With this episode we return to our regularly scheduled continuity. While last sessions game-masterless shenanigans were judged quite acceptable within the canon, they would be awkward to fit in at this precise moment – so they will presumably occur as soon as there is pause in the current negotiations.
Having advised the Five Worlds Minister of Foreign Affairs of the general nature of the worlds they were representing, the group opted to ask a few questions of their own.
“Now, obviously you have had some contact with outsiders and – from the forces I feel in your world – probably are limited to technological gates, yes?”
“I suppose that would be correct, although my knowledge of such things is very limited. I just know they can be created and that the High Leader places a great deal of value on them.
“Well, since you are making your presence felt, it is only courteous of us to pay you a visit and see if you need some assistance – such as the aforementioned resources and living space. Secondarily, there are realms which would not hesitate to project a galactic-class singularity into your solar system if annoyed, and that is always a terrible nuisance.”
“My that would be a disruptive thing. I find it hard to imagine that anyone could be capable of such a thing. It also seems rather… disproportionate to fling those around in response to….. border probes.”
“Some people are nuts enough to do it.”
“The difficulty depends on the nature of the gates you employ; psychic gates are limited by range, size, mass, and duration. Magical gates are limited by range, size, and mass. Technological gates are limited by mass and size. Gates created by direct reality-manipulation are limited only by size – and the greater the mass of a singularity, the smaller its size. To destroy a solar system is one of the easiest things of all.”
“Now, of planets there are multitudes.”
“Well that is good to hear.”
“Do you have difficulties targeting whatever gate system you are using?”
“My understanding is no. Although the ways of the Machine Master are difficult to comprehend. I suspect if he wasn’t so valuable, the High Leader would have dealt with him long ago. He is the greatest inventor of Mars and has been responsible for many wonderful inventions that have brought great glory to the people of Mars.”
“In the interests of efficiency, do we need more people in this discussion? It sounds like we may need either input from the Machine Master or the High Leader eventually, although there are some things that can be arranged at the moment.”
“Oh I imagine the High Leader would want to meet with the bunch of you eventually.”
Meanwhile, Gerald had finished sorting his archived data, and was ready to pass it on – so he brushed by Kevin and Marty; there shouldn’t be anything locally which could intercept a datablip, but a direct smartfiber link would be even more secure.
It looked like terraforming had become as common a practice in this realm as bridge building was elsewhere; most of the solar system had been terraformed and brought under the control of one or the five major political centers – Earth, Venus, Mars, Titan, and Pluto. Mars had recently obtained a major technological advantage, and had been using that to systematically subjugate the solar system. Earth had been rendered mostly uninhabitable (or at least even more so), Titan had been seriously depopulated, and Venus and Pluto had submitted without a fight.
The official population estimate was in the tens of trillions, although census data from the Oort Cloud was highly limited. For the major planets? That was classified – but the best estimates they could get were perhaps a few million for Earth, a few billion for Mars and Venus, and maybe half a billion for Pluto. Terraforming or not, they weren’t likely to equal the depth of Earth’s biosphere yet.
There seemed to be a fair number of souls around – but they were at the center of the action. It was virtually certain that most of the Oort cloud and remote asteroids and such were full of phantasms, even if the place had gotten a MAJOR infusion of souls from somewhere – and, honestly, it didn’t even look like most of the population of the solar system was ensouled. It looked like the one fellow they’d talked too might have just claimed to be familiar with the War of Souls out of confusion over the list they’d provided. It didn’t look like anyone else was familiar with the idea. There still might be a pretty good fraction of the population on the five major worlds with souls though.
At least according to the Minister, the Machine Master was the only one capable of creating gates – and he usually only did it to satisfy some demand of the High Leader, although the High Leader sometimes got what he asked for rather than what he really wanted. Quite a bit of technology was involved, but it didn’t seem to be part of the gate-creation process; it was only used to hold it open and widen it.
The Machine Master might actually be another Opener – although, in practice, a powerful psychic using an artificial amplifier was probably more likely. He might well be useful – although he might also be an evil version of Ryan. They’d just have to find out. After all, he’d been making gates to worlds that could either defend themselves or could easily be taken over, rather than to uninhabited ones.
They’d already guessed the political situation: a ruthless conquering overlord who had depopulated at least one world as an example, now claimed the entire solar system, and was looking to expand outward. The locals had FTL communications, but actual FTL transport was out of reach of everyone except the Machine Master – who had been observed teleporting himself from world to world and even to ships in interplanetary space.
Similarly, as deduced from the continued use of an absolute-isolation quarantine, there was still no cure for the “Puppet Death”.
It looked like most of the local “population pressure” derived from phantasms, and was built into the world assumptions. There wouldn’t be much that could really be done about it without trying to rewrite the local reality – although they were using gates, so it might be possible to simply go with the current plotline.
So how to work within their assumptions? Even with terraforming being that common, it was still expensive – but it wasn’t a field in which they had a lot of practice. They could probably do it – but would it solve anything? The only likely target left in the local solar system was Earth anyway.
Well, they could always just “offer goodies to the overlord”, and they could probably counter the “Puppet Death”. It was supposed to have taken out all higher forms on earth, but pollution that would destroy all the plants was hard to believe. Ergo, cure the Puppet Death and (re-)colonization should be able to start shortly. Was there a structural breakdown in the databanks or anything on why it was so hard to cure? Marty could probably get a sample and escape without dying, but it would be easier to tap into local research – except that there didn’t seem to be much of anything. Not even whether it was a virus, a bacterium, or something else. And yet it affected everything “higher than sponges”? Anything with nerves. No normal agent was nearly that broad, absolute, or effective. It couldn’t be a virus; there were too many differences in biochemistry and proteins. A bacterium maybe, but that was also unlikely. Perhaps a nanite agent or a local tuned-radiation weapon? It would explain the apparently absolute restriction to a single planet. If that was the case, supporting the idea of an “utterly deadly plague” would help block the recovery of the one planet that could easily support a challenging population and on which rebels – thanks to a natural life-sustaining environment – could easily hide. There was no reason to restrict the data if they actually wanted a cure.
Lets see: the quarantine measures required the use of either acidic or caustic substances, as well as high temperatures, enzyme baths, and hard radiation. People usually wound up going out in sealed hard suits that were treated as disposable and maintained a high positive internal pressure. Going outside the environmental domes was a rarity.
The High Lord might not welcome a fix. There was something very wrong with those quarentine procedures – unless Kevin was overthinking some local plot device. Radiation really didn’t work on viruses at all well. If it was a bacterium that fed on nerves, and everything with nerves was extinct, what would it be eating? Acids and caustics required liquid contact, and an airborne bacterium or virus could get into places they wouldn’t reach due to surface tension. High temperatures worked on everything eventually – but you can’t heat everything, so it would work its way through if that was the defense. Enzyme baths were protein-specific, so they’d have to know the protein structure they were after. How would they have cleaned it out of their sealed environments to begin with?
A placebo or punitive measure? Maybe a weapon that had burned itself out?
On evaluation, the Minister didn’t seem very interested in notions of a possible cure. They kind of got the feeling that – if he was presented with a cure – it would wind up sitting on a shelf somewhere, unused.
Kevin’s deduction: ongoing resistance somewhere was a major threat to the High Lord: the denial of a base which could not be easily controlled since it was naturally livable was more important than the use of the resources of the earth. This threat was serious enough to be presented to everyone as “pirates”.
Marty thought that that sounded reasonable enough. Kevin ran towards a lot of intuitive leaps, but he was ready enough to discard the ones that didn’t work out, so what was the harm? Of course, Marty hated authoritarians. Maybe they should go and look for the pirates and see about helping them out.
Still, at the moment, the best point of leverage was probably the tension between the Machine Master and the High Lord. That looked like the classical battle of political power versus a free agent: one would-be absolute overlord, one expert both indispensable and uncontrollable. Straight negotiation wouldn’t work if the High Lord really was that determined to “rule it all”, the existence of the Manifold would make negotiation almost pointless – at least as a method of helping out.
So: dropping the grandiose small talk, they got down to business:
“So, what form of assistance would you find most urgent then? Help with gateways? Additional planets? A dyson sphere or one of the galactic-surface variants? An adaption for living freely in interstellar space? A cure for your bothersome plague? Simple supplies?”
“Oh I imagine that additional planets and such would please our High Lord most greatly. Although a Dyson Sphere might also intrigue his fancy, it can be hard to predict his wishes at times.”
“Well, I suppose we will need to speak to either the High Lord or the Machine Master – the one to find out what would be most useful, the other to advise him on realms not to disturb.”
“I can arrange for you to speak to the High Leader shortly if you would like, the Machine Master is another matter entirely I am afraid.”
“One of those reclusive types?”
“Indeed, he likes his privacy I am told.”
Well, their psychic range was better than usual locally, but it was still probably only a few miles. On the other hand, the Machine Master would probably find out that one of his gates had been closed soon enough to start looking for his own answers.
“Well, we might as well speak to the High Leader then. If he’s in charge, it should be quickest.”
“Very well then I shall make the arrangements. If you will please make yourselves comfortable while I make the necessary calls.”
Kevin and company kept the various sensor systems – particularly radiation, chemical, and biological – going. It looked like they had at least three local sides going, and there was no way of telling who was on which side.
They were brought drinks and food appetizers by a selection of young children – apparently servants out to make them comfortable – as the Minister went to place his call.
“Is there anything you would require in order to be comfortable?”
“Got gin and vermouth?”
“I can check the stores if you would like, sir”
“The cats like to be petted”
Kevin and company did a little scanning. Servants? Remnants of dispersed or destroyed planetary populations? Hostages? Spies? Slaves? Apprentices? Murderous surveillance androids? If they supposedly had a population in the trillions Kevin wouldn’t bet on a very high value being placed on the servant classes – even if they did seem to be polite and well-trained servants. Looked to be remnants of dispersed or destroyed planetary populations. Not slaves, more along the lines of high-class servants – and busy being brainwashed into being “proper Martians”. It seemed likely that the ones who didn’t show proper promise and make rapid progress in their brainwashing got dropped down to things like factory apprenticeships – if that. They might find two concentrations of ensouled people around here: the very upper class, and all the ones in the general population who showed too much independence, will of their own, and tendency to think in comparison with the phantasms – and who thus got shunted straight to the bottom or joined the “pirates”. Ensouled people ripe for recruitment.
The fact that two of the six kids had souls might not tell them much: the Minister’s servants might well be from survivors from the upper social crust of a fallen planet anyway. The two with souls were mostly focused on adaption and survival – and on avoiding being demoted – while the four phantasms were throughly brainwashed. Kevin set the two with souls to petting the cats.
They did have gin and vermouth for Marty’s martini. Jamie was considering herself “on duty” again (and not drinking), and Kevin was still putting on a show: he simply conjured himself something weird from faerie to drink to stay in character.
Marty unobtrusively kept an eye out for cameras and other security items. He wouldn’t put it past them to have them, no matter how “private” the meeting was supposed to be.
It did look like there were some oddities in some of the furnishings that might house pickups. Hard to be sure without doing something suspicious though. Still, a light fixture and a curio on the wall were perfect positions for surveillance.
The Minister got back to them in less than half an hour. The High Leader was more than willing to meet them. Immediate transportation had been arranged.
“Well then, let us get to it. Will this transportation be another drawn-out affair such as the Commander here wished to use to reach you?”
The Minister smiled; “Well the idea had occurred to me, but I find it best not to keep the High Leader waiting, especially when I have just informed him to expect guests.
“Well then, let us go.”
Kevin made sure to shoo the two youngsters who were busy petting along with the cats. If anyone paid enough attention to them to object to that, oh well; they were a minor side-issue anyway.
No one did.
The Minister’s “personal chariot” looked like a cross between a luxury car and a jet. The ride itself was fast and scenic, as they flew by the great canyon of Mars, Valles Marinerus. In the center of the canyon, where a small river was flowing, there was a city and an elaborate palace building that dominated it – their destination. They shortly arrived in a throne room with a very odd-looking throne at the head of it.
“Ah good, it looks like we beat him here. It is best not to have him waiting on us.”
Given the local water-based monetary system (based on small amounts of water at that), a free-flowing river outside the palace was a ridiculous display of ostentatious wealth and power. Arrogance too. The two local kids were being very very quiet and unobtrusive, rather nervous, and were hoping that this encounter with the ultimate power around here didn’t result in death. Well, test complete. Having a pair of young children being that nervous about simply being around the High Lord told them most of what little more they needed to know about him.
“Please welcome the High Leader Prime Cornelian!”
There was much music, prerecorded fanfare and more, along with plenty of servants and attendants adding their own applause to the din. Still, at least on that front, they couldn’t claim that that wasn’t fair enough, given the garish “uniforms” that they were using. As they said, “when the grossly rich-but-disliked individual of choice saw Versailles, he/she went back home and ordered one twice as big but otherwise the same, since he or she couldn’t possibly get one twice as garish, twice as overdecorated, or in twice as bad taste”. You just had to love absolute monarchs. It looked like… one or two souls among the chief servants, all the rest were phantasms who never got out of line.
High Lord Prime Cornelian turned out to be a giant, blue, insectoid, robot, but still seemed to revel in the applause and fanfares. The thing was a bit over 14 feet in height standing on its hind limbs.
“Ah, how I love a welcoming entrance. Hmm, let me see (as his camera eyes turned towards the group), you must be the Ambassadors I have heard about, are you not? I am the High Lord Prime Cornelian. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
They bowed and such with excellent manners, handed the sheaf of parchments to the relevant servant, and gave the basic ambassadorial spiel again.
Hm. A living mind, couldn’t tell about a soul yet. Security suit, mobile robot fortress, prosthetic life support system? They hadn’t gotten any impression of “run by aliens” – and they had heard him referred to as a “man” – so it was probably personal armor or life support for a badly damaged body. The public records… seemed to be of the opinion that it was either a cybernetic life support system or a full-conversion body replacement. Almost all of it agreed that the Machine Master had a hand in it. There was no official information on it or on his life prior to the conversion. It wasn’t recent; he’d been using this body in public for at least thirty years, and had mainly been serving in the military side of things until he felt it necessary to use his influence to lead a coup and dissolve the Senate about six years ago.
Gerald was apologetic. It hadn’t occured to him that the High Lords physical structure might be that bizarre, so he hadn’t checked on that portion of the records too closely.
It must have been something big if the High Lord would trust the Machine Master with it – and now they knew why he hadn’t gotten rid of the Machine Master: he wasn’t sure that he’d survive it.
They stuck with the same basic spiel: this was a courtesy call. Since they’d begun probing other dimensions, Kevin and company were here to facilitate their survival, prosperity, and dimensional travel in interests of tourism for Faerie and profitable business. There were realms that did not react well to intrusion, and any number of worlds to spare, since they were easy enough to create. It was a bit odd to present it to the High Leader as he sat or lay down on the odd looking throne structure with his six limbs hanging freely.
“Oh dear me, I am sorry, but it was not intended for these probes of ours to be interpreted as anything hostile. Nothing of the sort. They were meant purely as exploratory operations… Now you say there are worlds out there that we may expand to freely and that even more can be created?”
“Oh, let me assure you: the universe with the giant lumbering machines was created for a game which was abandoned centuries ago. It has few actual inhabitants in any case. The one with the relatively primitive technology and teaming world-city would simply spin off another universe linked to you if you bothered them much. The Imperium has many gates, and simply seals any it finds bothersome. There are, however, realms which – as I have informed your Minister – would not hesitate to simply gate through a galactic-scale singularity if you were to intrude upon them. As a technological universe, you would probably find this bothersome.”
“That would be quite the problem, I must admit that. You are correct then to say it would be wise to avoid these realms. The worlds of the giant machines seemed so fundamentally backward that I found them hard to believe. And I must admit that world-city with it’s white clad soldiers did prove annoying resistant to negotiations.”
“I suspect that you might find a universe with a gravitational step-function useful (1). One of the simplest was designed with a repulsive function that took hold after a star condensation reached a minimal size (along with a few other modifications for stellar longevity and improved plant growth): the net result was stars with an expected lifespan of several trillion years surrounded by shells of breathable gas, plant life, and livable asteroids filling most of the habitable zone around each star. The same step-function tended to arrange those stars in neat interlocking galactic grids. The concept never found much favor, it simply provided too many cubic light years of livable space for most groups to deal with.”
“Fascinating. That would be a sight to behold. And you know how to get there?”
“Would you like to take a look?
Marty found the idea of that world interesting too… Eternal green twilight, only enough minor local gravity to be convenient, birds, fruits, no bothersome neighbors – the ideal place for a summer home.
The High Lord would indeed like to take a look, but – if it was an offer to go now – he was afraid that he would have to decline; he would have to make a fair number of preparations before he could leave on a trip like that.
Kevin had no objection to that – although he pointed out that he had simply been offering to open a gateway and show him.
“You are capable of such a feat? Impressive, most impressive. That is a rare skill indeed and one to be highly coveted I think. Take pride in that young man.”
Ah, someone who at least knew something.
“I would be a poor ambassador if I could not travel readily. It is a necessary talent to function in such a capacity.”
That statement seemed to startle him a bit; he cocked his head and looked over the group another time…
“Indeed, I suppose that certainly makes sense.”
He tapped his “chin” thoughtfully and gestured to a servant who hurriedly disappeared.
“I suppose having a look couldn’t hurt now could it? Can you do this here or do you need more space?”
“Oh certainly. It would be an awkward spot for permanent access, but additional gates can always be opened.”
Kevin threw in a few minor visual effects and gestures – if only to create the impression that there were requirements other than will for the opening of gates – but mostly just went for the practical opening. It wasn’t like that kind of universe needed a lot of precision anyway. He created a free-hanging gateway into a floating green jungle, wrapped around occasional asteroids, lit by occasional glimpses of sun, and showing a few crevasses that either plummeted hundreds or thousands of miles into the hundred-thousand-miles depth of the jungle or provided glimpses out across millions of miles of flourishing green growth. There were birds – including some very big ones – and a warm, wet, breeze blew out of the gate, carrying a the scents of fruits and a variety of exotic blooms.
Marty REALLY found it difficult to resist the temptation to take a tropical vacation. He made a note to take one soon.
“Obviously enough, such a universe contains many galaxies – all designed to be comfortable habitations for roughly 10 to the 30’th human inhabitants each – which have never been put to use. This is one of the empty ones. I must admit that using an existing cosmos is somewhat easier than creating a new one.”
The High Leader pulled himself up on all sixes on the throne and stared into the portal with rapt attention.
“Amazing. Such things, the people who imagined them, and yet it is empty? I don’t know if I should compliment them or have them beaten for the colossal waste!”
“Oh, people did move in – but when you create a tailored universe, there is usually plenty of left-over room, and this was a particularly ambitious effort.”
“I would say this is plenty of room indeed.”
“Well, it is the nature of the Multiverse to spawn new universes without limit. That is one of the most spacious ones however.”
“I think we need to set up an expedition to do some…. exploration work. And while having an entire galaxy at my doorstep is good for publicity, I am afraid the practical considerations are complicated as you said. I am going to have to talk to Sam Sei about his performance I think.”
Kevin and Marty were getting a feel for the High Leader’s personality. So far he’d seemed more benign than expected – but that could easily be just a pleasant surface because they looked useful and because saying “we don’t really want space I can’t control!” would necessitate killing everyone here, which would be annoying. It was possible that some dimensional traveler had replaced the original High Lord, or that a more benign soul than originally envisioned had taken the role – but, offhand, it looked like the man had a superiority complex, and was highly egotistical, maniacal, and very likely psychopathic. The man had just enough charisma and sense to put a positive spin on things and to keep some things well hidden. He seemed to have a “Manifest Destiny” ideology about humanity’s future in the cosmos – with himself leading them there. He wasn’t one to tolerate dissent well. He probably considered them useful, which was why he was being nice. If they became a threat or an annoyance, he’d probably turn to less favorable behavior.
In a sad way, for their purposes, that wasn’t too bad. He’d probably still prefer inhabited conquests to support the rule-them-all idea, but near-limitless resources and expansion room to fuel further conquests would have attractions as well – and it was quite possible that he was practical enough to realize that fully conquering infinity was impractical. Now to plant some seeds…
“Unfortunately, no one I am yet aware of can actually teach the ability to create gates – although I suspect that it may be possible to develop it from the ability to use existing ones given a few millennia – and that ability can be taught to a modest percentage of the occasional youngsters who show potential.”
Marty had to fight the urge to deliberately piss the guy off just to see what he did. He didn’t much care for these types – and the armor did kind of creep him out. It was too similar to a NYC cockroach.
“Interesting, I must keep that in mind then. It would seem that in coming as Ambassadors, you have presented the people of the Five Worlds a wonderful gift. It would be remiss of me not to return the favor to you and your backers.”
Kevin started weaving his spiel; offering to create some gates to uninhabited sources of resources and living space and to train any willing local youngsters with the appropriate potentials to operate them. If they had trouble sorting out those with the necessary potentials – which were moderately rare and difficult to detect – he could also send around a few assistant-creatures who could help check schools and such for possible candidates. Warnings about some of the dangerous universes were, of course, gratis. In exchange, he would like them to allow tourism – with appropriate warnings – to Faerie, to let Marty set up some trade agreements for other handy items, and to be allowed to offer jobs to youngsters who qualified for the training program but turned out to be unable to master the skill. The half-trained tended to be disruptive in their home universes anyway.
Leaning on the idea that the variation in “what is valued” across dimensions allowed for some exceptionally profitable exchanges was easy enough, and it was almost certain that the High Lord had gotten the “what is valued in faerie” information from his Minister before coming in.
The bit about “go for the uninhabited realms first because some of the inhabited ones might have the power to blow him up” could go without repeating, since it had already been strongly implied – and the fact that Kevin might be able to destroy a solar system on his own, and might even have come in the role of judge, need not even be implied at all.
Kevin was pretty sure that the High Lord would be more than willing to allow him to select some lower-class – or possibly even upper-class – kids to offer training too. They might not even get much choice about it. With a population in the trillions, and resources and living space so tight that a monetary system based on water and a “daily minimum wage” of “one days minimal life support” seemed reasonable, it didn’t seem likely that kids – expensive and unproductive – were particularly valued or encouraged.
In fact, he suspected that the only reason why the children from defeated enemy worlds, like the Ministers “servants”, weren’t being publicly bought and sold was simply because (1) they were display pieces to show off how benign the government was about “reforming them” and (2) because no one wanted to be bothered with formal paperwork over something so valueless. Who knew what was happening to the ones who weren’t object lessons from the upper crust?
(1) In a manifold-justified self-reference, the step-function universe was designed as a challenge for a group of very powerful characters in another game about fifteen years ago. They were quite annoyed to find that – while they had reached the correct dimension, solar system, and biosphere – they were still a two-astronomical-unit trip from where they wanted to be – too far for their basic teleport spells. The fact that such a universe offered a potential comfortable population density of roughly 600,000,000,000,000,000,000 per solar system also meant that they had plenty of potential opposition – even when you only considered the one-in-a-billion who was anywhere near their current power level.