With the Ritual of Unbinding complete, the restriction-programming on the praetorian guardian was shattered.
“Well that certainly helps matters a lot. Nice to be able to think about certain topics without have to come at them a roundabout way.”
“So who were you answering to then?”
“I am – was – answering to the man upstairs. He answers to that local scientist who came up with these meme things. Not quite sure where that guy is, but the basement would be a good point to start your search.”
Mr ex-guard felt that it might be a good idea to get an in with the locals, so he headed upstairs to capture his ex-boss; the man might have given the locals some trouble, but he was pretty sure that he could manage. Kevin, Marty, Jamie, and company headed for the basement. They took the stairs: elevators were notoriously untrustworthy and it was only one floor down anyway.
Oddly, the lighting downstairs was red-tinged – and the double doors at the bottom of the stairs were electronically locked (handprint and retinal scanner), very heavy, had secure internal hinges anchored to the rest of a (very solid) wall, were airtight, and were under camera surveillance.
Well, they didn’t have authorized access, and didn’t know enough to shapeshift into a form that did, Lingering Smoke wasn’t around to crack it – too bad, a skillmaster was SO handy to have along even if he DID keep disappearing to “fulfill the dictates of fate” – and Jamie didn’t want to try a little applied demolitions using whatever random supplies they could conjure up. Marty and Kevin briefly considered giving the explosives bit a try themselves – just how complicated could “cause an explosion” get anyway? – but then realized just how STUPID a thought that was. No windows, Kevin could use Dreamfaring to take a peek, but working without a body would make it REALLY hard to open the door from the other side even if there was an emergency release or something.
Of course, it wasn’t like they weren’t going to be setting off some alarms anyway. Back to the old reliable – if relatively slow – methods: they cut their way through the locking mechanism with the plasma pistols.
What would lie beyond? No doubt an appalling vortex of transdimensional horror! A seething, malignant, blackness, radiant with despair and tendrils of chthonic energies, a pulsating mass of vile madness, corroding the very heart of creation!
OK, probably a basement or section of corridor, but where was the fun in limiting yourself to realistic speculations?
It turned out to be a basement full of crates of various shapes, sizes and materials – the usual warehouse maze of forklift-sized paths through enormous piles of crates and racks (and the occasional parked forklift). The area was lit only by the dim red glow of overhead emergency lights. There were quite a lot of mechanical noises going on in the background, as well as the faint sound of metal creaking every so often.
Kevin sent in some of the Thralls on point.
The crates were labeled as food, electronic components, machine parts, tools, weapons, raw materials, and other stuff. Almost all of it with either an INBOUND or OUTBOUND stencil. The few they checked seemed to match their labels – and why bother to try and mislead people in your own basement? Evidently the place was being used as a supply center, although there didn’t seem to be any “office” area. The elevators were in the building core by the stairs and there was only one other exit – which didn’t quite match the rest of the construction. The Thralls only turned up one “person”; a low-grade robot running a forklift that paid no attention to them except to drive around them. There was no point in bothering with it. .
The odd door was much large, massively built, and had a tinted window in the middle. There were some controls are off to the side – complete with open and close buttons, a pressure gauge, and light indicating the status of the other door. An airlock: either someone REALLY did not like pollution and/or germs, there was an extreme pressure or atmospheric difference, someone was really paranoid, or all the air was about to be sucked out of the room. Given that they’d broken the other door, that last notion might be awkward – but if someone had arranged for that, they’d doubtless be paranoid enough to have backup doors ready to slide into place anyway.
The view from the window showed a small metallic chamber, another similar-looking door, and what appeared to be a map on the wall. It was hard to make out through the window – but the door opened nicely when they hit the “open” button. Gerard and Daniel cycled through with no problems, so everyone else went on through – and found themselves in a room that lit up with white light as the door opened. The map turned out to say “Airlock 27” and “Welcome to Terminus”, and the room on the other side also seemed to be a warehouse.
“I don’t think we are in Dakota anymore”.
So someone was maintaining a gate to a space facility. One called “Terminus”. That probably meant a literary universe; calling something “Terminus” was pretentious and – in normal worlds – led to constant confusion with bus terminals, destinations, and other structures. Using it like a unique proper noun would mean that a fair chunk of local plot probably centered on the place – and, by Manifold plot-logic (and Kevin’s intuition), it would be part of the conceptual cluster of realms that included Singular, Baelaria, the New Imperium). Probably one of the worlds linked to Galdren. The gates there had included Baelaria, the Old Empire, Highway, Niven’s “Known Space”, the “Elysium Commission”, the “Omega Realm”, and the “Five Worlds” (which gateway had been locked down tightly due to some inter-realm difficulties). Not Highway or the Old Empire – but they didn’t know enough about most of the rest of them to be sure.
The map proper showed a large station shaped like a raindrop. The tip was labeled the “Anchor Point”, and looked like it was attached to a cable or a beam (depending on the scaling). There were a lot of floors and a lot of storage space. Lots of airlocks and docking ports on the perimeter of the widest section too. The “You are here” indicator on the map showed that they were in a docking/loading/storage area, while the map also showed the location of several important sections of the station, including Command, Engineering, and Administration.
Probably an orbital skyhook, with a super-strong cable to the ground anchoring a station that was outside the stable geosynchronous orbital radius. The excess tension in the cable might not actually be very high, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the ends of the thing.
Marty grinned maniacally. An orbital station? Just think of how far you could eject people from windows!
They headed on in. They needed to find out if their bad guys were just renting space here, or if this was some base of theirs. They might not even have set off an alarm yet: it was hard to run any kind of a circuit through a gateway, and this airlock was obviously used pretty heavily.
Looking out from the warehouse area, there was a fair amount of traffic. Elevators, corridors – it looked like a fairly normal layout. The map was a live display, it even showed where the elevator cars currently were. Several people came by every minute.
It felt like a no-magic universe – minor psychic powers were OK though – but they could manage a silence charm if they needed one, and they really needed some local information; interrogating a random passer-by should give them a lot more to go on even if he or she didn’t know much.
The thralls handled the silencing while Marty did the grabbing.
The victim was yanked into the storage area without a sound as Marty reached out, grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him through the door. The door quietly clicked closed behind the victim as the silence field dropped, he was settled down on a crate.
“What’s going on here? Are you guys pirates?
“No. Unless I’ve grown a pegleg and not realized it.”
“What? So you are not pirates? Please tell me you are not with security then.”
“Close enough! Let us menacingly check your memory! What universe are we in?”
“Universe? You are at the Mars Skyhook Terminus. Seat of the Empire of Five Worlds. If you were with security then you would know that”.
“Checking your memory, we just told you that. Evidently it’s not working very well. That’s a dangerous symptom”.
“Why is it connected to an office building in North Dakota?”
“Checking my memory? Have I done something wrong then? Or has some nefarious group been tampering with my mind and sent me in as a mole without my knowledge of it? Or are you really just pirates that got lost?”
“Oh yes: we’re pirates who arrived without anyone knowing, intend to take over the entire station with five people, and have chosen to indirectly interrogate you instead of looking at the map on the wall. Your brain really isn’t working well is it?”
“Maybe it isn’t – but claiming to be security doing a memory check is a bit of a stretch!”
“Well, that’s better. Now you’re actually thinking about it instead of reaching for convenient but stupid explanations. Why do I always feel like I’m a wandering teacher who grabs people, sits them down, lectures them until their brains start to work, and then goes on my merry way into the cosmos?”
“Because you are?”
“Oh yes! THAT would be why! It’s because it’s TRUE! I’m spending half my time explaining things to people! I have businesses and worlds to run, adventures to have, and a harem to visit, and I still spend half my time being a tour guide! I am going to go someplace with instant knowledge-imprinting technology, get it put into a gadget that works at range, and then zap everyone I come across before I EVEN START TALKING TO THEM!!!” (Kevin started stamping around in a circle waving his hands).
“Hey, there’s got to be a place with that somewhere in the Manifold, right?”
Their victim was now looking dazed and alarmed at having been grabbed by crazy people, and was trying to edge quietly towards the door.
“Don’t even think about it buddy.”
“Maybe I can get it as a FIELD EFFECT! Yes! When I drop a bomb into a conversation, it will suddenly make everyone WELL INFORMED!”
“We came from a place called North Dakota, where some loon is trying to influence people with subliminal messages. For some reason it connects here. We’d like to know why.”
“Now YOU!!! YOU are going to become well-informed whether you like it or not! And YOU! (As Kevin pointed at one of the Thralls) YOU record so that I don’t have to repeat this again!”
“North Dakota? That’s on Earth isn’t it?”
“Now, do you know anything about dimensional gates? The Manifold? Magic? Psionics? The War of Souls? SIT DOWN AND QUIT CRINGING!”
“Yeah, probably not the Earth you’re thinking of though. You see, there are multiple dimensions and multiple Earths. We just came from one of them. We really should make a DVD or something. It would save us a lot of trouble.”
“THAT’S WHY I TOLD HIM TO RECORD! NOW YOU’RE NOT THINKING! AAAGGH! AAAGGH! AAAGGH!”
Kevin had started to dramatically bang his head against the wall. It couldn’t actually injure him, but it adequately expressed his feelings.
“Yeah, but the DVD will work in more… oh, screw it, you’re pissed.”
Marty had never been very good with children – and Kevin, for all his power, was still only about equivalent to fourteen.
“At least conjure some padding or something!”
Their victim knew a bit about psionics and dimensional gates, although he didn’t think there were any on the station. He even had a few hints about the Manifold, the War of Souls, and Magic (“weird stuff that works elsewhere’).
That was something anyway. They filled him in a bit more completely, and then asked a few more questions – such as:
“Now that you’ve had a little more explanation, is messing with other realms through dimensional gates in the back of storerooms official policy around here, or is this area just being rented to somebody?”
It seemed that the venture was probably government-sanctioned, since this airlock was listed as being down for extended repairs after a crash, and was only supposed to be in use as a temporary staging area for shipments. The Five Worlds were short of raw materials and livable space. Most of the stuff coming through had been munitions, demolition gear, and medical supplies. Pirates were an ongoing problem. The “High Prefect Prime Cornelian” had announced the completion of an extrasolar gateway awhile back, and since then the Five Worlds had been at war against the people on the other side. As far as their victim knew, the Five Worlds were winning – and had been laying claim to resources that the people on the other side didn’t even know how to exploit. The standard of living had been improving. The opposition – at least from the propaganda videos – apparently drove around in large humanoid war machines that looked like they were centuries old.
That was easy to pin down: the Battletech Realm. Hm. Did this have anything to do with that “Wrath Pei” “Pirate Lord of the Solar System” character? Jarvain had run into some pirates who were working for him while he was out raiding. On the other hand, the pirates might have been being pursued by the High Prefect’s forces, which would neatly explain where that nuclear-missile armed ship had come from. Well, it wasn’t like the Battletech realm wasn’t pretty much MADE to be taken over and exploited.
Anyway, since then, Prime Cornelian had opened other gateways and launched more campaigns – but there were rumors that they had been repulsed on more than a few fronts.
That would probably be the New Imperium – among other locations. The Storm Troopers and such seemed to match the descriptions from the rumors.
“Are you from one of those worlds?”
“I’m not, and I don’t think he is either.”
“No. The one you’re raiding is a rather silly universe, with very few real people on it. It’s not like there’s a shortage of universes anyway, and there are always people making more.”
That – and a few other comments about world-building, simply fixing the problems with their universe, universes being based on games, and phantasms versus real people – got them some very funny looks.
“Now, would the stuff around here (point at boxes) be the kind of stuff your world needs?”
“Some of it, yes, others look to be the kind of stuff we are shipping out to the various gates – weapons, medical supplies, soldiers, food, parts, and equipment to build factories.”
Well, the Five Worlds were likely to be the source of the midrange combat cyborgs who had been bothering the local authorities over in the Linear Realms. Factories sounded like they were trying to get the Battletech worlds up and running. They needed some livable planets because the local earth was a wasteland. The “Puppet Death” had pretty much killed everything more complex than sponges and the remaining inhabitants were living in domes with more stringent quarantine procedures than any unterraformed world called for. (The “Puppet Death” was a vicious airborne disease that rapidly spread through the nervous system, eating away the lining of the nerves while secreting chemicals that caused the nerves to fire randomly. It made victims jerk around like they were tied to the strings of a mad puppeteer. Death came shortly after the nerves were exhausted, as the symptoms began to die down).
Oh, and the local currency came in coins, bills, and electronic transfers, and was based on water. Evidently they weren’t up to mining comets or Saturn’s rings.
They probably had another intermediary here at best: Isane might be involved, or it might be Walkins – since the services of a meme-crafter would be invaluable to “Prefect Prime Cornelian” – but it was obvious that the place was provincial at best and unlikely to be the source of the long-term campaign against Core. It was also obviously no democracy, or there would be more information and justification out about opening gates and starting wars.
They shoved their victim over to the Linear Realms – he could get lunch or something, their treat – and closed the gate for the moment. Time to go and see the local commander and find out what was up.
Sadly, it looked like the High Prefect didn’t have any major personal powers. The bit about him “creating worlds” had simply meant that he could command the resources of most of the solar system. Too bad. If he really had been able to single-handedly create worlds in a low-magic midrange psionics universe, that would have indicated someone with direct reality warping powers – and thus possibly an important figure. Oh well. They’d just have to order some self-reproducing phages to fix the puppet problem and perhaps a set of terraforming nanites to do something about the local earth. It’d be easier than doing it any other way.
Besides, if the locals were poking into other universes they really ought to be warned. There were quite a few universes – and not a few individuals – that wouldn’t hesitate to toss a singularity into the local sun if they felt bothered.
Stepping out into the corridors, it seemed that virtually EVERYONE was in uniform and they didn’t see much of any kids. Marty tried blending in for a few moments, but it seemed that attention was going to be unavoidable – hell, their victim had considered the idea of security jumping out of a warehouse door and grabbing him for suspected mole-programming actually plausible – and they’d probably been reported already.
Kevin looked up the gaudiest military uniform in history (the files were unclear, was if from ancient China or ancient India?) – and did a version of that with luminous embellishments. Gerard and Daniel changed into big black panthers to set it off, and the entire parade headed off for the command levels. Maybe security would conclude that the people reporting this were drunk – and it would be really hard for ANYONE to conclude that they were pirates unless they’d been watching too many movies.
A security team did turn up shortly, the lead man took one look, did a quick double take, reached for his radio, and said “Found em Sir, and… ah… the reports… are well….accurate.”
The group waved cheerily and breezed on past; it took the security troops a few moments to collect their wits and start chasing them
“Wait! Halt! Identify yourselves!”
Kevin was TIRED of explaining. He was going for mystery and display for awhile… He had every viewscreen, wall, and surface in the area announce “Kierrath, Knight of Exedor, Ambassador of the Unseelie Fey – and Party” in large gothic letters, and kept right on going. Marty had his own friends boost his apparent stature to seven feet or so (Take that, mocking floor traders who thought I was a kid! Now who’s trampling who!?)
The guy in charge of the detachment knew he might get into trouble for this – but he just HAD to see where this one was going. Besides… There was no apparent way this crew could have gotten aboard, the big cats were extinct, and they obviously had special powers of some sort. What if they were really some sort of embassy? That question was well above his rating. Best to just escort them in.
They reached the command bridge in short order, complete with security escort – causing the commander to demand explanations – and Kevin to put his announcement up on all the screens again.
“Damn it, stop the grandstanding, whoever you are. I want to know why you are here on my command deck.”
Kevin produced a great sheaf of parchment documentation; he actually was an ambassador of the Unseelie Fey after all, and could produce any number of identification documents.
“That is simple enough: your realm has been intruding into others. Did you think no one would drop by?”
“SECURITY!!!! How on Earth did you let these people on board?”
“Sir it appears they came out of storage lock 35.”
“We passed the dimensional barrier along the roads of creation. How else?”
“Yeah, you did kind of a poor job with that gate.”
“I thought I told you to keep men posted down there at all times and put locks on the damn doors to prevent this kind of entry.”
“I mean, the locals would have had a problem with it, but we had few problems.”
“But sir, there was no ship at dock.”
“We didn’t need one.”
The commander put his hands on a table – possibly thinking about throwing it at the security detachment – but began taking deep breaths and visibly calming down.
“Right, where do you come from and what do you want with us. You say we are intruding into other realms and that there might be reprisals for that. Are you here as ambassadors then I take it?”
“Yes. It’s much easier to settle problems by talking then to have to keep destroying and recreating planets.”
Meanwhile, Gerald (still being a Jaguar) was taking a look at the computers. Definitely better than BattleTech and early 21st century Earth, but not on par with Singular or Core. His smartclothes were being a collar, but the neural pickup controls were working just fine. He ran a smartthread into an active workstation, plugged into its network connection, scanned the nearby minds for extra passcodes and information (nobody was thinking of anything relevant, oh well), and started datamining. The public-information basics were pretty easy to get, and the local security on the mid-level stuff wasn’t much more difficult. Archiving… He’d have to brush up against Kevin and Marty and do some quick datasharing next.
The commander decided to pass the buck as well.
“Well then, shall I presume to make arrangements for your… delegation to meet with our government then?”
“It would seem appropriate. Are they nearby? If not, it might be easier to simply alter the setting. There is no need to waste time.”
“Unfortunately the appropriate ministers are all planetside, and there are no cars heading down for a few days. However I can arrange a transport to go into a descent if that will suffice.”
Kevin and Marty weren’t entirely sure what they’d be negotiating for or offering, but they knew of quite a few exploitable worlds, and invading the Battletech Realms was nothing new. They’d have to see what the local ruler was like. Meanwhile, while Kevin hated to spend Mana, it might be worth some more to make an impression – and to freak out the locals a bit more.
“So slow… Can you bring up a visual connection with one?”
“I can, give me a few minutes if you would.”
The commander placed the call personally.
Once they had Pynthas, the Minister of Foreign Affairs on the screen, Kevin and company just strolled into it, bringing the commander along for the ride.
“Greetings! I am Kierrath, Knight of Exedor, Ambassador of the Unseelie Fey.”
Marty flashed his battling business license. “I’m one of his top contractors, Marty.”
The Minister and the Commander were startled – but not appalled.
“My my, I haven’t seen many who can do that trick”.
“Well, so much quicker than all that tedious messing about with ships and elevators and such.”
Kevin and Marty thought that the fact that they knew anyone who could do that in their universe was quite informative in itself.
“We’re here to talk about trans-dimensional interactions and stability.”
“I understand you are ambassadors then wishing to discuss our probing into other realms then?”
“Among other topics. I believe that you have an annoying contagion to deal with, a planet that needs it’s ecosystem rebuilt, and shortages of various materials? After all, it is only when people are comfortable, happy, and well-supplied that they begin to seek out adventure in the Realms of the Fey – and mortals are more fun to have around than ANYTHING”
“Indeed, you seem well informed of our plight. And yet I know next to nothing about you other than your name, title, and that you represent the Unseelie Fey. Not that I know who they are either.”
“As for ourselves, what do you wish to know?”
“What your worlds are like, what you value, what you do to give your lives meaning, you know, the things that make up a culture. It is only after we know these things that we might be able to come to an understanding and an agreement.”
“I come from a world where nobody really dies permanently. We just wake up in bed the next morning no matter how badly we’re hurt. Also, we have intelligent office devices. They form unions. We value the stuff most people do. Money, power, happiness, violence, things like that.”
“Fascinating, death is not permanent?”
“Yeah. Hurts like hell though.”
“I take it your only dimensional contacts so far have been with scientific worlds? The Fey inhabit the realms of dreams and magic. They are immortal, shapeshifting, and loosely patterned upon what you would probably call “the middle ages”. The realms of the Fey change as well, there are endless forests, unicorns, griffons, and dragons, towering castles, bridges of rainbows, fairs and carnivals. To the Fey, there is little of greater value than mortal visitors – people who can still feel wonder and marvel at the fantastic, who can seek out great quests and perform acts of heroism that mean something.”
“Also fascinating. Such Wondrous worlds that can be reached.”
“That is the nature of the Manifold: any world that can be imagined can be reached. To attempt to enforce your will is ultimately futile. In the end, it leads only to everyone inhabiting a world of their own”.