Quantity, not Quality

One day, exhausted from a long battle and a longer conference in the war room, Jason lay down on a grassy hill on the outskirts of the camp. Here, in mid-January in this continent of this verse—whatever its name was; Jason had honestly forgotten—it was late spring. Around him was the powerful aroma of flowers and the quiet buzz of bees, and before him, the local sun was halfway below the horizon. Jason was greatly enjoying himself thinking of nothing at all, his mind as devoid of significant ideas as a typical American celebrity-idolatry magazine—and then he smelled a visitor. "Curtis?"

"Yup." the prince replied, and there he was, standing over Jason with a concerned expression. "You can still smell well. But you've changed."

"Me, changed?" said Jason. "The multiverse as a whole is very much in flux, but me?" He glanced at his stump.

"How many people did you kill today?" Curtis asked.

"Uh… I didn't count. Eighteen, maybe?"

"That's what I mean! Remember when you got that girl killed, the truck driver? You felt awful! I could see it."

"Well… Roland gave me grief about that. And I killed Thorm, too."

"But it wasn't just what he said. Remember when Miles died? You didn't even kill him. But you were scared. I was scared, too. And I didn't think—and I don't think you thought—we were gonna get killed. Death is scary." Jason was silent, and Curtis went on "You used to respect life. Now you don't. What happened?"

"Be careful with the word 'life'. For us, it has two distinct meanings. Roland is the Champion of Life, but does he respect life?"

Curtis nodded. "More than before. Have you been watching him?"

"No, to be honest, I've been steering clear of him."

"He cries a lot. I asked him why. He said that sometimes it's about Beatrix, but sometimes he just feels bad about all those deaths. A lot of people are dying! Billions! A huge number!"

"The casualties are nearly beyond reckoning." Jason agreed.

"Well, why doesn't it bother you? It bothers me! It bothers Roland!"

"It—it does bother me!"

"You're lying!" Curtis cried with sudden violence. His big eyes narrowed with conviction. "Kill if you have to—we all have to kill—but you have to be conscious of what you're doing! What are you fighting for, anyway?"

"You're holding me to much higher standards than the other hundred billion people on our side actually abide by." said Jason. His voice was icy, but it was only a cover for the frightening seed of doubt Curtis had just planted in his heart. "Soldiers, as a rule, have little regard for human life."

Curtis swore vehemently. "You're dodging what I'm trying to say. Maybe some of our guys don't really care about the people they kill. A lot do care about them. But almost everyone values life. That's why they're on our side. They don't want to kill people. They want to preserve life. They kill for the greater good. But you… Jason… you're not really fighting for Life's sake, are you?"

"Well, no. I've never pretended to, either. From the beginning, the understanding has been that I fight for Life not because I want Life to win, but Death to lose—just as Beatrix did."

"Then who are you really fighting for?"

"Myself." said Jason, though he was unsure it was the truth.

Curtis glared at Jason for a while. "I don't get it."

"You don't think this is characteristic behavior for me?"

"No. I think you've always been… well, less good than I am. Less good than I thought Simon was—but Simon fooled me." (Jason considered replying "No, he didn't.", but he kept his mouth shut.) "This is different. This is worse. You're much more callous than you used to be."

Jason couldn't deny that, so he didn't. He had simply grown inured to slaughter. So often had he seen fields full of mangled corpses that they no longer seemed remarkable. So used was he to the knowledge that so many of the multiverse's most populous nations had been nuked out of existence that learning some famous verse was no longer habitable rarely surprised him. How could one stay sane amid all this bloodshed, he thought, without ignoring it, in one way or another? After all, the scale of it was already so woefully beyond human imagination as to make it seem highly unreal. In a certain sense, Jason felt he might as well be in a TV show for real, after all.

"Does it have to do with puberty?" Curtis asked at length.

"Puberty? I think Red said I wasn't due for that for another few weeks."

"It's supposed to be gradual."

"Possibly, but my body remains stubbornly boyish, and I can't say I've felt the pangs of love. Do magical olfaction and a missing hand and frequent shapeshifting (into sexually mature forms, no less) retard puberty? The only strangeness in such matters I can report is that I don't feel Life's presence. I used to; I did three times, in three different ways. But now, it seems quite ordinary. Does that signify that puberty is a lot less strange to and distant from me than before? Possibly." <And if so, I doubt it's a good omen.> Jason added mentally. He hadn't forgotten Leela's warning. Time was running short: if it came too early, puberty could ruin everything.

Curtis abruptly turned around and stalked off, saying as he did so "I dunno what to do with you." Jason's mind was no longer so empty.

After that encounter, Jason and Curtis, once close, began to drift apart, even as they both fought for Life—both enthusiastically, and both effectively—in their own ways.

As the war dragged on, the fighting only grew more frantic, the battles bloodier, the surviving portion of each retreating battalion smaller. And even as the armies shrank by slaughter, they grew by enlistment. Practically every nation in every IDC verse had been involved from the beginning; now, each side was drawing on other verses, those that had never developed any kind of verseportation, for fresh blood. It wasn't long before people who had never seen weapons more sophisticated than crossbows were being equipped with machine guns and Piercers, and people who hailed from planets where real magic had never been discovered were being taught to cast spells. And please note that I say "people" rather than "men" for a reason: Life and Death were strictly equal-opportunity employers. Everyone, male and female, young and old, blind and sighted, crippled and able-bodied, was made to fight, or, if they were obviously incapable of fighting, to help out in some other way.

Jason wondered whether a certain verse he knew quite well would be among those "other verses". He was not disappointed. Flying above a battlefield one day, he made out, quite distinctly, an American flag. It was on the side of Death, of course; Jason had to smirk when he thought of where the "culture of life" had finally led the United States. Then the smirk disappeared, for he realized that among those teeming masses of humanity he was just now deciding how to destroy, there could be his own family.

Weeks passed, and on the last day of January, Jason finally felt the war might have come to the tipping-point. There was to be a battle which, if Death lost, the remainder of its army would be decisively smaller than Life's, and its ultimate defeat would then become probable. The battle was fought, and Life did well. Yet Death didn't flee when Jason expected it to. The portion of the Death-army present kept on fighting even as it was outnumbered five to four, then three to two, then two to one, then three to one.

"They are more courageous than wise!" remarked Green, sitting next to Jason on a high cliff. He had the same muscular green fox-form he'd taken in Jason's dream. "It looks like they'll fight to the last man. So be it."

"And with so much of the Death-army present, too." said Jason. "I'd expect much more of Simon. Not that he appears to be here today."

After another two hours, it appeared that the last man really had died. The Life-army had spread itself out all over the battlefield hunting for survivors. And then Death's plan began to dawn on everyone: every corpse on the battlefield, human or beast, Vital or Mortal, momentarily glowed with a malevolent violet light. From Jason's vantage point, they looked like a million fireflies lighting up simultaneously. Then the corpses arose, and with flesh still drooping from their bones began to fight.

Thus the thinly spread, fatigued, and victory-sure Life-army found itself under attack by a swarm of zombies and skeletons, soldiers who did not tire and had no pride to blind them. They were nearly mindless, but they were no sluggish undead; they ran as fast as a pestilence, and struck as mercilessly as a famine. And, not being living creatures, they were immune to the plague Jason's flies spread, immune to poisoned weapons and venomous bites, immune for all practical purposes to bullets. The only way to dispatch them was to pound them to dust or burn them to ashes, and few soldiers had the presence of mind to do either. Life fled even as more undead teleported in, the bodies no doubt taken from earlier battles.

That day's meeting in the war room was a sober one. "Obviously I didn't give Simon enough credit." said Jason. "We've been pulling practically all the stops since day one, but Simon was wise enough to save one trick—to keep us completely unaware of one very special weapon Death possessed—until the very moment it would be most effective. There were many deaths on the battlefield today, both of Death's soldiers and ours, and every one of those dead bodies became a new Mortal soldier. The tables have been more or less turned."

"Admittedly, this is a great setback." said Red. "But I have one last secret weapon of my own, which is yet greater in power."

The weapon? No less than the power God gave to Adam and Eve: to be fruitful, and multiply. All of a sudden, children, human and otherwise, were being born, and how fast they grew! By Life's power, it took three days for a freshly conceived human zygote to become an adult raring for battle. Of course, three-day-old adults had no better minds than three-day-old infants—learning one's first language takes a great deal longer than three days!—but these were supernaturally comfortable in their own bodies, able to walk and run without any practice, and they had an instinctive propensity for killing things in whatever way they could. And, of course, they were themselves quite capable of reproducing.

You can imagine, then, how appropriate the word "multiply" was: within a week, these explosively-breeding meat-shields, affectionately referred to as "rabbits", had outnumbered their sapient ancestors. The only factor retarding their initial growth was that many people weren't inclined to produce them, especially after they saw the adults. The rabbits themselves had no such qualms, to the point that their females were almost perpetually pregnant, which was why in general only males fought.

Jason found the rabbits disturbing. How vile, he thought, for such beasts to romp about in human skins. He didn't care to learn the exact means by which such creatures could be born and grow so quickly. Still, they served their purpose. The ability to raise the dead had roughly doubled the might of the Death-army, and Simon fought much more aggressively than before. Without the rabbits, Life would've been quickly overwhelmed, as Simon had intended; with them, it suffered only a few sore defeats before starting to strike back. Weak as they were, the rabbits were without number; they simply swarmed the enemy far more quickly than they could be killed. Flaming sticks were sufficient arms to make them effective. They had no respect at all for their dead, and simply trampled right over the bodies, allowing Death few openings to raise the latter. And so with quantity, not quality, Life speedily regained the lead.