was known of Ultras, or their powers.  The catastrophes that struck China, India, and other places seemed entirely inexplicable.  The panicked flight of the well to do was totally predictable.  Europe harvested the upper crust of an entire generation, as those with the money and influence abandoned their homelands in search of a place that was not suffering from the curse of these terrifying new entities.

That phenomenon, that centralizing of wealth and power, that drain of humanity’s best and brightest is what truly made the Union possible.  It must also be admitted that it made the Pantheon’s barbarity far more likely.

By the time Prevailer went public in the United States, and the governments admitted the existence of Ultrahumans, the Union had already mostly taken shape.  The influx of wealthy and capable refugees had weakened its dependence on the nations that had formed it, and produced a crisis that only transnational governing bodies could meet.

Europe had a long tradition of interrelated organizations and governing bodies.  The old EU, NATO and a host of other organizations already existed to tie on nation to another.  It was natural and obvious to build upon these successes, to build an organization capable of tracking and handling the Company’s output with minimal disruption to human life.

The proto Union’s first great challenge was the fall of America.  The United States had been the beating heart of many aspects of their economy.  Absorbing one more influx of refugees strained the old systems to the breaking point.  The multi state agencies were granted greater power, as they strove to handle this new challenge.

The Starfall scandal, it should be noted, occurred around this time.  The Union has long maintained that this was a false flag operation, but if so, the fact remains that the nascent warlords who would become the Pantheon fell for it.  The first of the attacks on the Union’s southeast border followed swiftly after.  A certain centralizing of military power was essential in fighting them off.

The Second Defiance was the final, essential element in the Union’s genesis.  The world’s forces were thoroughly defeated by a monstrous tyrant.  The people lost what remained of their faith in the nations which had led them to this pass.  The ground was ripe for a new organization to form.

The Union stepped into this void.  It was formed from the web of transnational organizations which had been growing stronger all this time.  It pledged to defend the people of every one of its member nations from this new and hostile world.  It’s charter included guarantees of equality for Ultrahuman and ordinary human alike.  It would transcend the errors of the past, and lead the way into a glorious future.

Preventer 6:1

My gift protected me, entirely.

That didn’t mean that I could tell what was going on.  The noise was so loud that I could hear nothing.  The light was so bright I could see nothing.  My world became a white blur.

Reason did not leave me, however.  My mind was unimpaired.

I could feel my gift contemptuously refuting a great impact.  I could feel the Strongboat evaporate beneath me, feel the water course frantically and randomly around me.  I was in a great explosion, it was the only thing that made sense.

While I waited for the world to reorganize itself into a shape I could interact with I pondered what could have happened.

Had our Pantheon adversaries lashed out with a hitherto unseen, and mighty, gift?  It seemed unlikely.  If they had any such weapon they would have deployed it at the beginning of their attack, rather than waiting for later.

The Union was the obvious culprit.  We’d been moving north, somehow, and they had presumably struck in an attempt to stop us from reaching their shores.  A bomb couldn’t harm a Fist, of course, which made this more panic and stupidity. It fit right in with what I’d seen of their leadership in our negotiation session.

Things calmed down a bit, after a moment.  The heaving seas were still not entirely still, but at least I wasn’t spending every second skidding from one wave into another.  Someone was screaming.

I had vastly underestimated the size of the blast.  A great ring of a wave was racing away from us, and high above us was the remains of what had to have been a mushroom cloud.  The fuckers had nuked us!

I looked around, my first voluntary move in a while, and saw the source of the screaming.  Haunter was bobbing up and down in the water about a hundred feet away, losing a shade every few seconds, screaming her lungs out.

My own gift kept me from sinking, but it wouldn’t propel me to my ally’s side.  I expelled a barrier beneath my feet, and rode it over to where she floundered.

Her staring eyes found me instantly, even before I lifted her out of the water on another barrier.  I tried to speak, but her screaming overrode me.

I held my hands up in the universal, ‘easy now’ gesture, both palms facing her.  It didn’t seem to help.  She lost another shade and convulsed, staring frantically at me and wringing her hands in front of her.

I considered.

She shouldn’t have been damaged by the blast, unless all of her reserve was gone.  That was self-evidently not the case.  She must be suffering continuous harm, but I could see nothing attacking her.

“Cage!  Put a cage around me!” she shouted, her cries taking a sudden turn towards the lucid.

I did so, bringing up four more barriers for walls and covering the top with yet another.  It was more of a cube that a cage, but actually making bars and such would have been more complicated and taken longer, and clearly time was a factor.

No sooner had I surrounded her than she began to strip.

I looked away as she tore off her clothing, shedding it into a corner of the cube.

Another shade was lost.

She pointed frantically and shouted again, but the cube muffled her voice, for the most part.

I pulled the side slightly away from the rest so that I could hear what she was saying.

“Get them out! They are irradiated!”

I pulled the side barrier up a little ways, leaving a slot at the bottom where she could kick the tainted fabric away.  It splashed down into the ocean.

She gestured again, and I closed her in there.

I really wasn’t sure about how radiation worked.  Shouldn’t her body itself be irradiated?  No, that would presumably have been transferred to whatever shade bore the brunt of the explosion.  Or, shades, since it went on for a while.

I watched the cube for a long moment, and then another.  No more of her shades were lost.  Apparently my barriers stopped the radiation, which was a neat thing to learn.

The sea had calmed down, for the most part, and it was only by the faint glow of my barriers that I could see what was around.

What was around was a bunch of ocean.

I’m not sure what I was expecting.  The Strongboat had been struck by a nuclear bomb.  Only Ultras could survive.  The boat itself was just so much vapor, at this point.

Maybe there were some of Refiner’s robes and scythes intact, sinking swiftly down into the depths of the ocean.  It would depend on how his gift decided what skin color the bomb counted as.  Even if it decided to protect them, it wouldn’t have saved the Knights.

Fisher was gone.  Both of her forms would have been blasted at once.  Nirav was gone too.  I could feel both of them in the Link, along with Indulger.  It was just the two of us.

Struck by that thought, I looked around.  I could see very little.  Shit.

Fader ought to be alive.  She had been in image form, dithering over going back to flesh in order to get her hand wrapped up.  An image wouldn’t have been thrown anywhere any more than Haunter and I were.  She should be right here.

Plainly, she wasn’t, but the odds were good that she should be somewhere around here.

“Can you think of a way to signal Fader?” I asked Haunter.

She nodded, said something that the cube muffled.

I puzzled a moment over how she had heard my voice, if the cube was muffling sound between us, but then realized that some of her shadows were probably lip readers.

I gestured to my ear, then winced as the gash in my lips that She had torn flared up again.

It was a bitter irony that the mightiest weapon our race had ever produced should leave me totally unaffected, but a wound that was, ultimately, cosmetic made me want to writhe around on the ground in anguish.

By the time I looked up again Haunter had brought for a few of her shades inside of the cube, who had set up a whiteboard, seemingly composed of the same substance that they were.

“Barrier up, barrier down.  She probably looking for 6th Fist surv.”

I didn’t like to take orders from Haunter’s creatures, but that was a decent idea.  I concentrated for a moment, and emitted two much larger barriers, basically arrow shaped.  I pointed them both at me, and then sank one down into the water beneath me and brought the other up into the sky above us.

Having done this, I sat down on my platform to wait.  There didn’t seem to be a lot to do.

We weren’t all that far from Union territory, probably.  When the sun came up I could see the shore, if I’d heard right.  Whatever had been done by our attackers had pushed us way off course.

I could head there now, I guessed, but I didn’t see any advantage  in arriving at the wrong nation with all of the useful parts of my team dead, my boat sunken and my last ally naked and frightened.

Haunter’s goons were gesturing again, another picture.  This time the arrows were pointing towards an island silhouette.

“What do you want to do once we get there?” I asked.  “Do you want to have another fight?”

She shook her head.

Her minions drew a picture of two stick figures holding hands, or shaking hands, one very obviously much shorter than the other.

“Negotiate with those assholes?  Again?” I asked.

Haunter nodded.

“They just nuked us!”

The shades pushed the whiteboard back into her, then took it out again, with no marks on it.  They drew a question mark on the newly blank page.

“Who else could it have been?”

They quickly drew Her silhouette, recognizable by its baseball cap, and another one with a halo that presumably was supposed to be a stand-in for the Pantheon.

“They had just tried to attack us, and She wouldn’t use a bomb.” I responded.

Question mark again.

“Ok, sure, it isn’t like I know this for certain, but you have to concede that it is by far the most likely option.”

“Not true,” said Fader.

I about jumped off my platform.  She had risen up out of the water behind me, silent and smooth as only something not quite real could be.

“I’m glad you are ok,” I said.  “You must have been in your anchor form already when the bomb hit.”

“There wasn’t a bomb,” she said.  “It was Adder’s power, I’m almost sure of it.  Blinder would have known if a bomb was on the way.”

“Is she…?” I asked.

Fader shook her head.

“Light heals her, but there is no body for the light to fall on.  She’d have been vaporized by that scale of explosion.  Just nothing left of her at all.”

“Could the light from the nuke have somehow super charged her gi-“

She shook her head, almost angrily.

“I know my team.  She’s died to conventional bombs before.  No way she survived Adder’s tantrum, and Consumer was just as vulnerable.”

I started to say something else when she cut me off with a snap of her fingers.

“Consumer, of course!  She must have been the one to set off the bomb.  When she lost the Link it would have…oh wow, shit, I’m an idiot.”

“What about Consumer?” I asked.

“Her job was to watch us for signs of sedition, canary in a coalmine style.  You know that she was a loyalist, so if we ever took steps against her it meant that we were getting ready to defy Her, get it?”

I nodded.  I’d kind of pieced that part together.

“But the Link was the main part of that job.  It was how she kept tabs on us, and how she knew we’d never get rid of her.  When it broke she must have realized that we’d ditch her as soon as we hit land.  Blinder might even have killed her.”

“So you think she stole Adder’s gift, blew us all up?  She killed herself to stop you from, what,  killing her?”

Fader was shaking her head.

“She had to kill herself, or at least try.  Failing to monitor us would have brought her back to Torturer.  Her mind…”

Fader choked back a sob.

“Her mind was always going back to that.  She was kind of fixated, like brainwashed.”

“I see.  So, when she couldn’t do her job anymore she must have snapped.”

Fader pointed over to Haunter’s whiteboard, where they had written, “Consumer was Tortured” in big block letters.

“Ok, if you are just going to write things, why were you making me guess at those dumb pictures?” I asked.

“Wait a sec, Twister!” said Fader.

I looked around, but didn’t see her.

“Surely she was blown up, wait, did she have Ultra Toughness Two?” I asked.

Fader nodded rapidly.  It didn’t seem like she could weep in her image form, but I was sure that if she could she’d have been bawling at this point.

It was something I’d never understood, not really.  People bound themselves together, and there was great strength in that, but why invest so much of yourself into it?  Fader herself had just lost a hand, but I had no doubts whatsoever that she’d happily lose the other to get her friends back.

Stupidity.

“So where is she?” I asked.

The shades started writing something, but I looked over to Fader for my answer.

“She could be anywhere.  This is where people ended up who the blast didn’t affect, but Esther wasn’t nearly as invincible as you are supposed to be.  The blast would have thrown her for miles.”

“So I guess I can’t let down the arrows yet,” I said.

“They are our best chance for being found.  Can you keep them up for a while?” Fader asked.

It didn’t take any effort for me to keep barriers out, but I didn’t like doing it.  Their destruction weakened my gift.  Telling her that would get her to budge, but I didn’t favor the idea of anyone knowing about my weakness.

“I’ll keep them up,” I said.  “It isn’t a big deal.”

She smiled for a moment, then pointed at the cube.

“They seem pretty insistent about getting to land.  I take it that you disagree?”

“Less strongly since we decided that the Union wasn’t behind the bomb, but I don’t like the idea of walking into trouble most of my team down.”

“I think you can risk it,” said Fader.  “The Union relies pretty heavily on technical safeguards, away from the front lines.  I doubt Crete merits anyone who is a threat to you.”

“Well, tech can be a threat too.” I told her.  “Unlike you, people can still move me.  Last time I tangled with the Union they had someone carry me away from my team, presumably towards some kind of high tech freezing cell or something.  I can’t take them lightly.”

“Tonight you can,” she said.  “The EMP blast from that nuke means that they will have to replace any tech they have on the island anyway.”

EMP, shit, what was that?  I’d heard the acronym before.

“Good point.” I said.  “I hadn’t considered that.”

Fader saw something in my expression, looked a little guilty.

“Look, I won’t lie.  I’m mostly just trying to find Esther.  We know she isn’t anywhere nearby, because she’d have seen the glowing arrows like I did.   We have no idea where she might be.  I just want to go to the nearest shore, because I think that’s what she will do.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” I said.  “Can she swim?  Her body…I never really got a sense of her capabilities.”

That got a smile.

“Oh, she can swim alright.  She once won a race with a speedboat.  She just coils into a sort of spring and corkscrews through the water.  If we are going to the same place, then she’ll definitely beat us there.”

“Nothing else?” I asked.  I still had the sense that she was holding something back.”

“Well, just one other thing.  The Union may not have as many Ultras as everyone else, but the one thing they do have is a ferocious focus on integrating their Ultras into the local communities and economy.  It is very common for reserve Union bases like the one I’m hoping we find to be staffed at least secondarily based on how useful their gifts might prove to the human populace.”

I saw the light all of a sudden.

“They might have a healer stationed here, for when the daggers fall down or whatever!”

She gave an apologetic smile.

“Got it in one.  I’d whistle, but it seems like that might be misunderstood.”

What?  Oh, my teeth.

“How about some applause, then?” I asked.

We shared a chuckle, and I started the platforms moving towards the north.

“You really think you have a shot at getting the Union to give you back your hand?” I asked.

“If there is a healer around, and she knows what’s good for her,” she responded.  “But the odds aren’t great.”

“I thought you said it was pretty likely that the Union would have a healer in a place like this.”

“Oh, yeah, they probably do NOW…but like I said, Twister is likely going to beat us to the island, and I doubt she will realize that they aren’t the ones who attacked us.”

Kriti Detonation, Talking Points

Yes, an unexpected nuclear event did occur on the date in question.

Yes, it did so on our sovereign territory.

No, it was not a new type of enemy missile we are unable to detect.

No, it did no damage to our stalwart defenders.

Yes, it was larger than any warhead used by our Pantheon adversaries thus far.

No, it was not larger than the warheads we used in the Second Defiance.

Yes, our vaunted intelligence services have already determined the means by which the ordnance was delivered to its target.

No, that information is not available to the public at this time.

Yes, our forces remain confident of their ability to repel any and all terrorist invaders.

Strongboat 1:6

Pandemonium reigned on the Strongboat in the aftermath of the attack.

Both Fists, minus Indulger and Charger, had assembled on deck.  Haunter’s shades aided the crew in searching every inch of the vessel, frantically checking for any remaining Pantheon members.  Adder was repairing the damage that Banshee had caused on her way in, and receiving unspecified medical treatment.

“What the fuck WAS all that?” asked Fisher’s Lure.  “Those assholes came out of nowhere!”

“Pantheon attack,” guessed Blinder.  “You hear how the scaly one sounded?  Union troops are much better at English.”

“Also, no robots,” said Haunter.

“They might have been really small.  They might STILL be really small,” said Preventer, looking around nervously as she did so.

She didn’t really think that tiny Union drones were any threat, not to her gift, but the idea was unsettling anyway.

“Definitely Pantheon,” confirmed Haunter.  “Some of my shades heard them speak to one another, and they had names from old religions like the Pantheon does.”

“Weren’t we supposed to be negotiating with the Pantheon?” asked Consumer.  “Didn’t She tell them we were on our way?”

There was always a slight pause when Consumer spoke before anyone could answer.  She was the only one on either team with any real loyalty to Her, and everyone had to calibrate what they were saying so as not reveal their own sentiments.

“Perhaps She thought that we should be permitted to take care of that, as it would let us choose the most advantageous way to broach the matter,” suggested Preventer.

“Advantageous way to ask for a peace summit?  Can you elaborate on what that might be?”

Preventer gave Haunter an urgent ‘help-me-out-here’ look.

“I’d planned to let them know when we were just a few days out of Olympus,” said Haunter.  “Give them less time to plot treachery.”

“How am I going to get my fucking hand back?”

Fader’s question cut through the back and forth.

“The Link is gone.  It died with Charger.  So we can’t do the suicide and be brought back thing anymore.  How do I…” and she held up the stump, “FIX this.”

Fader didn’t bleed when she was transformed into an image.  She felt no pain, had no connection to her form at all.  Even the movements of her mouth were a reflex, a sort of mental twitch.  Her gift was what was making the sounds.

“The Link isn’t gone!” said Twister.  “It can’t be!  Nothing can break the Link.  If the Pantheon had anything that could do that they would have used it back in the Fourth Defiance!  Remember Swick?  They would have won that one, might have had their shot at Her, if they could have broken Predictor’s crew’s Link.”

“They probably didn’t get it until recently,” interjected Haunter.  “Maybe they didn’t even know that it would really work.  They have been stockpiling their best Ultras for a while now.  Probably a lot of their best abilities haven’t been tried out on an actual battlefield, just so that no one learns what they can do.”

“They didn’t get it recently,” said Twister, “because they didn’t ‘get it’ at all!  There is no way to break the Link.  Our Link is NOT BROKEN!”

She growled this last, the pain of her burnt arm driving her voice into a near shriek.

Twister’s ultra toughness included a regenerative ability, fortunately for her.  It was slow, however, and in the case of burns, exquisitely painful.  Every inch that her spines regrew, every strand of flesh that emerged from the charged wreck of her arm brought new nerves to send forth new waves of shattering pain.

Ordinarily, she would have simply offed herself in the aftermath of a battle.  With wounds this severe there would be no reason to endure.  Fader was invincible, so the Link would bring her back, without any battle damage, on the next morning.

“Esther…” said Fader, in a gentle tone.

Twister clenched he teeth, stifling an oncoming moan.  Tears poured from her eyes.

“It is totally broken,” said Preventer.

Every eye turned to her.  Haunter’s lips clenched into a thin line.

“Let me talk with her for a second,” she said, and dragged Preventer off a few steps.

“Blinder can still just read my lips,” said Preventer, in the same flat tone of voice.  “Moving me didn’t actually do anything.”

“Are you defective?” asked Haunter.  “What on earth is the matter with you?  Are you suddenly too cool to read a room?  They don’t need to hear from you on this!”

“I’m right, though,” insisted Preventer.  “If they can’t sense Charger in the Link, then he isn’t coming back.  He’s dead.”

A thump brought their attention back to the rest of the group.  Blinder had just struck the wall with her fist.

Haunter walked back over, shooting Preventer a killing glare which was answered with a smirk and a shrug.

“Sorry about that.  I was just telling Preventer that we have been Linked for a much shorter period of time than you gals, and we defer entirely to your expertise.  Whatever needs to be done to get your Link back, we are here to help.

Preventer, mercifully, didn’t have any contributions to make to that statement, and the group sank into silence for a moment, broken only by Esther’s occasional sobs.

It lasted right up until Adder made his way to the deck.

He looked bad.  His eyes were sunken, his mouth seemed to have collapsed about a point.  None of it seemed to be battle damage from his confrontation with the Pantheon Ultras, just the ravages of whatever the old man was dying of.

“I must congratulate you on your victory.  A splendid showing.  She would be delighted.”

His voice showed displayed none of the damage that showed on his countenance.  It was still rich and deep, a last remnant of the life he’d had before She had destroyed his world.

“Thank you,” gushed Consumer.  “But I only helped.  You were the one who did most of the work down below.  Your power is incredible!  I’ve never seen such a display from any save Her.”

“Yeah,” said Blinder.  “You are the one who ought to be congratulated.  You stopped half of them and repaired the boat.  I don’t know if you Inner Circle types compare Tallies, but at the very least you have a story for the next time you are in Shington.”

Adder made a feeble gesture with one arm, as though to wave off the comments.  Fader jumped back as a sort of stand took shape in front of her.

“For your arm, dear,” he said.

Company men moved up to the stand, duplicating the bandages and drugs which appeared in their grasps.

“A tourniquet?” she asked.

“Among other things,” he responded.  “You need to take advantage of my power while you have access to it.  If I falter here you will need to rely upon the Company Men’s abilities, which will greatly restrict you.”

She stayed in her image form, seeming hesitant.

“Of course,” he continued.  “I am proceeding as though your Link’s destruction is indeed permanent.  Do we have any idea as to how our opposition managed that, and why they did not target Fourth Fist’s as well?”

Blinder spoke up.

“I think it was an Ultra on the beach.  She did something to Ted, and that’s when we lost our Link.  Afterwards she killed him.”

“A Pantheon Ultra who can destroy the Link?” asked Haunter.  “What did she do?”

“She grabbed him around the neck, kind of lifted him up like she was going to strangle him.  It didn’t take long, she barely had him for a moment before the Link broke.”

“What did she look like?” asked Adder.

Blinder took her time about answering.

“She was asian, and very old.  Bent over.  She was wearing some kind of outfit with robes, I dunno what you’d call it.”

“Old like Haunter?” asked Prevailer, “Or old like Adder?”

Blinder turned her hand sideways in the universal ‘in between’ gesture.

“Did she seem to have any weapons?” asked Nirav.  “Or, like, something to go with the robes?  Thor had his hammer, after all.”

“Yes, she had a stick with a weird blade on it, but she wasn’t using it.  It was just propped up on a rock beside her.”

Adder started to say something at that, then lurched into a coughing spasm.  Consumer and the Lure moved to support him.

His gift was mighty, to be sure.  He could make anything he could imagine.  But it was useless to unmake the mass that obstructed his breathing.  He coughed like any other man.

“Was it,” he said, and he gestured.

A scythe flashed into being in the midst of the group.  Not one of the streamlined combat scythes that the Knights carried, but a rugged old farming tool.

“Yes, that’s it!” exclaimed Blinder.  “That’s basically what she had.”

Adder’s face fell, as did Haunter’s.  They both knew what that meant.

“Death,” said Adder.

Some of the Fist members who were slower on the uptake looked from one to another.  Indulger would normally voice a question like this, but his corpse was cooling on the deck.

“Is that a Pantheon general?” asked Consumer.  “One of those wannabe Gods who defy Her greatness?”

“Worse,” said Adder.  “She is one of the Ruling Council.  One of the people we are supposed to be negotiating with.”

“Holy shit,” said Blinder.

Preventer actually sat down, folding her legs up under her and sinking as though the world could no longer bear her weight.

“What’s so big about that?” asked Nirav.  “Aren’t there a whole bunch of those clowns?  We can still negotiate with the rest of them, even if this one doesn’t seem to be too friendly.”

It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Nirav was only a few months old.  He hadn’t grown up in the world, didn’t know a lot of the background knowledge that the rest of them had.

“The Ruling Council NEVER come to the front line,” said Haunter.  “The only instance of it I have ever heard of is when Zeus…”

She trailed off.

“When he killed Fourth Fist,” finished Blinder.  “Shit, that’s a bad omen.”

“Death is not Zeus,” responded Adder.  “He is a singular threat.  She is no doubt mighty, but let’s not exaggerate our peril.”

“What do you mean, ‘a singular threat’” asked Preventer.  “He is just an uncommonly strong Ultra, right?”

Adder shook his head.

“Impossibly strong, with the Gate’s current settings.  His gift is beyond what should be able to enter this world.  It is comparable to Hers.”

Everyone looked at each other in confusion.

“Gate?” asked Haunter.

Adder waved a hand.

“I’ll explain later.  We need to focus on the present task.  Blinder, can you tell me what she is doing now?”

Blinder nodded, and concentrated, shutting her eyes and furrowing her brow in a rather theatrical frown.

After a moment she opened them again, gasping audibly.

“She’s gone!”

Haunter shrugged.

“No doubt off to secure more reinforcements to come at us again.  We’ll need to-

Blinder cut her off.

“No, not just her.  Africa is gone!”

The group passed around another blank look.  They peered out over the side, but could make out nothing but ocean all around them.

“What do you mean?” asked Preventer.

“We are nowhere near Africa.”  Blinder pointed north.  “Somehow, we are very close to Greece!”

Everyone immediately started looking over the other way, but there was still nothing to see but night and the water.

“How is that possible?” asked Haunter.  “We were nearly hugging the southern coast, so as to avoid Union attention.”

“Don’t ask me!” said Blinder.  “I’m just telling you what the light around here is bouncing off of, and it is definitely north.

“Hard turn south,” ordered Preventer.  “We have to stay away from the Union.”

The Company Men nodded, and one of them scurried down the stairs.

Adder stroked his chin.

“Not necessarily,” he murmured.

“You think it is safer to fight the Union than a member of the Ruling Council?” asked Fader.

She still hadn’t resumed her human form.  She was fairly sure that whatever they were going to do about her hand would hurt, and after being protected by the Link for so long she had little taste for risk.

“Possibly,” said Adder.  “No one knows what they keep in reserve, but it is hard to imagine that it is anywhere near as powerful as the Ultra who broke the Link.”

Haunter grimaced.

“Good thinking sir,” she said, with little enthusiasm.  Even after the Fidel debacle Haunter had no appetite for conflict with the Union.  She had pinned her hopes on their technology as her means to restore her shades to the world for a long time before meeting Andy, and the positive feelings lingered.

“I was just answering your question,” he said.  “I do think we would be safer fighting the Union than the Pantheon, but that’s not why I’m unsure about going south.”

Nirav was about to ask about that when a fresh burst of cursing arose from Blinder.

“What is it?” asked Fader.

“We just warped.  We are basically on top of the land now.”

She gestured over the rail.

“Warped?” asked Esther.

Her damage had mostly repaired itself.  She was still holding the burnt arm rather gingerly, but she’d got it comfortably wrapped around her torso and was able to ignore it for the time being.

“Not just us.  The whole ocean, miles around.  We are miles to the north of where we were.  I didn’t notice before, but we must have been jumping this whole time.  It must be Death’s gift.”

“A woman has the power to move things on water, and they name her Death?” asked Nirav.  “It feels like there might be a religion with a water god or two.  Were all those names taken?”

Everyone ignored him.

“How do we stop-“ Haunter began, when Adder cut her off.

“As I was saying, I’m happy to beach the boat in Union territory.  Our mission is going to be somewhat altered, in light of this new information.”

“What information?” asked Blinder.

“The Ruling Council are attacking us directly.  Our mission, to negotiate with them, is plainly impossible.  We must abandon Her plan.”

“She’ll kill us,” breathed Haunter, like someone who couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing.  She’d always known that Adder wasn’t exactly loyal to Her, but it was still a shock to hear a member of the Inner Circle speak such blatant sedition.

“Indeed, which is why we will seek shelter with the Union.”

Adder was about to say something more, when Consumer took action.

Under ordinary circumstances Adder would have remembered that she had been conditioned by Torturer, that she was Sixth Fist’s leash.  The pain of his condition, as well as the stress of the battle, had driven it from his mind, leading him to speak freely in front of her.

Under ordinary circumstances, he would have seen her attack.  But the beams of her power were dim things, that shed little light, and when she released it from the hand that she was supporting his shoulder with there was no space for the beam to be revealed in.  She was pressing her hand against his flesh.

Under ordinary circumstances, he would have felt her attack with his gift.  As his battle with Banshee had shown, he had a complete understanding of every Form around him.  Long ago this had let him figure out Her sensing gift, which was a much stronger version of a similar power.  But it did not detect energy, and it took him a fateful few seconds to realize what she was doing.

Under ordinary circumstances, Consumer would have spoken out.  She would have grandstanded, or tried to negotiate.  But Her instructions had been clear, all of those years ago, and the terror of Torturer was still upon her.  Consumer put his gift into action the instant she had a speck of it.

Under ordinary circumstances, the earth would have been destroyed.  Adder’s gift had more than enough power to accomplish it, but Consumer had little idea of its capacities.  She knew nothing of antimatter or the whole horrid output of the twenty first centuries research into superweapons.  Her idea of ultimate destruction was a nuke.

She put the origin between herself and Adder, and felt nothing as energy poured forth.  The remainder of the fists had the smallest of warnings, but none had the Ultra Speed necessary to take any action before destruction reached them.

Union sensors recorded the mushroom cloud.

Divergence Alert

Attention 6th Border Defense Units,

Tracking has verified that the Regime strategic asset designated Strongboat [see earlier threat briefings] has turned from its path and is advancing on Union territory.

Regime Intelligence is adamant that this action is not in the Strongboat’s mission profile, and that the vessel will soon resume course through the Mediterranean and towards the canal.  Nevertheless, we must prepare for all eventualities.

You are hereby directed to activate reconnaissance and evacuation options consistent with a Regime covert attack [see appropriate operation plans] on your area of responsibility.  Emphasis is to be placed upon containment and disruption.

Command understands that the forces at your disposal are insufficient to confront the enemy [see profiles for Neo Fourth Fist, Sixth Fist and Adder].  Reinforcements will be limited and should not be relied upon, as Intelligence is adamant that if this attack actually occurs it will only be a decoy, designed to draw our forces away from an active war zone.

Consequently, Command has granted approval for deployment of Prohibited Assets whose class is A or worse.  You are enjoined to exercise utmost caution in these deployments [see safety profiles for Prohibited Assets], as the enemy may begin to formulate countermeasures once they become aware that these technologies exist.

That admonition aside, your duty remains the protection of our citizenry.  Maintaining the technical disparity must take a backseat to preserving the lives entrusted to your care.

Fight well, and be careful.