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?


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?


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.


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?


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?


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.


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.”

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.