With Jamie taking time out for repairs (that colossal battering she’d taken had done quite a lot of damage), the House busy setting up their defenses around the doorway to the Rosary of Memory, the NeoDogs in delivery, needing to stay out of Core for a bit (although recruiting there was picking up again a bit), Marty and Kevin were at loose ends for a bit.
Well, if there was anywhere that would make it easy to travel to obscure locations, it would be the Rosary.
Marty had been meaning to do some recruiting and take care of a few things at home, so he headed back to Battling Business World.
Battling Business World looked much the same as ever. Two hot-dog vendors battling it out with axes over a prime business spot, the subway on fire, the merry sounds of a kids gun battle over at the arcade, and an upset vending machine jumping up and down on someone who kept banging the button too hard.
“Hey, Lou (the vending machine). Joe (the unfortunate being jumped on) push the Diet Pepsi button one too many times again?”
“He was demanding Jolt Cola again! I don’t even CARRY Jolt Cola! I keep telling him, just dissolve a bottle of caffeine tablets and a couple of spoonfuls of sugar in regular coke, and it’s just the same, but NOOOooo!”
“He never learns. Did you kill him again?”
“Not quite yet! Got any hand grenades? If I put one in the can and hook the pin to the pull tab it should be really funny!”
“Eh, you know Mr. Leland won’t let me have those since the oil tanker incident.”
“Well, I keep asking maintenance to run a nitroglycerin line in here next to the water line, but they keep turning it down for some reason!”
“Got me. Bah, I’ve got to call the office. I’m sure you heard about the London raid.”
“Yeah! The Boss is really considering hiring the guy who led it on as a regular!”
“He did some damn fine work. That wrecking ball maneuver was something.”
“Only trouble is, he keeps setting off the sprinkler system. So hot-headed!”
“He’ll learn. Uh . . . how are he and Sadie (the bosses pet opossum and raid-assistant) getting along?”
“Sadie keeps toasting marshmellows on him and making smores. I think he’s getting smarter!
“Wow, the boss must be teaching her some more tricks. Is he busy?”
“Oh, I’d give him about five minutes before he pitches his last appointment out the window! (there is a scream going down): Darn it! I think the copier just won the pool!”
Mr Leland did, indeed, have a brand new opening on his schedule. He was rather pleased with the amount of opportunities for expansion the Manifold offered – and with the fact that Marty had managed to hire some navigational specialists. (Kevin’s contractors had done some excellent work during the invasion. Very unusual tactics, but effective). They’d also helped bring in our counter-raid contractors – which brought up how the Balrog was doing.
The Balrog was doing quite well. he seemed woefully uninformed on many practical matters, but he’d been picking up the way of things quite rapidly. His resume was a bit specialized – he seemed to have mostly been dealing with a very persistent bunch of raiders over and over again – but he certainly showed adaptability and enthusiasm in London! Mr Leland was planning on offering him the position, although it would be nice to know who “Gandalf” was, and why defeating him several times seemed to be such a point of pride. Presumably “Gandalf” was some really tough big shot where the Balrog was from.
“Like Trump, only he doesn’t pay people to hit themselves.”
“Well, at least he doesn’t seem to have a flock of kids like Kenshin and Gelman. I’ve never had “Bring your Daughter to Work” day turn into that kind of a bloodbath before. Even by our standards it was impressive!”
“That made me glad Abigail and I only had Julia before the divorce – although I still can’t figure out why the Judge gave her full custody. What’s wrong with “I thought the kid had to learn about bars eventually” as an answer to “Why did you take your 4-year old to a sports bar?”
“Well, I have to give them credit: the two teams stuck together pretty well!”
“Heh. Wish Abigail would have let me bring Julia this year. She’s started on Oaken Staff in kindergarten.”
“Well, she might have settled down a bit. Besides, during any period in which she’s dead and you’re not, you have custody again you know.”
“Been hard to exploit that with all the travel. Ah well.”
“What I really came by for was to see if Mr. Balrog’s raid had any fallout. Lloyd’s can’t be happy.”
“Well, Lloyds has been trying to put together a major coalition, but there’s been some reluctance: the Contractors took over quite a few firms, and they haven’t been able to dislodge them yet.”
“That’s good news. Oh yeah . . . check this little guy (Limey) out. I found him during the raid.”
Marty got out Limey and woke him up…
“Raise! Upgrade! Battery! Contract!”
“Hm, sounds like he should be a valuable assistant for you shortly!”
“Only problem is, I haven’t converted him from the British plug yet. And I have no idea where he came from. The union’s going to be angry.
“Hm. Have you checked with Immigration? “
“Not yet. I came here as soon as I got back. I think I’ll head down there, if you don’t need me.”
“Well, there are plenty of local jobs which could use your touch – but if we don’t let the new staff do anything, they’ll never learn. Best get the kid there through INS, and I’ll see if the new guys are completely flummoxed anywhere.”
Marty headed for the INS: it was nice to be driving his sedan again after too long an absence. The Flits and such were all very nice, but there was just something to the feel of five or six tons of solid armor around you. He had to knock a few cars out of the way, but even most of the Lloyds agents had given up at the moment: he’d been away too long… Still, it looked like the minigun car alarm had been worth the cash!
“See how that guy’s car exploded, Limey? Isn’t that great? It was a Jaguar, too!”
“Boom! (In different voice) <WELCOME TO ROAD RAGE RACING 27! SELECT YOUR CAR> Boom!”
“Wow, you have a racing game!? That’s great! Now I won’t get as homesick!”
The INS informed him that, since Limey had awakened in England, he’d need a new transformer if he was being naturalized and that it was obvious that he’d woken up non-violently, otherwise he would be fully aware from the start… If it was necessary to rush him, inducing some hostility would do it nicely – although it did make it hard to get along with them later on.
Checking his hard drive revealed the Limey had been setting up for a transfer to a Demo Model – no wonder he was so friendly – and had quite a few expensive upgrades already. (Lloyds would definitely want him back). He’d recently had a reformat, but the backup partition was protected of course (that was why they picked everything up again so fast of course: unconscious memories). There was a registered corporate war declaration on file, and it’s still in the “open” category. That could make him a political refugee, prisoner of war, war refugee, or double agent – but he seems a bit young for prisoner or double agent.
Marty opted for “Refugee” and an adoption form.
“I’d be glad to sign on the little guy up as my assistant!”
“You’ll have to reach some contract-breaking accommodation with Lloyds after the war or handle it with the settlement, and there might be a protest from Microsoft, but that will be none of my affair after I use the bosses stamp on the forms. Two choices there, you can either persuade him to use the stamp himself, or just take it.”
“Couldn’t you do it now? I’ve got to leave town on business, and the little guy really likes to travel, don’t you little buddy?”
“Travel! Underdark! POLYMORPH SECRETARY!”
Well, that left him with a giant ground sloth.
Well, the bosses office was next door…
“Ah, hello, sir. I was just speaking with your secretary, and I need to nationalize this laptop as an American citizen.”
“Are you asking me to take responsibility for something? You are not on my schedule, therefore you don’t exist! I don’t go out of my way for hallucinations! You can have a drink if you want though; if you’re a figment of my imagination it just goes straight back to me anyway! Vodka or Scotch?”
“Why choose? Let’s have both!”
“Now that’s a figment after my own imagination!”
OK, there was a bar behind the wall screen, glasses in the safe – and the stamp chained down on the desk. Time for a plan… They’d both drink until the boss was so drunk that he wouldn’t care if Marty stole his office, much less used his stamp. All he had to do was hope that he remained sober enough to sneak over and use it.
Limey woke up again halfway through.
“Here . . . have the nice government man’s flash drive.”
Marty got to work approving his paperwork.
“Data! Yummy! Forms! Passwords! Scheduling! Bura… Bura… Bureaucrat! Office! Desk! Service Records! Meanie! Meanie! Uploading… Personnel File Overwrite! Linking! POLYMORPH!”
Suddenly the bureaucrat was an elephant seal – and there was a lot of noise suddenly throughout the building.
Well, government types WERE sort of defined by their personnel files…
“Tired!” (Limey went back to sleep suddenly)
“Limey, I love you more every minute.”
There. Paperwork finished and approved. Now to get out before anyone noticed anything wrong. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the building except seals, sloths, and pandas at the moment anyway.
Limey digested Data all the way home. Once he woke up, Marty got some cartoons for him to watch. He was a little young for what Marty normally watched.
“This little laptop went to work, this little laptop called in sick, this little laptop had silicon, and this little laptop had none! And this little laptop went beep, beep, beep all the way home!”
“I like those!”
“Very good! Your first sentence!”
Marty set Elerra and Minel to watch Limey while he took a nap (they didn’t NEED a polymorph!). Even for him, he’d had a lot to drink today…
Limey was talking a lot better when he woke up. Evidently he’d been doing well, and he’d had a blank CDROM to chew on. Evidently he’d junked most of the government files. He wasn’t interested in the union regs though…
“Phooey! Freelance subcontractor! Free Agent! Excitement! Romance! (Starts playing the theme song from James Bond: Freelance Corporate Raider). Life for me!”
“I think we’re going to get along just fine. I’m going to have to teach you how to fight if you’re going to be a scab, though . . . Here, hit me.”
“WHAT THE HELL DID KEVIN FEED YOU!?”
“I have surge protector!”
“Ow . . . yes. Yes you do. Why don’t you try punching me?”
“You too far from table!”
“Well, part of fighting is getting to the target. What would James Bond do?”
“Attack credit rating?”
“No, this is a physical fight. Here, I’ll come over there. Give me your best punch. Good! You might be able to stand up to the labor warriors!”
“Not need to! Junior executives and special agents not union anyway! You slash, I hack!”
The INS incident had made the New York Times: it was listed as some sort of protest, since no trace of the staff has been found and the animals have all been shipped to the zoo until (at least until they get talking sorted out again) except for the sloth, which was doing the secretaries job competently enough that it was left there…
Back at Ealor, the Singularites discussion over Kevin was getting a bit intense. What was he? How could he grant other youngsters that much power? He seemed to be telling them “you’re working for me now: you may now freely violate most of the laws of physics as long as you don’t go overboard about it”. And Immortality?!? Even with what they’d learned about Gatekeepers and Openers, that was a bit much. They all seemed so sure about it though…
They could ask one to demonstrate – or offer to pay for a demonstration – but what if it was bull? On the other hand, could they afford to leave the question unanswered? True or false, it would say a LOT about Kevin – and possibly about Openers in general. The boy was almost impossible to pin down directly: he seemed to flow from personality to personality like mercury, so used to adopting roles that he didn’t even seem to notice himself changing.
If it was true – well, there were only a few hundred kids on Ealor: they’d rescued as many as possible from Singular during the evacuation – after all, the kids took priority over everything but vital life support – but the birthrate had been declining for centuries, just as the life expectancy had been rising, and most of those who’d been rescued were adults now. Kevin’s advice about visiting Core to fix that seemed to be working – and everything else he’d told them had been checking out so far…
But Resurrections and Immortality?
The remaining kids had been playing with the young Gatekeepers Kevin had left. They’d been delighted to have new playmates – and not a few of them had wanted to know if they could have powers like the Gatekeepers.
They decided to ask one of the Gatekeepers to demonstrate.
The kid did ask for a fee – but the mere fact of asking for one showed that he expected to be around to collect.
And he came right back. OK, it took a couple of hours, but apparently the “ritual of return” didn’t even call for a pinch of dust from the original body – and the kid came back carrying along a bag full of snacks and prizes from some sort of amusement park and a bundle of stuff he’d picked up shopping.
So: for most people “dying” meant “reincarnate elsewhere and don’t come back”. If you were working for Kevin it meant “go entertain yourself at the mall and park until you get called back to your assignment”.
They’d looked up Kevin’s biography while they were visiting Core. He’d been born a perfectly normal boy. He’d vanished into the Manifold at the equivalent of thirteen or fourteen a little over fifty years ago. He’d apparently spent some time studying magic at “Hogwarts”. He’d met Ryan O’Malley – another Opener who had apparently returned from the Manifold with vast resources and powers available. He had then – by his own word – spent many years in Faerie. He’d returned without aging, and apparently possessed of the kind of powers that ought to be reserved for gods.
What the HELL had HAPPENED out there?
Back at the Dragonworlds, “business” was getting back to normal – not as many challengers as he would normally have expected given how long he’d been away, but several. Several of them already subdued even. Well… he did have two thralls there to look after things now. Besides, his worrying about the place seemed to have poured a lot of power into his local ID. It didn’t really show, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that he was – at least locally – becoming an atrocity of power. The remaining challengers were easy enough to deal with.
On the other hand, some of the females seemed to be trying to politically maneuver him into a formal alliance-mating. Evidently he was beginning to look like a very good prospect.
That was the trouble with a realm with thousands of vaguely-defined worlds: stuff kept emerging from nowhere on you.
So: how could he deal with Kelseru Ana’Nasu? He could always ignore her of course – the thousand worlds certainly had enough exploitable resources for two, and business was picking up again now that it was becoming apparent that she wasn’t a free prize for the taking and the novelty factor was wearing off – but she was INFRINGING on HIS TERRITORY.
Wait. A young female intentionally infringing on his territory?
He knew how he’d try to deal with her! He’d try an unprecedented tactic! He’d be sociable!
Kevin had checked out the secret police records on Ana’Nasu and her companions some time ago: the local secret police only had information on the identities of course, but those would be based on their real as well as local abilities. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to go on – but she certainly appeared to be young and unattached. He could try some major divinations now that he’d developed the right rituals – but a lot of dragons were sensitive to those, so that might put her off. Still, she seemed to be cunning and ruthless, but not cruel. She takes advantage of the weaknesses in others and feels deserve what they get for having weaknesses. She didn’t go out and kill puppies for amusement, but she was more than willing to break and humiliate young dragons that got in over their head.
He purchased a few sets of metallic hatchlings (Gold, Silver, and Copper, to suggest money – easy enough to find via purchasing agents; hatchlings and young dragons were a glut on the market), made sure they were all phantasms, that they were all properly slave-conditioned, marked, modified, and bound to obedience, and that they were all well trained as pets and personal slave-attendants and pages.
That actually made him feel a bit guilty: pesky metallic cuteness/niceness! Oh well, far better than most of the things that happened to hatchling-slaves. Still, he’d be glad to get back to dealing with the older ones who’d tried to steal from him or put up a fight. With them you could really enjoy being an evil red dragon without any bothersome guilt.
He picked out the cutest trio, got them well polished up, fitted with jeweled collars, property-tags, and proper tack, coached them throughly on their approach and on delivering the well-composed invitation (to eat out at a fancy and secure restaurant that catered to dragons and could be rented for the evening), and sent them off – bearing gifts, and as gifts themselves. Sending gems and jewelry, some local magical items for the lady and her adventurer-companions, the deeds to some useful bits of local property, and three young dragon-slaves would be some pretty obvious courting of course, but there was nothing at all wrong with that.
So: that offered, as a minimum, more presents, fine dining, a possible alliance – and through him, connections with the secret police and the imperium – and possible magic, all in the security of an established semi-public neutral zone. It would even, if her powers were exotic enough, offer her the possibility of a free shot at collecting him – even if he was sure to have taken precautions. If things went well, she might expect even more.
They could check on him as well, but it would mostly show a skillful young dragon-artificer who’d gotten really lucky on an Imperial reward and was enough more powerful than average to have successfully defended his gains since (defeating quite a few would-be challengers) – although he’d apparently recently started collecting some intact subordinates as well as slaves.
That was about all that could be done in the way of a dragon-invitation and demonstration of wealth short of sending an imperial warrant, a small army and some adventurers to drag her to him. He could try sending military forces, secret information, and raw power as gifts – but military forces would be more than a bit much, he had some secret information (and could get more as he practiced with his new divinatory rituals), but he had no real way of knowing what might be useful to her, and raw power generally didn’t come in gifts except as really major magic items – and it would be a pain to acquire any of them and he’d probably rather use them himself if he did.
She accepted the invitation. She’d be bringing three aides/attendants, and expected that he would be bringing three aides as well.
Outside of a few clumsy, adolescent, dates and liaisons back before he’d gained his powers – and not counting events in Faerie (what HAPPENS in Faerie STAYS in Faerie) – he’d never really tried this approach before: the Thralls were always available, slaves and captives were his to command, and not a few girls approached him on their own. He wasn’t usually a supplicant.
He’d have to turn THAT situation around as quickly as possible.
Now: How could he impress her?
Well, renting the entire restaurant, a few more gifts, a fancy dinner, fine wines, a squad of servile slaves, and an impression of wealth worked pretty well on most dragons, just like they did on most humans – even better in fact if you really put on a show. It wasn’t like he didn’t have the money to impress.
He could make sure that the food was superb, that the drinks were enough to provide even a dragoness with a slight buzz – but nothing more unless she really overindulged – and that the dishes were amongst those that inflamed the senses. No manipulations or trickery with drugs or anything: just good food and drink. No tricks, and no cheating: just her social skills and enhancements against his.
The musicians and entertainers would be highly skilled lesser-race types. For the servers… Hm. The rest of the hatchling coppers, silvers, and golds, with their relevant skills well boosted. The clear-away crew could be some of his fallen rivals. The personal attendants could be hatchling reds for both of them and for any companions she brought. Best to make the personal attendants outright presents, as well as bearers of presents.
Now as for his assistants. Well, he’d bring his usual trio of Thralls, either in human or dragon form as appropriate, coordinating the musicians, the entertainment, and the service.
Oh yes, he’d have to boost the talents of the cooks as well.
He could display his power, but it would probably be best to be a little more subtle than that.
Now, there were some things that were supposed to be dragon-aphrodisiacs (beyond wealth and power) – but he’d hold those dishes in reserve. Most dragons didn’t have any trouble with that sort of thing, but it’d certainly make him feel weird.
Soup course or not, where things went from there would depend on her. She might have important connections, or a great deal of personal power, or be a lead into something he needed to know. In that case a bargain, or an alliance of some sort, might be in order. On the other hand, she might just be an opportunistic adventuress, or a youngster with an unexpected power set, or something. In that case, ideally – at least for him – the evening would wind up with her being added to his harem, whether as a Thrall (if she was low-powered enough) or by transformation and abjuration magic. Getting that far would be quite a trick though.