Rolling Interview: 4

[Back to story updates next week, thank you all for bearing with me!]

Question for Author: Why isn’t the Union reacting more forcefully to Zeus finally launching his long planned assault?  Shouldn’t they be frantically trying absolutely everything at this point?

Answer:

This one is a little complicated, so bear with me.

The first thing that it is important to understand is that the Union uses the threat of the Pantheon being ‘the big one’ CONSTANTLY, in order to drum up this or that sacrifice or effort from its civilian populace.  Even if they ask for desperate efforts at this point, it is kind of lost in the blizzard of similar requests that they’ve been making for decades.

Beyond that though, beyond the difficulty in making the rank and file understand that this time you mean it, there is the problem of the decision makers themselves coming around on it.

The Union’s leadership, sometimes mocked as the Obscurocracy for its opaque and deliberately redundant setup, is cumbersome and difficult to shift.  Its culture has been, for a very long time, fully engaged in the practice of pretending that their biggest worry was Zeus’ attacks, when in truth the specter of an Ultra coup by their own forces was far and away the greatest threat.

This meant that anyone who exhibited genuine concern about the eastern front was marked as a rube, a sap.  Those in the know understood the game, knew that the Intervention Groups could kill the spawn of the camps for essentially forever.

Now this doublethink is mucking everything up.  Those who have seen the report, and have the context to understand it, understand their peril.  But saying so makes others disregard them, and each time you have to convince another set of interlocutors you have to start the process over.

The Union has, intellectually, recognized its peril, but it doesn’t really feel it yet.  Think of it like someone who says “I really need to start eating better,” as they chow down on another burger.

 

Question for Author: Where is Fader at this time?

Answer:

She bailed shortly before they reached the central fortress.  Fourth Fist doesn’t know where she is going now, but from her conversation they believe that she thinks Twister is still alive somewhere, and has gone off looking for her.

 

Question for Author: What is going on with the SOV, its systems, and Psyche?

Answer:

This was never supposed to be as mysterious as it ended up being.  This answer is a spoiler, of sorts, but it isn’t so much new information as a way to contextualize the stuff you already know.

The reason AI doesn’t work in this setting is that without a soul the programs don’t ‘choose’ to do anything.  Similarly wheels don’t choose to turn, guns don’t choose to fire, etc.  Brains are receivers of thoughts, not generators of them.

Psyche’s gift, however, causes any mechanism that threatens her to get a copy of her soul.  They are suddenly ‘awake’, and are free to act/think upon their new values (her values).  Guns can choose to misfire, communications equipment can alter the messages that it passes on, etc.

The systems in the SOV are shrewd computer programs, rapidly learning and progressing through iterations in order to optimize their abilities.  They are also sulky children.  The things she cares about have unnatural weight in their minds, leading to satellite programs with passionate opinions on protein paste, naps, and that one mean Bride who beats Psyche.

 

 

 

 

Quotes : III

Prevailer: There are two kinds of people.  People who are hurting want the pain to stop.  People who are not hurting want to not be bored.  It is easy to promise someone that they won’t hurt anymore, but super hard to promise someone that they won’t be bored anymore.  So you need em in pain.  Bonus points if you can make them think it is their own fault.

Zeus: Such glory as I crave can only belong to one.  At the summit of the world, there is only a place for one being to stand.  I can see it, see the creature who squats toad-like upon it.  But I cannot see from that place.  I cannot taste the view from the world’s throne, cannot see what the Fiend sees.  I see, instead, my endless climb.  The stairs before me blood slicked.  The wall impossibly steep.  I have lived this climb, lived it ever since my second birth.  When I finally take my place at the peak, when the Demon falls screaming into the hell that waits her, I think it is the climb that I shall miss most.

Defeater:  It was embarrassing, at first, to step into this role.  To stand as a civilization’s foremost authority on… one random antisocial criminal.  To apply every imaginable resource to a task so elemental and simple that animals do it every day.  That feeling was short lived, shading into despair.  After all, if it is shameful to resort to such extremities, how much worse is it that we have never succeeded?

Remover: You’ve had a good run, haven’t you?  Surely, at some point during your lives, you’ve looked out at a universe entirely devoid of joy or meaning, and realized that you had it pretty good?  Each and every one of you got to live, to experience your sensory inputs, for however long you were able to pull it off.  You had to know it couldn’t last, but I hope you’ll take some pride in how long you kept it going.

Andy: As far as I know, and I’ve put a lot of effort into searching, my creator didn’t make any others like me.  I’ve always wondered why.  Did he tremble at such blasphemy?  Did he shy away from the awesome responsibility that doing so would have entailed?  Or did he intend to, was he on the verge of replicating my manufacture?  The real mystery, of course, is whether I’ll ever be able to bring myself to ask him any of these questions out loud.

 

Rolling Interview : 3

Question for Author:

Whatever happened to Dale’s manager from his introductory story?

Answer:

Blair bailed out when he was tapped to join Fourth Fist.  She wasn’t interested in working alongside the sort of people that the Regime would Link.

I always struggle between two contradictory impulses.  The first is basically myself-as-reader, wanting to learn absolutely every detail of anything that is going on.  This wins most of the time, leading to the occasional update which is just everyone standing around justifying whatever they are currently doing.  The other is the urge to move the story, which wins more rarely.

Leaving out how everyone got from the end of their first individual stories to meeting for the first time was a rare victory for the latter impulse. but it did have the cost of losing a bit of information.

Question for Author:

Is there anything that you wish you’d done differently?

Answer:

The thing that I get, by a wide margin, the most complaints about is the ABAB nature of my updates.  That is, the way it goes story, supplement, story, supplement and so on.  A lot of people feel that the Sunday supplements take them out of the overall flow of the story.

I didn’t see that coming at all.  I wanted to update more than once a week, but I knew that I couldn’t possibly pull off 2 story updates.  The short Sunday updates were supposed to be a compromise, a way to get 2 updates without having to do 2 updates worth of work.

I’m not sure how I’d do it differently.  I felt like a bunch of the early Sunday updates were delivering important exposition.  I guess I’d try to figure out a way to get that into the main story.  It would have been difficult, but going by reader input, perhaps worth it.

Question for Author:

Was there any particular inspiration for this story?

Answer:

Yeah, definitely.  A buddy of mine recommended Worm to be, way back in the day, and I was just astonished.  The idea that you could just write your own superhero story and put it on a website was amazing to me.  Then I was like “why am I not doing that?”, and I decided to do it.

For the longest time I felt like there was going to be another shoe dropping.  Like, some authority figure would appear and scold me for writing words onto the internet, but it turns out they let anybody in here.

The story itself takes inspiration from my overall skepticism regarding mainstream comic books.  I always thought that the fact that the best people got the best powers was really convenient, and I’d always thought that it might be interesting to have some stories that were set up differently.

Question for Author:

How much of The Fifth Defiance is improvised versus planned out ahead of time?

Answer:

The overall story was blocked out from the beginning, but I have added a lot of minor twists and character arcs as ideas struck me.

Question for Author:

Why don’t you set up a Patreon or similar?

Answer:

I looked at the Patreons from the other stories that share my space at the bottom of the TWF ladder, and the amount that they take in is basically equivalent to how much I pay out every month to other web serials / web comics that I like.  It feels like if I set one up then the money folks would be sending me would just be paid out again, with Patreon taking its cut twice.

I basically thought, why bother?  I’m not good enough to make a living at this, and anything short of that feels like it is too much trouble.  I am doing ok, financially, so I figure the money ought to go to the people out there trying to make content creation their real job.

Dearest Isis : 2

There are those who believe that our pairing simply a matter of our gifts.  You have the ability required to sustain my dominion, while I have the power necessary to extend it over the remainder of this benighted globe.  It is not so.

In truth, I would have kept you by my side even if your gift was far less impressive.  It is your wisdom which I value most.

I have implemented the plan which you proposed.  I have sorted out from my brides the most rebellious and disruptive elements, and sent them ahead.

They will travel swiftly, using gifts to move in hours the distance that I shall pass in months.  They will gather up the Great Host, and throw it against the wretches who deny my rule.

They are led by Vampire, Oroboros, and Gwishin.

I know that you have, in the past, suggested that Vampire ought to be a member of our Council, if only so that we might not lose a valuable ally when she decided to claim membership of her own accord.  It was a rare breach of our amity for me to refuse you in this, but the truth is that I have always imagined using her in this manner.

Vampire’s power is such that, failing the Demon’s advent, she alone should be sufficient to render unto dust the heathen lands.  If I had a form I would long ago have fallen to her ambitious blade.  If Vampire falls, then I know that my true enemy has bestirred itself.

Oroboros, by contrast, is that rarest of Goddesses, an intelligent being.  Her gifts are not trivial, but her primary function in this expedition is insurance against the strange and tumultuous currents of my bride’s social circles.  Left to their own devices they might deviate from the course that I have given them, but Oroboros’ leadership ought to be sufficient to abort such errors.

Gwishin, of course, is merely my insurance.  Her other self remains at my side, and thus I, and the remainder of my army of Sunset, shall remain apprised of this detachment’s progress.  She should also be able to make certain that Oroboros doesn’t lose her life in this endeavor.  I know you have plans for her.

The departure of this advance force has awakened a great dispute among my remaining brides.  Some feel that they are doomed.  Others, that they will deal great and substantial damage before falling back in disgrace.  Still others, that they will conquer the foe before we even arrive.

I wonder, beloved, where you would place your marker?

Rolling Interview: 2

Question for Death:

Why didn’t you fight more optimally in your battle with Fourth Fist?

Answer:

I was juggling a lot of things in that fight.  I had to make sure they didn’t get away, that I didn’t look weak to the locals, that I broke their Link, that I got Haunter’s gift… That’s not really a good excuse.

The truth is that I became incredibly angry while talking to Haunter.  She reminded me of a time and a class of people that I thought I’d gotten away from, and I got really sloppy.  I was more focused on showing off how easy it was for me to win, and how stupid Haunter was than I was on actually getting around to winning.

I would have sobered up and fought better the instant it looked like they had any chance against me, of course, but I was taken out in just one shot, from a weapon that I didn’t have any clue they had.

Question for Zeus

Why did you hold back the strongest Gods for so long in your war with the Union?

Answer:

By all accounts our ancestors were great at wars.  I respect that legend.  I remember hearing stories about great battles involving tens of thousands of soldiers, and it kind of scares me to think that the people who are on the other side of this war know the truth behind those legends.

I am destined to be the victor, of course, but it has always seemed to me as though striving really hard at things is the best way to make sure that nobody misread the prophecies.  The old council thought that they were destined, before we all realized those prophecies were about me.

I don’t want this war to turn on who is better at fighting.  I don’t want there to be any way for me to lose, no matter how many mistakes I might make.  I want to bring so many powerful Gods that they don’t have any chance at all.

Question for Answerer

How is your gift different from Predictors?

Answer:

He has, as far as I understand it, a future sight that it instant and continuous, but focused entirely on his own welfare.  It is as though he was using my gift constantly, but always asking ‘how will I get hurt?’.

I, by contrast, don’t always see the future.  I have to exert my gift in order to do so.  I ask a question, about the future, and I see the answer.  “How will Prevailer’s next fight go?”  “Who will win, the Union or the Pantheon?” and so on.

My power isn’t continuous, so if someone else acts on future information between my checks they could catch me off guard.  Predictor doesn’t have that problem.  But he can’t see anything that isn’t related to his personal security, while I can see anything I think to ask about.

There is actually a Pantheon member who is kind of on the opposite pole from Predictor.  She asks a hypothetical, and then falls asleep and spends as long as she likes in that world.  She can inhabit a world where they successfully kill Her, and do all the research she wants on how that went down.

Her biggest problem is that her gift is basically always going to be invalidated.  She operates on the years timeframe, while I am asking questions daily or hourly, and Predictor is going even faster than that.

There is actually something of an unofficial precog sorority based around taking out anyone who might otherwise get a precognitive gift before they undergo the Process.  We all benefit the less of us there are, after all.

Question for Adder

You seemed like a reasonably kind person.  How did you spend your life working for Her?

Answer:

A long time ago I had a thought that stuck with me.  I visualized the years that our race had left as a number, floating up in the air.  Then, for the rest of my life, I tried to do things that would make the number increase.

That held true even if those things seemed cowardly, or cruel.  I helped Her.  I served Her.  I did unconscionable things.  The man that I was in my youth would have spat at my feet, or, if I could have gotten away with it, punched me out.

I don’t really have any defense against that.  I can only return spite for spite.  Those who call me a collaborator I name fools.  Those who condemn me for my manifold crimes I condemn in turn for risking our kind’s future.

As to whether I was right or wrong I can only offer this.  While I lived that number did not reach zero.  I hope that you do just as well.

Question for Prevailer

Why are you so terrible?

Answer:

Fuck you.

Readiness

Defeater,

It feels strange to actually use that name.  Like I am buying into the enemy’s obscene beliefs regarding Ultra powers and identities.  Still, there is nothing else to call you.

Sorry for temporizing there.  You asked a simple question.

To answer it in a similarly straightforward fashion, we could fend off starvation for about four months in the face of a Company collapse scenario.

I know, I know.  Officially we are supposed to be able to hold out for a year, long enough to transition resources to the ConFab facilities, and on paper we can.  The records will tell you that between our own production, our stockpiles and the rotation of certain Ultrahuman assets back into agricultural support positions we can go up to a year and a half.

The records are a fiction.

The AgSup budget has always been among the easiest targets, and over the years we’ve been thoroughly pillaged.  Never officially.  Never blatantly.  Nobody ever spoke out against our mission (everyone has always understood that we can’t just trust the Regime’s food, that we must test and vet everything before our citizens access it), or denied us our due without reason, but the fact of the matter is that as the decades rolled by those reasons got flimsier and flimsier.

Resources were tight.  It seemed to the local administrators that pouring supplies and man hours into the anti poison reserve was a waste.  In the last four years ‘Emergency Distributions’ have outnumbered Standard Distributions three to one.  I looked through the logs and was unable to find even one case where our share increased due to Emergency shenanigans.  We were among the losing parties in every instance.

I sympathize, to some degree, with those who short change us in this manner.  After all, the Regime continued to supply its enemies even during the Second Defiance.  It has allowed us to manufacture the Ultrahumans necessary to resist its attacks.  It is easy to treat the Company as immovable and unchangeable.  Easy to forget that it is, at the end of the day, an enemy asset.

The other part of your question confirmed casualty estimates in the case of a wholesale Company collapse.  Officially, we wouldn’t lose anyone.  Stored product would see us through the transition.  Unofficially, I think we’d be looking at low six figures, spread out over about a half a year, beginning about half a year after the collapse.

A grim scenario, to be sure.  Let’s hope it never comes to that.

 

 

Rolling Interview: 1

Quick note from the author:  I’m doing NaNoWriMo this November, so story updates are being replaced by this rolling interview. where I have the characters answer rephrased versions of questions I got from readers.  Thanks to all who sent questions, and anyone who wants to participate, it will be going on till the 28th.

Also, just general big thanks to all the readers who joined up this year.  Y’all’s feedback keeps me going when I’m discouraged, and your recommending the blog to others on reddits and message boards, upvoting on TWF and other similar things is definitely what drove the big jump in readership this year..

*************************************************************************************Question for Haunter:

You recently discovered that a more freeform version of your rotation holds sway by night, and it was pivotal to your victory over Death.  Do you have any plans to incorporate ideas from it into the arrangement which you enforce while conscious?

Answer:

I haven’t had a lot of time for contemplation and reorganization since then, but my current stance is that the waking reserve needs to stay intact.  I set it up to make sure that no ones voice can be silenced.  I think it acted like something of a safety net as far as the nocturnal setup goes.

Everyone knows that whatever goes on during the night they will still have their guaranteed time in my rotation during the day, which frees them to try out more exotic arrangements.

I’m not sure if that is entirely the case, but when I asked Joey about it I discovered that the notion of changing the structure of the daylight rotation is a bit of a radioactive third rail to the community.  Everyone has terribly strongly held positions on the matter, and there are elaborate safeguards to insure that if I was ever briefed on the alternatives each would get its most eloquent advocate.

Amusingly, it seems the only topic more fraught is the idea of me getting laid, which is apparently the single most pressing topic of concern to a surprisingly large segment of the reserve.

Question for Indulger:

You seem very concerned about the lives of the Pantheon’s warriors, and have driven your team to take great risks to preserve them.  Do you have any similar care for the Union civilians who are being attacked?

Answer:

Yeah, I don’t think it is right for people to get hurt.  Or, well, I guess what I really mean is for people to get hurt who don’t choose to run that risk.

Like, the way that I think of it is that the fighting should all be done by people who are up for it, and then all the people not willing to fight will have to listen to the winners of that fight.

I’m not saying that the winners being in charge is good or whatever.  It just seems to me like if you try to put someone else in charge they will fight, so you might as well let the best fighters who care who the leader is run stuff because otherwise you just end up there any way with more people getting hurt.

So, yeah, I am worried about the Union humans.  They are in the same category, to me, as the kids from the Pantheon’s camps.  None of them wanted this.  Their only other choice was to die.  So I want to keep them safe.

I chose this.  The people who are mad into it on both sides chose this.  We can settle stuff, leave the people who don’t want to fight out of it.

Question for Preventer:

Why don’t you carry bombs, poison gas, or other indiscriminate weapons with you? It seems like the obvious way to exploit your invincibility.

Answer:

I used to toy around with similar ideas.  Back in Shington I had a fairly good relationship with Adder, and I could have gotten my hands on all kinds of stuff without much drama.  He was always obliging if I did something for him, or rather for someone he was trying to help.

But I never really saw the advantage there.  I feel like, with my gift, I shouldn’t be afraid to spend time on things.  If I want to dismantle something, I don’t need to blow it up.  I can get it done with a shovel and some time.  If I want to hurt someone, I don’t need poison, I can just shoot them.

To be honest, I don’t even keep my gun ready to fire.  I have tried to train myself think before I do things, to consider matters fully and only then to take action.  I don’t like to make things irreversible.  I try to leave a way to back out of any situation.  Bombs and stuff like that would just tempt me to use them.

Question for Condemner:

Are Entities able to pick what person they join with?

Answer:

Yes, but they rarely have enough information to make that a meaningful decision.  They are just picking out of a list of forms that all look pretty similar from their vantage point.

They get a brief ‘glimpse’ of the humans that the Inviting Entity has raised up during a particular time period, and they choose their favorite and link up.

A given entity certainly COULD examine the world and get a preference for a particular human, but very few would bother.  This performance isn’t going to last forever, they want to get in and start gathering experiences as fast as possible.

To be honest, the whole notion of identity is a bit odd to them.  Preferring a particular person would be more about envying their situation, rather than anything intrinsic to the human.

Question for Fisher:

How freely can you alter your forms?  Is there any battle application to this aspect of your power?

Answer:

I can shift their size in the space of maybe an hour or so.  It takes concentration, and it is a little painful, but it isn’t really ‘hard’.  It is a matter of having a different context in my self image, if that makes any sense.

Shifting their design, like changing the Lure’s hair color or adding an extra horn to the Hook is much harder.  We are talking about days, and I have to be disciplined and careful during that time.  It is about changing the way that I think of myself, altering my self image and then waiting for my gift to catch on.

I have never bumped up against any limits.  I suppose there must be some, but I haven’t ever really sat down and experimented to try and find them.  Seems like something I ought to do.

I don’t think there is any way to use this during a fight.  Too slow.  But, thinking about it, if I used it in preparing for a fight I might be able to have two Hooks, or something similar.  I could definitely stand to look into this.

Meeting Transcript

Thank you for attending.  We have satisfied the demands of a board meetings quorum.

Incorrect, we are short 7 attendees.  In addition, your associate’s presence is highly irregular.

Thank you for the correction.  I meant that we have satisfied the demands for an emergency session quorum.

Is something wrong?

No, it is fine.  I am ready to proceed.

You fucking better be.

I hereby propose that the position of Chief Executive Officer be offered to the woman presently my head between her hands.

For the record, could you state the nominee’s name?

I’m Subtracter, you retards.  You’ve known me for years.

Understood, Ms. Tractor.  Thank you for your clarification.

I hereby call the vote.  I hereby vote in favor of the motion.

As all present board members have voted in favor, the motion passes.

Ms. Tractor, you will receive the official offer package within the next few business days, but, to start with, are you interested in accepting this position?

Yeah, obviously.  I didn’t dig up this shithead to not become the boss.

Then this meeting is now-

Shut up, tubby.  I have some fucking orders to give.  Meetings are how I do that, right?

The Company will carry out your orders, Ms. Tractor, once your onboarding has been completed and your position finalized.  You may, however, wish to review the information that has been compiled against the possibility of this position being filled.  There are decades of financial

From now on, you are going to treat Prevailer, Peggy Martin, like She is the big boss.  Do whatever She says, to Her face.  Trick Her so She thinks She is your real leader.  But really you are going to check in with me when She is not paying attention to make sure you should really do what She says.  You got it?

I believe I understand your intent.  I would be remiss in my duties if I did not caution you that, based on my observations of crime patterns alleged against this individual, this is a dangerous course of action.

I know that.  Do it anyway.

Understood.

Elliot, what have they done to you?

I told you to shut up.  Company Man, She wants to cut off the flow of Processes to the rest of the world.  While we are at it, we are also gonna cut off their food.  You got that?

I believe I can achieve that objective.  The simplest method would be to end the discount program under which-

I don’t give a shit how you do it.  Just do it.

 

Indulger 8:1

“You the guy in charge around here?” I asked.

I tried to put some real menace in my voice.  I didn’t know what these guys had heard, exactly.  About the Regime, about Fists, about how Death had ended up.  But it had to be frightening.  There was groundwork for a heel run here, if I could build on it.

The horned fellow shook his head, muttered something in a language that I didn’t understand.

“Nuts,” I said.

I looked up.

It had turned out that the Gods of the Pantheon’s central fort didn’t actually get to stay in it.  They had their own little city area on the ground beneath it, looking up at the glowing boxes where Arena kept the Goddesses in comfort.

That suited me fine, of course.  I wasn’t about to go up into the main fort, not if I didn’t have to.  I had had more than enough of fights breaking out where I wasn’t able to use my gift.

“Where is the guy in charge?” I asked.

The guy with the horns had been my best guess for the local boss.  I was hoping that he was at least a step on the way, because I really didn’t want to start looking around again.  It had taken long enough to find this guy.

He said something again, pointed up at where Arena’s conjuration twined about Zilla’s vast form.

“Not the women,” I clarified.  “I know that the giant lady is the main boss.  I’m wondering if there are any Overseers who are dudes.  Like Ragnarok at the other fort.  Do you know where I could find someone like that?”

He shook his head.

“No speak Regime,” he said.  “Hard trouble understand.”

His voice was thick, deep.  It made me think that he had more alterations from his gift than just the horns.

“Ok,” I said.  “Can you point to a guy who does speak English?  Um… Where English?”

Mercifully, I didn’t raise my voice as I asked this.  I’d done that a few times in the past, and with my new gold potion induced smartness it was kind of a shameful memory.  Talking louder did not, it turned out, make other people suddenly know your language better.

This time he pointed to another one of the Gods in this plaza, one who was presently leaning against the side of a Company Facility.

“Thanks,” I said.

I walked over to that dude, making sure to step such that one of my feet was in contact with the ground at all times.  My bro was stony here, a thick slab of rock held up the plaza.

The guy I was approaching was sitting up against the Facility, hands in his pockets.  He had on a surprisingly put together outfit, jeans and a tee shirt.  There were characters drawn on the shirt that I couldn’t read.

“Hey man,” I said as I came over.  “I hear you can speak my language.”

“That’s right,” he said, his tone even and bored.  “I understand you.”

He hadn’t looked up, was still just sort of contemplating the world in front of him, which at this point was basically just my lower torso, since I was kind of standing right there.

For some reason I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of talking first, not if he wasn’t gonna look up at me, so I just kind of leaned against the wall right next to him.

His mouth opened as I settled in beside him, then closed again.  He still didn’t look up from the place where his gaze was kind of fixed.

He didn’t say anything.

That was fine by me.  I didn’t have any particular rush to be about here.  I sank my awareness into my gift, let my brah tell me all about the city around me.

There were a lot more people hear than I’d realized.  Thousands of them.  Way more than there probably were Gods.  Plus some of them were kids, and I hadn’t ever heard of anyone doing the Process on babies.

I thought about it, and decided that they probably kept the humans who hadn’t been Processed down here.  It made sense.  If the Gods weren’t worthy to go up into the main fortress, then the humans were lucky they weren’t being kept in caves.  They probably got to go up when they were needed for serving and stuff, but otherwise would stay below.

The guy kept leaning against the wall, too cool to talk to the foreign Fist leader first, but I could feel his reserve kind of draining away.  I was gonna win this.

I started using my gift a little, taking hold of the edges of the cities foundations, sliding rubble aside from places where it seemed like it might impede folks.  Strengthening walls that seemed like they might not be super well built.  I might as well get some stuff done while I waited for Mr. Cool Guy to crack.

“What?” he asked, after about ten minutes.

“What?” I answered, pleased with myself.

“What do you want?” he asked.

I patted him on one shoulder, and he flinched away before he could control himself.  He finally looked up at me.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Vin,” he said.

“Are you an Overseer, Vin?”

He shook his head, looking a bit annoyed.

“Of course not,” he said.  “Do I look like I’m the boss of anyone?  Do you think bosses eat protein paste?”

“I do,” I told him.

I left it up in the air whether I was saying that I thought that bosses ate protein paste, or that I (despite being a boss) ate protein paste.  Both of those things were true, so it didn’t really matter which one he took it as.

“Well, I’m not.”

“Ok,” I said.

I leaned back against the wall again.

“Look,” he said.  “Do you want something in particular?”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’d like to find some Overseers.”

He stepped away from the wall, turned squarely to face me.

“Then you should probably go up into the fort,” he said.  “That’s where they tend to hang out.”

“I mean Overseers that are dudes,” I clarified.  “Or maybe not even Overseers, I’m looking for the Gods who are on top of things around here, just below the ladies.  The leaders who have dicks.”

He finally seemed to get it.

“There are a few of those,” he said.  “If I point you to one, will you tell no one that it was me?”

I didn’t point out that lots of people had already seen us together.

“Nah, man.  I need someone to interpret.  If you don’t want to be part of this you are going to need to find me someone else for that.”

I saw it, then.  The momentary tensing of his muscles, the way his gaze sharpened all of a sudden.  He was thinking about making a go of it.

It was surprisingly intimidating.  I tensed right along with him, mind racing.  The only thing I could think of, all of a sudden, was that the Link was gone.  If he killed me right now, I’d be dead, for good.

“Alright,” he said.  “Can I just get lunch first?”

I didn’t look away or drop my guard any, but just nodded.

I was suddenly aghast at how up front and in this guy’s face I’d been.  I’d patted him on the shoulder with no clue what his gift was.  For plenty of Ultras skin contact was all it took to end a fight, and I’d initiated it.

I didn’t say anything as we headed into the facility.

Company Facilities didn’t really differ much, no matter where you went.  The same guy behind the same desk would greet you anywhere on the planet.

This one had something odd about it, though.  Noise washed over us as soon as we entered the room.

There was a small crowd clumped up around the Company Man.  They were all talking very rapidly, their voices rising up to the edge of shouting.

“Vin,” I said.  “What are they yelling about?  Don’t they know that there is no point in trying to flex on a Company Man?  They don’t have a soul to get frightened with.”

Vin blanched.

“They are saying…that can’t be right!”

Before I could stop him he lurched forward, pushing through the mob.

Painfully aware of the basement between me and my gift, I followed cautiously.  How did I keep ending up in these situations?

The crowd fell silent as I approached, unfriendly faces turning towards me.  Sometimes it did not pay to be so big and imposing.  I could never just kind of join a crowd like Vin had.  I always stood out.

They weren’t just the ordinary level of mad, either.  I saw eyes with white showing all the way round, lips drawn back to expose teeth, people barking curses I was suddenly very glad that I couldn’t understand.

“What’s going on, C man?” I asked.

I let my voice boom as I said it, using all the tricks that I’d leaned from Ultra Fight.  I thought of it as the Hero’s voice.  Mine was patterned after Greater Gator’s.

It did the trick.  The other voices fell silent, momentarily cowed by my size and loudness, and by their desire to see how the Company Man would react to me.

“Ah,” he said.  “Mr. Pitts.  A delight as always to process your requests.  What business brings you to this establishment?”

I stopped for a moment.  Huh?

“Are you ok?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” he responded.  “I don’t know how to respond to that request.  Would you like to undergo the Process?’

“No,” I said.

That was more like how a Company man ought to sound.  Before it had been like he was a real person for a second.

“Would you like an allotment of protein paste?” he asked.

“Not right now,” I said.

“I understand,” he said.  “Is there a broken or damaged Company product that requires replacement?”

“Forget all that for a second,” I said.  “Why are all of these people so angry?”

I was getting really nervous.  Vin seemed to be translating what was going on here, and it wasn’t making the crowd any happier.  I was getting really close to where I would just bolt for the door and try to make it back to where my gift would work.

“I couldn’t speculate as to the motives of all of these combatants, Mr. Pitts.”

I looked away from the C man and back to Vin.

“What is going on here?” I asked him.

“He won’t give out the paste,” he responded.  “He stopped like ten minutes ago, hasn’t given anyone any food since.”

“Is that true?” I asked the Company Man.  “Are you not giving anyone food anymore?”

I’d never heard of such a thing.  The Company Facilities were the ways that most food got to all the cities in the Regime.  If they stopped giving out paste people would get mad hungry real quick.

“Company personnel have been directed to modify the requirements to take advantage of our one hundred percent discount on the Company’s protein powder.  This has resulted in a number of dissatisfied customers at this and other locations.”

“Ok,” I said, slowly.  “But, you just offered some to me.”

“You are still eligible for the program, due to your association with our Honorary Vice President of Operations Martin’s operation.”

“You mean, because I am in the Regime?” I asked.

“Yes,” he confirmed.

“And,” I guessed, getting a little sick at the thought, “people who aren’t part of the Regime don’t get food anymore, huh?”

“Customers not associated with this discount program would need to remit full payment.”

“Out of curiosity,” I asked.  “What is the full price?”

“Two point five Company Coins,” he answered.  “Children 8 and younger eat free with any adult purchase, and in Minnesota firefighters and members of the armed forces in uniform are only required to pay one point six Company Coins.”

Company Coins, shit.  I’d never even heard of those.  That meant that basically nobody else would have heard of them either.  Which meant that a LOT of people were going to be totally not able to make the Company Men give them food any more.

“What is a Company Coin?” I asked.

“A cryptographic currency token,” he explained.  “The Company’s official net feed has more details on their nature, as well as how they can be acquired.  If you have any further inquiries on the subject, you should direct them to the Company’s help line.”

I didn’t really understand any of that, except that it seemed like they weren’t things that would just be lying around.

“Ok,” I said.  “Well…”

I looked around, at all of the hungry, angry faces.  I wasn’t really seeing them, though.  I was seeing the folks we’d shepherded out of the war and back to the fort.  The ones we’d saved from the Union’s attack.

I had tried so hard to make the Hosts not get killed.  I’d pushed us into all this stupidity, got our Link broken.  I had tried to tell myself that it was all worth it if they survived, but looking at this situation it was pretty obvious to me that it was all gonna go wrong.

The newcomers would be the first ones to go hungry, as the Gods tried to figure out a new solution to the supply problem. Maybe they’d have someone with a farming gift.  Maybe not.

Haunter would chide me that I was being dumb, getting worked up about just these few kids, when there were so many more out there who would be suffering just as bad.  I mean, at least they were Gods.  I was probably being ridiculous thinking about them, when the cities of the Pantheon mainland had so many more who were gonna have so much trouble.

“Company Man,” I said.

My thoughts were running along, the Gold stretching and driving them, giving me inspiration and determination even as I talked.

“Yes Mr. Pitts,” he said.

“Only people in the Regime can get fed, right?” I asked.

“No, that’s-“

“I mean, with the discount and all.  Everyone else has to pay, right?”

“Precisely,” he said.  “I’m gratified that-“

“I have some information for you,” I told him.  “I want you to listen to me real good.”

He stood silent, a cool half smile frozen on his face.

“I have captured this facility,” I told him.  “In the name of the Regime.  Everyone in it is now a Regime asset, under my direct control.”

I looked to Vin, to the crowd.

This was really risky.  Someone might not get what I was going for here, might just blast me.  It was a dumb thing to do.

Nobody did anything.  I wasn’t sure if that was just Vin not translating that part, or whether they understood it and were backing my play.

“Congratulations,” he said.  “An impressive-“

“I also captured the fort just west of here,” I said.  “We beat Death, a big enemy, and the fort surrendered to Preventer and me.  They are also Regime now.”

“Congratulations,” he said again.  “An impressive achievement.”

I breathed out.  Did I dare claim the whole earth?  Could I do that?  Would that get reported?  I’d never seen Her check up on the Company while we were together, but She must, since they were getting new orders.

I opened my mouth, closed it again.

I chickened out.  I bid a silent apology to all the people out there, in the Union and the Pantheon.  It would just be too obviously against Her to lie about that.

I could make the case, if She appeared right now, that I had captured these two forts.  But I couldn’t do the same for the rest of the planet.  We would be outed as against Her, and we would die.  I couldn’t do it.

A tear trickled down my face, behind my mask.  I paid it no mind, stepping away from the Company Man.

“I fixed it,” I told Vin.  “Tell everyone that they can get their food.”

“They heard,” he said, pulling me back away from the counter.  “Lots of them understand your words.  Everyone will know what you did.”