“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-“
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?”
“Ok, so the computers of the Pantheon 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.”
“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.”