The office was the first door to the left down an industrial hallway, and in contrast to the exposed concrete and wires, it was fully furnished and stocked with enough antiques that I thought it had probably been the work of a few weeks to get everything just so. Where the office up above had more books than it seemed like one person would ever need, this office had only a single bookshelf, with most of the room being empty, or filled with the kinds of curios that I had started to get used to while in Anglecynn, things that cost a lot of money and took up a lot of room, but weren’t really useful except as conversation pieces. An exaggerated relief map of Aerb, set into a wooden stand, caught my eye; we were spending more time going by airship now, and the geographical proximity of places had started to matter more, an inversion of how things were normally done in tabletop games. I kind of wanted that map, and some murderhobo part of me was thinking that I could take it if we killed him, nevermind the fact that we had so much money we could just buy one for ourselves.
“My surrender is unconditional,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, holding up his hands as we entered the room. He looked similar to how he’d looked a week and a half before, but the hat was missing, and he was a different person, the facial features not what they had been.
“It’s not him,” said Grak.
“No, it’s not,” said the Captain. “This is just a shell, but I thought that you would be more amenable to talking this way.”
“We’re not,” said Amaryllis. “If your surrender is unconditional, show us where your real body is.”
“I’m getting the place ready for my true death,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “I know when I’m beaten, but there have been many plates spinning within this facility, and the facilities above, all of which need to be unspun in a slow and methodical way. If you kill this body, I will continue the work of unspinning those plates, but —”
“Unconditional means without conditions,” I said. “You’re setting requirements.”
“No,” said the Captain, shaking his head. “No, not requirements, per se, I’m simply stating the reality of the situation. To bring everything screeching to a halt would be an unmitigated disaster, and while I have struggled to come to terms with the fact that this is likely the end for me, I won’t have that disaster on my head.”
“Fine,” I said. “What would that disaster look like? Why would it happen?”
“The dead man’s switch,” said the Captain, giving us a smile. “Not one that I designed, or ever wanted, but one that exists all the same. If I die a true death, then necromancy will likely go with me, and half a million souls will be sent to the hells. I’m disarming, as much as possible.”
“Disarming how?” asked Amaryllis.
“Spiking them,” replied Blue, looking between us in confusion. “Bottling the souls. What else could I mean by disarmament?”
“Wait,” I said. “You’re just … giving up?”
“I’ve said that I was, yes,” replied Blue. “You have a method of tracking me, the will of the world, and a frightening amount of force, if even half of what they say about you is true. You came to me once and showed that you cared nothing for the zombies. If a threat proves to be meaningless to someone, why have that threat at all? I don’t want to send those souls to the hells, I never did, it was only insurance against action by the Empire or other forces that particularly cared about damnation. Which you don’t.”
“What’s this facility for?” I asked. “Answer now.”
“My exclusion zone has been raided on a number of occasions,” said Blue-in-the-Bottle. “I have thus far been successful in driving away those who would trespass with malintent, but it always comes with losses, both in terms of zombies, citizens, and infrastructure. I decided, long ago, that it was better for me to move everything of importance underground. Not only is it easier to defend, but it better cloaks my business.”
“Get to the point,” said Amaryllis. “Now.”
“I have no business contacts within the Empire, but more than a few outside of it,” the Captain admitted. “The Empire is where the bulk of business is, but I’m forced to deal only with those who sit outside it. This facility creates things for them.”
“Then who?” asked Amaryllis. “The Unglians?” They were imperial non-members, famously isolationist and xenophobic, a lot of which came from the particular way they’d been scarred by the Second Empire.
“The economics wouldn’t work out,” said the Captain, shaking his head sadly. “Deprived of access to the train network, the requirement for two instances of teleportation, input and output, mean that my peculiar industry is only of value to those places without much cheap labor of their own. No, my business is with others.”
“The hells,” I said. I’d had a sinking feeling about that, and wanted confirmation. If Blue had such a warped view of the world that he was willing to do what he had done thus far, it was entirely possible that he was making natal souls en masse.
“The hells, but not only the hells,” replied the Captain. “There are other pockets of civilization that are unconnected to the Empire, or as unconnected as a ‘polity’ can get in these days. And I am certain that some of those goods do eventually make their way into the Empire, having passed through so many hands that it’s nearly impossible for anyone to tell what their initial source was except through the kinds of careful forensics that hardly anyone has the time, money, or will to engage in. I’ll open my ledgers to you, naturally. Perhaps this all could have been avoided if I had been honest and forthright from the beginning, but no, I imagine that you were bound for my head one way or another.”
“And …” I said slowly. “What does your trade with the hells look like? Not material goods or labor, surely?”
“I trade in the only thing they have any real interest in,” said the Captain. “Souls.”
Amaryllis turned and looked at me with a raised eyebrow and a slightly sour look. It was a ‘can we kill him yet?’ sort of look. Sending natal souls to the hells … well, that was pretty bad. Worse, in some ways, than what we’d already known he was doing, though not entirely unexpected.
“And what’s your defense?” I asked. “You have one, I’m sure, you had a defense for every claim against you when we were on our way down here. You’re damning people to the hells.” I was sure that he would push back on ‘people’, though the natal souls did eventually develop down in the hells.
“The Empire believes in the supremacy of oblivion,” said the Captain. “Not everyone shares that belief. Your own tuung are one such group, I believe, preaching the supremacy of existence? That is my defense. Those that I damned to the hells go in with clear eyes and full consent. They believe, fully and firmly, that this is the choice for them.”
“Clear eyes and full consent?” I asked. He nodded. Not natal souls then. “But you’re the one responsible for educating these people?” I asked, trying to shift my perception of what we were actually talking about. There was a reason that Arthur had been such a big fan of defining terms before any debate started.
“In the broad sense, yes,” replied the Captain. “In terms of the strict day-to-day, no.” He smiled at us. The zombie he was controlling had its gums pulled back too far from the teeth. “Would you like a tour?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “We want the location of your real body. If you’re overseeing bottling of the zombies, continue with that.”
“Not all of the zombies,” said the Captain, nodding at her. “Only those who served no useful function except as a deterrent. The others, of course, I hope will remain in one capacity or another, though for that to happen, you would need to keep me alive. You have thought about what will happen in the wake of my death, haven’t you? There are quite a lot of people who directly depend on me and my zombies, though I suppose they’re not imperial citizens, and I don’t know whether that might or might not be important to you. It will be the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis since — well, I’ve heard there was an exclusion in Li’o, though I haven’t seen any numbers on the displaced.”
“We weren’t planning to kill you,” I said. “We were hoping that you might see the error of your ways.”
“There is no error in my ways, I’m afraid,” said the Captain. “Only a disagreement on fundamentals. You believe that it’s better to become nothing than to suffer pain. You believe —”
“I don’t believe that, actually,” I said. “My allies have standing orders to allow me to go to the hells, should I expire.”
Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, or the body he was wearing, looked me over. “So you don’t disagree?”
“That’s a choice that I’m making for myself, not one that I’m making for others,” I said.
“Interesting,” he replied, stroking his chin. “So it’s a choice you would deny others?”
I paused and thought about what I was trying to get out of this conversation. It wasn’t some philosophical discussion on the nature of choice and consent, it was some understanding of how Blue-in-the-Bottle saw himself. “You think you’re right,” I said.
“Of course I do,” he replied. “All people think they’re right. If they didn’t, then they would realize that and think otherwise.”
“And has that happened to you?” I asked. “Was there ever a moment you realized that you had been wrong and been forced to adjust?”
“Certainly,” he replied. “I would be a terrible businessman and a worse scientist if I was incapable of admitting that I was wrong. I was wrong about the nature of the souls that I had trapped in the bodies of my zombies, but I made my own investigations and accepted the uncomfortable truth.”
“But you didn’t actually change anything,” I said. “You looked at the zombies and made excuses for what was happening to them, excuses for how it was good and just that you were doing these things.”
“No,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “I have been quite clear on this point, haven’t I? The existing zombies were quickly cycled through, their souls bottled or damned as best I could ascertain their wishes, and the new ones were given full knowledge of what the effects of zombification would be. There are quibbles of consent, but I must say, consent was obtained.”
I didn’t know whether I could take him at his word, but was really thinking that I probably couldn’t. Maybe he thought that he was being honest, or that he’d had consent, but someone powerful like him, asking consent from people without power, or people who’d had coercion applied … it was the kind of thorny stuff that you could spend all day on. Even if I could trust that he was approximately correct, and using words in the same way that I was using words … he was making sense to me, but I didn’t know if he was right. It was easy to say that I would have done differently in his position, but there was a good chance that I would have made all the same excuses or the same ‘concessions’ that didn’t amount to stopping. Again, he was reminding me of Arthur, and the way that Arthur would talk about things. That made sense though: Blue-in-the-Bottle had been born and raised in the Second Empire, which was at least partly cribbing from Uther’s methods of thought.
“Whatever,” I said. “We’re going to bring all this to a stop, and if we were ever to start it up again, which I don’t think we will, it will be with an international conversation and the full-throated support of the Empire of Common Cause.” And that basically meant that it was never going to happen, which I was pretty sure we all knew.
“Morality of the least common denominator,” said the Captain, shaking his head but smiling, as though this was faintly amusing. “I suppose you’ll stop the trade in souls as well?”
“We will,” said Amaryllis. “Obviously.”
I had mixed feelings on that, but Amaryllis was saying these things at least in part because we would have to account for them later: I couldn’t simply say, ‘well, if they really do want to go to the hells, we shouldn’t stop them’. At some point, probably after we’d gotten the Captain to completely step down, the international community would have to be called in. There would be interviews and after-action reports.
“Take us to your body,” I said.
“Of course,” he replied, bowing slightly in a way that I found annoyingly ingratiating. “I’ll take you by the most direct route.”
“Stay clear of us,” said Grak. “If you come too close, the body will die.”
He didn’t seem terribly surprised by that, nor worried, and with some maneuvering around, he moved past us. I would have been worried about him running, but it was clear this wasn’t his ‘real’ body, and if he had a panic room, then he’d already had ample time to get there. If anything, the worry was in the other direction: he might be stalling for some reason. But again, he’d had plenty of time, and it didn’t seem like another few minutes or hours were likely to make the difference.
Once we were outside his office, he guided us down the corridor. There were no labels on any of the hallways we went past, though there were clearly places where labels had been, rectangular discolorations on the walls. For having unconditionally surrendered, the Captain had still done his best to make it hard for anyone coming down here to find their way around. I looked at the mapping entad a few times as we went, multithreading, and saw that most of the distribution it indicated had quieted down: he was more likely to be in one specific spot.
We didn’t see anyone else as we moved through the utilitarian corridors, but I saw plenty through the Crown of Eyes. Its range was fifty feet, which wasn’t all that much in an open field, but was more than enough when I was in the heart of an underground complex. Fifty feet meant five stories up and five stories down, and there were many levels to this place, as well as many people.
All the zombies were standing stock still, staring straight ahead at spots on the wall, not focused on anything in particular. I could only see them when they were facing each other. They were wearing a shapeless outfit, without sleeves or pant legs, leaving them in nothing but vests and shorts. It was easy to tell them from the humans, because their eyes didn’t move, not so much as a saccade.
The humans were more interesting, and more worrying. They were sitting still, for the most part, not engaged in any work. The whole facility had apparently been shut down, leaving people sitting in their office spaces and warehouses, some of them in quiet conversation (I really needed to learn how to read lips) and others just huddled together. I saw a couple hugging, and from the movements of the woman, I thought she was crying. I tried to keep my head straight, to look for evidence of things that Blue was keeping hidden, but these were broken people in what looked like the last days of their way of life. The only comparison that I could make was to tornado season in Kansas, and those rare few times we’d gone down into the basement to ride it out. My dad always had this look in his eyes that I was seeing on these people, tension and anxiety, along with a resignation that it was completely out of his hands.
The people were on the younger side, almost all humans, with few wrinkles but a certain gauntness that I associated with grim dystopia, though that might have been me reading into things. Their clothes weren’t quite uniforms, but there had apparently been little in the budget for dyes, makeup, or other embellishments. The furnishings of the rooms they were in were likewise sparse and functional, though not particularly shoddy, which was what I might have expected. Things were big, thick, and solid, built to last for a hundred years, which was the kind of timescale that Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had been working on for quite some time.
There were offices and warehouses, assembly lines and break rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms. I saw a teleportation room, with now-familiar grids in place to mark where incoming shipments would arrive. I also saw a room with hundreds of zombies lined up in tightly packed rows, which were apparently not part of the bottling process that the Captain had outlined, or maybe were just down the priority queue. My guess, from what I could tell of the kaleidoscope of views I was looking through, was that they were backup labor, stored because there was no particular need for them.
The layout of the underground compound, at least what I could see of it, changed as we went. In the beginning, it was mostly receiving, with the assembly coming later, but the further in we got, the more residential areas I saw, underground dormitories, a dining hall, and what I thought was probably a gymnasium. The question of what all these people were doing for food was at least partially solved by a brief glimpse into a farming room: they were eating kear and its byproducts, like the dwarves. I had assumed that there was more than one entrance to this place, because even a large freight elevator wouldn’t have been enough, but there was another option: the people down here just never came up, living their whole lives underground. It was clear, from this bigger picture of the place, that Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had borrowed some practices from the dwarves. Terrence had said that he didn’t know anything about what was going on underground, and if he was telling the truth, it seemed like most of these people were living their whole lives (and their eventual undeaths) without ever seeing the sun.
It was getting hard to stomach the idea of not putting an end to him.
That thought was going through my head when I saw the maternity ward. I came to a stop, and the party stopped with me, looking at me in confusion. Their weapons were drawn, and they had been for quite some time, but now they looked like they were ready to kill, all except Grak, who was paying attention to the wards he had around himself, and his magical sight.
“Problem?” asked Amaryllis.
Only a fraction of the room was within my fifty foot radius, but it was similar to the other zombie storage rooms. The difference was that all of the packed-together zombies were women, and more than a few of them were visibly pregnant. A needle was attached to each one of them, which snaked along the floor to a large vat at the front of the room that was filled with an off-white fluid. I saw a few people in there, what I assumed to be medical personnel, sitting in chairs away from the zombies, or moving through the rows. The only other thing I noticed, before averting my eyes, was that there was much more in the way of species variety.
“Zombie mothers,” I said.
“Ah,” replied the Captain, stopping where he was and turning back to us. “You have some form of distance viewing? Unfortunate. I would have explained to you ahead of time, rather than have you see it first and need an explanation afterward.”
“There are pregnant zombies?” asked Amaryllis.
“The flesh is dead,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “But it can still sustain life, given the right injection of nutrients. That is what’s being done, in one of those rooms that it seems the prince can see into.”
“And then what’s done with them?” I asked.
“After a birth, some work is put into repairing the zombies,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “Births are generally somewhat premature plural births, which gives the best chances of success, and reduces the amount of damage to the zombie. Four or five births per is typical, though it’s as high as ten in some cases. Healing magic on the zombies is quite inconsistent and costly, with entadic solutions being the —”
“The babies,” I said, gritting my teeth. “What happens to the babies?”
“Oh,” replied Blue. “I have a neonatology division, somewhat to the east, but, apparently, beyond your vision?” I didn’t give a response to that. “The babies are cared for, fed and changed, until they can be transferred to the childrearing wing of the complex.”
I closed my eyes for a second. “Ah, fuck,” I finally said.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is something sacred about birth,” said the Captain. “There is nothing unique or special about it, there is only internal programming and social constructions around it that dictate its special place. It was one of the achievements of that Second Empire that we stripped the sentimentality for birth and death from the general public, but that achievement clearly did not last. When you die, you leave behind a body, and zombies excepted, that body is simply matter with only a tangential connection to the soul and to the person who once was. We become worm food, if we are not used. It is quite similar with birth. Any idiot can give birth, and no birth need be accompanied by any particular motherly or fatherly love. That’s simply the way it’s always been done, the dread inertia that has brought low so many mortal institutions. That disgust you’re feeling at what you’re seeing? It doesn’t come from a place of logic, it comes from a place of raw emotion, emotions that fundamentally do not map to the world as it is.”
I felt my heart sinking. If this was the kind of thing that the Captain had been trying to save for later, if he’d been trying to acclimate us to his way of thinking so that he could spring fresh new horrors on us that would look better in comparison … well, that meant that there was probably something worse. I focused on water magic again, trying to figure out the scale of the operation, how many of these zombie mothers there were, how many children were being raised in this underground facility in what were effectively mass orphanages. Some of those barely-felt blobs of water were, indeed, smaller than others, but how many, it was very hard to say. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands. It was hard to pick out the children, even with the size difference.
“The children are given good lives, above what most in the Empire can hope to have, and even if they weren’t, —”
I muted him. I was sure that he had his arguments, but I was pretty confident that if I argued back, he wouldn’t be amenable to reason. He was really reminding me of Arthur, and in some ways, of myself. Heshnel, the dark elf flower mage who had briefly been a part of the party, had been a member of the Second Empire, but he had been a reluctant defender of it. Here, the Captain was barreling ahead, without even the slightest admission that he might be wrong. I was sure that he would concede ground, if pressed hard enough, especially if he thought that death was on the line, but the reason he was talking to us seemed clear now. He wanted to convert us.
“This is going to be a clusterfuck,” I said. “We’re probably looking at more than a hundred thousand refugees, many of them small children, and the eradication of a way of life within the exclusion zone.”
“You’re in favor of Plan B now?” asked Amaryllis.
“He’s put his neck on the chopping block,” said Grak.
“He’s done that because he thinks you’re like Uther,” said Raven. “Uther very rarely killed those who begged for mercy, and almost none of those times made it into the history books.”
I tried to think about it, and draw parallels to how we had handled Blood God Doris. It was different though, because she was stuck in this cycle with negative feedbacks, wanting things to be different but not knowing how to make it that way, incapable of structural changes by herself. Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle was just so damned self-assured, so impervious to any shame or humility.
And I didn’t necessarily think that he was wrong, at least in principle. There wasn’t anything sacred about births, there were probably just a whole host of knock-on effects and hidden benefits that you would have to work through if you wanted them to be handled differently. That was an argument for caution and an argument for thorough investigation, not an argument for not ever changing how it was done. There were people on Earth who argued for home births, or using a midwife instead of a doctor, or suffering through the pain of childbirth, or all kinds of things, and there were a lot of arguments back and forth about how it should be done. I had read a lot of those arguments, in preparation for Amaryllis giving birth. And as for having two parents, a nuclear family, I was sure it was the same, hidden problems that would crop up if you tried to just barrel into an optimal way of raising a child. My guess was that the Captain had worked from base principles, possibly with some testing or the application of grossly unethical science (or, possibly, “science”). Whether or not he was actually exceeding the average around Aerb was anyone’s guess, and untangling it would take weeks or months of work, with a lot of the conclusions being subjective. I was, needless to say, extremely skeptical of the Captain’s motivated conclusions about quality-of-life in his underground city.
“Juniper?” asked Amaryllis.
“Sorry,” I said. “Let’s go get to his real body.”
“And the plan, when we do?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think that pacifism might not be an option. If we don’t kill him, then after what’s revealed here, I’m pretty sure that we’d have to constantly be protecting him.” It was harder to kill someone who had (apparently) completely surrendered, but were we really going to keep this guy alive just on principle? I thought not. “We’ll find his body first. According to the Dorises, we’re going to the right place.”
“And the thought of a double-cross has occurred to you, if they’re still in communication with him?”
“It has,” I nodded. “But if he’s leading us this far into his facility in order to spring a trap …” I didn’t want to tempt fate by finishing that sentence. It wouldn’t make much sense, and it had better be a pretty fucking good trap.
“Is there anything I can help you with?” asked the Captain, looking at us. He had stopped talking at some point.
“Two questions,” I said. “Why raise almost exclusively humans?”
“Humans are among the most adaptable of the mortal species,” he replied. “Sometimes that adaptability lends itself to pathological behavior, which can be a boon in certain circumstances, including this world that I’ve made beneath the ground. Humans need a tincture to make up for the lack of sunlight, but in terms of psychology, they can handle it better than all but dwarves, and dwarves come with their own problems.” He looked at Grak. “No offense.”
Grak watched him in stony silence.
“Second question,” I said. “What age are they when you kill them?”
“The word ‘kill’ is a strong one,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “There is no force, no coercion, it is a decision mutually agreed upon and then carried out by my people. The death is painless.”
“What age?” I asked again. I wondered whether he wanted to get caught up in a debate about what constituted force or coercion.
“It is a delicate answer I have to give,” he replied, frowning. “I rather think it better to speak about the generalities before we approach the specific. At what age do you think that a person is capable of making their own decisions?”
“Answer the fucking question,” I said.
“Or what?” he asked. “I have already given my unconditional surrender, all my lands will be salted, my industries stripped apart, my people spread to the winds, if not killed outright, and I myself have little doubt that I have met my match, and this is simply the end of me — with what leverage can you demand that I answer?”
“We can offer information,” I said. “Haven’t you wondered why we’re here?” That was a gambit, and a poor one, but it was better than suggesting to him that, no, really, promise, we’re not going to kill you, ignore the swords.
“Aside from the obvious?” he asked. I nodded. “Well, now that is intriguing, a final mystery before my demise. Very well. They’re eight years old. Now, to answer your obvious objections —”
“Jesus Christ, what do you think you could possibly say that would sway us?” I asked.
“You’re feeling outrage,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, his voice hard. “It’s not productive. We don’t tend to make good decisions when overcome with emotion. My books and methods are open to you. You can see the teaching plans that I have devised for the zombie matrons, read through the copious studies that I have undertaken to find the right time for such a trade to be made. They would rather live longer, certainly, knowing what they will be facing among the infernals, but that trade is the entire purpose of their existence, which they well know.”
“And none resist?” asked Amaryllis. She had an eyebrow raised, and the look of disgust had never left her face. She was pretty clearly done with this.
“There are roles for those who decide otherwise,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “Did you expect me to say that I left them no choice? Of course I do. And I need workers for my enterprises, obviously, workers that must come from somewhere. Those who are born and live in the underground are suited to the environment, and obviously, before the four of you came in with your sledgehammers, some degree of secrecy was helpful. There are incentives, yes, but no force.”
If this were back in high school, and we’d been sitting at the gaming table, I probably would have girded myself for a long conversation between Arthur and Tiff about what constituted ‘force’ and what particular qualities incentives needed to have for them to qualify as force. Maybe they had even had a conversation like that once. But here, it was just sickening, because Elisha Blue had gone ahead and done it, regardless of what anyone thought on the matter, satisfied in his own reading of reality.
“Take us to you,” I said with a sigh. “You’re right that we need to go over your studies and procedures, as well as conduct some interviews to find out what’s actually been going on here. We want to avoid a crisis as much as you do.”
“You said you would tell me about what brought you here,” said the Captain. “I have, as ever, held up my end of the bargain.” That was somewhat the opposite of the impression he’d left on people, at least going by his autobiographies, but it was possible that they were wrong. More likely, he’d just bought into his own press releases.
“A dragon instructed us to, on pain of harassment and death,” I said. “Perisev.” She’d never said we couldn’t talk to him, nor gave any indication that we weren’t to breathe a word of this to anyone. I probably would have told him anyway.
“Ah, a pity,” said the Captain. “And seemingly dangerous for her, if you truly are the next Uther.”
“She gave us the task before everything that happened in Anglecynn,” I replied. “And if we have to kill her as a consequence of saving your life, then so be it.”
“They have their own dealings with the hells, I hope you know,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “Each dragon is a micronation of its own, with a capable military just by virtue of having a dragon at its head, constrained only by their loose Confederacy and the fear of retaliation. In fact, there are a number of dragons who I have dealings with, though nothing my manufactories make is of much terminal use to a dragon. I would be happy to give you their names, which you seemed interested in before.”
“We are,” said Amaryllis. “But that can wait until we’ve seen you in the flesh, as it were.”
Our host nodded, then turned and began walking again, as though nothing had happened, as though this wasn’t the last few moments of his life.
I kept on the lookout for anything else that needed an explanation, whether through my eyes or those of anyone else. The Crown of Eyes was fairly generous in what it let me see through, though part of that was because of Six-Eyed. There were very few pests in the underground, none of the rats, mice, or more exotic rodents that I might have expected, but more than a few insects, whose views were incoherent enough that they didn’t tend to be helpful.
As we made our way down the central corridor, which was big enough that you could have driven a car down it without worrying too much about scraping the sides, we went through another transition, this time to a fully residential area. Where the bunks, halls, and kitchens before had been mixed-use, this was nothing but places for people to live. I saw children, lots of them, fifty or more in each of the classrooms, sitting quietly at their desks while a teacher and a pair of zombies sat at the front. There was the same grim fatalism there, seen clearly on every face, mixed with confusion and uncertainty on some of the children. If Blue-in-the-Bottle hadn’t copped to it, maybe I would have noticed on my own that there were virtually no teenagers.
It made me feel sick to my stomach, but if Blue-in-the-Bottle really was giving up … well, whether we killed him or imprisoned him, this whole fucking mess he’d made would have to be dealt with. We were delivering a decapitating strike, one way or another, and there’d be so many fucking people who would have to find new lives, or be given them, by us or the Empire. Everything he’d said was right, at least about that. It was an ongoing humanitarian crisis as it stood, but in just a few short hours, maybe as little as minutes, it would be our humanitarian crisis. The Empire had a base just outside of the EZ, and they could be called in, but no fucking way did they have the staff or resources to deal with this, especially not since the Office of Imperial Disaster Relief was still at essentially full utilization in Li’o. Resources had been moved following Mome Rath, reserves depleted, goodwill spent, and now there was going to be another, quite different disaster following in its wake. We were going to have to talk numbers at some point. Maybe it would make sense to do another Sacrifice and boost Logistics as high as it would go, because there were so many fucking children here, and I didn’t think that anyone had the capacity to take care of them, especially not with whatever lessons Blue-in-the-Bottle had been putting into their heads.
We finally arrived at a vault door, which had already been opened up, and the Captain’s avatar stopped there, standing beside it. Inside was a large room, filled to the brim with machinery and people, most of them zombies, the whole of it centered around a single shriveled man on an immense throne. It wasn’t really a throne though, more of a massive magical-industrial contraption with a human at the center of it, tanks of liquid piping things around and wires hooking directly into him.
“You’ll forgive my appearance,” said a zombie close to the withered body as she gestured to it. “There are many forms of senescence, from the degradation of the body to that of the soul, and beyond. It has taken nearly everything that I’ve learned through my many years to fight against them. And now that you’re here, I offer my full concession and surrender.”
The withered body on the throne let out a little sigh. It was barely human, and I could understand why he was speaking through a zombie (if not precisely how).
“What would you like to do with me?” asked the zombie, cocking its head to the side. “If a dragon has told you that I must be killed, will you defy that order?”
“Here’s what we need from you,” I said. “We need a total halt in all production. We need your reserve zombies deactivated and bottled. We need the children moved out of here to somewhere that’s more in line with modern standards of education and welfare. We need as much information as you have: research notes, commitments to various parties, a census, itemized lists of material resources, an org chart — in short, everything. I doubt that you had plans in place for ensuring continuity, and there’s bound to be a whole lot of institutional knowledge contained in your head, but we need everything that we can get in order to ensure that this isn’t as much of a disaster as it might otherwise be.”
“You will have it,” replied the zombie. “I will caution that I keep records only for my own self, not to comply with any authorities, which do not touch me, nor for anyone else, as I never intended to relinquish my control. And in case it was not obvious, this is far from the only site I have.”
I had seen that coming from a mile away, but it still hurt to hear. “How many do you have?” I asked.
“In total, eighteen,” he replied by way of the zombie’s mouth. “Each of them separated from the others, running on independent systems. Their locations have largely been dictated by the underlying geology of the exclusion zone. Some are deeper than this one, though that comes with its own engineering challenges.”
“Total population?” asked Amaryllis. Her face was devoid of emotion, which was frightening to see. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t just kill him out of the blue, but she wanted to.
“I don’t take a census,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “Of zombies, I can tell you directly that there are approximately ten and a half million.”
Amaryllis was giving him — the withered body on the throne — a measured stare. “If you meant to deter people from attacking, you should have advertised that.”
“Does it change your mind?” asked Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s zombie. “Surely not. And if you’re simply criticizing strategy, then you must realize that an ever-increasing number of zombies would demand the kind of response that I have long been hoping to avoid. It would also surely raise questions about how so many were being created, as well as what purpose they were being put towards.”
“You think we’ll spare you,” said Amaryllis.
“I don’t have a good measure of you,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s zombie. “I think that it’s well within your capacity to kill me and then bottle me or send me to the hells, whichever you would prefer. I also think there are obvious problems with that course of action, which you’ve shown some concern for. In truth, I am very old, held together mostly by necromantic magic. I can act and feel through my zombies, but it is a dull affair. I took many precautions to prevent my own death, but I have never seen much like the four of you, and recent history has shown that those who delude themselves into thinking they can fight you suffer only ignoble deaths, their hopes and dreams laying shattered on the ground.” The zombie spread its arms, and on his throne, the Captain spread his too. “Do with me what you will.”
“Seems like a real lesser of two evils situation,” I said. I turned to Raven. “What would Uther have done?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He would have come in with his army of bureaucrats and — and solved things.”
“He’d have solved the problem of maybe as many as twenty million children?” I asked. The number was a guess, based on what we’d seen, and what the Captain had said about his complement of zombies.
“Less than that, I would think,” replied the Captain, but he didn’t elaborate beyond that.
“How much less?” I asked.
“A quarter of that, perhaps,” he replied. “Five million below the age of eight.”
“That’s fucking ridiculous,” I said. My mind went to the logistics of it all. You’d need millions of pounds of food every day to feed them, you’d need millions of gallons of water, you’d need systems capable of carrying away waste, multiple factories to churn out clothes that they’d worn through, not to mention the power generation that you would need to keep the lights on, the beds that they would sleep in, the laundry facilities to wash their clothes, the showers to keep them clean … even if I could just handwave away the labor requirements by making zombies responsible for everything, and the energy requirements through in-house natal souls, the Captain had to have an incredible footprint on the planar economy just from everything that he would have to import. His whole EZ was six hundred square miles, which wasn’t nearly enough to keep everyone fed, and if he’d been using kear, he’d have made lacework of the underground in short order.
“He’s too big to fail,” I said, feeling my stomach drop. “There’s no nation on Aerb that can absorb this many non-productive people. And even if they could, the Captain has to be importing from all around the world. The EZ is the size of a major city.”
“Uther would have found a way,” said Raven. “He’d have cut the knot.”
“Somehow,” I said, nodding. “Or he would just never have been presented with such a scenario in the first place. He would have been met with unchecked aggression, forcing a violent end. Not a concession and a looming logistical and humanitarian disaster.” I looked up at the body of Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “How do you keep everyone alive?”
“Are we at that point, questions?” he asked.
“I have a more important one,” said Amaryllis. “How do you make and keep contracts with the infernals?”
“I have a stable of non-anima and a variety of infernoscopes,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “Payment comes in the form of bulk teleport, whose provenance I am not privy to. As for conclusion of the contract, that requires a special technique that I do not believe is common knowledge in the outside world. It is possible, once you have the anima exa, to inject the soul into a specific hell, and even specify a specific location. I’ll teach it to you, of course, and the schematics are yours.”
This was Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, casually talking about how he spoke to infernals through a non-anima. Devils were famously convincing, and a part of me wanted him to be a victim, to have this whole thing he’d set up be the result of being sufficiently convinced by a devil. Maybe he was a dumbass for setting up a meeting with them, but if he’d been talked into being the man that he was … well.
“And you consult with them often?” asked Amaryllis, apparently thinking the same thing I was.
“The threat of the infernals is overblown,” said Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “They can read people frighteningly well, I’ll admit, but their threat comes mostly in playing people off each other, or in knocking down the weak-minded. The non-anima only ever speak with my zombies, who do not betray any emotion or inflection that I do not wish them to have. If the infernals learn anything, it is just about me, and what do I fear from them? I’m already the most reviled man on all of Aerb. There is no one to turn me against, no way to use whatever they might find for leverage.”
Amaryllis looked at me. “You’re taking the lead here,” she said.
“It’s going to take a series of long meetings,” I said. “We’ll be doing a phased stepping down of operations here. There’s no nation on Aerb that can deal with this, but we’ll somehow find a way, working with the international community. I don’t think that we can do it without Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s assistance though.”
“Okay,” said Amaryllis, letting out a breath. I could see her change her mindset, all of the disgust and unease washing away as she reoriented herself to the task at hand. From experience, it would crop back up, but this was something of a centering technique, one meant to get her in the right mindset for what was to come.
I expected dissension in the ranks, either from Grak or Raven. I half expected Raven to go kill the Captain with her sword of frozen time, cutting his mortal form down with a single stroke. Unlike with Pallida killing everyone at the blacksite though, I wouldn’t have been not-so-secretly relieved. We did need the Captain for a peaceful transition, and once that was done, we could kill him if we needed to.
I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, to be honest. There had been times, in my DMing career, where I had subverted the expectations of the players and thrown them into some kind of weird scenario where they had to navigate a difficult humanitarian crisis. Most of the time though, I didn’t go in with that in mind, or if I did, then it would still be a challenge in some other way. Here, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle was rolling over for us, going limp and tapping out as soon as we’d come back. Fighting him would be no more difficult than fighting a corpse.
But no, that really seemed to be all there was. He was capitulating. He’d seen the writing on the wall and put himself forward as the one person who could actually make this transition go smoothly. He had to have known that once we’d disentangled him from his operations, he probably wasn’t long for this world, but it was clear that it was going to take a long time, and in his shoes, I might have made the same play. Of course, the logical thing to do was to wait until we had exposed some weakness, or lowered our guard, and then kill us one by one, which meant that we couldn’t expose weakness or lower our guard … but I wasn’t sure that he would actually go there.
We spent a few hours in that room with the Captain, much of it while sitting on the floor, looking through boxes of papers that had been wheeled in for us. It was all useless, of course, because the folios and ledgers had been filled in by Blue or someone working with him, and they would have to be compared to the actual reality on the ground at some point. Most likely, we would have to engage in our own audits of the labyrinthine underground complexes, but this was the start of it, reading the official record and trying to work out what exactly had been going on.
Through it all, there were zombies watching us, standing impassively. As for what they were doing elsewhere in the complex, that was anyone’s guess.
Amaryllis took some time out to sync with her clones, which occupied a fair chunk of her time. Most of it was necessary though: we wanted to get the balls rolling in Anglecynn and Poran as quickly as possible, and there was no faster method of relaying information than having Amaryllis do a clone merge. Within a few hours, two separate working groups would be pulling things together to deal with the situation, which was far, far greater than we’d known. The Underline would be moved to the imperial outpost outside the NLEZ, where they would be brought in, for all that it would do any good (and in the end, possibly some considerable harm given that we were far more nimble than any imperial office, and were doing something of dubious legality).
Eventually though, we had needs that were going to have to be met, biological and otherwise. Our choice was between continuing indefinitely within Grak’s ward, sleeping and eating in shifts, or to go up top. The whole while, the machinery of the catacomb city was ground to as much of a halt as it could, the daily routines that had been established by what was apparently an army of civil servants dashed against the rocks when we’d arrived. Almost all of that was according to the Captain, of course, though I’d seen enough of it through extra sets of eyes to think that it was probably the truth. There were decisions that would need to be made, and actions that could only really be carried out by our so-called captive.
The more I learned about Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s power as I read through his documents, the more I thought that it was total bullshit.
“I can see, hear, and feel through their bodies, though that takes some effort,” he said, when asked to confirm what was in those books. “Likewise, I am capable of controlling them directly, though only one at a time, and then, I am limited by my distance to them, as well as my own understanding of what it is I would like the body to do. They can be made relatively independent though. In the early years, I was limited to simple motions, but after some time, I was capable of tapping into what they knew in life.”
The zombie he was using to speak took in a breath in sympathy with his body on its throne. “It was well known that the soul contained some fraction of what a person knew how to do, but necromancy reaches beyond the soul, into some deeper and more mystical part of a person’s being. There, pathways can be accessed in death, allowing a wide variety of actions to be performed, including complex ones, or those dependent upon precursors. My zombies can weave baskets, for example, though I am personally ignorant of that art. It was through that method that I came across the ability that allowed my city to flourish: while I am, by the decree of the exclusionary principle, the only living practitioner of necromancy, that restriction does not apply to my creations. Further, I am at liberty to pull from one zombie and place into another, copying pieces of them, allowing skills to multiply.”
I had wondered about that. The math simply didn’t work out otherwise, if he had millions of these things. It was also clear that he was interacting with the spirit in some way, though ignorant of it as its own separate art. Perhaps if the Second Empire hadn’t imploded, they would have rediscovered it through the art of necromancy. It was all somewhat academic; we were going to bring an end to the era of necromancy, just as soon as we could.
Eventually, we started to flag, and I told Grak to put up a ward around the Captain.
“I don’t know if it’s safe,” he replied in Groglir. “I’ve spent much of this time trying to tease apart the magic at work. It is unclear this is even him, except that the Dorises tell us so.”
“We can test it,” I replied back. “Isolate a zombie, put up a ward, something like that?”
“We can,” he replied. “But I do not want to be responsible for killing millions, or sending them to the hells, or whatever other tragedy he might have set in motion.”
“Fair enough,” I replied, but I was a little bit unnerved by how much hesitation he was showing. Grak usually did his best to give good estimates of reliability, being specific about what the weaknesses and vectors of attack were. A little bit of quibbling over the definition of ‘safe’ was usual for him, which I appreciated and respected. This was more than that. He was right that it wasn’t fair to throw him into the great unknown and then clasp him on the shoulder and say ‘well, you did your best’. But without Grak to completely neutralize the zombies, I wasn’t sure that we had a safe way of doing things. We could kill the Captain, certainly, but that would bring lots and lots of problems of its own, orders of magnitude worse than the problems that had been keeping the Empire off his back for so long.
“We need this done,” said Amaryllis. “We need to be able to extract and regroup. The Empire is going to want to come in, and we want to have plans in place to keep ahead of their plans, which are almost certainly going to be much worse.” She said that with utter confidence that I wasn’t feeling. It was true that the Empire probably had plans that ran to hundreds of pages covering a large number of scenarios (uprising, coup, natural death, and diplomatic success, at a guess), but it was also probably true that these plans had quite a bit of meddling and red tape involved in them. We commanded the resources necessary to fix it mostly by ourselves, though it would take nearly everything we had, I was pretty sure.
Grak did tests on the zombies, putting up wards and then telling Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle to possess them, or see through them, or give them remote commands. He complied, but for the first time, he looked annoyed and ill-at-ease.
“You plan to cut me off from my zombies,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied. “We can’t leave you here to do as you please. Is that going to be a problem?”
“You’re speaking of shutting down an immense amount of labor,” he replied. “The people who live underground need food, clothing, water, air, many things which the zombies provide for them.”
“And you’d have us believe that you operate on a razor-thin margin?” asked Amaryllis. “That a disruption of a day would be enough that everyone living here is at risk?”
“The zombies provide security,” replied the Captain. “There are criminals and outlaws in my domain, just as there are anywhere else. If it were just production, then perhaps it could be justified, millions of obols poured down the drain, but it’s not just production, it’s the very backbone of this society.”
“It’s unfortunate,” I said. “But we don’t trust you to do as you say.”
“I am ready,” said Grak, coming to stand beside me.
“Are you?” I asked, looking him over.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Then do it,” I said.
It was the second time that I had sat by and watched Grak go about some very important warding. Unlike with the locus, this time we knew that it wasn’t actually the solution, just a stop-gap that would let us get to the solution. I was only a little bit nervous: a fuck-up here would be catastrophic, and there was still a chance that we were walking into a booby trap, but so far the Captain had told us the truth and acted like he was trying to minimize the impact of his death, or possibly to position himself as too useful to kill, and either way, he hadn’t issued a threat.
When the ward was up, I went over to poke at one of the zombies, which swayed slightly but otherwise gave no sign of noticing or reacting.
“Are we good to leave?” I asked Grak.
“Possibly,” he said. “I will put up more wards to keep him confined.
Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, the real him, let out a rasping breath, trying to speak, but no words came out.
“He’ll keep,” I said. “Hopefully the rest of the facility does too.”
“I don’t like this,” said Raven.
“Why?” I asked. “The stink of death that pervades this place, the millions of lives and millions of undead that might get doomed to the hells, the obvious imprint of the infernals here, or something else?”
“The narrative,” said Raven. “It’s wrong.”
“Okay,” I said. “Well, let’s get topside, speak with the Empire, and then we can see where we stand.”
But naturally, it couldn’t be as easy as having to deal with literally millions of people trapped underground with the mechanisms of their government stripped away and the source of their sustenance removed. No, after we left the manor, there was an enormous black dragon waiting for us.