Pantheon Rankings

Everyone knows that the Pantheon is an alliance of explicitly Ultra supremacist states, holding the subjects of the Process alone to be worthy of leadership.  Less well understood is how they determine which Ultrahuman gets to stand above all the others.

The Pantheon is, of course, a heterodox collection of city states and warring bands.  Any description of a unified process, to be followed regularly by all components, is a delusion.  The exception is the rule.

That said, certain similarities can be observed.

The lowest rank, the bottom rung, is populated by those who have just been Processed.  Most notoriously, this is the rank inhabited by the products of the Ultra camps, born and bred only for the Process.  These Ultrahumans tend to be young, poorly trained, and new to their power.

Ultras of this level make up the rank and file of the Pantheon’s armies.  They have authority over human citizens, and that’s about it.  They are deployed in waves, used as cannon fodder.

In order to escape from this ‘nameless’ rank, the new Ultrahumans have a few options.

The most widely known is the Pilgrimage.  Pantheon soldiers who survive a battle with the Union forces are elevated to a slightly higher rank.  They do not yet have Divine Names, but they are no longer considered nameless.  They have the right to follow the warlord of their choosing, to challenge other Ultras, etc.  They are full participants in the brutal dog-eat-dog competition which is the Pantheon’s day to day operation.

Even those nameless who do not undergo a Pilgrimage may ascend in rank.  Those who compete certain particularly grueling training courses may cease to be nameless.  Those sponsored by a Pantheon member with a Divine Name are likewise graduated to full membership.  There are probably a few other possibilities.

In order to rise above the regular rank the Ultrahumans of the Pantheon must earn their Divine Name.  There is no Pilgrimage for this, no regularly recognized means of ascension.  Every Named Ultra of the Pantheon has performed a recognized feat of heroism.  They may have scored singular battlefield success against the Union, survived a battle with a Fist, or wracked up a massive Tally in the Pantheon’s incessant warring.

Those Ultrahumans gifted with a Divine Name, plucked seemingly at random from the world’s religious traditions, ARE the Pantheon.  The very name refers to their alliance.  In the Pantheon’s armies these are the commanders of its Hosts.  In its cities these are the rulers.  They are the Warlords.  They are the Valkries.  Throughout the vast majority of the Pantheon’s territory, and thus the majority of the Earth, they reign supreme.  Only the Leadership Council stands above them, and they only to the degree that their personal power can enforce their writ.

Zeus and his compatriots do not occupy any official extra class.  The Leadership Council, as a whole, has the authority to give orders to the Divine Names, but any individual member of that Council is only a God like all the others, able to bully their kin only to the degree that their might allows.

Indulger 6:1

We advanced in a line, five across.

They were just coming around the edge of one of those low hills that filled the whole area.  We’d timed it so we were a few hundred feet off.

The first girl to see us leaped into the air, shouting something I couldn’t understand.  I felt its impact down the chain, however, as their footsteps halted and then broke into a dozen different directions.

Some of them rushed to the front.  Others were joined by impressions of the rest of their body, as they flung themselves behind cover.  A few got heavier all of a sudden, like they were taking on battle forms.

Pitiful.  No organization at all, and they flung these kids at the Union?  No wonder they got slaughtered.

I tried to imagine what was going through the mind of the three bosses.  They’d have been expecting a sudden ambush, they’d have plans to fight their way free with the coterie of survivors they were recruiting for their power struggle.  What would they make of this?  Of a sudden encounter with no shooting?

Somebody shot me.

In the face.

I flinched back, raising a hand to cover my face as she took another shot.  It missed, but I could hear the bullet wing by.  I shouted in anger and pulled mud and stone up over me, layering them on me in an impromptu suit of armor.

It wasn’t ‘that’ impromptu.  One thing I’d talked with Her about was how to get better at fighting, and She had suggested that since my power was all about moving rock around I should make sure that my body was surrounded by that.

The rest of the group weren’t so vulnerable.  Nirav and Haunter were hiding in a cave below me, dragged along by my gift.  Their places in the line were occupied by a pair of shades, who Haunter would be drawing back now that my scheme to get them to talk had failed.  Fisher was in her monster form, with her human form hiding back a few hundred feet behind a tree to anchor her, and Preventer just didn’t care about bullets.

“We want to talk!” I roared at the group clustered at the corner.

There were about forty or fifty of them now, with more coming up.  None of them seemed to be in charge, and I could feel an organized formation being developed back along the ridge a couple hundred feet.  A few enterprising souls were even scaling it, and would presumably begin attacking from above whenever they got high enough to be satisfied.

This time the answer wasn’t just bullets, there were only three guns that I could see in the front cluster, they shot a variety of Ultra powers at me.

I saw ice, fire, what looked like a cat made out of mist and a variety of other dangerous looking gift manifestations in the instant it took me to raise a wall in front of myself.  As soon as their line of sight to me was cut off I was dropping into the ground behind it, not trusting even a little bit in my gift’s ability to hold off however many Ultras were blasting me.

I propelled myself and the Fist, other than Fisher, who was presumably fine on her own, through the ground towards the first cluster of the Pantheon.

I was mad.  It was such a simple plan.  We’d confront them suddenly, like from around a corner.  They’d bring up their leaders to negotiate.  I’d take them on and once the main Gods were gone the kids would roll over for us.

Jane and the others had probably known that it wasn’t going to be that easy, but I hadn’t let them tell me that.  I was trying to be Her or something, just making everyone do my plan.  Stupid.  Jane had a thousand brains.  I should let her do the planning.

Nothing for it now.  I wrenched the first enemy group into the ground in a kind of an antlion pit even as I rose up on the other side of them.  This time instead of having the Fist stand beside me I had four mud figures.  It was important to keep the Five theme going, try and get them to understand what they were facing here.

I made sure to rise up far enough from the pit that I was out of its line of sight.  It seemed like a lot of the people trapped there had projectile powers, and I was going to have my eyes off it for a while.

It was my first time laying eyes on the Second Host.

It wasn’t as impressing as I’d pictured.  A thousand Ultras, minus however many were trapped in the pit beside me, pretty much just looked like a thousand people.  Or rather, like a thousand teenagers, ragged and scared.

They had rearranged themselves into three blobs, with lots of floaters and stragglers.  There was a front blob with maybe a hundred Ultras.  There was a big middle group that was partway up the ridge, a little over half the total in there, and then there was a rear group that seemed more organized in the back.

“Listen!” I yelled to the front group.  I knew they weren’t allowed to speak English, but I was sure that some of them would understand me.  “We are a Fist, we work for Her!  I want to talk to your leaders!”

I had more to say, but they simply shouted and charged at me.

It took me a sec to realize that the reason they weren’t firing was that this was the melee group.  That was why they’d pushed them to the front, these Ultras wanted to fight from up close.

I wasn’t sure if the middle group wasn’t firing yet because they didn’t want to risk hitting their own people, or because they figured their comrades could handle five enemies.

They’d have been right about that, but I doubted they could handle one.

I pulled Preventer up from the ground.

She had an instant to look around, a moment to see the basic situation.

“You mother fu-“

I gave an apologetic shrug and tossed her into the charging melee group.

Unsurprisingly, they collapsed around her.  These weren’t soldiers, not really.  They were aggressive, they had been taught to kill, but they hadn’t got any discipline.  They’d go for the closest enemy till she was dead.  Or, in Preventer’s case, till something else occupied their attention.  As long as I didn’t interrupt I should be able to leave them to it.

I made a snap decision to leave the big group heading up the ridge for last.  I set the ridge to trembling around them to keep them occupied.

‘Trembling’ and ‘Antlion pit’ were about the limits of what I could do for so many people while also doing careful fighting stuff elsewhere.  It meant my gift wouldn’t react to them, wouldn’t move the pit, or tremble in time with their footfalls, but I was hoping it would be enough to let me face the back group without worrying about the stuff I’d already dealt with.

I set off towards the organized rear group, only to falter as a number of the floaters collapsed onto me.

A trio of girls dashed towards me from the opposite directon of the ridgeline, while another half dozen or so made their way closer from where they’d been running between the groups.  They sprayed gunfire at me, along with a few Ultra powers.

Their shooting wasn’t super accurate, and the mud and stone armor basically stopped me from feeling the impact, but I had to be careful to dodge the Ultra projectiles.  I used the ground to skate myself, lending me and my four mud buddies a degree of mobility we never could have managed on our own.

They had a purplish energy beam, some kind of shimmery field that acted like a big yo yo, and someone throwing baseball sized spheres of zappy stuff.  None of it seemed to change course after firing, so it wasn’t that hard to dodge at first, but they were getting closer.

Ultras didn’t like to talk about it much, but it was a rare Ultra power that was actually better than a gun in a fight.  The ‘ultra power’ of shooting a lead bullet very very fast had been all the world needed for quite a long time.  Those who had better powers had MUCH better powers, of course, but they would never have been sent out on a Host to begin with.

I sent the mud figures into them, joining them with another few that rose out of the ground around them.  They dutifully turned to fight the doubles, smashing them with abandon.  They had a few more powers for short range stuff, one of them was actually creating lava.  I dirt skated around the area and headed towards the cluster again.

Finally, I saw one of the Overseers.

Angel was hovering over the top of the group in the back, a pair of subordinates holding her hands and standing strong beside her.  She looked just like the briefing snapshot Meghan had shown.

“Angel!” I yelled.

I was moderately surprised when nobody answered my shout with an attack.

Instead, she called back something I couldn’t make out.

They didn’t seem to be shooting , so I risked a quick look around.

The floaters were finishing off my statues, which couldn’t track them anymore without my attention.  They’d be coming up behind me in a few minutes.  The pit and the ridge groups both seemed secure, and the rugby scrum around Preventer was actually sucking in a lot of the other floaters.

The back group was about three hundred strong, split up into small units of ten or so, spaced out.  They had actually dug foxholes, which was super counterproductive for them, but did indicate at least a modicum of organization.  They also weren’t shooting, so she was definitely exerting some serious command influence.

I made a beckoning gesture, brought up another four earthmen to make the ‘Fist’ connection obvious.

Angel beckoned right back.

I winced inwardly.  Walking into their midst was suicide.  But a Fist doesn’t fear.  I skated forward, scowling out from my mud mask.

Angel floated to meet me, just as compelled as I was to project strength.  She still had a henchmen in each hand, and she stayed a dozen or so feet up off the ground.  Her squads moved to surround, taking up new positions to my flanks and rear.

“Regime?” she asked.

She had a bit of an accent, but it wasn’t hard to make out.

“Fist!” I said.

I felt the urge to thump my chest, controlled it.  As much as I wanted it to be, this was not an Ultra Fight.  No one was here to be entertained.

“Why are you interfering with our Pilgrimage?” Angel asked.

“Your warriors have suffered much,” I began.  “She looks well upon them.  They may serve Her from now on.”

There was a beat of silence.  Once again, no one attacked.  My thought from before that this Host didn’t have any discipline had been way early.

Then Angel began to laugh.  Mocking stage laughter.  It looked like I wasn’t the only Ultra Fight fan.

“You think forming shapes with your gift makes me believe you are a Fist?  You think I am so stupid that a little English is enough for me to believe you are from America?”

More laughter, it spread to the two alongside her.

“Come off it.  Tell me your Divine Name?  I don’t recognize you, but you must be a powerful God to stifle a whole Host on your own.  If you want to Oversee alongside us, you will not find us unwilling.  End this charade and join our march against the godless Union!”

I formed the cave beneath into five channels, the agreed upon sign that they would be rising up, and then held out a hand sideways, palm up.  I made a clawing gesture and brought forth my colleagues from the ground.

Of course, with Fisher off doing who knows what at the front of the line, and Preventer currently being enthusiastically pummeled by a mob I only had two colleagues, but Haunter had chosen a pair of intimidating shades to fillout their numbers.  I doubted the others would get much notice, with me doing all the talking and standing in the middle and stuff.

Their laughter died away as the Fist rose from the ground around me.

“I said your warriors could serve,” I reminded her.  “Not you.”

“Oh?  Am I not worthy?” Angel asked, the amusement gone from her voice.

“You hide behind kids, you piece of shit,” I told her.  “Year after year you send them to die.  What do you fucking think?”

Beside me, Haunter’s shades were multiplying, forming a ring of guns pointed back at the Ultras surrounding us.  Much more importantly, they were talking, letting the people on the ground hear, in their own languages, whatever Haunter had thought up to convince them to let me settle this with Angel.

“I’ve had enough of this,” she said.  “You are clearly deranged, whatever your-“

“You still trying to claim we are not a Fist?” I asked, mostly stalling for time and trying to rile her up.  “Or you want to admit you don’t know a Fist when you see one.”

She flung the woman on her left hand at us.

‘Flung’ wasn’t the word.  The Ultra hurtled down from on high, arms changing into deadly bone sabers, but even as I skated back she was curving in midair, smashing into Haunter with her arms outstretched.

Even as her right hand puppet had been flying down on us Angel had been in action herself, flashing down in a mirror of the curve to fall upon Nirav, reaching out to touch his forehead and dragging him up into her formation.  It all happened in a split second.

I raised a hand, then lowered it, trying not to gape at our good fortune.

“Still want to call yourself a Fist?” she asked.  “With 2 fingers broken in a heartbeat?”

I looked over to where Haunter had managed to extricate herself from the fight with the slashing Ultra.  It was easy to forget that she was like a dozen ninjas on the inside.  Still, she had almost certainly lost some shades there, and that was on me.

“I hope it hurts,” I told Angel.

Nirav’s form was utterly bound by her telekinesis, but his other self was formless.  Our eyes met for a moment, and I saw his resignation, his fear, but beneath it all, his resolve.

Also he made a motion with his eyes that I ought to not look at him right now.

Angel, her left hand minion, and Nirav became in an instant a second sunrise, a searing fireball that struck blind every eye that gazed on it.

She had time to scream, a sound of utmost agony.  I hoped really hard it was because Nirav was trying not to accidentally burn up the girl on the other side, and not because Condemner had returned and it liked to hear people scream.

I got my answer when he landed in front of me and took on his human form again.

“One down, two to go!” said Nirav.

Les infants terrible

The notion has arisen a few times throughout history.

If souls are kites, the Process is winding the string around the person to draw it closer, allowing it to do more than create thought…then what about children?

They think less clearly, perhaps their soul is further away.  If so, then the Process should ‘loop more string’ around them, ie, give them more power, at the cost of an enhanced risk of dying in the Process.

The Union came up with this a while back, their researchers unable to countenance actually going through with anything so vile, but their peril dire enough to investigate.  They found, to their relief, that the Company Men would not Process anyone below the legal limit defined by their bylaws.

A half hearted attempt was made to get around this, but soon abandoned.  In truth, the Union could never afford to waste its limited Processes on people who were less likely to survive.  This, combined with the moral dimension, caused them to bury the research, hoping that their less scrupulous enemies would never hear of it.

The idea flared to life again, a few years later, in the Regime.  Subtracter got it from one of the smart people that she threatened in order to generate ideas.  It landed on barren ground, as the Regime has no particular desire to make stronger Ultras than its Fists, or Her.

It was only a few years ago that the notion and the men who would implement it collided.  An ambitious Demigod in the Pantheon’s service, desperate to supplant Death as the Ruling Council member in charge of reinforcements, gave this idea a try.

It took a good bit of wrangling to get the Company Men to comply, but their bylaws turned out to have a loophole, where someone in a terminal condition could have the Process despite any other individual factors.  This Ultra used, unknowingly, the same loophole that Peggy Martin had used so many years ago in order to create the Ultra Crime Wave.

It was a resounding failure.  The attrition rate put 30/1 to shame, and even in the Pantheon one could not commit such atrocity without retribution.  Zeus and the Council put an end to the deplorable Deity, and announced the immediate shutdown of the project.

They did, in fact, shut it down.  Only to reopen it elsewhere, covertly.

The details are too ghoulish and tragic to go into.  The first facility was destroyed with all hands when someone survived the Process with Ultra Blasts 3 and stubbed her toe.  The second facility, with much better security, managed to produce a success and deliver it to Zeus.  The six year old Psyche, child of God.

The Company Men hadn’t been able to determine the nature of her power.  Understandably, as their instruments had already revolted against them.  None of the local Ultras could do so either, and she had been slated for termination.

The Union spies had been surprised when their orders had come through the combands, to break their deep cover, kidnap Psyche and give her ice cream.  They were obedient, however, and only failed because their implants betrayed them to her keepers, giving the Pantheon its first clue as to her power.

The report that Zeus received was analog, so we can’t blame her gift for its misleading nature.  The author was simply a fool.  It said that technology acted to defend Psyche, that she was master of man’s inventions.  True enough, but a lot like saying Peggy Martin was ‘very strong’.

It is hard to blame Zeus for eagerly embracing her power.  He was a child of the New World, he had never heard of the Singularity.

Haunter 6:3

I hadn’t gotten a briefing in a while.  It took me back to my brief stint in the military, back during the First Defiance.  It wasn’t a pleasant memory.

“Betty has been on site for nine days now, enlightening the Second Intervention Group.  Your mission is to rendezvous with her and strike the Pantheon’s Host as soon as it enters their engagement range.  You will dominate this group and reopen negotiations with us.”

Fisher had put some more work into Meghan before she left.  She was now an enthusiastic partisan for our plan, fully complicit.  It turned out that when you had mind control you could control people not to mind that they were mind controlled.

“Are the Host going to be like the gals we saw get wiped out in that recording?” asked Nirav.  “Or is that just the first wave of the year?”

Meghan slapped a baton looking thing against her hand.  She was using it to control the display, but it also apparently worked as a sort of pointing device.  The Major had had a stick he used in a similar way, come to think of it, though his hadn’t also been a remote control.

“Excellent question.  The answer is somewhat complicated, so listen carefully.”

She pointed her wand at the screen, which flickered and then displayed a bird’s eye image of a series of entrenchments and bunkers.

“This is the nearest of the Great Host’s entrenchments, code named Barad-Dur.  It houses approximately eight thousand Ultrahuman combatants, and is the last stop before a given Host enters the engagement zone.”

“Woah,” said Dale.  “You guys have pictures of their base?  That’s great!”

Meghan waved the wand idly, acknowledging his praise while not getting distracted by it.

“Your target passed through this fortification yesterday, and surveillance indicated approximately a dozen new figures in their ranks after that.  We’ve identified three of them as Overseers.”

“I suppose those are command and control personnel?” I hazarded.  “In the engagement we observed the enemy lacked even a rudimentary command structure, but given the Union’s casualty rates that can’t be typical.”

Meghan nodded her assent.

“Indeed.  Oveseers oversee, naturally.  There are approximately twenty of these warlords in the Great Host, squabbling for power and authority.  One way that they can gain prestige is by accompanying Hosts on their attacks, and ideally inflicting serious harm to our Intervention Groups.”

“It is also probably a good way to make sure any survivors of the Host become their followers instead of someone else’s, right?” asked Nirav.  “The Great Host is made up of accumulated bits from the Hosts, right?”

“Another excellent point,” answered Meghan.  “There is certainly a correlation behind a survivor’s commander and the warlord that they choose to back once they are back in the Great Host.  You are also correct about the Great Hosts’ origin, by and large.  It is mostly the survivors of culled Hosts, although there are also a number of immigrants from the Pantheon’s main areas, defeated warlords and the like.”

“So it is literally a bunch of losers?” said Dale,  “And these are the guys we want to team with the Union  to beat?”

Preventer fielded this one.

“They aren’t ‘losers’, so much as survivors.  You saw the video.  Think about what kind of gifts withstand an attack like that.  They have to be bulletproof, and they also need some way to overcome or escape the Union’s base level Ultras.  Think about a whole army of people like that.  Thousands of Ultras like the ones we faced on the Strongboat.”

Dale raised a hand in a ‘you got me’ gesture.  I felt pretty sure he’d understood that already, and just wanted it out in the open for the rest of the team.

“They won’t be on your level, however,” said Meghan.  “The Pantheon doesn’t deploy Fist level Ultras to the Middle Eastern Front.”

“Other than Death,” I said.

Somber looks were exchanged at the reminder of our enemy.

“I passed your report of a Ruling Council member being present in the local theater along up the chain, but there hasn’t been a response.  I imagine that if she is here then Command knows of it, but there hasn’t been any sign of her that they’ve shared on any channels that we have access to.  I think the odds of you encountering her with this Host are minimal.”

“So we are probably just dealing with these dozen strong Ultras and their three bosses.  Other than that the Host will look like the one that we saw get shot up?” asked Nirav.

Meghan nodded.

“If you can overcome the Overseers and their guards it is likely that the remainder will surrender.  That likelihood will obviously increase if you are able to use Indulger’s gift as planned, and immobilize their forces.  The Pantheon has indoctrinated these young women to believe that people are Gods in direct proportion to how strong their Ultrahuman abilities are.  If yours are demonstrably greater than their leaders, they might well be open to switching sides.”

“My shades can handle the translation issues,” I said.  “If we can get them to stop fighting and start talking I am confident that we will be able to make ourselves understood.”

“Do you know the powers on the three overseers?” asked Preventer.

“We do for two of them,” said Meghan.

“The first, Angel, has a telekinetic ability that affects only her own form, allowing her to fly rapidly and with full control of her own maneuverability.  She can also use it to protect herself, holding her flesh together in order to stop bullets and such.  The most dangerous part of this ability is that it also works on anything that she has touched her flesh to, living or not.  She can puppet or propel her minions, if she has adequately prepared, or slam objects into you.”

“A flyer who can make other people fly,” said Dale.  He pulled a face.  “My favorite.”

“Any weaknesses?” I asked.

“Well, her ability failed to tear apart an operative with Ultra Toughness at level 2, so Preventer is probably safe even if Angel gets her hands on you.  A bigger weakness, though, is the usual one for Ultras.  She can only concentrate on so many things at a time.”

“So, if she is lofting other people, then maybe she isn’t holding her flesh steady against bullets?” asked Nirav.

“She’ll probably keep that up throughout, but I was thinking more that if she has to move herself then anyone else she is moving around will probably hold still for a second.”

“She sounds beatable,” I said.  “What else are we dealing with?”

“Mireuk is the other Ultra we have data on.  She creates zones that exclude substances of her choosing.”

We looked at one another.

“So, like a ‘no bullets zone’ around herself?” asked Dale.

“Sure, or a ‘No Bones Zone’ around someone she doesn’t like.”

I winced.  An attack like that would probably count as hitting continuously for my gift.  I’d bleed shades as long as I was in her zone.

“Does she need to trace out the zone or something?  Like, why hasn’t she just put Earth in a ‘no disobeying her’ zone,” asked Nirav.

“She can only exclude physical things, we think, and just one thing at a time.  Though she can layer the zones inside one another.  She doesn’t have to physically trace the zone, but she does have to see or otherwise sense the location she wants to exclude.  It is actually visible.”

“What does it look like?” I asked.

“You will see a glowing line snaking along.  When it touches itself the area that it surrounds is in the zone.  It is a cylinder that goes up and down for a ways around the shape she makes.”

Meghan traced a circle in the air as she spoke.

“It is pretty fast, but there is a delay between the shape being completed and the exclusion beginning.  It is longer the bigger the area that she is working on.  It would be very dodgeable if you were facing her alone, much less so if a thousand poorly trained Ultrahumans are blitzing you.”

“Can she move them?” I asked.  If she could proceed their army with a giant lethal cube then that would be difficult to deal with.

“Kind of,” said Meghan.  “She can either make them stationary or attach them to her own frame of reference, in which case they move as she does.  But she can’t make them move independently, we think.”

That was small comfort, but it was something.

“Maximum size?” asked Dale.

“Yes, but we aren’t sure exactly what it is.  Somewhere on the order of a hundred yards or so is as big as she could pull off.  That’s what she reported to her superior at the time, anyway.  She may have been sandbagging to get an advantage in one of their internal struggles.  It shouldn’t be much larger than that, we think.”

“Do you know anything about the third Overseer?” I asked.  “Or any of the other veterans that joined up?  You said that you didn’t have details on her power, but do you have anything?”

Meghan slapped the wand against her palm, and the screen shifted to display a picture of a fierce looking young woman with buck teeth and one eye.

“Cyclops, imaginatively enough.  She just arrived at the front, and has been castigating the remaining Overseers for cowardice.  She swore to take the next Host all the way to Brussels.  We don’t have any data on her powers, but she certainly talks the talk.”

“If you don’t have any data, it must mean that she hasn’t done anything impressive, right?” said Dale.

“Not necessarily,” Meghan looked momentarily embarrassed.  “We have separate agencies monitoring the Ultrahumans assigned to the Host and those who concern themselves primarily with domestic conflicts within the Pantheon.  It takes a little while for reports to pass back and forth when one of them changes their situation.  It wouldn’t be safe to presume that Cyclops is a mediocrity, just because we don’t have her data.”

“Well, her being a hothead is valuable information in its own right,” Dale said.  “If she wants to show off then she might just take a challenge from a Fist, or a member thereof.  It would be an easy way to make everyone in her army think she was the real deal.”

“You are NOT having another Ultra Fight,” said Nirav and Preventer at the same time.

Dale pouted a bit.

“Anyway, this should all be useful.  I feel fairly comfortable about our odds against the Host.  Let’s talk about the other danger in this situation.”

Meghan didn’t show any sign of reluctance at this.

“The Second Intervention Group, which Becky is presently enlightening, is quite formidable.  They have a hundred and sixty Ultrahuman specialists and several thousand armed personnel.  They operate under the Front Line Technical Restrictions, but their drone capabilities are still impressive.  In your absence I have no doubt that they would have triumphed over the Host.”

“Is there any chance at all that they attack on schedule?” asked Nirav.  “I mean, is there a way that the bosses can get around Becky’s mindwashing of the leaders?”

Meghan considered it.

“I think it is unlikely that they will, but the strict answer to your question is yes.  High command can issue orders directly to individual soldiers combands, potentially instructing them to relieve the commanding officers and putting the attack back on track.  It would be wildly out of character, but they have the ability to do so.”

“Why would it be strange?” asked Preventer.  “If their soldiers aren’t taking orders, aren’t they going to snap over that?  The soldiers are the ones that keep them in power without any gifts, right?”

I fielded this one.

“Militaries…don’t mutiny.  Not anymore.  And their strength comes directly from their organization.  If a unit is refusing orders and giving good excuses, then they are going to want to evaluate those excuses.  If they DO decide that something is wrong with all of their leaders, and it will take a LOT for them to even examine that idea, then the last thing they will do is throw that unit into battle.  It will get pulled back for a full evaluation, and they won’t stop till they figure out what happened.”

Meghan nodded her approval.

“Haunter is correct, for the most part.  I could readily see the leadership rotating the Second out and sending another Group in, but we should be in communication with them before that, and they will know that you are there.  They won’t attack the Regime if they can avoid it.”

“This all sounds good,” said Dale.  “But say they attack.  Can we take them?”

“Of course you can,” said Meghan, with a brightness entirely out of place in the situation.  “You are our saviors, if you were weaker than us it wouldn’t make any sense.”

My eyes narrowed.  Something about the situation struck me as familiar.  The Jury helped me place it.  A Union leader acting suddenly irrational.

“Uh, right.  Ok.  On that subject, what would the Union do if they had to fight us?  Like, what is their ‘fight a fist’ plan?” asked Dale.

Meghan’s belief in us reminded me of Fidel’s fury against us.  What if they had the same source?  Had Fisher sabotaged the original negotiations?

“Gauntlet,” said Meghan.  “The Union’s rare Fist level Ultras go into the Gauntlet program.  I don’t have clearance to know much about it, but they respond to Fist terror attacks, and conduct precise strikes when the situation demands.  Rumor has it that they are considerably stronger as a group than any Fist except Fourth.”

I couldn’t think of a reason that she would do that, but the Jury confirmed that their Fidel and Fisher’s shadows had intersected early in that conversation.  She’d had opportunity.

“Are Gauntlet kept near the front lines?” asked Preventer.  “You have a thing like the Grand Host, right?  A big army that you will use if the other side throws their big army into the mix?”

“You are referring to the Combined Force,” said Meghan.  “It stays back from the front lines, and is only expected to advance in the event of the Grand Host’s deployment.  It’s technology is unveiled, and it has a wide variety of experimental technologies developed specifically to overcome bulletproof Ultrahumans.  I doubt Gauntlet is stationed with it, but I don’t have the clearance to check.”

“They can presumably get places very fast,” I ventured, pulling myself back to the current conversation.  “That unveiled tech presumably includes a very fast plane equivalent.”

She confirmed my guess with a nod.

“We are just about out of time,” she said.  “Com me the instant you have the situation in hand with the Host, and I’ll convey your offer to my superiors.  I am sure they will see reason.”

“I hope not,” joked Dale.

All through the process of boarding the zipper, which turned out to be another name for one of those flying cubes that we’d been trapped in before, I continued to ponder the idea that Fisher might have sabotaged the earlier meeting, the one with Fidel.

My read on her could come up with no reason to do so.  She loved Nirav, wanted to earn my respect and enjoyed being a strong and predatory entity.  Nothing about that suggested working against us secretly.

Still, I couldn’t put the thought out of my mind.   I was still mulling it over when we picked up Fisher outside of the Union camp.  I was still mulling it over when we attacked the Pantheon’s Host.

Out From Ireland

*Beginning of Red Channel Recording*

“Hello, hello, is this working?”

“It is indeed, doctor.”

“So all the leaders can hear me?  Oh, you just heard that then.  Uh…I’m sorry, Um, Hello.  I’m sorry to take up your valuable time, I just, I know that you are doing important things but this is very important and we were told at school that if something like this ever came up to use the red box so I did that.”

“Thank you doctor, we are always delighted to hear from the scientific community.  In fact, the war effort is at a bit of a critical period right now, so it is difficult to properly express how glad we were to receive a red channel request from a leading weapons researcher.”

“Oh, yes.  Um, I’m not actually that.  Or, rather, I am her, I mean, I’m Dr. Sarah Fitzpatrick, but this isn’t a weapons breakthrough I want to talk about.  I don’t actually like to work on weapons.”

*Silence*

“Oh, I mean, I do.  At work.  But when I go home I don’t do more weapons work.  I don’t think that what we are trying to do can really succeed?  I mean, Ultrahuman powers defy physics, it doesn’t seem like devices that do not do so can be of any, well, I mean, I’m sure that you have your reasons for pressuring us so hard, but my curiosity has always gone in a different direction.”

“Us?”

“Um, sorry.  I mean, I.  I definitely disobeyed the rule that I am supposed to work on war stuff on my own.  I am the only one at fault.”

“Dr. Fitzpatrick, what area of research is this red channel call regarding?”

“Oh, in my spare time I researched the Process.  I know it is supposed to be a dead end, but I’ve never believ-”

“Please hold”

*Silence*

“Dr. Fitzpatrick, are you still here?”

“Oh, yes sir.  I am right here.  Am I in trouble?  You sound more serious than the last voice.”

“A zipper is on its way to bring you and your loved ones into state security.  Please explain as much as possible of your discovery into this channel immediately, in case the enemy strikes before security arrives.”

“Oh, oh.  Um.  Oh.  Ok.  Well, how much do you know about cargo cults, and the CC/P hypothesis?  Sorry.  I’ll explain like you don’t know.  Ok, so people that undergo the Process, the successes, we are able to record them.  Those ghastly Company Men try to stop it, but they don’t know about how clever we are about hiding sensing apparatus.”

*silence*

“I’ve hidden myself in the bathroom.  That ought to be harder to find me in.  If anyone is looking for me, which I don’t think they are.  Anyway, the point is that we can do the Process just as well as the Company, but it never works unless they do it.  There are a lot of explanations for this, but CC/P is the most widely believed.”

(muffled) “Mom, I need to go number 2!”

“The idea of CC/P, basically, is that we are like the natives with the cargo cult, merely aping a signal.  But no matter how well we make our runways, nobody has sent a plane.  You see?  No matter how well we prepare our subjects to receive an Ultrahuman ability, the problem is that no one has sent any.  The Company is somehow sending the abilities, and the Process merely guides them in.”

(muffled) “Go downstairs honey, Mommy is busy!”

“This has all been gone over for decades.  No one can detect this signal, or gift, in transit.  One working theory is that it propagates along the same physics defying continuum as the gifts themselves.  A subproblem of this space, the one that my team came up with the discovery in, was the Timing Problem.”

*flushing noise*

“I came up with the measurement that led to the Timing Problem, must have been a decade ago.  Or less, or maybe more.  You can look it up.  Anyway, I basically put a pin in people who were being Processed.  It was more complicated than that, but not much more.  The ones that got enhanced durability ejected the pin.  So I could tell the exact moment that they became Ultrahuman.”

*running water over the following*

“The Company Men perform the procedure in exactly the same manner, every time.  It follows, then that the effect would show up after exactly the same duration, ever time.  But it didn’t.  It followed a seemingly random timing, and I became obsessed with trying to work out what was causing this delay, and why it varied between subjects.”

*comband notification beeping*

“I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but I finally stole some time on SPARTACUS, and it came up with the connection right away.  I hope you can forg-, sorry, I know I am supposed to just say this right out.”

*throat clearing*

“The time from the completion of the Process to the onset of Ultrahuman durability varies in exact and direct proportion to the distance between the subject and a point in the center of the fissure on the moon.  It is highly likely that the ‘transmitter’, of Ultrahuman gifts, is a machine located on the moon.”

*indeterminate thumping noise, child shouting*

“It sounds like your security personnel are here.  I guess we don’t need to use this silly dramatic box anymore.  I’ll be filing a full report very soon.”

*End of Red Channel Recording*

Haunter 6:2

“Ok, so how much of that can actually happen?” I asked.

We had broken up the main meeting.  It had been decided that we shouldn’t remain too long outside of the Union’s surveillance apparatus’ view.  I had retired to a side cave to converse with Fisher, while the remainder of the team went back up top.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

Her human form was leaning against her monster form, reaching back idly to scratch it along a flank.  The monster loomed above her, blank and intimidating.  I guessed she had both forms out to assure me that she wasn’t trying to use her gift on my shades.

“Dale isn’t here, so just between us two, is the plan we just hashed out remotely reasonable?”

“Us two?” she asked.

She had a point.  I manifested Joe and Irene.

“I think we-“

“Not much-“

They both started talking at once.  I pointed to Joe.

“Umm, ok, I think you were maybe kind of glossing over how easy it is to spoof the Union.  Like, the idea that we are going to stop them from noticing that there is an extra army out there on the front lines is not credible.  Sorry.”

“I thought your guys could control the Union’s tech?” asked Fisher.

Joe’s face fell.

“It isn’t as simple as that.  Most of what we are doing is borrowing your victim’s identities.  We can see Chad’s feed because we ‘are’ Chad, as far as their system goes.  Get me?”

She didn’t.

“Ok, so the computers of the Union only let certain people do certain things.  And, since you have caused Meghan, Jamad and Chad to cooperate with us, we can do anything that they can do.  You get me?”

I saw the moment of realization.

“So you are saying that being allowed to do whatever those three can do is not enough to make the computers tell the leaders that there is no army there if there really is?  That makes sense.”

“Yes, basically,” said Joe, heading off a longer conversation.  “Nobody has permission to falsify the data, because why would you do that, so the impersonation that you’ve let us achieve can’t let us fool their computers in that way.”

“We need to be very clear about this,” interjected Irene.  “We aren’t saying that we can’t put false data into their reports.  That we can absolutely do.  We can send any explanation of the army that we want, on the channels that we have access to, but they are going to get the unaltered results of their sensor systems along with whatever line we feed them.”

I could see that Fisher didn’t quite get it.  So could Irene.

“Sorry, ok, we are simplifying a bit here.  When we talk about ‘The Union’s sensors’, there are a LOT of systems that make that up.  They have a dizzying array of sensing technologies focused on this region, and they have a lot of experience in knowing how those all fit together.”

“So,” I said, “even if we fooled their radar, all that would accomplish is to make them wonder why the radar and the gravity sensors weren’t reporting the same information.  They would have 2 stories of what was going on instead of one, and they could very quickly verify which one was real.”

Irene looked grateful.

“So what can we do?” asked Irene.  “You gave the impression that you could hack them back in there.”

Joe fielded this one.

“We can alter the explanations that accompany the sensor data.  That comes from personnel, and if you get those people to give us their logins then we can impersonate them to the system, and tell them why their sensors are saying whatever they are saying.”

“So…what does that mean?”

We had circled back around to my original question.

“Well, the part at the end, where we were kind of hand waving the Union responding to our capture of the Pantheon’s Host…that needs more details.  It will not be possible to prevent their leadership from knowing that the Host is still alive.”

Joe slapped his hands against his belly as he spoke, idly beating out a tempo.

Fisher arched her back against her beast, rubbing her spine along one of its bony protrusions in a way that the boys in the reserve expressed their appreciation for.

“Dale and the rest aren’t going to like that,” she said.  “You probably could have been clearer in the meeting.”

“We can still do it,” said Joe.  Irene raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“We just need to come up with a story that the Union will accept.”

I’d been giving that a bit of thought.

“Let’s talk about the finale in a bit.  I just want to make sure we can get there,” I told them.  “The idea of taking control of the Union army is feasible, right?”

I’d addressed this last question to Fisher.

“My power will work on them, if that is what you are asking.  I can make the humans do whatever we want.  As long as they are the ones in charge, as silly as that notion is, then the army will be ours.”

“That ‘army’”, said Irene, “is an Intervention Group.  It has a few thousand human personnel, as well as a few hundred Ultrahuman assets.  There is an intelligence presence as well.  The Union has four of them active in the warzone at any given time.”

Only a few hundred Ultras, to stop an enemy that deployed them by the thousands.  The ballsy bastards.

“So, we need Betty to work her mojo on the commanding officer and his immediate staff, as well as the spook who watches over them?” I asked.  “How many people is that, in total?”

“Hard to say,” said Joe.  “The short answer to your question is five.  She will need to hook the Commander, his deputy, both of his subcommanders and the intelligence operative.  But the Union hierarchy isn’t quite so simple.”

Irene nodded at that.

“The system is full of times when someone elevated a report up the chain over their immediate supervisor’s head.  They have a ‘see something / say something’ setup, and their lower ranked personnel are encouraged to report anything suspicious to anonymous channels.”

“That doesn’t sound like the military I recall,” I said.

“Spying on the Ultras?” asked Fisher.

Irene nodded again.

“Yes.  They are petrified of a coup, so the military has a LOT of safeguards in its reporting structure.  It isn’t designed to stop exactly what we are trying to do, but it is close enough that it will be a problem for us.”

“I can handle that,” said Fisher.  “The grunts don’t get told enough to know that something is off.  I am pretty sure that I can keep them from using these snitching channels if I am on site.”

There was an idea.

“You are going to stay over there?” I asked.

“I think I have to,” she said.  “Like, maybe I could snag these five guys in one day of a bogus inspection or whatever, but it would be a LOT better if I could work on them over the course of a week or so.”

I exchanged a dubious look with Irene.

“Does the Link allow us to stay apart that long?” I asked.  “I can’t recall us ever trying that.”

Fisher grinned.

“I did.  When Dale was shacking up with Her, while we were building the boat, I camped outside of the city for a while.  It’s no sweat.”

“Ok, so the part of the plan where we take control of the Union army…you think that can still work?  As long as we leave you with them, I mean?” I said.

“Umm, ‘control’, might be overstating the thing.  I can get them to do whatever, but it will take another day or so if I need to shift them.  Think of it more like aiming them in a direction”

That brought up another thing I’d been worrying about.

“Is there any chance of the people here breaking your control while you are off subverting the Intervention Group’s leadership?”

Fisher cocked her head to one side.

“My ‘control’?  Again, that’s not what I do.”

“I know, I mean, but that’s what the effect boils down to.”

Betty rubbed her forehead.

“That’s like asking if your childhood self that doesn’t want to eat spinach is going to ‘break your control’, and run off right now.  There isn’t a version of Meghan like she was before I used my gift on her trying to break out.  There is just the one Meghan, same as there ever was.  I’ve changed her goals.  They might change back, but that isn’t the same as breaking free of something.  There isn’t a ghost or whatever hammering away on an invisible cell.”

“Sorry,” I said.  “Given that my gift creates pretty much that exact setup, souls in a container and all, it is an easy mistake to make.’

Fisher looked like she wanted to correct me, then shrugged.

“Maybe an easier way to think about my gift is that I am killing people and building new replacements that look just like them?  That’s still wrong, but it lines up decently well with predicting what will actually happen when I use my gift on people, and that’s what matters.”

“We get it,” said Joe.  “can you tell us what line you are going to take with the leaders of the Intervention Group?  I know you seduced Jamad, but you presumably want to go with something less conspicuous here.”

“The nice thing about lust,” said Fisher, “is that it gives them a story to make sense of the shift in their values.  Everybody has seen movies where somebody falls in love at first sight.  They have the narrative dormant in their consciousness.  People with no script to read off of tend to think that they are going crazy, and then their behavior gets really unpredictable.”

“How so?” asked Irene.  “If you have control of their values…”

“It is still up to them how to express those values,” said Fisher.  “Like, imagine that you want people to praise you, on some level.  Say I kick that into overdrive, so now it is the entire motivation for your life.  What do you do next?”

“Whatever will cause me to get praised,” said Joe.

“Ok, but I don’t get to decide what that is,” answered Fisher.  “You might try to kill me so everyone will tell you how valiant you are, or run away, so they will laud you for your prudence.  Lust has a story around it.  Everyone knows that if you want to screw a glamorous stranger you should laugh at her jokes, help her out with whatever and do as she says.  But if there is no story around it people are a lot harder to predict.”

“How does that square with what you did to Meghan?” I asked.

She was the member of the negotiating team that I found the creepiest.  She was ‘all in’ on the Regime saving the Union, but if I didn’t know Fisher had altered her I wouldn’t even have questioned it.  She didn’t seem like a drone or a zombie, just someone who happened to believe in us.

“She already wanted something like us to come along.  You don’t get a job like hers without believing that getting agreement from powerful people will make stuff better.  She was already all about succeeding at negotiations, so I was able to just give her a little push.  I am kind of proud of her, honestly.  It would have been easy to mess up that situation, but I played it just right.”

“Can you do something like that with these officers then?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she said.  “I need to read them to get the details, but the ultimate goal is to get them to let another unit, us, fight their battle for them, right?  Off the top of my head I’d expect them to have a strong motivation to keep their troops safe, I can just push that a bit and they won’t attack anyone.”

“That makes sense,” I said.  “So we get Meghan to authorize us to visit the Intervention Group a week or so before they expect the next Host to attack, and we leave you behind.  So far so good.”

“I spend that week working with them, getting them into a mindset where when they get the orders to attack, they don’t obey.  Instead you guys hit the Pantheon Host, Dale captures them and you intimidate them into working for us.”

Stating it so baldly the plan sounded mad, but I was actually on board to this point.  It seemed likely, based on what we’d accomplished so far, that we could do that much.

“The problem is what comes next.  You are the Union leadership.  The Group you ordered to attack didn’t do so.  You have also lost track of your Regime ambassadors, presuming we aren’t having Meghan and the rest fake our presence here, and the Host is still alive.  What do you do next?”

The Jury and I considered the question

“I tell another Group to attack the Host,” said Joe.  “And I send investigators or whatever they use to try and figure out why the first Intervention Group is ignoring orders.  I tell Chad and company to track down the missing Fist at whatever cost.”

I could see what Fisher was about to say, preempted her.

“And before you suggest it, we aren’t going to be able to get you to all four Intervention Groups, not if you need to stay there for a while to make sure your mojo sticks.”

She spat to one side, an idle expression of disappointment.

“Yeah, that would probably be asking a lot.  I expect they will fire the current group after the ‘inspection’, anyway.”

I quashed the pang of conscience I felt at the thought of getting Meghan and the rest fired.  Getting them away from Fisher would be honestly the nicest thing I could do.

“So the question is how we stop the Union from attacking,” said Irene.  “I think using Fisher to blunt their response to the initial attack is fine, but we need a long term solve to this problem.  It can’t be about capacity, we need to keep them from wanting to attack.”

“Well,” I said.  “What about the truth?”

They looked at me oddly.

“I know I agreed to let you put your whammy on the delegation, I remember the whole thing about doing stuff smartly, but I think there is a place here for honesty as well.  It doesn’t all have to be values alteration.  We are actually trying to help the Union, what if we let them see that?”

I tried my best not to make it into a movie style speech, didn’t let my voice rise or make any dramatic gestures.

“Can you elaborate a bit?” said Irene.

“Let’s say we tell Meghan and the rest what we are doing.  Not ahead of time, but right before we leave.  We tell them the Regime will take out this Host, as a gesture of good will.  Then we make our move.”

“How is that going to help?” asked Joe.

“The reason the Union has never, on a large scale, captured the Pantheon’s Ultras is that they can’t integrate them.  But they shouldn’t have a problem with us using the Pantheon against itself.  They are letting Meghan and her delegation talk peace with us, after all.  There must be a faction in their leadership at least agnostic to the prospect of another truce with the Regime.”

There was a moment of silence before I pressed on.

“We shield the army behind Her,” I said.  “Think about it.  Why did they agree to us being here, being ‘Ambassadors’, at all?  It was less trouble than the alternative.  They did the cost/benefit analysis to us squatting here vs. attacking us and decided to humor us.  They did that when we just wanted to talk.”

Fisher got it.

“How much more tempting will it be to do that if we are actively fighting for them?” she asked.  “If they are already wimping out on taking us on, they are gonna wimp out twice as hard when we have a Host around us.  If they already are ok with us sitting here, in their territory, then how much better are they gonna be with us sitting in No-Man’s land?”

Joe poured some ice water on the idea.

“Maybe at the start, that’s ok.  But they know that armies can turn around, right?  You think this is going to hold true when we start snowballing our Hosts into something bigger?  A Host backed up by a Fist is already a strategic consideration that they hadn’t had to reckon with before.  I think they will take action before allowing us to build up a force that could potentially turn the flow of this war against them.”

That was a consideration, but I had an answer.

“Not if we are working with them.”

They looked to one another, askance.

“Working…with them?” asked Fisher.  “They can already defeat the Hosts without our help.  What would our tame Host work ‘with’ the Union forces on?”

“Once we take the Host we open back up negotiations with the Union,” I proposed.  “We try and sell them on a joint assault on the Pantheon’s main army.  We take out the Great Host together.”

Out From Olympus

See them, o reader mine, as they stride forth at last.

Dressed in white and gold, for their cowardly foe garb themselves in camouflage.

Singing hymns and psalms, for their heathen foe think man the lord of all creation.

Marching with solemn and stately grace, for their foe strikes with speed and stealth.

Bearing no weapons in their hands, for their eternal enemy puts their trust in technology.

See the Thousand Brides stride forth to conquer.  See the Army of Sunset stir at last, to bring an end to the Last War.

And, in their midst, see him.

See Zeus, Cloud Gatherer and Inheritor of Earth.  See Zeus, Warlord of Warlords, Slayer and Master of the Ruling Council.  See Zeus, whom She fears.

See him slight and unassuming, dark and subdued among the pageantry of his Brides.  See his brow, upon which sits the Diadem, signifying his rule of the majority of the human race.  See his raiment, thrice and thrice again blessed by all the Gods he can muster.  See his pockets, which hold a rabbit’s foot for luck, and folded paper maps of the trek for insurance.

See his mind, so much more cunning than Hers.  The mind which, upon overcoming the old Council, set his Pantheon to work destroying the last vestiges of the Old World among their territories.  Which turned schools into Processing Camps, which burned books and made temples of factories.

For it knows, this mind, that man’s science can never be its friend.  That one man may make a gun, and another man fire it, and thus combine their strengths.  It knows that this process has no natural limit, and thus its redoubtable strength may one day be challenged.  It knows that the Union maintains the environment which brought about Dr. Chen, and this mind’s greatest fear is that another of such surety of understanding may emerge.  It will know peace only when the last hard drive is shattered, the children taken from classrooms and pressed into its armies.

See him, the sole irreplaceable being who allows the Thousand to exist.  Only with an Ultra capable of slaying the Demon can so many, so mighty, gather as one.  Only under his aegis, the envelope of the Light Speed Kill, can they dare Her wrath.

See him doubt, if truth be told.  For so many years he has built up this Host, far beyond what is needful to destroy the puling Union.  He has done so for the coming struggle, against Her.  Stacking Ultra upon Ultra to increase the odds that one has a gift that will ensure victory.

See that Ultra never arrive.

See him march anyway, casting his empire’s fate upon the winds of a pair of gifts from fickle fate.  Psyche, child of destiny, whose gift will make the destruction of the Union, and of the Old World’s last remnant, entirely effortless.  And a report from his slaves in Shington, which claims that She has not left the Lair for a month.

He will dare his fate on such.  The Thousand march forth in the full panoply of their glory.  Their Pilgrimage comes late in the season, following on the footsteps of the Hosts that have gone before.  They will arrive as the summer dies.

See him stride forth to meet what destiny has in store for him, with the Thousand at his side.

See Zeus, and know despair.

Haunter 6:1

“That’s fine to say, Dale” I told him.  “Your heart is in the right place, but I’m not sure we can do anything about this situation.”

It felt strange to be the voice of doleful sanity, a bit of a role reversal.  I would like nothing more than to believe that the world could be repaired by effort alone, that what we had been lacking, all these sorry decades, was merely courage.

But I had heard that tone before.  The Colonel had used it, back when he was alive.  President Riker’s call to arms had resounded with it.  The voice of righteousness, crying out that the wicked shall not triumph.

It hadn’t given us any power.  We had been victorious only insofar as physics would allow us, same as our thuggish enemies.

“I don’t accept that,” he said.

“You have to,” I told him.  “We have to.  Look at the facts.”

I gestured at the monitor, where Chad was watching Union forces methodically ensuring that no one was merely faking their demise.

“Am I the leader?” he asked.

I looked to Preventer, of all people, for support.

“Indulger,” she said.  “You know the score.  You are the leader, but you have to convince us.  What do you want to do, how do you want us to do it?  It doesn’t boot you anything to just pronounce that a situation needs solving.  That isn’t concrete enough to put effort towards.  What can we do about that?”

She gestured at the screen.

It was a strange situation that saw Preventer and I in agreement, but our situation was simply that precarious.  Sixth Fist’s fate (where had Fader gotten to?), made the dangers that surrounded us entirely obvious.

“I don’t know that.  You guys have to figure that out.”

I didn’t respond for a moment, and Fisher chimed in.

“Dale, you can’t make people figure out what you want to tell them to do.  Leadership doesn’t work that way.”

Dale shook his head.

“No, it does.  I saw Her do it all the time.  She just says what She wants to happen, and the smart people figure out how to make it happen.  That is what I am doing now.  I want you guys to figure out a way to stop all this.”

He gestured at the screen.

I looked towards Preventer, she shrugged.

“We’ll be thinking about it,” I assured Dale, taking a step towards the stairs.

It closed up in front of me with a grinding rumble.

“Think right now,” he said.

I took a step back, letting the Jury come to the forefront.  Their buzz filled my thoughts as I nodded to Dale.

First off, they had been telling me for this whole conversation not to be so heavy handed, that he was serious, etc.  I felt simultaneously glad that they were on top of things, and guilty that I hadn’t paid them the attention that they deserved.

Beyond that, their discussion as far as the video’s contents was fascinating.

They had apparently intuited the nature of the Union’s ‘defense’, or at least some of them had.  Preventer’s comment during the earlier negotiations about the casualty numbers had apparently been enough.  Like me, they hadn’t felt the need to explicitly bring it up.

Dale’s reaction to this was a bit puzzling.  America had fought in many conflicts all over the globe, and our casualty ratios hadn’t been appreciably different from the Union’s.  It was probably the Pantheon’s use of child soldiers which had him so agitated.

“Ok,” I said.  “Let’s think together.  We have more visibility into the War than we have ever had before, it makes sense to consider matters, see if there is an angle here for us.”

“Yeah,” said Dale.

“The Pantheon forces are in the east,” said Nirav.  “They send out small bands like the one that we saw today whenever enough of their pilgrims arrive.”

“These Hosts, as they call them, are made of poorly trained Ultras, just months out of the camps. The Union intercepts and annihilates them with forces composed mostly of human soldiers, with a minor Ultra presence to deal with any Pantheon fighters proof against conventional weapons.”

“Like Preventer said, the Pantheon is sabotaging its own efforts.  They are sending these kids out because their system would collapse if it had to absorb so many new Ultras every year.  Their ‘Gods’ wouldn’t be so special if they proliferated that fast.”

Fisher gave him a thumbs up and a smile, took over.

“I’ve got some more stuff from Meghan and Jamad.  Apparently the Hosts are usually spaced out a good bit, so they shouldn’t be sending another for a few weeks.  We have time to prepare, if we are going to do something on the next attack.”

“We’ll have advance warning again,” I told them.  My shades had been unimpressed by the Union’s safeguards against hacking, though in fairness very few systems could survive every local representative going over to the other side.

“Ok, so say it is happening,” said Dale.  “What can we do?  I don’t want to watch another thing like this.  This was a tragedy, and everybody is acting like it is ok.  We have to do something.”

He wasn’t exactly wrong.

I let the Jury speak for me.

“Ok, stipulate that we do something.  What CAN we do?  Not what would be a good idea, but what can this Fist accomplish.”

“Well,” said Nirav.  “We could probably take down the Host.”

I raised an eyebrow, but the Jury was with him on this.

“You saw how many of them there are in one of those!” said Fisher.  “You think we could take one down.”

He nodded.

“Lots of Ultras, but most of them aren’t even bulletproof.  Dale could do basically what the Union did to the vast majority of them, right big guy?”

“Sure.  If they can’t fly I can make the ground close over them, or shoot spears into them or whatever.  But the whole point is I don’t want them to die.”

Nirav raised a hand to the big man, placatingly.

“We are just talking about what we CAN do at this time.  I just think it is important to point out that we can probably take the second Host ourselves.”

“Dale, can you capture it?” asked the Jury, using my voice.  “Like, bury them but keep air channels?”

A smile broke out over his face.

“Sure, yeah.  I can do that.  Some will burrow their way out if they are Ultra strong, or there are some other abilities that might get them out, but I can trap most of them.”

“We can also,” said Preventer, “probably defeat a Union response force.”

The Jury thought she was right about this too.

“Fight both armies?” asked Fisher, pouting a bit.

“We are talking about capabilities here, right?  Not why we’d do something, but just what we can do?  Well, the Union forces rely on kinetic attacks, they are built to scythe down these pitiful wretches.  That won’t be of any use against any of us,” said Preventer.

“We think they probably have a contingency or two for us” reminded Nirav.  “If we suddenly jumped one of their forces they’d pull out the big guns.”

Preventer pointed a finger at the screen.

“We have their system.  We could probably jam or falsify their feed, right?”

The last was directed at me.  The Jury nodded…slowly.

“It wouldn’t fool them long.”

“I’m not trying to say they’d lose track of an army forever, I’m just pointing out that, among our capabilities, we should include the ability to defeat the Union’s local assets, based on what we’ve seen today.”

“Ok,” said Dale.  “We can take out both sides, probably.  Maybe not at the same time, but I had the same thought when I saw that video.  They aren’t as tough as us.  But I don’t want to take them out.  I like Jane’s idea about capturing the next set of girls, but I don’t want to kill the Union soldiers.”

“Can I have the floor?” asked the Jury.  “I think I’ve got a plan, actually.  It is kind of shaky, but I think there is something there.”

Everyone motioned for me to talk.

“Ok, so we haven’t talked yet about how we get to the battlefield.  I think the only way that makes any sense is if the Union takes us there.  We get Meghan and company to invite us out for a ride along.”

The Fist looked to one another, dubiously.

“I know what you are thinking, but it isn’t as implausible as it sounds.  Fisher can make them want to do whatever, so the local people aren’t a problem, and this is what we use Preventer’s idea for.  We spoof their communication so that HQ doesn’t get wind of this until it is already under way.”

I hadn’t thought of that, and it was asking a lot from the hackers, but if the Jury said they could do it, and we had a couple of weeks, then that might be feasible.

“So that gets us there, in the Union forces, or near them, as observers.  We get a chopper, or one of those flying box vehicles, or whatever.”

“I’m still not loving the idea of fighting both armies,” said Fisher.

I took control for a sec to make the ‘zip it’ motion with a hand.

“That’s the thing.  We do this before the Pantheon sends out its Host.  Maybe a week before, depending.”

“Depending?” asked Nirav.

“On how long Fisher needs to do whatever she did to Meghan to the Union force.”

My eyes widened as that phrase left my mouth.

“Did we just propose mind raping a whole army?” I asked.  “3 slaves weren’t enough?”

They didn’t have time to answer me.

“The whole force?” asked Fisher.  “That would take a long time.  It takes about an hour to do a person, depending on how their values start out.  I need to speak with them or something to jar them and shake the situation up.  I think people would start to notice that something was going on.”

“You haven’t got any experience with the military, have you?” asked the Jury.  “You don’t need to do every soldier.  They will obey the orders of their commanding officers.”

“Hey, yeah,” said Dale.  “That’s how it works.  So you’d only have to use your gift on the leaders, and they are the ones who would meet with high ranking people like Jamad.”

“You’ve got the idea, Indulger.  We head out there ahead of time, and Fisher does her thing on the Union’s human leadership, such that instead of ambushing the next Host they let us take care of it.  Then you capture it.”

“The Union Ultras are going to object, right?” asked Preventer.  “I mean, we are down in a cave right now because we can’t let them know that the daggers have given us access to their network.  The Ultras in the army are going to notice that something is up.”

“It’s a risk,” allowed the Jury.  “But I think you are underestimating the ‘follow orders’ nature of their setup.  We’ve been reading their network for a few weeks now, and they are very big on compartmentalization of information.  The Ultra force are considered specialists, and they get their order separately.  They don’t have a lot of visibility into the human forces orders.”

“We?” asked Preventer.  “Jane, are you letting your shades do the talking?”

I nodded, a little sheepishly.

Preventer rolled her eyes.  I took back over, letting them fill me in on the plan as I spoke.

“Ok, so there are a few risks, but overall I think it is reasonable, based on how well the local dignitaries are eating out of our hands, that we can get the Union forces to back off.  Based on how hard the Pantheon fought in that video, I am also prepared to believe we can overcome their Host.  What then?”

Indulger’s face fell a bit.

“Oh yeah.  What do we do once we have all these Ultras?  If we give them to the Union they will just execute them, right?”

I paused to consider.

“That’s a good point.  Why didn’t the Union take any prisoners?  They are desperate for Ultras, and the Pantheon is shoveling them at them with both hands.  How have they never done a variation on this before?  It seems obvious.”

“Same problem as the Pantheon, but much much worse,” said Preventer.

I didn’t get it.

“The Union is the last part of the old world, or that’s the story they tell themselves, right?  They are governed by humans and Ultrahumans working together in harmony.  How long would that last if they started accepting a few thousand Ultras raised in a culture that promotes Ultra supremacy every year?”

“Surely they’d assimilate…” I said, before trailing off as the Jury spoke up.

“Jane, we’ve found a LOT of references to thwarted coups and the like in the Union’s network.  Preventer is probably right.  The Union is petrified of its Ultras getting together and taking over.”

“Never mind,” I said.

“So we can’t give them to the Union, or back to the Pantheon.  And we can’t just keep that many Ultras prisoner forever,” said Dale.

“We don’t make them prisoners at all,” said Nirav, smacking his hand with a fist.  “We recruit them.  We let them out of the ground a few at a time, face them as a Fist and get them on the Regime’s side.  If they are all about powerful Ultras being in charge, well, who is stronger than Her?”

“Take the army?” asked Preventer.  “Don’t they think we are evil incarnate or something?  I don’t think they’d work for us.”

“There were Satanists back in the old world,” I said.  “We actually would probably have a much easier time winning their loyalty than the Union.  It is easier to get to respect from fear than it is from contempt.  Prevailer is their Demon, their Dark Side.  They will at least have contemplated what working for Her would be like.”

“And that solves our biggest problem,” said Fisher.

I made the ‘go on’ gesture to her.

“We are terrified of Her warping in on us and wondering why we are wasting our time here, right?  But if we are abducting Pantheon armies and hoodwinking the Union…that’s cool, yeah?  Dale, back me up, she’d get a laugh out of that?”

Indulger gave a solemn nod.

“As long as it works.  She hates losers.  If we make the others look like that we are probably in the right with Her.  But even if we can take a Pantheon Host…what then?  Even if we can use Fisher’s pawns in the Union command structure, and Haunter’s penetration of their network to stop them from hitting us.  What do we do with the Host?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “We just sit there and wait.  Maybe train them a bit, see if we can get them some Union weapons.  We just bide our time.”

“Until the next Host is sent out,” he said, getting it.

“And then we take that too.”