Garth walked into the courtyard, squinting against the glaring light of the afternoon sun. All the other apostles had already received their orders, leaving Garth’s small group of one hundred and twenty-eight people the only humans at the castle. The delay in their assignment made him more than a little suspicious.
Jim had sent him a letter telling him he’d been sent to singlehandedly suppress a mutated mother who’d begun moving across the Kipling infested countryside.
Leanne had been required to cleanse an ancient castle deep in the Inner Spheres that had become the home of a vampire lord who had attracted at least a dozen sentient undead and a horde of mindless spawn to his banner.
Tyler and Erik got guard duty.
Garth figured that people the Inner Sphere deemed a threat were getting shitty assignments in the hopes that they would die out. It made sense. Cripple Earth’s fighting force by identifying their best and brightest and get them killed. He was pretty sure that’s not what the gods intended, but corruption and mortal greed were powerful forces.
After pointing out the value of Mythic cores and attempting to restablish a line of communication across continents by Oprah-ing Status Bands, Garth was fairly sure they had put his name right up there on the ‘Do not let Live’ list. It was nice to think he was Earth’s best and brightest, though.
Which was why the delay in his assignment gave him such a bad feeling. They had been cooking up something especially nasty for him, and he was about to find out what.
Garth didn’t want to charge headlong into danger. If there was any choice, he’d have deserted weeks ago. Problem was, they could teleport him wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, with or without his consent, so until Garth had a way of stopping that, he had to grit his teeth and bear it. Better a suicide mission than being teleported into the center of a sun.
Assembled in the center of the recently repaired yard were one hundred and twenty five men and women. Garth was surprised to note that nearly half of the people there were women. They ranged between twenty-five and forty, while the rest of the soldiers were men a year or two older on average, although Garth saw a handful of rosy cheeks among them.
“Guess I didn’t get the youth vote.” Garth remarked as he walked up, eyeing the platform that would allow him to overlook the troops. Troops, pshaw. Looks like a bunch of single moms and unshaven dads.
He didn’t fail to notice that every single one of them had purchased a Status band with his money.
Garth swerved and rather than standing on the raised platform stood in front of it, chest out, Wilson perched on his shoulder. One hundred and twenty-five people was like what, four high school classes? He could talk to them face to face.
“Bring it in.” Garth said, motioning, “Form a circle.”
They glanced at each other curiously for a moment before complying. The assembled troop of Beladia gathered around him, but the circle was a bit wide, and Garth didn’t want to raise his voice to be heard.
“Bring it in a bit closer, shorties sit in the front.” The short members scooted in close and sat while the taller ones took a knee, crowding in as close as they could while allowing him to see each and every one of them.
Finally, when there was only twenty feet or so between them, Garth picked one of them out, a young Hispanic woman, maybe five years younger than him.
“Why’d you join up?”
“My son and I were taking shelter in an outpost when I was called here, the advice you gave me let me reach him again and saved his life. If you can do what you say in L.A., That’s where I want to be.”
“How about you?” Garth pointed out another guy, a bit younger than him.
“I sent my dad a map, and he got the rest of my family to an outpost.”
Garth picked out a handful more, each one with a family member who’d been saved or reconnected with. He was starting to spot a trend. his mind starting to chew on how to influence them. Leverage their families, obviously. That was why they were here.
“Anyone here who didn’t join because they’ve got family they want looked after?” Garth asked.
Four young men and two young women raised their hands.
“I imagine you guys are just here for the MILFs?”
“Nah, man, you seem pretty cool.” One of the kids, a skinny teenager with olive skin and a dark bush of hair on his head spoke, putting his hand down. He glanced around, gaze settling on Sandi with a hint of a smile. “Although the thought had occurred to me.”
Well, he’s probably gonna die.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Jamal, I’ve got some bad news.” He pointed at Sandi. “She’s taken, and the MILFs are a long-term goal. Right now the immediate problem is a lot of aliens want us dead.”
“How about you, what’s your name and why did you join?” Garth asked, pointing at one of the other outliers, a girl maybe twenty years old with a full figure, deceptively large breasts and brown hair.
“I’m Jess, I…wanted a family.” She said, turning bright red.
“I hate to be a downer Jess, but try not to start making people until we get back to Earth. I’ve got no idea how long it’s going to take for these alien bastards to let us go, and need every able body.” He scanned the crowd.
“But if it’s a family you want, look no further. Almost every single person here joined because they’ve got someone they care about, and that means something. It means you’ve got stability and focus. A reason to do what you do, and a reason to come home safe.
“Some of you might not come back, but right here and now, we can make damn sure that every one of your loved ones gets taken care of.” Garth said, pulling a tightly bound stack of blank letters out of his Status Band.
I feel like an insurance salesman, Garth thought as he passed the letters out.
“Address these to your family. No matter what happens, I’ll pick up the slack, no matter where in the world they are, I’ll make sure they’re taken care of. You all joined for that reason, so let’s make that resolution concrete.”
Ah, the mind-numbing logistics of dealing with people.
Garth spoke while they wrote. “Let me share something with you, an epiphany I had when the kipling first came. We need each other. The others may have forgotten with their fancy powers and their superhuman strength, but the people seated here understand on some level that humans got as far as we did together. And some people being able to lift cars or explode buildings with their minds while others can’t isn’t going to change a damn thing. They might tell you it’s survival of the fittest, they might let the temptation of power make them think they have a right to rule,”
“Pot, meet kettle,” Wilson said.
“But that’s bullshit. The food they eat to the clothes they wear and the place they sleep had to come from somewhere. Humans need a tribe, no, they need a family.”
When they had filled out the letters and handed them back, Garth held them up in front of them.
“This list of names is what’s important. The people in these pages are the reason you joined the Apostle of Beladia, and by god, I’m gonna do right by them. I’m gonna march right out of the gates of hell if that’s what it takes. As long as I draw breath, I’m gonna make it home, and your parents, your siblings, sons and daughters, are gonna live out their days in peace. I’m responsible for each and every one of them. I’ve got their backs. Do you know why?”
Beladia, this is such cheese. Somebody shoot me now.
“When you’re here, you’re family.” Garth said with his most serious, manly tone.
“Now with unlimited breadsticks.” Jamal chimed in with a grin, causing a ripple of laughter to spread through the group.
“Jamal, run around the courtyard until I tell you to stop.”
The laughter died down abruptly as Jamal stared at Garth blankly, not moving from his seat. It looked like he needed a little prompting.
“Itet, make it happen.”
Itet rose to her feet with an inhuman hiss. The seven foot bug warrior unsheathed all four of her swords in the blink of an eye and charged Jamal, blades spinning in front of her like a food processor. With a strangled yelp, Jamal and a few people sitting beside him lunged to their feet and scattered as Itet bore down on them. Itet homed in on Jamal and chased him across the courtyard, herding him into running circles around the courtyard. She sheathed her blades a moment later and watched him run.
“We’re a family!” Garth shouted, spreading his arms wide.
“Manson family, maybe.” Wilson said. Garth ignored him.
“We’re a family!” he repeated, and again.
Voices slowly joined his, tremulous at first, but gaining in number and volume, until the shouts began to ring off the walls and strain his ears.
I’m so embarrassed I want to crawl into a hole and never show myself again.
“So this is what being a cult leader feels like.” Wilson said from his shoulder amidst the chanting. “I don’t like it.”
“You and me both.” Some people get off on it, apparently.
Garth needed people willing to fight and die, to lend their power toward keeping him alive on the tenuous promise that he would protect their families strewn across the globe, entire realities away. Now all I gotta do is figure out how to deliver on that promise and we’re golden.
He felt rotten.
Maybe this is what politicians feel like all the time?
“Nah, I think they get their kicks exercising power and balling young interns.” Wilson said. “speaking of, that Jess girl…”
“Don’t even think about it.”
“Come on, it’d be like a public service. She wants kids!”
“No, I hope I don’t have to go into the reasons why we’re not doing that, but most of them involve getting eaten, and the rest are because it’s morally wrong.”
Wilson glared at him for a while, his lizard-arms crossed, before sighing and relaxing his posture. “Aren’t you trying to change all that puritan American squeamishness about sex stuff?”
“It’s the exploitation of a power dynamic and the deceit implicit in your suggestion that’s wrong, nothing else. Also, the timing couldn’t be worse, so drop it.”
Garth glanced away from Wilson perched on his shoulder and noticed the people of his troop looking at him a bit odd. He could explain who he was talking to, and why, but that would be more time and effort than he was willing to put forward.
“Alright, starting with you.” Garth said, pointing to the woman on his left. “Tell me your name, class and attributes.”
“My name’s Samanth-“ her self-introduction was cut short by the arrival of Kenra,
“Greetings,” Kenra said, approaching in his typical battle-dinged armor. The muscular blue alien held an envelope at his side as he marched toward them.
“I’m here to give you your orders. Teleportation will be in two hours. Be sure to be holding or wearing everything you may need.”
Kenra handed Garth the envelope, and spun on his heel, marching back the way he’d come with no further explanation.
Garth peeled the envelope open and started reading.
1st Earth Company of Beladia.
No less than three Outposts have gone silent without warning in the Piniipay jungles on the planet Jindar. We aren’t aware of the exact situation, but it’s believed that an unknown enemy force obliterated them so quickly that they were unable to send for help. The Gates are down, so your Company will be teleported a half mile outside the most recent Outpost to go dead. Adventuring parties had been sent to search for the culprit, but the topography made small scale teams impractical. Your mission is to identify the party responsible and eliminate them, then reactivate the gates so that the outposts can be rebuilt.
An Outpost had what, ten thousand people in it, maybe a thousand of them were guards? And they expected him to fight an army that had taken them out in a matter of minutes? Yep, definitely a suicide mission. If they wanted to make it seem at least a little bit doable, they would have asked him to scout out the location of these baddies and call in the cavalry, but no, it was fairly obvious they wanted him to die.
Garth didn’t let any of this show on his face.
“Good news,” he said with a wry grin, picking out the only upside to the ridiculous order. “They’re sending us to my home turf.”
“We’re all gonna die,” Wilson said.