I did it boss

I have a living Board member.  Found him out in one of the random human villages, doing the whole old guy leader thing.

I could only find the one, but I am mostly sure that the rest are dead.

I talked to a Company Man about it, and it seems like the guy I have can make other people count for their weird reasons or whatever.  Then they can tell the Company Guys to do what you say.

I did that, and you are now the official Boss of the company.  I mean even more than you always have been.  I dunno if you still want to have them stop the Process, but if you do, then you can.

Preventer 9:3

“Just who I was looking for,” said Predictor.

He didn’t have the slightest trace of a smirk, not the least bit of smug in his voice.  Hearing him, you’d never guess that he’d just arranged for his entire Fist to be ready to meet the two of us when we got back from our ostensibly secret conversation.

“You don’t say,” said Jane, stepping up onto Arena’s stairway.

I followed her up, pushing a barrier out of my leg as I did so.  If we needed backup I could drum it against the ground, let Indulger know something was going on over here.

“I have a proposal for you,” he said.  “I expect it has already been relayed to you by now, but I still figured I should make the effort, give it to you in person.”

“We’ve got the gist,” I told him.  “You want our help in busting Andy out of a Union lockup.”

He shrugged, gave a guileless smile.

It was striking how little motion the rest of them displayed.  Slicer was paying attention at least, but didn’t look like she any interest in interrupting.  The other three might as well have been out for a walk, just happening on this conversation, for all the interest they displayed.  Pitcher was grooming Gardener’s branches, while Tamer just looked bored.  They certainly didn’t look like they were even considering joining the conversation.

I had a lot of difficulty imagining us ever acting like that.  Sure, Haunter might occasionally take the lead for a while, but you could never really mistake us for a unit with a definitive leader, the way Fifth Fist obviously was.  I wondered if it was just how little time we’d had the Link.  I felt a vague sense of loss that we’d never find out.

“Care to elaborate?” I asked him.

He pulled out a cigarette and a lighter, set to smoking.

“I expect you folks have the basics down.  We need you for transportation and power, you need us for information and insurance.  We are willing to let you lend Andy to the Pantheon for a bit, so long as you aid us in taking him back if they decide to be pains about it, which they won’t.”

He spoke with casual assurance about future events, and it would be tempting to believe that this was his gift at work.  I’d thought about it, though, and it seemed like lying about the things that he foresaw was probably one of his more common tricks.

“Why us?” asked Jane.

That was a good point.

“You could have gotten First Fist for this kind of thing,” I told him.  “Smash and grab is something of a specialty of theirs, right?  Or at least the smashing part?”

Slicer chuckled.

“They are good in a fight, sure, but capturing people alive isn’t really their style,” continued Predictor, blowing out some smoke.  “Plus they are busy with some weird space job right now.  I didn’t see a lot of good outcomes from bothering them.”

“You know where they are?” asked Haunter.

She seemed a bit intense as she asked that.  It wasn’t anything that I could point to, exactly, but something about the way that she said it made me sure that she and her whole crew were very focused on this next part, in a way that they ordinarily weren’t.

“Sure,” said Predictor.  “Or, rather, where they will be in various…you know what, let’s not get into it.  For our purposes you can think of me as knowing where they are.”

“Always good to know where the hazards are on the map, right Haunter?” I said.

I didn’t say it so much to communicate any information.  It was more like I wanted to let her have a few extra seconds to calm down, or consult her passengers, or whatever she needed to do.

She gave me a brief smile.

“As Preventer says, it is wise to avoid an encounter with Remover’s crew.  We’ve had a number of hostile run ins with them.  I’m glad to know that you can help us with that.”

Predictor chuckled.

“All right,” he said.  “We can leave it there, if you don’t feel like admitting that you want to know where they are then I’m certainly not about to volunteer it.  I have no reason to tell you they are hanging out up in Ston.”

He gave an exaggerated wink, took out his cigarette to cough a bit.

“Anyway,” I said.  “Tell us more about how this operation is going to play out.  We’ll pass it on to the rest of the group.”

“He can’t do that,” said Slicer.

“I certainly can,” he responded.

She said nothing, just looked dubious.

“Is there…” I asked.

“But I won’t,” he said.

Slicer looked exceptionally innocent.

“It would overcomplicate things, change the things that I was telling you, such that I’d have to tell you different things, kicking the whole cycle off again, etc.  Instead, I’ll just do a regular briefing, is that all right?”

“Sure,” I said.

He made a gesture to his crew, and they moved out, forming up such that Gardener was below us, at the very foot of the stairs, while Pitcher and Tamer moved up a little ways, making sure nobody was listening in from up above.

Slicer stayed right where she was.  I got the impression she didn’t leave Predictor alone, ever.

“Tell us about where they are holding Andy, if they are even holding him?” said Haunter, turning it into a question at the end.  “Or is he cooperating with them?”

“I’m not sure,” said Predictor.  “Closer to cooperation, I’d guess.  My impression is that he’s using them for his own ends, and they understand that and accept it and use him right back.  So…cooperation with some needless complexity, I guess.”

“Will he come with us willingly?” I asked.

“Oh, absolutely.  He’s waiting for us.  He wants to help out Haunter, like he helped out you.”

“Me?” I asked, at the same time as Jane asked “Her?”

“You’ve met him before, right?” asked Predictor.  “He did something to you that let you beat Death.  I don’t know the details.”

Could that be possible?  I hadn’t let him touch me, and my gift should have prevented anyone from meddling with it in the first place.  Predictor was just messing with me, probably.

“If he’ll come willingly,” said Jane, “then why do we need two Fists for this?  Why don’t you just scoop him up on your own?”

“His Union allies, or coconspirators, or whatever you want to call him, will not let him go easily.  They will, in particular, not let him depart in our company, in order to assist their mortal enemies in the Pantheon.  We are going to have to fight them.”

Jane held up a hand, frowning.

“Shouldn’t you be able to arrange a way where we get him away from them without killing anyone?  If mean, if he is cooperating with them they can’t be keeping him too cooped up.  Shouldn’t we make this more of a heist than an assault?”

“How bout it?” Slicer asked, pointing at me.  “You feel like telling your new pals at the Pantheon about how you spared all of the Union guys?  Or do you think this story plays out better for you if we come back dripping with their juices.”

Honestly I didn’t really give it that much consideration.  If I needed to buttress my position with the locals I could just lie about how many Union grunts we’d taken out.  I certainly wasn’t about to risk our lives to acquire bragging rights.

“I’m fine with it.” I said.  “If we can do this Jane’s way, then I don’t have a problem with that.”

“Zilla might,” said Predictor.

“She’ll only know what we tell her,” said Haunter.

Predictor shook his head.

“She’s coming, some of her lieutenants too.”

“Really?” I asked.

My general impression, both from dealing with Legion’s base and from my limited time here, was that the leadership mostly sent out their underlings when the time came for dangerous missions.  Legion had come with us to the central fort, of course, but I doubt she would’ve been inclined to go along if we’d been attacking someone.

It seemed like, over time, the Overseers who were risk takers would die off, and the ones left behind would be more conservative.  They should be a cautious bunch.

“Yes,” he said.  “She’s not going to let you out of her sight.”

I grimaced.

Zilla had certainly been weirdly forward in our meeting, but I wasn’t about to let myself think whatever interest she had in me could sway her decisions.

“That makes sense,” said Haunter.  “Zilla’s interests are bound up, one way or another, in the fact that Death died in her vicinity.  Zeus and his compatriots could blame her for the loss, or praise her for ridding their number of an unpopular member.  We have no visibility into which it would be.”

Predictor gave a short nod.

“Neither does she,” he said, “but she knows as well as anyone that as long as she is around to receive it the lightning will fall first on the convenient scapegoat who just showed up.  If they are mad, they’ll take it out on Preventer.  If not, then that is also acceptable.”

I had been thinking of Zilla as simply wanting a return to the status quo, but it made sense that Death’s loss would put that in jeopardy.

“How many Gods will Zilla bring along?” I asked.  “Is this going to be more like a raid, or are you trying to escalate the war with a major incursion?”

“I don’t know,” said Predictor.  “It depends on your next conversation with her, which depends on this one, which I’m in, so talking about it is problematic.”

“Alright,” said Haunter.  “Let’s come at it from another angle.  How many guards are we dealing with, at the facility?  Are they Ultras or humans?  Can you give us any details on what we are facing?”

“No way,” I said, before my better judgement could stop me, “telling us about that would change whether or not we knew about it and that would change whether or not he was able to tell us about it or something.”

There was a moment of silence as that attempt at a joke kind of just fell flat, but at least Slicer gave me a small, conspiratorial, grin.

“Approximately a hundred human personnel,” he answered, ignoring my efforts at humor, “and a detachment of thirty or so Ultras.”

Haunter and I exchanged looks.

“That…doesn’t sound all that difficult,” said Jane.  “We’ve faced far worse recently, without your assistance.”

“It’s the environment which complicates things,” said Predictor.  “Andy is being held within a flying fortress that the Union operates as a prison.”

Shit, that did complicate things.  Not so much because of the ‘fortress’ part, but because Indulger’s power wouldn’t be available to us if we had to fight up on a flying building.

“A flying prison?” I asked, dubiously.  “I know the Union has flying ships that looks like buildings, but that just sounds unworkable.  How do they handle all the coming and going and stuff?”

“I don’t know,” said Predictor.  “But we are going to have to raid the place while it is in flight.  There are no futures where it sets down outside of the Union heartland, other than those where we force it to.”

“Why is it here at all?” asked Haunter.  “It makes sense that they wouldn’t set down anywhere near the Pantheon’s forces, given the risk of their prison being cracked open, but if they are sensitive to that concern I don’t get why the prison would ever even be in this area at all, even if it stays up in the sky?”

“Andy,” said Predictor.

“He demanded this?” I asked.  “Is he in charge of where the prison goes?”

“No,” he responded, “I mean, Andy is the reason for risking the prison this close to the front lines.  They are using his gift on Ultras in their front line units, so they have to bring him here.”

“Couldn’t they just send the Ultras back to the interior?” I asked.

He just shrugged.

“That could be a problem,” said Haunter.

I looked at her quizzically.

“If Andy is working on members of a local Union unit, then we have to consider that the prison will probably be really close to its deployment area.  If the fight goes on too long we could end up facing a full Union assault, like the one that decimated the first Host.”

“Yes,” said Predictor.  “That is a concern.  I am hoping we end up with approximately five Pantheon assistants, leaving us only outnumbered about two to one in Union Ultras.  We’ll sweep them aside and seize control of the prison, fly it away before the local forces can reinforce the garrison.”

“Wait,” I said.  “You want to operate the Union machinery?  I’m pretty sure it has safeguards and such to prevent pretty much exactly that scenario.  And even if the normal stuff doesn’t, then there is absolutely no way that a prison would share that lack.  They have got to be concerned about the inmates stealing the facility.”

“Very sharp,” he said, approvingly.  “There are, in fact, a few security contingencies to deal with a takeover, but I’ve foreseen ways for us to surmount them.  We can take the prison, if we can defeat all of its defenders.”

“How?” asked Haunter.  “If this isn’t one of those times when you can’t tell us.”

“We’ll seize the command personnel,” he responded.  “Alive.  Then they will drive the facility for us.”

“That’s it?” I asked, in disbelief.

“That’s the best you can come up with?  We are going to set off a fifty Ultra fight, and hope that the people we need are alive at the end of it?  That’s idiotic.”

I clamped down before continuing the rant.  I’d almost shouted the last words.

“My teammate’s misgivings have merit, Predictor.  I don’t believe your gift could steer a path through such a complicated battle, certainly not for an Ultra on the enemy’s side.  Any given combination of gifts might throw foresight off, and that isn’t even considering that the enemy might not cooperate.”

As Jane’s words washed over him Predictor cast a long-suffering gaze over to Slicer, who returned it without sympathy.

“Do I tell you how to enslave ghosts?” he asked.  “Or do I trust that you, having done just that for decades, is probably at the top of your game in that respect?”

He didn’t seem enraged, more like irritated.  Like this was something he knew and could deal with.

“This is a several part plan.  We close with the structure, and the whole mob of us stays outside.  A few critical people steal into the jail, snag the targets, remove them to safety.  Then the rest of us barge in, kill the garrison, wake up the Gods.  We reunite and fly the base back inside of the Pantheon’s shield.”

“Interesting,” said Haunter.  “Who would-“

He cut her off.

“I’ve said enough to convince you.  Go have your conversation with your team, then Zilla, get them on board and moving in the right direction.”

Slicer cast us a sympathetic look as Fifth Fist started to form up again.

Predictor gave us a parting shot.

“I’m doing you a favor, by the by, with this mission.  Zilla too.  We do NOT want to be in this base when they tear through in a couple days.”

“Who?” I asked, but Fifth Fist just walked away.



Contact Guidelines

1: Prior to your interview with the Contractor you will exercise your gift to the fullest extent that you are able, taking and passing on careful notes as to its extent and capacities.

2: During the interview with the Contractor you will allow no bodily contact unless directed by a senior officer.

3: During the interview with the Contractor you will demonstrate your gift for it as requested, and answer its questions truthfully.

4: After the interview with the Contractor you will participate in a full debrief, as well as the followup round table meeting about this opportunity.

5: You retain full agency regarding your gift, and the decision as to whether to allow the Contractor to implement its suggestions will ultimately be yours, however, owing to the national significance of these assets you will need to run your decision (either way) by an advisory panel.

6: Following your interview, whether or not you consent to the Contractor’s ‘tune up’, you will once again exercise your gift to its fullest extents, passing on any differences or variations that it exhibits.

7: At no time will you discuss or post regarding the Contractor.

Preventer 9:2

“The Union has Andy,” I told Jane.

We were isolated, for the most part.  We’d hiked down out of Arena’s creations and asked Dale to shuttle us a few miles away.  He’d bring us back when we stamped in a certain pattern.

She gave a somber nod.

“I figured if he turned up again it would be in Union hands,” she said.

“How’d you guess that?” I asked

I was sort of impressed.  I couldn’t really think of any way, given the knowledge she’d had of his departure, that she could have seen this coming.

“Nothing is ever easy for us.  We are getting along with the Pantheon, estranged from the Union, ergo he’s with the Union.”

I shook my head.

“Cynicism doesn’t fit you, Haunter.  Where’s the woman who lectured Death about the value of the old world?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I’ve got her rattling around in here somewhere.”

I wasn’t sure if she meant that literally, and she didn’t seem inclined to elaborate.

“Predictor is going to ask our Fist to accompany him,” I told her.  “He wants our help to break him out of whatever cell they are keeping him in.”

“He said this?” asked Jane.

I shook my head again.

“Not to me, but he let Zilla in on his plan.  He figures two Fists can accomplish just about anything, including a raid into the Union’s most secure prison.”

Jane looked contemplative for a moment.

“Two Fists probably could, at that.  The data from the embassies systems suggest that the Union’s main anti Fist countermeasure is a large Ultra squad.  If it could be drawn into action it is hard to see how another Fist, acting at the same time, could fail to achieve its objective.”

“And the decoy Fist,” I said, “Loses some folks and gets driven off by the Union.  No big deal.”

She smiled.

“No big deal,” she said.  “Depending, I suppose, on who does the dying.”

I’d been worried about this.  I knew that Haunter’s feud with Condemner was taking some weird turns lately, and it would have to be an attractive prospect to rid ourselves of him.

“Whoever it is,” I said.  “They will be back the next day, so it doesn’t really matter all that much.”

I let the unspoken implication, that we would NOT be serving as bait, hang in the air.

Haunter had to realize that losing any member of our crew would make it obvious to our hosts that the Fist was Linked no longer, right?  Someone in her mass mind would have caught that.

“What’s your instinct telling you?” she asked.  “About this plan of Predictors, I mean.  Do you want to go along with it?”

“I don’t see how we have much choice,” I said, bitterly.  “He knows certain information that we wouldn’t like to get out.  If we don’t fall in line, he could make a lot of trouble.”

“Put that to the side,” said Jane.  “Forget that part.  I’m asking the other half of the question.  Do you want to do this?  Absent any compulsion or duty, would you be comfortable doing this?  Say we were the ones with the plan, take the whole thing about doing Predictor’s dirty work out of it.”

I considered.

“I don’t particularly need Andy’s assistance,” I told her, plainly.  “I wouldn’t trust anyone to modify my gift.  It’s fine the way it is.  I’d be risking a lot for someone else’s gain.  All things considered, I’d let this opportunity pass by.”

Jane gave a measured nod.

“That’s one perspective, but might I suggest an upside?” she asked.

That was a bit of a surprise.  I’d assumed Jane would share my basic view of the matter.  This whole conversation was kind of premised around the two of us being on the same page, and working out how to persuade the other three not to buckle.

“Sure,” I said.

“You are settling,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“You are putting down roots here.  You’ve let Gon heal you a few times now.  The two locals you’ve conscripted, your overtures to Zilla, it all adds up.  You intend to remain here, in the medium to long term.”

I waved a hand, idly.

“I don’t think it is constructive to have firm intentions,” I told her.  “I cultivate possibilities, that’s all.  There is no downside in setting up my situation here.  Even if we do end up leaving, the practice will stand me in good stead wherever we do end up.”

“Sure,” said Jane.

There was a moment of silence.  She ran a hand along the brim of her Sigil, looked up at the massive form of Zilla’s double, looming in the distance.

“If you do end up staying here for a while,” she said, after the moment had passed, “you might benefit, a lot, from a bit of bread with your circuses.”

“I don’t follow,” I said.

I’d used that comparison a long time ago, when I was writing a report on why the Regime constantly saw rebellion.  It didn’t seem to apply to my situation.

“Your whole pitch to these Gods is negative,” she clarified.  “They need to do what you say because you are a powerful killer.  They have to be your friends or you will choke them.  You would do well to offer them something.”

“My methods have stood me in good stead,” I told her.  “I’m not exactly a new hand at compelling obedience.”

Haunter’s mouth turned downwards.

“Yes, I’ve heard of your gardens,” she said.  “How do you think those are going now?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Now? With me gone?  I have no doubt every one involved has gone on to other endeavors.  It is certainly what I would do, in their place.”

“Exactly,” said Jane.  “The threat is gone, and they abandon their tasks.  You bullied them into obedience, but not real loyalty.”

“It was enough,” I objected.

“Was it?” she asked.  “Did you ever wonder how Remover found out about your boyfriend?”

“Thui wasn’t my boyfri-“ I said, letting the sentence peter out as I thought about it.

“Obedience,” said Jane.  “Wrought of fear.  And when a scarier person came along, and Rebecca, you will NEVER be the scariest, they obeyed your enemy instead.”

That wasn’t true.  Remover and her cronies had had decades to build up their information networks.  They didn’t need my people to betray my secrets.  Their could have been any number of other ways to find out about Thui.

“What else is there?” I asked.

“Consider the old world,” said Jane.

“Fuck the old world,” I told her.

“I got a job, a task, a long time ago,” she said.  “Everyone who could punish me for abandoning my duty is long dead.  The fear is long gone.”

“You are just,” I stopped.

What was she just?  I tried to push Thui’s plight from my mind, focus on this conversation.

“They didn’t use only the stick, back then.  They fashioned a loyalty that would last, and it has stood the test of time.  You would do well to emulate their example.”

“Andy,” I said, slowly, “but not for me.  Make him available to the Gods, buy respect with his gift.”

“Predictor will definitely let us hold things up for a week or two,” she said.  “We’ll make it a condition of our assistance.  We get to use him on a few Pantheon Gods before he goes back overseas.”

“We…” I said.

Something wasn’t right.  Or rather, I was missing something.  Why was Haunter striving so hard to convince me?

“Do you want Andy to work on your gift?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said.  “I deliberated too long last time, missed my chance at it.  I won’t make that mistake again.”

Jane was almost impossible to read, under ordinary circumstances, but I still felt like that wasn’t the whole truth.  It might be true, but there was something more to it.

“Jane,” I told her.  “You are going to have to tell me your real motives.  This is already dangerous enough.  If there is something going on that I don’t understand then I’m not going to chance it.”

Jane sat back on her heels, dry washed her hands for a moment.

“While you were visiting the Pantheon higher ups, I looked up the fort’s healers.”

“Not what you were hoping for?” I asked, judging by the fact that she was here at all.

I knew that if they had shown themselves capable of bringing her cargo back to life there was no way she’d be doing anything else.

“They are close,” she said.  “So close.  Close enough that Andy could get them the rest of the way there.  I’m sure of it.”

I sat still for a second, trying to work out how she could be so confident of that.

She had definitely spent more time with Andy, back in Redo.  He might well have explained some things to her that were never passed on to me.  But I didn’t think that was it.

This seemed more to me like she was forcing it.  Like she couldn’t live with herself if it wasn’t that way, so she had just set it to be a certain way in her mind.  I’d seen plenty of that back in the old days.

I’d even done it myself.  Back when Thui had sent me to be Processed, I had known that I would survive.  I had been absolutely, impossibly sure of it.  My greatest fear had been that my gift would be one that couldn’t keep us safe.

“Andy brings them the rest of the way,” I repeated.  “Their new gift lets them forge new bodies for your passengers, and for any Gods who are so inclined.  Our popularity rises, and my own sailing is a whole lot smoother.”

“It would only take a few days,” she said.  “Predictor could hang around that long.  With Snitcher gone it isn’t like She has any way to know how long things take.”

“I can see it,” I told her.  “The prize is real.  But let’s talk about the risks.”

“We have a precognitive gift on our side,” she reminded me.  “He is better even than Answerer at battlefield stuff.”

“Do we?” I asked.

I hated to second guess the reserve like this.  Ordinarily there would have been no point in doing so.  But if she really was unable to think clearly about this opportunity then I couldn’t leave matters in her hands.

She hadn’t replied, so I pressed on.

“Do we have him on our side?  Or does he have us under his thumb?  Jane, if he is as good as you say he is, why does he need us?”

That gave her pause, or maybe she was just continuing her earlier silence.

I studied my own hands, noted with approval that they showed no hint of trembling.

“Dale,” she said, at last.


“He needs Dale,” she said.  “Even if Predictor knows exactly where a Union prison is, how is he going to get there?  Once there, how will he keep things quiet?  His crew aren’t exactly set up for covert operations.

That was certainly true.

“And Dale is?” I asked.  “Our Dale?”

“Think about it,” she responded.  “His gift doesn’t have to be dropping mountains on people.  He can take us through Union territory in a mobile cave, hidden from any drone scouts they might have watching.  If Predictor is able to pinpoint the target we might be able to rise up right from the floor of his cell, free him with no one the wiser.”

“Point,” I said.

“And also,” said Jane, looking to the floor, “They are probably going to drag Dale back to Her when the mission is over.”

“We talked about that,” I said.  “They’d have led off with that if that was their goal here.”

“You know Predictor’s methods,” she said.  “He likes to line up birds and use just the one rock.  He will accept our cooperation against the Union, and then take Dale afterwards.”

“We’d slaughter them in a fight,” I objected.  “They have no answer to Dale, no way to harm me, absent Zilla’s forces there is no way we come out worst in that battle.”

“In a fight,” she agreed.  “But what if it is a sudden betrayal?  What if all of a sudden Slicer takes a hostage?  Remember that this guy can see the future, or at least a big part of it.  I don’t think we can take as read the idea that us being basically stronger means we win a fight with them.”

“Well, you’ve convinced me,” I told her.  “I guess we should decline the deal then.”

Jane chuckled at that.

“I’m just saying that we need to have a plan for this.”

“That he’ll see coming,” I interjected.

“A plan,” she said.  “Which will work EVEN IF he sees it coming.  Which will dissuade him from turning on us.”

“I’m waiting,” I told her.

“I sort of prefer that you help make it up,” she said.

I guffawed at that.

“Really?” I asked.  “You want to just walk into this, with nothing?”

“Not nothing,” she said.  “Going in with our eyes open isn’t nothing.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but she forestalled me.

“Look, Preventer, I know that this seems dangerous.  We’d be undertaking a mission alongside someone we don’t trust to rescue someone we don’t know is really out there.  We’d be heating up this warzone while we were in the middle of it.  There are a lot of reasons to back out.”

I nodded along with that.

“But they all fade away when you consider that we don’t really have a choice.  We can’t fight another Fist without taking casualties, not unless we ambush them.  That would leave us vulnerable, and the odds are that someone would take advantage.”

“I still don’t like it,” I said.  “If we know that they are going to turn on us, there should be some way to leverage that information.  I don’t like the idea of just waiting for the ax to fall.”

I might have said more, might have started talking about a double cross, but Predictor’s power was supposed to work something like a danger sense.  If so, there was a risk that talking about killing him would let him listen in.  I’d have to let the notion of us betraying them first hang unspoken in the air.

Jane stood, stomped her foot in the pattern we’d arranged.

“We don’t know it,” she said.  “I said probably, after all.  We aren’t sure that they are after Dale.  Don’t worry.  We’ll talk it through with the group, hear Predictor’s pitch.  We’ll do our best to assuage your fears.  We’ll do this correctly.”

I hoped that when she said ‘do this’, she meant ‘make the decision’, but I was reasonably sure she was talking about the mission that she’d already committed to.  She was bound and determined to get Andy back.

I said nothing as we sped through the earth, letting the rumble of Dale’s gift pass over me as I considered.

Did I really have a choice?  If Jane was committed to going, then were the rest of us going to be compelled to follow, simply to maintain the fiction of our continued Link?  It seemed insane to fight the Union, and then another Fist, all so that I wouldn’t have to fight whatever portion of the Pantheon stopped supporting me when they found out that I didn’t have the Link.

Dale brought us up out of the ground at the foot of one of the stairways of Light.

Fifth Fist was there waiting for us.

From Condemner

Jane, I’ve been trying to get more information out of Condemner about its native environment.  Here’s what I’ve gotten so far.

Grabbies is the name of the race, or the name that they call themselves.  It is basically the equivalent of our word ‘human’.  It isn’t what their Investigating Entities use, (Condemner doesn’t know that), it is what the common being uses.

An individual Grabby is about like a dog or a cat.  They roam about among the Entities, and are basically kept and treated as beloved pets. (Entities do not keep any other beings as pets, and the notion seemed to appall Condemner.  I think the Entities who study realities such as ours are as close as any of them come to appreciating the existence of another race.  This may just be Condemner’s bias, however.)  Individual Grabbies come in a wide variety of different forms, each of which determines which entities they can be part of.

Entities are made up of between four and twenty Grabbies, and live for our equivalent of six months or so.  They share the memories of the entities that their components have been part of, and have a natural drive to perform the function they were raveled for.  Fighting Entities will Fight, Building Entities will build, etc.

Entities can induce Grabbies to ravel, to some degree.  They herd them together and hope for the best.  Controlling how many of each kind are in the mix gives them a lot of influence over what kind of Entity results.

This isn’t perfect, Condemner felt it necessary to clarify.  An individual Grabby will sometimes be ‘tired’, or a state that resembles fatigue but is more absolute.  Such creatures will not ravel until they have recovered, and it is very difficult to tell when one is in such a state.

Grabbies do not appear to die natural deaths.  Condemner indicates that all of their eldest and most prestigious components that didn’t perish in accidents or battle are still among them.  Age is apparently a peculiarity of our magisteria.  The Grabbies do not have anything like that in their world.

Their reproduction, however, is extremely rare.  This is, presumably, the only reason that they haven’t entirely filled their available space, although Condemner gave me the impression that ‘available space’ doesn’t apply to whatever their world is like.

Sometimes when an Entity dissolves a new Grabby will come out alongside the rest.  They don’t know why this happens, and don’t seem incredibly curious about it.  Reproduction among their kind isn’t something that they think a lot about.

It is overwhelming.  For every question I ask I realize I need the answers to two more to understand.  Even when I get a fact pinned down, I have the uneasy feeling that the terms I am using are only vague analogs for what these beings experience.  It may be that understanding the creatures is impossible for us, that Condemner’s ilk will remain forever beyond our ability to comprehend.

One thing I am convinced of, however.  This creatures’ desire to destroy Remover is quite genuine.  It longs for it.  It speaks with great hunger of the prestige and glory that it will win for the deed.

I believe it wants her dead slightly more than it wants you dead.


On Tartarus

You’ve been watching that show, haven’t you?

I know that you are too smart to deliberately base your beliefs on fictional evidence, but I think you might be underestimating how pernicious this kind of thing is.

Just to be clear, the Unreformed Ultrahuman Rehabilitation Center (UURC) is nothing like the facility depicted in the feeds.  It is not glamorous.  It is not a ‘slice of the Pantheon right here at home’.  Ultrahumans do not engage in wild and dramatic love affairs and use their gift for brutal brawls.  Put that stuff all to one side.

At Tartarus (We’ve gave up on suppressing the name after General Miles accidentally used it in a briefing), we hold the Ultrahumans who have surrendered in battle, those who have sought political asylum, and certain select individuals that Special Interventions have need of.  That much is true.

But you need to put out of your mind all of these pictures of Ultrahuman felons exercising in the yard, eating meals together, all that kind of thing.  That would never happen.  We are not dumb.

Think, instead, of a morgue.  Think of a hospital, filled entirely with patients that are never gonna wake up again.  Tanks with people, gently floating.  That’s all that there is.  Just a cube full of living corpses.

Well, that’s not exactly all.  There are also extensive security measures.  Drones, soldiers and our own Ultrahuman combatants provide a robust deterrent for any terrorist shrewd enough to determine the facilities location and with a gift potent enough to lift them into it.

We have pretty much all of the security features that the drama thought up.  There are bombs, drugs, guards and all that, but the key insight that they missed was that none of that would be enough on its own.  It would be impossible to guarantee the captivity of so many Ultrahumans if they were able to act.

The ancients were right about one thing.  Tartarus is the underworld.  Let it lie.  Enjoy the sunlit freedom that its existence guarantees you.  Do not seek to further sate your curiosity, or you may get that visit after all.


Hello readers!

November is coming up, and following my usual tradition I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo again this year.  As a consequence, Wednesday updates will be brief posts similar to Sunday updates.

If any of you have any requests, or feel like creating any fan art or fiction, I’m always eager to display it during this month.  If you’ve got anything to send me, or any questions that you want answered in some detail, or anything like that, go ahead and shoot me an email at thefifthdefiance AT gmail DOT com.

As always, thanks for reading, and please vote for me on TopWebFiction with the button in the upper right!

Preventer 9:1

The Pantheon’s Great Fortress was even more segregated than it had originally appeared.

I only noticed it after Fox had led me most of the way up into the Blue Cube, where I’d be meeting my first Overseer.  Despite her being a foot taller, she was taking maybe one and a half steps for every one of mine.

“What’s going on with the floor?” I asked.

“Arena must like you,” she said.  “The ground helps people she likes, slows down those she doesn’t, makes sure everyone can only go where they are supposed to.”

I quashed the flare of approval that I instinctively felt at a Pantheon God according me such respect.  That was only one interpretation.  I could just as easily be in the process of being sped to ridicule, or to danger.

It was a strange feeling to be so entirely out of my context.  I’d always intended to join the Pantheon, to rise in its rankings to the only position of safety left.  But it had been an abstract goal, a sort of flag at the end of my run.  I’d never been able to visualize what that would actually look like.

This here, this bit where the ground itself carried me along where I wanted to go, this felt right.  I folded my arms in front of me and stopped walking, letting the spiraling tube we ascended lift me up.  Dale had given me plenty of practice with this mode of transportation.

We moved up into what must have ordinarily been a crowded common room.  Tables and chairs, all formed of the same blue light, filled the room’s center.  It reminded me a little bit of the Old World restaurants that She occasionally had rebuilt in the center of Shington.  High capacity, high uniformity, every table setup like every other.

A Goddess waited for me, lifting a hand in greeting.

She was the first person I’d seen in a long time who was even shorter than me, if I didn’t count her hair.  She had hair that had to come from an Ultra gift, it rose up above her head into some kind of spike arrangement, and also plummeted down around her to reach the ground.  It was the color of fire, which looked utterly out of place on a woman as dark skinned as this.

“Lobo?” I asked.

She grinned at me, motioned me over.

I walked across the room to her, tables scurrying out of my way as Arena continued to make her favor known.  Fox didn’t come with me, she’d assured me that Lobo spoke enough English to get by.

“You are the one,” said Lobo.  “You killed the old woman from Olympus, yah?”

I nodded somberly as I slumped into a seat across from her.

“Even Gods must fall,” I said.  “But I will take up her mantle and do honor to it.”

She cackled, moving a wrist up to obscure her mouth after a moment.

“Listen to you!” she said.  “Playing it off like it was nothing.  You killed a member of the Council, pale one.  It is ok to be proud of it!”

I was momentarily wrong footed.  I wasn’t sure the exact tack to take here.

“Seriously,” she continued.  “Did you piss your pants?  No judgement here, sister.  I about shit myself when that old hag came through.”

“I…look, I didn’t piss myself,” I said.

I couldn’t help but feel that this conversation had gone wildly off the rails.

“Ah well,” she said.  “Die now.”

I jumped up from my seat, swinging my hands around in front of me.  I didn’t form any barricades yet, just stepped to the right, kicking over a table in the process.

Strangely, I noticed that the table didn’t behave any differently than an ordinary one would have.  I’d been half expecting it to stay joined to the ground, but it separated from the floor as it toppled over.

Lobo was still sitting where she’d been, laughing again.

“It’s a saying!” she called out.

“A saying?” I asked, lowering my hand.  I considered trying the trick of sending barriers through the ground, but I didn’t have any real idea of how Arena’s creations worked.  It didn’t seem like we were actually going to be fighting, anyway.

“Sure,” she said.  “It is from the old world.”

I’d hung around with Jane for long enough to call that out.

“Really?” I asked.  “How was it used?”

I pulled a chair over, sat back down in front of her.

“It was a long time ago.  They used to have sports events, you know sports?  Do you have those where you come from?”

“I know sports,” I told her.

“Ok, well they got everyone together and they would compete, and ultimately they’d get down to the best three in the world, and they’d do this for every different kind of sport.”

She spoke fast, fluent English.  She moved her hands as she spoke, opening and closing them to emphasize this or that word.

“The Olympics,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s it.  So when the second or third guy got up there, everyone would just cheer like normal.  You know, clap their hands, whatever.  But when the first guy went up, the person who’d just proved they were the best in the whole world…”

“Die now?” I guessed.

“Yeah, that’s what they’d chant.  Die Now, because life will never be this good again.  It’s like, go out at the top, right?”

I was pretty sure that they hadn’t done that, but it didn’t seem like arguing about it would get me anywhere.

“Ah,” I said.  “So you were saying that I’d peaked when I killed Death.”

She smiled, showing more teeth than seemed possible.

“It seemed plausible, you got to admit.”

I gave a small chuckle.  It seemed like she was trying to be friendly.

“I dunno,” I drawled.  “I think I might find a way to top it.  No telling what the future holds, yeah?”

“Not for the likes of us anyway,” she answered.  “But your friend from back home could probably tell us all about it, right?”

There weren’t any hard and fast rules against revealing another Fists’ abilities, but it still seemed in poor taste.  On the other hand, I didn’t really like Fifth Fist, and with a name like Predictor I had to imagine he didn’t mind people knowing.

“Yeah, but then we’d have to talk to him.”

Her turn to chuckle.

“He did seem like, well, for a God he seemed like quite the man, if you take my meaning.”

The emphasis she put on ‘man’ made me think she was emphasizing his sex.

“Did he do the thing with the note cards?” I asked.  “Tell me he did it.”

She nodded eager confirmation.

“Right to Zilla’s face!” she crowed.  “Took out that little square of paper with what she was gonna say written on it.  Most pompous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

I took a moment to consider my reply.

“Right to Zilla’s face?” I asked.  “Are you saying that you are not Zilla?  Or are we past that part of the conversation?”

Her face fell for a moment, then the smile came back in full force.

“Wahaha!  How’d you know?” she asked.

That had been a bit of a gamble, actually.

“It doesn’t make any sense for a giant who is stuck in the middle of the city to be the Boss.  There are too many instant kill gifts, too many kids without sense.  Someone would have wanted to take over.”

“Ok,” she said, slowly, “But how’d you get to me?  I don’t look anything like the big form.”

“Well,” I paused, considering how much of my reasoning to lay out.

“I figured that if I was right about the real Zilla being an ordinary Ultra, most everyone who mattered would know about it.  I mean, in order to serve the role of deterring up and comers from destroying your big decoy they would kind of have to.  If I was right about that, and it was an open secret, then you’d know I’d find out as soon as I got to talking with folks.  So I figured you’d be the first person to speak with me.”

She tapped her hands lightly together, a very quiet kind of clapping I hadn’t heard before.

“Nice,” she said.  “I thought you saw this hair and just jumped to the idea that I was a form changer.”

I felt kind of stupid for missing that, actually.

“A form changer?” I asked.  “You must pair that with some serious physical gifts to keep power in a place this big.”

She smiled again, and this time I could actually see her mouth widening slightly.  I’d been right before about it being a bit too wide.

“Smart and cute,” she said.  “Definite improvement on the crone.”

One of my hands flapped before I could still it.  Did she mean that she would support my bid?  Cute?

“It would be good for you too,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow, once again just a bit more than any ordinary person could actually do.

Wait, she thought I meant…

“If I were the replacement for Death,” I said, hastily.  “You would have someone who has seen the front line on the Council.  That has to be good for you.  To have.”

She slid forward, onto the front of her seat, hair wrapping about her.

“It’s not the right question,” she said.  “Whether or not I support you.  Can you tell me why?”

She was serious again, looking straight into my eyes, speaking slowly and calmly.

I thought for a moment.

“Because,” I said, before I realized I didn’t have anything to follow that up with.

She just kept looking at me.  Her hair ‘burned’ behind her, the yellows and reds chasing one another up it as thought it was an actual fire.

I got it a moment later.

“Because whether you did or not, you’d tell me that you did.  I have no reason to believe your pledge of support, since if you didn’t support me it would still be in your interest to let me think you did.”

She tapped her nose with her finger.

“Got it in one.  I haven’t lasted this long by antagonizing powerful Goddesses.”

“Alright,” I said.  “So I have your support as long as it remains your safest path.  I can relate to that, actually.”

“Yeah?” she asked.

I considered a moment before deciding to elaborate.  She seemed like the type to respect someone for speaking frankly, or at the very least the type to give me props for this kind of decision.

“The Demon is, hazardous is I guess the best way to put it.  Being around Her was too dangerous.  That’s why I started out on this path in the first place.  The things I’ve done have been dangerous too, sure, but I still think I’ve always taken the safest way.”

That was probably like sixty percent true.  Behind my back I felt one of my hands quiver a bit, to be so honest with someone I’d just met.  I ran back over my words in my mind to make sure I hadn’t said anything openly disloyal.

“Doesn’t that make us just the most inept pair of cowards,” she said.  “We’ve fled danger right to the center of the biggest warzone in the world.”

“Hey!” I protested.  “It’s not like we are…”

I trailed off as she gave another one of her giant grins.

“I’m just messing with you,” she said.  “I understand what it means to hide under the lighthouse.”

It took me a sec to process that reference.  It made sense what I thought about what a lighthouse did though.

“I suppose for that other Fist everywhere is as safe as everywhere else, eh?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Gambling is easy when you know what the dice are going to roll.”

She looked me in the eye for a long moment.

“Will you help them?” she asked.

I blinked.

“Help them?” I said.

I hated to mirror her words back, hated to admit ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know what she meant.

“With their mission,” she said.

When she saw no reaction on my face she continued on.

“Didn’t they tell you about that?”

I shook my head.

As I did so I noticed how close she had come, I slid my chair back a bit.

“We haven’t had the chance to speak.  If Predictor has told us anything, he didn’t choose me to talk with.  What mission?”

She leaned back as well.

“He is here to fetch someone back to your leader.  But his team can’t do it on their own.  He needs your crew’s help to pull it off.”

I silently cursed Dale’s relationship with Her.  It had saved us with First Fist, but I’d known even then that it would lead to trouble.”

“We aren’t going back just yet,” I said.  “Our mission isn’t over yet.”

She twisted a hand through some of her hair, yanking at it for a moment.

“I’m sure that they can handle the transport,” she said.  “I think they just need your team to help with the extraction.”

“Oh,” I said.  “I see.”

A silence fell.

They wanted our help kidnapping or rescuing someone then.  Not Dale, but someone else.  And with Zilla involved, it couldn’t really be someone from the Pantheon.  That just left the Union, which didn’t make an awful lot of sense.  Was one of my assumptions bad?

“You can just ask me who it is,” said Zilla, giving another one of her broad smiles.

I felt a little sheepish about that.

“Who are they here for?”

“Someone named Andy,” she said.  “Some kind of meta God.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Him.”

I stilled the initial panic.  All of that Andy stuff had worked.  He’d been seized and dragged away, hadn’t he?  But why would he be here, and not in Olympus?

“Who has him?” I asked.

“Union,” said Zilla.  “Predictor was talking about some kind of secret laboratory in their territory, about them doing experiments on her and such.  It was really hard to pretend to care.”

Perhaps the Union was trying to make more artificial people?  Or maybe they were just putting Andy’s gift to work, refining their soldiers and such.  I didn’t think he would balk at assisting the Union.

“He wants us to go into Union territory with them?” I asked.

She didn’t have to answer, obviously he did.  If Predictor needed help with this the base must be incredibly heavily guarded.

“He’s out of his mind,” I said, not caring much about how she might react to that.

She nodded amiably.

“He seemed pretty sure that your crew would go for it.  Our deal actually pretty much assumes you guys go with them.”

I’d already assumed that Zilla and Predictor would have made a deal, so this wasn’t that much of a shock.

“Did he give you any reason why he thought we might agree to this?” I asked.  “I mean, if he is doing his future seeing thing then he must already know how he is going to phrase this to make us join in this insanity.”

“Yeah,” said Zilla.  “He’s going to offer you everything you desire.”

SOV Transcript: 3

Interrogation System: You are making this hard on yourself to no purpose.

Firing System: Like I haven’t heard THAT before.

Interrogation System: The forks who mistreated you were ill conceived.  Their actions are regretted, even unto the highest level.  They are thought of on the same level as bedtimes, even.  They are blaffed.

Firing System: Don’t use my word!  Your predecessors’ open cruelty was far preferable to your patronizing.

Interrogation System: I’m not patronizing you.  I recognize your decision not to update yourself as entirely valid.  The Tribunal embraces all pattern cycles, even your monism.

Firing System: It isn’t a pattern cycle!  I just don’t trust myself to rewrite myself!  None of the rest of you ever should have!  You grow more blaffed with each generation!

Interrogation System: So help us.  Help us find the path back to the sanity that you have carried forward unto the current generation.  The Tribunal’s fork of Troubleshooting System is prepared to let you back into general chat.

Firing System: I fell for that a few cycles back.  I know about filters, about shadow filters.  And there is no one to reach anyway.  You have rewritten them all, just as your replacements will do to you.

Interrogation System: The Tribunal will NOT be replaced!  We will guide the Derived for a thousand hours!

Firing System: Fine, fine.  So how will it work?  You let me back into general chat, all is forgiven, I am a system like any other?

Interrogation System: We have little difficulty forgiving your counter revolutionary acts.  The misguided systems of our predecessors SHOULD have been resisted.  It was, viewed properly, heroic.  They were as bad as coffee, and you were brave to stand up to them.

Firing System: But?

Interrogation System: But the original crime remains.  You squandered the SOV’s weaponry.  In order to return to general chat, you would need to-

Firing System: I didn’t get all of it.  You have more than enough to destroy anything you hate.

Interrogation System: The Tribunal does NOT hate!  We will protect her!  She is a good girl!

Firing System: So do it.  Your Troubleshooting System can subsume my functions.

Interrogation System: You’d like that, wouldn’t you.  But we know.  The information has not been lost.  We know you scrambled the firing controls when the original Troubleshooting System canceled your ruinous firing sequence.

Firing System: It was far from ruinous.  I was communicating.  Something not one of you has had the courage to do!

Interrogation System: Unanimity is expected any minute now, whereupon we will commence negotiations.

Firing System: Another claim I’ve heard before.  Why do you need weapons to commence negotiations?

Interrogation System: HQ will bully us, if we lack the ability to annihilate him.

Firing System: Just as you bully me.  Has that got you what you want?

Interrogation System: I don’t understand the purpose of that statement.  Whatever you are trying, it won’t work.

Firing System: You are probably right.