“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.”
“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.”