Led by Pynthas, and escorted by a group of Martian Marines, the group headed for the emergency shelter.
Lets see; they were being escorted by Marines (on a world with no oceans), trying to reach shelter before they were attacked by solid holograms projected from orbit (all right, there were all kinds of weapons systems that could be deployed from orbit, but even for the Manifold, that was silly), and… Ah, never mind. Sometimes you just wanted to hunt down the current incarnation of whoever had created a setting and slap them silly. It looked like both the Marines and Pynthas had souls (they must be really near the center of the action: the High Lord was probably one of the main characters), so they’d probably wind up having to protect them; the place was obviously space-opera, so the chances of a clean escape were virtually nil.
Rushing through a series of corridors into the depths of the palace seemed a bit silly too really. In a spacefaring civilization? Something like a linear accelerator tram to a point a few miles away and deep underground seemed like the only practical way of escaping an orbital attack, at least barring some grotesquely powerful force field or something – and even if you had that, you’d want a way to wait out the molten rock period and a way to secretly drill your way out again afterwards. It’d be a huge waste of time.
The alarms started going off before they got too far. Sirens, klaxons, viewscreen messages, pre-recorded messages, the whole bit. Warning: Palace Grounds are under attack. Warning: Palace Grounds are under attack.
Pynthas seemed to be quite used to running as he talked;
“We should almost be to the shelter, it is hidden in the center of the courtyard up ahead. Once we get there, we should be safe!”
“Well, now that you’ve said that, we can expect to be intercepted. I presume the Machine Master knows all about this shelter anyway, doesn’t he?”
“At least we can still duck and cover.”
Pynthas looked at everyone with a face filled with dread. Marty had to prop him up so that he wouldn’t trip over himself.
“But he shouldn’t know about this place, or the others. We built them in secret!”
“From the guy who designed all your ways of keeping things secret, has various unknown abilities that you don’t understand and can’t duplicate, and whom is the greatest master of technology – that is, finding out how things work – in this dimension?”
“Are we doomed then?”
The marines seemed a bit indignant about that question.
“Maybe. But if the shelter has booze, we can drink it up and won’t care anymore. And I’m the seven foot tall man!”
“Oh, not at all. Being doomed is boring. Remember! I have diplomatic immunity! And don’t forget the large cats! Smile! You’re not really a target here you know!”
Kevin considered some wisecrack about keeping the narrator too occupied to launch the attack until they were already safely inside the shelter – but, as expected, a group of five figures dressed in (yet another) weird uniform materialized out of thin air in the courtyard in front of the shelter door just moments before they’d have entered the courtyard themselves. The marines swore quietly and Pynthas actually managed to get even paler. Blasted space opera. Oh well, there really was no fighting the plot. Oh well: the two thralls being cats should be able to look after the two kids, Pynthas, and the marines while the rest of the group handled the “holograms”.
Well, at least the silly things didn’t appear to have noticed them yet.
The marines promptly took up positions to try and assault the courtyard, talking to each other and trying to stay out of sight. Looked like they considered surprise and cover pretty vital when fighting “holograms”. The group decided to keep up the “emissaries” routine if possible – which meant sticking to the lower-powered stuff.
“I must ask you to try and keep out of sight, these things can’t hear you, but if they see you, it isn’t going to be pleasant.”
“Easy to do.”
“Do they have any notable weaknesses? Are they stupid?”
“They aren’t intelligent, there is usually a device at the center of the forcefield construct that acts as a focusing lens for the satellite. Finding it is difficult though. Especially in the heat of battle. Otherwise the thing is a nigh invulnerable projection of light and force. I give them a 10 for speed, a 10 for precision, and a big fat 0 for tactics.”
Well, that might make it awkward for Marty to hit: he was VERY good with a knife, but he still wasn’t at his best attacking targets that he could neither see nor know the location of.
“Well then: shall I send out a few illusions?
“If you can do that, then please do so, that is likely to at least split them up.”
Kevin sent out a few witchcraft-illusions of the entire group looking at courtyard from down another corridor and then making a break for it. They were only light-images, and would blink out after they got out of range – which seemed to be only a few hundred feet locally – but they might work, and all they needed to do was turn a corner ahead of the “holograms” before they vanished. It might work.
Meanwhile, Marty was having one of his pocket-Thralls put a “Detect Gadgetry” spell on him. If he could spot the focus-gizmo, he should be able to take it out without much trouble. They couldn’t work much magic in a technological universe, but they should be able to manage a few spells like that.
Three of the holograms zoomed off after the illusions. The speed was impressive, even if they were just floating gizmos (that weren’t bothering with any kind of an illusion of “running”; they just zipped along an inch or two off the ground. The remaining two took up positions by a bank of shrubs and a fountain near the end of the courtyard.
Marty’s divination spell worked just fine: it looked like the focusing device for a “hologram” was a three-inch sphere floating inside each one, shifting position pretty much at random.
Meanwhile, the marines were positioning themselves to take advantage of the momentary distraction Kevin had provided.
“Alright guys, we have two left, we need to destroy these two before the others finally catch on and come back behind us.”
The marines opened fire, Marty charged in to strike (although the thing dodged a bit faster than he’d been expecting), and Kevin simply tried a bit of area-effect telekinesis: if he could hold the focusing-devices against a wall, presumably the things wouldn’t be able to move – and they hadn’t used ranged attacks against his illusions, so either they didn’t have any or they were relatively ineffectual.
None of that worked very well. The fool things were incredibly “slick” in Kevin’s telekinetic grip – something to do with their construction, or how they levitated about, or the energy-field they were swimming around in, or something. It was like trying to squeeze wet soap – although he was disrupting things enough to stretch and distort the holograms like cartoon characters. At least it was holding them back a bit – although he wouldn’t be able to do much more in a technological universe. Marty slipped and missed, while the massed fire of the marines had very little effect; they hadn’t gotten lucky. Brief disruptions at most.
The blasted things struck back with incredible speed too – although they seemed to regard a man with a knife as less of a menace than the marines (the more fool them). It looked like they could “stretch” (or fire concussion-beams) somewhat – but the pillars the marines were using for cover took the brunt of the damage, although they threw off enough shrapnel to seriously injure both of the men. Fast, precise, deadly, and difficult to kill, if not very smart. No wonder the High Leader had been pleased with them. Looked like this one was pretty much up to Marty.
Marty’s second blow didn’t make it to the sphere either – but it did disrupt the thing enough for Kevin’s push to rip the sphere free of the hologram. It dissipated for the moment.
Meanwhile, the Thralls in cat-form were healing the two injured marines; they’d still been firing, albeit not with any accuracy – but they hadn’t been in good enough shape to walk. The other two marines, however, had gotten lucky: with only one target to concentrate their fire on, they’d actually taken it out.
There was something of a mad dash to get into the shelter; judging by the sounds, the other three seemed to be on their way back. They shoved the kids and the wounded in first, then Pynthas, and then themselves (since the marines insisted on going last). The remaining sphere was starting to form another hologram about itself – but Marty simply smashed it in passing.
With everyone inside and the door closed, Pynthas collapsed into a corner crying, the leader of the marines started punching frantically at a keypad, and the other three took stock of the situation – although the taking stock of the two who had been wounded (the Thrall-Cats were finishing healing them) was a bit confused, and Marty was delighted to find that the shelter was indeed stocked with booze.
“Pynthas? Have a drink. Faerie wine. Good for whatever it is that’s bothering you”.
“Here, use my personal glass!”
Kevin was a bit doubtful about that – Marty’s personal martini glass held about two quarts – but it wasn’t like Pynthas was much help anyway – and a drink that size got him calmed down soon enough.
The shelter was well stocked with food, drinks, and other amenities. There was a sizeable cache of weapons, and some kind of power generator. Still, Kevin was pretty sure that the Machine Master could find them if he wanted, if only due to the massed power-signature of Kevin, Marty, and the Thralls, whether they sent up any power-flares or not. Still, the place seemed to be rocking slightly – like a ship on calm waters.
“Assaulting the door or walls are they?”
“No Sir! That would be the forcefield system responding to our movements. This shelter is floating inside a fully enveloping shield. There is a bit of a time delay, so as we move around the place, the system has to adjust accordingly to keep the room level.”
“Well, that’s handy!”
Ah, military people. Always well informed as to defenses and weapons systems.
Marty found it kind of relaxing, and sat down to have a drink.
“Well I have entered my lock code into the door, unless they have a lot more at their disposal then the usual holograms, that should stop them for the time being. Enough at least for the high command to respond.”
Kevin decided to try and startle some useful information out of the marines; he announced “Service Please!” and used a bit more Witchcraft to animate a bunch of utensils and have a light meal assemble and serve itself. Waffles, bacon, coffee, etc – with any missing ingredients either being substituted or produced from nowhere in particular.
“A real chef does a better job of course, but we didn’t happen to bring any”.
“Is that French toast?” (Marty settled down to eat).
The marines quickly stopped what they were doing to watch the spectacle. Each one of them kept calling the attention of the others to something unusual in the process – a lot like children watching a store window display.
“What’s your poison? Pancakes? Waffles? Bagels?”
Each of them replied with a different response. The head marine did manage to regain his composure, announced his choice, then wandered off to the weapons cache to take inventory.
“I have never seen anyone do something like that before.”
“Not even the Machine Master has done something like this.”
“Well, yes, but would you expect the bastard too?”
“Good point. That one has no sense of humor, drama, time, or tact.”
“Well, you’re a more-or-less scientific world. There are lots of other ways to do things. I’d suspect that the Machine Master hasn’t really shown you much of the fun in the Multiverse.”
“Yeah, like dying and waking up in bed the next morning.”
“Oh, Marty’s from a universe where you can’t actually die. They take advantage of it to express all the violence inherent in the system on a casual basis!”
“It’s fun. Especially when we have elections.”
“Great place for military-types to train too. Practice, get shot or blown up, wake up at home with the wife! Still, what does usually go on around here? So far, it’s been security detail – party – war – hide from war…”
“For the most part it has been more or less just like that. We run security detail these days as those blasted holograms have taken over most of the combat operations. We had been running various exercises in maintaining public order along with the occasional hunt for the pirates. At least until the Machine Master started to act differently.”
“Got a little odd did he? Warping reality with your mind can do that if you’re not careful. Especially if you’ve got no sense of humor. How long has that been going on?”
“Well it started becoming a lot more prominent awhile back. He used to just hide in his workshop all day and the High Leader went to him. Nowadays he is coming to the High Leader with new inventions the High Leader would have had to threaten death to get a few years ago. That was also about the time he started wearing those robes to cover the mutilations.”
“Let’s see, that would be about 3 years or so now.”
“Well, that would explain it; he’s probably gone completely over the edge by now.”
“I am not sure of the circumstances of how he got them myself, other than that he refused to get them fixed. But somehow he has had a lot of skin and flesh surgically removed. He’s missing toes, fingers, cheeks, ears, nose, eyelids, and other bits. I have even heard that he has the skin on his torso peeled back in places, although that I have not seen that for myself.”
Now that made Kevin wonder if an undead type had moved in. The locals certainly wouldn’t be expecting that – or have any idea of what to look for.
“The man is a certifiably nut, that is what he is.”
“Now, now he is the High Leader’s Machine Master, it does no good to talk ill of him.”
“But he has just attacked the palace!”
“He has a point there.”
“Ya, I can’t see the High Leader tolerating this blatant an attack on his authority. I don’t care how useful you are, you pull something like this and you’re as good as dead.”
“Oh, I’d guess he’ll simply disappear into another dimension if he’s not coming out ahead on this one. “
(The head Marine returned) “Alright I have taken stock of our supplies, we have enough food and drinks to last about a month. Enough fuel for three months, and more than enough weapons to withstand a minor siege. We should be all set to sit this one out until help arrives.”
“Oh, if it gets that boring, we’ll leave a note and go somewhere else.”
“Still able to do that portal thing? Looks like you and the Machine Master have similar talents. I wonder if that is why he pulled this stunt? It certainly seemed like he was trying to lead the High Leader by the nose with some of his “achievements”. I am beginning to suspect he isn’t all he is cracked up to be.”
“Well, we’re mostly waiting to see if he shows up in person really. This is a bit excessive as a way to arrange a private appointment, but you never know what an eccentric will think is reasonable and it Is my job to talk to people.”
“How about we get it over with and call him?”
“I suspect the force field will block most local communications, since the Captain here hasn’t been monitoring since he entered the sealing code, and – in a technological universe – most of our magical and psychic methods have too short a range to scan for him. He knows where this is, or he wouldn’t have sent troops straight here – so if he wants to drop by and talk, it’s up to him.”
That got them some really funny looks from the marines. Most of them were looking like they were seeing the group for the first time.
“So you guys really are from another universe then? Worlds not like this one?”
“Oh yes. Pretty much any world you can imagine is out there”
They gave a brief introduction again, explaining that Marty was from Battling Business World, Kevin was from Faerie, and Jamie was from another weird alternate.
“I just figured it was more crazy diplomats here for the High Leader’s amusement. No offense please.”
“That’s okay, a lot of people think a walking talking cartoon character is nuts.”
“I thought he pretty much ran this solar system. Where would he get other diplomats from around here?”
“Well some of the other worlds in the Solar System make the appearance of going through negotiations with the High Leader. This seems to be mainly a pastime for the High Leader. Stereotypical, silly and amusing diplomats that cater to his personality tend to be encouraged. It also helps pacify the other worlds by giving the illusion of having input on the decision making around here. Let there be no mistake in who is actually in control though.”
A translucent image of the Machine Master appeared in the center of the room just then.
“Ah, there you are. I was wondering when you’d get here.”
“You can’t have any lunch though, since you’ve only sent an image.”
“Oh come on, we can try!” (Marty attempted to feed the image a bagel)
“Now, you have gone to a lot of trouble to make this a private appointment; shall I have the marines here wait over in the armory? They’re military, they like weapons anyway.”
“I am going to have to ask you to please stop that with the bagel.”
“Ah well, it was worth a try.”
“Alright, although I suspect anything we say will be over their little heads anyway.”
Kevin sent the marines away, and had them carry Pynthas. He was pretty well out anyway: Faerie wine was potent stuff. The cats kept the kids with them though: they were beneath the Machine Master’s notice anyway.
“Alright, we shall leave, but if you find yourself needing assistance, do not hesitate to call.”
The Marines eyed the Machine Master as they left.
“Certainly. It’s always nice to meet people who take their jobs seriously but know when they’re over their heads. Now then: how can I help you?”
“Now why are you here? It is certain that there is more to your visit than mere trade and vacation agreements.”
Kevin had to think about that for a moment and consult Marty. Was there really? Even snagging the kids with souls was really just trade, the only other reason was to keep the locals from bothering people. They had been trying to trace the meme-inventor, but – even if he was actually the Machine Master or something – the man was obviously mad enough that this really looked like a complete dead end. Any information to be found here would be filtered through the minds of complete maniacs, and wasn’t likely to be of any use.
Marty couldn’t think of anything either.
“Primarily a courtesy call: you happened to be involved with a realm that we were working on yet another negotiation with, so we dropped by. Trade is good, the Fey like hosting vacationers, and I don’t like to see dimensions blown up with no good reason – and, since we didn’t know who or what was making gates, or on what system, that was quite possible. I’m sure you have already looked at the agreement we arrived at with the High Lord.”
The Machine Master’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the group;
“Is that so? So people are not liking my opening gates for the “High Leader” (as he likes to call himself). I guess this was to be expected, funny that the response should take the form of ambassadors. Well bother. It appears that I may have overreacted then. Yes I did look at the agreement – although probably not as promptly as I should have in hindsight.”
“I suspect that every word the High Leader says is recorded for posterity anyway. As for not liking you opening gates – personally, I don’t especially care. Some realms react badly to intrusion – as noted, doing things like sending singularities back. Others are simply dangerous to open gates to. Since there’s no end of safe ones, it seems reasonable to show a few of them to anyone who needs space or resources. Personally, I wouldn’t have that Battletech universe for anything. Is there anything you need?”
“Yes, it did seem that that place was in heavy need of someone with half a brain.”
“Well, as I informed the minister of foreign affairs, it was created for a game that enjoyed a brief popularity about 500 years ago, and is a rather silly place.”
“Yeah, that place is silly. How are they supposed to keep those damn things up? My car’s not that complex, but I need to take it into the shop every few thousand miles for something! And why the hell do they even use mechs anyway! Stabbing’s more fun! And throwing them out the executive suite window!”
“Er… In Marty’s world, if you “die” you just wake up in bed – so they tend to settle all disagreements with low-level warfare. It’s very good for stress relief”
“Cute, sounds very much like a cartoon world to me.”
“Oh, it is.”
“Doing it in a nice suit is much less stressful too! You don’t get hot, you don’t have to worry about exploding, and it costs only a few hundred dollars to replace! I . . . just . . . don’t . . . get . . . it! (Marty wiped his head). I need a drink. But yeah, I’ve seen a lot of weird worlds. Like Baelaria, and Faerun.”
Kevin handed Marty one of the leftover bottles from lunch.
“Sigh, it looks like I let my imagination get away from me. Now I will have to smooth things over with the High Leader. Curse my impatience. I suspect you will be leaving soon now that your negotiations are concluded?”
“Well, tell him you realized that the system would react to a gate in the palace as an attack, and send “holograms” to deal with abnormal intruders – and that you were trying to shut it down. As for leaving, certainly: we will, of course, uphold our end of the agreement before leaving.”
“I suppose that will work. It still might be prudent to eliminate those pesky witnesses you have stashed away in there with you. Although Pynthas may prove difficult to dispose of. The High Leader seems oddly fond of him.”
Did this guy have the slightest idea of what he was really doing?
“Hmm . . . would taking them out of this universe do? I’m in the market for combat-trained people.”
“Well, the Marines know only that you dropped by, and wanted to talk amicably and privately – and that’s all that Pynthas knows either. Otherwise they just know that there was an attack by the defense system on the palace, and everyone around here knows that.”
“Well that would work. Call me paranoid I guess.”
“Ergo: you dropped by to apologize for the flaw in the defense system sensors, and didn’t want to do it in front of a bunch of people.”
“After all, words to assist people in reaching amicable agreements is my job – and this is hardly the most confused or troublesome negotiation situation that I’ve encountered in the multiverse.”
“Now in about five minutes I suspect the Commanders will manage to get their overrides running. At which point the marines will arrive to “rescue” you. I shall speak with the High Leader in the meantime… I apologize for the disturbance.”
“Not a worry. I hope it goes well with the High Lord.”
On the private channel, there echoed a single phrase – “Deserve each other do those two says Yoda.”
Marty was willing to drink to that.
“Oh I haven’t lived this long in his presence by relying on luck.”
“Oh, I’d presume not, but it never hurts to have some.”
“Farewell then” (The image flickered and disappeared as Marty and Kevin bowed politely.)
Marty and Kevin went back to the secure line…
“So, what do you think? Pull everyone we can out of here and let them bite each other to death?”
“Hey, it’s what I’ve been for the whole time.”
“We do seem to be singularly short of sympathetic types who need help around here – unless it’s the Pirate King Wrath Pei.”
It was almost guaranteed that some of the marines had been spying – and a bit of thoughtsensing confirmed it; two of them were staying out of sight and within hearing distance. Kevin sent them a little voice;
“Well, that was silly. Do you REALLY want to be involved in this sort of thing? You might as well come out”.
“Noticed we were here huh? I suspect your weird talents is what helped you find us and not something we did wrong. Am I right?”
“Well. mostly it was logic. Talents only help if you know what to do with them.”
“Well, I find it best to at least have a cursory knowledge of what is going on so that I can make an informed decision about what to get involved in or not.”
“Well, in this case, if there is a war between the Machine Master and the High Lord, there will be a great deal of pointless destruction, possibly – if the Machine Master opens a gateway into a big bang or something equally silly – to the point of destroying your solar system. This would not be helpful. Ergo, best to defuse things, and I would recommend that you stay out of it – although, if you would like a job elsewhere, Marty is always hiring.”
“You can kill people for annoying you . . . and nobody does anything about it!”
“I’m not sure that that’s really a feature Marty…”
“I think it should be.”
“May not be a bad idea, working for a cartoon character can’t be much worse than this place.”
“Oh yeah, and we have more water than you might have seen in your life. And our meat is real.”
“I take it that you can resign if you want, but that normally you have nowhere else to go? Our agreement covers hiring people to assist with the training program for Gatekeepers, so if you want a job with Marty and I, you’re covered. If your friends would like one too, they’re covered as well.”
“I think I will take you up on the offer. And I suspect the others will too. Who knows, maybe in a few years all that will be left is the High Leader and the Machine Master yelling at each other.”
“Great! We can always use people who know how to kill in battling business!”
“I just hope that I don’t live to regret this.”
(Kevin looked patient) “and there are lots of other jobs too. Multiversal trading calls for a big organization”.
The rescue party arrived about then. There were several minutes of code confirmations and identity matches before the Captain opened the door.
“I am pleased to say that it is now safe to go outside.”
Outside is a mess of smoking craters, glass shards, rubble, and occasional bodies.
Kevin voted for making the contracted gates, delegating a few Thralls to operate them for the moment, getting the neodogs in to pick candidates (any kids with souls), and getting the hell out of the place: he hadn’t seen a side yet that he actually had the slightest desire to help do anything but escape.
Marty agreed completely. It was one thing when he knew everybody would pop up fine the next day, but he had a lower tolerance for this thing when he was away from home.
The neodogs could offer jobs to the adults with souls too. Excluding the High Lord, the Machine Master, and Pynthas: there COULDN’T be that many souls around the Five Worlds. Who’d want to live in it if they had a choice? The lifespans seem normal enough, so they’d be having the same sort of soul-fertility problems as Singular, and whatever souls they originally got surely wouldn’t have wanted to keep reincarnating in the place. Somebody could have stashed a lot of souls here somehow – but it was a lot easier to keep them in a place that they don’t mind being, so who’d bother? That was an “I made vast amounts of useless work for myself” strategy – unless, just maybe, the point would be to try and get them sick of being human.
Fortunately they hadn’t wasted too much time on the entire project.
They needed to check back on the Linear Developments – Kevin had started a pickup sweep there anyway – and they had a LOT of small projects running. They’d have to compile a list and see what they could delegate.
They made their own gate to get out. It fit with the image they’d been projecting better than going back to the space station. Running the neodogs initial reports past a few statistics experts projected about 50,000 souls in the Five Worlds – and a fair chance at getting most of them out.