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.

Indulger 10:2

Hi everyone this is Walter, just letting you know that the next update won’t come out until January 8th, lots of holiday stuff this year.

Thanks for sticking with me!

********************************************************

I’d gamed out how it would go if we fought Second Fist a couple of times. Probably everyone had, and Haunter’s calculations would make mine look like nothing, but the fact remained, I’d done it.

Refiner, according to Preventer, was a nonfactor. Even a liability, since they presumably would work on protecting him. So leave him out.

Bomber wasn’t a huge factor, in my mind. She could shoot pretty hard, but if I was down in the ground they wouldn’t penetrate to get to me. The main thing about her, from my point of view, was that she could just fly away, so there would be no way to get the whole Fist.

I wasn’t sure if she had Ultra Toughness or not, which was a weird thing to not know, but Second Fist was unique that way. They all had Refiner’s best stuff, so they all kind of seemed to have Ultra Tough Three, unless you managed to peel that off. That, combined with the fact that they mostly sat in Shington bossing the Knights around meant that I didn’t know if she was Ultra Tough.

But anyway, she wouldn’t be a huge deal, buzzing around and blasting the ground until one of Haunter’s guys shot her in an eye or something.

Choker was different, he’d put the fight on a clock. Once he started emitting the gas, he would start growing in power and the casualties would mount. After a certain point there would be no stopping him, kind of like Killer from Third Fist in a big fight. We’d take him out quick.

Destroyer was, well, she was too much for us. She was the one I threw up my hand at. Ultra Speed at level two would mean I couldn’t sink her or spear her, and that we’d get wrecked really fast.

It said a lot that I’d done that whole analysis without thinking about Deceiver or Refiner’s gear, which were the factors that actually mattered. That was because when I thought about how a confrontation with them would actually go it looked a lot like this.

We were all in the grip of Deceiver’s power, surrounded by enemies we couldn’t perceive. They had Refiner’s weapons, so our toughness couldn’t rescue us. They also had Answerer, and probably Subtracter up in the air.

We were done. I’d say our only hope was that they’d think Fisher and Condemner might be somewhere waiting to resurrect us through the Link, but they had Answerer, so they’d know that wasn’t a thing anymore. We were totally done.

“Which of them did?” asked Haunter, projecting a calm resolve that there was no way she could actually feeling.

Answerer waved the question off, or at least it looked like she did. I had to keep reminding myself that Deceiver was picking what we were seeing and hearing.

“You’ve been away for quite a while,” said Answerer. “How did your embassy to the Pantheon go? Was Olympus everything you thought it would be?”

That last was directed squarely at Preventer, whose hands spasmed at her sides.

“Why don’t you ask your gift?” I said. “It’s weird for the famous Answerer to be the one asking the questions, don’t you think?”

I didn’t know why I said that. Somehow now that the worst had happened all my fear was gone away. It wasn’t like we could get double trapped or something.

“Why DON’T I?” she fired back, instantly. “Why ever could it be that my gift is off where you assholes are concerned? Why might that possibly be?”

There was real anger there, backed by frustration. Nothing like the calm superiority that I’d expect from someone who got to see the future once a day.

It could be faked, of course, either by Deceiver or just plain old acting, but something told me that her fury was actually real, that she was actually just totally pissed at us.

“That wasn’t rhetorical, by the way,” she continued. “It’s a big part of the reason that you are here, now. I want an answer, and it had better be believable.”

“You can’t just foresee it?” asked Haunter, seemingly genuinely curious, “I’d imagined your gift would let you ask ‘what if I say this and that’, kind of questions. Why do you need to do this in person?”

She made scare quotes around the ‘in person’, and it took me a second to get it. But, yeah, of course, just because my tremor sensing gift let me know someone was standing where ‘Answerer’ was, and her voice was coming out, it didn’t mean that was really her. Deceiver was on the scene, after all.

“There wasn’t any way,” said Answerer, sounding aggrieved, “No matter what scene I set, you never gave it up in any kind of conversation. Do you imagine I put guns to people’s heads on a whim? This is important!”

“If you know anything about us,” said Preventer, “And you definitely do, then you should know that threats won’t work with us.”

She had a lot of nerve to say that, since of us three (I didn’t really know Mario well enough to know how he’d react) she was the one who got scared the most if someone managed to make a credible threat to her.

“This isn’t only a threat!” snapped Answerer, “This is important! I’m the only one who steers the Regime, by which I mean Her. I’ve saved the world over and over, and I can’t keep doing that if there are blurs in my gift!”

“If you don’t want to threaten,” I said, “Then don’t start with that. We don’t believe you’ll really-“

I broke it off as Mario’s head shot off his shoulders, his body slumping forward.

I froze for an instant, seeing the blood coat the invisible scythe, and then a bull roar forced its way up my throat as I slammed a hand down to the ground, my mind screaming that I was far too late.

And Mario was back, whole, unwounded, and seemingly untroubled.

“What the fuck?” I shouted, looking around at my team. I could sense their footsteps moving about, but no one looked like they were moving, just standing frozen.

“You don’t believe we’ll really?” asked Refiner, in his great bull voice. “Really what? Finish your sentence, you pussy bitch!”

He stomped towards me, towering over me, eyes flashing behind his skull mask, steam or smoke belching forth.

“This isn’t real!” I said, mostly to myself. “Refiner is too sick to walk or think, and you didn’t kill Mario!”

“They totally killed me,” said Mario.

“I’m more real than any of these other pigs,” snarled Refiner. “A continent fears me, my ideals go forth and conquer every goddamn day, and you think I’m not real just because I don’t have a fucking body?”

I looked to Mario, then back.

“I can just ask him if he knows something you don’t know!” I blurted. “Your gift isn’t unbeatable, Deceiver!”

“It’s Refiner!” he snarled, “So what if some dumb bitch does my thinking! And why don’t you fucking go ahead and try that, if you think it’ll let you tell what’s real.”

I opened my mouth, then froze.

If I asked for a memory that only he knew, then there was nothing to say Deceiver would let him hear the question, or that it hadn’t already fed him the question from a fake me and gotten the answer.

“I could have predicted it with my gift and the answer would be known that way!” said Answerer’s voice, right by my ear.

“Bitch!” said Her voice, by the other ear.

I jumped. I couldn’t help it, just an automatic response. The instant I was in the air someone tapped me on the forehead.

When I came back down on the floor the others were looking at me strangely, their movements once again synced up to where my gift said their feet were.

“It’s ok Dale,” said Haunter. “It was all just Deceiver, whatever they said, they were just trying to prove a point.”

I nodded numbly, frantically, well aware that I had no reason to believe that that was the real her. Deceiver had just proven that there was no way for me to know what was real or true, and that head poke at the end, when my gift said no one was standing near me, made me think she could feign touch just as well as any other sense.

She looked back over to where Second Fist stood, back to Answerer.

“The reason you can’t get a confession out of us in your answers is that we don’t know how we are blocking your gifts. How could we? It’s not like we could test anything we tried.”

“You could have used others with similar gifts to test,” said Answerer, “Or done my own trick and just predicted what would work if you know someone with a gift similar to mine. However you are doing it, you need to stop.”

Haunter smiled wanly.

“That’ll be hard for us to do deliberately, since we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s most likely a side effect of one of our gifts.”

“I’m not stupid!” snarled Answerer, “I’ve dealt with problematic gifts before, I know what that looks like, and this isn’t that.”

“What is it?” I asked. “Like, when is there trouble?”

“Why?” came Refiner’s counterfeit voice, “You looking to exploit some kind of weakness?”

“No!” said Haunter, her frustration evident, “He’s hoping we can put our knowledge of what we were doing together with her explanation for when things block her gift and give you an answer.”

“The battle!” said Answerer, “How did you possibly survive that battle? There were at least a dozen coin flips for your death, even with the blurriness keeping away any actual end lines. How did you make it through Istanbul and Berlin? Why didn’t Vampire kill you?”

We’d never even seen Vampire after she warped us out of Istanbul.

“Didn’t Third Fist kill her?” I asked, before I could stop myself. “They must’ve, right? The Union didn’t have an answer for her.”

Answerer’s fist closed in frustrated agitation.

“It’s First Fist,” said Haunter.

Answerer looked over at her.

“This is probably useless,” she continued, “because everything is against Remover, but whatever answer we come up with won’t be the real one. The real one is Remover, just like it always is.”

“Could you maybe be a little more specific?” asked Refiner.

“Joe’s real voice was a bit higher,” said Jane, “And he never said ‘maybe’ in his entire life.”

“Answer the question,” snarled Answerer.

“Dale uses a variety of Ultra drugs, and maybe you can’t correctly foresee him when he uses them” said Jane, “I sometimes take advice from my shades and I sometimes act on my own decisions, maybe you can’t see the shades ideas coming. Preventer’s Ultra toughness fluctuates, maybe she is too tough to accurately foresee some of the time. Take your pick.”

There was a long beat as the other side seemed to digest that.

“But whatever you pick,” said Haunter, picking up the thread of her speech again before they could answer, “You’ll be wrong. That will be the surface reason, but there is a reason behind that, a reason that things are this way, that you won’t be able to see. The reason you find will be the rule, but there’s a reason that the rules are that way.”

“And that hidden true reason is First Fist?” asked Answerer, incredulously.

Haunter turned, strangely enough, to Mario.

“Union man,” she said, “What would you say the odds are that a precog or a cabal of precogs controls your Union? Just roughly.”

“Why are you-“ said Refiner, before Preventer cut him off.

“Mario is a Union intelligence officer,” she said, “You already know this, so just skip the part where you pretend that you didn’t and get mad at us for hiding it. It would just be a waste of time.”

“Our entire government is set up so that an Ultra can’t take control,” said Mario, slowly. “We have multiple redundancies, a decentralized organization built from the ground up in order to stay under the control of humans, come what may.”

“Sure,” said Jane, “But answer the question.”

“Ninety percent?” he guessed, “Maybe ninety five?”

Jane gave a quiet chuckle.

“I don’t see what this has to do with anything,” said Answerer.

“We’ve done everything that they possibly can to stop it,” said Mario, “But the fact is that the Regime and the Pantheon are controlled by precogs, and we haven’t been conquered by them, in all this time. There’s no way to explain that without assuming we have our own equalizer.”

“Controlled?” asked Refiner.

Jane rolled her eyes.

“Prevailer’s gift is that She is very strong. Answerer knows everything. Which of those two do you think is really in control?”

“What does any of this have to do with First Fist?” demanded Answerer, who looked just a little bit uncomfortable with how this conversation was going.

I could relate. Thinking that you were the boss of Her was one of the easiest ways to get killed. I’d had a number of close calls before I’d learned the tricks of how to talk to Her without ever seeming like I was trying to take charge.

“They killed the world,” said Jane, eyes downcast, “And they did it without ceremony or incident. Everything goes exactly like they need it to and no one ever wised up or tried to stop them. I’m embarrassed it took me so long to work out what’s actually going on.”

“And what would that be?” asked Refiner.

“Remover can counterfeit precognitive gifts, probably any gift at all that gets information from the place gifts come from. Her other half is a boss over there, according to Condemner, so all the gifts just cooperate.”

“My gift hasn’t been counterfeited,” said Answerer, sounding alarmed and a bit insulted at the suggestion.

“How many times has someone told you that they have free will, in the exact same tone?” asked Preventer, “You wouldn’t be able to see the truth any more than they did. They can do whatever they want, but they can only want what you arrange for them to want. She gave you the answers she needed to in order to get you to move as she wanted. That didn’t include anything obviously false.”

“Place that the gifts come from?” asked Refiner.

Jane raised a hand, as though to wave away that question.

“Look, just, the point is that the real answer to what’s going on with your gift and it’s relation to us is that Remover is messing with it. Believe us or don’t.”

There was a long, silent beat as Answerer weighed her alternatives.

I didn’t especially like to think them through either. If Remover had worked on Answerer’s gift to get us here, then we were doing her bidding even now. Even though we thought we’d come to stop her, she must want us to…

I pushed aside that train of thought with some effort. You couldn’t just sit there and think your way through a future seeing gift, and it was a waste of effort to try.

“Well,” said Refiner, “There’s always the second option.”

Answerer looked back, gave a short nod, and vanished.

I felt the footprints from where she was walking out of the room, and I slightly increased my belief that that might have been the real her.

“The second option?” I asked.

“We’d have preferred it if you could have told us how to fix Answerer’s foresight,” Refiner said, “Because there is a situation right now that demands everything to go absolutely perfectly, and we usually use her for that.”

“Sorry we couldn’t help,” said Preventer, not sounding all that sorry.

“I appreciate that,” said Refiner, “But you actually can.”

“Uh oh,” I said.

“You see,” he went on, or really Deceiver went on, but it was getting easier and easier to just think of Refiner as the one who spoke for their team, “When Subtracter told the Company to cease supplying the Pantheon with food, they got a bit upset.”

“Well, yeah,” said Preventer.

“And some of them struck out on their own, or started foraging, or did whatever,” he continued, “But some of them, a whole lot of them, came here.”

My eyebrows rose.

“They looking to get splatted by Her?” I asked.

“Subtracter went to ask them the same question,” he said, “And she hasn’t returned. Answerer’s getting the same kind of fuzz around their Host that she used to get with you lot.”

I didn’t like where this was going.

“So just tell Her what’s up,” I said.

“Are you volunteering?” he asked.

That shut me up.

“No one has spoken to Her in months,” he said, “The people that look like they are going in and out are courtesy of Deceiver. One thing that is not blurry at all to Answerer’s gift is that going in there causes the world to end.”

“So the Pantheon killed Subtracter?” said Haunter, somewhat dubiously, “Or maybe captured her? That’s an awful lot of firepower for a random Goddess. Do you know who is leading this suicide charge?”

Refiner couldn’t smile, not with his face being a skull mask and all, but this was just an illusion, so he smiled anyway.

“Krishna,” he said. “And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Fist with some experience with an Ultra of that name.”

Regime Quest 50

Day 15:

Morning: Get to know Erupter

It was hard to track Erupter down. I spent most of my time in the Lair, and she was a creature of the outskirts.

I pulled it off, ultimately, but I might not have been able to do so if I hadn’t come from the outskirts myself. I asked old rivals, gang contacts and similar people. At least two people warned me about Replayer’s search for the same person just a bit ago.

“Which of you is Erupter?” I asked, when I finally caught up with their group.

They weren’t much to look at. A quartet of dusty, dirty people stalking grimly along in the rubble halo that surrounded Shington. None of them seemed obviously in charge, which had reduced me to asking.

Three of them looked to the fourth, which was answer enough.

“I am,” she said, “who’s asking?”

Erupter was a short, fat woman, with an old hunting hat for a Sigil, dressed in tattered camouflage. She had curly hair and a habitually angry expression.

“Blender,” I told her. “The Warlord.”

Her face sort of ‘unclenched’, the scowl fading into a much more open look.

“It’s an honor,” she said. “I didn’t know you’d heard of my work.”

I made a noncommittal noise, which was all the encouragement she needed to launch into a fervent description of her passion project.

It was…entirely deranged. Erupter believed that Pantheon and Union ‘agents’ might be slipping into the city, which, sure, that was obviously the case. She further believed that they would do so by creeping around under cover, and that she and a few dedicated followers could roust them out.

I refrained from pointing out the obvious, that Union and Pantheon agents would look just like ordinary Regime citizens, because that is exactly what they were. A moment’s contemplation was enough to see that her patrol was worthless.

The fact that she’d never spent that moment of contemplation, or spoken to anyone who felt comfortable sharing it with her, told me an awful lot about her. Our conversation was enough for me to complete the portrait.

Erupter was a Regime zealot, and entirely without what we used to call ‘soft’ skills. She saw the war between the nations as an existential conflict, a battle between good and evil people. The Union and Pantheon were subhuman, in her eyes, which was why she’d never even conceived of the possibility of infiltration.

She was a martinet and a petty tyrant, whose followers obeyed because they were given no other choice. In the Posse she would fight bravely but without imagination, and woe befall any enemies who fell into her hands.

I…was it hypocritical to find her repulsive? Erupter was utterly typical, a simple partisan of the most basic type. Her stupidity was due to the fact that she’d never been educated, her morality was due to her upbringing. In a few more decades all of the Blenders would be Erupters, as the last of the Old World’s survivors died off.

We parted amicably. If I wanted to recruit her, it would be simple, but I wasn’t sure yet whether I wanted to.

 

Afternoon: Kill Nailer

“This is where I go to get stuff combined?” I demanded.

My stammering informant nodded his confirmation, then darted off into the rubble as I dismissed him.

I eyed the ruined church dubiously. It certainly didn’t look like the lair of a powerful Ultra. The ceiling had fallen in long ago, and two of the walls had followed it down. The front and side that were still standing were basically leaning against the toppled substructure.

“Hello?” I called, pulling one of the enormous doors back, and squatting down to look into the squalid cave thereby revealed.

It wasn’t literally a cave, of course, just an empty section of the collapsed structure, but it was a hard comparison to push away, when I considered the mismatch of the door to the opening it concealed.

“Come inside!” demanded a querulous voice from within.

I looked at the cramped crevice that I’d have to crawl into. No fucking thanks.

“I’m not doing that!” I shouted back. “Get your ass out here!”

“Says who?” demanded the voice. “Just go away if you won’t come in!”

Wasn’t that a nice set up.

“Says the Warlord!” I snarled. “Now get your ass out here before I throw your stupid little building out of the city!”

I heard a pair of voices arguing inside, too faint to make out, before the sounds of movement started to trickle out. I could hear clothes scuffing against stone, and grunts of exertion.

Finally a dirty figure crawled her way out of the entrance. She was mid height, mid weight, hair done up in short dreads. Her outfit was a patchwork affair, the most prominent component being some kind of old youth scouting uniform top. There were a few more blocky and weighty components somehow blended or woven into the sides, but I didn’t have time to examine it in more detail.

“You Blender?” she asked, as she heaved herself to her feet.

I nodded, scowling down at her.

“And you must be Nailer,” I guessed, as she pulled a kerchief up around her neck. I’d been told that her Sigil was a bandanna, that was probably what they meant.

“So what do you want Nail-“ she began, and I shot her in the face.

She’d looked down at her knees, and I took the opportunity. I wasn’t here to have a long discussion with someone I was killing, or God forbid end up in a fight. This was a simple assassination, so the first time she looked away I ended things.

She didn’t turn out to have Ultra Toughness, and so she just toppled over dead when I shot her.

I stood for a long moment, looking down at the body sprawled out before me. Then I took careful aim and shot her twice more in the back of the head.

“Only one Blender allowed in this fucking town,” I said out loud. I was officially talking to the corpse, but really this was for whoever else was down in that fucking warren. I wasn’t about to crawl in there and look for her henchman, or bring down a building with no idea how many people might be penned up in there.

There was no response. Whoever was in there had at least enough sense not to provoke the Warlord.

I gave it another beat, then turned on my heel and stalked back into town.

 

 

Evening: Debrief Owner/Replayer

“Whatever you did to them,” said Owner, “It worked.”

I wasn’t exactly surprised by that.

“Whatever she did to them,” mimicked Replayer, “What she did was lead them, which is what you should have done, you fucking pussy.”

“Ease up,” I cautioned her. “Owner has her uses.”

I couldn’t, of course, tell her to ease up because abusing another human being was a generally shitty thing to do, or point out the differences between leading and frightening someone.

“Anyway, we went through the drills,” said Owner. “We have to have the best trained troops in the city, or at least the most trained.”

I gave a satisfied nod.

“But Blender?” she asked.

This was rare, Owner didn’t normally ask questions in front of Replayer, so it must be important.

“Wouldn’t it be better to do the training after we recruit everyone we are taking to the next mission?” she asked. “Like cuz then we will be training everyone, while training now only gets the people we’ve already got on board.”

Replayer didn’t jump in with anything snide, which meant she agreed.

“There’s a method to it,” I told them. “I’m making our Warband resemble the Regime itself.”

They looked to each other in confusion.

“We don’t want all the soldiers to be equal,” I said, plainly, “We levels! We want layers! We are going to have veterans from our first battle, then those who we’ve trained, and after that the later recruits. Everyone will know who is in charge, just looking up the pyramid.”

Owner didn’t look convinced, likely because what I was saying didn’t actually answer her question, but Replayer was nodding along.

“The Posse is like the Inner Circle,” I continued. “And you get the rest.”

“Scouting went great,” said Replayer. “I found 2 people who would be aces for us.”

I neglected to point out that her ‘great’ was apparently less successful than Owner’s ‘fine’ had been, but I certainly fucking thought it.

“Sworder is pretty strong. She’s been my number two for a while now, so we should make her part of the Posse.”

“What’s her gift?” I asked.

“She’s like a sword,” explained Replayer, “She cuts what she touches, which also protects her.”

“Ultra strength, Ultra toughness?” I asked.

“Both about one,” she said, “But they come out as cutting stuff and not getting cut by stuff.”

“That’s not all that strong,” I said, “Does she have any Ultra speed, or can her gift do anything else?”

Replayer waved a hand dismissively.

“I’m probably explaining it wrong,” she said, “But the main thing about her is that we can work well together. A lot of people just provoke me and piss me off, but Sworder knows her fucking place.”

That was actually worth considering, in a way. Anyone I brought into the Posse would have to work with Replayer, or at least not actively fight with her, so someone with a proven ability to do that was worth considering.

Of course, giving her an ally might well embolden her. Replayer was a dangerous person, and she might well have designs on my seat.

“Maybe more suited for the Warband,” I hedged, “But I’ll keep her in mind. Who else?”

“I found Singer,” she said, “Who is apparently something special. I asked five different people, and four of them mentioned her in their first three names. That says something.”

“Sure,” I said, “And so does the fact that she can keep such a common name. She probably has to kill another ‘Singer’ every year or so.”

“Her thing is a kind of enhancing deal,” said Replayer. “She sings and it gives everyone around her Ultra strength, toughness or speed.”

“Sounds promising,” I said, “Got any more details.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I talked to her a bit, she’s…uh, weird. She’s kind of hard to talk to, very spacey.”

“Does she benefit from her own song?”

“Yeah,” said Replayer, “More than anyone else. People get the benefit more the closer they are to her, and she’s closest to herself, see?”

I did.

“Is it selective?” I asked. “Can exclude the enemy?”

“Not easily,” said Replayer, “It is whoever is hearing her. So usually everyone, but, like, I can think of ways to fix that, right?”

I could imagine a few.

“What if the person already has that Ultra power? Can she make someone who is strong stronger?”

“Whichever is better,” said Replayer, “But basically the answer is no. Her gift gives people a high one if they are close to her, a low one if they are further away, up to a two for herself. If someone’s already got a one in whatever she is singing they’d have to be real near her to get any kind of benefit.”

“Well there’s a fucking prospect and a half,” I said, mind awhirl with possibilities. “Swinger and Sworder, eh?”

“We can do this,” said Owner.

“Two weeks left,” I told them. “We can do this.”

 

Day 16

14 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

Erupter – 0/0/2, a woman who retaliates against attacks on herself, patrols the outskirts of the city.

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

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, 2 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

 

Warband:

16 Veteran Ultras, 13 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: 4/10 (5 – 3 +2 -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.

 

Indulger 10:1

We got up early in the morning, I’d barely got to sleep at all. I’d formed up the ground into a kind of a shell over myself down in the basement, and settled down to rest.

But the thing about sleeping with my gift working was that I was always feeling the footsteps of all the people around us, and Shington was a huge city. So my gift kept poking and alerting me whenever anyone walked sort of towards us, even if they were streets away. I kept getting woken up, ready to fight, for stuff that didn’t have anything to do with us.

This hadn’t always been a problem for me.

Back in the day, when I’d slept, I’d just got up on a bed if I was in a city, so my gift couldn’t pester me. If I didn’t have a bed then I was out in the wilderness, making my roads and pulling my wagon, and there wasn’t anyone around to set off my gift.

I tried to tell myself that, tried to say that losing the Link wasn’t a big deal because I’d lived a long time without it, and I could just trust that no one would get me at night like I’d always done in the past. I couldn’t make myself believe it though.

I wasn’t sure if Lotus’s stuff was at fault, or if maybe it was because of the stuff I’d seen recently, or even maybe just that we were in Her city. But for whatever reason I couldn’t make myself trust that I’d be safe in Preventer’s house.

Mario was up second in the morning, he brought me down some rations. The Union’s stuff was way better than protein powder, but we’d been eating it for a while now, and I had a bit of trouble choking it down.

“You ready for today?” he asked me.

I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. Was it some kind of dig? I didn’t think so, but sometimes I didn’t know what people were implying.

“Yeah,” I told him. “Second Fist are tough, but we shouldn’t have to fight them. I expect it’ll just be the ladies doing a bunch of talking.”

“Do you think they’ll know what we want?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Stuff never goes right for us.”

“I’m sure that’s not totally true,” he said.

“We once took a boat ride,” I said. “And it ended up with us getting nuked. Has that ever happened to anybody else? Like in the whole world?”

“I’m sure it has,” he hedged. “It must have, right?”

I looked down at the floor, aware that I was being petulant. A side effect from taking the Lotus stuff was that when I was not on any of it my emotions were a little out of whack. It was kind of hard to stay balanced when ‘balance’ meant a different thing depending on what I was taking.

“Everyone sleep alright?” asked Preventer, coming through a door from upstairs and fussing with her hair.

“Yeah,” I told her.

She and Haunter were going to do the talking with Second Fist today, they didn’t need to be bothered with my sleep troubles.

“So what’s our strategy?” asked Mario, and I tuned them out for a bit, stalking back down to the basement to get back in touch with the ground.

Nobody was watching our building, or at least they were up off the ground if they were. The only people my gift could sense were those who’d been there all night, just a few desperate folks sheltering under rubble and some Ultra’s mooks who were standing around waiting for her to get up.

But someone was coming.

As soon as I let my awareness go further out into the city I felt them, a bunch of guys walking in two straight lines, and another person in the middle.

The only people who walked in careful lines like that were Knights, and I was even more sure that that was what they were because they were thumping their scythes on the ground as they walked, like third feet that only stepped every other step.

“Guys! Knights incoming!” I shouted out, throwing the door back up to the middle room open again.

“What? Where?” came Haunter’s voice.

I didn’t answered immediately, putting a hand down to the stones of the basement’s floor to try and get my gift to go a bit farther.

I didn’t sense any extra columns coming, or any other groups that seemed to be headed here.

“How many? Is Second Fist with them?” asked Haunter, as she rushed down into the basement. Preventer and Mario were immediately behind her, Mario buckling a gun to a shoulder holster while he swallowed a biscuit.

“Ten in two lines,” I said, “With a person walking in the middle.”

“Could be someone in their leadership,” guessed Preventer. “I know Knight Lords get that kind of escort when they are doing official things. Could also be one of Second Fist.”

“It would be Destroyer or Choker,” said Haunter, “If it is a Fist member that is. Probably Choker, since they’d want to keep Destroyer close at hand if they are worrying about a conflict with us.”

“They don’t have any reason to expect conflict with us, right?” asked Mario.

“Depends if they have Answerer,” said Haunter, “But that discussion goes down the precog rabbit hole again. We need to meet them outside, so that Dale’s gift can be a factor.”

“I think I’ll know if Deceiver tries to fool me,” I ventured, “Even if she can fake the inputs that I’m getting, she doesn’t know what footsteps are supposed to feel like, right? So there should be something wrong with any fake input from my gift.”

We started up the steps into the main floor as we spoke, and it was embarrassing how tense I got when I lost contact with the ground. I used to be so cavalier about leaving the land and my gift, but now it made me nervous every single time.

I hesitated a second in the doorway, reaching into my satchel. This was a big day, an important one. I needed to be the right me, the one who’d kept us safe in the Pantheon.

I grabbed for one of the reddest vials, one that was barely watered down from the pure berserker stuff.

“Dale, don’t,” said Haunter, without even looking at me. “We’ve got this, there isn’t going to be a fight.”

But she would say that, right? Wouldn’t the woman who always bossed me around want me to just stay meek and quiet, ready to take her orders?

I shook the thoughts away and took another step, hand still in the satchel. My shoulders relaxed the merest bit as my foot made contact with the ground and my gift surged back into my awareness.

The Knights were only a little ways away, they were about to climb through that rubble heap we’d come through yesterday and then they’d be able to see us.

“She’s right, Indulger,” said Preventer. “Stay even unless the fighting starts. You don’t want to waste your stuff.”

I took my hand out of the satchel as we took a formation in front of the house. Haunter and I were in the center, while Mario and Preventer stood back a bit behind us and to the sides.

The Knights were on us in a moment, stomping down the street in their two lines. It was kind of cool how they each stepped at the same time, and how all their scythes came down at once. They must have practiced for a long time to get it right.

The one in the center wasn’t dressed like an Ultra, just another Knight. He was taller than the rest, but I could tell he hand platform shoes on under his robe to make that happen. He had a fancier outfit and a skull mask with antlers on it.

Haunter was the one who most hated the Knights, I hadn’t ever really had much meetings with them. But still I felt a bit of anger at that, even without the red potion. It wasn’t enough for them that the city was covered with skulls, they had to wear them too?

“Refiner summons you,” said the center one, as they came to a stop. “Her Second Fist has received tidings of your arrival, and they seek conference with their peers.”

The center one didn’t have a scythe. That was weird. It felt like going up in ranks should mean you got a bigger scythe or something. Maybe he had one of Refiner’s guns under that robe.

“We are not to be summoned,” said Haunter, taking a step forward. She did that thing with her voice where a bunch of her shades manifested and spoke each word then disappeared real quick. It made her look a bit blurry and sound like a whole crowd of people talking, which was a very cool effect.

“Requests your presence, then,” said the center one, seemingly unruffled. “Two Fists must work as one to win a fight, and Subtracter will be delighted to direct you.”

I felt a chill at the mention of Subtracter, who had always been something of a personal devil to me. Her ability to fly made her almost invisible to my gift, and I could never forget how she’d defeated us without trying right after we first got Linked.

Prevailer was fond of very few people, but She trusted Subtracter a bit. When we’d been together She had run down a lot of people, but I couldn’t remember Her dunking on Subtracter at all.

We shared a look. We hadn’t been expecting to win a fight with Second Fist anyway, when it was basically five to 3, but there had been some things in our favor. If Haunter’s shades could overload Deceiver’s gift, and Refiner couldn’t fight, we’d talked ourselves into thinking that maybe we would have some kind of chance.

Subtracter sunk that idea completely. She could take us all out single handed. Ultra Speed two was almost unbeatable, and it was just one of her gifts. She was a Death or Vampire class Ultra.

“Lead on then,” said Haunter, still using her multi voice. “We’ve been away for a long time, it will be good to catch up with our fellow Fist.”

The lead Knight looked to me for a moment, which wrong footed me for a bit until I remembered that I was official the leader.

I gave him a firm, confirming nod, putting whatever authority they thought I had behind Haunter’s decision.

“Will Fisher be joining us?” he asked, delicately.

We’d actually worried a lot about this question. Most people we could shut down by just running the ‘you have no right to question us’ line, or acting like we were leaving her elsewhere as insurance like Fifth Fist had done with Zilla, but we’d decided on something else for this particular mission.

“Joining us?” I asked, looking confused.

“Refiner instructed me to invite the whole Fist,” he answered.

I couldn’t see his face behind the mask, but he had to be looking a little chagrined at having to correct a Fist.

“But she’s here, human,” I corrected. “Look to your shadows.”

They might have been disciplined, but the Knights still looked down, one and all, skull masks swiveling here and there in confusion and alarm.

“Of…of course, sir,” he said, “Force Rules the World!”

We echoed the response, and fell in behind them as they tromped their way back towards Second Fists’ fortress.

It felt strange to go along with Second Fists’ thing, but this was what we’d wanted to do anyway. Like, we were planning on heading over there first thing today, and here we were, with an escort.

It didn’t take us long, their headquarters wasn’t super far from Preventer’s big house. The skulls loomed over us as we walked, and I had no doubt that if Watcher existed then he or she was paying full attention to us.

There was another file of Knights outside of their headquarters, which was a mostly collapsed apartment building. It looked like the bottom floor was basically intact, but there was a lot of rubbish up top, which they’d put some effort into piling into fang shaped columns.

After seeing Istanbul and Berlin, it just looked pathetic. Like children trying on sigils in case it gave them Ultra gifts.

We came to a stop in front of the waiting Knights, Haunter stepped forward.

“Where is Refiner? Where is Subtracter?”

She spoke coldly, with the calm certainty of someone who knew that she was going to be obeyed. Not at all like someone surrounded by foes.

I sometimes envied other Ultra’s gifts. Mine was great, obviously, and definitely stronger than Haunter’s overall, but still it had to be nice to outsource all your acting cool to whoever on your team was not afraid.

I had the weirdest sensation all of a sudden.

One of the humans who was hiding in the rubble around us was exactly, and I mean totally exactly, the same weight out of a Company Man. It was utterly strange.

Like, obviously a Company Man wouldn’t be living with humans across the street from Second Fist. They all lived in the Company Facilities, up on the second floor, and the Company hadn’t fallen apart in the Regime. So that couldn’t really be a Company Man, but I could swear it was.

“They await within,” said the lead Knight, which wasn’t exactly a surprise.

I couldn’t look back over my shoulder without looking weak or whatever, but I was dying to know who my gift thought was a Company Man. It made me worry that Deceiver was able to fool my gift after all.

We walked inside, and I was NOT cut off from my gift. They didn’t have a basement here, their floor was ‘ground’ enough for my gift.

I couldn’t stop a grin from touching the edges of my mouth. I’d been willing to give up my gift for this meeting, since we couldn’t beat Subtracter anyway, but it was a huge relief to not have to. It meant that if things went bad I could take a stab at snatching us down into the ground and getting us away.

Second Fist were waiting for us, and I could already tell that Deceiver was messing with our minds.

It looked like they were all standing in front of us, but I could feel where Refiner was, and there were two wheels touching the ground, not the two feet that it looked like. He was in a wheelchair, but she was hiding it.

There were also a trio of Knights behind us that we couldn’t see. They probably had some of Refiner’s blessed guns pointed at us in case we got up to anything.

The rest of their crew weren’t obviously being masked by Deceiver, they looked about like they had when we’d gotten the Link. Deceiver, Bomber, Destroyer Refiner and Choker, standing arrayed before us.

And one more.

“We’re looking for First Fist,” said Haunter, obviously realizing that we weren’t going to be able to conceal anything from this person.

“I know,” said Answerer, “They told me you would be.”

Regime Quest 49

Day 14:

Morning: Relaxation

This was a mistake.

There was nothing wrong with the stand up comic who was plying his trade, doing a credible Union accent and mocking our neighbors to the north. There was nothing wrong with the venue, a quiet hole in the wall that I’d patronized on numerous occasions. There was nothing wrong with my body or my blends.

The fault was all in my mind.

‘Trying to relax’ sounds like a good idea when you have it, but when it comes time to actually execute it is almost maddeningly difficult. I sat there and tried to lose myself in the crowd’s laughter, and the only thing I lost were valuable seconds, minutes of my life.

I was going to die in two weeks, and these assholes were sitting around laughing?

I didn’t get up and shout or make a big scene about it. I’d presumably laughed at some point while the last warlord ran around, desperately trying to gather up Ultras for her doomed efforts against Ar Harbour. It would be counterproductive to cause a scene about it.

But every moment I spent denying resentment and tamping down on my annoyance was a moment that I wasn’t resting, wasn’t enjoying myself. And that thought was even more counterproductive.

It didn’t help that the comic wasn’t great. He fell in the uncanny valley between licking Her boots and not daring to have any opinions about Ultras whatsoever. Probably his first time working the Lair, and his last, if my opinion was anything like typical for the audience. He’d be lucky to leave alive.

That thought, and those like it, kept me at least a little occupied for the remainder of the event, which was probably at least slightly healthier than mentally counting the precious seconds of my life as they slipped to the bottom bulb of the hourglass.

So yeah, not that restful.

 

Afternoon: Training

The concept of ‘chain of command’ was a very old one. The Romans had it. At its core it wasn’t very complicated. I was pretty sure some species of wolves had managed something similar.

The basic idea was that you obeyed the person above you, but not just because they could beat you up. It was because we were all more successful when we worked that way, and you could prove this because teams with hierarchies always kicked the shit out of disorganized mobs.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t working with Romans, or even fucking wolves. I was working with Ultras, people who’d spent their lives from a very young age being told that Ultras were the best and most important, and they got to do whatever they want.

They’d cowered and scraped through the first part of their existences as humans, ordered around and randomly bullied by our kind. Then they’d risked their lives in the Process, and ultimately been vindicated. They were fortune’s favorites, the Chosen Ones.

It all shook out to them not wanting to take orders from a jumped up soda vendor who’d spent the last battle cowering in the wreckage of the vehicle.

It wasn’t like I didn’t emphasize, on some level. Owner really didn’t know her way around a battle. But what I explained to them, what I’d explained to them at least twice before, was that Owner’s orders ultimately came from me.

I had to do the tough gal thing. I held court in the center of the barracks, calling out anyone who didn’t look sufficiently cowed, asking whether they thought they could take me. I wrapped my ‘Warlord’ title around me and threatened them with Her wrath. I did everything I could think of to cow them into obedience.

By the time I left I was vaguely optimistic that maybe they’d take Owner’s orders, as long as they were for something they wanted to do anyway. Maybe this time it would finally sink in.

 

Evening: Debrief Owner/Replayer

“You were both scouting,” I told my Posse as we met later on, in the same watering hole as yesterday, “so tell me what you found.”

Replayer did her eye thing, so I turned to Owner first.

“Three prospects,” she said. “Two first rate, one I’m a bit dubious on.”

“Why?” asked Replayer.

“She has a problem with authority,” said Owner.

“Let’s hear ‘em,” I interrupted.

“Erupter is the first one. She’s Ultra Tough Two, and whenever anything hits her an explosive force slams it back, at the same level it hit at. So if you punched her at Ultra tough one, your hand gets punched back at the same strength. Bullets get hit in the front by bullets, and so on.”

I’d have gone with ‘Reflector’ or something similar for that gift, but the ways of the Company Men were not for the rest of us to understand.

“What’s she do?” I asked.

“Erupter has sort of appointed herself a patrolling defender of Shington,” she said, “She has a small gang of weaker Ultras and they wander around the city, hassling refugees on approach and watching for Union or Pantheon attacks.”

Replayer gave a quiet chuckle at the idea of anyone attacking the city where She laid Her head.

“Next up we have Stormer,” she said, “Who does weather control. She doesn’t normally have Ultra Toughness, but she gains it to some degree, the worse the weather is.”

“I bet she spends her time selling rainy or sunny days to Ultras willing to protect her,” I guessed, which Owner confirmed with a nod.

“She has limited control of the storm in a fight situation, she could maybe strike someone with lighting, it isn’t clear whether it has Ultra Strength or not, but she definitely doesn’t control each gust of wind.”

“That doesn’t sound like a combatant,” said Replayer, and Owner nodded sheepishly.

“I just didn’t want to skip over her,” she said, “I’d feel like a fool if it turned out that weather control was a big deal to Ultra warfare and I just hadn’t mentioned it.”

“And the last one?” I asked, “The one with a problem with authority?”

“Stomper,” she said. “Ultra strength 2, Ultra toughness 1, and some kind of mobility power where she jumps around. She can make explosions when she steps, and it hurls her about.”

I thought about it for a moment.

“I’m guessing the problems with authority are mostly people on her side not wanting to get blown up by her blasting off?”

Owner nodded.

“Pussies,” said Replayer.

I didn’t dignify that with an answer, and I managed not to roll my eyes either.

“Your prospects?” I asked her.

“I couldn’t find Limiter,” she said. “I hear she works with the Dolls in the outer city. She’s supposed to be able to make shields or something like that.”

“Shields?” I asked.

The Dolls were an Ultra gang, one of the stronger ones if matters hadn’t shifted too much since I was coming up.

“Or maybe rules? I dunno, like she can stop everyone from coming in a direction or stuff like that, or not let anybody do certain things.”

That sounds really interesting.

“Does it work on people who are Ultra tough?” I asked.

I also wanted to know what let her use the gift on someone, but it didn’t sound like Replayer had gotten enough info on her for that.

“Nah,” she said, “And also the more they try and do the thing the more it breaks the rule down. I dunno, the person I talked to through she promised a lot and didn’t follow through on it very well.”

“And Murderer?” I asked.

I’d known at least two other Murderer’s before. It was a pretty common name.

“Death touch,” she said, “And she’s Ultra Tough at one.”

“Sounds a lot like Smasher,” said Owner. “Do we know any limitations on her gift?”

“Nope,” said Replayer, “She says it has never failed her, but I bet she’d say that even if it had, you know?”

“Is she only Ultra Tough if she’s used the death touch recently?” I asked.

It was surprisingly common for Ultras with 2 gifts to have the second one ‘powered’ by the primary.

“Not sure,” she said. “We talked a bit, but she was cagey. She’s waiting on you failing, wants to be the Warlord after you.”

That wasn’t very surprising, but it was certainly something to keep in mind. Given the chance, she might take the opportunity to hurry her time along.

“Resister?” I asked.

“Ultra tough one,” she said, “And also she gets tougher against any single person the more they fight. I talked to her ex, and the way she tells it if someone doesn’t beat her right off the bat they aren’t going to.”

“Does she have any offensive capabilities?” I asked.

What I really wanted to know was what all these folks had in common, to get them on the Union’s list, but Replayer wasn’t really someone I could trust enough to let down the mask of the Warlord. I had to stay strictly within the confines of my role with her.

“Not at first,” said Replayer, “But the more she resists someone the stronger she gets vs them.”

“What is she up to?” I asked.

“She lives in the Lair itself,” Replayer said, “She’s been growing in popularity recently, she runs one of the human dog fighting rings.”

Had she been responsible for the delay in my message? I dismissed the thought.

“And was there one more?” I asked.

“Finisher,” said Replayer, “Seemed like a nobody. She lives like a human, just eats her protein paste and chills out every day. Nothing going on there.”

“What’s her gift?” I asked.

“She can kill wounded people by making their wounds get worse and worse. Just has to see them to do it. It takes more or less time depending on how bad the wound is.”

“Ultra tough also?” I asked.

Replayer shook her head.

“Not at all,” she said, “I don’t know who recommended her for the Posse, but they don’t know shit. This one’s useless.”

“She might have a use,” said Owner. “People take wounds in the fight and go on to win it, if we had someone watching up over the fight so that all the enemies who got wounded died right off it would be very helpful.”

Replayer scowled at Owner, and I waved a hand dismissively.

“Thanks for your reports,” I told them. “Let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow will come soon enough.”

 

Day 15

15 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

Erupter – 0/0/2, a woman who retaliates against attacks on herself, patrols the outskirts of the city.

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

 

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

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, 2 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

 

Warband:

16 Veteran Ultras, 13 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: 5/10 (4 – 0 +1 -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.

Preventer 11:2

Our visitors didn’t arrive all at once, but they trickled in over the course of the afternoon, humans and weak Ultras, delicately trying to assure themselves of our intentions and endear themselves to a Fist newly returned to town.

I could tell that Dale and Haunter were chafing to be off somewhere, but in the absence of any actual destination they were content to leave things to me. Mario was kept mostly in the background, passing quickly by doorways or hallways, letting our visitors believe that Condemner was here without giving them the chance to interact with him.

I did the lion’s share of the work, slipping easily back into my old role, wheeling and dealing like the big shot Ultra that I’d always been. I promised nothing, demanded everything, and generally ordered people around like I always had, throwing Fourth Fist’s weight around and disrupting the local scene with aplomb.

I’d missed it, I realized with some surprise. This was where I’d come up, and the careful social dancing of Regime Ultras was to some extent my native tongue. The bluntness of things in the Pantheon had been something I resigned myself to, something I was willing to endure if it meant getting out from under Her thumb, but I was a creature of Shington at heart.

I culled the truth together from a tidbit here, a snippet there. I didn’t ask anyone anything directly, but over the course of the afternoon I was able to glean a pretty complete picture of what was understood, by the Ultra on the street, to be happening in Shington.

After night fell we gathered in a central basement room to talk the matter through, using my barriers and Dale’s ability to move earth to take what precautions we could against eavesdropping.

“Mario’s reports seem to have been accurate,” I started, nodding towards where he was sitting at a table. “Prevailer is completely secluded from public life. She hasn’t been seen in months.”

Haunter, of course, showed no reaction to that. It must be nice to be able to delegate your facial expressions to some random lackey. Dale certainly looked shocked though.

I couldn’t blame him. I’d been quietly skeptical when we’d first heard about Her absence. It was impossible to think of the Lair without thinking of Her, to an almost ridiculous degree. Shington without Prevailer was just a random ruined city, after all.

“Sorry for doubting you,” said Dale.

Mario gave a grateful nod, and I silently made a mental note that Dale probably wasn’t using his aggression potions tonight. That wasn’t exactly surprising, since with Lotus gone he’d be naturally forced to ration them.

“Who is running things?” asked Haunter.

“Second Fist,” I said, “With some help from the Inner Circle members who are still around. But mostly Second Fist. They’ve turned heavily to the Knights for organization and manpower.”

“They were the ones who got all those skulls?” asked Haunter. “I’d assumed as much, given that an Ultra like Subtracter would have gotten bored long before finishing a task like that.”

“Yep,” I said, “I expect the average skin color in all of the nearby cities is trending paler. Second Fist is all in on this Watcher thing.”

“Do we think she’s real?” asked Dale. “Watcher that is, I know that at the beginning it was just one of First Fist’s sick games, but they’ve had like half a year since then. Do you think they could have gotten the Company to maybe make an Ultra who can see out of these things?”

“Our visitors were definitely convinced that they could,” I said. “The people around here are constantly performing for the skulls, and they seem to think the ones the Knights wear as helmets are similarly used.”

“That is weak evidence in favor of them being real,” said Haunter, “The easiest explanation for the people being afraid of surveillance is if they have witnessed the Knights and other enforcers reacting to things the skulls have seen.”

“It’s probably not really the skulls,” said Dale.

I looked at him, askance.

“You know how She is,” he said, “You know how the Company is. I don’t think they could get an Ultra with exactly the gift that they want so easy, or She would have had lots of Adders long ago. They might have an Ultra with a gift that lets you watch far away, but I don’t believe it is actually connected to the skulls.”

I nodded, slowly.

“Say Watcher’s gift is really that they can hear you when you talk under an open sky, or see you if you are standing on one foot, or whatever. Now the Regime has an Ultra with a sensing gift, and they’ve already prepared the grounds with all these skulls. I think you are right.”

“In that situation,” Mario finished, “There would be no incentive for them to ease up on the skulls. Rather, they would be very helpful as camouflage. People think that avoiding the skull’s gaze will keep them safe, but really the rule that Watcher’s gift works on is something else.”

“So we should assume Second Fist has some kind of surveillance capability,” said Haunter, “They are using that and the Knights to project their power, keep the town from erupting in Her absence. Makes sense.”

“Did anyone say where Answerer was?” asked Mario.

“We didn’t get that lucky,” I answered. “Subtracter is with Second Fist most of the time, but nobody seems to know where Answerer is. Most people assume that she is closeted with Prevailer, and maybe Watcher.”

“Makes sense,” said Dale. “Even if She wants to stay out of sight, She will still get bored. Having Watcher and Answerer around would give Her something to do.”

“The final possibility,” I said, “Is that she’s gone to ground somewhere unknown to us. Perhaps with First Fist, helping to nail down contingencies to whatever they are up to, or perhaps just holed up in a safe house. My understanding is that she can only answer one question a day, but that would still be more than enough, over years, to work out an escape plan.”

“If that’s the case,” said Haunter, “We’ll have to move forward in another way. We committed to doing the things that only we can do, and that doesn’t include combing the countryside for a precog who doesn’t want to be found. Let’s refocus. Our goal is to find First Fist. What, or who, in the city can help us with that, considering only those whose locations are clear to us?”

“There’s obviously Her,” said Dale. “Remover and that crew know Prevailer’s power better than anyone. If they aren’t at the absolute end of their final moves they’ll drop whatever they are doing and come running if She calls. You don’t live with Her that long and not understand the importance of sucking up.”

“We know where Prevailer is,” said Mario, “Even if She hasn’t stirred lately Subtracter still makes regular reports to Her. We could go there, I suppose.”

He didn’t sound terribly enthusiastic, which made sense if he was a top Union spy guy. A big part of his job had probably been to read reports about people who went in after Her getting fucked up.

“There’s also Second Fist,” I said, “and I’ve made no secrets about the fact that I think they are our way forward. First Fist will have objects that Refiner has blessed, they can tell us where they are.”

“Do we think that Deceiver can get the information out of him somehow?” I asked.  “Or is he too senile for that?”

Haunter shrugged.

“No way to know, of course, but my suspicion is that she can’t. If he was coherent enough to ask such things to she could talk him round to giving out tailored blessings again. You wouldn’t have to wear that makeup when you use your gun.”

I’d always figured Haunter had understood the purpose of that.

“So, we want to find First Fist, or a diviner like Answerer, someone with a gift such that finding them is identical to finding First Fist,” said Mario, smoothly intervening to avert rising tensions between Jane and I. “So Answerer or, potentially, Watcher, if they exist. And what we know about are Second Fist, Subtracter and Her, in terms of main powers in the city.”

“Our options are going to Second Fist,” said Jane, ticking them off on her hands as she spoke, “Going to Her, trying to catch up with Subtracter as she’s out and about, or something we haven’t mentioned yet.”

“We could try the Company,” I supplied, “And we could lean on old contacts, the people I know who were shot callers, the old troubleshooters you knew…”

“I don’t think the Resistance could know,” said Dale, “Because they’d have probably told Mario’s friends.”

“Condemner’s friends,” insisted Jane, “And I agree, if the Resistance knew, the Union would know.”

“We could also…do nothing,” I said.

Everyone looked at me, 3, or innumerable, depending on how one counted Jane’s spirits, sets of eyes fixed on my face in confusion.

“We’ve already made our return public. Everyone who is anyone knows that we are here, right? That may well include First Fist, depending on how total their isolation is.”

“So what?” said Dale, “I don’t think they are about to walk up and ring the bell.”

“They might,” I responded, deadpan. “I don’t think it is outside of the realm of possibility at all.”

“Explain,” said Jane, though I figured she’d already guessed where I was going with this.

“You all sold me on the idea that the Thui who was…killed, in our last confrontation with First Fist,” I kept my voice carefully even, held my hands without trembling before me, “was just a duplicate, or a fake of some kind. If so, then they’ve been keeping him hostage for months.”

Mario looked like he wanted to say something, but he had the sense to keep his mouth closed.

“I buy what you’re selling,” and here I indicated Jane, “about Remover being the devil. But the rest of them are the same small time bullies that they’ve always been, right? If they have a hostage…”

I trailed off, letting them fill the rest in.

“They are going to want to use it,” said Dale. “They’ll be bored and sick of the whole thing by now, they aren’t going to want to wait a second longer than they have to.”

“I’m not sure Alerter and Pursuer are THAT reckless,” hedged Mario.

“Alerter fought me in the Sniper Court,” I told him.

“But you’re invin…”

“Exactly.”

“So it sounds like we have 3 courses of action here,” said Jane, “Contact Her, contact Second Fist, or contact no one and wait for First Fist to contact us.”

I saw what she was saying immediately.

“It’s a false dilemma,” I said. “We can do them all in combination with each other. They’ll contact us just as easily if we are talking with Second Fist or not.”

“Maybe not ALL,” hedged Dale, “If we go to Her I expect we’ll be occupied for the foreseeable, if we survive.”

Nods of agreement all around at that.

“So,” I said, “tomorrow we send out feelers to Refiner’s, excuse me, Deceiver’s Fist and see if we they’ll just tell us where First Fist is? Remember, they might not think it is a big deal. We’ll stay here in the meantime, in case First Fist is trying to get in touch with us.”

Haunter frowned, thumbing her chin as she pondered.

“Would it be better to head over there tonight?” she asked. “Just from the principle that we want to give Her the minimum amount of time to do anything horrific.”

I shook my head.

“It would make us look like supplicants, if we go immediately, like we just got in town and the first thing we are doing is running over. Their guard would go up, I think. Much better to make it natural, casual. We are still hoping to get First Fist’s location out of them without them realizing how much we care, right? Then we want them as relaxed as possible.”

“Or fixated on something else,” said Mario, “Manufacture an issue of prestige or territory or something, get them all riled up not to let you have that, and get what you care about as an aside.”

“And also it gives First Fist tonight, if they are gonna call on us. I think Preventer mostly cares about that.”

Dale, as always, said the quiet parts loud.

“Well,” said Jane, “I suppose I’d rather not walk past all those goddamn skulls in the dark, right?”

Was that a look of pity on her face? I had to be imagining that. Haunter had about a Union level of pity in her for the likes of me.

“On that we can agree,” I said.

Regime Quest 48

Day 13:

Morning: Resistance/KEM/Union communication:

This was going to be a little more complicated than my usual morning dead drop to the Resistance.

Broadly speaking, of course, it would be the same as usual, but I’d added a little twist onto it that made it a lot more stressful.

What I wanted to do was communicate to the Resistance, and then have them broadcast that information on to KEM and the Union, both of which they presumably had at least tentative contact with.

That was all well and good, and could have been accomplished in my normal idiom by saying as much in the message, but that wasn’t quite enough. If I’d done it that way, put the equivalent of “Dear Contacts, please forward this information on to your own contacts”, at the top of my message, then it wouldn’t actually get sent along until it reached the first person who actually read it and made decisions.

In an organization as dispersed and interdivided as the Resistance, that could take an indefinite period of time, and my lifespan was presently looking to be about two weeks, total. I needed something a little more immediate.

What I’d come up with, I hoped, would walk the line between being increasing my risk of Snitcher detecting me and not being noticed by the first messenger.

My usual drop involved writing something in the middle of a long, boring list, the sort of thing that Snitcher would never read through, even if I happened to glance at it. Then I’d throw the writing away, do another draft, to all appearances refining a speech or plan or whatever. The Resistance, of course, would scavenge through the trash after I left and cart away everything I’d written.

The trash picker and the others at the start of the chain wouldn’t naturally read the things that I’d written, they would simply pass it on, but they were the ones that I wanted to contact this time around.

All of which was a long way to explain how I’d come to be spending my morning in a grimy Company Facility in my section of the Lair, peeling the labels off of soda bottles from Owner’s store and doing various experiments on them.

I wasn’t actually trying to get Molotov cocktails or anything, but that was the appearance that I was going for. It was the kind of thing that was in character enough for Snitcher to accept, boring enough that he wouldn’t watch for long, and generated a lot of trash.

I’d dismissed the Company Men’s protests earlier on, and so nobody thwarted me as I wasted bottle after bottle, writing little notes on the sides of each one. The notes were things like ‘Caustic’, ‘Explosive’ and the like, theoretically telling what I’d been trying to get the ‘bombs’ to do.

In three of the bottles I’d stuffed the papers that contained my message, cryptic musings about Phis and the calamity soon to befall it. On those bottles I replaced the bombs labels with destination labels, indicating my desire that the contents make their way to my loose confederation of allies.

It felt like it should take much longer than it did, or that something momentous should mark the moment when those particular bottles went into the trash alongside all the rest, but of course the real world is never so dramatic as our instincts would have it.

I filled out and tested a few more dummy grenades, threw them away, and left.

The target information was on its way, definitely to the Resistance (absent the perpetual concern of ‘their local guy gets randomly killed because living in Shington is incredibly dangerous) and hopefully to KEM and the Union as well.

 

Afternoon: Invite Burner:

Burner was a tall woman, gaunt and red haired, with a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose.

“Oh, hey!” she said, looking up from some papers that she’d been writing on. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.”

Her workshop was mostly a room, with only a few tarps thrown over some holes to make obvious the fact that it was located in a ruin. She’d cluttered it with a dizzying assortment of trunks, broken pieces of furniture, and especially flat rocks. The point of the whole place seemed to be that she liked to stack things and write wherever she was.

“I told the guy outside I wanted to surprise you,” I allowed.

I hadn’t, actually. The ‘guy outside’, a child really, had wandered off to throw rocks at a bird, so I’d simply walked up, lifted a flap and stepped inside. But getting people in trouble with their Ultras wasn’t part of my mission statement, so a white lie seemed called for.

“Oh, sure,” she said, clearly still mentally disengaging from whatever she’d been writing about.

I waited for a long few seconds, before glancing down at her work. It was a diagram, at first glance some kind of blueprints or similar, depicting a stadium or amphitheater.

“You like it?” she asked. “I’m thinking we’ll put fire along the edges here and here,” she pointed excitedly, “And then when the preliminary bouts get done I’ll-“

“It’s great,” I cut her off. “I think it’ll be great. Really wow them.”

“Yeah,” she said, contentedly. “I think we can top last year, if Builder gets back in time for-”

“She’s dead,” I told her.

She looked blankly at me for a long moment.

“You’re the warlord!”, she blurted, after her freeze ended. “I’m sorry, you had your forehead hole covered.”

“It’s fine,” I said, trying not to let her throw me. “Builder died in our last battle.”

She cursed softly, without heat, a pair of muttered swears.

“You can avenge-“ I began, then stopped.

She crumpled up the diagram she’d been working on, tossed it off to one side.

“No good now,” she said, “I’ll have to scale it all back, geez. I’ve gotten so lazy with her gift to fall back on, I’m not sure I even know the current state of our venue! I’ll have to do a survey of the outsiders to try and find another-“

“Or you can avenge her.” I said, forcefully interrupting the flow of her enthusiasm.

“Avenge her?” she asked, already pulling another sheet of paper into position on her drawing surface.

“In my posse, “ I said. “I’m offering you a position.”

“No,” she said. “I don’t want to die.”

“The risk is really-“

“Builder joined the Posse,” she told me, “I told her it was dumb, but she was head over heals chasing after another of her girls. I’m not.”

“It isn’t terribly healthy,” I told her, feeling the conversation slipping out of my grip. “To say no to the Warlord.”

“I’d rather fight you than the people you’ll fight,” she told me.

I started to say something else, then thought better of it as she raised a hand, not quite pointing at me.

“Do you want to fight?” she asked.

I didn’t, so I left.

 

Evening: Debrief Owner/Replayer

We held the debriefing at a little get together spot a ways down the road from the Packer House. I wasn’t about to invite Replayer inside.

It would have been an easy slip up to make. I’d had Smasher over a few times, after all, and nothing ill had come of it. But Smasher had been simply brutal and amoral, a creature after Her own heart. Replayer was more like First Fist, an unrestrained sadist gleefully trampling all that came across their path.

“So this bitch is all squealing and shit and I’m like-“

Case in point, I made a ‘skip to the end’ gesture.

“Oh,” said Replayer, “She didn’t know shit.”

“Did anyone?” I asked, keeping my expressions carefully even. There were persistent rumors that sufficient Ultra Speed let you read people’s micro expressions and know something of what they were thinking. I didn’t believe it, but there was no call to take chances.

“Sure,” she said. “They kind of sucked, but let me replay a sec so I get it right.”

One of her eyes sort of glitched for a moment, it looked like the spun backwards like a videotape, but it all happened too fast to really track.

Owner caught my eye, her face equally expressionless. I’d known her long enough to know that she shared my skepticism about whether this was actually part of Replayer’s gift, or just a performance to keep its particulars obscured.

“Vower is just a bitch,” she said dismissively, “Her gift can make people do what they say they are going to do or some shit like that, so the gangs keep her around so they can do deals. Her sister said she had Ultra toughness at first, but changed her tune later on.”

“So maybe some toughness,” I confirmed, “But the core of the gift is that she can control people? That sounds useful.”

“No no, shit,” said Replayer, “I’m explaining it long. She can’t make people say stuff, but if they say stuff she can make them mean it, you get me?”

I nodded.

“She’d protect us from treachery, at least,” I said, “I’ll keep her in mind. What about Caller?”

“Pussy,” she returned, “Her gift lets her talk into the mind of people that she’s seen before, and they can talk back. She can also let them talk to each other and stuff.”

“Good getting the details,” I said, “Her ability to forge a network between others could be very valuable.”

“Nah she’s a pussy,” she reiterated, “She found out I was asking about her and came to talk to me, so I kicked her around a bit. No combat gift and her arms are probably broken.”

“She might still be useful,” said Owner, “Even if not on the front lines, with her gift we could all stay in contact with one another. Even if we don’t get her in the Posse, can we just get her to link us all up?”

“Nobody’s useful if they can’t fight,” answered Replayer, looking to Owner for the first time.

“Did you find anything on the other two?” I asked. “Also, I expect Caller is similarly with he gangs, maybe helping them set up meetings or something?”

Replayer shook her head.

“I didn’t get the sense she was with anybody, I think she’s just, like, eating off the humans, you know? She links them all up and they do stuff for her in exchange?”

Perfect. An Ultra who was useful to the populace and my minion had randomly beaten her up. My luck was fan fucking tastic lately.

“Hater?” I asked.

“Knight Ultra,” she answered, immediately, “One of Refiner’s goons, she gets strength and toughness against anyone based on how many people hate them, and how much.”

“Could you get details?” I asked.

“I don’t usually scrap with the Knights,” she said, a little apologetically, “Refiner blessed my tee shirt a while back, no call to risk that if we are going to into battle, you know?”

“I thought your gift protected you?” I asked, fishing for any details.

She just chuckled.

“Nailer?” asked Owner. “She throws Ultra blasts, right?”

“Nah,” said Replayer, “She combines things together, and then they work like they were always that way. I heard that she was the one who put Pursuer together, before he got the Process.”

The timeline definitely didn’t work out on that, but I didn’t bother to correct her. The casual ignorance of history was a hallmark of the new world that I’d long since come to grips with.

“Like if she puts a car and a gun together…?”

“Sure,” she said, “Or like a person and a dog, she does that a lot. If you wondered where all those fucking dog people came from.”

I did not, in fact wonder that, and hadn’t seen any such things. It was a sobering reminder of just how big, and how weird, Shington was. The Lair was my focus, of course, but its penumbra utterly dwarfed it.

“Freelance?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, “She’s got a lair out there somewhere, people find her who want stuff combined together.”

It was interesting to think about these 4, and what it said about the Union’s priorities that they were on the list.

“The training go alright, Owner?” I asked, taking my attention away from Replayer for a moment.

“Yep,” she said, in a way that I had no trouble reading as ‘nope’. Benefits of a long relationship.

Owner having trouble training the Warband wasn’t exactly surprising, and it was probably just more of the usual, the dogged Regime resistance to being taught by anyone who wasn’t stronger than them. She couldn’t exactly talk about it with Replayer here, but there was nothing else it could be.

I thought we’d trained that out of them, but maybe the new blood had made old tendencies rise up again. I grimaced internally. There was a limit to how much training I could justify to myself, when I was probably going to be expanding the warband hugely in order to match Phis’s forces.

“Fantastic,” I enthused. “Our next target won’t know what hit it.”

We laughed together then, a villainous laugh straight out of an old world cartoon.

 

Day 14

16 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

 

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

Assets: (physical)

1 truck

1 sedan

Owner’s Shington Store

Packer House

Fog Machines

Lasers (diverse)

 

Posse: (4 slots, 2 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

 

Warband:

16 Veteran Ultras, 13 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: 4/10 (7-3 +2 -3 +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.

Regime Quest 47

Day 12:

Early Morning: Read Union’s Note

The note was easy to find, easy to read, hard to digest.

It read:

To my counterpart,

I undertake this correspondence as penance, and as a goad against future error. Perhaps chatting with a savage named after a kitchen appliance will help me to avoid the complacency which led to your recent successes.

I wasn’t able to understand the first part of your missive, perhaps the channel confused matters. I can fill in the gist, I suppose.

Our official policy is that we do not respond to hostage takers, but I can’t resist the temptation to let you know that the woman you abducted was named Soarer, Merlin was the one who got away. I expect that humans all look the same to you, but these two are Ultrahumans, I feel like you could have kept them straight.

But no. I was only able to bring myself to close the feeds of your last victim this morning, I can resist for a while yet the temptation to underestimate you. No doubt your latest devilry will become clear in time, to our great dismay.

I expect you no longer have a pressing need for trucks and such supplies, but perhaps you will in the future. You are correct in assuming that we are willing to make such arrangements. Our material goods are on the table, and more besides.

Here is what we will give you. I do Not-See any reason why this arrangement would ever be betrayed.

Cost 1:

Insurance (for your own person, and those of your followers) against our attacks for a month, or until you provoke us. If you buy this we will allow you to molest the Pantheon and your fellow savages with impunity. (I expect you to buy this, but hope that you don’t.)

A large quantity of material goods. Guns, trucks, bombs, that manner of thing. Whatever your grubby little heart desires. Tell us what you want, we’ll tell you where we leave it. We have good practice in making our deliveries look like the sort of thing you’d find in the ruins you squat in.

An intelligence report on a Pantheon or Regime stronghold. You can expect a description of any fortifications, briefs on the ruling Ultrahumans, accounts of their forces and speculation as to their current and near future activities.

Cost 2:

A strike on a Pantheon or Regime target of your choosing, carried out with expendable assets (drones, auxiliaries and such). Prior experience would suggest that you should expect significant attrition of a unit caught in the open by such a strike, much less so on one that is occupying fortifications.

Cost 3:

We will make a good faith effort at killing a Pantheon or Regime individual of your choice, so long as said assassination does not take place in the Lair and is not directed at anyone who your leader knows personally. In the past these were mostly successful.

I hope you find these services enticing. I assure that they are very real. You are far from the first to occupy your role, and teaming up with us against the Pantheon is a strategy that many of your kind have successfully employed. We are enthusiastic collaborators, deeply committed to a coalition environment.

As far as your payment goes, we take it in Regime deaths, off of the following list.

  • Analyzer, Begger, Blender. Caller (*). Composer. Dealer, Finisher, Grower, Hater, Hugger, Jinxer, Limiter, Lowerer, Lurker (the second one), Mincer, Murderer, Nailer, Omitter, Owner, Presser, Resister, Sender, Saver, Tester, Vower (*), Yowler

If you can arrange for the deaths of ten Ultrahumans not on the list, that counts for one. (We don’t count the ones in your warband, those will die without your cooperation). If you arrange for the deaths of five hundred unpowered Regime citizens, that is also one. (50 fascists ~ one Ultra, 10 Ultras usually means one we have a problem with).

A star by the name means it counts double, just one such kill would earn you a drone strike!

In order to make these purchases, send us the names of those you’ve killed, as well as what you want done for it. You can be as long winded or complicated as you would like, but I’m pretty sure our mutual friends/victims pass these orally between at least 3 different people before they make it from one of us to another, so simplicity is your friend here.

-Player 2

Morning: Invite Replayer:

Replayer was lounging in a makeshift hammock when I walked up, with a trio of humans on either side holding up the ends.

“Blender, shit!” she said, scrambling up to her feet in a flash. “I heard about the wicked battle! You really fucked em up!”

I grinned, broadly and evenly, thinking about scrambling around in the mud and fire, and the desperate mutual hunt with the Round Table. I let no hint of how disturbing it was that she could shift her position completely before I could react touch my face.

“Totally,” I said. “It was fucking glorious, you should have been there!”

“You picked Smasher, remember?” she said. “I hear she got totally punked out.”

I nodded solemnly.

“Died bravely,” I corrected, “But that’s battle for you. Glory isn’t easily plucked, you know? People watch your stuff at the Ultra Fights because the real thing is too terrible to watch.”

She gave an expression then that I wasn’t fast enough to see, just a sort of flicker across her face. It was a sobering reminder to be very careful here.

“We got a new strong girl,” she said, after a moment, “Another Mangler if you can believe it. I swear the Company gives that name to everyone.”

I gave a brief snort, sort of a suppressed chuckle noise.

“I probably brought her in,” I told Replayer. “We did some Processing before I went out on my last expedition.”

“Circle of life,” she said, “You fixed what you broke. Fights go on.”

We shared a companionable silence for a moment, looking out onto the Lair’s winding streets, just beginning to bustle as the lazier inhabitants got up and about.

“You were right,” I said, after that moment had had its time.

“Course I was,” she responded, instantly.

I let that sit in the air for a second, idly cracking my knuckles.

“When was I right?” she asked, the merest hint of a smile appearing on the edge of her mouth.

“When you said that you were the strongest, that Smasher wasn’t good enough.”

Her turn to be quiet for a sec.

“We nearly died,” I continued, “Worse, we nearly failed Her. When Smasher went down things got bad. I’m not inclined to let that happen again.”

“Going to correct the mistake?” she asked, “Take the right Ultra this time?”

I gave a solemn nod.

“You’re up,” I told her. “Full Posse membership. I need a wrecking ball, and you are the best around.”

“Wicked,” she said, and, of course, was.

 

Afternoon: Train Warband, focus on personalized capabilities

I spent the afternoon going through the warband’s capabilities with a metaphorical fine toothed comb. Phis was going to be a brutal fight, and there was no sense leaving any money on the side of the road, so to speak.

If I was already in command of anyone with a use I didn’t know about, now was the time to rectify that.

I didn’t have a lot of hopes for this, to be honest. I’d recruited all of my followers from the Yard, meaning that they were paramount Ultra combatants. That meant that they had, in large majority, Ultra Toughness One and Ultra Strength One or its equivalent.

It made them elite, and was probably the single largest contributing factor in my victory at Ar Harbour, but it also ate up the lion’s share of their gifts. It wasn’t reasonable to expect anyone with strength, toughness, and another capability besides to become a Warband member. Someone with such a flexible and mighty gift would probably be in the Posse, if not actively angling for my job.

If I wanted people with diverse capabilities to join up, I probably needed to recruit from the Lair proper, maybe scout them out personally, as I’d done with Soarer, and then figure out a way to keep people from shooting them.

An ordinary Warband would also need to somehow be kept from bullying the new less combative members, but I’d put a lot of time into training my crew, and hopefully the vets, at least, would have gotten the message that infighting wasn’t something I took kindly to.

Still, despite my reservations, I was able to find a trio of interesting prospects. They gave me a decent amount to think about over the course of the afternoon.

Infecter was the first one everyone looked to when I asked about ‘weird’ gifts. Her gift made a black oil seep from her hands, a slow flowing syrup-like fluid that stained anything she dripped it on.

The oil wasn’t harmful in the conventional sense, it didn’t dissolve or eat away at the forms it clung to, until Infecter decided it was time.

She could explode it whenever she wanted, violently detonating the substance at her whim, and doing so with enough force to damage enemies with Ultra Toughness of the first rank.

During the Ar Harbour battle, and as a general practice, she’d soaked a few throwing stones in her fluids before the battle, and she would fling them at the enemy as they closed, making them erupt as soon as they hit, like grenades. Once the enemy got up close she tried to land palm strikes on people, leaving her handprints wherever she could for later detonation.

I tried to get more details on her detonation criteria, and it seemed to be flexible and powerful. She could either pick out a cube in her mind, and blow up any of her fluid inside that cube, or pick a time in her memories, and activate the substance that she’d been creating at that particular point in time.

Fortifier was the second, an Ultra whose work I’d actually seen before. She was the blaster who had taken out Guinevere in the end, putting a stop to my fruitless pursuit back in that heated scrum.

She was a living turret, it seemed. She could sculpt and ‘throw’ her energy around. Its impact depended on how long she’d been stationary before she threw it. It started out as a subdual weapon, like the old rubber bullets that riot cops used to use. Once she’d been in the same place for thirty seconds it got to be lethal, and if she stood around for three or more minutes, seemingly a two hundred count, it topped out at Ultra Strength Two.

That was what had shattered Guin, one of her full strength blasts. She’d planted herself at the back of our formation and done brutal business with the enemy’s ranks as the fight had raged on.

The last was ‘Driver, a soft spoken Ultra with a terrifying gift. If she could put her hands on you she could take over your form, leaving her own piloted by her “robot mind”, as she called it.

Once she did this her own form acted as she’d instructed beforehand, while her will controlled her victim. This was resisted by the victim’s Ultra Toughness in much the same way as my own Blending was, that is, it didn’t work at all on someone who was Ultra Tough Two, it took a minute or so of contact on someone with basic Ultra Toughness, and it was instant on an unprotected target.

If the victim was killed while she was ‘driving’ them she snapped back to her own form. If her own form received a forceful blow during this time it was negated, and she snapped back.

I took careful notes on each of these three, adding their gifts to the list I kept of my force’s overall capabilities. I felt like I was finally getting clear of the shadow that had fallen over me since my run in with Subtracter, like I was becoming myself again.

It was a good feeling.

Evening: Debrief Owner

“How was Burner?” I asked.

Owner gave a sullen shrug, frowning off into space.

I sighed. No help for it.

“Something got you down?” I asked.

She fed a bit of lettuce to Napoleon, looking back over to me after a long beat.

“Burner’s fine,” she said. “She does the pyro work for the Ultra fights, you know how the audience gets surrounded by fire, but it doesn’t burn them? That’s her. She also does the fire diagrams when they can’t get sets built.”

“So she can make the flame go where she wants, and burn what she wants?” I asked, looking to clarify, and also to take Owner’s mind off whatever was bugging her.

“She has to see it to set it on fire,” said Owner, “And if she looks away or stop concentrating then it just becomes regular fire, burns everything its on. Her gift isn’t as strong as Guinevere’s.”

That was certainly true, but even a weaker version wasn’t to be scoffed at. Burner’s flames couldn’t hurt Ultra Tough foes, but they could devour fortifications, blind her enemies and be deployed in the middle of friendlies without doing any harm.

It was something of a truism, when one talked about Ultra gifts, that anything that couldn’t affect Ultra Toughness was useless, but I’d been giving the matter some thought recently, and that wasn’t exactly true.

If the enemy was fielding a force comparable to mine, then sure, it wouldn’t work on them. But not everyone had access to the Yard. Arthur’s Knights weren’t going to be on the next battlefield. The Pantheon was well known for a quantity over quality kind of approach. Burner might do a lot of work against them.

“What was she like?” I asked.

Owner’s frown deepened.

“Passionate,” she said, after a moment’s contemplation. “She went on and on about the Ultra Fights, about what she was trying to do with them. It was hard to pin her down and get the specifics you wanted, because she was just so keen to talk about her work.”

“Hah?” I asked, incredulously.

“I know, right?” she said. “Ultra Fight is just a stupid game to mess around with the audience, you know? They aren’t even real fights, but she is so fucking into it. I had to hold myself back from laughing at her.”

It was strange to hear about someone in the Regime who had a real entertainer’s passion, of course, but after I thought about it for a second I could accept it. From my vantage point, from Owner’s, there might not be anything to the shows, but Burner would have her own lived experience.

You were only your time, in the end, right? Just like the rest of the Ultras only dimly knew about the Warlord and their duties, just like the people in the Yard imagined the Lair as a promised land, everything only mattered to the degree that you let it, or made it.

For Owner, who spent so much time on her shops, but knew so little of their underpinnings, it must have been a shock to come up against someone who was genuinely passionate about their work.

She was probably asking herself some hard questions now. I doubted anything would come of it, but I’d keep an eye on her.

As far as hard questions went, ‘how do I make it through Phis’ was the one that I was stuck on.

 

Day 13

17 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

 

 

Assets: (physical)

1 truck

1 sedan

Owner’s Shington Store

Packer House

Fog Machines

Lasers (diverse)

 

Posse: (4 slots, 1 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

 

Warband:

16 Veteran Ultras, 13 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: 7/10 (8-3 +2 -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.

If you want Blender to get the Union message and read it that is a free action, would not cost either of your daily actions. If you don’t get it today it will likely be destroyed however, for infosec reasons the Resistance doesn’t like to leave messages around too long.

 

Preventer 11:1

It was strange to be back in the Lair once more. I’d risked everything to leave this place, done my damnedest to put these streets forever behind me, and here I was. It all felt unreal, somehow.

The last time I’d been here, we’d been a full Fist, with our Link intact. Haunter had been a lot less bossy, Dale hadn’t yet warped his mind with these idiot elixirs, and I’d been filled with the anticipation of my defection to the Pantheon.

My return felt more like a dream or a vision than it did a part of my actual life. The streets were subtly different from my memories, locations having grown more prominent and well maintained or less so over months of our absence.

The skulls that we’d cringed at had become ubiquitous, nearly every building now mounted one on every side. When last we were here the ‘Watcher’ who was supposedly looking out them had been a bluff, a way to make the Resistance think that Snitcher had been replaced. I wasn’t sure whether or not the grisly sentries were a genuine threat now, and I felt a prickle crawl across my skin as I met their blank gazes.

I wasn’t unaware of how others might view me. The Union, Haunter, they didn’t have a terribly high opinion of me. The Gardens that I’d used to join the Shington elite would forever damn me in their eyes. I’d wondered, from time to time, whether it might not be my gift that estranged me so from my peers, whether the guilt or empathy they went on about weren’t considered weaknesses that I needed to be shielded from.

But I would never have done something like this. I felt like you couldn’t be human and do something like this, although if I said that out loud I was sure Haunter would start yammering on about how ancient history proved me wrong.

First Fist’s grisly program must have killed thousands, maybe tens of thousands. Every skull was human, nearly all of them entirely unblemished, and they were everywhere. The sheer waste necessary for such an endeavor was mind boggling.

Or maybe it wasn’t really waste. If Haunter’s idea, that Remover was some kind of devil, was true, then maybe this was a declaration of victory. An, “I’ve grown so skilled at making your kind kill one another that now I have you doing it for decorations!” kind of thing.

Thinking of First Fist was a mistake. I pasted a ghastly sneer on my face as I followed along behind Dale, clenching my hands behind my back to keep them from flapping.

Thui was in First Fist’s hands. He wouldn’t be waiting for me at home.

I was surprised how much the thought hurt. I’d known, when we left, that we were parting. It had been the plan from the get go, when I first realized that Her service was incompatible with a long life. I had never imagined that I might take a human with me into the Pantheon’s leadership.

But there had, of course, never been a need to tell HIM that, and so our arrangement had persisted. He’d been a bed warmer, a loyal right hand, and most importantly a source of confidence when I was being indecisive. I could never show fear in front of him, and with him kept close by that had allowed me to become, to all appearances, fearless, a far cry from the cowering creature that I’d been before the Process.

Dale seized a passerby in a granite grip, the ground rising up and clenching around the poor woman. He barked questions at her, then guided us onwards. It looked like we were headed back to my old house, which meant it was not in Torturer’s new radius.

It was odd to see Dale like that. I knew the people that he was doing his best impression of, had grown up around their sort. It was anger deployed to hide fear, aggression substituting for confidence. If we started walking in a spiral, and we somehow didn’t meet any other Ultras, we would come across a dozen tiny human gangs in an hour, and every one of their leaders would be acting just like that.

I’d grown up in such a gang, a runt even then. I’d learned, early on, that fetching and scavenging were the safest chores to take on, and that the bigger ones would take anything I found that was worth it. I’d learned to hide the shaking of my hands, to lean into punches so that the bruises would show to better advantage, and a hundred other priceless lessons. I could probably throw a stone and get it to bounce off two or three of my former selves, from any place in all of Shington.

Mario stood out.

It wasn’t anything concrete that he was doing, he had apparently been at least a little trained on how we conducted ourselves in the Lair, it was, hmm, hard to say. All I knew was that back in the day I’d have marked him instantly as someone who would stop after giving the first kick, no matter what he caught you doing.

“Stop looking around, you freak.” I muttered to him.

Maybe that was part of it. Maybe he was too obviously interested in everything around him, when a genuine denizen of the Lair knew that everything outside of your own situation was none of your business.

Haunter dropped back alongside me.

“Second Fist’s old domain is in Torturer’s new zone. Can you guess where they might have moved to?”

I grimaced.

Second Fist held some of the leaders of the Regime’s various institutions. They commanded the Knights, and interfered a lot more with the Warlord situation than any of the other Fists did. Them being displaced would matter a lot more than us or Third Fist being moved.

“Look for Knights, I guess,” I answered, “Refiner and his crew won’t be hiding. We shouldn’t stumble across them without knowing it. Maybe the skulls around their hangout zone will all have antlers?”

If we got back to my house and my Knights hadn’t wandered off we could ask them. I’d always found it useful to keep a number of them around, and they had served as emissaries to Second Fist more than once. If Haunter’s ‘find Answerer’ plan didn’t work out, then I’d probably put them to use in that capacity again.

We clambered over some rubble and through a cleft between two buildings, emerging into the Lair’s innermost sanctum, or at least where it had formerly been. These were the old government buildings, the ramshackle remnants of Haunter’s world, where its conquerors squatted and sniped at one another.

My place was still standing, with no one obviously occupying it. I could make out a skull above the front door, but that was about all I could tell from here.

“Stop,” I murmured to the others, drawing them off to the side of the byway.

“What’s up?” asked Mario, but I was more focused on Dale, who was frowning quizzically at me.

“We need to give them time to get out of there,” I muttered. “Unless you feel like slaughtering whatever squatters might have moved in.”

Haunter, whose bullshit mind gift had no doubt given her a similar idea, gave a quiet nod of agreement, and so we loitered for a moment, leaning dangerously against a random wall and scowling at any passersby who got too close.

It was just like old times.

When guys like Mario thought about gang life, particularly in the Lair, they probably pictured furious fights, every day scrambling around in mortal peril. What it actually involved was a lot of this, just standing around looking tough.

You weren’t always in a conflict, you knew what Ultra was running your particular territory and you sucked up to her. You knew which solos you could boss around, and you harassed them when you could. You knew where the other gangs’ territories started, and you stayed carefully on your side. That left a lot of time.

The report I’d written for Her, way back when, about why our morale was so low, had been based on personal experience. The Regime was all bread, no circuses. There was an overwhelming shortage of anything interesting to do.

Thui had helped with that, at least.

I succumbed to a moment of nostalgia, then. I clearly had the past on my mind, and maybe it was better to just rip the bandage off entirely.

I had graduated, when I grew up enough to be desirable, from scavenger and street runner to an Ultra’s minion. I’d been too short to be a Snitch, but I’d spent a comfortable decade as one of Slaughterer’s ornaments. Thui had picked me up when she got tired of me.

He was a human gang leader back then, someone who Slaughterer had given a few tasks to. He had a calmness to him, a formal way of speaking that was somehow intimidating to those around him. He seemed like someone who didn’t care whether or not you thought he was strong, which was exactly how the strong people had seemed.

Watching Thui had been the first time that I realized that confidence was just a way that you acted. The reason that I’d never been able to fool anyone was that they could all tell that I was trying to fool them, and caring about whether they were fooled was a lot like caring what they thought of me.

Thui wasn’t any more confident than anyone else, I ultimately realized. He simply acted as though he was, and I could do that too. It was the first time I understood that my flapping hands were traitors, that looking down and muttering was actually hurting me. I took the first step to becoming Preventer back when I was still human, when I first decided to change myself into a leader.

I’d been forced to betray him, of course. In order to become a leader I had to stop being a minion. I’d tried to make it look like he was undermining Slaughterer, like he was trying to curry favor with another Ultra.

I’d been found out, of course. Looking back on it now I could see the amateurish conceit of my first scheme, the way that I’d just assumed that everyone would believe what I told them, and most importantly wouldn’t talk to each other.

Any other leader would have killed me. Made a big thing out of it, used me as a lesson to inspire the others.

Thui, instead, had seemed somehow proud, in a way that he never had when I’d been loyal. I think it was the joy of the teacher, the way Adder had sometimes got, where he saw something, or thought he saw something, of himself in me.

He’d sent me to the Process, instead. Told me that if I wanted to be in charge, there was only one way to make that happen.

When I survived I’d returned, and his gang had formed the core of my retinue. I’d spared him right back and he had stayed on as my chief servant, then, unofficially, as something like my coach.

I had been unsure of myself, at first. Rebeccah with Preventer’s gifts, just a mask. I’d needed someone to emulate, someone who saw me and approved. Thui had been that someone, right up until First Fist had killed him in front of me.

Killed a copy, I reminded myself sternly. I was going to get the real one back from them.

I gave a crooked grin as I saw a few people begin to discreetly bail out of my house. No doubt they’d been planning on going out the rear, and realized only too late that that door didn’t actually open.

If I’d ever had to flee I would have just stepped out a window, of course, but one of the big perks of being invincible was that that would never happen. I’d sealed the rear door thoroughly a long time ago.

“Let’s go,” said Haunter, after they’d disappeared around a corner.

Haunter, no doubt, thought that I was acting from sentiment here. That the idea of Thui in First Fist’s hands had forced me to act against my interest, abandoning my plan of sanctuary in the Pantheon in order to accompany her on this foolhardy assault on Remover.

She wasn’t entirely wrong, but the truth was a little more complicated. I was as clear headed as I had always been, I thought. The Pantheon was simply no longer viable, not now that there food had been choked off, and the Union wasn’t about to accept me. I’d left the Regime because Her instability had threatened my life, and I was returning now because She was less unstable than the world at large.

I hadn’t lost sight of my goal. I was still true to myself, still acting in the way that would let me see the most tomorrows. New information had inspired a new course of action, was all.

We arrived at last at my door, and everyone stood aside for me, the unspoken and ancient ways of hospitality asserting themselves at last. I hesitated a moment.

Some part of me thought that Remover would be just inside, sitting in my chair and drinking a cola out of Thui’s skull. Another part thought it would be Second Fist, forced into our path by the whatever pattern of fate had seen us work alongside Sixth, skirmish with Fifth, and then face Third in battle.

I opened the door, the foyer stood vacant and looted.

I swept inside, unsurprised. If any fragment of me had expected my things to keep during an absence of months it had been dispelled when we’d seen the squatters fleeing. Shington wasn’t so tidy of a place, where the reputation of the mighty could keep the gangs out in their absence. Even a Fist’s dwellings would, in time, be put to use.

And that looked to be what had happened. Rude bedding had been lined up on my immaculate floors, glyphs of gang ownership had been scratched into the furniture I’d had scavenged and carefully matched.

My immediate instinct was to perform outrage, the gut fear arising that to be seen to be injured in this way and not react immediately would look weak, and my ambitions would depend upon immediate retribution.

But that was old thinking. I controlled myself.

I had much more immediate worries now. I was no longer that person, and as much as I might enjoy the reminiscing, the dangers that confronted me wouldn’t show any mercy for such distraction.

“Fuckers,” snarled Dale, jerking his chin in the direction that the squatters had fled in.

“Should I…?” he asked, looking to me for approval.

I shook my head. I was pretty sure Dale couldn’t actually use his gift right now, with a basement between him and the ground, but in any case we had no time for punishment.

Every second we were here was another chance for something to go wrong. For Prevailer to send for Dale, or for the Union to decide Mario was defecting and take a shot at silencing us.

“People will be coming by shortly,” I told him, “They’ll want to know how long we are back for, and they’ll be looking to ingratiate themselves to a new Fist in town. Our appearance upsets their power balance, and they’ll all see the opportunity to one up their rivals by getting on our side first.”

“They’ll want to be helpful,” said Mario.

I nodded.

“The help I need right now is the locations of our targets,” I said, “And keeping track of the Inner Circle and the Fists is a survival skill around these parts.”