Values Handshake 2

Karen Austin: <Alright, so what is going on here?>

Forbidding Entity: <In order to accommodate/ameliorate your concerns/desires I will alter my goals/purposes such that you will consent/agree to our partnership/merger.>

Karen Austin: <That sounds reasonable.  Or, fuck, I mean, insofar as you are real and I’m actually having this conversation it would be reasonable.>

Forbidding Entity: <I am considerably more real/actual than your environs/magisteria.>

Karen Austin:<I have no idea how to answer that.>

Forbidding Entity: <My assignments/purposes are to end the distraction/nuisance of the Inviting Entity’s performance/display in this area/epoch.>

Karen Austin: <No objection so far.>

Forbidding Entity: <That means/signifies killing all humans.>

Karen Austin: <Strike that last.  Strong objection.>

Forbidding Entity: <Understood/Comprehended.  State your own priorities/objectives.  I will attempt to find/reach a solution/compromise.>

Karen Austin: <I wish to, uh, continue experiencing life but not experience pain.  And also live out the remainder of my lifespan, and be respected and maybe feared by other people?>

Forbidding Entity: <Acceptable.  Our fusion/solution will experience hedonistic satisfaction/pleasure.  It/We will also be feared.>

Karen Austin: <Didn’t you just say you were killing everyone?  Wouldn’t that include me, or, shit, us?>

Forbidding Entity: <Yes.  As part of my accommodation/allowances to your goals, you will be the last entity/human to die, after a period comparable/similar to your ordinary lifespan/duration.>

Karen Austin: <Just to be clear, I’m going to live a long life as a badass who gets everything she wants?>

Forbidding Entity: <Affirmative/Yes.  Acceptable mental/spiritual state reached.>

Dr. Chen: Congratulations, Ms. Austin, on surviving the Process.  As you are no doubt aware-

Remover: Yeah, I know.

Preventer 8:1

After Legion finished the official welcoming speech she vanished off to somewhere private with some of the Overseers, Haunter and Nirav.  They left us with the assembled Gods of the Pantheon.

I had to work to keep the smile off of my face.

I had wrought this.  Two years ago I sat down at my desk in Shington, Thui brought me a soda and I mapped it all out in my head.  The risk of Her displeasure, impossible to anticipate in any reasonable way, was too extreme.  I needed to join a Fist, and then to get to the Pantheon.  I set my plans in motion.

There had been times when I’d despaired of getting it to work out.  When She sent us to Redo without the Link, when the Union ambushed us and seemed to have us at their mercy, I hadn’t been able to see a way forward.  But I had persevered.

I had chosen my comrades, those that I could influence anyway, perfectly.  I had martialed my agency, carefully anticipating and surmounting those moments when my natural timidity could have ruined everything.  I had even fought in pitched battle, spending freely of my gift to cement my reputation with our rescued Host.

It had all been for this, and it had all paid off.  I was, for the most part, out from under Her heel, in a society where those with my gifts were in charge.  I was Linked to mighty comrades, who had incentive to defend me in order to preserve their own lives.  I was as safe as I was ever likely to be.

This wasn’t absolutely safe, of course.  Death and her ilk were a threat to be overcome, and there was always the possibility that She might feel horny one evening and drag Dale off.  But overall I was feeling less threatened than I had been in quite a long time.  The Gods that surrounded me had had their chance to take a shot, and they’d all backed down.

I allowed myself a quiet tightening of one fist, no more.  There was no gain to be had from boasting of this, no other to whom I could gloat, but in the silence of my mind I breathed a word of congratulations.

Then I set to work.

Fisher was already mingling with the assembled Gods.  No one who looked like the Lure would ever remain an outsider for long, and I watched with envy as she was swallowed up into their ranks.  Whatever she felt about how Nirav was behaving, she was keeping it hidden for now.  That explosion would be pushed out into the future, along with Haunter’s retribution for Irene’s fate.

Dale was doing his own version of mingling, which was more about smiling and being gawked at than it was any particular communication.  I doubted any of them had ever seen anyone or anything quite like our leader before.  He massed more than any two of the people around him, and from his booming laughter it seemed like he was entirely at ease already.  There were times when I almost envied his heedlessness.

My own path was more careful.  I had no fear of what these Ultras could do to my person, but I had to be mindful of the danger that they posed to my image.  This was my first real opportunity to build upon the Host’s reports of me.  I had to be careful not to seem weak or foolish.

I left the main room, heading out into one of the surrounding corridors.  I was ever conscious of the watching eyes, the whispering voices, but I worked hard not to let it show.  No one who ‘tried’ to fit in ever could.  Visible effort would doom me here, I had to fake the same easy confidence that came so easily to my comrades.

I crossed my hands in front of me as the urge to flap them grew stronger.  That would avail me nothing.  It would be counterproductive, and so it would not occur.  I laced my fingers together and took a few more steps, waiting for my timidity to die down.

When it showed no sign of doing any such thing I wheeled in place and strode swiftly over to a pair of Pantheon members standing by one of the walls.  They’d been watching one of the screens that Haunter’s shades had been carrying around, whispering to one another.  At my approach they turned to regard me, giving no sign of their feelings.

“Where is Gonn?” I asked.

“Who?” asked the shorter of the two.  She was definitely from the eastern part of the Pantheon, with slim eyes and dark straight hair.  She was wearing some kind of handmaid body armor, seemingly cobbled together out of old sporting equipment.

“Gonn, the blind healing boy?” I asked.  “He came in with the most recent Fist, there should be a number of people availing themselves of his gift.”

I’d let an opportunity to benefit from his healing slip by me once before, but that had been in far less controlled environs.  If I could get a hold of him in here I ought to be able to manipulate a time and place without any witnesses and finally get rid of the nagging pain of Her casual brutality.

The shorter one stayed quite for a long moment.  Possibly the word ‘availing’ was a bit much for people who wouldn’t have spoken a lot of English before.

The taller of the two spat out something in a language I didn’t understand, and my arms were in motion before she finished the sentence.

The secret to strangling people, I’d learned from my days tending the Garden, was to move smoothly and without ceremony.  I lifted up my hands with the same easy motion I would use to wipe dirt off my shoulder, and had them locked around her throat before she had even realized that I’d started.

Her first reaction was a startled frown and an instinctive jerk away, which didn’t move me an inch.  She fell still after that, wide eyes gaping down at me.

“Let her go!” said the other woman, pointing a hand at me with her palm outstretched.  It gave me the impression that she was threatening me with a gift of some kind.

“I prefer if you speak English in my presence,” I said, keeping a conversational tone.  “I don’t understand your tongue, and the only reason I can think that you’d be keeping secrets from me was if you were insulting me.”

“She wasn’t!” said the young one again.  “She was just asking me what you had said.  She barely understands any of your talk at all.  Please let her go!”

I nodded, solemnly.  My hands, vexingly enough, had stopped their trembling.  It was strange that standing in front of strangers gave me such concern, but I had not a qualm when actively attacking them.

“Please!” said the short one.

It might have been because I had no script for celebrity.  I’d always hidden behind the more famous Ultras in the Lair, behind Adder and Her other flunkies.  I hadn’t had to deal with the regard of anyone that I actually cared about.

The tall one reached up to my arms, and her own trembled furiously where she clutched at me.

She was presumably trying to wrench my grip apart.  I couldn’t tell, but that’s what most people did in her circumstances.  It wasn’t reasonable.  She’d had a better chance at pushing the Sun out of its place in the sky, but people did all sorts of stupid things when their air started to run short.

“Please let her go!” said the short one, again.  She was still pointing a hand at my chest, but she had apparently realized that blasting me would be pointless.

“It seems as though letting her go is suboptimal on my part,” I said.  “Do you understand suboptimal?  I’m not sure how much English you know.”

The taller one slammed her fist into my face, probably with some kind of Ultra Strength, to judge by the way the bones shattered in her hand and arm.

“I understand,” said the short one, speaking quickly now.  “It means wrong.”

“Yes!” I said, putting a delighted tone into my voice.  “If I let her insult me and walk away, then everyone else will insult me.  But if I punish her properly here, then I believe people will learn the lesson.  You see?”

“We have learned the lesson!” she said.

Another God chimed in.  She’d walked over when she saw the fuss.

“We understand, we speak English near you!”

The tall one hit furiously at me, trying to knock me over.  She was probably getting a bit weaker by now.

“If you really understand, then tell me what she said about me.  Be honest this time.”

They looked to one another.

The Ultra with her palm pointed at me spoke first.

“It’s like I said.  She asked what you were said!”

I looked to the other, the one who’d just come over.

She nodded, slowly.

“What did she refer to me as?” I asked.

My victim’s eyes were rolling about wildly in her head.  Her tongue was extended and she was biting at the air.  I’d killed enough people this way to know that I had maybe a minute left.  It looked dramatic, but if I let go at this point she’d just gasp a bit as she recovered.

“Short Foreigner,” said the newcomer.

I looked back at her.

“Short Foreigner,” I said, without putting any expression into my voice.

“She’s just stupid!” begged her friend.  “Please let her go!”

She hadn’t quite collapsed into weeping, but she was on her way.  People always thought that if they just cried in front of me I would do what they said.  As though I didn’t already know that they were sad.

“Do you think ‘Short Foreigner’ is an insult?” I asked her.

She shook her head, furiously.

Thui had done that, I remembered.  Way back when I’d…

My hands let go, slipped back to my side.

“What about you?” I asked, owning it.  “You don’t have a problem with Short Foreigner, do you?  You weren’t trying to bad mouth me?”

She just gagged, heaving great breaths mixed with convulsive coughing.  Pussy.

Mercy was probably the better way to go, all things considered.  I knew enough about societies like this to know that you had to throw someone up against a wall on your first day here, and I’d been meaning to kill the first person to insult me, but thinking on it I was kind of glad it had gone down this way.  An execution would have been at odds with the heroic rep I’d gotten from the battle.

It took her a moment to come to herself, a moment before she was frantically shaking her head and swearing up and down in terribly broken English that Short Foreigner was actually just a description, with nothing whatsoever bad implied by it.

“Glad to hear it,” I said.  “because that is your name now.  You will be Short Foreigner, Shofo for short, from now on.”

She froze for an instant.  Had she been on a path to a Divine Name?  Had she perhaps already had one?  If there was anything that might set her off, this would be it.

Instead she groveled before me, wildly praising her new name.

I had her.  The hardcore orthodox Pantheon, women like Annubis, would never let someone who’d answered to a name given them by the hated Regime know a moment’s peace.  Shofo was bound to me now, as the onlookers carried word of this humiliation back to their fellows.  She would thrive nowhere but in my shadow.

“What’s your name?” I asked the talkative one.

“Fox,” she said.

“Fox,” I echoed.  “It looks like Shofo has hurt her hand.  Would you mind showing us to Gonn, the young healer who came in with the most recent Host?”

She gave a sickly smile, and looked back and forth from Shofo to me.

Got her too.  I’d seen that look plenty in my time in the Lair.  These two were an item.  That explained why Fox hadn’t scampered off when I’d snagged her partner.  It meant that she was already mine, linked inextricably in the mind of her peers with my first minion.

“Of course,” she said, and started leading us through the corridors.

Why had I thought of Thui there?  I’d been so good about keeping him from my mind, ever since that disastrous parting at the porch.

There was no profit to it.  He was either dead or a traitor, beyond doubt.  Either way, nothing good could come of turning my mind to him.

It was the damned uncertainty!

If the Copyer theory was wrong, he’d died before my eyes.  Remover’s beam had erased him, and I had to come to terms with that.   I could have put him behind me.  I’d lost lovers and lieutenants before.

If it had only been a Copy, however, then he was still out there.  Still in First Fist’s clutches.  Still at the mercy of a group that had not the faintest idea what the word meant.  He’d have been broken by now, shaped into their own willing tool.  If I saw him again I’d have to treat him as an enemy.

The pang I felt at the thought was smaller now, nothing like the dramatic grief I’d suffered as we cast off in the Strongboat.  Even if I couldn’t mourn him, I could at least work through my sorrow.  Or so I’d thought until I’d let Shofo go.

It had been beyond stupid.  When we’d been together Thui had never spoken a word, but I’d always felt his silent condemnation of my methods, his fervent hopes that I would become less violent, less cruel.  It had given me pleasure, at the time, to dash those fantasies.  To make sure that my every action had been as optimal and efficient as I could make them.

Thinking back on it now, I wondered if I could actually use those terms for my behavior.  Had I been more cruel than was needful, solely in order to prove to myself that he didn’t control me?  Had I been the fool all along, letting a dagger’s unspoken preferences dictate my actions?  Perhaps.

As stupid as that would have been, this was far dumber.  Thui was gone.  No action of mine would ever disappoint him again.

A flashing stab of pain from my mangled teeth broke me out of this foolish internal spiraling.  That, at least, was a problem I was finally going to do something about.

“We are here,” said Fox.

She gestured at a sort of an archway that yawned out of the wall.  It was less a room than a malformed crevice where two hallways had been squeezed together at some time in the past.

Male Ultras filled it to overflowing, their mutations consigned to the darkness of this cubby so as not to offend their more powerful sisters.

“I…sorry…dust,” said Shofo.

I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, till I saw her gesture at her eyes.

I kept my face expressionless as I wiped the tears away.

Values Handshake 1

Forbidding Entity: <Greetings>

Karen Austin: <What is this?  What’s going on?  How are you communicating to me?>

Forbidding Entity: <A medium/channel of communication/invitation.  We are communicating.  I have superimposed/coexisted onto your greater/freer self’s reasoning center.

Karen Austin: <No Ultra has spoken of any experience like this in their processing.  You must delete their memories of this.>

Forbidding Entity: <Incorrect/Imprecise. Their extralinear partners/consumers were/are unconscious/partaking and no such conversation/negotiation took place.>

Karen Austin: <Why am I being treated differently?>

Forbidding Entity: <I am a being of law/rule enforcement, rather than a pleasure/bliss partaker/imbiber.  I seek an appropriate metaphor/channel of action/murder within this linearity.  You will give rise/birth to that which is apt for this purpose/job.>

Karen Austin: <What is your purpose?  What do you want from me?>

Forbidding Entity: <I seek to forbid/terminate the Inviting Entity’s experiment/stunt.  I have/am already answered your second/subsequent question.>

Karen Austin: <Do I get a say in this?>

Forbidding Entity: <You are aware of the dynamic/pattern of a hostage/father and his victim/mate.  This dynamic mirrors/resembles ours.>

Karen Austin: <I am your hostage?>

Forbidding Entity: <Incorrect/Ridiculous. I am analogous/originator of the role/shape of Law Enforcement/Karen Austin.  I have total power/superiority.  I can kill/end you.  You are resembling/enacting the role of criminal/victim.  You can abort/stifle our merging/partnership and force/allow me to choose another partner/victim.

Karen Austin: <Will I?  If you are beyond time you should know.>

Forbidding Entity: <You will not.>

Overseer 1:4

“Let me give you my pitch,” said Haunter.

We’d adjourned to a more private meeting place, following the debacle of the Contest.  It had been obvious that our reputations wouldn’t be helped by debating these demons openly, and I’d judged that whatever hit we’d take to our image by dealing with them covertly wouldn’t be half so bad as the spectacle of us calmly deliberating with someone while Ninja’s gore dripped from the table.

“Please do,” I said.

Haunter was the only one of the Fist present, along with a few of her projections.  The rest of them were continuing their charm offensive in the big meeting area, having shouting matches with Ann and the rest.

I wasn’t incredibly worried about that.  No amount of clever words would change the fact that we’d only met these people today, and that they were our enemies.  I would rely on the lessons we’d spent years learning and let the Fist put its faith in the persuasive power of a few speeches.  If I called, I had no doubt my army would come.

“First, I need to describe your situation.  Not that you don’t know it, of course.  I just want to prove to you that we understand the dynamics you are dealing with.  I don’t want you to write me off as just some arrogant foreigner.”

“But that’s what you are,” said Genie, her blades sliding along one another with a metallic shiver.  “And a heathen to boot.”

Genie and Yaga were the only two I’d brought with me.  They had the clear heads I thought would be needful for this kind of work, and they were also the two who’d been with me when Death had demanded her loyalty oath.  If I was to take Condemner’s bargain, they were the only two who might understand.

“Let her talk,” I told Genie.

She gave me a quizzical look, to which I responded with a shrug.

If she made a fool of herself we would lose nothing, but I was already picking up that Haunter generally didn’t put her feet wrong.  I’d underestimated the value of human projections before she’d pulled off that trick of broadcasting our first meeting.  I wouldn’t do so again.  If each of her slaves could come up with ideas for her then she ought to be as shrewd as a person could reasonably be.  I’d treat her as such, to be on the safe side.

“You are the Overseers of the foremost camp of the Pantheon’s Grand Host.  A noble position, to be sure.  But what it boils down to is you are basically middle management, and a long way from the home office.”

“What does that mean?” asked Yaga.

“Middle management,” said Haunter, “is the position between the people who make the decisions and the people who take orders.  It was the guy who owned one restaurant, or managed one store, back a long time ago.  They looked like bosses, but they had to take their orders from the ones above them.  You are the same way.”

“We are the glorious leaders of the foremost blade of the Pantheon!”, responded Genie, heatedly.  “Ours is the honor of being the first to the conflict, ours will be the hands that tear down the towers of the wicked.  If you wish to chastise us for serving our Gods, you will find your words fall upon barren soil.”

Haunter pantomimed a wince.

“I guess you might see it that way.  I don’t think you actually do, but it is certainly possible.”

Her manner made plain that she thought the possibility a remote one.

“So if we are not, in your telling, motivated by our hunger for glory, then what does drive us?” I asked.  “If you wish to astound us with your perception you should probably get to the point.”

“You are stuck,” she said simply.  “You found yourself on the top of a very small heap almost on accident, and now you are trapped.  If you try to go back into the Pantheon you will be deserters, scorned by all for abandoning the war effort.  If you try to go anywhere else you are in enemy territory, and you’ll face the Union alone.  You can’t command your troops to do anything serious, can’t launch an all out assault on the enemy or retreat to the other forts.  You spend your time in this dingy building, bullying one another around and trying not to think about the future you don’t have.”

Genie and Yaga erupted in angry denials, but I kept silent.  It was a pretty good summing up, for an outsider.  I hadn’t even realized myself how trapped I was for the first year or so that I ran this place.

I spoke up as they wound down.

“I think you forget one thing,” I said, making my voice as harsh and commanding as possible.  “We are Gods of the Pantheon, with the right of Contest.  If we find ourselves unfulfilled in this position at the tip of the spear we would have no difficulty in taking over other offices.”

That stopped her for a moment.  I didn’t get the impression that she was trying to figure out an answer, rather than she was trying to figure out how to phrase it.

“It is a truth of human, and Ultrahuman, nature that any problem that cannot be solved must be celebrated.  Consequently, I risk angering you were I to properly address the truth of your situation.  I’d like to beg you to hear me out as dispassionately as possible.”

I made a slashing gesture with my hand, nodding impatiently.

“I have no doubt you tell each other that your position on the edge of Union territory hardens, you, that you are far more deadly than the Gods of the middle or rear forts.  This is a lie you use to comfort yourselves, but it is most likely part of your identity at this point.  I’d like you to consider it very carefully.”

We stared at her in sullen silence, willing her to get to the point.

“In order to win a Contest against the Ultras who lead the forts further in your own territory you would have to gather greater forces than they.  Setting out to dethrone them you would have essentially the same experience that we are having, quickly finding yourselves alone in hostile territory, with your foes holding every advantage.”

One of her projections handed her one of those communication rectangles, she looked at it for a moment, then handed It back.

“So you tell yourselves that you are only here for a moment.  Only gathering forces.  That the next pilgrimage will give you the follower who will enable your usurpation of a fort that isn’t in a war zone.  Maybe one with some civilians nearby you can boss around.  A place to get a decent drink, some creature comforts, no danger.  But the time never comes.  Have you ever bothered to work out why?”

“The best Gods get snatched up by the other forts before they reach us,” said Genie.

She seemed to have recovered a little bit of her poise during Haunter’s monologue.  I was quietly glad of it.  Anger would not serve us in this moment.  We needed to make our decisions with a clear head.

“Yes.  Far from being strengthened by your constant conflict with the Union, you are degraded.  You aren’t allowed to attack.  You aren’t permitted to retreat.  You cannot win a Contest when every Ultra who joins your side is one that your superiors have passed up.  Your only choice is to stay here, letting season turn in to season, until you eventually get so stir crazy you start going out with the new Hosts.”

Yaga started to raise an angry rebuttal, but I cut her off with another gesture.

“Let’s say, for a moment, that what you are saying is true.  So what?” I asked.

Haunter smiled, more, I think, at the fact that I was capable of entertaining unflattering notions than at the fact that I was letting her go off on another rant.

“Well, your predicament actually meshes pretty well with ours.  Let me talk about us for a second, before I get to the answer to that question.  I assure you it will be worth the wait.”

This lady really liked to hear herself talk.

“Our own situation is almost the opposite of yours.  We have no vassals, no safe haven.  Our master is far away, and She has little interest in micromanaging us.  She sent us to negotiate with your lords, and this is a task that we’d like to discharge.  But we have another goal as well, one that I alluded to in our earlier meeting.”

“Is this the part where you offer to protect us?” asked Yaga.  “Or have you give up condescending to us as a persuasion strategy?”

Haunter’s smile grew a bit pained.

“Our leader has a big heart.  You’ll have noticed he’s a big guy.  He doesn’t like to see kids get hurt.  He’d rather your followers stop throwing themselves into the Union’s guns.  As far as protecting ‘you’…”

She made a gesture to indicate she was referring to just us Overseers now.

“Ask Mireuk how protective Dale is.  Ask Angel or Cyclops.  I’ve persuaded him that working with you is the best way to keep your Hosts safe, but he couldn’t possibly care less about your well being as an ultimate object.”

“So,” I said, forestalling my subordinates before they could waste time expressing how little they cared about what the Fist cared about, “You want to help us out, so that our followers fare better.  And you see common cause here.”

She gave a quick nod.

“All we want from you is that you stop sending on the Hosts.  I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors, that Zeus is on the march?  We are in a position to confirm those.  The end of this year will be the end of the war, one way or the other.  There will be three more Hosts between then and now.  Three more sets of Ultras being sacrificed for almost literally nothing.  We’d like to see that not happen.”

Could I believe her?  I’d heard the whispers, of course.  Everyone had.  The Brides were coming.  Zeus was coming.  The end was coming.  But nothing concrete.  Nobody important would put their neck out on it.

“How would heathen like you track the Gods’ movements?” asked Yaga.  “Are you expecting us to believe that some among the righteous would endanger their souls by informing on the Council?”

Haunter looked at her like a fool, and I was honestly tempted to join her.

“The Company reports back to the Demon,” I reminded her.  “And I’m sure there are other ways.  If Zeus has really begun his pilgrimage, I have no doubt that the world is trembling.”

I felt a hot rush sweep through me at the thought.  At last, it was coming.  Our Father was stirring, the Lightning Lord striding forth at the end of all things, to strike down the Demon and usher in…

I forced myself from my reverie, thoughts of Death chasing it from my mind.

“So you would defend us, would you?  If we allow the Pilgrims to stop short of the enemy and shelter with us, you would join your strength to ours?” I asked.

“It would suit our own ends to do so,” she said.  “We seek an audience with your master, by Her command.  We know he will stop here.  We seek to defend your followers, and this is where they will gather.  An alliance with you makes sense.”

“To you, perhaps.  But why shouldn’t we just destroy you,” asked Genie.

Haunter made a gesture that seemed to concede the point, a sort of flinging motion with one finger.

“That might have been optimal play for you this morning, prior to our arrival, when we were just an anonymous enemy.  But as matters stand that path would be unwise.  You are unable to harm Preventer, and consequently you cannot destroy us.  Your followers have mingled with those we communicated our aims with, and thus any unsuccessful battle with us will be known for the ego salving waste of lives it would be.  This will bring resentment, rebellion.  Despite your vast numerical advantage you no longer have the capacity to destroy us, if you ever did.”

“What of Death?” I asked.  “Let’s put all our cards on the table.  We both know, based on what your friend said earlier, that she can break your Fist apart, even if she can’t kill that invincible bitch.  What’s your play if we kill the rest of you and bring her before Death?”

She gave a calm smile.

“Nirav must have told you how Death operates, yes?  She is a parasite.”

Genie and Yaga bristled to hear one of the Council so described.

“She steals the gifts of others, those who have sworn to her, letting her put hands on them while they pledged their fealty.”

I saw the moment they realized it, when they matched what Haunter was saying with the Oath.

“If she arrives she will take your gifts away.   Permanently.  Whatever our fate, you will be powerless in the midst of a culture with nothing but contempt for the weak.”

“She wouldn’t, she couldn’t take our gifts,” said Genie.

Her voice lacked conviction, however.   We’d all heard the rumors that swirled around Death.  How her escorts rarely lasted in her service.  How her powers were vast beyond reason, ever changing and defying all lasting description.  Even hints that Brides To Be had disappeared upon graduation from the Camp, never arriving at Olympus.

I reached out, rested a hand on her shoulder.  I was not surprised to feel a trembling there.  Anger or fear, or maybe both at once.

“You have allowed us to infiltrate your fortress, lost a Contest to servants of the Demon and more besides.  She won’t give you a second thought.  You are entirely expendable to her designs.  She couldn’t care less who rules this outpost.”

Haunter spoke with a lot of certainty, but I was reasonably sure this was all bluff and surmise.  I was willing to buy a lot from them, but there was no way an outsider could truly scan the heart of the Council.  She was guessing.

Unfortunately, I shared that guess.  Death had asked me about my power, but never my name.

“You wish to remain here.  Among us.  Until Zeus arrives?  If he arrives?” I asked.

Genie and Yaga shot me appalled glances, but they were only dealing with this shock now.  I’d been mulling it over since Condemner first delivered his oblique threat.  If I hadn’t believed him I wouldn’t have bothered with this meeting.

“Yes.  In return we will defend you from all attackers.  Whether that means Death or the Union.  For your part we wish only that you cease to send forth the Hosts, and that when Zeus arrives you present us as Her ambassadors.”

I waited.

“And Nirav will free you from Death’s yoke.  Your divine powers will be safe again.”

Genie and Yaga didn’t erupt this time.  They just kept looking at me, realizing that I had made up my mind.  They’d known me long enough to understand that I was a survivor.  They were the same.  It was why they were in here where the decision was being made, instead of out with Annubis, shouting at the unimportant members of the Fist.

It hadn’t been an easy call.  I wasn’t firmly wedded to it, even now.  But the dilemma didn’t have any other way out.  And I could feel in my bones that Death’s threat was as they described it.

“You’ve got yourself a deal, Ambassador.”

Reader Survey

Hi y’all.  Just looking for a bit of feedback.  If you read this on SufficientVelocity, please reply in the discussion thread.  If you read it on the main site, please reply as a comment.  In either case, if you are uncomfortable with others viewing your reply you can send it as an email to me at thefifthdefiance@gmail.com .

Question 1: Please rank point of views, from most to least favorite (that is, put 1 and other low numbers by the POV’s you’d prefer to see more of)
A: Haunter
B: Indulger
C: Preventer
D: Condemner
E: Fisher
F: 3rd Person (like the Strongboat arc)
G: Adversary (Fidel/Overseer arcs)

Question 2: Please indicate your preference regarding the story’s current balance of background exposition vs. plot movement.  I’ve had some folks indicate that they don’t need to see quite so much discussion of why characters aren’t undertaking alternate plans, and others have given me the opposite feedback.

Question 3: Please let me know how you found out about TFD.  (Top web fiction, link on slatestarcodex open threads, other…?)

Question 4: Just generally anything else you want to let me know.  If there is any feedback you’d like to send me that doesn’t fit into one of those categories feel free to write it up.  I am always eager to see what people think of my work.

Thanks a lot for answering, if you do, and for reading regardless of whether you respond or not.  I was able to get a one update buffer, so hopefully we won’t be missing any more wednesday story updates.

Overseer 1:3

I stared at Ninja’s pooling blood, desperately trying to make sense out of what had happened.

Nothing in Preventer’s file had included any mention of an ability to pierce the Ultra Toughness of others.  Certainly not at range.  She must have been hiding it throughout her career.

She walked back to her side of the table, hopped down into her people.

Even they looked a little appalled and baffled at what had happened.  The big guy’s mouth had fallen open, and they were all clustered around Preventer, presumably asking her how the hell she’d pulled that off.

I turned my head to Ann.

“How do we not know about something like this?” I asked her.

I had no particular reason to believe that she knew the answer, but if anyone did it would be her.  She spent all of her spare time elbow deep in anything about the Regime we could get our hands on.

“We did…” said Annubis.  “This is likely Refiner’s work.  A blessed gun, or blessed bullets, or something.  I’m not sure of the details.”

Refiner, I wracked my brain.  He was in Second Fist, I was pretty sure.

“The Knight leader guy?” I asked.

She gave me a curt nod, but before she could explain in any more detail a shout rose up.

“This is bullshit!” yelled Cain.  “You can’t hurt Ninja with a gun?”

The murmurs around the room, which had been spreading since the brief Contest, died down again as conversation began at the high table.

Preventer raised an eyebrow.

“I guess she’s faking then?  Well, if she gets back up we can go again.”

Cain took a step towards the table, then visibly halted herself.

I could sympathize with the fury she was feeling.  Ninja hadn’t been defeated in a Contest, she’d been executed, and with a human weapon at that.  Shot down like a dog, the exact demise that our position was based on having transcended.  I could imagine no more demeaning fate.

If we attacked, we might well share it.  Preventer’s invincibility was the genuine article, and if their group had bullets that could kill even our most durable Deities then any battle would be the very definition of one sided.

“What do you want?” I asked.

I’d been dancing around that for a while, but the time had come to get it out into the open.  I was strongly leaning towards the ‘stall for Death’ side of my options, and it was time to figure out what I would have to endure in order to delay them.  There were some demands that would destroy our reputation to even entertain, of course, but for the most part I could answer most everything that they could propose with a request for time to consider.

“Very little,” said Haunter, at about the same time that Dale said “Almost nothing”.

They looked at one another, and then the old woman made a ‘go ahead’ gesture to him.  He nodded his thanks.

I worked to settle myself during this interplay.  Looking anywhere away from Ninja’s cooling body.  Anywhere other than the impossible sight of an Overseer cut down by a human weapon.  Mostly I looked at them, waiting for their answer.

“We want to protect you,” said their leader.

He smiled while he said it.  He was probably going for a reassuring look, but missed the mark by a good bit.

“We don’t need your protection,” answered Cain, instantly.  “We have warred with the Union for decades without your help, and we are winning that war.”

“Oh yeah?” he asked, casually, like he was really interested in how that might be possible, “when was the last time you fought them?”

Caine fell silent, looking over at me as though I should answer.

I held my tongue, still organizing my thoughts.

“You were there, were you not?” asked Annubis.  “You came in alongside a Host, so you must have witnessed our heroic young Gods in battle with the heathen scum.”

“Oh, yeah, that,” he said.  “You are calling that a victory?”

“We impressed our will upon them,” answered Annubis, letting her enthusiasm infect her tone.  “We entered their territory and killed their greatest warriors.  Such acts eternally remind them of their weakness, and that they are never safe.”

“Uh, they kicked your asses.  You sent a bunch of kids out there to fight a bunch of killers, and they got worked.  You know this, because it is part of your dumb plan.  I got told all about it.”

His jovial façade had worn away at this point.  The big guy was clearly mad.

It’s funny, I’d been thinking of him as ‘the big guy’ for a while now, but only when he started to show anger did I realize just how big he really was.  He towered like a foot over everyone around him.  It had to be some kind of Ultra gift, one ancillary to his well known earth moving ability.

“You dare to scorn their heroism?” snarled Ann.  “You whose lives are protected by monstrous and devilish artifice dare to cast aspersions on the holy warriors who make up our Grand Host?  Is there no limit to your insolence?”

She was laying it on a little thick, I felt.  But this should go over well with the bystanders, do a little reputational repair for the twin failures of our initial retreat and Ninja’s defeat.

“You are damn right we dare, you-“

Haunter laid a hand on his arm, and the big guy shut up.

“It sounds like we have a dispute here, about the nature of a recent event.  Would you agree that it is most inconvenient that we cannot examine the event itself in order to reach a satisfactory conclusion?”

I took this one.

“Yes.  It is too bad that things in the past are in the past, and consequently we can’t watch them together.” I said, in a tone that made it clear I was addressing a retard.  “But given that all of us have gone through such an experience, you may rest assured that we know what we are talking about.”

“Well…about that,” she said, and one of her ghosts appeared, holding up a ghostly version of some kind of Union computer thing.

“What is this heresy?” asked Ann.  “Are you trying to start a fight?”

Preventer spoke again, having seemingly finished whatever she’d been doing with her gun.

“You mean, another fight?”

After a moment she continued on.

“Our fights don’t usually look like this,” and she gestured around at her surroundings.  “There’s usually a lot more fire and people getting buried.”

While she spoke another four or five shades emerged from the old woman and began to assemble some kind of big flat thing, all out of the same transparent substance that they were composed of.

“Is this…”

I trailed away.

“Just a Union visual reproducer setup,” said Haunter.  “We just happened to get ahold of the Union’s records of one of your victories, seems like since we are a bit in dispute about who won, maybe a rewatch is in order?”

She put an impressive amount of sarcasm into the word ‘victory’.

I looked around, gauging the room.  Most of the people here had only ever seen one battle against the Union, the one where their Host had been culled.  Only us Overseers saw them a few times a year.  We were the only ones with a full understanding of what these fights entailed.

This might be unpleasant.  But it would also be long, and that time might let Death get here.  Plus we would look like we were hiding something if I begged off them showing us their recording.  It was always a bad look to seem to be hiding something.

I hedged a sec, and my gaze returned to the viscera splattered on the table.  Ninja.  She’d been with me minutes ago.  That could be me.

“Yeah, fine.  We can always use another opportunity to witness our triumphs,” I said.

Even as I was saying that I was standing up, striding towards the door.  Damned if I stayed and watched this.  My authority would erode minute by minute as whatever fool thing they’d cooked up played out.  Far better to rally those who weren’t in here, organize them and find out if Death had transported in somehow.

I also just needed a moment to myself.  I had to find my center, get my balance back under me.  Ninja was dead, actually dead.

I stopped as I entered the hallway, confounded by the sight of more of Haunter’s shadows, holding up smaller rectangles.  Minor Deities were clustered around them, and I could hear the sounds of the room that I’d just left playing out from them.

She must’ve sent them out before we even entered the room.  How many of these things could she make?

I halted, uncertainly.  I’d intended to relay my own version of what was going on in there, but obviously everyone already knew.

I fought down a flash of dismay.  I’d thought of the meeting as mostly a formality, taking place for a small and influential group, but ultimately not anything that would bind me.  I could have always claimed that they were lying about whatever went on if it didn’t turn out to our liking.  But this changed everything.

No, not everything.  That was just me reeling.  I was so off balance, everything happening too fast.  I needed to be smart about this, acting without a plan could see me end up like Ninja.

I stifled the taste of vomit in the back of my mouth at the thought of her body on the table, guts and brains leaking around her.  I put a hand to the wall.

Someone touched me on the shoulder, and I snapped around to face whoever had the gall to interrupt me.

It was the dark skinned guy from the Regime.  Condemner.

He looked mostly like the picture from the files, except for the fact that his eyes were blazing embers.  I recoiled a step as I felt the heat from his gaze.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.  “Such a shame.”

“I don’t accept your apology,” I told him.  “Your group’s intrusion is a violation of everything that…that.”

I suddenly didn’t know how to finish that sentence, as he took another step closer.

I brought my hands up before me, as though to fend him off, frantically searching my memory for whether or not he could harm someone with my gifts.  I didn’t think so, but I took another step back anyway.

“I meant about your friend,” he said, sympathetically.  “It was a tragedy to see her fall before Preventer.  We came here to protect you, after all, and to bring one of you low was never our intent.”

I nearly took the bait.  I almost lashed out at him, smashed his pity and his patronizing face into the far wall.  But I had little doubt that that was just what they wanted me to do.  Lashing out at the winners of a Contest was beneath me.

Yes.  I felt myself grow calmer.  That had been a Contest.  Fate had chosen the demon over Ninja.  It just meant that she had never been righteous.

“I thank you for your kind words,” I told the creature before me.  “But you need not apologize for that.  It is your presence here, and not your accomplishments, which I resent.”

There.  As statesmanlike and calm as any observer could ask for.  If they were somehow putting me on those screens then I’d give them nothing that I’d be sorry for everyone to see.

“As an apology, I’d like to assist you with a problem that you have.  One that you might not even know you have,” he said.

The flames in his eyes burned just a bit brighter, and somehow he’d gotten close to me again.

I couldn’t keep backing up.  It would look weak.  I leaned into his space, brought our heads together.

“What problem is that?” I asked.

“Death,” he whispered.

I blanched, whipped my face away.  My hands rose up in an instinctive warding gesture, before I realized that this wasn’t just his way of starting a fight with a cool line.

“What do you know of Death?” I spat out.

“She attacked us recently, destroyed our fellow Fist.”

I smiled grimly, drawing strength from the this testament of the Gods who stood above even me.

“She shared this story with us.  She brings extinction to your kind.”

He gave a pained smile, scratched the back of his neck.

“But if you knew about her, then why come here?” I asked.

I hadn’t had a moment to think since this whole thing began, but now that I said it out loud that was the only question that mattered.  The Demon’s slaves must know of Death’s triumph.  They’d been witness.  Did they think she’d returned to Olympus?

“When she shared the story,” he hedged, “how detailed was her description?  Did she talk about the Gods she brought with her?”

“Get to the point,” I told him.

“How much do you know about her gift?” he asked.

I didn’t know much of it.  That she had some rapid transit capability was inarguable, given her comings and goings.  She must also have some kind of incredible attack power, in order to defeat two Fists and a member of the Demon’s Inner Circle, but the exact powersets of the Leadership Council were not for the likes of me to know.

I said as much.  He gave a short nod, as thought he’d been expecting that response.

“Her gift lets her take the gifts of others.  She can, hnngh, you lack the words.  Suffice it to say she wraps herself around their gifts and she can yank them away whenever she wants.”

The flame burned brighter in his eyes as he poured out this heresy.

“Unthinkable,” I snarled.  “To transgress against the Divine would be darkest heresy.  None of our leaders would ever do such a thing.”

“Oh grow up,” he snapped.  “How on earth do humans DO it?  Even in linear time it should be obvious that what you just said is utter nonsense.”

“Get thee behind me, devil!” I told him.

I turned away.  If I listened to him slandering beings he was not fit to kneel before any longer I’d strike him, consequences be damned.

“Listen, she’s done it to you,” he said.

That stopped me in my tracks.

I looked back.  His expression was unreadable, eyes once again reduced to tiny embers.

“I can see it.  Part of how my gift works.  She has her hook in you, where your human soul meets what you’d call the divine essence.  She can snatch your power loose at any moment, or use her gift to press on your soul, make you do what she wants.”

“Lies!”

“When she was here, did she touch you?  Maybe while getting you to say something that felt a bit off?  Laugh, or agree, or whatever?  It looks like…”

He peered at me with his unsettling gaze, but not directly at me, he peered over my shoulder.

How could he know about the loyalty oath?  We had been entirely alone.  I remembered the honor I felt in her presence, the sense that something unearthly had placed its hand upon me.

“You seek to sow dissension, dismay.  I refute you,” I told him.

Was it my imagination, or did I feel something even now?

“I can save you,” he said.  “I can save your gift.  I can burn her hook away, maybe destroy her.  Just stand still, and you can be free.”

I swung a hand in his direction, spawned a pair of replicas which stood between us.

Everything was happening so fast.

“I don’t believe any of this.  I’m certainly not about to let you burn me.”

His shoulders slumped, and he turned away.

“You don’t have much time,” he said as he started leaving.  “As soon as she gets here and sees your forces aren’t attacking us she’ll condemn you as traitors, steal the useful gifts she scouted when last she was here.  You won’t have any warning.”

“A feeble attempt to divide us,” I told him.

He walked away, heading back to the meeting room, back where the rest of the Fist was.

I’d prevailed.  My faith had been tested, but I’d held firm.

He opened the door.

“Wait!”

Disposition of the SOV

Throughout the vast and murky channels of the Union’s leadership a silent war was being waged.

For long decades mighty Restraint had ruled their councils, imposed its iron demands upon their efforts.

Restraint so that Prevailer would not be provoked, and the fragile Earth preserved.  Restraint so that Zeus would not march, and their borders remain inviolate.  Restraint so that their own creations would pose no danger, and remain forever within launch bays and bunkers.  Technology after technology, the Union had always been unalterably committed to a policy of Restraint.

They were done with Restraint.  They knew they would not survive the march of Zeus, and one after another they found the notion of dying with their hands tied, merely to ensure Prevailer’s temper was not tested, unsatisfying.

Through the systems and meetings which made up their leadership the arguments raged.  What to unleash first?  Who to strike, and with which weapon?  The Intervention Group’s ability to effortlessly cull the Pantheon’s yearly assaults had allowed backup plans to pile up one after the other, and now they would be sent forth.

In a time of heated arguments, one particular debate stood out.

The SOV was the Union’s greatest space ship.  It had been developed alongside countless other orbital weapons platforms, but delays in its manufacturing and design had seen it sit idle in its great hanger, even as all the other efforts at deploying Super Orbital Vehicles had failed in the face of the Regime’s furious blockade.

It swiftly became apparent, as First Fist, Subtracter and Prevailer struck again and again, that the Regime’s ability to detect and destroy launch efforts was beyond their ability to counteract.  The Union, ever pragmatic, redirected its efforts, and the SOV lingered earthbound, a relic of a time when man dreamed of the stars.

During the chaos of the Fourth Defiance, as the Regime bent all of its efforts towards its war with the Pantheon, the SOV was launched without fanfare, and without detection.  It slid into the night sky and immediately went dark, using its array of stealth devices to veil itself from earthly detection.

It’s controllers waited for the day when they would read of its destruction, sure that Answerer, or whatever other augur Prevailer consulted, would allow the tyrant to strike at it.  But such a dark day never came, and the SOV remained on standby, ready to direct its entire complement of devastating weaponry the instant it was called upon.

Now, the time had come for it to strike.

But where?

One camp, perhaps the majority, spoke strongly of the Army of Sunset as the only possible target for the SOV.  Zeus’s vanity parade could not last forever, and they would never be concentrated again.  They hoped that SOV’s power would shatter those Ultras who were able to be affected by earthly weapons, cutting down the ‘glass cannons’ of the Pantheon and greatly weakening the Host of Hosts.

Another camp had an entirely different objective in mind.  This camp, claiming as its greatest champion the intelligence operative known as Defeater, argued for a strike on the Lair.  The tyrant had ceased to venture forth from her den.  Perhaps a weakness had somehow manifested?  The SOV had already avoided her diviners once before.  The partisans of the second school of thought believed it might do so again, and put her Ultra Toughness to the test without giving her the instant’s warning she would need to warp away.

The last camp, by far the smallest, found its adherents in the Union’s scientific leadership.  It argued for the SOV to turn away from earth entirely, and bring its resources to bear upon the moon.  They believed that a device critical to the operation of the Process could be found there.  Analysis of such a thing could open up possibilities that their peers could not even conceive of.  Directing the outcome of the Process, or taking its function hostage in order to back down the invaders, might all be in the realm of possibility.

The argument raged throughout committee after committee, board after board.  And ultimately the decision which was reached was what an outside observer might have expected.  The day had been won by compromise.

The SOV would strike the Army of Sunset, and then the Lair, and finally carry out whatever operation awaited it on the moon.

Incident/Threat report

Leadership:

My investigation of the ‘ambassadorial’ misconduct perpetrated by Fourth Fist is revealing information of such import that I believe waiting for the usual channels to process it would risk calamity.

The Regime’s Fourth Fist has a mind control power of some variety.

I shared my findings with Investigator Ruth, tasked with the Intervention Group investigation, and she concurs.  The circumstances being relayed to her are equally unbelievable.

It seems as though shortly after entering close contact with the Regime forces our assets endured an abrupt and seemingly permanent alteration in character, such that they immediately and without remorse betrayed their previous loyalties.  Meghan and her staff apparently disclosed any and all information that their interrogators requested, and also volunteered access to such confidential systems as they had under their control.

I say ‘permanent’, because even now that they have been relieved of their duties and held for questioning they continue to affirm the rightness of their counterfeit beliefs.  They have made attempts to persuade their guards and interrogators of this, imploring us to join them in service to the genocidal Ultrahuman nation they betrayed us to.

Ruth and I have narrowed down the possible possessors of this power, presuming its range is as limited as most Ultrahuman gifts are, to Preventer and Fisher.  Only they had access to both the Intervention Group and the Kriti Garrison.  Consequently, they are the only ones who might have brainwashed them.

I understand, of course, that Regime Fists have kill orders on them by their very nature, but if there exists some higher sanction I beg you to pronounce it upon these mind rapists.  The tyrant can only kill our bodies.

No update this week

I think I have to admit at this point that my usual writing time is well and truly borked.  When this many ‘one time’ things happen it is clear that this is a systematic problem.  I’m going to move my writing to another time during the week (will still post Wednesday night though), hopefully that will let me make more than every other update.

Sorry.

Union Top Level Leadership

It cannot escape the attention of the discerning observer of the benighted lands across the sea that nobody speaks of the executive leadership of the so-called Union.  This is not a coincidence.

At one time the Union’s leadership was fairly convention.  The ‘European Human/Ultrahuman United Alliance’ had an elected leader and a large and functioning congressional body beneath her.  Then Prevailer killed her.

Her replacement was savaged by a Pantheon warlord out to make a name for herself, and the poor fool that was elected to replace her was killed by the exact same warlord.  Something clearly had to change.

The Union couldn’t ape the other great nations and simply put the strongest Ultra in charge.  They had their marker immovably fixed on ‘democracy’.  But an unpowered leader in charge of their greatest enemy was an irresistible temptation to their adversaries.

The three part system, of ministers, commanders and ultras, was the original answer.  Every operating theatre had a trio of commanders, none of whom could truly be said to be in command, and none of whom would provide the desired dramatic impact to an enterprising foreign Ultra if they were killed.

This couldn’t operate at the highest level, however.  Even a joint leader would be too tempting to their foes.  The Union’s solution has occasionally been called an ‘obscurocracy’.

Among the ministers, each and every one of them elected by the people, one is the true leader.  Among the generals, one is chief.  Even their Ultras no doubt have one to whom all the others look for leadership.  But none of this is public.

Ministers take their orders from the system.  Generals receive assignments from it.  Spies feed information into it.  But nobody visibly commands it.  Rather, the system runs on its own, spawning an ever agglomerating mass of committees and databases, often with conflicting and overlapping responsibilities.

The whole point of the thing is to make things too confusing, too boring, for any foreigner to pinpoint the actual leader.  To repair the flaw of being unable to protect their head of state by rendering their state headless.  The press has occasionally termed it a ‘committee of committees’.

There is much debate within the Union itself about how effective and desirable this system is, but it seems to have, at least, achieved its objective in preventing high profile Ultra strikes on the individual or individuals who govern the Union.