“You want me to believe,” she said, “that you are trying to aid the Union?”
I looked over to Aesop and Patra, nodded politely in response to another of their conversational sallies.
“Obviously,” I responded.
“Then why didn’t you defect?” she charged. “Why are you in the Regime, working for Prevailer? Are you going to pretend that there has never been a moment, not in all your long life, where you could slip away and join us?”
I thought about a few answers to this. About how every time we ran into the Union we had encountered hostility, or about how their presence in the Regime’s lands was limited to drone strikes and special forces.
“Because I could do more good from the inside than I could as one more soldier in the Union, of course,” was what I ended up going with.
“Really? And what good have you actually done?” she came back with.
This was essentially what I’d been expecting, but that didn’t mean that she was predictable or dumb. The world’s greatest mathematician would tell you that 2+2 was four, after all.
“I helped Kill Every Monster get rid of Linker and Snitcher,” I told her. “Which is the only reason a Fist can get as far off the reservation as we presently are. It also means that other traitors have a free hand, and that She can’t remake the Fists if any should fall.”
I wasn’t going to tell her that our Link had already been broken, not yet, but basically everything else was going to be on the table. I needed General Greggs on my side for any of this to work.
“I know that Snitcher died…” she said, slowly. “I’ve seen no evidence that the Links are gone, however.”
I gave a wry smile, knowing that she’d feel my face forming it as though it were her own, which would have much the same influence as seeing it.
“His works outlived him, we’ve discovered. Much to my chagrin, and much to my benefit.”
“You’d have me believe that you intended to lose your Link?” she charged. “That you’d throw aside immortality?”
I nodded to myself.
Repeating ‘Obviously’ would have been lazy, and it would have reinforced the notion of her versus me. I needed us on the same side, which meant the less calling attention to correcting her I had to do the better.
“Tell me about the shells,” I asked Aesop, taking a break from my internal conversation to let the General regroup for another round.
She brightened immediately, happy to talk about her specialty.
“I make em,” she said, proudly, “Just wave my hand and conjure them. They are simple life forms, just sit there and eat the stuff that touches them. My name came from the fact that there was an old time God that did something like that.”
I couldn’t even begin to imagine how that interepretation had come about, but it wasn’t something I immediately needed to pursue.
Instead, I looked over to Patra.
“And your gift…” I prompted her.
“I can change minds and bodies,” she told me. “So I warp the shells into fighting forms, give them the instincts that they need to battle. I base most of them on animals, like dogs or stuff. Four legs, sharp front part, bit reflex. Most of the work is done.”
“Delightful!” I responded. “I can see why you two are held in such high esteem. Zilla’s praise is well deserved, I dare say.”
They both preened a bit under my flattery, but mostly I was just putting the ‘I talk with Zilla’ seed down. I wasn’t sure who knew that she was dead, and the longer I could borrow her authority the better.
“And what is your gift, dear?” asked Aesop. “What impressed Vampire enough that she sent you to work with us?”
I bowed my head modestly.
“I can capture minds from humans, put them to work on my behalf. It’s a trite trick, I know, but it should keep you from having to do most of the mind work, Patra.”
They fell over themselves to reassure me that my gift was no mere trick, that it sounded like a great thing indeed to them, and that it would be a welcome respite from their labors.
Their dynamic wasn’t hard to suss out. They bragged backwards was all, performative humility in order to avoid the status games of the more combative Goddesses. It probably helped them avoid some degree of harm in an environment where the Brides were utterly overturning the status quo.
“Have you ever tried actual dogs?” I asked. “Human sized brains or what have you, but things that look basically like dogs?”
They looked puzzled.
“Would that be very scary?” asked Patra. “I usually make like bone wolves or things that look kind of like crocodiles but are always on fire. Even those mostly just get blown up. I don’t think basic dogs will be frightening at all to the Union.”
I put a finger to my lip in a conspiratorial manner.
“Exactly!” I said, “I knew you two would see the possibilities. I’m impressed you got it so fast.”
They both laughed softly, awkwardly.
Letting them let me think they knew what I meant was an element of conspiracy between us, one that would build trust. It would make them less suspicious of me, since they’d ‘fooled’ me once already.
“As you’ve pointed out,” I continued. “They won’t fear these creatures. We can use these false dogs to scout around and spy on them. Everyone loves dogs, and I’ve seen enough of them running around to know that they are one of the more common forms of wildlife. It will be a great trick to play on the Union, they’ll never suspect something that doesn’t look strong to be a part of the Pantheon!”
They nodded along, with Aesop emitting another chuckle.
“You are going to put me in a dog?” asked the General, her tone somewhere between horrified and intrigued.
“Would you prefer a crocodile man?” I answered, “But ultimately, no. I’m hoping that by the time we send you out I’ve worked them around to ‘human body’, with the idea that these people shaped shells will be the best for infiltration.”
It might have been my imagination, but it felt like the silence this time had a more measured texture to it. Like she pondering instead of fuming.
“Earlier,” she eventually said, “You talked about an apocalypse, about the end times. Could you give me some more details on why you’ve come to believe that?”
I gave a broad grin.
“A consequentialist decision,” I responded, “It is valuable to you to know why I am taking the actions that I am, regardless of whether or not you ultimately decide to believe me. I praise both your choice, and the spirit in which it was made.”
She didn’t say anything in response to this, so I gathered myself up and went on with the pitch.
“Condemner, one of the members of my Fist, has become sensitive to matters beyond our world. All Ultras are in contact with beings of a higher, or lower, or whatever reality. That’s where our gifts come from, these ‘more real’ beings. Most of them are unconscious within us, supplying us gifts in exchange for memories, but his was jogged to wakefulness by the repeated deaths and resurrections that are entailed in Fist work.”
I paused again, chuckling along to one of Aesop’s interminable jokes as I considered how to phrase the next part.
“I get that that sounds crazy, the idea that my Fist would be the first to discover this, but it is less unreasonable if you consider that the number of Ultras susceptible to being woken like this is a terribly low fraction of the total, and that their number are disproportionately male. If their numbers are one or two percent, then it is easy to think that the six Fists before us might not have had one, or might have covered it up.”
“I believe you,” she said. “Or at least, I believe that you believe this. Go one.”
“If you’ve accepted this much, then the rest is easy. These angels or outsiders or whatever you want to call them, they aren’t going to continue forever. Remover, of First Fist, is trying to make them all end their game by killing all the human hosts. If she fails to do that then she’ll take action in their reality, probably, and that will be the end of the Ultras.”
”What do you mean?” she asked, immediately. “Can you clarify at all?”
I shook my head slowly, working it into the ongoing conversation I was having in the real world.
“I believe that there will be no grand changes to the status quo until after Remover succeeds or fails with her plan. I believe that what we are living through right now is that plan. I intend to thwart it. But as to what comes next…”
”It might be that the Ultrahumans simply lose our gifts, as the beings that granted them are woken up and pulled away from their game. It might be that we will die, as we are damaged or destroyed by whatever process is used to remove the entity granting our gifts. It might even be that nothing like that happens, and they simply stop powering the Process and let the existing Ultras finish up naturally, however many years that takes. The only thing I’ve grasped is that from their side things will end. It isn’t clear exactly how that plays out for us, in the scenario where there are still any of us around.”
She was silent for a long while. I busied myself with small talk and chit chat, working to ingratiate myself into Aesop and Patra’s dynamic.
“So you think Remover’s plan is the war,” she said, eventually, “And the ensuing devastation. You are working to help the Union win the war, and expect that after we do so the Ultra problem will just solve itself?”
I couldn’t help myself, an actual chuckle burst out of my lips.
Tribalism was almighty. Even to someone like the general, even after what I’d just said, it was so hard to put those lenses aside.
“The Union can’t win the war,” I told her plainly. “It is manifestly impossible. I’m hoping to make the devastation a little less intense, then head back to the Regime and defeat First Fist.”
“The hell we can’t!” she snarled back, instantly. “Just because my force lost doesn’t mean that the next battle will go the same way. The Intervention Groups were just a small portion of our Union’s total strength.”
I had the momentary thought that we’d come a long way from name, rank and serial number if she was willing to brag about Union strengths, but it didn’t seem useful to vocalize.
“You might beat Vampire,” I allowed. “As you said, there will be a lot more Union troops in the next battle, and you’ve gathered a lot of data on them besides. But Zeus is coming along after them. Zeus, and nine hundred more Brides.”
It had been one of the first things we’d picked up on our way through the camps. The true number of the Brides was an overwhelming thousand.
She fell silent yet again. I suspect that she’d known, on some level, about the Brides. Scout reports or whatever, they’d be available to a commander of her rank. But she likely hadn’t thought about it since she’d actually seen them on the field, actually witnessed them shredding their enemies without any difficulty.
“So why are you helping us at all?” she asked. “Why bother with this current effort, if you think the only thing that matters is taking out First Fist?”
It was a fair point.
“I’m hedging my bets,” I said. “I’m going to try my very best to get those people in my reserve, you among them, who can make a difference after the end of the Ultras off here. Get you hidden in the countryside, a little egg of civilization. Then I’m going overseas to take her on.”
She kept at me.
“But if you expect to beat her, then why-“
I cut her off.
“I don’t. At all. The odds are miniscule.”
Once again I’d stunned her into silence. It wasn’t easy to change your perceptions of people, most people couldn’t do it at all, but I was hoping that’s what she was doing right now. I was certainly doing the best I could to prompt it.
“Why couldn’t you win?” she asked. “You are both Fists, right?”
I grinned ruefully.
“The world has danced to her tune for most of my life. When she started she was a tiny figure among billions, now we die in droves while she and her crew slack off. She’s got something. Maybe precognition from being an awoken outsider. Maybe some hidden gift that no one knows about, but she is just too successful for there not to be an X factor. I expect we’ll be stopped somehow.”
She floundered a bit.
“Like I said at the start,” I responded, “I’m a consequentialist. I’m doing the best I can to bring about a future where there are living human beings. If I’m right, and Remover is unstoppable, then it doesn’t matter what I do, so I might as well proceed on the assumption that I’m not right about that. This ‘lifeboat’ scheme of mine, passing humans from the past into the present in the hopes that they’ll restart civilization after the Ultras are gone, it is one try. Attacking First Fist is another try. I’m going for both . I don’t think that either is likely to work, but I think the union of these efforts give me better odds than either one alone, or of anything else I’ve thought of so far.”
She digested that for a moment, I heard her start and stop a few sentences before they could get to the comprehensible level, a process just this side of stuttering.
“Ok,” she said, “So as far as I am concerned, what you want from me is to try and get your passengers, myself among them, safely into the Union’s embrace and keep us alive through what comes next?”
I tapped my fingers against one another, a gesture that was supposed to mime applause but ended up actually resembling a villainous finger steeple.
“Exactly,” I responded, “Keep them and yourself away from anything military if you must, that’s fine. Nothing I’m asking from you could possibly hurt the Union. I’m just hoping you can think of a way to get my shades past drones and snipers and out of the battle. You keep them alive and I’ll do my best to slow down or stop Vampire. That’s the best that you can do for your country right now.”
“And after?” she asked. “You are going to want transportation back to the Regime? You are counting on me to arrange that?”
“It would be nice,” I allowed, “But if you can’t swing it that isn’t a deal breaker. There isn’t really a ‘deal’ at all. I’m going to do what I think is right regardless, but I’m strongly hoping that you will take a new body as a ‘sorry I killed you’ gesture, and not hold any resentment you might have towards me against the others you’ll be trying to save. All I need from you is your best effort to protect the shades in my keeping that I embody with you, and for you to do your best to keep them and yourself alive through whatever comes next.”
A final silence, perhaps the longest of the conversation. I had time to go back and forth with Patra a few times, they were getting ready to start another monster up.
“I think,” she finally said, “That I can do a little better than that.”