The High Lord was pretty receptive. Kevin and Marty wanted permission to trade (which he was eager to do), permission to hire a tiny part of the excess population (a benefit rather than a cost), and permission to let people visit “Faerie” on their vacations (an arrangement that offered many potential benefits and was – at worst – irrelevant). In “exchange” for doing him those favors they were willing to provide gates, worlds, near-infinite living space and resources, and were willing train candidates – another tiny percentage of the useless children about – to loyally operate gates for him.
They were vaguely implying that a sizable majority of the youngsters would wash out of the training, and that those youngsters wouldn’t be coming back because they’d be dangerous, socially disruptive, badly damaged, detained in faerie, or some such – but that wasn’t especially relevant. The solar system had a trillion kids available; if his visitors wanted a few hundred thousand of them for something, as long as they kept the screams from reaching the population at large, it would be a small price to pay.
Kevin and Marty – busily focusing their talents on the negotiations – were rather surprised at how easily things went. Evidently the High Lord really didn’t care about his people at all, had no clue as to the difference between ensouled people and phantasms, and probably felt that the group had been sent by fate to help him achieve his destiny. All he wanted was a few resources worlds and gates into the step-function galaxy. A megalomaniac was easy to deal with as long as you played to his obsessions.
It was a deal. There was a great display of gaudy festivities and many questionable fanfares.
“Ah good, good, I do so love it when people come to me and give me what I want. It just feels so…. right. Now if only some other people would learn from your example”.
Well, that about said it all right there.
Kevin made a show of enjoying the festivities and called for a contingent of NeoDogs to start picking out the potential trainees; it would take them a little while to get to the access point, but he wanted to get started as soon as possible. It didn’t look like the youngsters who got picked out would really be getting a choice about it: it was pretty obvious that Martian children and their parents would get to “discuss it” – with a healthy official reminder that this was what the High Lord and government wanted. It would be “good for the people and for Mars” if they would “go and train”. Other kids would simply get a little time to say goodbye; there would be no nonsense about giving them even a pretense of a “choice”.
Well, that was fine. It would be hard to imagine any kid – and Kevin intended to try to hire most of the parents if he could – being worse off in Kadia than here.
“It is one of the wonderful things about the Manifold: so often, what is wanted badly in one realm, is of little value in another.”
Weird. Could’ve sworn I saw one of his camera lenses sparkle at that… Oh. Another blatantly obvious thought “And whoever can control the critical trade routes, whether natural or artificial, get the profits”.
Meanwhile, Marty was putting on a good face and trying not to be obviously disgusted by the displays of wealth and power. Black tie dinners back home were bad enough! He was a rich man, but he don’t stick it everyone’s faces!
Kevin couldn’t argue there. Even the Dragonworlds didn’t normally go to this kind of extreme! Ostentatious wealth and waste when your “minimum wage” is “you get to barely survive another day; too bad if you’re supporting someone or sick for a bit” – was pretty bad. If it was at all possible, he was going to be strip-mining this realm of souls. He’d hire the adults for various jobs and recruit the kids. That depended a lot on how many there actually turned out to be though. He wouldn’t be able to get away with a large percentage of the general population of Mars actually had souls, but if it was only a few hundred thousand out of a few billion, he might. Marty could take his pick of the combat trained adults, focusing on those with spaceship-boarding experience. Kevin kind of suspected that his success percentage might not bee too bad in the Five Worlds. It looked like the locals were very used to doing what they’re told and to being property of the High Leader.
Despite the music and the festivities, every once in a while Marty could hear someone getting the brunt of the wrath of the High Leader – little explosions of anger which sent aids scurrying away like mice from a cat. Evidently those near the High Leader were poor insurance risks. There were lot’s of shouts along the lines of “Find him”, “He Never comes when I ask”, “One of these days, he will outlive his usefulness, or just annoy me to the point I no longer care” and an oft-repeated “Pynthas, you stupid twit.”
There weren’t any summary executions of disappointing underlings at the party – but Kevin and Marty suspected that that was primarily because they were dragged out back for the executions; blood all over the place spoiled clothes and festive moods.
They started the “Talking Dogs leading Illegal and Desperate Kids to Faerieland (Kadia)” campaign in the Linear Realms while they were waiting. That should reduce the pressure on the local authorities a bit and it would get the kids out of the crossfire.
Apparently the High Lord was looking for Sam-Sei, the Martian Machine Master. Pynthas was one of the Ministers of Mars. Although the databases had several titles for him, few if any seemed to have any real authority. He served as an attendant for the High Leader and had been associated with him for at least fifteen years – by far the longest time anyone had survived in such close proximity to the High Leader. He also screamed a lot, liked setting up balls, festivals, entertainment, and the like, and tended to be the bearer of bad news. Evidently the local jester.
About then there was a quieter fanfare – announcing Sam-Sei, the Machine Master of Mars.
That quieted things down a bit.
The Machine Master went in for a veil and a set of all-enveloping robes in gray and black. Liked his anonymity apparently – and drew almost as much attention as the High Leader. It was looking like three major power players – the Machine Master, the High Leader, and Wrath Pei the Pirate Lord. OK, for all they knew, Pynthas could be one; it would be funny if the High Leader was actually trapped in a body that Pynthas was running remotely as a decoy from himself. There was a mind in there, but it still could be trapped and raving mad. Still, that didn’t seem at all likely.
“Yes, High Leader? I am aware that you requested my presence. Is there something you require?”
“Ah Sam-Sei, better late than never, although you are trying my patience. I wanted you to meet these ambassadors that have recently arrived. I thought you might find it interesting that someone might be able do better than you. I was wanting to discuss your performance lately and how we might improve upon that.”
The High Leader came over with Sam-Sei and Pynthas in tow.
“I would like to introduce you to our local Machine Master, Sam-Sei. A rather talented individual that has made himself useful from time to time.”
“I am most pleased to meet you sir: your inventions are quite remarkable – and far more widely applicable across the world than my more specific talents”.
“The same. I’m just a humble contractor, so it’s an honor.”
The Machine Master seemed disgusted at having to fool around with pleasantries – but after he got a good look at the group he suddenly seemed to be paying more attention.
“I am honored you have heard of my work. Most of my work is merely extensions of what others have already developed. Nothing that would interest the pair of you.”
The Machine Masters cocked his head for a moment, looked startled, and quickly darted his eyes from Kevin back towards the main throne room – where Kevin had created the gate – stared hard for a moment, and then looked back again. He then kept his gaze locked on Kevin. Either a strong psychic who sensed the gate and – probably – Kevin’s power, some local unique gift, or another Opener. Not enough data to be sure. He wasn’t leaking any surface thoughts though – so the group ran through the ambassadorial introduction thing again. The Machine Master watched the introduction with an emotionless stare. It was hard to tell though the veil, but the man never seemed to blink. Either another local psychotic or a good imitation. Perhaps he was just using local-rules tech to make gates and travel around? It might fit with that body the High Leader was in.
Daniel hadn’t used any spells recently, so he could easily run a quick “detect offrealm technology and energies” spell. The Machine Master was surrounded by lots of weird energies, had a significant mana reserve, and was carrying quite a bit of off-realm technology. Definitely not a local. He kept the communications on the private mental link – and eveyone kept to the secure smartfiber links, neural pickups, and inner-ear feeds as much as possible. Gatekeeper at a minimum, quite possibly an Opener; he may or may not know much of anything though. A lot of Openers are more interested in wandering around than in dimensional theory – and more than a few are entirely nuts. Of course most “adventurers” – which made up the bulk of Gatekeepers and Openers – were nuts by definition.
“A talented group indeed. I must keep that in mind for the future. Most fortuitous of us that you decided to come and help negotiate with the High Leader and prevent some awful tragedy from occurring due to a misunderstanding. I can just imagine the High Leader asking me to divert a Singularity being flung at the Sun. I swear at times he doesn’t comprehend what he is asking for!” That got him a cold, bright, stare from the High Leaders highbeam eyes.
“Well, once such a thing has arrived, it becomes extremely awkward to do anything about it – and even if you can, it takes forever to fix all the disturbed orbits.”
“Yes indeed, moving planets is not an easy task.”
“All powers have their limitations”
“And there’s the loss of life too. So many people wasted.”
Marty’s casual remark suddenly had the High Leader tapping his chin thoughtfully. Might they have set something off? He be seriously considering dimensional weapons, or what they might really want kids for, or something – but it didn’t seem likely to impact their deal. The High Leader wouldn’t think of trading some kids in exchange for more resources as a “waste” – but he might be thinking of the Oort cloud and all the people now effectively beyond his reach. Having them available just through a gateway would be far more convenient. Well, they’d find out sooner or later – and it didn’t matter as long as they could get them away in one piece. He might try to analyze a few that didn’t volunteer to see what their “talent” was, but that wouldn’t get him anywhere – although it might be hard on his test subjects. Not much to be done about that; they couldn’t usually rescue EVERYBODY.
“All powers do have their limitations, but then if they had no limitations to speak of, there would be no point in pushing ourselves as far as we can, is there?”
“True, true – and there are so many places to negotiate trade agreements with! Without visitors, the realms of the Fey would grow dull indeed!”
“And so many with useful stuff to try and take advantage from.”
Well, that was a rather blatant declaration from Mr Machine Master. Still, if he wants something, he was going to have to get a little more blatant: they could keep up the bland pleasantries indefinitely, since they already had most of what they wanted from the Five Worlds. Was he waiting for the High Lord to make a move, say something, or go away?
“But I must admit, I have much work the High Leader expects me to do, and so I have little time to pursue my own goals. I must bid you farewell or else face the wrath of our illustrious High Leader. Farewell.”
“I regret that out meeting must be so short, but duty always takes priority.”
The Machine Master headed off, but snatched a datapad from an attendant on the way; the attendant began to protest before seeing who had taken it.
The group used some minor clairvoyance to see what he was up to.
Evidently the high leader was still very pleased with their deal; he actually tried to smooth over the Machine Masters rudeness.
“I must apologize for him, he is so useful but has yet to learn to give proper respect.”
“When one is used to dealing with machines and energies, it is easy to forget your social graces. The type is not unfamiliar.”
Meanwhile the Machine Master was entering a fast series of keystrokes – and pulling up System Administrator Privileges. A few more hurried keystrokes and he was logged into the Mars Defense System.
Kevin recorded the keystrokes via the neural pickups; you never know when that access might be handy – and if a giant laser beam came through the ceiling, they’d know why.
Marty felt that such a contingency would really brighten his mood.
Hm. There was a reflective surface in about the right position. Another little witchcraft illusion – a bright gleam to catch the High Lords eye and a glimpse of whatever Mr Machine Master was up to; it was virtually certain that the High Lord had telescopic vision available. The man was moving, so there was a good reason for it to not last too long. If it didn’t work, well, the cost was very small.
The High Leader’s attention snapped to the reflection – and he promptly shoved some of the party-goers out of the way to help adjust the angle a bit.
“What in the world? (He called over a man dressed as a guard.) Yes, I said find him. Get these people out of here while you are at it and I want the overrides activated! PYNTHAS!”
It was always sort of gratifying when you could make this much trouble with so little power.
Pynthas came running up with a terrified look on his face.
“Yes High Leader?”
Kevin thought that the Machine Master had been enjoying his own private realm and being worshiped as a genius for importing a little tech – and was not too happy to have some fresh air coming through.
“Damn it, quit trembling! I need you to take our guests to one of the secure locations we have discussed. You are to do this without fail or else you will live to regret it. You are to take what guards you can and wait for me and only me. Do you understand? And I told you to quit trembling!”
Pynthas’ face went white and he tried to stammer out a reply, but merely managed a nod. It looked like they might REALLY have started something. Hopefully it wouldn’t waste all that effort and power they’d put into negotiating.
“Now I am afraid a little situation has come up and I must ask that in order to ensure the safety of my guests, I must ask you to follow Pynthas for the time being.” (Not a very good sentence: evidently the man was seriously agitated).
“If you are sure that you will not need assistance?”
“That depends on how good you are at dealing with holograms.”
Presumably local terminology there, since images on a surface weren’t usually a big worry.
“Holograms, High Leader? What’s the problem?”
“It appears that the Machine Master has outlived his usefulness. He has proceeded to activate the Mars Orbital Holographic Satellite Projectors and that alone is worth me killing him. But he was also entering in targeting data for this palace. And in a few minutes, unless my people can get the overrides I had put in place activated, we are going to be dealing with about 20 or so energy projections in roughly human form. What he thinks this will accomplish is beyond me.”
“Some people react badly to the loss of a monopoly I fear.”
“I seriously expected him to be a little more mature about this. Ah well. Luckily I had shield generators installed in my thorax for just such an occasion “
Marty was feeling like a fight – on the other hand, he didn’t like the High Lord, and was more than a bit averse to helping him out. He didn’t want to let him know that they were more than talkers and gate experts either. He voted to let Pynthas take them to the secure location.
“We shall retire then.”
Darn it. They’d been hoping that they could score a clean “strip mine the dimension” and get away with the High Lord none the wiser. Nothing was ever simple. Besides: Kevin was against dying. He was quite sure he could come back – but having Ryan suck his soul into the Abyss that first time hadn’t been a pleasant experience and there was stuff in his pockets that he didn’t want to lose.