Fisher 6:3

[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  He didn’t seem sad, exactly, just kind of withdrawn.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.


The world once more.

I thought it had escaped the coming fire.  When Preventer snuffed me, I felt no fear, no panic.  Merely regret, an  anguished sense of a task left undone.

I hadn’t imagined that I would once again behold it, but I should never have doubted.  Nirav is a nothing, a trifle.  Merely a song stuck in my head.  Any hold that Linker had on ‘him’, was truly on me.

But I have lost time.  I can see Nirav’s memories, and I was absent in truth for a month while Indulger screwed around with Her, and then for an entire trip on some absurd boat.

Why was I returned this time, but not in Redo?  The only answer that I can give is that ‘I’ died in Redo, starved out by Preventer’s damnable barriers.  But ‘Nirav’ was blasted on that boat.

I can think of no reason his gift should work in that manner, but I am not a puling human, who must understand something before he can exploit it.  I am the fire unchecked, which will consume all before it.

‘Nirav’, and his infantile friends believe me gone, believe that they have escaped Condemnation.  It suits me that they believe so.  It will blind them to my movements, as I prepare a a revenge beyond their capacity to imagine.

They will be watching, this time.  Dark glasses won’t conceal my influence a second time.  I will need to be careful.  Haunter has a thousand eyes.  Fisher knows her lover’s shadow like no other.  And my ultimate foe is invincible.

What of it?

Preventer should savor every breath, but such is not her nature.  She is the kind of human who spends her present, each and every second of it, in obsessive contemplation of her future.  She squanders each moment, mortgages them for the next.

A foolish bargain.  Her future holds only fire eternal.

Fisher 6:2

Dale and the Union leader clasped hands, and then we all sank down into our seats.

They were comfy seats, probably Old World.  They had arms, padding, and a slight reclining capability.  They matched the general atmosphere of the meeting ground, chalk it up to excellent Union logistics that they’d been able to fetch it in such a short span.

We were outside, of course, but they’d erected a ‘smart fabric’ pavilion for the meeting.  It honestly felt just as cool and pleasant as it had in the Castle.

Everything had been arranged as we’d demanded it.  One table, ten chairs, light sources behind both sides.  They had accommodated us on every particular.

Going down the line, they’d sent an ugly woman who hadn’t had the training to hide how badly this situation had shaken her calm, a gimlet eyed pro who might as well have written ‘spy’ on his forehead, a bubbly friendly woman who seemed to be in charge, a cagey older gentleman and a soldier looking guy with a predatory smirk.

The two on the outside, the twitchy lady and the soldier fellow, were Ultras.  They would only matter if something jumped off.  The middle three were the actual dignitaries.

The introductions droned on, and I kept the Hook unfolded.  I moved it around the tent’s perimeter in wide arcs, glaring holes through the security squads that they’d brought.  I wasn’t going to start fishing right away, needed to establish a baseline first.

The woman in charge was named Meghan, she sounded basically friendly and conciliatory.  The spy, Chad, was terse and guarded.  Jamad, who sat across from me, was informal and almost unprofessional.  He sounded a lot like Indulger would have, if we’d let him do any of the talking.

After lots more talking, Haunter explained that we were going to be taking security precautions and started sending out squads of her shades to exchange glares with the Union guys outside.  That was my cue to withdraw the Hook.  I pulled it down into my shadow and immediately sent it over Meghan’s way.

It had been a bit of a nasty shock when the main human had turned out to be a lady.  I’d gotten very used to every dagger leader being a dude, but now that I gave the matter some thought that was probably due to the Process.   Maybe the kind of women who would be in charge of things became Ultras in other countries, but the long waiting list in the Union meant that that didn’t apply here.

Meghan had an admirably disciplined set of priorities.  She wanted to not screw something up, to do something proud, to not be fooled by someone and to get the best of someone in negotiations.  The list went on for a while, nothing jumped out as a good replacement for lust as a lever to bend her decisions around.  Disappointingly, the only romantic notions our side of the table evoked in her was a faint desire to tell her someone about us, probably her husband.

I let her be for a moment, checked out Chad.  That poker face was hiding a soul in tumult.  His priorities shifted constantly, but the foremost most of the time was ‘don’t get killed by someone’.   I put a little weight under that impulse, keeping the need to not rock the boat at the forefront of his deliberations.  Dealing with two people would be hard enough, I didn’t need this guy butting in.

Jamad was a bit of a puzzle.  He was here to support someone, to protect that person and to satisfy someone else.  I built a model of him as Meghan’s squire, officially here as a check on her, but really just intending to back her play.

Haunter was wrapping up our explanation for the nuclear strike as I finished my preliminary work.  I let her yap while I put some thought into it.

The reason that seduction was my go to method was that people already had a story for how that played out.  Everyone knew someone who had gotten themselves wrapped around someone else’s finger, or had read stories where that happened.  The agenda of ‘mate with someone’ usually brought lots of useful auxiliary desires along with it.  Nobody was ever as nice as a dude who thought that he had a shot.  Best of all, outside observers were never given any reason to suspect an Ultra gift at work.  They just chuckled at another bum thinking with his dick.

But I couldn’t be nearly as blatant using other impulses.  Who ever heard of anyone suddenly diving in front of bullets in order to…put someone at ease?  To save themselves a trip?  To preserve symmetry?

People had an idea of being a fool for love, but a fool for annoyance wouldn’t fly nearly as well.  If I wanted their masters back home to honor the deal that these clowns signed, then their motivations had to be clear and understandable to whatever experts they would have examine their recordings of these proceedings.

I decided to start with Jamad.

If I left him for later he would be a complication in my dealings with Meghan.  He paid attention to her, but not vice versa.  I didn’t need anyone focused on her when I started messing around with her mind.

Despite sitting right across from the Lure his priority list remained absent of any carnal impulses.  I figured that the problem was probably that I wasn’t playing enough of a role in things.  I was wallpaper at this point, pretty but unimportant.

I tuned back into the goings on in time to catch Meghan protesting about the Regime’s past behavior.

“… many times are we supposed to accept these truces?  How many cheeks can we turn?”

“One more?” I interjected, making my voice bright and hopeful.  There was a little of Dale in it, a little bit of the breathy seductive baseline that I’d never take out of the Lure as long as I live, but mostly it was Haunter’s idealism that I was shooting for.

It wrong footed Meghan for a moment, and even as the conversation continued along I felt a new priority creep up on Jamad’s radar.  ‘Don’t disillusion someone’.

Now I had his symbol for the Lure, and I looked through the rest of the top of his priority list for anything else about me.  Only thing I could find was ‘Don’t underestimate her’, which was nice.  He’d done it anyway, of course, but he was only human, can’t help that.

I put a floor under ‘Don’t disillusion her’, and held it there, about on the same level as his desire not to make a fool of someone.  It wasn’t a major part of his motivation yet, but with my Hook holding it in place it would only ever rise.  It slid up as moments passed.

He glanced at me again, and I let him catch me looking.  I didn’t have any idea how actual humans managed the complicated dance of eye contact, but I used Ultra speed, and that worked pretty well.  I flushed the Lure’s cheeks a bit, and stared down at the table.

Right on cue, way out on the edge of his priorities, far far away from anything that would ever be expressed, ‘fuck her’ bubbled up.  I slid the Hook under it, and carefully pulled it up.

There was a bit of an art to this, actually.  I’d watched a few genuine crushes in my time, there was a kind of rhythm.  If you just jerked it to the top he’d jump up and make a fool of himself.  Too fast, and he’d reject it, try and focus on anything else, rather than the sudden turn his life was taking.  I was shooting for movie level plausible, hoping he’d heard stories of grand romantic gestures such that this insane infatuation felt plausible.

You couldn’t actually ask too much of a dagger with my gift.  History had plenty of people I’d never touched who managed to twist themselves to the point that they leapt in front of bullets for their loved ones, shielding them with their very flesh.  But there was a danger of asking too soon.

I kept the Lure focused on Meghan, letting Jamad’s awareness of me build.  Almost against his will he’d be stealing glances, preternaturally aware of everything I was doing.  I held the priority steady, felt it rise as the random back and forth of his other, natural desires yielded to it.

Over the course of a half hour or so I pushed it into his main motivations, letting his attraction to the Lure find a place alongside his fervent wish that something not break down and his earnest desire to not embarrass someone.

Once that was done I went through his Meghan related motivations, trying as best as I could to ceiling them off and let them drop down the list.  It didn’t work perfectly, but I got his need to support her about half way down the list and let it go.  He wouldn’t spend much effort on something that unimportant, so as long as I didn’t make her have a breakdown he shouldn’t really notice anything.

I pulled my shadow out of him, sent the Hook into Meghan’s shadow.  I was a little worried about my work with Jamad coming undone, but there was nothing for it.

I started paying attention to the conversation again.  Meghan was pressing Preventer for the ‘real reason’ that we were here, seeming to find it implausible that we had actually come to help them deal with the Pantheon.

Knowing Preventer, it was hilarious how committed Meghan was to not offending someone.  I couldn’t even begin to imagine what her mental model of us was, that she thought if she said the wrong words we’d jump up and attack, but that was presently her most pressing concern.

I watched her shadow for a few minutes, but it remained almost utterly immobile.  She had a disciplined mind, or soul or whatever.  I’d need a lever of some kind.

“She is concerned for your wellbeing,” said Preventer, laying it on a little thick.  “This is only a continuation of the mission we carried out with Commander Martinez.  Your enemy overmatches you, and She would prefer a more even fight.”

Her priorities jumped and rearranged a bit, then settled back.  I focused on her shadow again, trying to see the way in.  I needed a passion that would make her pliable and agreeable, without making her unseen masters scrap her efforts.

What about that statement had prompted the jump?  She must have, just out of my detection range, nascent feelings which would be useful to me, but I wasn’t sure exactly what nerve Preventer had touched.

“We aren’t trying to be rude,” I said, interrupting another of their back and forths.  “It isn’t your fault that the Pantheon is stronger.”

Jamad jumped in his chair a bit when I spoke, but Meghan’s shadow showed no movement when I disparaged their forces.  Must be the incident at the last negotiation then.

I pulled the Hook out of her shadow, manifested it out among the patrolling guards again.  I passed a message to the shades with a simple code that we’d come up with a while back, telling Haunter to press Meghan about the last time we negotiated with them.

It took a bit for the guards to cycle back through Jane, but ultimately she turned the conversation back to the ambush, and I saw what was eating at Meghan.

Whenever it came up there was a surge of ‘prove something to someone’, or ‘teach something to someone’.  It bothered her that we kept acting like the Union had been the treacherous ones at that meeting.  It didn’t fit with her image of their behavior.  She needed them to be the good guys, couldn’t stand the idea that we didn’t think of them that way.

Could I use that?  It was a really thin motivation for what might be seen as treason, but it was the best I had.  I put a floor under ‘prove I am not someone’, presumably the last Commander we had negotiated with’, and started pushing it up.

The rest of the meeting ran smoothly.

Anytime Meghan got uncooperative Preventer would talk about how this just proved that all the Union was the same, and she caved.  Chad sat like a wooden manikin throughout, and Jamad was so focused on whether or not the Lure had noticed how much attention he was paying to her that he probably wouldn’t have noticed if Meghan and Haunter started making out.

We had planned out our demands ahead of time, and once I gave the go ahead we went about extracting them.

First, the talks would continue.  We would be meeting with these guys for as long as we liked, or rather, as long as their masters felt that they were getting useful information.

Next, the Union accepted our presence on their soil as a diplomatic gesture, rather than an invasion.  They were still the official owners of our little slice of their island, but so long as we didn’t make a fuss about it and kept to ourselves they would keep their noses, and drones, out.

Beyond that, they were also going to keep us abreast of the goings on to our east, as the fighting season ramped up.  This was pushing it a bit, but we sold it as necessary so we could step in and help them when the occasion that She had sent us for arrived.

We had chosen these demands carefully, for plausibility and for usefulness.

Keeping their delegation around lent weight to our claim to be ambassadors, but it had a much more important purpose.  Outside of the heavily monitored meetings we didn’t need to worry about what their superiors would think, and we could drain these daggers dry of useful intel.

At a bare minimum, we could get on their computer network.  Haunter assured me that as long as I could get them to give me some passwords and the like she had some shades who would take care of the rest.

Establishing ourselves as ambassadors gave us a measure of stature, but mostly this move was about keeping the Union anti Fist measures docile and far away from us.  The catastrophe of Sixth Fist had taught us all a healthy skepticism of our own invincibility.

The updates on the War was something I didn’t quite understand, but Dale and Jane had insisted on it.  For my part, I figured it was a point that the Union’s leaders could strike down and feel like they were still in control of the situation.

After the meeting was over we retired back to our spot on the beach.

We didn’t talk too much about how the meeting had gone, painfully aware that surveillance drones might well be listening to our every word.  Meghan had assured us that our ambassadorial dignity would be respected, but I doubted that the people in charge of making agreements and the people in charge of keeping an eye on invaders were in the same part of their organization.

We were all painfully aware of the setting sun, the general quiet of the island sounds.  The Union liked to fight at night.  If their leadership had detected my subversion of their agents, had simply rejected the treaty entirely or even had been playing a long game, using the negotiations to lure us into complacency, then tonight would be an ideal time to strike.

I stayed up as the rest of them got some sleep.  I let the Hook range in the direction of the Union garrison, almost certain that I’d see someone approaching before the end of the night.  It might be Jamad, or it might be their countermeasures.  Might even conceivably be both.

It took a little longer than I’d guessed, but he brought chocolates.

Union Negotiating Team Membership

Lead Negotiator: Meghan De Oude

Meghan is ultimately responsible for the contents of this meeting.  Her job is to get the best possible agreement for us, with relatively broad latitude.  She will be briefed by Central during any breaks, but she is the local authority.  She will do most of the talking during this meeting, and should find herself sitting across from the Fist’s leader, Indulger.

Deputy Negotiator: Jamad Hawi

Jamad is primarily responsible for exercising a check on Meghan’s behavior.  He will interrupt if she begins revealing anything still confidential, or agreeing to anything outside of the bounds set forth in the briefing document.  His primary focus should be on Meghan’s condition, raising an alert if she becomes distraught or enraged.  He will sit next to her, across from Haunter if at all possible.

Intelligence Consultant: Chad Schule

Chad is on loan from intelligence services, and has a different mission from the rest of you.  His responsibility is to gather as much information as possible from the enemy.  He is to be extended all possible cooperation which does not endanger the success of the primary mission.  He will be sitting on Meghan’s other side, across from Preventer.

Security Consultant: Darcy Rex

As the most highly rated friendly Ultrahuman combatant your responsibility is to get the negotiators out of the conflict zone alive in the event of treachery.  Your particular gift should allow you to displace yourselves into your ‘shroud’, there to remain until you are signaled.  Obviously, we would prefer that you remove all VIPs, but if you have to choose the order is Chad, Meghan, Jamad. You will be sitting on the outside, across from either Fisher or Condemner.

Deputy Security Consultant: Lynn Durand

Lynn’s role is to buy time, in the event of hostilities breaking out.  Your reports indicate that your subordinate’s Ultra toughness is beyond Fourth Fist’s ability to damage, at least in the short term.  She is to execute a fighting retreat, allowing reinforcements to arrive.  She will be sitting across from either Fisher or Condemner.


Fisher 6:1

We pushed our way back into the world, a little before morning.  Both of my forms toppled forward into the dirt.

I sat the Lure up, bounded the Hook off into the predawn gloom.  Dale and Nirav had died too, at some point, and they were similarly getting themselves situated.  Preventer was sitting by a fire, while Haunter had just sat bolt upright from a kind of makeshift bedroll.

She was wearing mismatched stuff, all of it worn away.  Probably scavenged off a few other people who wouldn’t be needing it, if I had to guess.  The only change to Preventer’s clothing was that she had a new Sigil.

“What killed me?” I asked.  Dale echoed me an instant later.

Haunter and Preventer looked at one another, then Preventer responded.

“Nuclear explosion.  Took down everybody but us and Fader.  She’s in the ground somewhere around here.”

“No she’s not,” said Dale.

“She doesn’t mean that Fader is dead and buried,” I corrected, “She means that she is in her image form, floating around down there.”

Haunter confirmed my guess with a nod.

“No reason to show all our cards, if we have any eyes on us,” guessed Nirav.

“Eyes?” I asked.

“We are on Crete,” said Haunter.  “We have preliminary contact with the Union, so they know we are here.  No reason that they wouldn’t have some drones spying on us.”

The Lure didn’t twitch, but I started to move the Hook around the outskirts of our little camp, seeking evidence to suggest that they were watching.

“Crete, huh,” I said, looking around.  For some reason I’d thought that when we moved overseas things would somehow look quantifiably foreign, but this countryside could have been just about anywhere.  There were some hills, some trees, a ruined road…

Maybe it would look more exotic by day.

“When you say…contact with the Union…” said Nirav.

Haunter looked to Preventer, then back to us.

“We are-“

Preventer cut her off, raising a hand for silence.

A moment later she sent barriers shooting off of that hand, swelling in size as they swiftly boxed us in.  Another layer of barriers followed, sliding between the inner ones to form an outer shell around us.   They rotated, such that the gaps on one layer didn’t lead to the gaps on the next.

“Sorry, just wanted to make sure no one was listening in.”

I was a little surprised she was willing to use her gift so much, actually.  I’d never seen her manifest so many constructs at a time.

“Thank you,” said Haunter.

Perhaps they were getting on a bit better after spending a night without the three of us.  It would be nice, if true.

“Okay so… contact with the Union,” said Nirav.

“She sent us to talk with the Pantheon’s Ruling Council.  That Council just tried to kill us, and they got Adder and most of Sixth Fist,” said Haunter.

No one answered, we all just kind of sat there and let that sink in.

“So, we can’t go on to Olympus.  They still have the gift that broke the Link, we’d be slaughtered.  So we have to disobey Her.”

“Uh…” said Dale.  “I don’t know how good of an idea that is.  She really doesn’t like it when people do that.  She likes it a lot better if they do what She said.”

Haunter looked like she was about to respond, but Preventer preempted her.

“If it’s death either way, then I’d rather risk the Pantheon.  We only ‘think’ that they can take us, but we ‘know’ that She can.  Fortunately, there’s another way.”

“The Union,” said Haunter.  “They are fighting the Pantheon, not too far from here.  She will want us to hit back at the guys who took Sixth Fist from her.  We can do that.  If we have the Union on our side we might even survive it.”

“It is still not doing what She said to do,” said Dale.  “She gave us a boat.  If we don’t do what She said it is gonna make her sad, and then mad.”

“I think She’ll be angry no matter what,” I ventured.  “You know Her better than the rest of us, but is She ever not angry for long periods of time?  I think the most important thing is to focus Her anger on someone else.  Anyone else.  The Pantheon will do fine.”

Indulger looked kind of dubious, but didn’t say anything.

I took over for a bit.

“Bottom line, even if we are disobeying Her in this one case, I think we need to be very clear on the fact that we are still, in the larger sense, on Her side.  I mean, Remover and her goons go off mission all the time to kill people that annoy them.  We are basically just doing that.  We got sidetracked on our way to Australia by these people who didn’t respect Her, and we are killing them.  That’s it.  That’s the safest way to pitch this situation, if it comes to that.”

“If it comes to that,” echoed Dale, solemnly.

“She might not even warp out here.  Snitcher is dead.  She doesn’t know what is going on outside of her immediate environs for now,” said Haunter.  “We may not see Her again for a good long time.”

Jane was too smart to have forgotten about Answerer.  She was just trying to set Dale’s mind at ease.

“So, another problem.  I’m not sure the Union will want to work with us, after what happened the last time we tried to talk with them about working with them,” said Nirav.

“They’ve already agreed to talks with us,” said Jane.  “Preventer established contact last night.  I’m sorry for acting while you three were down, but we felt like it was important to head off the possibility of a Union strike, and I was pretty sure you’d be on board.”

“Talks is one thing,” Nirav said.  “But I’m pretty sure that what they’ll say in those talks is ‘Go back home to your Boss.’”

“Maybe, but we have to try,” said Haunter.


“I doubt that they’d act so flagrantly against their interests,” responded Preventer.  “We are offering the services of a Fist on the battlefield, for nothing.  They’d be utter fools to turn us down.”

“Wait,” I said.  “Did I never share my power with you?”

Their heads turned as one.

“Uh, we don’t need to worry about humans making decisions that we don’t like.  I’ll seduce their leader and he’ll go along with whatever.  I’m still kind of worried about Her reaction though.”

Now they looked at one another.

“Fisher, Betty, your human form is lovely,” said Haunter, “but we are going to be dealing with people who are hardened professionals.  They aren’t going to be interested in an affair, or whatever you had in mind.”

I hadn’t shared my power with them.  Right.  Blame it on the Link mucking up my memories.

“I’m not…look, ok, I haven’t told you guys about this before, and I don’t like to share this information, because it is a lot less effective once people know about it.  So what I’m going to tell you doesn’t go beyond our Fist, ok?”

They all nodded.

“I can change the priorities of daggers, muck around with them like I want.  I’ve given some hints to a few of you, but trust me, the gift is a lot stronger than I’ve let on.”

They kind of digested that for a moment.  All of them looked concerned, but it wasn’t about the same things.  Haunter was probably having trouble reconciling this gift with her whole way of doing things.  Preventer was likely mad at herself that she hadn’t known about it before.  Dale was trying to work out what I meant, and Nirav was worried that people would turn against me now that they knew.

“Betty…gifts can’t do mind control,” said Haunter.  She said it in a tone like she was sorry to break it to me.  Very soft and gentle.

“I know people think that.  I’m very happy to let them go on thinking it, honestly.  It makes things way easier for me.  But basically my gift can.”

Haunter looked a little upset.

“Souls don’t touch or interact with one another,” she said.  “In the kite metaphor the kites themselves never touch.  Linker’s gift works on the strings, not the kites.  The bodies connection to the souls, not the souls themselves.  To change someone’s decisions you’d need to work with the soul.  That is impossible.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Ok, so no one ever changes their mind, ever?  People still just drink breast milk and lay on the ground like babies?”

“Of course not.”

“But I thought you just said that souls can never be altered or some such.  So we should all be ga ga and goo goo-ing still.”

Haunter did NOT like being talked down to.  She was getting a little heated.  Preventer seemed to be enjoying the show at least.

“No, the soul updates on the evidence provided by the body’s senses.  It is still making the decisions.  If someone wanted to act like a baby, they could.”

“Yeah, the sense thing,” I made a snag gesture.  “Make that the hand part of the usual kite setup.  Now, after your senses do their work, there is a part where the body weights good vs. bad.  That’s what I hack.”

Haunter made an ‘elaborate’ gesture.

“Ok, so you pet a soft dog, or you put your hand on a fire.  Both give you sense data, but one you want more of, one you want less of, right?  The soul’s decision comes with the goal of less fire, more dog.”

“I see,” said Haunter.  “So when you mentioned priorities before…you interfere with the weighting of sensory information, rather than making the decision yourself you alter the human’s criteria.”

That was a bit of a simplification, but I could live with it.

“Yeah.  So these Union stiffs are going to have stuff like , ‘Serve my country”, and ‘Don’t let anyone notice that I am a fraud’ as their main desires.  I’ll just ratchet ‘score with the hot Regime chick’ up above that.  They will be the ones to choose what comes next.”

“A fascinating ability,” said Preventer, breaking into our conversation.  “Not so useful in the Regime or the Pantheon, where everyone of consequences is an Ultra, but in the Union…”

I chuckled.

“Yeah, I can’t remember most of my past, but I’d be surprised if I’d never thought about coming here.  Only place in the world where I can fish for the leaders.”

“That, uh, that seems kind of rapey,” said Dale.

I didn’t roll my eyes at Dale.  This needed to be handled right.

“Not at all,” I said.  “People get together all the time.  These guys will get to make the same choices that anyone else does.”

“After you’ve messed with their underlying urges,” said Haunter, her voice hard.

I spread my hands in the universal ‘you got me’ gesture.

“It is kind of hard to explain why you are wrong here.  Will you just take it from me that your picture of things isn’t right?”

Dale nodded, still looking troubled.

Haunter didn’t.

“Try me,” she said.

“Ok…you are expecting me to say the usual New World thing, laugh off your ideas as old school prudery.  That’s not what this is.  I’m hoping you won’t just automatically round what I’m saying off to the nearest thing you’ve heard before.  I’d like you to really listen.  Ok?”

Haunter narrowed her eyes.

“Thousands of people are listening to you right now, Betty.  You may be assured that your notions will receive a fair hearing.”

“Ok.  Let me start with your shades, since you brought them up.”

That was a good wedge to set into this situation, actually.  I saw the path open ahead of me.

I leaned the Lure forward, pointed at Haunter’s gut.

“I’ve used my gift on lots of them, since we’ve been together.  You might have noticed that I never once echoed Preventer’s line on them not being real.  I’ve always known that your shades are people.”

Haunter looked a little introspective at that, probably polling her minions to make sure I hadn’t been attempting to sway her by influencing the people she heard from most.  I actually hadn’t, though I’d considered it.

“What would you say is the most common priority that I saw, at the head of their lists?  The thing that they prize above all others.  The one idea that is most important to their worldviews?”

“Revive America?” asked Haunter.

I shook my head.

“I don’t get proper nouns, actually.  There is a kind of unique identifier that I have to match up.  So if I told you that their main goal was something like ‘Protect/Please/Defend/Revere X’, what would you say the X was.  America?”

I kept my handed pointed at her.

“That’s different,” she said.  “I don’t force them.  It is just a natural consequence of the fact that they live ninety percent of their lives through my senses.”

I dropped my hands to my sides.

“You used your gift on them, and made them worship you.  Thousands of them.”

I looked to Indulger.

“Still seem rapey?”

He didn’t say anything.

“No, look-“

Haunter struggled for a moment, no doubt martialing arguments from her mass mind.

“I’m not wedded to the comparison, to be honest”, I said.  “My main argument is that we need to stop having our asses thrashed at all times.  I am sick of keeping our hands behind our backs, and it has to stop.  Stop getting into fights without Indulger touching the ground.  Stop negotiating with daggers without me working their shadows.”

I saw Dale come around, something about the way he set his jaw.  He’d been thinking the thing about not having fights without him, and twinning the two ideas had sold him on my own gift.

Haunter martialed her arguments.

“Betty.  I’m not trying to argue semantics here.  I am trying to speak to the core of you, to the best part.  The part that saw Nirav’s pain and joined your future with his.  The person who went into the Process, not the thing She dragged out of her Lair.  If we are to join our fate to that of the Union, it MUST be through their willing consent.  It MUST be done properly.  It will blow up in our face, otherwise.”

I’d tried to be nice.  She was too wrapped up in her own story.  Time to take the gloves off.

“Jane.” I said, and looked her straight in the eyes.

“You old worlders liked science, right?” I asked.

She narrowed her gaze, saying nothing.

“Do an experiment, write down the result, then try again, see what happens.  Bit by bit you find out the best ways to do stuff?  That was your main deal, yeah?”

She gave a sullen nod.

“Ok.  We have tried negotiating with the Union without using my gift once before.  I let ‘the best part of me’ have its chance.  You gave your pretty speeches to that maniac.  What was the outcome?”

“Stop,” she said, softly.

“That’s right.  They all BURNED TO DEATH.  They died in hideous agony.  Condemner ate their souls, or whatever it does.”

She flinched, as though I’d punched her in the face.

“So this time we are going to do things my way.  I might screw a guy or two.  You got a problem with that?”

She looked back into my face, and I could still see something there in her eyes.  She hadn’t come around to agreeing with me, exactly, but she wasn’t able to martial any arguments against me.

I looked around at the rest of the group.

No one spoke up.

Defeater’s Lineage

The first ‘Defeater’, is generally held to be Simon Forbes.  He wasn’t, officially, of course, but he was their spiritual predecessor.  What’s important isn’t the name, but the fact that he was in charge of the civilized world’s response to Peggy Martin, and he fell in the line of duty.

Svetlana Popov took up the nascent Union’s equivalent of the Joint Task Force after the fall of the Old World.  She was, by all reputation, something of a martinet, grasping long before the rest of the intelligence community the fundamental nature of the world’s upset.

She spent her tenure fruitlessly engaged in the primary aim of the Lineage, the attempted assassination of the tyrant.  She was the first to work out that her teleportation, rather than her Ultra strength or durability, was the prime factor in preventing her assassination.  She wrote the Maxims, established the recording practices, and fought tirelessly against the other bureaucrats to establish her task force’s primacy over other intelligence efforts.

She killed herself in the aftermath of the Second Defiance.  Her suicide note read simply “I can’t do it.”

Ari Metlich took up in her stead.  He had been one of her more effective deputies, and he is credited with the first integration of the Defeater project with the Ultrahuman military services.

He didn’t last nearly as long as his mentor, however.  When Union Ultras proved no more effective than poison or explosives the leadership lost confidence in him.  The Great War was taking up an ever growing amount of resources at this time, and he transferred to more general intelligence operations.

The position went unfilled for a time, before being resurrected by a woman whose name is still classified.  ‘Rose’ has been the subject of a number of works of fiction, so I need not detail her tenure in any great detail.

We can credit her with the obsessive nature of the Union’s surveillance of the Regime’s master.  We can credit her with the systematic nature of her efforts, and her praiseworthy reluctance to squander Union lives on impossible efforts.

Her celebrated breakdown, where she sought to steal another woman’s place in the Process Order, in the hopes that she would be granted powers allowing her to fight with Prevailer on an even footing, is perhaps overemphasized.

The fact is that, after a period of counseling and retraining, she was permitted to resume work in the intelligence services, as evidenced by the refusal of government sources to give more detailed comments.  If she had actually done half the things in those movies they never would have retained her.

The present Defeater, of course, is beyond speculation.  He or she fights for us against the great Enemy of humanity.  Their lonely struggle, gazing forever into their surveillance systems and striving against all reason to determine a solution to the impossible problem, must still be going on.

We have to believe that.  Peggy Martin has said that ‘Force Rules the World’, but we must believe that the opposite is true.  Our living world’s will must guide sufficient force to overcome her nihilistic creed.