Back in Battling Business World, Gelman had finally persuaded Handel the scanner to uninstall the telepathic circuit upgrade. Bad enough that that particular mod tended to upset it’s user’s sanity, worse that it let Handel try to simply scan the desired image from it’s user’s brain – and then try to “drop the brain into the shredder” if the image didn’t meet with it’s artistic approval.
OK, it was only a telepathic overload, and it usually wasn’t even much more than a headache, but it still was going a bit overboard!
With accounting taking over so much responsibility, that didn’t leave him with much to do… He still wanted to get back at Marty for his little “prank” with the accountants though. It might have helped make it possible for all the sentient office devices to escape the blitz, but it had STILL been a rotten thing to do! You SHOULD NOT set up people who were trying to rescue you!
Where was Marty anyway? He’d been gone for months now. What could be taking that long? Even the stranger outlier zones (nearby interlinked cartoon and anime realms), like the Hanna-Barbera townships, the Pokemon Mountains, and Tenchi City didn’t require months to handle. Besides, you could usually get through to any of them – even Animaniac Town – on a cell phone after a few tries and one or two calls being routed to random people in Eurasia. All Mr Leland would say was “exploring new markets” – but there never seemed to be any new contracts. Could Marty be setting up a subdivision, or was he just taking a vacation in the Bahamas and covering it with his expense account? It that was what was up, and Jenkins found out about it, Amarant Solutions might wind up being edited right out of existence!
It was virtually impossible to be out of touch for this long! It was really beginning to bother him! Marty might be out to drive him mad, but it should still be possible to check up on him while he was traveling!
After work he headed over to check with Abigail; he hadn’t seen Julia in awhile anyway, and she was a nice kid – and it had been almost two weeks since his last visit. All that stuff about visiting the muppets – and Abigail turning into one – had been a bit much. The only way Marty’s pranking could have gone that far would be to have slipped Abigail one of Corrigan’s combination drugs! NOT a reasonable thing to do to your ex-wife!
Julie was quite pleased to see “Uncle Fred”, but Abigail was worried about what the Squirrels were up to. They seemed to spend a lot of time hanging around and watching. It was CREEPY. It was like they were union organizers or something even worse!
That really didn’t seem likely, but he went to check on the great squirrel conspiracy for Abigail.
Of course, the dragon was in the yard too.
“Abigail, is there something in the water? I swear I see a dragon in your backyard.”
Establishing the existence of the dragon wasn’t that difficult – and kind of implied that there was more to the birthday party story than a simple prank – but muppets? That would be a pretty elaborate prank…
Wait, Julia wanted him to promise not to tell Abigail if she got her extra pets – she seemed to have adopted the squirrels – to show him their secrets because they were her friends? Quite an imagination there… He promised her – and she claimed that they could talk and kept an entire squirrel city hidden in the tree.
Right… Well, it wouldn’t be difficult to refrain from telling Abigail about THAT.
“Hello Mr Gelman!”
Wait. They really could talk? That would only be possible if they were on something really powerful! Where was Marty getting this stuff?!? Were they in on some gag with Marty? How elaborately insane were the man’s gags getting?
“Where is Mr. Tabard? I have business with him.”
“Uhm… Is it important? The boss and Mr Tabard are both often very busy.”
“Mr. Leland hasn’t seen him for months. No one has. And it’s a personal matter. About Jenkins.”
It was. He HAD to know why Marty had betrayed him to Jenkins! Jenkins and Tabard detested each other! Why would he help her?
“Who gave you the drugs? Is this related to the INS incident?”
It was unusual, but hardly unknown, for people turned into animals by drugs to retain the ability to speak if they had strong wills – and these people were unwillingly transformed, basic decency obliged him to try and help them. At least they didn’t seem like they wanted to hurt Julia… Of course, if the dragon wasn’t hurting her, squirrels weren’t that big a menace. Even if they were hostile, at six ounces or so – and a fair chunk of THAT puffy tail – there wasn’t really much they could do.
“Uhmm… Our brief was to bodyguard Abigail and Julia. Who’s Jenkins?”
Contractors. That explained some things.
“She’s a colleague.”
Gelman shuddered involuntarily as he remembered being introduced to the numbers… You didn’t forget that even when they canceled the transaction afterwards… Wait, bodyguarding? Why would Marty hire bodyguards for his family? Abigail was a minor restauranteur – an excellent cook to be sure, but no one in need of bodyguards. And Tabard knew that he checked on his family while he was away. Did Marty think he’d try to hurt them in revenge? Marty knew he would never do that!
“Bodyguarding? Did Marty think I’d try to do something to innocent people?!?”
“Oh, you’re not on the enemy, or even the suspect, lists. Otherwise we wouldn’t talk to you. It’s Merlin, Lloth, the Hellstorm, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Berserkers, and the rest of that lot.”
Gelman tried determinedly not to have heard the last part of that.
“That’s good to know… Thank you for your time. Should I inform the police of your condition?”
“Condition? What condition?”
Poor people. This must be one of those combination pills from Corrigan’s pharmacy magazines.
“And you never said if it was really urgent…”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s not that important.”
“Well, the boss is really busy right now – but there are some gates available.”
“Realmgates. For traveling. The one in the tree is too small for you, but I can call in an aide for you.”
“No need to shout! Abigail might hear you!”
Gelman took a very deep breath…
“You’re telling me there’s a portal in this tree?”
“Yep! Want to see? That might be more convenient anyway, but you’d have to accept the transformation or shrinking spell to fit through the gate…”
Gelman was slowly backing away… Next up his BlackBerry would probably pop up to say “Yeah! It leads to the mental institution! Let’s go!”
“Thank you for the offer, but I have no time to travel.”
The Thralls were pretty perceptive though – and not entirely unused to this reaction. The boy he was talking too hung a small illusion across the kitchen window so Abigail wouldn’t see and shapeshifted back to human form.
“Hm… You think we’re crazy don’t you?”
Gelman looked at the house… The last he’d checked, Abigail was baking and Julia was doing her homework under threat of grounding. Have they noticed anything? Hm… It looked like Julia was peeking regularly, but Abigail was in the kitchen and apparently hadn’t noticed a thing.
Still, drugs could transform you – but he’d never heard of one that would let people transform when they wanted to.
“After that, no…”
“Want to take a look? It won’t be more than a few minutes. Honestly, so far this has been pretty boring – and I can get a proper cheeseburger while I’m there; nuts are nice, but after a couple of weeks they get really dull”
“If you insist.”
The squirrel transformation was disturbing at first, and the gate definitely upset a lot of his ideas about how things worked – but Kadia was interesting, even if he did have to have them hold the cheese on his burger to keep it kosher.
“Anyway, since you work for Amarant Solutions, you’re on the allies list by default, so you’re welcome to come here. This is a pretty obliging universe!”
Marty had access to an “obliging universe”?!!!? Now THERE was a terrifying thought! On the other hand, would such a universe include anything besides bars, casinos, and whorehouses? No use in saying so though.
The Thralls were curious enough to do a little thought-scanning anyway, but they didn’t see any point in mentioning that either. They hadn’t been expecting to meet a rational individual at their current post.
“Anyway, since Marty works with Lord Sanwell, Marty’s colleagues are generally welcome in Kadia.”
Sanwell… Wasn’t that the contractor from the Lloyd’s raid? (He’d been knocked out fairly early on that one, and still felt a bit guilty that he hadn’t been able to help when Mr Leland had needed him) – and hadn’t the “Balrog” mentioned him too?
“The contractor? He must be very successful to own such a facility.”
“He made Kadia so that we’d have a place to come to when we get killed; he didn’t want us to get bored waiting around to be brought back.”
“That was nice of him.”
Wait a minute, it didn’t seem like they just meant “to wake up in the morning”. Shouldn’t these kids be going to Heaven or Sheol to wait for morning? How powerful was this “Mr. Sanwell?”. The universe just didn’t work like that! He asked some more questions…
“Uhm… A lot of places don’t normally let you come back that way. In most places, unless you’ve made really special arrangements in advance, death is permanent. But Lord Sanwell set it all up for us!”
“Other… places… I’m not in Long Island anymore, am I? I didn’t want to believe it.”
“Well no! This is Kadia, and there are lots of other worlds!”
Gelman sipped his soda and pinched himself.
“No, definitely not dreaming… So I suppose Tabard is in one of these places?”
“He’s in the Crusader Kingdoms at the moment according to the local network. Apparently Jerusalem is being besieged by an army of undead.”
“No need to disturb him then.”
Oh dear… What would Marty do to Jerusalem? On the other hand, surely even Marty couldn’t do anything to God’s seat on earth… Come to think of it, he still had his own department’s troubles to deal with.
“Is your boss taking contracts right now?”
“Uhm… Lots really, but most of them only by agents.”
“Could you get me in touch with one? I’d appreciate it.”
“Oh, I mean that most assignments go to agents like me. Lord Sanwell is very busy! We’re quite capable though, want to see a demonstration or a training exercise? Those are fun!”
Gelman had read the reports on the Lloyd’s raid – and had his doubts that the contractors involved with that were, in fact, kids like this one. Surely no battling business firm would dare violate the child labor laws that blatantly!
The exercise was… exciting, dramatic, and utterly appalling. Swords and knives he was used to, pistols too – but flame-throwers and missile-launchers would have been a bit over the top even without running up the walls and standing on the ceiling, levitation, shapeshifting, telekinetic “jedi” stunts, and outright, blatant, SORCERY these children were throwing around!
The fact that they were so blatantly underage for such employment was almost as appalling – and he’d even seen a few youngsters who were obviously being treated like SLAVES around!
“Do your parents know you’re doing this? And is that one enslaved?”
Did Mr. Leland know about this? It didn’t seem like something that he’d condone at all!
“Well, most of us don’t have any parents any longer – or they wanted to get rid of us. As for him, it’s only until he pays off his indenture. He didn’t want to sign up with Lord Sanwell, so he has to work after school until he pays the rescue fee… Lord Sanwell doesn’t allow aging around here past sixteen or so though, and it’s very slow up until then anyway, so he won’t be much of any older when he’s done.”
Gelman felt an all-too-familiar vein pop out on his head… the one usually triggered by things getting too crazy at work. It was obvious he wasn’t on Earth anymore. On the other hand, was hiring a bunch of kids – some of whom were enslaved – truly ethical?
He didn’t even notice that the boy answered the question he’d been thinking without him saying it aloud.
“Oh, the slaves don’t go on missions! Since they didn’t want to accept the soulbond, and belong to Lord Sanwell, they could really get killed most places! Lord Sanwell doesn’t allow that!”
Their power was great… Perhaps even enough to take down Terry Jenkins herself. And the situation was dire. The fund siphoning was severely cramping his budget, and the raids every few days were interfering with operations. His staff, and even the sentient devices, were getting really annoyed. It was genuinely serious when the sentient devices were noticing! On the other hand… the near-worship of this “Lord Sanwell” was pretty blatant, and that was just wrong. The gentiles were entitled to their own beliefs of course, at least as long as they followed the commandments handed down to Noah – but it was still pretty creepy.
“Are you sure you’re all right? You seem to regard Mr. Sanwell as a god.”
“Well, he is isn’t he? He created Kadia for us, and brings us back from death, and gives us shapeshifting and magic and health and youth and a lot of other powers for just a few centuries of service.”
If he hired these children, Yom Kippur would not be easy for him… There had to be another way. He was cursed enough as it was.
“There is only one Lord in my mind. But thank you for your time. I must go home. My wife is probably worried sick.””
“Oh, you mean GOD. I don’t know about him, her, it, or they. All the theologians say that the universe is clearly designed for people – but it’s also infinite and full of smaller gods. Lord Sanwell is the best minor one though!”
Gelman just smiled and nodded… Poor brainwashed kids. He had to do something to free them, but he was badly outnumbered at the moment – and it was still possible that this was one of Tabard’s nastier pranks, like that “funeral” he’d taken the executive staff to. Still, there was no point in spending more time in the middle of a cult compound. He had to get back to Manhattan NOW – even if it would require being turned into a squirrel again to fit back through the “portal”.
“Would you like us to assign you an aide Mr Gelman?”
“N-no, that’s all right.”
Wait; that would give him a chance to try to de-program one.
“On second thought, certainly.”
“Any specifications? Particular speciality or sex or anything? We can all shapeshift, so appearance is whatever you’d find suitable. Small animals pass well in most places.”
“My Sophie (Gelman’s wife) has always wanted a parakeet…”
“Well, that’s the easy part! I’ll have a few meet us at the gateway then!”
“Could you get a nice cage for them? And tell them to be quiet? She startles easily.”
“Certainly; you can tell them yourself of course.”
There were a pair of teenage kids – a boy and a girl – waiting at the gate when they went there.
“Good afternoon sir! We’ve been assigned as your aides for the time being!”
“Welcome to New York City, children.”
Gelman picked up a cage at the pet store – and accepted the warning about the delightfully deadly toxins of colorful tropical birds – before having them transform, go through, and get into it. It just didn’t feel right of course…
“Are you sure you’re fine with being caged? Mr. Sanwell isn’t making you do it?”
“Well, we could always get out if we needed to sir! And we’re assigned to you, so if it’s convenient for you, it’s fine with us!”
He was really going to have to answer for some things on Yom Kippur. Hopefully freeing these kids would compensate. He’d made sure it was a nice birdcage – but the way they hopped right in was more than a little disturbing.
Now to report to Abigail.
He’d keep their secret, however reluctantly – but he did put them on notice that he wouldn’t tolerate any funny business.
“Oh, Hello Gelman! Stay away from the cake! If you make a hole in the frosting I’m stuffing you into the stove for awhile!”
“Abigail, you know I would never stoop to your ex-husband’s level.”
“Well… Sorry, It’s living with a six-year-old. AND that blasted dragon.”
“I understand. Did she finish her homework?”
“Oh yes. She’s been doing quite well on that recently. Picked up in a lot of her worst subjects for some reason.”
He’d been happily married to Sophie for many years now, and had no intention of changing that – but there was just something about Abigail that always made him wonder. If she had been Jewish, and had been in New York City instead of the Chicago suburbs when he was a kid, would he have married her instead? He could never figure out why she always provoked the thought though…
Sadly, Mr Gelman didn’t know how scarce souls were in Battling Business World.
“I checked the tree, by the way. The squirrels shouldn’t be a problem.”
Abigail saw the Parakeets.
“What, pick up some new pets? There are some crackers in the cabinet… As for the squirrels, that’s good. I still think the little devils are running a union, but as long as they stick to themselves about it I guess it’s all right.”
“I procured them for Sophie. She’s wanted birds for a while. I hope these won’t cause fainting fits.”
“Oh, I think she can probably handle parakeets – unless they screech behind her back or something.”
“That’s good. Well, she’s probably waiting for me. Tell Julia to keep studying, she doesn’t need her father’s terrible GPA.”
Gelman glanced at the tree again… Oh. No wonder she was going better. She currently had a set of private tutors without a lot else to do.
He avoided the road rage lanes on the way home – unlike Marty, who delighted in them. The normal streets were chaotic enough. He went in quietly… So much as slamming the door abruptly could make Sophie faint.
“Is there anything you’d like us to take care of while we’re here sir? Cooking, cleaning, warding spells, or anything?”
(Gelman whispered) “No, just be good parakeets. Take Mrs. Saunders-Tabard’s words seriously and be quiet.”
With his two remaining minor children studying in their rooms – they were good children, but it had always disappointed him that they couldn’t spot the flaws in the world like he could – he found Sophie in the living room.
(Softly) “Darling? I have something for you.”
“Oh! Oh, it’s just you dear… What is that you’ve got there? It seems awfully brightly colored!”
“Paakeets, dear. Quiet ones.”
Gelman carefully made sure that he made no sudden movements… Sophie had been through two pairs of glasses this week alone…
“Do you like them?”
“They are very pretty… Are you sure they’re quiet?”
“Yes. They didn’t make a sound in the car.”
He didn’t mention that he’d passed through a drive by shooting… Pesky insensitive floor traders.
The “parakeets” made soft cooing noises at her. Not exactly a parakeet noise, but they weren’t exactly zoology students. Fortunately, Sophie could handle any noise up to quiet talking levels, and noises she knew up to about, oh, normal city sounds.
“How was your day, dear?”
“Oh, the children have been having a bit of trouble with math, but I’ve gotten quite a bit of needlepoint done today while they’ve been studying and dinner has been cooking.
“I can’t blame them . . . my nightmares must be affecting them. I am sorry about that.”
“Oh, I think their grades will pick up, even if they do need a bit of tutoring.”
“I’ll hire one in the morning.”
“Oh would you? I wasn’t sure where to look.”
Gelman looked at his new “pets”… Somehow he suspected that the children would suddenly pick up in skill. It had been pretty obvious that the “squirrels” had been tutoring Julia.
He spent some time quietly talking to them a bit later, while Sophie was busy in the kitchen. There had to be some signs of how they’d been so thoroughly brainwashed and what the cult was like. He’d had to help some accountant members of his synagogue resist the sway of Number worship, and surely this “Lord Sanwell” couldn’t be anywhere near THAT bad. OK, the powers said it was something more than classical brainwashing – but the fact that they saw nothing wrong with being kept as caged animals was pretty telling.
It was odd though. They were awfully devoted to this “Lord Sanwell” character, but it wasn’t exactly faith or worship – the girl had some odd goddess-religion of her own – but they acted like they knew; they got powers, immortality, and wealth in exchange for several centuries of service – and the powers were real enough. He’d have to pray and meditate on it. It didn’t feel like the corrosive, sanity-shattering effects of accounting; it seemed to be an awfully pragmatic deal, no matter how disturbing the extent of the devotion and obedience was. The fact that they apparently knew that the devotion (and something called “obedience programming”) and a soul-bond came with the powers and still signed up voluntarily after some sort of disclosure was even more disturbing. What kind of contract enforced this level of devotion? Any company in the world would engage in aggravated murder for that kind of compliance! How did “Lord Sanwell” talk them into it?
They were willing enough to list off the costs and benefits, and claimed that they’d simply wanted the powers and the security and the other benefits – and felt that a few centuries as Lord Sanwells property was a fair deal. They thought that so far it “had been great!”.
They didn’t feel like accountants or cultists, but they were plainly obedient. This just didn’t make any sense!
They were also perfectly willing to talk about what Mr Sanwell allowed them to do between missions. It was a long list… School, training, camping, exploring the multiverse, shapeshifting and living in the wilds, whitewater rafting, amusement parks, fighting, hobbies, sailing, sex, hawking, psychic power lessons, live video game worlds, sailing with Sinbad, seeing the sights, visiting faerie, skydiving, swimming, surfing, art classes…
The sex bothered him. Sex was for marriage! And some of the other things were pretty out there, although he was starting to acknowledge that other worlds were out there.
The kids didn’t see anything wrong with sex – but noted that they could shift into neuter forms if it bothered him.
That was possibly the most disturbing thing Gelman had ever heard. He retreated to chat with Sophie, engage in his nightly study of the Torah, and sleep. He was so restless that he’d disturb Sophie, so it was the couch for him tonight. There was no way that he’d put his dear Sophie through the random shouted digits that accompanied his current nightmares.
Tomorrow he’d report this “Lord Sanwell” person to the police, and get a warrant out on him. He might have to try to take his operation down from the inside.