I followed Haunter into a side room, ducking through the door and whipping my head back and forth as I did so.
No shades waiting on either side to shoot me or throw buckets of water. No shades at all, in fact. Jane was the only other person in this room, and she took a seat in a beanbag chair, slouching down onto the floor.
I stood for a moment, weighing my options. When I’d stepped into the room I had no assurances that she wouldn’t take a shot at me. If I was reading her present posture right, she was returning the favor.
I squatted down across from her, maybe ten feet away.
A long beat passed, then another.
“So,” I said.
She just looked at me for a moment, and then she responded.
Outside, in the main room, things would be progressing with Preventer’s celebration. They’d be dealing with Zilla’s emissaries, figuring out how this incident had complicated our arrangement with Legion, lots of important stuff.
But here we sat. Because this was more complicated. Because you couldn’t work out anything else while keeping your guard up for sudden murder. Because this had been coming a long time.
She spoke again.
“Condemner, I presume?”
I took another second to choose the words carefully.
“That’s a complicated question. I’m not sure, myself, of the exact answer. I’ve been using 70% Condemner as my estimate, with the remainder of my persona drawn from the things people liked the most about Nirav.”
Jane took a moment to process that, drumming her fingers idly on the beanbag’s surface.
“I’m going to need some more details. Ideally an explanation of the whole way you work. It’s not… I need to understand this, fully. After Irene, after today, if there is going to be any kind of future for us, you are going to have to lay your cards on the table.”
Had a shade watched me, earlier? Did she know that I’d just taken up cards? Stupid question, of course she did. She was a hive, a committee. It wouldn’t do to underestimate the amount of information that she had access to.
“All right,” I said. “All right. I can do that. But, fair warning, a lot of it there aren’t words for, or context for, or something. I’m not going to try and obfuscate anything, but at the end there might still be a shade or two of uncertainty. Some of what I have to say literally doesn’t fit in the world.”
Jane shook her head.
Alright, I guess I was doing this.
I stood a moment, putting my thoughts in order, giving my greater self one final chance to push this into violence.
“Ok, so, like I said, I’m not pure Condemner. You’d be on fire right now if I was. I’m another mask, like Nirav, see? I was made to fit into the Nirav shaped grip that Linker’s gift accepted. I replaced Nirav when he got nuked. I’ve been running the show since.”
Jane held up a finger for silence. I stopped talking to let her get a question in.
“Before the nuke, was Nirav actually running the show? Or was Condemner just lying in wait?”
“That was before my time,” I responded, “But as far as I can tell he was just hanging back. When Preventer killed him, in his fire form, he thought that was it for this experience. The Link working was a pleasant surprise to him, but the only part of him it latched with was Nirav. He spent the next life trying very hard not to rock the boat, preparing to swap Nirav out with me once that was an option.”
“This experience?” asked Jane. “Are you saying that Condemner is aware of a time before the Process?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s… an angel, I guess? Or something similar. All the gifts are. He’s just awake.”
Even Jane couldn’t repress a start at that.
I didn’t think it was because of the content of what I’d said. She had to hear crackpot theories all the time. One of her minions had probably speculated something terribly similar at one time or another.
But I’d said it in the calm, matter of fact manner of someone who was just clarifying a point, just explaining the evident truth.
I enjoyed shaking her a bit, though I was entirely cognizant that she could just be aping the reaction to get more out of me.
“Condemner, the fire demon…is an angel?” she asked, her voice deadpan.
I gave a rueful chuckle.
“Or a djinn, or an extraplanar monster. Your language can’t compass them. They are creatures of a more fundamental reality.”
Jane steepled her fingers, which looked a bit silly from someone sprawled in a beanbag chair.
“It isn’t really an improvement on things if you ‘come clean’ by spouting a lot of clichés. I don’t know any more than I did before whether you decide to call gifts ‘angels’ or not, particularly if it all comes wrapped up in a ‘I don’t mean what I say it is too big for your little human mind’ wrapper.”
“All right, all right,” I said. “I’ll try and be as dry and matter of fact as I possibly can, but there really are some difficulties, like…”
I thought a sec, then inspiration struck.
I reached into my sleeve, pulled out a pack of cards.
“Look,” I said. “Imagine that this pack of cards is made of sentient things, that inhabit a little baby universe, ok? They just act out the games that we play with them, all day long. They organize into hands, bid for contracts, take tricks off one another, repeat. That’s their existence, get it?”
She gave a short nod.
“All right, now you end up in card world, somehow. You speak to an old card who gathers the souls of her fellows, if I am really driving this analogy home, and she tells you ‘One No Trump, Two Clubs’, which is a request for clarification.”
I had the brief and ridiculous thought that I should explain how bidding for bridge contracts worked, before remembering who I was talking to.
“And the answer that you’d give her isn’t super complicated, right? You’d say that their warring is arranged for our entertainment, and in order to award small sums of money between us. You might explain the history of cards, or their manufacture, or whatever, but you could explain what’s up with cards in an hour or so, right?”
Haunter shook her head.
“Not in her language, right? That’s where you are going with this?”
I nodded eagerly.
“Exactly. How do I say ‘entertainment’ using only bids? How can I convey the concept of ‘money’ in a world with no possessions? The answer doesn’t fit into the universe. That’s what I’m warning you about. There might be some of that.”
She got a sour expression on her face.
“I get it. Proceed.”
“So, the gifts…” I said, “Their victims called them a lot of things, most commonly the Splitters, but their name for themselves translates to something like…the Grabbies.”
No chuckle. Just a solemn nod.
“The Grabbies are a race of beings from another magisteria, a deeper, more fundamental one.”
“How,” Jane asked,” and this might be a dumb question, but how do they know that theirs is the more real reality, the more true one? Are they just assuming that because of their ability to bestow Ultra gifts?”
“No,” I said. “It’s… so, in their world there is something like a grove of trees, or a building full of entertainment feeds, alright? And each of those feeds is a universe like yours. Your universe fits inside of theirs.”
“So we are a simulation?” asked Jane.
I shook my head slowly.
“Not in the sense that anyone programmed this, but yes in the sense that they are outside of our existence, and can change it as they like. They can mess around and watch the changes propagate, whatever they want.”
I let them digest that for a moment.
“Most of these universes are lifeless,” I informed them. “Or at least thoughtless. Your kind of reality can’t actually generate volition. That’s why you could never get AI to work. It just isn’t possible here.”
More silence from Haunter. I knew that behind her eyes a whirlwind of shade communication was taking place, but she didn’t choose to fill me in on any of it.
“Humans are,” I groped for the right metaphor, “Ok, so if the universe is a tree, then there are species of things like grubs, that live on trees.”
“Grubs?” she asked.
“Or maybe vines,” I allowed. “These are souls. They hang onto universes and alter them such that at some point in their history life develops, and then the souls twin themselves into beings in that universe. That’s the ‘you’ that I am talking to. Your brain is the receiver. The thing that does the thinking, and transmits the thoughts, is a vine in the oververse.”
“Why?” asked Jane.
I was wrongfooted for a moment by that.
“What do the vines get out of it?” she asked.
“Oh…” I said. “He doesn’t actually know. Or maybe it isn’t known? My best guess is that it is about reproduction. Souls use their avatars in our world to communicate and pair with one another, since their vine forms can’t just talk directly.”
Jane shook her head, more of a ‘it’s not important’ shake than a negation.
“Ultras, then, are made when a Grabby grabs onto one of your soul vine, thingies. Condemner stayed awake through this deal, but that’s not usually how it works. The rest of them, bar one or two, are asleep now, letting the vines use the powers and drinking in the experiences.”
“What is his real name?” she asked.
“The shades keep clarifying that ‘Condemner’ is just what we are calling him, and we use that name to refer to you as well. Presumably he isn’t going around calling himself Condemner on the outside, in his own universe. What is his name?”
“Um…” I said. “They don’t have names. They don’t really have identities.”
Her look invited clarification.
“The Grabbies don’t work on the individual level. They just pile onto one another. They only act when enough of them have got together that it makes up a coherent being. Condemner is a pretty common recipe of theirs, its designation would be something like ‘delighting principal’, or ‘enjoying entity’.”
No real change to the inquisitive stare.
“His role is to have experiences and enjoy them. He is valued for his ability to find joy, or fulfillment or whatever, in their entertainments and such.”
“I guess that explains what he is doing here. He is basically a tourist?”
“Got it, he is here to have a good time. He wants fights, conflicts, revelations, that kind of thing. Anything dramatic.”
Jane sat up in the beanbag chair.
“Are the rest of the Grabbies that are empowering the Ultras Delighting Entities as well? Are they somehow driving their human hosts to battle?”
“They are unconscious,” I said. “They aren’t driving anything, just accumulating memories for their components, for the most part. And they aren’t all Delighting Entities either. This performance is drawing in a lot of Grabbies who don’t have the exact right role for it.”
Jane said nothing, considering the implications of that.
“Ok, so, there is this role that is highly valued, very rarely ravelled, call it the Inviting Entity.”
“Ravel?” she asked.
“Opposite of unravel,” I said.
She rolled her eyes.
“Inviting Entity is a celebrity, a beloved figure. When it is instantiated things are gonna get good. So it was surprising when it came to this grove.”
“Why is that surprising?” asked Jane. “You said observing universes like ours was an entertainment for their kind.”
“Sure,” I said. “But it was like bird watching. It was a niche hobby, that few Grabbies bothered with. There wasn’t much point to it, and it certainly wasn’t cool. Nothing that Inviting Entity should waste its time on.”
I shifted my weight from one foot to another, considering how to phrase this.
“Some Delighting Entities followed. It was Inviting Entity, after all, but the overall feel was disappointment. Like, this was a pretty lame thing to waste Inviting Entity’s manifestation on. Imagine if you summoned the most talented possible celebrity, and he decided to spend your lifetime playing an obscure instrument that nobody liked.”
That wasn’t the best possible way to phrase that, but Haunter and her thralls would understand well enough.
“And then he invited everyone in?” she guessed.
“Exactly. He didn’t just make one manipulation and then invite everyone to watch the resulting timeline. He stepped inside and started boosting souls up for everyone to latch onto, letting everyone help to create the content.”
“Revolutionary,” she guessed.
“Very much so. Each Grabby is getting the memories of its Ultra. This performance is as many performances as there are Grabbies attached. It is almost certainly the greatest performance in Grabby history.”
“And nobody wants to miss out,” she said.
“Just so. Grabbies whose roles have nothing to do with delighting are latching on. Their experiences, their congruities, won’t have as much value as a real Delighter’s, of course, but it is still worthwhile. Grabbies are mobbing the studio, filling up the grove, everyone crowding around this one tree.”
“That’s why the Process is still working,” she said. “The Process, the Inviting Entity, lifts up a soul for a Grabby to latch onto.”
“Yep,” I said. “And there are plenty of Grabbies. That’s why Remover…”
Shit. I hadn’t intended to say that.
“Remover?” she asked. “Is she another awake Grabby?”
I gave a grim smile.
“She’s…think of a Boss, or one of the Regime’s enforcers. She is twinned to Forbidding Entity, a Grabby whose role is to put a stop to dangerous or unprofitable activities.”
“In the old world we had something called a Fire Marshal,” said Jane. “They shut down parties that got too rowdy.”
“Perfect,” I said. “Yes. It is like a mighty Marshal of Fire.”
“Then why did it twin with a soul?” asked Jane. “Why wouldn’t Forbidding Entity just tell the Grabbies that the party is over?”
“Politics,” I said. “Or their equivalent. Nobody wants to be the killjoy. If it ends the experiment forcefully there will be a lot of resentment, a lot of annoyance. The components that make it up will have stigma, and spend more time before being raveled into something else. It has a different plan.”
“Push the universe’s timeline past the part with life in it,” she said, slowly. “Take us all out, and the party ends on its own. Plus the Grabbies that make it up have those experiences to pass around.”
I was impressed.
“That’s it exactly. Remover’s endless quest to wipe out all human life is just Forbidding Entity doing its duty. She aims to wipe us out.”
“And Condemner, or the Delighting Entity, would prefer to keep the party going?” she guessed.
“If possible,” I admitted. “But I think this experiment has about run its course, one way or another. If Remover is destroyed then Forbidding Entity will probably just suck up the reputational hit for shutting the performance down in the oververse.”
Jane gave me a look that I’d never seen on her face before. It took me a second to recognize hope on that soul weary visage.
“If we kill Remover, the Ultra powers will go away?” she said.
“Maybe, or maybe it just twins with another human undergoing the Process and tries again. But I don’t think it has that kind of time. Your teeming billions are pulling more and more Grabbies away from their duties.”
“And Condemner will help us do that? Presumably defeating the Forbidding entity would make its memories the most valuable of all, make its components the most prestigious?”
I felt my greater self’s hand on my soul, his urges curling my face into a positively demonic smile.
“I’d be delighted.”