Back in the New Imperium, Kevin finally found time to make his pitch (after taking some fairly extensive precautions against is being spied on by the house: if they wanted to know, they could either await him going commercial or bloody well ask). There were sixteen kids from Baelaria (who saw it as a chance to apprentice to a powerful mage), the twelve core kids, and the five half-drow slaves… Kevin was working on streamlining his pitch for Core, so he went for a clear and complete explanation (albeit a very nicely-presented one), carefully assuaged all identifiable doubts, had his current thralls demonstrate their abilities, made sure that they understood that his contract was for a limited time only and included healing, life-extension, and resurrection benefits – and made it quite clear that this was an option: they were more-or-less free (depending on their backgrounds and other options) to go elsewhere.
It went better than Kevin had expected: four of the core kids didn’t go for it – although none of them wanted to go back to core (and it looked like three would after they’d watched for a bit). The other core kid was weird. Well, that sort of thing was par for the course out in the Manifold.
Since the New Imperium had communications links, the core kids got to call home. Their parents were pleased that they weren’t dead – and mostly felt that signing up with a professional adventuring group was better than running around the manifold on their own. Three of the four who’d rejected his deal didn’t want to call: evidently they hadn’t been happy in core. The weird one sent a weird message home about trying to regroup.
There were still a few more (two who’d disappeared and the three ringleaders – at least one of whom had had enough mana to open existing but non-commercial gates – who’d been picked up by a pair of drow) whom it might be possible to rescue. Still, the vanished ones were likely dead (unless the turned up with the followup crew, which they might) and Kevin felt no particular urgency about rescuing the ringleaders from their folly – at least as long as their lives weren’t in danger. Since they had a very useful power, they probably were safe enough for the moment – and searching the Underdark wasn’t exactly practical. They’d taken a bunch of other kids who lacked both the power to escape on their own and the power to handle the place into the Underdark; being slaves for awhile wasn’t that big a price to pay… Kevin put out some rewards/purchase offers on all five, but that would have to do for the moment.
What had they been after anyway? Mostly trying to ride the plot of a known adventure, but the leading trio had also been after something called the “Rosary of Memories”. Er, well, whatever. The manifold was full of legendary treasures.
So: where to assign his twenty-nine new Thralls? Marty needed eight to open up shop in Core New York City (minor magical and psychic services, manifold tours, gate-openers, and escorts, to expand to import/export, rescue, bodyguard services, and similar missions as possible, he was paying an appropriate kids salary; Unions in Battling Business World were nothing to sneeze at): two to alternate manning the desk and demonstrating that they were indeed competent and two agent teams of three – at least for the moment. One to act as Liaison with the House – hmm, he’d offer to assign one to the followup crew and see how the house reacted to THAT – some trade representative teams of three each for Baelaria, the New Imperium, and Classic Star Wars (three each for those, core kids with their own ID’s for Bealaria), three to advanced training for a bit and then to the Forgotten Realms as trade reps there, scatter three of them around core to provide some communications and news links (as well as to take the three healed-up little kids and the cookie monster home) and demonstrate their powers a bit and advertise for recruits that way – and have the remaining four try to go to work as agents for some of the other factions. They’d pay well, and he might get some worthwhile information out of it.
Back at the volcanic moon, Jarvian – who hadn’t felt that a multi-ton mech would be much use on what was basically an archeological dig – had gotten the robots to build him a new, heavier, Mech; he’d had those Warhammer blueprints lying around anyway. (Fortunately for Jarvian, the robots had quietly upgraded the weaponry to something approaching core specifications).
With everyone – including Darth Plageous, Ithuldir, that weird kobold and a minotaur (both still in Kevin’s pocket), Benedict, Marty, Jarvian, Raphial, Kevin, and his three thralls and two “ferrets” – loaded with ammon and ready to leave, they got on with the trip to Singular. Most of them took the Orb, but Jarvian preferred his shiny new Mech. Most of the rest had their doubts – although Plageous was laughing and Ilthuldir was a bit shocked (and needed some explanations).
Singular was being maintained by robots – who were still firing orbital weapons at the automated minions of the Russian AI who’d started the entire mess – but was in the middle of a glacial spasm: the asteroid hit had blown a hole in Russia 200 miles across (half full of magma, and one of the few warm places left); it was snowing in the tropics. Modest radiation, no serious chemical toxins, some radiation-scrambled and mostly-inactive nanites, breathable atmosphere, and cold.
Since Kevin had had all of the displays switched to low-resolution and downsampled audio to avoid meme infections, as well as switching down to basic voice-communications and recognition codes only on communications channels they started fishing for information. Fortunately, the local computer network was fairly obliging. The “gravesite” was in the crater. The safest route was under the pole. Major glaciation was underway… They estimated several centuries before the planet would be suitable for unprotected human life again.
As for the war summaries… Praetorians revealed as America enters war effort… Praetorians are the first to successfully hold off the Gilgamish class of metahumans… Numerous psychological issues leading to near 100% suicide rate among the Praetorians… United States President infected with Viral Meme Firestorm… Praetorians launch assault on White House, Pentagon, and Norad in attempt to limit damage… Praetorians Peter Matthington and Catherine Wingates assume global command of all of humanity… “Free and Pure Humans” launch counterattack to purge humanity of impurities; they are led by Four ArchAngels of Apocalypse… Remaining Praetorians manage at kill three Angels with very high casualties… Peter Matthington goes missing around the time of the impact of Station Alpha (and its nuclear core) into Northern Russia… Fourth Angel disappears as well… Remaining Praetorian Commander Catherine Wingates goes to crater and suicides near where a river is pouring into it… Urban Cohorts disband and exterminate remaining Praetorians, now running amuck without their commanders to keep them in line… Evacuation of Humanity to other realms begins.
Kevin sighed. The bloody fundamentalists were always trotting out that bunch. They’ve messed up a lot of mice realms that way. He remembered one nice little western-themed place…
Well, the Orb wouldn’t be able to fly well with a 75-ton mech aboard. It looked like they were in for an ocean cruise. in Fission Core of Station Alpha impacted. Better get moving before something else showed up.
They had to dodge some orbital weapons fire on the way, but at least the systems were nice about warning “friendly” units in the area. They drilled up near St Petersburg, where CO2 was freezing out as well. It was a mess, and was also heavily occupied by hostile mecha. Well, at least realm-visitors could use magic up to level three or so without a problem, so Kevin threw some screening spells around Marty and threw illusions. One enemy mech wasn’t that big a problem – but it looked like there were at least twenty more.
Jarvian volunteered to stay behind and hold them off while everyone else escaped. Kevin pointed out that this was suicidal: they were faster, more heavily armed and armored, and had him heavily outnumbered – unless he opened a gate to the Mechworlds and left a kid to open it for him. Gerald had illusions, should have a fairly good shot at getting him out.
That actually worked out – at least thanks to some sort of construct which attached itself to the Stonewall (Jarvian had christened his Mech) and helped shoot. He actually got out with mere massive systems damage…
While fleeing, the rest discussed bars, antimatter hand weapons, and a variety of other subjects… The radiation beamers were fairly “safe”: they just made everything radioactive, cooked flesh, and blew hell out of electronics. Of course, they affected everything in a large cone, went straight through most barriers (so you never know what you were shooting) and created a poisonous zone that lasted for centuries. The stream projectors tend to flashburn the users, irradiate everyone nearby, and go up like a few tons of high explosives on whatever they hit. Needle-projectors can’t be fired at anything within a mile or so with any safety and basically equate to low-end nukes. Regardless of the make, you didn’t want one letting go in your hand: even the radiation beamers would leave a crater several hundred feet across if their magazine lost containment. Customs frowned on all of them.
The crater itself was a vision of snow, ice, magma, steam, radioactive life forms, pools of liquid metals, and nanotech run amuck. It was where the most vicious lifeforms on the planet were fighting it out to occupy the only spot within 1000 miles warm enough to survive in. They put up some anti-nanite spells: if anything did make it past the orb shields, they didn’t want it to be able to do much else. At least it confirmed that they were near the gravesite: the reconstruction nanites were loose and out of control.
That confirmed that the body WAS in the grave at one point, and now at least some of it was not. Since it was a nanotech construct, any sizable portion should be enough for reconstruction of the body and general brain layout, the neural net and memories may not have carried over (which would explain the general blankness), but such a reconstruction wouldn’t have a soul – unless one moved in after the body was functional again – which might explain the “irreplaceable” thought.
There were two gates near the center of the crater. One recently punched through, the other older – but both used recently. Obviously enough, one to Greenweld, the other to a Victorian realm. Lots of laborers, replaced regularly. Hm. Lots of people disappearing or reappearing changed, a mages guild very big on investigating new magics and strange sources of power. Baelaria. “Coincidence”, “Foreshadowing”, and so on play a really big role in the Manifold: people expect things to work that way.
There was a sizable digging team at work as well. About a hundred laborers and five mages, some signs of recent fighting, basic equipment looked like Victorian era firearms and digging tools and the mages were dressed like the groups old “friend”, Spellweaver – although they carried the sign of the Mage’s Guild on their tabards. At least that told them who the renegade mage from Baelaria reminded them of. Hard to be sure with all the circuitry tattoos though.
They left Bard to run the Orb – they could authorize it to take orders from him for a few days – and headed on in to talk.
This caused much excitement. The Mages Guild was artifact-hunting, and seemed to be enamored of the potential of the Praetorians. They didn’t care what happened to the workers…
They did care that the group knew about their first major artifact – a body, badly damaged but made of something other than flesh, incorruptible (not that anything much will in this radiation level) and apparently that of a relatively young woman. They didn’t understand the attitude that it was silly to reactivate it. The group, unsurprisingly, felt that there were far less risky ways to improve on nature – but that the mages were quite welcome to destroy themselves if they felt the need to do so.
The group didn’t see any need for a confrontation. The mages had lost the Praetorian, they knew that she’d either left the area in this reality (unlikely), or was with Spellweaver. In either case, the mages didn’t have anything they wanted. They already had the specifications for praetorians and there was no shortage of nanite samples (including some fresh from her). It was just her current location that would be nice to know – and it was pretty certain that the mages didn’t know it. They’d just advise the robots and let them handle it. The praetorians were a notable danger to humanity under the current situation: they suspected that an orbital strike was in order… Besides, the robots wouldn’t be at all happy about how the workers were being treated.
Meanwhile, the House was calling Jarvian, who was back in the Battletech universe trying to fix his mech. Fortunately, Gerald could pass on information as needed.
The House was not keen on the Mages Guild getting their hands on the Praetorians. They thought that getting the robots to intervene was optimal unless the group wanted to retrieve them themselves. After that, they’d like the group to set up a “venture” in Baeleria and observe any goings-on there.
Re-uniting was simple enough: the Mecha in St Petersburg weren’t fast enough to keep them from flying through the gateway. First up was healing-purification spells all around. Next up was whatever was merging with, and reconfiguring, Jarvian’s mech. Despite the general confusion of cultural preconceptions, It identified itself as a sentient AI… From the history of Singular, that might be very bad. The out-of-control Russian AI was what had nearly destroyed the planet. It was identifying itself as “Battleship Mirage”.
Well, there had been such a ship, the AI specifications fit, it didn’t seem to be capable of self-upgrading beyond its original specifications, and the identification codes were right. Evidently no need to cause mass destruction at the moment.