“The Battlegrounders, both the Lords and the civilians, only respect strength, power. They might fear individual operatives,” he nodded towards Robert Grave, “but not the Citadel as a whole. The same is true for conventional military forces. Any action on our part, taking out a Lord or invading a city, will fail. If we send in an Intervention team to retake… say, El Paso, they’ll succeed. A week later, we’ll be attacked by any surviving minor Lords and at least a few of the neighboring Lords.
“Best case scenario, we win and most of the city is gone. The method we intend to use, Project Janus, is slower. We spent years looking for just the right candidates, operative recruits with the right mindsets and the right powers. They were trained to fight… viciously, without restraint. They were groomed to be fearsome enough that the Battlegrounders will respect them, even fear them, but loyal enough that they can be trusted to stay true to the Citadel without supervision.
“The plan… the plan is to send in these men and woman, in pairs and alone. They’ll take back cities, not by invasion but by Challenge. Kill a Lord, take his city, and hold it in turn. Eventually, they can bring in Support personnel to fix things, restore power and water, roads, education, all that. It may take years, but once they’ve got the cities working again, they can be reintegrated, brought back into the country and out of the Battlegrounds.
“In the mean time, they’ll have to rule their cities like Lords. If they try to change things too quickly, it’ll look like weakness, bring in too many challengers and result in too much damage. It’ll take a careful balance, between the image of implacable strength and the act of rebuilding.”
Without thinking, Jason replied. “And where do we come in?” Surprised that he had been able to speak this time, he noted that his voice had the same strange echo to it that the Analyst’s had taken on.
Hector laughed, or at least it appeared that way. Jason could not hear him.
“Operative Grave is already a name in the Battlegrounds. If he moves into a city on their side of the Border, it’s likely that most Lords will flee rather than fight. If not, he shouldn’t have any difficulty taking the city. Better yet, every challenger will make him stronger. You’re not widely known, not yet, but that’ll be easy enough to change.
“Just remember the way you treated that Monster impersonator and do something similar to the first few challengers you get. Operative Hive will act as support and a fallback means of communications for you.”
Oh. Jason did not answer, merely considered the idea. This… this was something he could do, probably. Killing was easy for him and he understood shows of power, intimidation. The actual ruling was beyond him but probably not beyond Hector, especially with advice from Analysis and Support. There was only one problem.
He would not be able to help Jenny. True, his efforts hadn’t- had been unsuccessful so far, but he had hope. If he left, it would be tantamount to giving up. No chance left for her.
“Can I… make a request?” he asked.
The analyst responded immediately. “I’ve been instructed to tell you that, sometime within the next two or three years, the Citadel will be appointing a new liaison to the British Royal Knights. This person will be responsible for advising them in Empowered combat but will not take part in any actual fighting. It’s a post we’ve held before, usually one with a lot of prestige, but it’s… fallen into disfavor recently. Too hard to find personnel who are both willing to do the job and can be spared from regular duty.”
“You mean- This liaison, they’d be under the Monarch’s influence during their time there, powerless?” The man nodded. “And… it would be a high profile posting, widely publicized and praised?”
“Yes, it’s pretty much a guarantee of minor celebrity. I…” he seemed to hesitate for a moment, “… I hope you’re not seeking the job yourself? I don’t mean to be insulting but, with your demeanor and the nature of Janus…”
“No, not me.” Jason’s cheeks hurt but he could not feel any lives being expended to heal them. He reached up, felt them with his fingers. Apparently, he was smiling.
Somewhere, there is a room. It is not very large but its layout is quite strange. The entrance is concealed, on both sides, and the only fixed piece of furniture is a large chair of solid steel in the center. A man sits in the chair, showing no sign of discomfort despite the lack of padding. The walls, the floor and the ceiling are also steel, or at least a special alloy that is closer to steel than any other common metal.
Between the man and the walls, three layers of glass slide into place on silent mechanisms. The glass stretches from floor to ceiling and forms a series of squares, nested one within the other with the man on his chair in the center and mirror polished steel walls containing them all. Once they have settled into place, he rises smoothly to his feet and takes a single step forward. Behind him, the chair sinks into the ground which ripples and flows for a moment as it passes.
The lights dim as he returns to the precise center of the room, slowly approaching full darkness. Eventually, the only illumination to reach his eyes comes from the interface within his helmet, smooth and unblemished on the outside but filled with enhanced display screens and monitors within. He reaches up, rests his white gloved hands on its unadorned reflective surface, and slides it smoothly from his head. All around him, the glass panes begin to take on new life.
One after another, symbols appear on the glass. Traced out in nothing but light, projected from some hidden device in the walls or the glass itself, they come in every color of the rainbows in so many shades that the human eye is barely able to discriminate between some of them. Not letters or numbers, they are closer to geometric shapes than anything else.
Once the change is complete, the pattern established and static, he begins to turn in place, ever so slowly. He does not allow his gaze to rest on any one part of the room, rather he appears to be attempting to take in as much as possible at a glance. After he finishes the first rotation and the second, he pauses, takes a small step to the side, and leans forward a small degree. His gaze is focused now, not on a single character or even a single screen, but on the space between the outermost and middle layer of glass. He shifts his head from side to side, carefully adjusting how the symbols seem to overlap to him. Eventually, he focuses on another region and performs a similar series of actions.
Finally, satisfied, he sits in the chair that rises from the ground even as he descends. He replaces the helmet, waits a moment for its systems to sync up with him once more, then makes the merest effort of will, of intention. Three symbols- to any other eye they would be unconnected to each other- each change slightly. One grows slightly larger, another shifts in hue from pure white to very pale red and the third changes from something like an octagon, gaining an additional side.
Even as the glass slides back into its recesses and the room’s lighting returns to normal, Stainless relaxes, loses the specific mindset necessary to alter the pattern, even to comprehend it. Bereft of that inhuman focus, once more himself, he is bored. The challenge has fled from his project.
The cities which border the Hive are his. The first symbol’s alteration reflected the extermination of a group of smugglers, the last who were able to bring in food from the Hive. The Collective’s neutrality in the Battlegrounds is unquestioned, as is its policy of non-intervention. So long as he passes on the food they sell to him, regardless of the mark up, they won’t trouble him.
The influence that gives him, now the sole large scale source of food in the area, means that his task is complete in all but name. He can strengthen or weaken any city he chooses, create unrest amongst a Lord’s lieutenants or turn the un-Empowered against their rulers, all without leaving this room. No wonder he’s bored. That increasing… ennui is reflected in the change from octagon to nonagon. He has promised himself that, one way or another, he will not let it reach decagon.
The second change, the almost imperceptible growth of red… His agents have found it, the key to his next plan. He knows the Citadel will take action soon. Even without his special sources of information, that would be obvious. His plan, the cure for his boredom, will have to account for that. It shouldn’t be a problem, likely won’t even be difficult. The only thing he’ll need to do is select the right target.
He needs more data for that. Moving too soon would be foolish. He knows this to the core of his being. Nevertheless, if he doesn’t get what he needs before nine becomes ten… Foolish or not, action will follow.