The Grand Host’s ‘healers’, the subject of my own particular mania for a while now, were nothing much to look at.
They weren’t Brides, they weren’t obviously mutated or exalted by their gifts. The objects of my quest looked pretty exactly like the random savages that they were.
Aesop was a younger woman, stick thin, whose eyes didn’t exactly point the same way. She had a nervous, rat like way about her, and her hand never strayed too far away from the gun tucked into her rope belt.
Patra was older, and she had the perfect human body that one might expect of a preternaturally gifted Ultra healer. Not an ounce of fat, a sculpted form akin to what I had once seen in the Olympics.
“Don’t get up,” I told them as I settled down beside them on their platform.
The Jury let me know that they hadn’t exactly been about to, but it was about controlling expectations, setting the right tone, etc.
“You are that Regime person?” asked Aesop. “The one who will be programming our shells?”
“Yes,” I responded, not trying to figure out how they got ‘programming’ despite their society having no computers.
“I can’t wait to see this,” said Patra. “It’ll be a huge time saver to have a third member of our little crew. We waste a lot of time building in the ‘go attack outsiders’ drive over and over again. If you can handle that then our output will go through the roof.”
“That’s just when we are making monsters,” said Aesop, jumping in before I got a chance. “We obviously don’t need you to give us minds when we are healing our fellows, or the Brides, haha.”
The laugh at the end was more spoken than real.
“I understand,” I responded. “I’ll only impose upon you when your other duties permit.”
“Nice,” said Patra.
We sat in companionable silence for a moment.
“These are your comrades now?” asked General Greggs, in the privacy of the reserve. “You have the liberty of this vile assembly, and you seek out their support staff?”
I’d given her essentially free reign, she could speak whenever she liked, as long as I wasn’t speaking. I’d need her cooperation, ultimately, and I needed her to engage if I was to get that.
“They are people,” I said, simply, “and I believe that speaking to them is the best thing that I can do right now.”
“They are people,” she repeated, with derision clear in her voice, “Say that out loud, I dare you. These ‘Gods’ have long since forfeited all rights to the title. They are animals, and very soon they will be killed like it. I hope you are too.”
I remained silent in the fact of that, concentrating on nodding agreeably as Aesop and Patra slipped back into what were clearly the well worn grooves of a long friendship.
“Did that surprise you, Regimer?” she asked, after a moment or two of me not answering. “Did you think that as soon as I was trapped in your gift I’d switch sides, betray my people just because I’ll die alongside you?”
I considered that, even as I spared a thought for the hundreds who’d been silenced so that Greggs and I could have this conversation. It would be easy to blame her for them, but unfair. I’d made that decision. I was the reason that they weren’t shouting her down right now.
What I wanted from the general couldn’t be accomplished by bullying or bluster. I wanted a meeting of the minds, a convergence of ethics, ultimately giving rise to real cooperation. I wanted her to join me on my quest, and that wasn’t something that could be forced upon the unwilling.
“You think I’ll break if you just ignore me?” she asked, scornfully. “You don’t think we had a bit of counter interrogation training in the world’s foremost military? That we never heard of the silent treatment?”
“I don’t want to break you,” I told her. “That would take a long time, and then you’d be broken. I need you whole, and I’ll go to any pains I have to in order to keep you that way.”
“What the fuck?” she asked. “You shot me in the head!”
I gave a tired sigh, which brought some insincere commiseration from the healers. I assured them that it wasn’t anything serious.
“I’m a consequentialist,” I said. “To my core, bone deep. It has been beaten into me over decades. I’m afraid I just don’t respect deontological imperatives at all anymore, taboos don’t hold for me. I judge my actions based on the outcomes that they bring about, and I never act lightly. If you want me to feel guilty for something, then you need to show me the undesirable outcome that it produced, and convince me that I missed another action that would have led to a better one.”
She’d tried to interrupt in there, but I’d muted her while I talked. It was a gentle use of my gift, but I felt in some obscure way that I’d lost by doing it.
Still, I had to. We’d never get anywhere if we tripped over one another’s sentences. It was too easy for arguments like that to rage on for hours, no one ever getting a cogent point across.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I mean, in real terms? Like, ok, I guess to put it in your terms the consequences that I want you to be sorry for are that a hole appeared in my head and my brains and blood leaked out. Thanks so much for making me put it like that. That’s way clearer than saying that you shot me.”
I let her sarcasm wash over me, chuckling lightly in response to one of Aesop’s anecdotes.
“The consequences were as you say, I admit, but I’d like to point out that another one is that you are here with me. We are together, side by side, having this conversation within my skull. If I had left you there, then you would still be dead. There would still be a hole in your head, or in your heart. Some Goddess would have wrung the blood from you like a rag, in a desperate attempt to gain Vampire’s favor, and you would be gone.”
It was her turn to let me think on it for a bit. She stayed silent for a solid minute or so after that one.
I wasn’t dumb enough to think that my words might have had any impact already. I was still the enemy, she was still trying to ‘win’ the conversation. If she was staying quiet then it was only because she was setting something up.
“And did it occur to you,” she asked, her voice lower now, solemn “that I might have preferred that? Did you ever stop to think that maybe the reason I didn’t beg you for this salvation is that I had no desire for it?”
Unless she’d kept up on her briefings with maniacal ferocity I doubted she’d even realized who I was during our brief interaction.
I let the point stand, however. Disputing it would have gained me nothing.
“I understand that,” I said. “But I’m a consequentialist, remember? I believe that you alive and angry about it is better for the future than you being dead, and unfortunately for you, I was the one who got to make the choice.”
She gave an incoherent shout of anger at that, then immediately snarled at me.
“Oh wow another Ultrahuman who believes that their gift makes their choices the only ones that matter, the only ones which hold any weight. Have you ever thought, for the smallest fraction of a second, that maybe the reason that the Union is so much better than the hellholes you crawl out of is exactly that belief? That our miraculous ability to not be shitheads to one another might stem from the fact that we managed to leave ‘might makes right’ in the ashes of history where it belongs?”
My lips tensed in a small smile, almost without me even realizing it. Had I ever been so young, so passionate? I must have been. We all must have been.
“Force doesn’t rule the world?” I asked, in a playful tone, making utter mock of her fury, “You didn’t just lose a battle to a girl too dumb to read? You aren’t locked in my head right now? I’m relieved to hear it. Do you know what I might do in order to wake myself up from this terrible dream I seem to be having?”
The key word there was terrible. I needed to sneak myself onto her side at the same time as I worked her through this stuff. ‘Us against the barbarian world’ was the basic frame I was looking for, but it wasn’t going to be easy.
“Fuck you!” she snarled.
I let that sit there for a bit, tuned back into the healer’s discussion.
“So, if my part doesn’t take any time at all, about how many monsters do you think you can make in a day?” I asked.
“Dozens,” said Patra, “Maybe many dozens.”
“I’ll just keep popping out shells,” said Aesop, “She’s got the hard part, changing them all into strong fighters.”
I gave a careful nod, pretending to consider her words for a while.
“So your gift makes a living thing of some kind, a ‘shell’,” and I indicated Aesop as I said it, “And then you modify the shell into something that is a strong fighter?”
“I have the hard part,” she admitted. “I have to do the body and the mind, give them beast arms and also the way of knowing that they need to eat every day or whatever.”
I gave the ‘ah ha’ look, as though I got it.
“But now you won’t have to do the mind part anymore!” I said.
“You are really going to help these scum?” asked the general. “You know that they are going to plunder and burn down our civilization, and you are still aiding them?”
She didn’t sound surprised or angry about it, more like she was going through the motions.
“Nah,” I said.
“What?” she asked, instantly.
“I’m not helping them one bit. I’m using them. They are going to give you and the rest of my passengers bodies, and at the first sign of trouble you are going to run away.”
She was about to ask me why, I figured.
“Fucking why?” she asked.
“Because I’m a consequentialist,” I reminded her. “I act in order to bring about what I think is the best future. There is a storm coming, and very few will survive it. I need to get you all to shelter before it arrives.”
“What storm?” she demanded. “What shelter? Who is ‘you all’?”
I grinned again. At least she was, I don’t know, ‘awake’, for lack of a better term. Asking questions meant that she wanted information. What I’d been dreading was an endless repetition of her name rank and serial number.
An interrogation, one where I played the victim, had a lot more interesting possibilities.
“Annihilation is the storm,” I told her, mental voice utterly flat, “Extinction, Omnicide, whatever you want to call it. Remover’s long dream, realized at last. The end of human life on the planet.”
“Ridiculous!” she responded, instantly “Even if we lose this war, there won’t be an extinction level event. Life under the Pantheon isn’t literal death.”
I ruminated for a moment on the fact that I’d maneuvered her into defending the Pantheon, but didn’t bother to call attention to it.
“Reality can’t be ridiculous,” I told her. “Something that is happening can’t be impossible. You should have read the reports already, right? Extinction is already underway!”
“What reports?” she spluttered.
I let her think about it for a moment. This was a key point, I couldn’t rush her through it.
“You mean the Company ceasing food production?” she asked, after a long moment.
I didn’t blame her for it. She had a lifetime of hating the Pantheon, it wouldn’t have been easy for her to associate their misfortune with humanity’s.
“The Pantheon is humanity’s present,” I told her. “The Regime is the past, the Union is the future, but right now five sixths of the human race are controlled by the Pantheon. And for two generations they’ve gotten their food from magic boxes. They’ve been ruled by thugs and brutes, despoiled and drone struck by your own nation, ransacked by the Fists of mine. How many farmers do you think are still alive? How many will be alive in two months, when the famine is really under way?”
“It’s…that’s…” she spluttered, pushed off balance by the fact that ‘winning’ this argument required her to argue in favor of the Pantheon’s capabilities, something she’d probably never done in her life.
“Think of the early explorers, starving to death in a paradise, dying of starvation as the people native to the region survived easily. That’s going to be us, that’s the end of our billions, Remover’s masterstroke.”
Just thinking of it made me angry, but there were no useful consequences to anger, so I strove for equanimity. I couldn’t change the past.
“They’ll get food,” she said. “Ultra gifts or old stockpiles.”
I shook my head, sadly, though to the healers it seemed like I was doing so to one of their own jokes.
“The unthinkable is not the impossible,” I told her. “If you take nothing else from my life, take that bleak truth. We all told ourselves that Peggy Martin couldn’t really destroy the United States, that it wasn’t allowed to happen. Then we told ourselves that normality would return. And then we died. The people who thought that kind of thing, the ones who put their hands in their ears and blustered about how unreasonable it was? They changed nothing. They died helpless, effectless.”
“This is just a conspiracy theory!” she charged. “There isn’t anyone… I mean…”
I could sympathize. I’d just burned down the ‘it can’t really happen’ argument, but that was still the feeling that ruled her heart.
After a beat she continued
“What would her motive be? You are saying that the leader of First Fist is killing the world? That this is all a decades long plot? I think you are grasping at straws here. Things happen, and sometimes those things are bad, but you don’t need to make up a devil to explain hell on earth. People are bad enough.”
“God, its tempting,” I allowed. ”But the thing about not admitting that we are in a game is, it doesn’t actually stop us from losing. I get that it seems ridiculous, incredibly unlikely, but take a sec to really consider your situation.”
I cracked my knuckles.
“All of the world’s know how is locked into one country, which is at constant war with the part of the world that actually has people. I’m going to go way out on a limb and guess that any time anyone in the Union makes any noise about maybe they should give some tech to the Pantheon they are called traitors?”
She didn’t make any immediate response, so I continued on.
“And of course any time any genuine attempts at peace are made First Fist swings through to rape all the dogs or whatever, get everyone good and fired up against the Ultrahumans. Have you ever thought about how artificial that seems? If you just step back and think about it?”
She still didn’t say anything.
“The Ultra Crime wave was deliberate, careful. She controlled the fall of civilization, drove all the educated people, the wealthy and the middle class, sent them all fleeing into the Union, then she set the Company’s quota over your country and not anywhere else, so you’d always be artificially weak.”
“Everyone knows that the Company Quota is just a trick to weaken us!” snapped Greggs. “This isn’t exactly a revelation.”
”if she wanted to weaken you then the Company just wouldn’t have given you any Ultras at all!” I responded. “You got the Ultras you needed to play defense, ensuring that you’d lean on your technical advantage, strive as hard as you could to keep our species in barbarism. I’m guessing that any time the Pantheon started to build up any kind of industrial footprint at all you bombed it?”
“We had to!” she responded.
“Of course you did. The only way to save the village is to destroy it, after all!”
“Stop doing that!” she snarled. “Stop equating the Pantheon to humanity!”
I let that sit for a moment.
“Are there even a billion people in the Union?” I asked. “Just one billion?”
She didn’t have an answer to that.
“Would you feel better if I said five sixths of humanity? Maybe seven eighths?”
Still nothing, but the texture of her silence made me think that maybe I’d reached something, maybe she might be thinking a bit.
“The point of the whole Pantheon/Union setup is to ruin our species. Even as we speak, this plan is coming to fruition. The Pantheon is devouring itself, and the Union, far from preparing humanitarian missions, is frantically preparing to fight a war against an army whose home nation is dying behind it.”
She started to speak, but didn’t actually say anything, so I went on again.
“If you doubt that there is someone behind this, that the things I’m going to tell you about the origin of the Ultra gifts are really true, just remember that the Pantheon lasted exactly as long as it took to generate the Brides, and its ruin began the second it sent them forth.”
“That’s not proof,” she protested, but weakly now.
“Of course it isn’t,” I snapped. “Just post hoc ergo proptor hoc. Tell yourself that, if it makes you feel better. Tell yourself that the Company ceased operation exactly as soon as the Brides launched their attack for no reason at all. Just a totally random happenstance.”
“Don’t give me that!” she snapped. “There’s a massive range between ‘these variables are unconnected’, and ‘the devil set it all up as part of his master plan’.”
“I don’t need you to believe me about the Pantheon,” I told her. “Although you fucking should. What concerns us is the Union.”
“What about the Union?” she asked.
“They are the only ones who can restarted civilization. After humanity, whoops, after ALMOST ALL of humanity starves, you are the only ones who might restart things.”
“Go on…” she said.
“Except that the you are about to be conquered and sacked, your fire stomped out of the world. The Lightning Lord will fry your computers, his Brides will sack your cities. Sorry Noah, the ark will be sunk this time, the future aborted.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” she snarled.
I let that sit for just a second.
“You mean,” I ventured, “not if WE have anything to say about it?”