By the time the Order got around to contacting them to negotiate an accord, time had forged the Jellyfish Fleet into a very different entity to what they had once been. A new leader, a good dozen newly acquired ships and a few significant changes to purpose and crew were only the start of it, but hardly more than was to be expected when the whole world was changing – faster in the last few years than all the century of war gone before it. Sol had lived long enough by then with the uncomfortable truth that even if the war had ended yesterday, it would be too late. Too late for well over five billion people just for a start, the Jellyfish's founder only one of them.
It was bad enough the way he'd gone and taken himself out, first in line on what should have been the day they celebrated the death of Justice but which turned into the day they saw the rise of something worse – the legacy in the form of a daughter they'd never imagined she might be leaving behind. Without that stunt Johnny had pulled there well might not have been a Holy Order left after the first surprise attack, but the bastard had done it, and gone and died leaving Sol with a debt to him that he's never going to have a chance to repay.
Sol had had no tears to waste on the man. He'd seen people he liked more than Johnny Sfondi die. Only last year he'd had to stand and watch Axl Low blown to smithereens not twenty feet away – happened so fast the poor fucker never even saw it coming – never even had the time to stop smiling. Then two weeks later, Axl had materialised out of the blue right in front of Sol, cheerful and healthy as ever, completely unable to comprehend why his old buddy looked so stunned to see him. It didn't make one whit of difference how well Sol understood the physics of non-linear timelines, what was he supposed to say to the guy? Try never to get sent to August eight, 2180? How about shaving your head, I've got it on good reference you'll live to see it grow back? A lot of good that would do the poor sod.
Sol had known Sfondi just well enough to get to really dislike him, smarmy, swashbuckling womaniser that he was. Had he really imagined Sol hadn't known that half the reason he'd ever offered the Order any help was to get close enough to the Order's supplies to smuggle a few cargo loads out to distribute to war-impoverished towns like some sort of modern age Robin Hood? Not that it ever went far enough to be worth making the effort to stop it, it had been a long time since the Order had been in any state to be picky about who it or accepted help from. What remained of Zepp's forces running around their corridors were living proof of that, and Sol frankly didn't give half a shit how much the traditionalists in the Order might have complained about working alongside men who used Blacktech weapons. This was war and they weren't exactly winning. The whingers could suck it up.
But a guy like Sfondi was never really dead as long as he had a legacy to follow him, and he'd pulled that crazy suicide stunt while leaving most of his crew intact – a crew that had at the time consisted mostly of underaged orphan girls, which was the kind of fact the Order had had to strenuously pretend not to know about. Most of them weren't much less underaged today – those that had survived this long – but they'd vowed to continue on in their beloved Johnny's memory, learned to keep their ship in the air even when that meant patching over the holes with third-hand scrap metal and rivets held in place by rust. With that much settled, they'd gone out recruiting. In a world where there was hardly an able-bodied man or woman fit to join the Order left, there were orphans by the thousand – kids with nothing left to lose, easily rallied by the promise of revenge. They'd learned or invented a variety of guerrilla tactics so vicious the Order personnel who'd analysed them in action spoke of them with a kind of awe, put them to use in a series of raids on Gear bases that had shocked the enemy into confused disarray more than once, celebrated every kill they made, and buried their casualties like fallen heroes. They had little respect to spare for the Order, which was probably fair when you remembered what a stellar job the grown-up army had done of protecting their homes and families (it would have made Sol a lot sicker if he'd had to meet any kids who'd still had faith in them after all this time). But they were still willing to negotiate, and since they'd proven themselves a fighting force to be reckoned with it would have been self-defeating for the Order not to contact them to discuss how they could coordinate their efforts to best effect.
It was a nice way of sugar-coating the fact the Order was now effectively recruiting kids so young they couldn't lift a crossbow, let alone anything heavier.
But what else were they supposed to do? The Order didn't have the resources to waste on shutting the Jellyfish down, and even if they did, the shelters were filled with more people than they could support already. What could they tell those kids, go back to what's left of your homes and wait for the Gears to come and find you? Even a six-year-old could see that suggestion for the bullshit it was. Giving the Jellyfish official recognition and helping them redirect their efforts to where they'd be most useful was the best option the Order had to stop them throwing their lives away needlessly. It made inarguable sense, that was the worst part, because a world where there was no longer anything to lose by sending children out to fight wasn't a world with much left worth saving.
The 'captain' Sol was meeting today was a slip of a girl – mid teens at best, known only by the name of 'May'. She wore a long coat with rolled up cuffs that had been inexpertly taken down to her size, and a hat decorated with Gear-teeth that was too large for her and kept from flopping around under its own weight, kept mostly in place only by practice and determination. A mess of jewellery made from Gear claws clattered around whenever she moved. Her eyes gleamed with the determined enthusiasm of the youthful and she had a wicked smile, neither feature diminished by the thin scar which ran from her forehead down between her eyes, narrowly missing taking off a chunk of her nose with it. The mystery of how she of all candidates had held on to the leadership position might have been explained in part by the giant anchor she'd navigated through all the airship's hallways, hoisted over her shoulder as if it weighed no more than a toy. She'd responded to the offer of a chair by dumping it by the table with a clang and reclining comfortably on its arch with practiced ease. Accompanying her and standing respectfully behind her chair was a second girl dressed in some weird parody of a sailor's uniform and a well worn headscarf, with an eye-patch that was unlikely to be for show. She gave the impression she would have followed May to the ends of the earth with no more than an 'aye-aye Captain!' and a smile. Who knew, maybe all the Jellyfish's crew were like that these days.
To be fair, she wasn't the first teenager in the Order's ranks, or even anywhere near being the first to be addressed as Captain. One had been inches away from being made Commander, if only his own self-sacrificing stupidity hadn't gotten him killed first, and a day Sol could go without being reminded of that was a rare and welcome one. It was pretty fucking hard to remember why signing up kids was supposed to end any differently this time around.
Sol sat opposite her, on the far side of the conference room table, slouched far enough back to rest his feet on it. Potemkin stood awkwardly between them (the Order never had managed to get hold of a chair large enough for him), single-handedly taking up most of a third side of the table like the universe's least subtle intermediary. Sol listened with half an ear as he and May negotiated encrypted radio frequencies, though from the way May's second-in-command kept interrupting to rule options out, he was starting to get the impression a lot of the Jellyfish's ships were so old or so broken down they'd be lucky if they could handle encrypted semaphore. He was also getting a headache.
"The Jellyfish fleet don't use radio," May declared, and far from an apology, she sounded just a little proud of this fact. "Radio signals can be jammed or intercepted, and we know the reason you lost Paris the last year was because the Gears got hold of your plans. We're not risking that."
"While we respect your concerns, the information leak in Paris was due to infiltration by enemy agents, not interception of our communications." Potemkin rumbled, with patience that came proportional to his bodyweight. "The weaknesses you refer to were more true of the traditional 'old world' radio predating magic-based technology, whereas today's..."
"So? Us 'kids playing war' don't know all that stuff," said May, a gleam in her eye. "We don't have your scrying networks or your fancy engineers. We don't know everything the Gears can and can't do, so we have to stay low tech and stick to what we can rely on. When we plan a raid we set a time and agree on a signal. If it's important we set up decoys. The Gears never see us coming!"
No surprise either. After over a century of warfare against the most highly trained armies the world could muster, suddenly coming under attack from a bunch of disorganised kids had sent the Gears into confusion. It was always hard to predict what an enemy might do next if they hardly had any idea what they were doing themselves.
"Nevertheless," said Potemkin, "if we are to coordinate your forces with the greater Order fleet, we will need a proper communication channel. We can lend you the assistance of our engineers to make the upgrades. You may be able to use the opportunity to have them assess any other equipment needing repairs as well."
"You don't need to talk me into that, big guy," May grinned, and Sol already pitied the poor engineers who were going to draw the job of playing Dad to a bunch of brats. With airships in the state they were flying they'd be getting called out to fix everything from anti-aircraft weaponry to toy planes and toasters. Hard to hold it against May's lot though, half the Jellyfish Fleet were staying airborne on a hope and a prayer, and lord knew those brats deserved all the help they could get.
But May wasn't done there. "While we're talking engineers, if we're working for your Order there's some other stuff we want from youse. April, the list!" The girl to May's right produced a new sheaf of paper from somewhere and tossed it to the table, on top of a pile which already contained names, ages and ranks of all the crew members May would admit to (a disturbing number of them in single figures, and many listed with things like 'chief-official-hammer-and-spanner-carri
er-officer') and 'technical details' of their fleet (which included everything from real blueprints to rough drawings in coloured pencil). From what Sol could see, it looked like someone had written 'chocolate' on the list before crossing it out again, and under 'first aid supplies' someone had written both 'bandages', 'disinfectant' and 'that stuff what makes you go to sleep for surgery.'
"We're feeding our people Gear-meat and burying kids for stubbed toes that went septic," May went on. "We want on your supply line, and we especially want any med supplies you can give us."
Potemkin eyed the list with the awkwardness of a man who couldn't have picked it up even if he'd wanted to and wasn't sure if he should be taking the 'specifics' put together by a bunch of children very seriously anyway. "Hmm... The Order is less comfortably provided for than you may imagine – the help we can provide you without critically diminishing our own stocks may be limited, but we will see what we can spare."
"Long as you aren't cheaping out on us, it's a deal," declared May.
"In that case," said Potemkin, "we should move to discussing the specifics of your role in battle..."
"And that is what we want to talk about too!" said May, leaning forward enough to crowd anyone who wasn't Potemkin's size, and damn if there wasn't a gleam in both her eyes now. "'Cause just 'cos we're kids doesn't mean we're dumb. We know what you think about our firepower. You're going to have us acting as decoys and distractions – playing bait just long enough you can sweep in for the glory. Anything you can tell yourself are the 'safe' jobs for the kids who don't get to be real soldiers. Gonna tell me I'm wrong?"
"Do you have another suggestion about how..." Potemkin began, but May ignored him.
"Hey you, I'm talking to you, Mister Big Bad Order Commander-Guy. You gonna let your flunky deal with the Jellyfish all day?"
Sol gave her a long, tired look. "The fuck is your problem?"
May met his gaze with a kind of fire Sol hadn't seen in anyone in a long time. "One, we came here to we came here to talk to the head of the Holy Order, not his second in command. Two, I just said, and you woulda heard if you cared what you called us here to meet about."
Sol took his feet off the table. "You think your Peter Pan-crew is too good to play backup?"
"Think we're not? Last week we took down a whole Gear convoy only ten miles from the shelter – twenty three Large-class and only four got away."
"And that puts you in the big leagues, little girl?" Sol growled.
"Why don't you tell me where it puts us?"
"Don't give me this bullshit, you know where it puts you – with the rest of the cadets we pull out of training and stick on the field cause we're so fucking low on troops we're sending in anyone. Your brats made their fucking name springing strike raids, and that's damn well gonna be what you're doing for us too. Twenty three large class? Come back when it's two hundred and thirty."
May leaned back, a look of victory on her face. "So basically you're admitting you're gonna treat us like kids?"
"Gotta problem with that?"
May gave him a toothy grin. "Nope!" she declared happily.
"Like I told you, we may be kids, but we're not dumb. We know the reason you called us in is coz you think we're gonna get ourselves killed out there without ya. I just wanted to see if ya'd admit to my face. We know we don't have much fire-power, but your engineers can take care of that. We know you don't think we're fit for real combat, so we're gonna run your distractions and whatever the hell else you give us. We're gonna be right there in your face showing you exactly what we're made of, and when we're ready you're gonna be right there to see it!"
Sol stared, and leaned back, and couldn't suppress a grin. "Pretty ambitious for a brat."
"Wouldn't be much good to anyone if we weren't, would we?"
"And if we decide you're not good enough?"
"We'll keep going until we are. We've got a war to win and we know how much we're good for if we keep fighting on our own. Johnny always said the Order might seem a bit stuck up but they're the best hope the world's got. If we're gonna help anyone, the ones we've gotta help are them."
May leaned forward, deadly serious, looking Sol right in the eye. "Either we win this war or we go down fighting. It's what I promised Johnny, and it's what the Jellyfish stand for."
The conversation wasn't over there – Potemkin still had a whole lecture to get through on Order protocol, and May even seemed to be paying attention to some of it. But Sol never remembered anything that was said after that as more than static, because somehow it was that – that look in her eye, that willingness to do what she thought it was going to take – that was what finally did him in. Stupid fucking kids with only one lifetime to waste, who never saw the way they kept taking the easy way out for the luxury it was.
He knew he'd got no real legroom to moralise; May hadn't done anything wrong by leading the Jellyfish the way she was leading them, and he'd be the last man in the world with any high ground to stand on when it came to having the bile to say 'no' to someone using their dying breath to ask you be the one to finish the job they wouldn't be around to see finished, even if it did mean leading a military force you should have damn well known you were the last person qualified to lead. But Sol was just so damn tired of it all – tired of watching everyone around him go to their 'glorious' deaths with a smile on their faces, tired of brats who thought they had nothing to lose, tired of being two hundred years old and always the one who had to stick around to answer for his fucking mistakes at the end. Because even if the war had ended yesterday – even if it ended tomorrow – even if there was enough left of the world for there to be anything to rebuild even in a hundred years – there wasn't going to be much to celebrate.
The dead don't know just how good they have it.
There's always just enough hope to keep them going – people like May or Potemkin, or all the others who proudly echo the same sentiments in his hearing, but it's been a long time since 'hope' sounded much different from any other four-letter-word to Sol. It's only habit that keeps him going these days.
It's hard enough for Sol to picture the war ending after fighting it so long, but even if it does, it's even harder to picture that there'll be anything else left at all.