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.
“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.