I had no idea what, if anything, there was to do about Solace and the locus. I had no idea how the locus had seen their relationship before the unbottling, before the resurrection, or at any other point. And maybe the metaphor that I was seeing was just a thin slice of time, the locus picturing Solace as being mean by wanting to go away. Their relationship wasn’t one of child and parent, but there had definitely been times when I thought my parents were fascists. Surely the locus was the one who could control whether or not they went? I talked about what I’d seen with the rest of the party (Raven after we’d had a day away from each other), even going so far as to send a letter to Valencia, but the feedback I got in return wasn’t all that helpful: we needed more data, and would monitor the situation, but it didn’t necessarily mean anything, and even if it did mean something, it wasn’t like we could actually intervene, except by talking to Solace.
There were more important things on our plate.
Our communication with the Dorises was via entad: one that we’d taken from Larkspur, ages and ages ago, which the Dorises still had the other end of. Thankfully, they had held onto it, and their reckless duplication of it hadn’t substantially harmed our ability to use it for tracking communication. As far as long-distance communication entads went, it was pretty fucking neat: it allowed two users to think map data at each other, while also enhancing their power to think in terms of maps. It took the form factor of a large pocket watch, almost too big for a pocket, which showed a map that could be pinched and pulled through smartphone-like touch controls. In this way, two people on opposite sides of the hex could communicate by looking at the same place and annotating it with whatever they wanted to say. If you had something to add to that map, you could just think at it, and fill in some details, including a bunch of different overlays. (What it was for wasn’t always a question that you could answer with entads, but my guess was that it was largely meant for reporting back on exploration missions, rather than what we were using it for.)
Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle was deep underground, which was awkwardly marked on the entad map by elevation arrows attached to topological lines and a heat map. The entad was great, but it worked best in two dimensions, and for Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, that simply wasn’t the case.
“I’m really thinking about the social approach,” I told the group, on our last day on the ship. Things with Raven were rocky, but the talk about soul-editing had been put on hold for the time being, and the understanding that there was no real urgency to any of it was helping, at least in my opinion.
“You know we effectively killed him, right?” asked Amaryllis. There were three of her at the meeting, which was a bit unusual, since normally she kept her selves separated. The primary version of her was the one doing most of the talking, and identifiable by the entads she wore, Sable chief among them. We called her Primary; the other two were Seconmary and Tertimary. They wore color coded clothes, with reds for the original, pink for second, and white for third, mostly so that people could keep them straight, though the syncs were common, and the differences between them mostly in the moment-to-moment.
“We didn’t kill him,” I said. “He’s still definitely alive, or at least undead.”
“What’s the social plan then?” asked Raven. “How are we going to talk him into being good, or on the path to good?”
“Uh,” I said. “Okay, so, let’s take as a given that Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle is redeemable, that there’s some solution which results in him voluntarily, or I guess, maybe through force, deciding that he’s going to stop being a douchebag, release all his zombies, and then stick to the less problematic version of necromancy, which would still make him a multimillionaire. So far as I see it, the problem with him isn’t that he’s prioritizing money over pain and suffering, or that he’s a horrible despot, it’s that idiotic proclamation that he made once he’d been found out. Like, let’s say that Elisha Blue’s whole life has been set up as an object lesson for me. What does that lesson entail?”
“This seems like a bad way to approach the problem,” said Grak, frowning.
“Well, sure,” I said. “And yes, it would have been better to have done this before our first time into the EZ. I’m just saying — look, he wrote this whole thing about how the world was shit, how they’d keep buying from him anyway, how no one actually cared. That wasn’t the right play from a PR standpoint, it was obviously not the play, but it was what he did anyway.”
“Are you back on the narrative train?” asked Primary.
“No,” I replied. “Just acknowledging that certain things are possible for me that might not otherwise be possible for anyone else, and not because of the game layer. I’m not even approaching it like I’m trying to figure out what the Dungeon Master might want from me, I’m trying to see Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle as maybe being just a guy, albeit one who ended up in extreme circumstances. I’m trying to see if that framing holds, and if it works.”
“You think that most people would do as he did?” asked Grak.
“I think that his failures are human failures,” I said. “They’re amplified, obviously, and extreme, I’m just thinking about that letter he wrote, and what was going through his head. If he really, honestly believed that it didn’t matter whether he was engaging in what was effectively torture on a mass scale, he should have kept his mouth shut, made some denials, or offered a reframing. Instead, he blamed everyone else, and he did it publicly. It was important for him to shift the wrongdoing onto others, to deny that this was anything other than how the world had been set up to betray him.”
“So we tell him that it was his fault?” asked Grak, raising an eyebrow.
“I don’t know,” I said. I drummed my fingers on the table. “I’m just trying to get inside his head. Even if there’s no social option, it might still be helpful in some other way. One of the things that doesn’t show up in his biographies, probably because they didn’t know, is when he found out that there were still people living inside the bodies that he was using. It seems like a vital question to me, and the assumption is that he knew from the start, but there’s no evidence backing that up. It’s all implication.”
“Would that really be better?” asked Raven. “If we entertain the notion that he didn’t know until that initial report was published … Juniper, he’s keeping half a million people locked into their unmoving bodies just as a safeguard against enemy action, ready to doom them to the hells.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know, he’s a monster. But I do think it makes a difference. Like, if he knew right from the start and decided that he was going to go ahead with it, and damn the pain he was inflicting so long as he could make products on the cheap, then yes, I would say that there’s a good chance that he can’t be talked out of being who he is. On the other hand, imagine that he invented this process, and didn’t realize why it was excluded, but tried to make the best of being the only practitioner of his magic, building up his empire, not realizing that there were people inside those bodies after all. Imagine that he doesn’t find out until the day that the paper runs the story, then has to do some quick experimental work himself to figure out whether it’s actually true, and it slowly dawns on him that yes, actually, he’s spent decades working these bodies to the bone, and there are people trapped inside.”
“You’re telling yourself a story,” said Grak.
“I am,” I admitted. “I really, fully admit that. But if there’s any chance that we can take the non-violent path here, I’m trying to think about what that path might look like. We don’t need to consider those worlds where he’s irredeemable, we need to consider the ones where there’s some set of words that will turn him. If anyone has any guesses about what those worlds might look like, and how we might prepare for them, I’m all ears.”
“It’s good to see you newly energized,” said Primary. Her voice was very calm, and the clones were giving me sympathetic looks. “But in this hypothetical, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s reaction to being told that he had spent decades doing something he thought was good but was actually unconscionable was to loudly declare that no, it was justified. Then, when that didn’t help him, he decided that he would further commit to his course of action, changing absolutely nothing except to double down on the torture. I don’t think we can redeem him, in this or any other world.”
“I’m trying to think of how to put this,” I said. “Let’s say that you find out you did something bad. You see yourself as a good person, so obviously there’s an internal struggle. Sometimes, in some people, that struggle doesn’t end up with you copping to having done something bad. Sometimes, to preserve your self-identity, you start to make up excuses. You say, ‘oh, but I’m a good person, so obviously the things that look bad are actually good’. You cling to flimsy evidence in favor of you, and try to poke holes in solid evidence against you. And then you commit to those ways of thinking, because they’re a defense mechanism. They’re what lets you keep looking at yourself in the mirror without wanting to blow your head off with a shotgun.”
I was getting some looks.
“I did things that were bad on Earth,” I said. “And I’ve done worse on Aerb. There have been times that I’ve succumbed to doubling down on bad behavior.”
“Trying to see yourself in monsters is unhealthy,” said Grak.
“Well — I guess I can’t argue with that,” I said. “Or I can, but I won’t.”
“And to be clear, you’re not arguing that Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle is good?” asked Raven.
I leaned back for a moment, trying to think about how to phrase it. “Amaryllis? Can you help translate?”
“If I understand right, you think that there is, if not redemption for Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, then at least some understanding we might arrive at before killing him,” said Primary. “Do you regret killing Onion?”
“No,” I said. “But I do wish I’d understood him better, and I think we could have avoided a fair bit of pain and suffering if I had. Or … even if not that, then at least it would have been a chance to take something from it, to learn and to grow. If all we ever do is walk into places where there are some people who need to die, and then we kill them …” I trailed off.
“Then we’ll power up enough that we might be able to squeak past Fel Seed,” said Primary. “We’ll meet Uther, then somehow elevate you to godhood. That’s our long-term goal. There doesn’t need to be any lesson taken from any of it, unless you think that’s the path to godhood, which … is certainly a theory.”
“Not everyone can be redeemed, Juniper,” said Raven. “Not everyone can even be understood. Some of the people Uther killed, we could barely fathom the reasons for their evil. There are truly alien monsters out there, beings whose methods of thought you can barely make sense of.”
“Elisha Blue is human,” I said. “We should be ready to kill him, but I’d at least like some insight into how he got to where he is now, and if it’s possible for us to put in some social effort, I think we should do it.”
“I don’t have any argument with that,” said Primary. She turned to look at Grak. “So long as Grak can protect us?”
“Void is difficult to deal with,” he said. He was right; it was kind of funny that something that had been a threat right from the beginning was still a threat this far in. “Everything else, I will do my best.”
We talked some more after that, particularly about what we thought Blue-in-the-Bottle’s contingencies looked like, and what specific form his immortality took. We didn’t know for certain whether the body we’d killed was a puppet, a wind-up doll, or something else. My contention that he had a phylactery somewhere had been met with skepticism from the others when I’d brought it up following our first encounter, which was sensible, since the only reason you would expect it was because he had many of the hallmarks of lichdom. Liches weren’t even a thing that existed on Aerb anymore, not since Uther’s time, and they’d been a totally different phenomenon, per Raven (almost a year of Uther’s time, spent on a bad lichen pun).
The Underline landed just outside of Necrolaborem, this time moving faster, as we were presumably unwelcome. The ship took off as soon as we were on the ground, back to safer environs, waiting for us to give a signal so that we could be picked up. The plan, such as it was, started with us finding the entrance to the underground complex that the Captain was presumed to have, based on his probable location. The worst case scenario was that there was no connection to the surface at all, and we would have to tunnel down to him, but we were prepared for that.
I had been busy making inktads on the ship. Like rune magic, ink magic was best if you had quite a bit of time to prepare, since that would let you make the strongest results that were most applicable to your situation. Most of the stuff I’d made for the Doris EZ had been completely useless, since I had thought that we would need crowd control and area of effect magic, but since we hadn’t actually had to go up against a clone tide (except a few brief moments in the market, which Grak had solved), they’d gone unused. There had been a really neat gun that got better the more people were around, and I hadn’t used it a single time. Heck, I had gotten through the whole EZ without killing a single Doris.
For Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, I was most worried about undead warriors, the kind of implacable killing machines that would be hard to take down no matter what magic I used, so I had thought long and hard about it, and then gone whole hog on burning out nervous systems. That was frighteningly high i-level, meaning that I couldn’t quite manage it without some serious limitations, which I put in place as requiring charge up time, discharge time, close contact, and precise positioning. The end result was three pieces of kit: one was a glove that could do nerve damage to whatever it touched or kill outright by scorching through the nerve system if I could have a hand on someone’s neck or skull for long enough; another was a dagger that could pulse outward from wherever it was planted, targeting the nerves specifically; the third was a net, which, instead of burning through nerves, would draw them out instead, literally pulling them from the body that was trapped beneath the fibers. That third one was weaker, too derivative of the first, but I was hoping that it would be good for a single use.
I hadn’t been able to solve the issue of him being underground with inktads though. If we had to tunnel down four hundred feet to where the Dorises were saying Blue was, that would almost certainly mean calling in Bethel, and no one wanted to do that, least of all me. We had not, however, removed that option from the table.
The first guards we saw raised their weapons, then dropped them almost immediately at a signal from one of the zombies in their midst. The weapons were set on the ground, and then the group walked toward us with hands raised.
“Ah, shit,” I said. I didn’t like this.
“Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” said one of the guards with a nod. “The Captain would like you to come with us.”
“We decline,” said Amaryllis. “If there’s talking to be done, we can do it here, out in the open.”
The guards looked at each other. They both looked frightfully young. The zombie between them was staring straight at us. I was pretty sure that the Captain could see through the zombies, and maybe even talk through them. It had, after all, given them a signal.
“Wait here,” said one of the guards. He trotted away, leaving us standing awkwardly in a field.
I was extending vibration magic as far as it would go, draining my internal stores of power to do so. I was worried about snipers, or if not snipers, then bombs, or if not bombs, then … something else. Obviously bombs and snipers could both be stopped by either still magic or Grak’s wards, but I wasn’t about to pretend that just because I was grossly overpowered meant that I was immune to everything: I had been disabused of that notion very thoroughly by this point.
We waited for about ten tense minutes, and eventually, the manservant, Terrence, came to meet us.
“My apologies,” he said with a bow. “The Captain had wished to speak with you in person, and it hadn’t been anticipated that you would accept the offer but decline to move.”
“Our primary concern is taking out his hostages,” I said. “Any help that you can give us with that, with or without his permission, is appreciated. We have his location now. It’s going to be over within twenty-four hours.” We debated what to tell the civilians, and decided on the truth. It would be better for the Captain to be hit with a blitz, but we didn’t have the capabilities to blitz straight into the ground.
“I can’t tell you, because I don’t know,” said Terrence, keeping his voice stiff.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Can you tell me where the entrance to the underground portion of the city is?” His eyes flicked to the side, looking to the other members of the party. “There are many ways for this to go, Terrence. So far as I’m concerned, you’re an innocent in all of this. I don’t want to rip your memories out of your skull or break your fingers, but I will.” This was an exaggeration. (There was a chance that I would need to soulfuck him though.)
He trembled. “There’s an elevator shaft in the manor,” he said. “But that’s where I was instructed to bring you in the first place.”
“Lead the way,” I said.
He moved awkwardly as he took us to the manor. It was a trap, it had to be, and while I could blame Blue-in-the-Bottle for a lot of stuff, I wouldn’t have blamed him for trying to lure us into a trap to kill us. Him being underground was really, really unfortunate, because even if we were carving our own path through the rock to him, he had plenty of chances to bunker. It was a bad situation, to be sure. I was iffy on going down the elevator with Terrence, but it would depend on what we saw, and what I thought our chances looked like.
Everything was pretty much exactly as we’d left it. There were all the same guards, which I was watching closely, and the same zombies, going about their tasks. Some of them were, now that I had a chance for a closer look, obviously scripted, just as Grak had said. Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle was a showman, and he’d set things up so that visitors could see the labor on display. It was sickening to think that there was still a person inside them, looking out through dead eyes as their body raked the same small group of leaves on repeat just in case someone walked by.
I was trying to keep some sympathy and understanding for Elisha Blue, but it was difficult, when faced with this madness. Maybe it really was that he just didn’t give a shit about the pain and suffering of others, but there was a chance, a chance that he had this alternate reality constructed for himself, one where this suffering was by consent, or the inevitable product of an unjust world. There was a chance that he could be disabused of what notions he had.
He knows more than he says, Amaryllis signed to me in Gimb. She had been watching Terrence.
“There’s a good end here,” said Amaryllis. “That good end is that the Captain agrees to stand down and release his half million hostages. He agrees to practice a lesser form of necromancy, one which doesn’t require the suffering of the souls. If there’s anything, anything at all, that you can tell us, now would be the time.”
“He doesn’t tell anyone very much,” said Terrence as he led us into the manor itself. The museum was still there, with exhibits still running.
“Tell us about the facility down below,” I said.
“I don’t know anything,” said Terrence. There was a hitch in his voice. I felt bad about saying that I would rip out his memories and break his fingers. I would feel considerably less bad if my saying that in some small way helped to alleviate the pain and suffering of half a million people.
“Was it made by entad?” asked Grak. “There is no visible fill.” He was right; if you were building underground, you needed to put all that stuff you excavated somewhere, and there was no corresponding hill or mountain. It was the kind of thing that the Empire of Common Cause occasionally looked for, thinking that it might give a hint about where he was hiding the hostages.
“I don’t know,” said Terrence. “It’s like a normal building down there. Please don’t hurt me.”
“What are the walls like?” asked Grak. This was the point in any D&D game where someone’s minor bonus to a little-used skill finally came in handy.
“They’re smooth stone,” said Terrence. “The pipes and wires are on the outside. He has an office that’s nicer, that’s the only place I’ve gone.”
“Are there other entrances?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Terrence replied. His lip was trembling. “Please, I don’t know.”
I had unfortunately miscalibrated my threats, it seemed. Probably if I had kept Intimidation as a skill, I would have figured out some way to give him the right understanding of what I considered to be at stake, and to motivate him to be forthright with us.
“It’s okay,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was smooth and gentle. “We just want to know what we’re walking into.”
That gentle voice was undercut by both her armor, which had a plethora of spikes coming from it, and from the sword she was carrying in her hand. She had more entad support than any of us, given how much of the Anglecynn stash was usable by her and her alone. There were no less than sixteen different swords that could be pulled from Sable at a moment’s notice, three pistols, two rifles, and other, more exotic weapons. I was scared of her, and based on our sparring, there was no way that she could beat me in a straight fight.
“There will be guards,” said Terrence. “He doesn’t use people down there, because people have needs.”
“Is it a facility for making zombies?” I asked.
“I don’t know!” said Terrence, voice raising. “I don’t know what’s down there.”
“It’s alright,” said Amaryllis. “We don’t expect you to know, but it’s important that we have every advantage that we can get going into this.”
“Well I don’t know,” replied Terrence, his voice soft.
I glanced at Amaryllis, and she gave me a nod. She was no Valencia, but she thought that he was telling the truth. I felt bad for having a kid mixed up in all this (‘kid’ was how I thought of him, though he wasn’t more than a year or two younger than I was). I resolved to make sure he was taken care of once this was all over. Clearly he knew things, and we would need to ask him questions, but we weren’t going to deal with Blue-in-the-Bottle and then leave this place without any leadership, even if we did have to kill the Captain.
Terrence led us through the manor, and I was feeling particularly paranoid. There were lots of zombies around, standing guard, watching us. I could see through their eyes, which were tracking our movements. Void weapons were the only thing that I was worried about, but I was worried about them. Amaryllis had inch-thick sheets of steel inside Sable that she could pop out, I could set my elemental armor to thick iron plate, and I had not only the ability to ‘parry’ void, but could track eye movement and attention to see where a shot was likely to go, the better to dodge. I was still nervous. If the Captain had rigged up a void bomb, or a set of them, somewhere inside the manor … well, that would be a problem.
I had expected the elevator to be small, barely capable of fitting us all in it, but no, it was a freight elevator, big enough to fit a car. I didn’t like the level of engineering that had obviously gone into it: it spoke to the importance of this place, and the amount of resources that had been poured into Blue-in-the-Bottle’s enterprise. I wondered when elevators had been invented on Aerb, and when this one had been installed, and who the Captain had gotten to do it. Elevators needed maintenance. Did Blue just train up his own elevator repair technicians? I was thinking about all those questions because I was nervous. A freight elevator like this had Implications for what we would find down there. It was the kind of thing you would use for transporting heavy equipment or lots and lots of bodies.
I reached out with water magic. I’d leveled it quite a bit since those initial lessons with my fake mom, but trying to use it to track people was still difficult work. Water magic worked on scale, with huge clouds and bodies of water, and people were, fundamentally, not what it was for. It was like trying to count grains of sand from ten feet away. You could guess, if they were all in a clump, but not be exact, because you couldn’t see the individual grains. Here, it was complicated somewhat by the water table, which the underground complex was well below. Still, I could easily sense where the water wasn’t, and make some kind of guess about numbers down there.
“Hundreds of thousands below us,” I said. “Maybe more.” It was a whole fucking city. I couldn’t count them, but I could feel them moving around, not the rows upon rows of stacked zombies that I had expected. I looked at Terrence. “Do people come in and out of this place often?”
“Almost never,” said Terrence. “Zombies come out, sometimes.”
“Wait,” I said. “They don’t go in?”
“I don’t know,” replied Terrence. “Processing is done somewhere else.”
“And he’s inviting us down to see what he has going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Terrence again.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I said. It was like going down into the Temple at Li’o, but worse, because the pretense of normalcy and civility was so paper thin, and the forces arrayed at the bottom of that elevator shaft were almost certainly incredibly dangerous. We had Grak, which meant protection, but I was worried, and not getting less worried as time went on.
“Go or no go?” asked Amaryllis.
There were two main options, if the answer was ‘no go’. The first was facing down Perisev directly and telling her that it couldn’t be done, and either enduring her wrath or trying to kill her. The second option was calling in Bethel, though the strongly worded advice from Valencia was that outcomes would be much, much better if we didn’t approach Bethel with any immediate requests, and not until we could stomach her being, if not a part of the group, then a part of our lives.
“Go,” I said.
“Please don’t take me with you,” said Terrence.
“Nah, you’re fine, you can leave,” I said.
Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth, he had taken off in an awkward run, leaving us alone in the manor, save for all the zombies around us. I could see through their eyes: they were watching us, and that meant a strong chance that the Captain was watching us too.
Raven was the first into the freight elevator, looking calm and serene in her banded armor, not even seeming to mind that she was momentarily outside of Grak’s mobile wards. He followed her though, and I followed after, careful to stay as protected as possible. I had a single point in LUK, and I was hoping that the apprehension that I was feeling wasn’t from that, because if it was, that would be a good sign to run.
If the elevator had been enclosed, I probably would have opted for us to bail, but it was open, with metal grates showing the walls beyond it, and the top exposing the machinery that made the elevator go up and down. The floor was thick metal, which also made me feel better, because that would be an impediment to a void attack from below. Maybe it was just that the market attack by the Dorises had rattled me more than I’d realized at the time. Getting shot in the head with a void rifle would kill me: it had happened before.
The bit I was most suspicious about was a thin wire running up the side of the elevator car to the top of it, where there was a little box, and with a signal to Grak, before we’d even touched the controls, I stepped up into the air using still magic and opened the box up, looking inside to confirm that there wasn’t an errant void crystal there. It was just a speaker though, one which sprang to life as soon as we began moving down. I had my sword drawn, ready to cut the line at the first unfamiliar word, ready to mute it. There were risks to letting him talk, but it was four hundred feet down and slow going.
“The Finches told me you were coming,” said Elisha Blue’s voice through the tinny speaker.
“Of fucking course they did,” said Amaryllis with a sigh.
“There’s no microphone,” I said. “At least, not that I could see.”
“I know more about the four of you than I did a week and a half ago,” said the Captain over the speaker. “I pulled what strings are still available to me. If I were still under the veil of ignorance, I might boast that many have tried to kill me and all have failed, but I know you now for Uther’s heir. By the balance of probability, it seems likely that this will be my final death. Uther was not in the habit of putting people to the sword and then finding, at the last moment, that they were talking sense.”
“He was, actually,” said Raven. “Maybe twenty percent of the time.” She was in her fighting stance, weapon drawn, but had a slightly bored look. I wondered how many villains’ monologues she’d sat through.
“I must still do my best to convince you, of course,” Blue continued, “But failing that, someone will have to look after my enterprises here, either to dismantle them, as regrettable as that is, or to keep them going, if you so choose. I am, of course, in the face of my demise, bending the knee, fully and completely, surrendering without conditions or expectations. I do not anticipate that will sway you.”
“It does, actually,” I said, frowning. “Man, really wish we had a microphone —”
“To start with, I did not know of the condition of the zombies until many years in,” said Blue. “I knew that they retained something of their soul, of course, but in creating them I was working with something else, something that was not the soul, which was instead pathways of being, expressions of something higher, a missing element, which the essentialists of the time had been seeking, shortly before their complete collapse at Lankwon. I had twenty factories fully staffed with zombies when the first whiff of something wrong came. There was an entad which tracked people, one that I had bought at great expense to have some surveillance of the zone, yet it showed each and every zombie as a person, where the earlier necromantic creations were invisible. Some testing to get to the bottom of this showed that this was consistent across many such entads, and some experts on entads I had brought in contended that this was due to some conceptual underpinnings of entadic function. The zombies were ‘people’ in some respect, but neither ‘alive’ nor ‘dead’. I had coined the term ‘undead’ early in my career, but it would prove prophetic.”
“Uther coined it,” said Raven.
“Like hell he did,” I said.
“You must understand that it did not occur to me that they were experiencing anything, if it can even be said that they are,” said Blue. “It has long been a contention of my detractors that zombies experience life as we do, with the sole exception of being unable to control their own bodies, but this is far from a settled matter. We know of their suffering from two sources, the first being entads, which function according to their own dubious logic and sometimes give false readings. The second source is from the hells, in those rare cases where a zombie is destroyed prior to its soul being bottled, something that I have never willingly allowed to happen, but which could not be prevented in the once-common raids on my zone. The damned have memories of their time as zombies, and are afflicted by the conditions they have endured. For a long while, I denied that evidence as well, coming as it did from the hells, but I deny it no more.”
I was frowning at this monologue. Maybe this was a last ditch effort at avoiding being put to the sword by me, but I wasn’t sure that I bought his unconditional surrender. Villains, even redeemable villains, didn’t just do that. It made sense to do, if you learned that I had punched out a dragon (this wasn’t true, but everyone was repeating it). But if Blue were sensible, I didn’t think that it would have gotten to this.
“It took me time to come to terms with what was happening,” Blue continued. The elevator was going really fucking slow, and I figured that was at least partly to give him time to say what he wanted to say. I wondered whether he had timed his speech and adjusted some gear ratios so that we would arrive at the bottom right when he finished. “And yet once I looked at the zombies with a clear head, I was surprised to find that it all still made sense. The trade-off was taboo, but it was no different than other trades we make with much less in the way of misty-eyed sentimentality. We accept small tortures in our lives, often in exchange for payments. People live with aching bones from their work, hands rubbed raw by labor, miner’s lung, grocer’s itch, scrivener’s palsy, deformities inflicted by the physical strains of their occupation. Of late, retirement has become commonplace for the elderly, and the very language of that practice belies how people think of it. They talk about how that cessation of work is a reward for everything that they’ve put in. People do not want to work, but it is of necessity that they do.”
“We are only a third of the way down,” said Grak, glaring at the speaker.
“What of consent, you might ask?” Blue continued. “I have not been so divorced from the outside world that I have not read the words of my detractors. They will claim that a man cannot consent to being stripped of his very will, that there is no possible way to justify what is, to some eyes, equivalent to slavery. Yet this is a simple question, that of whether we are capable of committing to some future from which we cannot escape. The answer, trivially, is that we are. A man is allowed to ruin himself in the gambling parlors. A woman is allowed to bear a child. And imperial doctrine, last I heard, was that there existed a legal right to suicide, and beyond that, a right to an eternity in the hells.”
“Technically,” Amaryllis began, and I was sure that she was about to quibble on that point, but we didn’t have a microphone, and Blue continued on.
“I have signed agreements from every single one of my zombies,” said Blue. “I’ve had them in place since the moment I was first certain that some existence persisted within those bodies. I have done my best to accommodate the moralists, to make costly concessions to their philosophical demands. People understand what it means to be trapped within their body, to feel minor pains, and they agree, as should be their right. I have done everything in my power, everything, to make sure that this process is done in a safe and ethical way, to prepare those people for what they will have to endure, and to minimize what they are still able to feel. The man-hours that have been spent on all this, the sheer cost of it, would make even the richest people in the world blush.”
“Doubt it,” I said. I was seeing his game now: he wasn’t going to void bomb us, he was going to talk us to death. Whining about how much it cost him wasn’t particularly endearing though.
“It is a disagreement in philosophy that underlines this whole affair, that has been the bane of my existence,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “But more than that, it is simply my nature as someone who the powers that be feel that they can ignore. Do you believe that my harshest critics were crusaders? No, of course they were not. Instead, it was vested interests in a variety of places, laborers whose jobs were being threatened, politicians who felt that they could score a hit against someone far away, newspaper writers who saw a story they could tell, one with a villain at its heart. When the embargos were placed, it was other captains of industry who benefited, their competition having been dealt a blow that went far outside the bounds of the free market. And these boycotts which metastasized into embargos weren’t done with any critical thinking at all, because that replacement of labor had to come from somewhere, and it came, in the end, from underdeveloped countries, those places where there were fewest protections in place for workers, where the pay would be as low as possible. I will not, cannot, say that it is better to be a zombie than to live and work in poverty, but that is because I don’t believe such things can be compared. My detractors will make bald-faced claims otherwise, declaring it obvious that my way is the worst of the two. It allows them to feel a smug superiority when they purchase goods made by paying only the slightest sliver of an obol to a diligent and suffering worker.”
“Has the elevator slowed?” asked Amaryllis. It was rock wall all around us, which the metal struts were bracing against. I was pretty sure that the question was rhetorical: we were all feeling like this was taking a lot longer than it should have.
“There has, through human history, been a need for villains,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “We have trouble with the complex, the nuanced, the grey. I have been smeared, backward and forward, not just because of what I have done, but even for those things which I am entirely innocent of. I doubt that I will convince you only through claims of my innocence, but for the record, I must address what has been said. It is true that I have hostages, zombies which have been set up and exist for no other purpose than to be damned in the event of my death. It is not true in the slightest that they are in perpetual agony; they have been pithed, their brains partially destroyed, their souls held in perpetual stasis. No one believes me, naturally, and I have so far gotten no one to come in for confirmation.” I frowned at that. His hostages were a major point against Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, and it didn’t terribly surprise me that he had an answer for it.
“It is also true that people have been damned in the course of my experiments,” Blue continued on, “But I should stress that it is always against my will, and in spite of every effort I had made in order to ensure that it would not happen. They make me out to be a monster, of course, saying that I engaged in cruel and malicious experimentation, which supposedly happened either as I was doing my initial research into the creation of the zombies, to ensure my own immortality, or in the wake of the allegations against me. It’s a difficult thing to prove, of course, that I didn’t do any untoward research, especially as I have done all manner of other research. Do you know who people depend upon in order to make these allegations? Devils. An infernoscope pointed at a devil will show you only what that devil wants you to see.”
“How long can he keep talking?” asked Amaryllis. “This is a test by the Dungeon Master. A test of our patience.” She kept speaking even as Blue continued on. “Can we acknowledge that half of what he’s saying is utter horseshit? He’s trying to muddy the waters and give us some excuse not to kill him, but he would have been better off just keeping his fucking mouth shut.”
“We do not have much of this left,” said Grak, also speaking over Blue.
“I still think that he’s, if not redeemable, then someone we don’t have to kill,” I said. “He has different ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong, and he’s made a hell of a lot of excuses for himself, but if he’s placing his neck on the chopping block — not killing him is going to be complicated.” He had started in on some sex stuff, addressing the issue of zombie brothels (ick), and I stopped for only a moment to listen and confirm that was about what I thought it was before continuing on. “Look, he’s — I’m not saying that he’s a good guy, I’m saying that there’s a path of some kind, and if this is something that represents too much evil for us to — oh Jesus Christ, shut up about the brothels.”
“Mute him?” asked Raven, and with a sigh, I complied. Muting things certainly wasn’t the most mind-blowing application of vibration magic, but it did seem to be the one that I used the most often. I kept an ear on him, trying to juggle my threads while still staying on guard. “Juniper, what’s the tip of the spear, if and when we do talk to him? What’s the plan of attack?”
“He’s already said that he gives up,” I said. “We get the locations of all his stored zombies so that they can be spiked, as the first thing we do. Obviously that’s going to take some time and some manpower, and there’s no way of knowing whether he’s telling the truth or not about whether we’ve got them all. But if he’s going to give up his insurance, which frankly doesn’t insure anything, that’s a point in his favor as someone who can be suffered to live. We replace his government entirely, which will take some transitional periods and probably some imported talent, along with a lot of logistics to get the EZ hooked into the planar trade network, and —”
“Perisev gave us a mission,” said Raven. “We weren’t supposed to bottle his zombies down to the last and replace his government with him as a prisoner and necromantic workhorse. We were supposed to kill him.”
“She’s right,” said Amaryllis.
“I know she’s right,” I said. “That’s a problem for the future. We were given two months, and we’re still well on schedule, even if there are hiccups here. We deal with Blue first, then we deal with the fallout from however we choose to handle this.” I looked at Raven. “Come on, surely Uther wouldn’t have been pressured into killing someone he didn’t want to kill, especially not an enemy who had wholly and completely surrendered.”
“Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched,” said Raven.
Over on the other thread, I was still listening to Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle as he spoke at length about how he was blameless for every crime he’d ever committed or been accused of committing. The funny thing was how often there was a tacit admission of wrongdoing right before he launched into an explanation of how this was perfectly right and fair, no more than should have been expected of anyone in his situation. In fact, most people, faced with the same situation, would have fared far worse when subject to the same pressures, especially given the level of scrutiny that he had been under.
If he was a reflection of me, then it was a really unflattering reflection. I tried to map myself to him, to think about how I dealt with — well, it was hard to say similar things, but I had hurt people and acted as though it was simply how anyone else would have acted. I’d made excuses for myself, usually while steeped in anger or depression. When Arthur had died, I’d punched another boy for saying that God had a plan, and it had taken months for me to admit that maybe I shouldn’t have done that. I had been a dick to pretty much everyone in my life, and it had been easy to think of myself as, if not the good guy, then as justified in what I had said and done.
But the more the Captain talked, the harder it was to see myself in him. He had gone all in on rationalizations, and I was sure that there were lies mixed in there, not that I was necessarily a stranger to lying to myself. For me though, there did eventually come a time when I would acknowledge that I had done something wrong. Blue-in-the-Bottle didn’t really seem to have reached that point. Even if he could admit that his zombies were experiencing things in those bodies, a bullet that I would have expected him not to bite, there were still excuses. Me? I could admit to having done shitty things, and I was at least trying to not do shitty things in the first place.
I tried to imagine how the Captain would have dealt with something like, say, secretly dating Tiff behind Arthur’s back, or treating Fenn less seriously than she deserved, or dating Maddie, or the Fel Seed Incident … and to maintain that these things weren’t wrong seemed like it would require a level of pathological aversion to introspection that I didn’t feel particularly applied to me. I was aware of my flaws, for the most part, aware of the costs and risks of what I did and how I thought. If anything, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle reminded me more of Arthur, and the way that he would hunker down for an argument, becoming essentially immovable from his position, even (or especially) if it was a bad one. Arthur would spout a bad take, then joyfully try to defend it, and it was sometimes hard to tease out what he actually believed and what he was just saying in order to be contrary.
“The point remains,” he continued, yet again, “That I have put significant amounts of my own funds into solving these problems, and found, time and again, that it simply does not matter. No remedy will suffice to silence my critics, and I doubt that anything I’ve said here will sway you. People want a villain. They want a clear and obvious evil. For some, I’m that, no longer a man, but something irredeemably warped, deserving of death by my mere existence. I do hope that you’ve seen the light, but we can discuss my unconditional surrender, if you would prefer I remain alive.”
As predicted, the elevator finally coasted to a stop right on the final word. We had weapons drawn, but the fact that there had been no attack against us as we were going down was, to me, a sign that the Captain was more or less on the up and up. He knew enough about us now to know that we were coming for him, and that we were likely to win where others had failed.
“Alright,” I said. “Let’s talk.”