Over in Kadia, there were getting to be a LOT of kids from the Linear Realms. There were a fair number from the Five Worlds as well (although they were going through evaluation first), but the Linear Realms seemed to have a population of twelve billion or so – of whom, of course, close to a billion were in the right age range. Of course, less than 2% of them were illegal and thus looking for a way out – but twenty million desperate illegal youngsters, most of them hoping (at best) to be bound to a decent master, rather than being used for organ transplants or something, still made quite a recruiting pool.
With more than a thousand new Thralls to assign – simply from the intial sweeps and his first recruiting pitch – it was time to expand. Marty hadn’t quite figured out all the details of economic warfare, but he wanted to be in position to put it into practice as soon as he did.
So; first up, open offices across Core Earth, the Solar System, and the twenty major Core Worlds to which they already had gates, send twenty more to help out the Military, and start hitting some more of the Manifold realms – a couple of offices in the Commonwealth (albeit keeping an eye out for local legal problems and taxes and staying under cover if necessary), a tourist office in Middle Earth, three more offices in Crusader (since magical service requests were sure to pick up), a few more in Imperial Space and the Old Republic, and some of the more ancient “afterlife realms” – the Sumerian, Babylonian, Chinese, Japanese, and Egyptian realms for a start. They had decent-sized populations, and – even if their technology was primitive – their handicrafts were quite good and their magic was both strong and basic enough to most later systems to work in a lot of areas of the Manifold. Same for the Celtic afterlife – which got a group – but there were already several other trade-groups operating in Mythic Greece. It might be worth hitting the local limbo if there was still anyone there, but that didn’t seem likely. Besides the Greek Gods were just too capricious.
They’d stay out of the Tibetan, Hindu, Aztec, and probably Mayan afterworlds. They just didn’t need that kind of complication at the moment. Most of the modern ones probably wouldn’t be too welcoming to Kevin and his Thralls too. For that matter, if the Celestial Bureaucracy insisted on getting involved, they’d pull the Thralls out of China too.
Wait! They needed formal offices in Faerie and on the High Seas (well, OK, in a port) too.
Marty decided to stay out of Valhalla for the moment: he wasn’t ready for a confrontation with ATE. They had some fairly extensive deals with the Dwarves and Elves there. It would be fun for later though – once he had a good handle on that economic warfare stuff.
They considered The Dreamtime and the Slavic Twilight; they weren’t sure what they could trade for in the Dreamtime (the place didn’t even really have an economy), but the Slavic Twilight was full of obscure magical artifacts and creatures. They’d open up an office there while they were at it.
Marty did consider the Dreamtime – but it would probably be too distracting. From what the computers said, most of the things to do there revolved around defining chunks of reality by visiting and naming them – and then keeping them stable by telling tales about them. It would probably hurt his head after awhile and it would tend to distract him from business: “I have created this supermodel who likes short drunk blond guys. Our exploits will not be work-safe.”
Still, shamanistic worlds were intriguing. Was it seriously true that when you killed an animal there, it might either go on to be reborn or get born into your tribe, so you had to be careful to not break any of the bones without the proper ceremony, or a child might be born with a weak or damaged limb? That one was just hard to swallow.
Kevin made a note: he had to visit the Silmaril Wars at some point and see if he got cast as Melkor.
That started Marty wondering who he’d wind up as?
Kevin gave it some thought. Brash, no sense of caution or fear of death, chasing women, inclined to go overboard, given to deep-penetration missions into enemy strongholds via sneaking in… That hunter who’d recovered one of the Silmarils perhaps? He cut it off the crown of Melkor with a knife. Beren, that was it.
Marty thought that that sounded about right.
Hmm, Beren and Melkor. That would be pretty awkward. Of course, “awkward” was sort of their speciality. On the other hand, if they got the crown, they’d have five of the three silmarils. Just imagine what they could get away with with that!
Well, OK, probably just put them into their pockets and forget about them like the first two, but it would still be funny.
The various African mythologies all tended to be a bit too tribal to do much with. They’d never developed any real narrative structure, and an awful lot of them were just a collection of just-so stories. Perhaps Finnish? Vaniomen and the Kalevala might have some useful bits.
Marty was willing to go for that; they added an office in the Kalevala to the list. Maybe they could even fix the Sampo. Marty could use it to corner the Manifold food market – although he had to wonder what would happen if he took it home and it somehow become sentient?
Kevin guessed that it would see itself as THE workforce, and start grinding out union reps.
“NOOOOOOOO!!! I’d be lynched for eternity!!!”
“Well, you wouldn’t expect anything in Battling Business World to go easily would you?”
“If it did I’d worry that the realm got replaced somehow. Hey, what is it you’re working on there?”
“Oh, It’s about time to visit the folks.”
Marty had never heard much about Kevin’s family. Somehow it seemed like the boy might just have been knocking around the Manifold since the very beginning.
It took some time for him to extract the basic story, but he kept digging – as well as tapping into the Core computer systems to pull in background. Did these people not realize just how much of their lives was on record, or didn’t they care? He had to fill in with some guesswork here and there – especially when it came to motives and attitudes – but he’d be willing to bet that it all went something like this:
Kevin’s early childhood was typical enough for a Core Earth youngster: education, play, virtual-reality games, trips into the “wilderness”, an early interest in psychic training?
Wait, what? Oh. That seemed to be common enough in Core children, although most didn’t have the knack to get anywhere and – even with the best of training – Core really didn’t allow much scope to psychic powers. All but the really talented kids tended to give it up pretty early. Kevin had apparently shown more talent than most – but nothing particularly incredible.
His adventures had begun when he was about sixteen – roughly equivalent to eleven or twelve for an unmodified human – early in the Opening, some fifty years ago. He’d been one of the first disappearances; he’d wandered into the world of a virtual-reality puzzle-game.
He hadn’t gotten back for weeks – and when he did, there was such a fuss, that the next time he’d slipped into the Manifold he hadn’t gone back to Core for several months. By that time he’d visited half a dozen worlds and had begun to look for formal training in “magic”. It didn’t seem to suffer from as many limitations as Psychic Powers did.
(He’d probably been rather disappointed later on, when he found out that even psychic powers worked better in Core than magic did.)
When he did get back to Core, he was obliging enough about attempting to explain what he’d found – but, at that point, most of the scientists and authorities of Core were still having a lot of trouble accepting the existence and accessability of other dimensions at all, much less the Manifold. It was especially hard to swallow the story when most of the “other dimensions” Kevin was reporting were blatantly drawn from various works of popular fiction and virtual-reality games. The records from his Smartclothes backed him up where there were any – but they showed peculiar gaps, albeit with no signs of system damage, data wiping, data tampering, or other interruptions. The scientists had wanted to monitor him (even more than most kids), and to assign him a bunch of keepers.
His parents found the existence of the Manifold hard to swallow too – but, the interview notes at the time indicated that they thought that Kevin had always been pretty rational and inclined to observe things accurately. Besides; were “other dimensions” with “different laws of nature” any harder to believe than their young son somehow evading monitoring by the global computer network for weeks on end? While simultaneously composing such a story and faking a partial set of records of such travels and of some really strange events? A record that was so well put together that no one had been able to find any real flaws except the obvious absurdity of the entire thing?
It was more than a bit worrisome, but what he reported seemed to be safe enough – and it certainly didn’t look like they could stop him short of lifetime sedation. The way in which he walked in and out of reality – and had taken them and a few researchers to visit one or two of the “fictional” worlds – made that pretty obvious. Hard to say whether that meant that authors were tuning into existing other worlds or were somehow bringing them into being. The fact that so many of them shared languages and such might just be a consequence of whatever unknown rules governed dimensions, dimensional travel, and dimensional relationships; there was no way of telling when the principles underlying the entire phenomena were completely unknown.
Well, some of those other worlds seemed to have an entire science – or at least a well-developed study – of forces that obeyed wildly different laws of nature. So they called it “Magic”. The word was as good as any.
If their son wanted to study “Magic” it certainly seemed like a good idea – and they might even be able to get some clues: if fiction did reflect (or create) such worlds, then an old and well-established “school of magic” could probably be found. All they needed to do was run some searches and encourage him a bit. From the computer records, he was already doing some erratic searching along those lines already.
They encouraged him. They weren’t entirely pleased with the school of magic that he eventually stumbled upon – “Hogwarts” seemed to be a bit more dangerous than they would have liked, even if most of the trouble did seem be sorted out by the end of the third series (discounting fan-created works and later imitators, none of whom seemed to be accurately reflecting the “reality” of the series). Still, those productions were from centuries ago; who knew what had happened since?
The news that “nothing much had” – and that characters from early in the series were still around – suddenly put weight on the “alternate worlds were created by literature” notion. If tales and creative works simply reflected other worlds, they should change on their own.
Well, at least he was staying in touch by letter – however archaic that was. He even opened a gate for a parental visit for “parent-teacher conferences” (which they had to look up).
SOMETHING – apparently involving another set of “Openers” (not that having a word for it really meant much really), including Ryan O’Malley and Captain Calzin – happened a few years later. Kevin had been becoming annoyed with his inability to work much “Magic” in Core – although the fact that he could work ANY was giving the theoretical physics people fits during his occasional visits – and whatever happened between himself and the other Openers started him wandering again.
This time into Faerie. He still kept up with his lessons at Hogwarts – apparently by commuting – and sent occasional letters home by owl, but there was a definite darker tinge to his studies. After he graduated, he’d spent most of the next three decades in Faerie. Towards the end of that time – about fifteen years ago – he’d started emerging from his shell, visiting home a few times (where a Manifold traveler was still moderately unusual, but was no longer an object of automatic investigation), and occasionally taking his parents or other friends and relatives to Faerie or elsewhere in the Manifold to see the sights.
It was on a visit to Faerie that the elder Sanwell’s first encountered some of their sons “pets”. That was a bit over the top – but he seemed to be treating them decently enough. While the Sanwell’s were pretty “liberal” even for Core, one of the rights people had was the right to give some of them up. If the pets were old enough to make that kind of decision, understood the consequences, and freely chose to accept Kevin’s pact and become “Thralls” – well, that was their choice, and their son was entitled to the ownership and use of his property – even if they couldn’t entirely approve of his offering (or even being ABLE to offer) such a pact.
(Marty suspected that – being human – they might have been more questioning if it had been THEIR son who was signing such a contract, rather than being the one offering it – but that was hard to say really. People from Core were just so damned REASONABLE about everything. It was entirely possible that they would have just said “That looks highly advantageous in the long run. Serve your master well until you clear your indenture now”.)
Regardless of such considerations, Faerie – and various other locations in the Manifold – were inspirational as well. Mr Adrian Sanwell did artistic landscaping, gene-sculpting modifications on plants, and dynamic gardens, while his wife Ruolan Qui-Sanwell specialized in force-field art, structural design, and integrating permanent structures seamlessly with the environment. The scenes of the Manifold were sometimes quite incredible – rivaled only by the wilder flights of fancy of artists from before modern education became common.
Perhaps something had been lost there.
Still, trying out new stuff was awkward on Core Earth or, indeed, anywhere in the solar system. The competition over the few areas and structures that opened for redesign was so fierce that any kind of innovation was at a disadvantage: one or more of the judges was sure to take a dislike to anything too new. Besides, the vistas of Faerie and the Manifold had awakened a desire for untamed spaces. The Manifold was too strange – and they didn’t have the kind of personal powers and resources that Kevin seemed to have developed. They’d always kind of wanted to have more privacy, and a hand in developing a new world, though – so they decided to emigrate.
They opted for Lahien (one of the wilder Core colony worlds) and, since Kevin was doing well (even if he did seem to have stopped aging somewhat short of adulthood), to have another child.
With Kevin – over the last ten years or so -increasingly entangled in creating Identities, setting up the beginnings of what would later become his operations across the Manifold, and recruiting more Thralls, distractions abounded – and contacts were restricted to occasional letters and calls for a number of years – enough to keep everyone vaguely aware of what was going on, but not enough for any real details to get through.
Kevin’s parents have a reasonable idea of what he’s been up to for the past few years, although they may not be clear on a lot of the details or on just how much his activities have expanded and how dangerous they’ve become. Kevin will probably want to get them some bodyguards anyway; as he becomes more important, they become potential targets.
Kevin might or might not have an elder sibling, that’s been left open for possible plot use. His parents are being presumed to have been following the general Core practice of spacing out kids every fifty years or so – especially since the intervening time has been a bit unstable.
Kevin hasn’t heard anything about his younger sibling in a bit (also a good reason for a personal visit); he should now be about fifteen – or about equivalent to an old-style human of eleven. Possibilities that were suggested here included:
He might want to go adventuring with his elder brother – or with a wacky cartoon character.
He might have gone missing (and Kevin’s parents didn’t want him going into the same danger in a rescue attempt or some such). In this case, perhaps the most troublesome scenario is some version of “he’s had his soul sucked out, gone a bit mad, and is now going by the name “Vekxin” – and has some powers vaguely similar to Kevin’s for some reason”. That would be a SERIOUS pain – although it’s also why some things have been left open: that kind of background element is always good for a plot twist.
He might just be relatively normal and want to run off into the Manifold. In that case, should Kevin help? What would his parent’s opinions be? A normal youngster probably doesn’t have, and won’t get, the kind of power that Kevin possesses – and would be at serious risk running around freely these days. Would his parents want said sibling (and possibly Kevin as well) put into therapy?
He might want Kevin to give him the same powers he’s given so many other youngsters. That would force some serious consideration of ethics and family obligations. Does the loyalty – obedience – property part of the deal even matter if the orders are some variant of “do what you like and – since you will feel the need to do something for me – show off to other likely recruits”?
Kevin has NOT mentioned that he’s fathered lots of dragon-phantasms – or one with a soul. The boy can now take human form and visit Core easily however, so it’s time to introduce him.
Lahien is a sort of “artists colony” – lots of mountains, lakes, and rugged natural scenery to go camping, painting, and wandering around in. Like several other worlds in the Federation, it had a surprisingly-compatible primitive biosphere – although it was mostly limited to the seas and a few struggling plants beginning to explore the land – before it was seeded via the ramjet-probe seeding program of the 2140’s. Humans still need a carefully-tailored series of symbiotic bacteria in their guts to eat the native fish and (occasional) plants though. The locals have deliberately chosen to keep the computer network pretty minimal by Core Earth standards, to break things up into different regions for variety, and to encourage experimentation with social forms: they’re not so sure that the old standards are best in the more open framework of space and the manifold. It is, however, considerably further from the Ourathan territories than Earth itself is and – at least as yet – doesn’t really have the population, industries, or resources to attract much attention from the Manifold – although they do, of course, have gate-access to Crusader in case of emergencies.
All that delving into Kevin’s family history reminded Marty of something – Julia (his six-year-old daughter) – had a birthday coming up. He didn’t have custody, but he could probably persuade his ex-wife to come to an arranged birthday party, and he knew just the place: Sesame Street! Julia loved that program, and she could meet the Cookie Monster and the other major characters in person!
Besides… He could have Kevin give her a young dragon to ride! She’d love it! He’d love it! He could watch the expression on his wife’s face! Better, he could bribe a sentient camera to have it follow her around and make a photo series! He could have Kevin make it a black dragon, so that housecleaning would suddenly require Haz-Mat gear!
Kevin was agreeable enough: any color he liked. The metallics usually made better pets, but in Battling Business World that wasn’t really a consideration; if it ate Julia, she’d just wake up in bed in the morning (after all, in Battling Business World, if the kids were making too much fuss about bedtime, you just shot them anyway). After that, she could beat it with a stick for awhile: she knew the Oaken Storm stave style, so she was pretty good at hitting things for a six year old.
Hm. Hopefully one – or at most a small group – of kids from Battling Business World wouldn’t make too much trouble in Sesame Street – but the place should know how to handle a few rowdy kids. (They’d better check first; if they got turned into muppets or something, that would be nice to know in advance). Now, if he could just get the Battling Business World lawyers entangled in an interdimensional custody dispute – and get most of them offworld – he could probably get nominated for Sainthood!
“Saint Marty of Battling Business World: Patron of Booze, Womanizing, and Knife-Fighting!”
They started making arrangements for Kevin’s Thrall colonization-breeding scheme as well. It looked like there were soon going to be enough of them available to at least start. Arranging supplies for a small, pre-industrial, colony that the Ouratha wouldn’t interfere with ought to be easy enough – even if Kevin wasn’t too clear on exactly what would be needed. Lots of simple tools? Food and seeds to start growing more? There would probably be a lot of problems and exigencies that he hadn’t even considered; he’d never spent much time in pre-industrial nonmagical worlds – but even in Core the Thralls should be able to handle most simple problems and medical needs and such. Besides, they could always get help from Kadia and use Witchcraft to keep comfy. Would small power sources and computers bring in the Ouratha? He’d have to check on that. According to some of the old reports the triggers were space travel, a species-threatening event, or the collapse of a civilization that had attained industrialization. That left quite a lot of wiggle-room, especially with Manifold access.
Kevin wanted to be absolutely sure to retain a grip on Core – and he wanted to experiment with a society where becoming one of this Thralls for a time was the expected gateway to adulthood. They’d need a special adaption of the modern education program to support such a society, but that was already available in Kadia anyway.
Would he need a nursery-world with a “no death” rule to keep the kids safe before they were Enthralled? Even on Core Earth, there were occasional accidental deaths. It wasn’t like death was permanent or anything – but it could be awfully inconvenient. He’d have to think about that too.
Life and Death…
Wait! No one could map the Manifold – but humans were social beings, and the number of human souls was limited. It might be possible to map where they were, to locate the major concentrations and realms, and to start tracking their movements through time. Five trillion or so – at least according to some of the estimates – was an awful lot, but hardly beyond computation. They might even be able to use the Rosary of Memory: if it kept all the memories of prior lives, could they scan through it and compile a biography and history of everyone who’d ever lived? Track them and find out what had happened? Find out where the flow of events was being warped by outside forces?
Well, he did have tens of thousands of NeoDogs to assign to look into it – and almost limitless computational power.
He set the wheels in motion.