[I will be on vacation for a week, so the next update will be Jan 3rd. Happy Holidays! Thanks for your patience.]
Time crawled slowly by.
A month, then two.
I didn’t have anything that I particularly had to do to keep up my job as ‘ambassador’ to the Regime. Haunter and her shades took all the daily meetings, hauling out Indulger if there was something that needed the say so of our leader. I checked on shadows from time to time, but I was mostly idle.
There was a lot to be said for that. There was a reason that people used the idea of retiring to a pleasant island far away from their worries as a sort of short hand for the good life. It was pretty great.
Haunter was the only one of us who utterly refused to relax. She plugged herself in to the Union’s information spigot and drank deep. I rarely saw her when she wasn’t deep in conversation with her ghosts, trying desperately to glean some scrap of information or other from some dubious hint that they’d inferred.
I was well aware that whatever perturbations I could see among the shadows would be dwarfed by what was going on inside of her head. I stayed well clear. Jane’s main goal had always involved the Union, and it wasn’t exactly surprising that finally getting to read up on them had occasioned a frenzy in her mass mind.
If Jane had been stirred to a fever pitch by this situation, then Dale had been struck to a stupor. As the days went by he kept more and more to himself. He didn’t seem sad, exactly, just kind of withdrawn. Earlier in our acquaintance I’d have made an unkind remark about him trying to count past twenty, but I knew him a bit better now. Dale’s mind worked in a strange way, but I had confidence that whatever he was chewing on would bubble up in time.
The member of our team I was most worried about was Preventer. She had always been partial to the Pantheon rather than the Union, and every day that we worked ourselves deeper into the situation we’d fallen into she seemed more antsy, more nervous.
I figured that the source of her dread was what She would make of our self-appointed ambassadorship, but if Preventer had any suggestions about what we should do she was keeping them close to the chest. She just got a little snippier, a little more confrontational each day.
Nirav, at least, had my back. I’d been a bit worried that he was going to get all jealous when I had taken up with Jamad, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he seemed to focus mostly on processing life without Condemner looming over him. The time at the Lair, and on the Strongboat, hadn’t ever slowed down enough for him to really feel it, but idle days on the beach worked a different kind of magic on him. He seemed, in a word, content.
As for me, I took each day as a gift. I knew that soon enough the Union’s leadership would realize that Haunter’s shades had subverted their computer systems and launch a strike on us, or She would warp in and send us into battle, or Death might find us again. These brisk spring days couldn’t last forever, but I enjoyed it while I could.
What brought it to a close was nothing that I had anticipated.
Joey, who was probably my favorite of Haunter’s folk, called me down into our burrow.
Since we had set up shop on the island Indulger’s delving had gotten a bit out of hand. We had something of a dungeon now, with more corridors and rooms appearing every few days. I hadn’t kept up with exactly how much he’d been doing, and I found myself growing a bit concerned as Joey lead me down the third set of stairs. Why exactly did we need to be so deep?
The rest of the Fist was waiting for me, with none of our Union guests.
That was a bit unusual. We generally tried to space things out so that we had one or more of them around at all times. From what Haunter had said it made their leadership more comfortable if their spy systems could keep track of us, and I’d let everyone know that constant contact with us helped fight the possibility of value drift in those I had altered.
“What’s up?” I asked.
Haunter motioned at a ghostly monitor, hooked by ghostly cables to a very real and ordinary looking electrical socket. I hadn’t thought about it before, but having video equipment as one of your most cherished possessions wasn’t that surprising.
I was a bit impressed that Indulger had managed to get a socket connected to live power, there was definitely a story there. Presumably it somehow fed off the Union garrison’s power, they’d gotten that back on a week or so ago.
“The Pantheon’s first Host of the season is approaching, and we managed to get the live feed.”
I brought out the Hook and sat the Lure on it. It wasn’t often that you got to see an Ultra fight without being in the middle of it. This was going to be great.
It took a little while to get it rolling. Haunter had to summon about a dozen shades, all told, and they had a fairly intense discussion that I couldn’t follow for all the technical jargon. Ultimately a picture resolved on the screen.
It actually looked kind of like one of Adder’s games, the ones where you are playing someone with a gun, and the point of view just sits on your character’s face, so the screen is showing where he is looking, and you shoot directly.
We were inhabiting the point of view of a Union troop of some kind, black ninja arm coverings could be seen at the edge of his view, holding fast to the frame of a ground vehicle. There were a number of other folks with him, wearing the same kind of black tactical gear that the bunker’s guards had on.
I was trying to take a guess as to whether this was an Ultra or not when the view suddenly shifted abruptly to someone else, someone peering through magnifiers out onto the ground ahead of them.
That country was pleasant enough, a lightly rolling hillside, green with new spring growths. There were a few old craters on it, old enough that they were more like parts of the countryside than obvious blemishes.
The view changed again. This was getting aggravating.
This time our perspective was flying, darting along the ridge line. It bobbed and weaved from place to place with dizzying rapidity, spying on a dusty column trooping along the hill’s base.
“Stop changing where we are seeing from!” I told the shades.
“We are entangled with Chad’s feed, he is watching this up in their facility. He is the one choosing which stream is displayed.”
Haunter was even and polite as ever, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she enjoyed denying me. She hadn’t actually done anything to me since I’d overruled her on the negotiations, but I didn’t fool myself that she’d forgiven me. Waiting for the other shoe to drop was getting nerve wracking.
The view changed to another point, this one much closer to the column than before. It was an immobile perspective, maybe a planted camera or something?
I almost gasped aloud as it panned across the Pantheon Host. THIS was the dreaded force that besieged the last remnant of the old world? The locust-like villains of a hundred stories?
They were teenagers, children.
Ragged and disheveled, the daughters of the Pantheon staggered along, clad in rags and bearing upon them the dust of their long migration. Their youth and malnourishment made them seem almost insubstantial in the morning mist, more like an army’s ghost than an actual military force.
The Union took up positions at the top of the hill, disembarking from silent transports and creeping up to the edge. They had little phone things with the views from the drones on them, letting them know where their enemies could see.
Our view switched several times in quick succession, a kaleidoscope of images peering down scopes, picking their targets and pointing weapons at the centers of their mass.
“Are they just about to…” asked Dale, before trailing off.
I looked over at him. His eyes were wide and staring, his mouth moving in a silent oath.
I’d missed the start of the onslaught. I looked back at the screen in time to see it cut to the floating view once again, as a veritable hail of projectiles streaked from the hilltop down towards the column.
As ambushes went, it was nigh perfect. They had waited until the Pantheon line was fully in the killing zone, and picked their spot well enough that the survivors immediate instinct to go to cover had little to recommend it.
Young women crumpled to the earth with red flowers blooming on their torsos. Ultra powers crackled and lashed out in return, but they were few and far between when compared to the deluge of weaponry that was presently targeting the Ultras.
I saw a woman clone herself four times in the span of a heartbeat, but her injuries multiplied right along with her, and all that she accomplished was a donation to whatever buzzard happened upon this scene. I saw a woman protecting herself and two others with a strange rainbow colored horizontal field, but a drone dropped in from the top and blew them apart.
The feed skipped and cut between them, Chad taking just long enough on each scene to assure himself that things were going well there. We bore witness to a blurring frenzy of sickening violence, each image lasting just long enough for us to grasp the fate of a Pantheon Ultra before cutting to another camera.
“Shit,” breathed Nirav.
I nodded in silent agreement.
A few Ultras fought back. Here and there, from a column of dusty hundreds, there was someone that the Union’s bullets could not touch. These survivors advanced up the hill, lashing out with whatever Ultra gifts they could spare from the grim task of keeping themselves alive.
Chad flicked our view to a drone near one young woman, a dark skinned waif who had summoned a sort of avatar or projection of Ultra energy to surround her. It was a luminous, crackling version of herself, and it was apparently keeping her alive in the face of everything that the soldiers could throw at her, even as it rushed up the hill.
A dozen Union personnel moved down to meet it, presumably Ultras. They surrounded the projection, kept at bay for a moment by the sizzling and flash of her conjuration’s aura. Then one of them lunged into it, hands reaching for the girl.
In an instant the Pantheon Ultra’s flesh had been re-positioned to the top of the avatar, even as the energy pulsed through the attacker and sent her smoking to the ground.
That was all the rest of them needed to see. The remainder surged forward even as Chad switched our view to the front section of the line, where drones were swooping down on the Pantheon fallen.
Haunter turned away from the screen as the drones began their dissections.
“Shit,” said Nirav again. “That wasn’t how I pictured that happening at all.”
I knew what he meant. Even in the Regime we knew, everyone knew, that the Pantheon’s never-ending assault on the Union was only repelled with great valor, and tremendous sacrifice. The picture in my mind had been of a desperate siege, or some kind of endlessly repeating epic struggle. Not this.
This wasn’t war. It was pest control.
“The heroic Union,” said Preventer, her voice dripping with sarcasm,” valiant defender of the last torch of the old world’s civilization. Final bastion against the Ultra supremacists who think themselves gods. Killers of children.”
“What would you do?” asked Haunter.
I was a bit surprised that she wasn’t taking this harder. We all knew that her estimation of the Union was one of the things that had kept her going all these years. My model of her would be devastated to see them engaged in such practices.
“Uh, not kill kids?” I ventured.
“You would have them surrender to Zeus and company? Just because they use younger soldiers than you are comfortable with?”
I opened my mouth to give answer, then closed it to think a second longer.
“There must be a middle ground,” maintained Preventer, “if they are going to style yourself as a morally superior culture, doesn’t it behoove you to find it?”
“Superior culture?” asked Haunter. “To the Pantheon? Have you thought about how low a bar that is to clear? Think it through.”
Telling Preventer to think was pushing one of her buttons. It implied that she hadn’t already, and that got you into dangerous ‘I am smarter than you’ territory. I wouldn’t have dared it, not when I remember her snuffing Condemner out.
“There were any number of things that the Pantheon could have done to make that battle go their way. They could have sent some veterans, who might have told those kids to post scouts. They could have trained them for another few years. They could send them all at a time instead of in waves just small enough for the Union to handle. They don’t do any of these things.”
Preventer nodded, slowly.
“Zeus wants them to die. It is the only thing that makes sense. They send the new Ultras out to die, because otherwise what the fuck are they going to do with twenty thousand new Gods every year?”
“Yes,” said Haunter. “It is obvious when you think about it. I spent some time pondering the matter after you challenged Commander Martinez to do the math. The Union’s victories don’t make any sense, militarily. But it is more than just the Ruling Council pulling the best Ultras. They are also setting the rest of them up to fail. The Hosts must be sacrifices.”
“And it isn’t like the Regime would have handled this better,” said Nirav. “Imagine if She had been there.”
There was a moment of silence, as we considered that.
“She kinda was,” said Dale.
He had a solemn look on his face.
“I mean, She really wasn’t, She is probably eating ice cream right now, playing a video game. But Her shadow was. Might Rules The World, and all that. Those twenty thousand Ultras every year…how many people died to make them?”
“About a million,” I guessed.
“Ok. So those people all die to make these girls. Say one of them has a gift that can take out Her. But this kid isn’t bulletproof, so She is still in charge. And nobody stops it.”
“We get it,” I said. “We know that. It isn’t exactly a secret. But everyone is just responding to their incentives. The Ruling Council can’t just let Ultras proliferate, so they send them off to war. The Union can’t just lie down and be conquered, so they kill everyone who comes. Both sides would be better off if this didn’t have to happen, but their incentives don’t point them to any other points of compromise.”
“Well put,“ said Haunter. “Though I think you are understating the complexity of-“
“We’ll stop it,” said Dale.
“What do you mean?” asked Preventer. “Do you want to stop the Pantheon from sending Ultras out to die? Or the Union from defending itself against them? Or do you mean stop Her, from using the Company to set up these pressures in the first place?”
“Yeah,” said Dale.