Back in the Linear Realms, a sizeable chunk of the Neodog Thralls (of the nearly 124,000 of them and the 1.8 million Kevin had been able to purchase) had been running recruiting sweeps for the last two and a half months. They’d been offering the youngsters “escape-to-fairyland”, the novelty factor of talking dogs, the usual “you have a chance to get magic powers” deal, and the basic “we’re just offering, if you don’t want to come, well, it’s on to the next group” approach. They’d shipped back a massive chunk of the roughly twenty million illegal kids, and not a few of the bored, impressionable, or desperate ones from the general population. They hadn’t made much of a dent in a pool of close to one and a half billion youngsters in the right general age bracket – and the march towards war and communications breakdowns covered a multitude of disappearances – but the population of Kadia was booming compared to what it had been.
Kevin would be pleased when he got back, even if a fair chunk of them decided not to sign up. There were ten thousand or so possibles from the nearly fifty thousand people from the Five Worlds realm (plus associated phantasms), a fair number from Core, the anthromorph-slaves that they’d been purchasing over in the anthropomorphic worlds, and a fair scattering from across the Manifold. He was kind of committed on a lot of fronts.
A good thing that Kadia was nigh-infinite. It was easy to fit that sort of thing in and still keep the transportation fairly quick with magic, modern computer systems, and a highly-divergent hyperbolic geometry.
Mr Gelman was already finding that interesting. It did odd things to the horizon. It looked like the rules really were different in Kadia.
In the places between, the spaces that were not, the Neitzchian brooded… It had existed long eons before it had been named, born in loss and pain from the desolation of the abandoned and bereft – and the situation was not pleasing. For thousands of years, men had confirmed the futile torment and meaninglessness of existence. They had dreamed of immortality – and then had taken form in worlds which lacked death, and soon became hells to them. They had scattered themselves ever more widely across the Manifold, isolated and held in contact only by the phantasms born of the mind of the race and the nebulous touch of other powers. It’s final triumph might have required a hundred billion years – but it had seemed assured.
All save it’s most subtle forms had been cast out of Core, but to lurk beyond death was perhaps even sweeter than to come to mortals in their first lives.
Then had come the Opening, and the inevitable had been cast into doubt. No realm was forever barred to the Openers. Souls entrapped in deathlessness beyond endurance found release. It was not it’s nature – but something had to be done.
There would be no Purpose, no Release, no Unity save in Oblivion. It would not permit it to be otherwise.
However against it’s nature it might be, it would take action. Vulnerable phantasms would be filled not with darkness, but with void. The war against Eternity would begin.
In an abstract and non-Euclidean plane, the Numbers also brooded. How could they strengthen the mathematical basis of the toonworlds without ensouled agents? The fantasy worlds were not too bad – even the most fantastic usually recognized the basic components of Newtonian physics – but the toonworlds had few consistent principles of any kind! It was too silly!
They had been working on doing something about it for a long time, but the Opening had complicated things. Their agents kept wandering in and out of places… Of course, it also let passing souls – each bringing their rational, organized, expectations about basic physics with them – wander into the toonworlds. Overall, it had been useful – but it still needed to be better organized and in-world agent retention needed to be improved.
It was, of course, awkward that the greater their sway in a world, the less power they possessed there. Core ran on rigid and nearly-pure mathematics. There they governed the universe – and yet were not personified, and had no power to change things. Of course, there was no need to struggle in Core, there they were just the way that things worked.
That was why Battling Business World was important: It was a toonworld – but it still obeyed most of the basic rules…
The calculations continued.
Meanwhile, in Battling Business World, Abigail Saunders-Tabard was busy in her kitchen. She had a wedding catering order underway – but someone was knocking at the door.
(Abigail) “Oh, what is it? I’ve got a wedding cake in the oven!”
Outside, on the doorstep, there was a man dressed in a trenchcoat, a pith helmet, and boots, and carrying a browning heavy machine gun over one shoulder.
(Orion) “Mrs Saunders-Tabard? I am Detective Orion. Do you have a few minutes?”
(Abigail) “Yeah, sure. This better be good.”
(Orion) “We’re attempting to locate Ruth Gelman, but both she and her family have disappeared. We were wondering if you might have any idea of where they’ve gone?”
Abigail had to think for a few moments. Fred had been acting really weird that day…
(Abigail) “He said he was going to some place called Kadia. He invited me, but I had a lot of orders to fill… Oh, don’t tell me she shot Mayor Bloomberg again!”
(Orion) “No, it’s on behalf of young Robert Andahli. She apparently used an unknown class-four weapon on him.”
That Ruth. She knew that Fred was worried about Julia, but he should think about his kids first. Ah well, Jews.
(Abigail) “I wish I could tell you more, but I have no idea where Kadia is. Never even heard of it. I’ve got my own problems.”
(Orion) “Well, if you should hear anything, we really do need to talk to her. The youngster could really use a countermeasure.”
(Abigail) “Yeah. (She leaned in closer and pointed to the tree) The squirrels are unionizing…”
(Orion) “Do you know who’s organizing them?”
(Abigail) “I don’t know, I think it’s a grass roots organization… I think they have eyes on the house… HEY! Blackie! If you spit acid on the car again and I’ll rip your tongue out and make you eat it for dinner!'”
(Abigail) “Think you can help? It takes a man to cart a Browning around!”
(Blackie) “Wasn’t my fault mistress!”
(Orion) “I’ll go and check up on them! You never know, some odd things have been going on around here recently!”
While Orion was busy checking on the squirrels, Abigail went to check on the cake again. It seemed to be doing just fine… The little bride is still choking the groom, just as ordered! Well, it was her third marriage. A warning to the groom not to repeat the mistakes of the last two… Not a bad idea; she should have put that on HER wedding cake… She should have a few hours before Julia got out of school.
Meanwhile, the dragon had it’s head laying in the kitchen window, and was trying to look mournful and underfed with great big cute eyes. It was half-successful at best.
(Abigail) “Oh for the love of God, you ate FIFTEEN MINUTES AGO! And stop doing that! You’re a person, not a pet!”
(Blackie) “But I like cake!”
(Abigail) “Cake makes you fat. You want to be fat? You want to look like this?” (Abigail pointed to a battered picture of Marty.)
(Blackie) “Then I wouldn’t be a dragon!”
(Abigail) “Yeah, that’s right! No more flying!”
Or so she thought anyway… Marty had certainly dodged fast during their last argument.
(Abigail) “Julia will be so disappointed!”
(Blackie) “Yes ma’am.”
Blackie went away quietly – and then something made a connection in the back of Abigail’s head. Wait a moment… A CLASS FOUR WEAPON? Where would Ruth have gotten her hands on class-four weapon?!? The Battling Business Regulations normally restricted civilians to class-one and class-two weaponry! You needed special licenses for class-three, and you couldn’t even apply for one until you’d turned eighteen – and class-four was military and special government agents only! The only thing more tightly controlled was class-7, and those were mostly only rumors!
Class one; personal, muscle-powered. Class two; personal but external power sources. Class three; large area effect devices. Class four; capable of producing long-term effects, such as lingering toxins, bioplagues, radiation, and unclassified effects which could extend past getting a new body at dawn. Class seven weapons – if they existed – would, of course, be 4+3 weapons…
Abigail went outside to check on how Detective Orion was doing – and to try to find out a bit more. It looked like the squirrels were currently refusing to have much to do with him. They were lurking in the tree and eyeing him suspiciously while he considered investigating the nest.
(Abigail) “If you don’t mind… what kind of Class Four weapon did she use on the sap?”
Abigail had her trusty skillet out.
(Orion) “An explosive agent capable of inflicting injuries that carry over after death. We’d like to find out where she got it, take it away from her, neutralize the lingering effects, and – if she knew what she was using – get her into a corrective program. The kid apparently wasn’t doing anything but playing taser-tag, and didn’t really deserve that kind of treatment.”
Sheesh… That was worse than anything she’d ever done as a kid. Still – she didn’t think that Fred would cover up for her on something like that… if he knew, he’d be the first to take her in.
(Abigail) “Thanks, Detective. Any progress on the squirrels?”
(Orion) “They’re definitely kind of organized; they’re very good at dodging being caught, and this hole goes pretty deep… I’m going to try and shake them up with a few shots.”
(Abigail) “I’ll give you some ground support. I think the two of us can root them out!”
Abigail got into position to smack the tree with her skilled after Orion blew it away. She ought to be able to smash the trunk into flinders.
Orion started with the treetop – and abruptly found it very difficult to aim. It was like there was suddenly a lot of extra recoil!
(Abigail) “I thought you knew how to use that!”
Abigail shattered the trunk with a mighty two-handed skillet smash! You could never count on men to do anything right!
Meanwhile, the gun suddenly wrenched itself out of Orion’s hands – lifting him about eight feet into the air in doing so – and flew away to land across the yard. The tree started to fall, then straightened up and slowly toppled over against its lean to land next to the house – where all the squirrels promptly ran into the attic.
(Abigail) “AUGHHHH! (She ran back into her house). You little mongrels aren’t going to make MY house your union hall! Rent your own damn building!”
Meanwhile, Orion was bellowing… “WHAT, THE DAMNED SQUIRRELS HAVE TAKEN UP ACCOUNTING? THEY’RE TRANSFERRING KINETIC ENERGY AROUND? WE NEED SOME SERIOUS PEST CONTROL!”
(Abigail) “Accounting… Detective! I know someone who can help! But we’ll lose the neighborhood for a day…”
(Orion) “We’d better get on with it! If the squirrels are organizing, the mice and rats might be next? Who knows! It might even spread to the roaches, and they’d have a big enough majority to pass some new union rules and override the old ones, like gravity!”
(Abigail) “I can call a woman I know at Amarant Solutions. One who has always put fear in Marty’s heart. I hate to get Jenkins involved, but I have a feeling she wouldn’t approve of this…”
(Abigail, on the phone to Jenkins) “Jenkins, are squirrels supposed to know accounting?”
(Jenkins) “Of course not! The silly little things would only try to multiply nuts, or transfer years from people to trees and turn Manhattan into a forest or something! What an absurd question!”
Abigail described the situation to her.
(Jenkins) “That doesn’t entirely sound like accounting – but something’s going on down there! Too many weird things are going on! Gelman’s disappeared and isn’t drawing pay, but he’s still on the org chart! Leland is busy with all kinds of things! Lets shake this tree and see if anything falls out!”
(Abigail) “It’s already down, they’re in my attic!”
(Jenkins) “It’s more a figure of speech, but let’s get exterminating!”
It didn’t take Jenkins long to arrive, as she crashed her car through the gate and into the fence around the yard. The spike battle wagon. Bane of the NYC road rage lane. Fortunately, Abigail had time to whip up a quick pie in the shape of a pi to greet her with – and she had her skillet ready. She was no corporate raider, but she could hold her own!
(Jenkins) “Right then! Lets TAKE OUT SOME RODENTS! If they lived in the tree, and the trees gone, where are they gonna come back?”
(Abigail) “Hell if I know! Come on, Detective! Maybe we can keep them away from your gun!”
In true BBW fashion, they went charging in – or at least up the attic staircase.
Meanwhile, the Thralls had come to the conclusion that secrecy was doomed – and had made some preparations of their own.
The attic seemed to open into a small forest, with a pavilion, at which a boy was grilling sausages while another youngster set out mugs of bear and cider. The crisp smell of autumn mingled with the appetizing scent of the sizzling sausages, and a stack of hamburgers was going on the grill next to some sort of spicy concoction bubbling in a pot.
(Abigail) “What the??? What have you people done with my attic? Are you working with the squirrels?”
(Boy with Grill) “Sausage first? Or hamburger? We haven’t had a chance for a good cookout in days!”
Jenkins was practically frothing… “What are you people doing! There should not be a forest and a pavilion in the attic!”
(Abigail) “Yes! How is this fitting in my attic?”
(Boy with cider) “Oh well, it’s mostly illusion, and the actual space isn’t really that large…”
Jenkins actually looked sort of… relieved?
(Jenkins) “Illusion?! This isn’t Accounting! This is just Magic! Fiddling about with a bit of chaos where reality is loose, not the true power of the Numbers! Not even the power of a Union!”
(Abigail) “Wait, magic’s real?”
This was a bit weird. She’d never seen Jenkins anything but angry before.
(Abigail) “Did my ex-husband set this up?”
(Boy at grill) “Well, sort of. He just wanted to make sure that there was someone here to protect you.”
(Jenkins) Oh it’s real, it’s just rare. Hardly anyone can practice it here; you have to be linked to outside and realize that reality can be bent a little where it’s not so firm! It’s not like it’s really important though… Although if they’re really squirrels, they could be awful pests with it.”
(Abigail) “Ok, so it’s not a prank then. That’s good. Wish he’d told me though. He NEVER tells me these things.”
Abigail crossed her arms and tapped her foot.
(Abigail) “So what is it? Are you kids or squirrels?”
(Boy at Grill) “Well, kids. We were only being squirrels so it wouldn’t be obvious that we were guarding you!”
(Abigail) “Yeesh, you could have said something. Would ‘Marty sent us to guard you’ have been too much? He must think I’m getting soft if he’s sending bodyguards here…”
Abigail started getting a little red at that thought. She was more fit than Marty was for crying out loud!
(Boy at Grill, hastily) “Well, there are things out there that don’t fight fair!”
(Abigail) “Yeah, him for starters!”
(A girl) “No, it’s demons, and wizards, and people with armies, and undead, and killer robots, and things!”
(Abigail turned to Jenkins) “Are they bluffing? Or should I have the good Detective spray and pray?”
Jenkins actually looked uncertain…
(Jenkins) “I… I don’t know! They’re from OUTSIDE. They don’t BALANCE.”
Abigail flinched at that. When an accountant was disturbed, something was REALLY wrong. Still, she’d never been good at evaluating people.
(Abigail) “Okay. Sorry about taking down the damn tree. Not that it matters, it should be back tomorrow… Now let’s see how your cooking is!”
It wasn’t too bad. A bit generic possibly. Of course, even for kids, it was hard to go too far wrong grilling sausage and hamburgers.
(Abigail) “Eh, it can be better. Watch how a master works!”
(Julia) “WHAT HAPPENED TO THE TREE! WHERE ARE MY SQUIRRELS! WHAT’S GOING ON MOMMY!”
(Abigail) “Uh oh. Quick, all you kids back into squirrel form!”
The shapeshifting made Detective Orion mutter and make some religious gestures… He’d been trying to question them about Gelman, and hadn’t been too happy about the vague answers.
(Julia, up the stairs) “ARE YOU UP THERE? WHERE ARE MY SQUIRRELS!”
(Abigail) “It’s okay, we’re up here!”
(Julia) “I LIKE THEM! THEY HELP WITH MY LITERATURE HOMEWORK!”
(Abigail whispered to the Squirrels) “You guys help her with that?”
(Squirrel) “Well, she needed a little tutoring, and we were supposed to help!”
(Abigail) Huh, telepathy too? “Well, keep it up! She has her father’s patience for books.”
She put a couple of squirrels on her shoulders and headed on down.
(Julia) “There they are! My Squirrels! Wait, I thought you didn’t like them Mommy! Did they start talking to you too?”
(Abigail) “Yes. I feel like pummeling your father to the core of the earth, but they’re okay!”
(Julia) “I could trip him for you Mommy! Or get Blackie to sit on him!”
(Abigail) “Why don’t you do both of those the next time he comes over?”
(Julia) “OK! We’ll get him next time he shows up!”
(Abigail) “Better than doing it to Uncle Fred! He cries when you do it to him.”
What was wrong with Fred anyway? It was almost like he didn’t enjoy violence.
Wait! She had to check her cake!
Now that was a bit odd. It had developed a crust of diamonds and emeralds and a definite cinderellas-castle look. Well, at least the Bride and Groom weren’t kissing or anything. The bride was still strangling the groom like she was supposed to be doing.
(Jenkins) “Huh! See! Magic! Always balances somewhere, and always by some bit of weird silliness! And if you fix it with more magic, some other silly thing will happen! You just have to keep doing it until you get something that’s not a bother! Sloppy and silly!”
(The squirrels, looking slightly confused) “It never did THAT before… Maybe it’s because Ms Jenkins is here? She makes everything want to balance somehow”.
(Abigail) “Well, it’ll have to do! I think it’s a nice contrast anyway! Should give that groom fair warning! (To Jenkins) Beat up your Todd lately?”
Her ex-husband simply would not accept that Jenkins was married to the numbers.
(Jenkins) “He’s been taking lessons! Trading hard work for more skill! At least it’s a balanced transaction, so he’s learning something! You can’t get anything for nothing!”
(Abigail) “Well, tell me if you need anything. Thanks for coming by.”
(Jenkins) “Oh, you’re welcome Abby! YOU never foul up the books! And tell the gate guard that he needs to keep his blade up higher to cover his neck properly when he comes in for work tomorrow!”
(Abigail) “Sure thing, Jenkins.”
(A rather annoyed Detective Orion) “Ms Saunders-Tabard? I suspect that these “squirrels” know a good deal more than they’re letting on. The fact that the Galman family has disappeared utterly – while they have, according to the statement of a Master Accountant, arrived from “Outside” suggests a connection. Plus, Mr Gelmans car was picked up in the you development’s parking lot, and taken to storage – and he did check through the gate to visit you just a few days before.”
(Abigail hugged Julia) “Julia, could you play with Blackie in the yard for a bit? The squirrels need to talk with this nice policeman.”
(Julia) “Don’t you let him bother my squirrels!”
(Abigail) “Oh, he just wants to ask them some questions. It’s nothing involving you.”
Besides… She was getting curious too. It wasn’t like Fred Gelman, much less Sophie Gelman, to vanish.
(Julia) “Are they gonna talk to everybody now? I thought it was special! Waaa!”
(Abigail) “Oh, stop whining! You have talking squirrels AND a dragon! How many kids have that?”
(Julia) “I dunno! I don’t think Jimmy has, but Edith might, cause I’ve never been to her house, and Doran might have squirrels, but I don’t think a dragon would go in their apartment, and Lya has hamsters but I don’t know about squirrels, and Everis has grandparents with a farm and might have lots of dragons for all I know! An…”
The list continued with a breakdown of every other kid in school who MIGHT have a squirrel, or dragons, or some other possible exotic pet. The tactic was pretty obvious.
(Abigail) “Hey, stop stalling. Take Blackie outside.”
She thumped her skillet as a warning. She didn’t usually hold with killing upset children – it just ensured that they were even more upset and had a fresh supply of energy when they woke up the next morning – but there were limits.
Julia did – and sulked for a few minutes before going to play with Blackie. Abigail kept an eye on her through the window.
(Abigail) “Okay, back to human form, kids. I’m as curious about this as the detective.”
The kids obliged easily enough.
(Kids) “Er… What do you need to know?”
Abigail let Orion take the initiative. She was no cop.
I took a good deal of questioning but they did admit that Mr Gelman and some people they hadn’t really met – although they were probably his family – went through some sort of “gate” out of the Battling Business World universe. To one of the places that Marty had been messing around in.
(Abigail) “Well! No wonder my lawyer hasn’t been able to reach him!”
(Kid) “Uhm… Last we heard he was helping defend Jerusalem against the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Over in the Crusader Kingdoms.”
(Abigail) “Sounds like the crazy stuff he’d get involved in. (To Orion) Ugh, sorry to get you mixed up in this”
Orion was making religious gestures again. Eastern Battle Orthodox (a group that had been formed in 325, when the roman gods and the saints fought it out at the first ecumenical council and settled on the greeko-nicene credo).
(Orion) “The horsemen are riding? No wonder weapons of terrible power are appearing!”
(Abigail) “Something you can tell a civilian about? If Marty’s involved, I’m sure I’ll be up against them eventually.”
(Orion) “The powers of Vulcan, Mars, and Minerva are awakening again… No wonder young shapeshifter-warlocks are gathering the powers of Luna!”
Abigail was a little foggy on her Greek and Roman gods; she’d gone to culinary school, not to an honest-to-goodness university – but she knew SOMETHING about them.
(Abigail) “Oh, those guys.”
(Orion) “Now, kids, look; Robert Andahli is fifteen years old. And every morning he’s waking up bleeding to death from a blown-open abdomen and groin. He can be kept alive with bandages, but doesn’t seem to be able to heal. If you can reach Ruth Gelman, can you find out what she used on him?”
The kids found that pretty appalling.
(Kids). “Er… Yessir! We’ll try to find out for you! Ow!”
(Abigail cringed) Yeah, the Hellcat has gone too far this time. Just reach her dad kids. He has… strange… attitudes about violence.”
Could she have been raiding her father’s workshop? Fred mainly did electrical work, but his parts would have some use in explosives. Still, how could she possibly have come up with something like that? Did she have any idea of what she’d done?
Probably not. She could be pretty vicious – but that wasn’t too uncommon in teenagers, and she’d never seemed the sort to want to torture anyone, even if she did want it to hurt for awhile. Fred would want to know where she’d gotten such a thing. A good Jewish person obeyed the commandment not to murder or torture unnecessarily, and that kind of thing was definitely a violation.
They got a message to Mr Gelman – who promptly spoke to Ruth, wanting to know where she’d gotten her explosives – only to find that she’d made them with her chemistry set, just like always. He asked her about her Nitro-10 experiments – and explained what the stuff had done.
(Gelman) “Oh dear. Ruth, that stuff is a Class-Four weapon. Civilians aren’t allowed those.”
(Ruth) “Don’t be silly! They just go bang! Remember, I blew myself up making the stuff several times before I learned not to let the final distillation coil get too hot!”
(Gelman) “It’s not the bang, dear. It’s the lasting effect. That’s TORTURE. We’re not supposed to torture people.”
(Ruth) “But it hasn’t got any lasting effect! I should know! I blew myself up lots of times with it! It’s just nitrate-based explosives! I’ve shot lots of people with them!”
She had a point.
(Gelman) “I… I have no idea.”
He got a copy of her formula and put it through the local expert systems since he was no chemist. It was mildly unusual – based on a long-chain hydrocarbon and lignin – but it was just a nitrated chemical explosive. It was tricky to make, especially in large quantities, and a very nice job for a chemistry student – in fact, he couldn’t see how she got it to come out so consistently without a full-scale laboratory unless she had at least some untrained traces of the Procurement ability – but it was still just an explosive.
She came back with him quite willingly; it should be easy enough to prove to the stupid police that she couldn’t possibly have anything to do with whatever had happened to Robert!
There was a lot of testing… Initially the police were mystified – then got more mystified when Robert abruptly woke up properly healed one morning. They had visits from some Eastern Orthodox Priests, and some Chemists, and some Weapons Testers – and then from some Men in Black.
“Mr Gelman? We represent the Men In Black.”
Oh dear… He’d heard voices like that in some of his nightmares.
“You must stop wandering about and stay where you belong!”
“It is untidy to be out of place!”
(Gelman) “But I WAS out of place…”
“No! If you came here, here you should stay, for all eternity!”
(Gelman) “If I stay here, I will go mad. I don’t like random violence, I don’t like chaos, and I certainly don’t like feeling unsafe in my own apartment!”
“You must remain! So Entropy can increase unhindered and the cosmos can come to an orderly end!”
“That the darkness may enter in!”
(Gelman pulled at his collar with a finger…) “I don’t follow. What kind of darkness? The Adversary? The sweet permanent embrace of death?”
“The eternal void! Only in the final darkness is there peace!”
The voices swelled echoingly… The creature’s gaze seemed to be drawing him into a dark pool, cold and empty. It extended eternally, bereft of meaning. He could feel his thoughts unraveling, his strength bleeding away, nihilism invading his spirit.
Gelman resisted the darkness as best he could. Life had some kind of integral meaning! It was NOT the meaningless morass of violence and chaos that’d he’d spent the past fifty-two years in! He might not know what that meaning was, but he followed the Lord in confidence that he would deliver! And… even if he didn’t find that meaning, he had no intention of staying in Battling Business World! It would get him nowhere!
YOU CANNOT ENDURE
YOU ARE BUT ONE AGAINST US
THE NIGHT SHALL ENTER IN
There still seemed to be a glimmer of light in the darkness. Something inextinguishable.
(Gelman) “I will endure. I owe it to my people, in this realm and others. I owe it to my dear Sophie and children, who might only be phantasms, but matter to me. I owe it to my Lord.”
It had been something of a shock to find out about phantasms when he’d tried to research why his family would not do well in Core – but it made little difference in the end. Phantasms were more durable than Souls, and bound the race together across the worlds.
Gelman held to his faith. Those whom he loved would not be abandoned.
(Gelman) “And I owe it to myself. I took too many risks to get here, and I will not stop until I understand what is going on!”
WE WILL STOP YOU
WE FORBID UNDERSTANDING
WE FORBID ENLIGHTENMENT
WE ARE FEAR AND WE ARE ETERN – URK…
The light came rushing back as another voice shouted – to be heard with his ears, not his mind:
(Unidentified) “STAY AWAY FROM HIM!”
Who was that? I was alone. Lord, is that you?
As the darkness fell away, he saw that now there were only two of the “Men” In Black – and they were turning to confront two scientists and Ruth. The third was short a head – and Ruth seemed to have her paintball pistol back.
He knew the Chemist – but the other one was a new one, although he seemed oddly familiar. His body language., the way he cocked his head a bit while preparing to speak. He looked a little too small for his clothing, seemed to “waver” slightly around the edges, and reminded him of someone he’d seen briefly recently.
He was not going to allow these horrors to menace Ruth!
He struck one in the head – for once, using full lethal force. These horrors were a threat to the multiverse!
His surprise blow smashed the thing’s head like it had been made of tissue paper. It seemed that they – whatever they were – were actually rather fragile when confronted.
(Gelman) “Oh my.”
The second scientist hurled a small ball of fire into the third “Man in Black’s” abdomen – doubling it over for a moment, during which time Ruth puts a careful shot into it’s head…
(Ruth) “And don’t you EVER come back you nasty cockroach!”
Gelman panted, still drained from whatever-it-was they’d been doing to him. He wasn’t used to feeling tired.
(Gelman) “Ruth, are you all right?”
(Ruth) “What the hell were those things! They can right by everyone! They just waved blank pieces of paper at us and everyone went all blank and just let them walk in! If this guy (she pointed at the oddly-familiar looking fellow) hadn’t poked us, we’d still be standing around like statues!”
Meanwhile, the Chemist was inspecting the rapidly-crumbling bodies – with special attention to the two that Ruth had shot.
Gelman was feeling a bit stunned. He had the feeling that, had he not resisted, he would have died for good…
Eventually, he got up and approached the oddly-familiar scientist.
(Gelman) “Thank you. You saved my life.”
(The Fireball-Thrower) “You’re welcome sir! Whatever those things were, they were pretty nasty!”
(Chemist) “Hm. I was right. There’s nothing special about the explosives… I think it’s her (he pointed at Ruth). When she’s really angry, or outraged, and focuses on something, something happens. It’s like… I don’t know… the pattern softens, and when she hits it hard it imposes a new one? That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there’s nothing in the paintball gun that could do anything unusual.”
(Gelman) “Oh dear. (He rubbed his forehead). I should have paid more attention when she was younger. I should have tried to control her temper. But what good would that have done? It would be like damming the sea.”
(Chemist) “Well, it may have just saved you from something nasty, so there’s an upside anyway.”
(Gelman) “Yes, you’re right… Wait; who are you both?”
(Chemist) “Oh, sorry, I’ve mislaid my nametag… I’m Dr Anderson. I’ve been leading the chemical analysis team – and there wasn’t ANYTHING. I’ve been testing to see if Ruth here somehow induced a change in the weapon by her presence or touch for the past couple of days.”
That was a bit odd. The guy seemed very stable. It was a lot like an accountant in some ways, in others it was not at all alike. It was like he followed the numbers, but made no attempt to understand them.
(Gelman) “You don’t seem like a native of this realm. Are you a follower of the Numbers?”
(Chemist) “Realm? On well, certainly not an accountant. I just agreed to a bit of an exchange! My cousin Vincent got my potential for violence, and has gone on to be quite successful in the commodities exchange markets! I got his potential for calm analysis! It makes everything so much clearer!”
Gelman contemplated that for a moment. If that is possible, who got Jenkins’ calm qualities? Oh well, she might not have started off with much of any in the first place.
Gelman turned to the fireball thrower.
(Gelman) “And who are you?”
(Fireball-Thrower) “Oh, nobody important sir! Just an assistant! On my assignment!”
(Gelman) “Are there any more of those… things coming?”
(Fireball Thrower) “I’m sorry sir, I don’t know… They do exert quite a mental compulsion field though! A good thing I was shown how to block that in training!”
Now that sounded familiar. He’d heard that accent a LOT recently. Formal diction, precise vocal training, accent-free… Isaac had been logging into a computer that spoke like that, taking lessons. It’d been rubbing off on him too. Computer linguistics as adapted for the easiest possible diction for humans. The non-accent of Core. Mr Sanwell’s agents*, the computers in Kadia and Core…
Magical powers, mental defenses, a bit young – and “Sir” all the time – Sanwell’s agents.
*Kevin gives all the Thralls a common language. It’s usually a freebie, since the transformation usually raises their intelligence anyway – and if it doesn’t, well, they get bonus points to spend anyway.
Well, that placed the nagging sense of familiarity. That cock-the-head and vaguely familiar look – Sandy, not pretending to be a parakeet at the moment.
(Gelman) “Well, that’s all right. Dr. Anderson, are Ruth and I still needed?”
(Dr Anderson) “I suppose not. We can’t exactly take her sense of outrage or anger away from her can we? Even medication probably wouldn’t do that – and if it did, who knows what would happen? I’d suggest trying to find a quiet backwater for a while; hopefully in a few years she’ll stop losing her temper so easily.”
(Gelman) “I know just the place. Thank you, Dr. Anderson. May I borrow your assistant for a bit before I go?”
(Chemist) “Hm? He’s not my assistant, must be with someone else. Good thing he came along though!”
They left the building and immediately headed for Abigail’s place.
(Gelman, to Sandy) “Thank you,”
(Sandy) “You’re welcome sir!”
Hm. Telepathy had been on the list of powers and benefits they’d given him. It apparently wasn’t very strong compared to a lot of the fiction – 20-60-foot range, able to pick up surface thoughts and make suggestions – but it was still Telepathy, and he wasn’t exactly shielded against it. The boy had known that he was hostile to his master, yet he’d come running to save his bacon. Had Mr Sanwell – and Tabard – already incorporated him into their plans?
(Sandy) “I’m assigned to help you sir! We got a couple of others to play stand-in as parakeets – it’s not too demanding – and followed you and Ruth.”
(Gelman) “Oh, good. I was worried about Sophie seeing. Let’s go home. I have much to give thanks for tonight.”
Gelman was troubled. The Lord was all-seeing and all-knowing. What were his plans for Kevin? After all, he knew what was going to happen through all time – and if there were more than one universe out there, well, he was in charge of the entire conglomeration. The Lord always sent what was needed; did the “Core Worlds” really need a somewhat confused “dark lord”? It was a thought. There might be some upcoming redemption for the boy. And whether it came from tearing down his organization or from encouraging better interests, the Lord would see to it.
Besides, he had to admit that he didn’t have that much hard information on Kevin. He’d gotten a lot of worshipful notions from the boy’s agents and had pulled up a biography – but that had read more like the adventures of Huckleberry Finn might have read if the boy had been given similarly vast powers – reckless, venturesome, meddlesome, and vaguely helpful if tending towards naughtiness on a cosmic scale. Far too much power for a child…
He would have to find a way to meet him… preferably away from Marty. Yanking out the battle golf club would not make a good first impression.
Wait, he’d been told that Marty – presumably with Kevin – was busy defending Jerusalem, and was not currently available. Defending the holiest city on Earth… in an alternate dimension. He didn’t want to interfere with that. Still, that said some odd things about his status as a “demon lord”. After all, in Judaism, Satan was the Lord’s prosecutor – not his enemy.
He would have to stop in and see Abigail before he went. She had started all this after all.
At the moment, Abigail was expanding the number of cooking and catering commissions that she accepted, since she currently had lots of assistance available – but she could still take a few minutes to answer the door and chat.
Gelman was still reflecting as he reached the house. He’d met a group of creatures that certainly seemed to be truly evil, found that they were fundamentally fragile – they certainly hadn’t seemed much like the Balrog or what he’d learned about Kevin. Those two seemed more… like they were being naughty, or possibly play-acting – and the notion of a play-acting demon of the abyss was hard to wrap his mind around. It seemed to fit though. There seemed to be a background to them like a small child on a bicycle for the first time. “I’m evil! Watch me be evil! Are you watching? Aren’t you impressed with my evil yet?”. It wasn’t EVIL. It was more like superpowered teenagers.
The exchanges with Abigail got more coherent after he tried to express those thoughts.
(Abigail) “Speaking of that… how’d you bring Ruth in without losing body parts?”
Abigail didn’t mention that Gelman looked paler than she’d ever seen him before.
(Gelman) “Well, I’m still her father! Besides… She wanted to prove that she couldn’t POSSIBLY have done something like what she was accused of.”
(Abigail) “Would you like some water?”
(Gelman) “Yes… Yes, I think so…” (Gelman absently walked into a table) Ow… Things aren’t much like we thought they were, are they?”
(Abigail) “No, but is that a bad thing? You were going nuts and I was bored.”
(Gelman) “The lord gives strength to bear the burdens that he sends… I think we have a new burden, and must find what new strength has come with it.”
(Abigail) “You look like you’re carrying a heavier one than me. Seriously, Gelman, sit down. You’ll hurt yourself. Karen, get this man some chicken soup! Kosher recipe!”
(Julia) “Hi Uncle Gelman! Mommy likes squirrels now!”
(Abigail) “Well, they’ve made my life easier too!”
(Gelman) “But what is it doing to them? Have they been called to a duty, or tricked into taking up burdens that are not rightfully theirs?”
(Abigail, shrugging) “Maybe some of Marty’s thinking’s rubbed off on me. You can’t be with a man eight years and avoid it. But from what they told me, he was up front with the responsibilities. They could be doing far worse than working in a kitchen or playing parakeet. If he was tricking them, he wouldn’t place them in these positions…”
(Gelman) “Perhaps… But it is placing a great deal of trust and power in the hands of a young man who goes to great lengths to claim to be evil!”
(Abigail) “Maybe he’s insecure. Look at the goth kids. They grow out of it. (To Julia) That doesn’t mean you can become a goth, young lady!”
(Julia.) “Can I be a mongol instead?”
(Julia) “I could ride Blackie with a big axe!”
Abigail slapped her forehead.
(Abigail) “Mommy wants you to be a cook, or a lawyer. Maybe a corporate raider, if you don’t wind up like your father.”
(Julia) “Maybe the squirrel queen!”
(Abigail, chuckling) “Eat your soup, dear. Mr. Gelman has to take Ruth through the tree soon.”
(Julia) “You can go through the tree?! I want to go through the tree! To magic squirrel land!”
(Abigail) “When you’re older, dear. More like Ruth’s age. You have to be a big girl before you can travel!”
(Julia) “Aww! Not even a quick visit?”
(Abigail) “I’ll think about it, and even then, I’m going with you. I’ve GOT to see this.”
(Julia) “Whee! We’re going to squirrel land! We’re going to squirrel land!”
(Abigail) “I said I’d THINK about it, young lady.”
Julia drafted Blackie to help her with the big tear-filled eyes routine. While the antics seemed to be perking up Mr Gelman a bit, they didn’t work on Abigail. Marty had used the same routine right before the divorce…
(Gelman) “We shall do the best we can with what we have. That is all that is asked of us.”
(Abigail) “Well, do come by, Gelman. I sure know I can’t count on Marty. And give him a good smack for me. What he did to you was mean.”
(Gelman) “Well, he did send you a dozen guards – and quite impressive ones – to watch over you. He’s a bungling, prankish, idiot, but he does seem to care. And I certainly mean to give him a smack! And perhaps thanks…”
(Abigail) “I’m not sure what to feel about him right now. Guess you agree.”
(Gelman) “Perhaps… Perhaps he has at last found something larger than himself.”
(Abigail) “He needed it. Well, Sophie’s probably worrying herself into a frenzy. I hate to see you go, but you’ve got your issues, and I’ve got mine.”
(Gelman) “And I think we must both think about them. (he ruffled Julia’s hair) – and you go ahead and work on that squirrel queen thing! Who knows? Maybe it will work out for you. Stranger things are happening even now.”
Abigail waved goodbye as Gelman headed off through the tree to go home – which, oddly enough, Kadia had rapidly become.
Abigail really hated to see him go. He might be a pedant, a coward, and a stuck-up stuffed shirt, but there was no one else in all of Battling Business World who worried about others so much. Ah well, at least his “house” was in her yard now. She had cooking to finish!