Previously: Traitor’s Fury
Themesong: There is No Other Way from Pacific Overtures
Okay, so, I’d finally gotten back from Vordlandia… bleh. That last year hadn’t been fun. We’d managed to save some, but so many died, and that croach… ugh… seriously… ugh. Nutritious in the same way Kix cereal is and twice as horrid. Only slightly better than carrots.
I was certain that if I still had nightmares, I’d be having them. The guilt hit me at odd times, making me long for the surety of youth where I hadn’t had to condemn hundreds of millions to horrible deaths because I couldn’t find a better solution that saved everyone and prepared the surviving societies to deal with the horrific realities of their universe… a universe full of Vord. Sometimes it was enough to remind myself that I still made things better. Sometimes, but not always.
For all Tavi’s work in the original timeline, female equality under the law hadn’t been something he’d even thought to pursue, and he had managed to give away humanity’s sole advantage over the other races to boot. They’d also lost the powerful presence of the Fury Alera, several more cities, and spawned two major active volcanoes in some of the most fertile lands of the Empire… So I hadn’t made things worse. It was enough that I’d chalk it up as a win. So, another decade down, another jump to plan.
However… The exact nature of the jump-to-come was a bit of a problem. For one, I had no idea what the hell ‘Black Bullet’ was. Like. None. The machine was peach colored, with black sci-fi looking text, and looked faintly Japanese in style if not in actual language. On the screen was a Star-Wars style text crawl. Frowning, I wandered over to take a look; might as well see what I could figure out from that…
“What the hell did I just read?” I commented to no one in particular. “Three human cities left, a global plague that creates monsters… and the only thing standing between humanity and the darkness are little girls born with this horrific disease?!”
Dyna, who’d been teaching Wompus McGee (her Furret) to do a handstand backflip double twist (or at least trying to) at the edge of the greensward, looked up and over. “How do sick kids help fight a plague? Are they like… umm… antibody factories? Do they have some kind of immunity to the disease… and if so, how does that help?”
Those were good questions, and not ones I had answers to. “No idea yet… I mean, how does it help but I don’t think they’re immune… just maybe more resistant… apparently it’s still killing them, even as it gives them quote incredible powers and abilities,” I said, frowning deeply.
“Huh,” Dyna said, trying to get Wompus to stop chewing on her hand long enough to complete the tumble. “Sounds like a weird version of magical girls… do they have cute animal partners?”
I continued reading the crawl. “No… looks like they’re paired up with a partner called a Promoter? Don’t know if that’s a human or not. The girls are called ‘Cursed Children’ or ‘Initiators’… this is not well written. But the virus is called ‘Gastrea’… and it’s also a parasite?” I blinked at that.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Dyna pointed out, then acked as Wompus flomped onto her and demanded treats, figuring that if she was distracted, he didn’t need to keep practicing.
Her words echoed my feelings, because viruses aren’t alive in a biological sense. Bacteria are alive… viruses are merely self-replicating strings of genetic material. All viruses are, technically parasitic… except for maybe prophages which combine with Bacteria in odd and usually terrifying ways. The viral part of the prophage was a symbiote… or had been integrated into the Bacteria in a way harmless to the host… but the whole thing was still a parasitic lifeform.
“Yeah… I know… I’m not holding out high hopes for this one. I mean, literally, the infoblurb here says that there are only three things preventing the eventual extinction of humanity on this world; those Initiator-Promoter duos, a made up metal called Varanium that apparently repels the monsters created by the… disease,” I hedged. Clearly it couldn’t be viral in the classical sense. “and apparently is effective as a weapon against those creatures… and me. Woo… saving the world again, never wanted… what am I to do?”
Dyna giggled. “That’s not how the song goes!” Wompus nodded in agreement, then tried to drag his mistress off. She flailed at him, digging in her heels. He might be larger than she was, but she was almost twice his weight and much higher level… and much smarter. Which didn’t stop him from occasionally trying to mate with her… though technically she was genderless and incapable of laying eggs.
“Bad Wompus,” she childed, flicking his nose. He licked her hand and then began chasing one of the Bidoofs that had wandered by. “Anyway… what are you going to do? I don’t think there’s a way out of this, is there?”
“Not that I’ve found,” I agreed, “Not without deciding to head home, and I’m not doing that until I’ve figured out how to make everyone I care about immortal and I’ve been to Dune… and maybe a few more places… DC, Marvel… Oz… Wonderland… My Little Pony…” I blinked. I’d been drifting off into list mode. “Anyway… I guess I’ll save the world like I always do. I mean… it sounds grim, but it’s probably not really that bad. Right?”
I didn’t really believe it, and neither did Dyna, who gave me a look that clearly said, “You be nuts, boss-lady.” Of course, since both of us are telepaths, I was completely aware of exactly how many ways she thought this sounded like a bad trip waiting to happen.
I hit the start button on the console, already trying to figure out what the protocol that might be effective at treating this weird disease. At once, the entire machine started fading to red… and then to black… and then, ebon letters wreathed in unsteady halos of light swamp up out of the pitch black void of the monitor.
It was a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, probably his most famous one, and almost certainly his most often misquoted one. “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Well… thanks for that. Just what I needed after allowing an alien race destroy most of an entire people… feeling really good about that choice.
“The Banker is an asshole,” I muttered. Dyna merely nodded. Then I started reading the new text, now looking like snowflake obsidian on a field of dried blood. I’m certain that the choice of color was not an accident. There were only three origins, Drop-In, Initiator, and Promoter… I guess I should feel grateful there wasn’t a choice to be a Gastrea Monster. All three were free, though being a Promoter meant I’d get a free Initiator Companion, while being an Initiator meant I’d get a free Promoter Companion.
So far so good… but then I opened the starting locations list… and my unease turned to vitriolic rage. There were three choices… Cairo, Detroit, Tokyo… not bad in of itself… but then the details registered on my awareness and a red fog of rage began to push in at the edges of my vision.
Those Cursed Children? The last hope of humanity? Yeah… in Cairo, they were used as prostitutes and killed for sport. Little girls. Enslaved, forced to fight for people who viewed them as little more than products to be used and discarded. In Detroit they had cybernetic augmentations installed in them that guaranteed their loyalty. In Tokyo, they were forced to live in poverty and frequently attacked or even lynched while the government ignored their plight… which, as it turns out, meant that Tokyo was the best of the three by a large margin.
I growled low in my chest and the VMoD’s screen shattered as I blasted the thing across the center of my warehouse, smashing through a wall and rebounding off of Zane, who took one look at me, standing on the green at the heart of the area, surrounded by an elemental haze of hoarfrost and magnetism.
“No… no… no-no-no-nononono!” I muttered, then roared. “Fuck this… fuck this hard. Fuck you, you fucking machine! Fuck you, Banker. Screw this entire thing. You want to see me save this… this… this horror show? Fuck it. Burn the world… burn them all…” I seethed, stalking over to the machine, looking down into its smoking ruin. “Is that what you want to see? You wanted to see just how far was too far? Well… this has gone beyond the pale…”
Out of the smoke of the shattered VMoD a figure of smoke and shadow rose, rapidly resolving into a masked man with silver skin and wings that were comprised of nothing but void. “You seem… concerned, Jumper,” he said, sneering behind that emotionless mask.
“You might say that,” I snapped, seething. “Who the fuck are you and how the fucking fuck did you get into my goddamned warehouse?”
“I am no one of import… merely an agent of an interested party,” he half-crooned in what was probably meant to be a calming tone. “As for how? Your destruction of the Console has allowed a small rift in the Potentiality Matrix. Not much, and it will soon be mended, but before it is, I have an offer for you. One that concerns the fate of this world.”
“I’m listening,” I said coldly. “But my patience is razor thin at the moment.”
“Understood,” the visiting entity smarmed. “The Gastrea are truly an abomination… and I offer you a way to destroy them once and for all… accept my task and I shall help you rewrite fate in your own favor, ensuring the survival of you and your companion. Neither of you will fall to the virus.”
“Big words… but I don’t hear any specifics,” I said, staring at my fingers and causing razor sharp shards of ice to grow into talons. “Talk faster.”
If he was intimidated, he didn’t show it in tone or affect, but he did pause briefly as if mentally editing his spiel. “Very well… When you arrive, you’ll be presented with an opportunity to save an member of a global conspiracy, one dedicated to the complete and utter annihilation of all Gastrea. Assist this individual and you’ll quickly find yourself leading what remains of mankind as IP Rank One… the most respected duo in the entire Initiator-Promoter Corps. With dedication and effort, you’ll take back the world from the Gastrea; indeed, all the fear and hatred the people once felt for the IP will be replaced with awe and respect for you and your companion.”
“Big of you to assume I wouldn’t go into this as a Drop-In,” I snarked, sensing that the other shoe was waiting in the rafters. “But let’s assume I do choose to go either Initiator or Promoter. Go on.”
His mask hid what felt like a smile… a huge, grotesque one from his body language, which reminded me painfully of the more evil versions of the Joker of Batman fame. “Very well…,” he said, bowing and throwing out his arms wide, “All that fame will be yours alone… for in the end, in ten years time, at the conclusion of this glorious war, only you and your companion will remain… the other Cursed Children and their Promoters will be gone… forgotten, lost in the shadow of the great hero, the one who saved the world for humanity! They will turn over the vaccine that they will have discovered in the final days of the long and terrible war and your fame will carry on into other worlds, where any humans you encounter will instinctively see you as a hero, a redeemer, a saviour!”
Throughout his speech, his voice had risen like that of a well trained classical orator, and his gestures, though clownish, held an almost biblical majesty. He was an inky-winged angel reaching towards the heavens, and his final words were a clarion call.
“Wow… you are a fucking psycho,” I said, and (summoning my rifle to my hand) shot him in the head.
He looked somewhat offended with the one eye that survived the blast that destroyed 80% of his head… he’d apparently had a lot of them under the mask. “Don’t you want the glory? Don’t you want to be the one who saves the day? Don’t you want to be number one? Don’t you want to survive?”
I don’t want you to think that those questions were asked in sequence, or proceeded from anything like the shattered remains of his face. No, they came from the hundreds of mouths that appeared like a demented version of Rocky Horror Picture Show’s lips in the twin abysses of his wings.
“Oh, you naive manipulative thing,” I crooned, then took a deep breath, relaxing a bit and muttered to half to myself like a demented hybrid of Galadriel and Golem. “No… no sweetness. I’m not going to save this world… that would be too easy. I’m not going to uphold your precious cabal and allow those poor girls to be a lamentable and forgotten sacrifice to the cruel injustice of this unholy war. Oh no. No. I will not raise my hand against so much as a single Cursed Child. No… Your cabal on the other hand? Well… I’m going to kill every last motherfucking asshole on this festering blight of a world. You abominations have done it… You’ll get your way… You’ll get your show. Sometimes the darkness wins. I am Balance after all.”
A clarion clear laugh echoed through the space around me and I turned from the eldritch abomination to see another VMoD… probably the Rogue Machine… on its screen was a young blonde girl, her laughter cutting the dark mood of the scene like the first light of a new dawn. “Yes… yess!” she cried. “They will all burn!.. You may call me Lucy… May I enter?” she asked politely.
I flash-stepped backwards to a position where the Dark Angel and the Daybringer were equidistant from me, the three of us forming a perfect triangle. Caught between Baal and Lucifer… great. “If you mean no harm to any in this place, you may enter,” I allowed after a moment’s consideration. “Enter and be welcome, if you come in peace, and you shall in turn be allowed to leave in peace.”
“Do not trust her,” the Dark One said. “My task is simplicity itself and the reward great!”
“Yeah? Is that so, you Technophage?” I asked, invoking the old word for an eater of children. “Just how many of my fellows IP Teams are there for me to allow to fall?”
“There are,” said Lucy, “currently seven-hundred thousand, five-hundred and two ranked pairs… plus several hundred thousand more unranked Cursed Children without Promoters.”
“And you’d be expecting me to kill all those who don’t fall in battle, right?” I asked, mouth twisted in hatred as I watched the more obviously evil of the duo reform his head and mask.
“They are already doomed,” he said as if I hadn’t just shot him… I shot him again, blowing away both his knees and putting multiple shots into the wing-mouths. He didn’t fall. Honestly, fuck this guy. “Salvation often comes at the cost of those who would not survive anyway. Let them fall. The Human race that survives will replace them within a few years as they surge forth from their new Eden’s to reclaim the world that is rightfully theirs.”
“You can shut the hell up and let the girl talk…” I snarled, “She at least had the good manners to ask if she could enter my domain… even if that machine probably shouldn’t be here.” I turned back to her. “So… what’s your pitch. I’m assuming you have one?”
She laughed again. It was soft, light, and slightly seductive as she flowed out of the machine. She looked about ten or eleven, long of limb and hair, and blue of eye. “I do! I will provide you with not only a guaranteed method of saving yourself and your companion, but also with a way to save all those you deem worthy of it.”
“And the price is letting the world burn?” I asked archly.
“Indeed!” she said with a bright smile. “Society will fall, the cities be destroyed, their people massacred by the Gastrea with few survivors! And it will all be your doing!” She was practically gleeful at the idea.
“Will it now?” I asked, tilting my head to the side and contemplating just how much I was being played. “How so?”
“Each city that still stands is protected by several rings of monoliths containing Varanium,” she explained, waving a hand and creating a hologram what looked like an OCP version of Detroit dotted with a ring of two kilometer wide, three kilometer tall, hundred meter thick slabs of black matter. “Siphon the Varanium from a monolith and you’ll be able to utilise it in a vaccine of sorts to prevent a Cursed Child from ever falling to the Gastraea within their cells. It will even cause a symbiosis with the virus while rendering it non-communicable… a symbiosis that will dramatically increase the power of the host!”
“And, of course, that will inevitably result in the Gastrea creatures breaking through the cordon and ravaging the cities, am I right?” I was a bit calmer now… but no less furious. The realization that this whole idea of just letting a bunch of monsters destroy what was left of the human race wasn’t bothering me more (and was actively appealing to the more vindictive part of me) probably should have worried me, but I was too pissed off to care.
“Yes!” she cried. “You’ll quickly become public enemy number one! And I’ll see to it that public enemy number two and his partner will be there to assist you!” She grinned. “I think you’ll like them!”
“Are you going to promise me eternal infamy in all future worlds?” I asked, referring to the eldritch abomination’s offer. “And how will all these worthies be saved if the world is overrun by horrors and death? Little girls don’t make the best farmers.”
“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head and making her braids bounce. “Nothing so banal. Your prize for letting this world burn will be being able to leave this world behind as the last bastion of civilization crumbles… leave it behind with those few you have chosen! They will follow you to your next world… but no further!”
“Perhaps there they’ll finally find the peace they deserve,” I muttered. “Not the ‘peace’ of the grave.” I shot my last words like a bullet of hatred at the Dark Angel and offered my hand to Lucy. I knew it was a deal with the devil, but in this case, better the devil you knew… The chance to save the worthy from this hell hole of a doomed world. Better than leaving them to rot in the wasteland even assuming I could cure the disease. I’d spent most of a decade trying that in Zombie Land. And there were billions of people on the line there. This was only a few million, and most of them were awful people apparently. “I don’t trust you much… but you have a deal… now kindly get the hell out of my warehouse… both of you!”
They left, with Lucy’s machine flickering, then dying and the Dark One’s smokey form being sucked back into the smoldering ruin of the VMoD. I wandered off to my meditation chamber, and when I returned, six hours later, the machines had both changed significantly. The Banker’s VMoD was now a bank of Gachapon machines and the Rogue VMoD was what looked like a high security computer memory transportation briefcase. It had a flashing indicator that showed two sets of numbers.
The first read “Standing Monoliths: 131” and the second was “Worthies Stored: 0”. Wonderful. Just bloody wonderful.
Fuck it. If I was going to do this, I was going to have an actual stake in this game. That meant being either an Initiator or a Promoter… and that meant one companion… With a somewhat vengeful smirk, I made my choice. I was going to be the Initiator… and my newest and least trustworthy companion would be my Promoter. Let’s see the fallen Vord Queen cope with the bullshit of watching a world burn. I wasn’t exposing anyone else to this shit… and you better believe my warehouse was going into full scale lockdown until the jump was over. I wasn’t risking bringing one trace of this Gastrea with me… well… except in those I was rescuing… shit… Hopefully this vaccine shit worked.
Of course, that meant that I was ten years old again. Highly subdued ‘Woo! ‘Behold, I am become death, the destroyer of… well, not worlds, but cities at this point. Three fucking cities, apparently full of the worst of humanity. Christ. Humans are the real monsters? I didn’t normally believe that, but this was fiction made real. Anything could be true, apparently.
I didn’t know of this Black Bullet was Anime or not, but it had the feel of it… or maybe that was because it had Tokyo in it and everything was being vended from capsules. Was I being biased? I read through the blurb for the Initiator Gatcha… it was a tiny little model of myself as a ten year old girl wearing a samurai-style officer’s uniform, like something out of the Meiji-Era, and a Katana on my back. Well, that seemed to suggest Japan. But I couldn’t be sure. Honestly, if it hadn’t had Tokyo as one of the three cities I’d be defo thinking not, but…
Then the personality overlay began to manifest and I twitched violently. I didn’t understand why they hated me for something that wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know why they called me a monster. I didn’t understand why I hadn’t known my parents, why I was abandoned…. I did understand that, without focus, without keeping a tight control over my emotions, I would fall to the monstrous doom waiting inside my cells. I understood that I was reviled, feared, hated. That my crimson eyes marked me as both saviour and enemy of mankind. I understood that I’d fight. and that I wasn’t alone.
My Promoter was my guardian, my watcher, the member of the Civil Security Agency assigned to keep me safe… and keep others safe from me. I knew that there was a bomb inside my head… a bomb that would be used to kill me if I defied the CSA… And I knew hatred. How I hated all this. Hated the Gastrea. Hated humanity. Loved and Hated my Promoter as a only a child could. But seriously… for fuck’s sake, this was the second time I had a bomb in my head. How the fuck mental are these people.
But fine, let’s do this build.
Being an Initiator was free, and for their crimes, Initiators got a pair of perks called ‘Roach’ and ‘Rabbit’ Free… and the other four Initiator Perks cost a grand total of nine-hundred Choice. I sighed and figured that I might as well get myself the set. It wasn’t as if there was much a selection… the entire bank of Gachapon Machines only contained eighteen pods… and six of those were items. Apparently being a Drop-In granted no discount on anything… and also apparently, there were no drawbacks at all… then again, this whole fucking world was a Drawback, wasn’t it?
‘Roach’ would harden my skin (something I already had from nano-blood) and grant regen enough to recover from all but the worst wounds in minutes (which my Conduit Regen already covered). Double daming was the fact that both hardness and regen could be countered with Varanium… though apparently that was true of all Gastrea creatures and Cursed Children. Thankfully, the info sheet didn’t say anything about the wondermetal nerfing all my other nigh invulnerability and regen perks, so I was (mostly) okay with that. Not pleased at the worthlessness of it… but fuck it.
‘Rabbit’ was general musculature boost package. It would not only provide increased jumping distance but apparently grant the ability to double jump… so yeah… probably Japanese there. The strength boost was enough that it would allow a ten year old little girl to fire an anti-materiel rifle without suffering from recoil… or kick so hard as to render said rifle irrelevant… that would have to be one hell of a kick… And then I read the last line. “May or may not increase fertility.”
Wait, what? May or may not what? Ten years old… rabbit… oy… did all Cursed Children have that power? Because that made what Cairo was doing just… were the Cursed Children a deliberate vector for the Gastrea? Or a human adaptation? Both sounded horribly possible… and horrible illogical. A vector that fought the other vectors wasn’t a great idea… and an adaptation that had no male variation? Not great for the genepool.
The second tier of Initiator Animal themed upgrades contained ‘Owl’ & ‘Dolphin’, which thankfully weren’t all but useless for me. Owl was a ridiculously powerful vision booster, granting darkvision, rendering me immune to all but the best illusions and camouflage, improving my aim even further, and increasing the general range and resolution of my vision many fold. Wooo? Yoooo? Bang! Headshot. ‘Dolphin’ on the other hand came with improved intelligence (which probably wouldn’t amount to much improvement but would still be nice) and echolocation strong enough to grant blindsight and the ability to ‘see’ through walls. It was a twofer of sensory goodness.
To no one in particular, I muttered “I can see you… and hear you. You cannot hide from me. I’m coming to kill your murdering, child-raping ass.” My voice was really too cute to be issuing these kinds of threats… I felt like Mathilda from Leon the Professional.
The third and final tier of Initiator perks (and I couldn’t help suspecting that normal Initiators probably got a grand total of one of these things, not all damned six… so I was going to be some kind of Super Initiator even not taking into account all my Out of Context Abilities and thirteen-thousand years of training and practice) were ‘Spider’ and ‘Mantis’
Spider was, obviously… well… the Spiderman package… without the super-strength or extreme agility. It had the wall cling and the danger sense and the web-shooting fingers. Now, obviously, the lack of the strength and agility boosts weren’t a problem for me, but the local Spider Initiators weren’t screwed there, since the danger sense was apparently super friendly… as in it would give me a kind of tingle whenever anyone I cared about was in danger… so that was nice… potentially useless if they were too far away to get to in time, but… have to check the range… and I had greater than normal speed, so that was something. But the real bonus? The webbing wasn’t just high-tensile sticky stuff… No, this was monofilament wire webbing to be specific… MONOFILAMENT WIRES AT WILL? Fuuuuck me sideways and call me George! Daaaamn! That was definitely something I didn’t already have. Have to see if I could make it less dangerous… but that’s what experimentation was for.
But if Owl and Dolphin could be useful, and Spider sounded like a lot of fun… ‘Mantis’ was actually right in my sweet-spot. A general boost to all bladed combat, it granted nigh precognitive fighting ability with a blade… the kind needed to reflexively parry or deflect incoming attacks as long as I had a blade or two in my hands… attacks that I hadn’t even seen coming… attacks that included bullets. And since, you know, I’ve got Soul of Ice and a Shehai blade, I was pretty much guaranteed to always have one if not both.
Of course, that meant I only had another hundred Choice to spend, since there didn’t appear to be any way to get more… not that I really wanted much from the Item or Promoter section. Still, that hundred was just enough to buy the ‘Varanium Weaponry’ upgrade, which allowed me to upgrade my existing weapons with a Varanium Alloy. Varanium Mjolnir anyone?
Oh, and let me just commit to paper the wording on those bombs, one of which is now installed in my head. “Cybernetic Upgrade – Welles: An explosive installed within your cranium allowing your superiors easier control and neutralisation of assets, allowing for simple disposal once asset exceeds use by date. Free Unupgrade for Initiator.” EXCEEDS USE BY DATE? ASSETS!? Guess what was coming out of my head asap? Yup. That’s right.
“Fuck you people. Fuck you very very much. I’m going to install one of these inside each and every goddamned one of your heads and then make you beg me not to push the trigger, you psycho-freaking-fuck heads!” I snarled… I’m pretty certain everyone besides the Vord Queen was actively avoiding the palpable aura of fury I was giving off at this point. And she was only staying because I wasn’t giving her a choice.
Once I managed to calm down again… fuck keeping calm… my eyes were actually igniting the air in front of my face which made seeing the screen hard… I keyed in Queenie Vord (she had to have a name, right?) and ran through her options.
It was interesting to see the number of teamwork perks a Promoter got. “Huh…” I grunted, wondering if the Banker had slotted this jump in at this point on purpose. I had no idea how the jumps were chosen, nor any idea if the Banker was actually the one doing the choosing, but this list of perks seemed almost tailor made for dragging Queenie… no… that’s a terrible name. A name for a dog. Vordica? Bleh. Boudica? No… Veronica! Not quite. Heh… Betty and Veronica… no… Reggie… Reggie? Regina Vord!… for dragging her into. A crash-course in humanity, good and very very bad.
There were two free perks on the Promoter bank as well… and again, the other four would cost nine-hundred, being divided into two pairs at one-fifty and three-hundred respectively. That would leave her with just one-hundred, and (with a wry laugh) I used it to pick up ‘Roach’ for her as well. Not that she’d need it in her normal form, but she wouldn’t be in Vord form for any part of this jump. This was her first import, no alt-forms for her.
Tier one contained, as I said, the two freebies. The first was ‘Let’s Get Tactical’, which was uncanny battlefield analysis coupled with an instinctive knack for determining an optimal approach for any given fight, complete with vulnerability/weakness optimization. It was slightly scary, but par for her course. Then again, I didn’t want to cripple her; I wanted her to become a willing ally not remain my slave. That was paired with ‘Flight of the Coward’, which granted the former Vord-Queen a considerable talent for disengagement from conflict… while bringing her allies with her. It was, again, something she already knew how to do, but recontextualized into a framework that included allies.
Tier two lacked a cohesive theme, with one teamwork booster in the form of ‘Bonds that Bind’ and one combat booster in the form of ‘Combat Techniques’. The first would grant the Promoter-to-be a kind of synchronization with close allies, allowing her to instinctively determine what we were going to do next and to coordinate with me… and it worked both ways! If that didn’t teach miss “I am the Vord” teamwork, I don’t know what would.
The second was a bit of what seemed like Anime-Inspired Insanity… the ability to perform blatantly reality warping stunts such as splitting a steel bar in half with a butter knife… but only after concentrating and loudly reciting a long declaration of intent. It was just weird, it was. Plus, I think I can cut a steel bar with a butterknife already… hell, at this point, I might be able to cut a butter knife with a steel bar if I thought about it for a second or two. Cut At Will is a hell of a rush when you get used to using it.
The highest tier of Promoter abilities were similarly themeless, but even more blitheringly broken in a weird way. ‘Finishing Blow’ gave the one born to consume worlds the perfected ability to massively boost the power of a single attack from her arsenal… but only once per day at most… and at the cost of, at the very least, rendering her hors de combat and at worst resulting in a multi-day coma. It was that draining. Ack. “I dunno if you’ll ever use this,” I told her, “but it should be fucking spectacular if you do.”
She just frowned at me, having no idea what I was talking about, since I hadn’t handed over any of the weird little toys that symbolized her power ups.
The last one, ‘Sharing is Caring’ was just bonkers. It would allow her to share any one power she possessed with me, a power that could be changed once at the start of each new jump. Well, that waaaas interesting. Right now, she didn’t have any powers besides the ability to generate and control the Vord that I didn’t (Except the stuff from this jump), so… huh. Maybe… I had a sneaky idea.
For several minutes after handing over the toys to my new ‘friend’… explaining what each would do and watching her eyes go wide as the information flowed into her… I considered the pluses and minuses of the forming plan. Once she could understand what I was talking about, I had her share ‘Sharing is Caring’ itself with me… then turned around and shared one of my powers with her.
Which power you ask? Why ‘Third Eye of Satori’ of course! I figured it might help her understand humans a bit better for one, and allow her to figure out who was and wasn’t a scum-sucking fuck-head at the same time. Now if I could just keep her from killing the wrong people… If I’d been in a better mood, I’d have laughed as I watched her eyes go even wider as the depths of who and what I was actually registered on her. Yeah… sometimes the Abyss gazes back at you, huh bitch?
Of course, I couldn’t actually make the trip just me and Regina. Ahab & Joy got to come along as well and there wasn’t much I could do about it even had I wanted to. They decided to go in as an IP team of their own, with Joy as the Initiator, but Ahab going in as a female Promoter, apparently concerned that this world did something fucked up to the minds of the men. It was a theory, and that’s almost all we had to go on… hopefully it would be enough.
Oddly enough, Zane was not bothered by my choice not to include him in this mission. “Ugh. That place sounds terrible,” he commented when I explained my reasoning. No, he wasn’t worried about being left out… What he was worried about was me trusting Queeny.
“She can’t go back,” I pointed out. “She’s stuck with us for good or ill. This is a bit of a test to see if we can trust her to behave just a bit… we’ll see how it goes. Are you okay with me bringing down the last bastions of humanity?”
“I don’t see as you have much choice. The others mostly agree. Kendra and Toph are a little unnerved by it, as is Selen, but Uriel and Sextus understand, Joy and Ahab understand. Gaius thinks you should burn it with fire, but that’s pretty much par for his course. Bao… look, it’s a bad scene all around. But even the softest of us wouldn’t sanction the bullshit these people are doing. Save as many as you can, right?”
I nodded. “Right.”
Regina and I dropped into a tiny office and I took my first look at her as an actual person instead of an unholy abomination. She looked good as a human, a little on the small side for an adult, and very flat chested, but not bad. Of course, I was smaller. On the desk in front of us was a box that had a hand stamp. I tested it on a piece of paper. “Worthy!” it said, with a smiling bunny face above it. Great, at least I knew how I’d mark the worthy. Fucking Bunny Rapture. Now to find someone who wasn’t a Cursed Child who was worthy. Normal kids seemed the best bet.
We went outside, Regina asking me a string of questions as she tried to adjust to her new persona. The two Regina’s were surprisingly similar, one a sociopathic insect, the other a socially awkward aspergers case. Both asked “Why?” a lot.
I answered her as best I could as we headed towards the nearest school. We were in the Greater Tokyo Ward of Meguro it seemed, though much had changed since the last time I was there. The streets were more run-down, less meticulously clean, and every adult had a hunted, haunted look. There were gun emplacements everywhere, and many buildings were ruined.
Eventually, we found an elementary school, Ishibumi, the campus dominated by a large tree in the courtyard. There we found a bunch of kids and some teachers and scanned them all. It was kinda weird playing judge and jury, but if I was going to do this, I was going to save as many worthy people as I could find. Most of the teachers failed my standards… not terribly shocking… but what was horrifying was the number of children who failed… Only about half of the kids, elementary schoolers like myself, passed. The rest were a bunch of bullies, jerks, and altogether little shits. who honestly believed it was okay to spit on cursed children or pelt them with stones. Hell, even among the worthy were many who would need some significant therapy or adjustment. This wasn’t a good world.
I tested the stamp on one little girl who was mostly innocent and she blinked, looking down at her hand… as she faded out of reality. Huh. By the end of a ten minute period, three-hundred and seventy-six kids had vanished from the school and the rest of the school was in an uproar. I slipped out, having never been noticed.
“We are supposed to kill the Gastraea, Sabra. Why are we not doing that?” Regina asked… I hadn’t actually explained the plan to her… I wasn’t certain the Vord Queen would have been able to understand the why of the thing before her human persona integration.
“New Mission,” I said glibly. “Go get a sandwich at that restaurant. You know how money works. I’ll be back in twenty minutes. Don’t kill anyone that’s not trying to kill you.” I left her there and entered the warehouse through the sterile entryway to my medbay.
“Well? Any idea where they went?” I asked as I shapeshifted the bomb out of my head and spit it onto the floor. “Bleh, tastes of brain matter,” I commented, cricking my serpentine neck as I sealed the hole in my skull.
“We’ve got a box over here that’s registering 376 confirmed.” Toph said, pointing to the data briefcase that now had pink bunny stickers on each side. I hadn’t put them there before… but hey, at least they were cute.
“Have you found these allies yet?” the Earthbender asked, picking up the bomb with biohazard tongs. She was wearing a hazmat suit in Earth-Kingdom Green.
“Nope. The monoliths are fucking huge… Massive as fuck. Like tall enough to seriously impact weather patterns. And the people!” I growled, laying down on the diagnostic bed and allowing the machines to take blood samples. I couldn’t make a Gastrea cure without the Varanium… but I was going to make a retrovirus that turned it into a symbiotic cell organelle… like mitochondria… and thus rendered it non-communicable. That, and a vaccine that kept those uninfected in vitro from passing it on or contracting it. I sooo wasn’t spreading this thing to any other world.
“That bad?” she asked, freezing the bomb with liquid helium.
“Yeah…” I sighed, wincing as the medbed took a bone sample. “Jesus! That hurt! And the people… these fucking people. I get that they’ve been through a lot, but it’s like most of them lost their humanity along the way. Fifteen teachers were convinced that their charges were going to turn on them. Three of them were hoping specific girls turned out to be Cursed Children so they could visit them in the brothels they go to. And one was actually a government agent tasked to blow up the entire school if it got infected. I say was, because she isn’t anything anymore besides wormfood.”
Like I said, this wasn’t a great place to live. Hell, even the VMoD had lied to me. There were more than three cities left. Granted, Detroit, Tokyo, and Cairo were the only major cities left, and all the others were more along the lines of military camps… camps that were doomed… but had not yet been destroyed by one of the absolutely titanically huge Class V Gastrea, the eleven Zodiac Gastrea who’d fucked this world so hard it was on full on meltdown. I fucking hate biowarfare… and that’s clearly what this was.
What’s a Class V? Well, of course… the Zodiac Gastrea could go full Godzilla. A normal Class I possessed one of the various powers that defined the varieties of Cursed Children (and I’d been right that most Cursed Children only had one gift)… but each additional class increase granted the Gastrea another power and a massive increase in size and toughness. Class Is could be dealt with fairly simply by a Initiator-Promoter duo. Class IIs were a challenge, and Class IIIs were immensely strong and dangerous. Class IVs were the kind of enemy that had to be run away from by all the most skilled IP teams.
The Gastrea used an ability called ‘Evolutionary Jump’ to rapidly mutate, which was how humans that became more than 50% infected transformed into Class Is and how Class Is became Class IIs and so on… though apparently it was thought to be impossible for a Class IV to become a Class V, meaning they were almost certainly artificially created.
The Class Vs were, in fact, so powerful that the Monoliths were incapable of stopping them, which was why the pre-fall humanity had built giant fuck off mass-drivers the size of skyscrapers to shoot the bastards… though I could only find reference to them in the loosest terms on the Infonet… no details on where they might actually be now.
The net was similarly useless in explaining where the Gastrea came from aside from some speculation about Mitochondrial Eve and ‘The Devil’s Virus’… implying that the Gastrea were from the Garden of Eden and linked to what christian doctrine called ‘Eve’s Sin’ or ‘Original Sin’… as if self-knowledge was a bad thing… I just don’t understand people who think ignorance is a good thing.
The Gastrea War had been long and bloody and humanity had definately lost. Of the eight-billion some humans who’d lived on this world in 2021, the year the war broke out, 90% had died and — of the remaining eight-hundred million — most had been turned into Gastrea. Now, twelve years later, the total global population was about a hundred-and-sixty million… enough to restore the human race… but there wasn’t a safe place to do it and the Gastrea outnumbered humanity four to one.
Anyway, Regina and I began prowling the outer districts of Tokyo, where only the poorest people… and Cursed Children, lived, scooping up hundreds of them with each pass. Christ on a crutch, so damned many kids living in abject poverty right outside a thriving megalopolis… and yes, even with the state of the world as it was, Tokyo, Cairo, and Detroit were thriving. But for these children? They had a few protectors, but overall… it was a horrorshow.
About four weeks after we got there, the head lady of the Tokyo Area called all the top IP teams to a meeting. I wasn’t invited, but I’d been scoping out the other Promoters, bugging their coms, stuff like that, and I’d followed them… oh, and Sextus was dealing with the mother of all Cultureshock.
I’d had to break my own rule. That’s how bad things had gotten. I couldn’t cover the area I needed to cover, and I needed everyone I scooped up to be innoculated… and so I’d brought the best healers and scientists out of the Warehouse.
And that included Sextus, who was a powerful Knight Aquas… and Knight Aquas means healer… as well as powerful Knight Ferrus and Knight Ignis… both of which meant he could murderize even Class IVs without too much trouble. If there hadn’t been millions of them… well, maybe we could have saved this world.
But even higher on the list of healers was the Maiden Astraea, a powerful magic user who hadn’t lost all her powers when she’d given up her arch-demon’s soul. She was, if possible, even more horrified than I’d been by this world and you could see she just wanted to hug every one of those poor little girls… she couldn’t, she was still a spirit, so she kept hugging me instead… Until I gave her a Gigai (fake body) so she could protect the little ones. Gave her something to do.
But about this meeting… Seitenshi, that was what they called the Ruler of the Tokyo Area, was a young attractive woman with an old guy you didn’t have to scan to sense he was a snake as her chief advisor. She tasked everyone with recovering a box that had been eaten by some Gastraea… and then a lunatic in a mask showed up and shot a bunch of people and left this low ranker Rentaro a head in a box.
I hoped like hell Mask Guy wasn’t Public Enemy #2, because he was a fucking lunatic. A full on cyborg, his head was full of batshit crazy… so much so that figuring out who he was wasn’t really possible in the limited time I had to scan him from my hiding place in the vents.
Rentaro (also a cyborg, but not fully borged out) was much nicer… though his Initiator, Enju, was a little Tsundere (unlike Mask Guy, whose daughter/initiator, Kohina, was full-on Cute but Psycho Yandere). Rentaro was actually full of hope that this world could not only be saved, but remade into a better, more humane place for humanity. Enju, all of eleven, was seriously in love with the guy (7 years her senior)… Weee! Deep in Japanese Lolicon fantasy… though Rentaro had pretty much zero designs on Enju… Engrish for Angel, btw… and she was pretty certain she was going to die before she ever got him to punch her V-Card.
Mask Guy just wanted the world to burn to justify his (and his daughter’s) existence. Fucked in the head, but not really evil. I could see his point, if I squinted. His daughter… she was not right. She needed therapy in a big way.
But anyway, this case. The reward was just too good, the prestige of the catch too attractive. People were going to die. I tagged Rentaro, since he seemed to know what the hell was going on, monitoring him so I would know if he headed out of the city proper. He did almost at once, despite being near totally unqualified to go after a target as powerful as the one who’d taken the case.
Regina and I followed him to one of the outer districts which I hadn’t gotten to yet (there are a lot of them and I was being thorough. I didn’t want to leave anyone behind if I could help it.). It turned out that Enju had run away from home after being outed as a Cursed Child at school. Fuck this world… yes… drive off the only people who might fucking save you from the monsters. That makes tons of sense… Again… I hate the willfully ignorant.
Figuring that the duo was cute in a kind of helpless, hopeless way, I helped him find her. She was with a bunch of other CCs and their caretaker, nice old guy. After getting Enju to agree to head back into the safe-zone with Rentaro, I zapped them all the others (and their caretaker) into the box. Four weeks down and I was running at an average of about 1,200 a day. It was a drop in the bucket and I knew it. Even to save a tithe of the remaining population at that rate would take thirty-six and a half years… and that was assuming the population stayed stable. It wouldn’t.
Thankfully, Regina had only had to kill about thirty total fuckheads and we still hadn’t faced a Gastraea. That was going to change… fast.
The very next, Rentaro and a bunch of other IP teams headed out into the wilderness to track the box as a group. Mask Man & Psycho Daughter were there… doing their best to kill the others because they’re both deeply damaged people.
Mask Man was not happy when I sent Psycho Daughter into the aether, but I was merciful and sent him too. He might be a tool, but he was actually her father and cared for her in his own demented way. He wasn’t actually worthy, but it was hard to fault someone who cared for a Cursed Child in this hellish world.
Part of the reason I made an exception for him was because, when I’d sent the Initiators of the other teams into storage… only two of their ten Promoters actually cared about their charges and didn’t think of their girls as little more than tools. Even then, those two weren’t great people, but someone who cared a bit was better than someone who didn’t care at all. I was going to have a huge number of kids who needed caretakers that I just didn’t have if I was doctrinaire about this… Plus, war does bad things to ones morality and perspective. Maybe out of this craphole the less than ideal adults would shape up some… with enough therapy.
But there was one thing I wasn’t going to compromise on. One of those eight remaining Promoters got himself nailed to a tree by his dangly bits. Fucking bastard. Perverts I could cope with… even those who crossed some of society’s lines… but this guy was a serial killer of children, hiding behind a badge. I left him, screaming and thrashing, as bait for the Gastrea.
And the Gs came. Lots of them. Swarms of them out of the night. Regina understood the mise en scène of this place, the existential essence of the moment, knew the thrill of battle, and went after them. She’d been born for battle, born to destroy entire species, and she recognized a kindred soul in the Gastrea… and, as was very Vord, what was similar to her was the biggest threat of all.
Her fire fury, Luxuria, charred wave after wave of the smaller ones to ash, her earth fury, Ira, smashed and crushed and mangled the medium ones… but there were legions of them and they kept on coming.
In the end, I had to save her from the swarm. “They’re venomous… and you’re not immune,” I pointed out. “Like your Wax Spiders and everyone else. They bite you, you turn into one of them.” I didn’t tell her that she’d wake up in the Warehouse if that happened. I wasn’t sure it would work on unpurchased companions, and I hadn’t actually paid any Choice to import her into this jump. I wasn’t eager to find out.
Sure, it had worked on Uriel, way back when, but dude was dead and from a world where ghosts were real. He’d been a ghost since I killed him. I wasn’t even sure Regina had a normal mortal soul. I should look at what I got from her daughter sometime. But that was for later.
Gastrea are, let me be clear, fucking ugly and gross… they are also relentless, vicious, incredibly fast, and massively tough to kill without Varanium. Even Vordknights would have had trouble against the Gastrea.
While we whittled down the swarm, Enju managed to kill the one with the box… and then Tokyo was attacked by the Scorpio Gastraea. It was Pacific Rim Kaiju Big, and four times as ugly. I flew off to Tokyo Bay to make sushi out of the big thing while Renju went to try and bring the thing down using the fucking Railgun called ‘The Ladder of Heaven’ that the Tokyo Defense Force had just left lying about in the forest… wow… how convenient that one of the missing building sized mass-drivers from the war was lying around in the jungle just where we were… Okay… Clearly Enju and Rentaro were the MCs of this little fiasco.
I am… not a weak entity. I can attack at hypersonic speeds and my attacks can flatten entire city blocks at a time. This fucking thing healed faster than anything I’ve ever seen. I was just about to break out the frost magic and see how it liked that (I’d been leery of using mass damage attacks because the city was… you know… right there.) when the railgun fired. I was, barely, able to get out of the way in time.
The eighty centimeter wide chunk of accelerated varanium had crossed the thirty kilometers between cannon and kaiju in one nine-thousandth of a second… if I hadn’t been slowing time at that exact moment, the flash-bloom of superheated air might have vaporized me. Point nine c, ninety-percent of the speed of light gives you a little warning, but I still hurt myself slamming across the water of Tokyo Bay at hypersonic speeds. Ouch.
What, the fuck? Seriously. If these people had the tech to build a mass accelerator that could boost something nearly to light speed, how in the name of God did they lose to the Gastraea? This place made no sense. It was like a morality play of… oh… right. It was a morality play about how humans are the bad guys. Fuck it.
Long story short? 2.6 million Cursed Children, 9.4 million others, in the box, 7 years, 241 days. That’s how many I was able to save, maxing out the box at twelve million, and how long it took (not counting the month between jumps) to complete the jump. I didn’t even have to bring down the monoliths (though I did to get the varanium for the vaccine, but only after the Gastraea had killed everyone. Hell, some of those monoliths had been rigged to fail. Fucking humans.). I just took away all the Cursed Children. I was the last one standing. And I watched as Cairo, the last bastion of human civilization on this world fell.
“I do not understand. How can you care about some of your kind and still let this happen?” Reggy asked. She was Reggy now. Regina was too formal for common use.
“It’s a mystery,” I said sadly, feeling the weight of all those I couldn’t save and all those I’d killed. “I could not stop the end of this world. So I saved everyone I could.”
“You did not try to save the world,” she pointed out.
“I didn’t. I could have spent all my time doing so and failed… I could have killed and killed and killed. I could have paved entire continents and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. There were too many Gastrea and too much damage… the Gastrea had killed and replaced most of the animal life. The seas are teeming with them. There were too few of us to turn the tide… these people were trapped in a holding action… and were losing their humanity and their world by inches… but they would have lost.
“You could have tried,” she insisted stubbornly. Was I actually getting a humanity lecture from the Vord Queen?
“Why do you care about them?” I asked.
“I do not. They are all vermin,” she said with a shrug. Okay… good… I think. “I simply do not enjoy failing. Had you unleashed me to turn my Vord against the Gastrea sooner…” She motioned to the cache of queens that were even now hatching. Fuck the Gastrea. I’d given them their victory over humanity… let them have a taste of biowarfare.
“Then we’d probably have a word covered in croach and mutant Gastrea Vordknights under the control of your daughters who’d want you dead. Have you forgotten them?”
“No…” she sulked a little. “Unfaithful wenches… next time I make daughters they will respect my authority!”
“Yeah… that,” I pretended to agree. “But as I was saying, we could have laid waste to millions of Gastrea a month and in the end, the decade would be over and no one would be saved. The Gastrea would still control the world and this branch of humanity would still be doomed.”
“And so you abandon them to their fate as you did the Cane of Canea?” she asked, twisting the metaphorical knife of accusation.
I shook my head sadly, watching the last of the Cairo’s defenders blow themselves up in an atomic fireball rather than be turned. “This world, these people, had transgressed so many taboos, so many, many basic rules of human decency… crossed lines that can’t be uncrossed. And still, if I’d been certain there was a way to save them, I would have tried. But I can’t sacrifice their innocent victims just to take a chance that the undeserving would be saved.”
“But you’re allowing twenty to die for everyone you’re saving,” she pointed out.
“More,” I said, “I’m ending all the lives that could be. The ones who would have died as lamentable sacrifices to an unremembered struggle. But at that cost, twelve million innocents have been saved. I could have risked them to try and save the rest, but it would have meant letting a couple million innocents die for certain, and allowing millions of scumbags, bastards, murderers, and people who willingly looked the other way to live. And it might have been for naught. I didn’t make this world a hell hole. I can only hope the next one is better. And can cope with a couple million superpowered pubescent girls.”
There was a beach this time, but no party. Just a candlelight vigil for a world that was ending, and a hope that maybe, just maybe, the scattered and hidden enclaves of humanity that I hadn’t been able to find would learn from this. But I doubted it. I didn’t know who the hell the companions I’d been promised were, but I kinda hoped they’d fuck off. I wasn’t feeling very good about myself right at that moment and didn’t want to be associated with anyone who’d rejoice at what we’d done. It was like cauterizing a wound, necessary, but fucked up. Twice now I’d let hundreds of millions die. The first time to make what I hoped was a better world. This time… I wasn’t sure. But I hoped like hell it wasn’t a trend.
Next: World 40 – The Promise
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