We met back up as night fell, after a day of reorganization.
In the aftermath of the Drone strike the Host had dug in, then counted its dead and complied with our requests for information. Haunter’s slaves had circulated among them, endlessly questioning. Dale and I had tried our best to look mighty, and Fisher had made her appearance once I’d started making barriers again.
Shades circulated around us, keeping the Pantheon Ultras at a decent distance. The four of us sat in the middle of the encampment, within a barrier cell that I’d built to hopefully keep our conversation from being overheard.
Dale leaned back and let out a huge sigh as the barriers finished forming. This couldn’t have been easy on him. Looking stern came naturally to me, and Haunter was ever in perfect control of her form, but Dale was made for smiles and joking. Having to swagger around like someone who thought they were a God would wear on him.
“So,” I said. “Where are we at?”
Jane manifested Joe, the fat shade who she used most often to represent the main group.
“Give us a briefing,” she said.
“Ok, we are going to cover three areas here. First off, I’ll give our best guess as to what is going on with the Union. Then I’ll cover the powersets and disposition of our new Host, lastly I’ll talk through our new knowledge of the Pantheon’s situation here.”
Dale closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead.
For my part I simply made a ‘get on with it’ gesture.
“Ok, the Union. So, obviously, there was that drone strike. You were all here for that. But we’ve actually seen a much worse sign from them.”
“Worse?” asked Dale, still with his hand over his eyes.
“No communication, whatsoever, from Meghan and company. Not just no response to their passing on our offer of cooperation, literally no messages at all. The Union is either jamming their transmitting tech or has arrested them.”
“Which is more likely?” I asked.
“We think the most likely scenario is that they’ve stumbled on at least an intimation of what Fisher’s power can do. They are quarantining anyone who has had contact with us.”
“How could they do that?” asked Fisher. “I’m not saying that the people I altered wouldn’t tell, mind you. I can’t give that kind of guarantee. But other than Meghan, they don’t know, and they can’t confess what they don’t even know themselves. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have broken that fast.”
Joe spread his hands.
“This is just speculation, but our guess is that we missed some monitoring or recording bit of tech along the way. They might have a list of everyone who meets with the Intervention Group’s commanders, or something like that. I know you had them delete records of you, but all it would take is one recording device that they don’t know about.”
I nodded, remembering the lecture about technological societies that Haunter had given us all.
“Once they suspect it,” I interjected, “however they get there, it will all come together. Who is acting strange? The delegation we met and the Intervention Group we sent you to. What’s the common element? Fisher.”
Betty spat on the grass.
“I really hope you are wrong about this. I was having visions of taking over the whole Union. If the one place my gift really shines is on the lookout for me it will suck.”
“It is only a possibility. The facts are these. We have no feedback from Meghan regarding the overture she was instructed to make about the possibility of our new Host helping them with the Grand Host. We were also hit with a drone strike, which must have been launched by one of the other Intervention Groups after the nearest one refused sortie orders.”
“Do we think they knew we were on site when they ordered the drones in?” I asked. “Or were we just unlucky enough to be active when they struck?”
“If they didn’t know at the beginning,” said Haunter. “They knew by the end. Remember that feed we watched of them hitting the First Host. They would have been getting a similar thing for this one, and they only called it off once we had dug in enough that they weren’t getting anything out of it. They aren’t worried about provoking the Regime by going against us.”
“Ok, so, the Union,” said Joe. “Hostile, but we are unsure whether they are going to strike again. They usually let the survivors of a confrontation limp back to Barad-Dur or another fort. This group is larger than usual, but they may keep to their usual pattern.”
“Alternately,” I said. “They may strike again, this time intending to destroy us, as a Fist, rather than just the Host. That would entail, at the minimum, another large scale drone strike, and they would probably also have to send in a LOT of Ultras to have any kind of a shot, including someone who they think might be able to harm me.”
“The point is,” said Dale. “They are not biting on our offer to work together against the Pantheon forts.”
“Should we try to reopen negotiations?” I asked.
Haunter and Joe exchanged a look.
“I…doubt that will ever happen,” said Haunter. “I think you are not sufficiently accounting for what they will be feeling if they found out about what we pulled with Fisher. It was everything they are afraid of, wrapped up in a treachery sandwich. I don’t think they will ever sit down with us again.”
I was going to debate the point, but stopped myself. Proving Haunter wrong never made her like me more, and we’d find the truth of the Union’s stance out ourselves sometime soon. She wouldn’t actually oppose attempts to talk to them just to make herself correct.
“As far as the Second Host goes,” said Joe. “I am ready to give an account.”
No one said anything, so he went on ahead.
“We count seven hundred and eleven Ultras. We’ve been classifying them all day, and I think we can give you a good picture of what we are dealing with.”
Haunter extruded a shade with a whiteboard and marker, and Joe started to write down brief summaries as he spoke.
“Out of those seven hundred eleven, there are two hundred and eighty five who have essentially no military application. They might have Ultra Strength One, or Ultra Toughness One, and that is it. Or they have a noncombat ability that is extremely limited in scope. But basically these are people who are no use on a battlefield, even if the enemy are only armed humans. These Ultras carry guns, and mostly amount to poorly trained human infantry.”
More than a third of our forces were worthless. That wasn’t great, but it was about what I’d figured. The Pantheon sent mostly dross this way, after all.
“Another three hundred and fifty eight are, well, moderately effective, in our estimation. They have Ultra tough one and some kind of offensive power, or they have an offensive ability of great strength and flexibility. These are the ones who would have gone down fighting if the Union attack had gone as planned, might have taken someone with them.”
“Like the ones who hit us on the Strongboat?” asked Dale.
Joe shook his head.
“No, that’s the next category. These are Ultras who are basically walking tanks, or one man squads. Ultras with some battlefield effectiveness against humans, but nothing that they couldn’t overcome.”
We’d need to sift that category a bit. Some of those people might be only alright at fighting humans, but very dangerous to Ultras. We needed every edge.
“Next up,” said Joe. “We have fifty four Ultras who we are convinced would have survived the Union’s attack, or at least only died to the Union Ultras. Genuine Ultra warriors, like the ones Death sent after us on the Strongboat. The kind of Ultras who took over the world. The kind the Pantheon is sifting for.”
These were the Ultras who would be making up the majority of the Grand Host, and therefor of the Pantheon’s overall combat power. Ultras that might not be given Divine Names, but who could go toe to toe with most anyone.
“And beyond them?” asked Haunter.
Naturally she’d been keeping track of the number, or having some of her passengers do it for her.
“Of the remaining 14, we have nine that we are categorizing as non combat assets. There is a woman who can make devices that do miraculous things, a woman who can banish objects to a sort of imaginary space and bring them back whenever, a guy who can heal any wound short of death, a woman who can control the weather, a woman who can let someone relive any of their own memories, a woman who can transform herself into any animal within a fairly broad size range, a woman who can seize control of the form of anyone she touches, a woman who can control how she looks to every onlooker, a guy who can bind objects together into gestalts that continue to function and a woman who apparently can borrow objects from the future.”
These were the people that we’d come here to free. The Ultras with the power to change the world, but not necessarily survive the bullet hell that was a pilgrimage.
“Borrow objects from the…”
Joe cut me off.
“The last five are borderline Fist level combatants. Gann is the Ultra with the orbs, Cu Xi is the one who teleports back. We think those two were probably on track to be overseers or better. Felah has Ultra Strength, Toughness and Speed at one, and apparently also has some kind of projectile. Nzech is an Ultra whose strength increases the more Ultras are around her, and who is a solid Ultra Tough Two. Lastly we have Sarah, who everybody seems to be afraid of. Apparently she is the reason they only had three overseers.”
Dale whistled softly.
“Felah is like a mini Subtracter, flight aside. That’s an amazing powerset. We are damn lucky.”
“Did you have time to get more details out of Cu Xi?” I asked. “Teleportation is always important.”
“Yes, and they aren’t great. She can’t teleport living things other than herself, and her own teleportation doesn’t form a new body for her like Prevailer’s, she brings her wounds along with.”
Too much to hope for more, I supposed.
“How much can we trust these people?” asked Haunter.
That was the important question, after all.
All eyes turned to Fisher.
“I’ll have to get with Joe to work out which girl had which powers, but I can give you guys some overall impressions. I’ve been sensing value sets pretty much from the moment I got back, so I can at least do some averages.”
I made a ‘go ahead’ gesture.
“Ok, the thing you need to understand is that for most of these women the questions you are asking are just entirely out of their frame of reference. Like, the idea of ‘loyalty’ to anything or anyone isn’t a concept that they get introduced to in the camps. They just do the next thing they are expected to do, and then there are more tasks. They don’t particularly care where those tasks come from. It is a victim’s mentality. They haven’t really internalized that they aren’t under anyone’s boot anymore. They just do what they are told.”
I didn’t object to the ‘not under anyone’s boot’ comment, even though we were currently contemplating giving them orders. Experience had taught me that pointing out my comrade’s hypocrisies would not endear us to one another.
“By percentage?” I asked.
“Probably two thirds,” said Betty. “Split the remainder about evenly between people who care about the Pantheon’s whole belief system, who aren’t thrilled with current affairs, and those who want to escape it, who are our biggest fans.”
That was a bit better than I’d been expecting.
I was about to try to get more clarifications when Haunter cut me off.
“And the Pantheon?” she asked. “What have you got about them?”
Joe swapped back into her reserve, Irene coming out.
“The nearest fortress, the one that the Union calls Barad Dur, is actually named the Dawn Gate. It is a sprawling collection of smaller fortresses and bunkers, loosely ringed by a few miles of rubble. That’s where this Host passed through, so we got a lot of details about it.”
She took up the marker, turned the whiteboard around and wrote out parts of what she was saying.
“There are around eight thousand Ultras there. They are probably split evenly between people like Joe’s second group, that is, the Ultras who are worthy combatants in an all out battle, and people like his third group.”
“So fighting is out,” I said, somewhat wryly.
“Absent Union cooperation, yes,” she responded. “Your Host, even if it would take the order to do so, would be hitting an enemy that outnumbered it heavily, which was also composed of higher quality Ultras. You might do some damage, with surprise or treachery on your side but ultimately they’d win.”
“What about our utility Ultras?” asked Haunter. “Do they have anyone like that, so far as the Host knows?”
“We should assume that they have a number of novel non combat abilities. The Hosts are culled before being sent out, and presumably a few of the Overseers have the imagination to see that they could be much more useful alive.”
“How many Overseers?” I asked. “And how strong are they, in comparison to the ones Dale took down?”
“Eight Overseers,” said Irene. “Which is really quite a lot for one of their fortresses. The Host speculates that this is because this is the most common last step on the Pilgrimage, which makes it a plum assignment.”
“Can we challenge them?” asked Dale. “Take them on and take over their soldier’s loyalty, just like we did here?”
Haunter nodded, slowly.
“Yes and no. There is a definite tradition in the Pantheon of fighting one on one to take over. From what you said your second fight was apparently a version of that. But it requires both sides to risk their lives.”
Indulger didn’t seem to get it.
“They aren’t going to let someone from a Fist do it,” I told him. “Who’d put their life on the line against someone else who was going to get resurrected at the start of the next day?”
“What about five on five?” he asked. “We’d be equally at risk then. Could we play to their desire for fame, get them imagining how much acclaim they’d get if they could take down a Fist?”
I shook my head.
“Fists have a monstrous reputation. They aren’t going to be willing to go five on five with us. But they might go eight on five.”
I was speculating, of course, but it didn’t feel entirely undeserved.
“I doubt-“ said Haunter, before Irene cut us off.
“Death is there.”
We all fell silent at that.
“Or, at least, she was when this Host passed through.”