Federation-Apocalypse Session 82: Otter Nonsense

   Ruth went off to do something – and Gelman leaned back against a tree to think.

   The park was still fairly quiet, although there was some sort of enthusiastic ball game going on, and the carnival area was a bit noisy. There was some sort of super-mecha-battle tournament going on at the moment. It wasn’t like Tokyo on Battling Business World though – sure, there were giant robots smashing and blasting away at each other, but the tournament – and even most of the noise – seemed to be safely contained within an official arena, and nothing was being destroyed particularly. Secondarily, it seemed to be for kids and teenagers – and he had to admit that youngsters always seemed to love crash-boom-bang.

   He took a look at the other local establishments. Wait; Art galleries? That WEREN’T being smashed up for fun or durability research? That was for him! He’d never seen anything like that!

   Entire massive structures – branches of even larger museums – that were full of artwork, and quiet interviews-with-the-artist recordings, and “how-to-do-it” courses and examples, and places to try your own hand at it. There were a lot of things labeled as reproductions – apparently nearly on the molecular level – but there was an awful lot of original stuff too. Apparently the local “government” was willing to pay to let anyone who wanted to be an artist simply sit around and try.

   There was quite a lot of what he would – very recently – have taken as fantasy or science-fiction artwork, whether for topic (alien and fantastic creatures and scenes) or for the mediums – hologram-sculptures, force-constructs, and magic. It was like those novels he’d read with the light-sculptures. He’d thought that he would fade into obscurity before he saw anything like that – and here he was looking at one!

   There were even a few artists about – like one youngster who’s speciality seemed to be a mixture of painting and performance art; he did high-speed alien-landscape and alien-city things with some simple edging and scoring tools for texture, a mixture of brushes and sprays and some edges and curves to shield the parts you didn’t want to hit, and a blowtorch to fast-dry the finish. Board to finished art in about eight minutes.

   He was selling them to the gallery visitors for some sort of credit transaction apparently – although, on a closer look, he seemed to be a slave…

   He really didn’t like to consider that – but it was something he really ought to investigate. The boy wasn’t all that busy, and took a break every little bit anyway. A conversation might be constructive; he needed to find out how Kevin Sanwell treated his employes/slaves.

“Hello! Want a poster? Every one hand-crafted right in front of you and unique!”

“Oh, no thank you, young man. I’m just curious.”

   The boy seemed a bit disappointed. Hm… Either he was proud of his painting, enjoyed doing it, or was being allowed to keep at least part of the money.

“How long have you been doing this?”

“About three months now. The first couple I just spent learning…”

“That ‘s an impressive training program.”

“The aptitude tests said I had a real knack, and the training program was very good. They said they can’t teach the ability to envision a piece, and the steps that would go into creating it – but they could teach how to work with the paints and tools. It’s pretty fun really!”

“It looks like it.”

   It did too. An appreciative audience was a big part of job satisfaction for any artist – and this arrangement got him a direct audience. Besides… He’d seen what performance artists in Battling Business World did with blowtorches. This was much nicer and the painting actually survived to hang on the wall.

“How did you get into this work?”

   Was Sanwell willing to sell his slaves? The boy’s freedom must be for sale somewhere.

“Well… I was getting shipped off to some relatives after the atmosphere leak left me on my own, but some pirates captured the starship I was on, and they sold me to a slave trader, and it sold me to one of Lord Sanwell’s agents – and he sent me here! I didn’t want to sign up to be an agent at the time, so I got put in school and assigned to tour-guide work after school until my purchase was paid off. But I took the aptitude tests, and I spent my spare time studying, and I’m making money to buy myself out much faster now!… Are you sure you don’t want a painting?”

   So the slaves were allowed to make money and buy themselves? And got some credit at basic jobs, but could take up other jobs that paid more? How did that… Ah, there was an – apparently quite reasonable – daily fee to pay if they wanted to skip the basic work-assignments. Even those obviously left enough time to take optional training courses. Presumably the basic assignments didn’t actually pay that well – although it looked like all the slaves were doing things that either called for human-to-human interaction, creativity, or judgement, like guidework, customer service, teaching, or mission sorting. At least they weren’t being wasted on dull stupidity.

   Well… The paintings were actually pretty good, and a recording of the performance came with them. How close was he to buying out? His original indenture had been for twenty years? But… Oh, wait; people didn’t age past young adult here, and slowly up to that (or at least so he’d been told, it was going to take a while to check) – and the deal came with room and board, medical care, all the education you wanted from the computers, access to the various free facilities like the art galleries and painting supplies, and a small luxury allowance.

   Still… The boy was a slave. Yes, the benefits he was getting were actually pretty good, and there weren’t all that many demands on him – but his owner was still free to use or abuse him in all kinds of ways! He was property! Like an animal! It wasn’t so much what WAS being done to him, as the principle and what MIGHT be done to him! Legally and above-board!

   Anyway, the boy was doing pretty well with his little business, and didn’t think that it would take more than two or three years to buy himself out.

   He’d been taking up quite a lot of the kid’s time too. He didn’t want to upset Sophie, but she didn’t track the money that much – and so many of the basics were free in Kadia that the budget wasn’t at all tight. He should be able to buy a few paintings without upsetting her. He could hang them in his workshop.

   Huh… he – and all the rest of the family – were being credited with a luxury credit allowance simply for living in Kadia. He could easily afford to buy a dozen or so. Still, Sophie should be keeping track of the money. What if he didn’t come back? He didn’t want her to be helpless without him any more! Even if she was a phantasm!

   He’d have to teach her.

   To be fair, Sophie had probably never really considered the possibility of him not coming back. In Battling Business World why would she? She trusted him. But this was a different place – and he might be getting involved with dangers that would make a corporate raid look like a synagogue bake sale. He’d have to make sure that she understood – taking it slowly. It minimized fainting.

   He bought the dozen. It would put the young man a week or two towards freedom – although he wasn’t charging as much as he could probably get away with, he was selling them at a pretty good rate. Not too much business sense, the boy was too anxious not to miss a sale.

   Well, that was easy enough to fix. He just had to learn how to optimize profit rather than sales. He gave the boy a primer on setting prices. It would be less work for him, and he’d make money a good deal faster.

   The kid really was talented though; presumably a fair number of the others would indeed be taking the ten to twenty years. That would be less of a problem if the “no aging” bit was for real. No way to know though – Kadia had only been created about five months ago.

   He had to wonder what the first seven days were like. None of the local people seemed to know much about it; they’d only arrived after “Lord Sanwell” had the place set up for them.

   Gelman sent his new paintings to the apartment. The same sort of obliging little devices as he saw in Core are all over the place – and he’d like to take a look at the Mecha fighting from a safe distance. It was Ruth’s kind of thing, and she might have headed over there.

   He asked the devices where Ruth was.

   He had mixed feelings about them too. On one hand, they always did what you wanted them to, they never made trouble, and they were unfailingly polite. On the other hand, they were dull. Their lack of personality made it obvious that they were extensions of the main computer system.

   It seemed that Ruth had downloaded her lesson updates – since she’d missed quite a few during the return to Battling Business World – and had done some of them, had received a bonus credit for her chemistry placement, and was currently participating in a target-shooting competition. She was currently in the third round of the competition. The computer projected her chance of winning at only 8%, but there was a 74% chance of her placing somewhere in the top three.

   That was good enough for him. He’d head over and watch. He was tempted to ask if the sentient device would like to go shop for upgrades – but then he remembered what it was.

   It was a bit odd… No fee for the audience, but a five credit entry fee. 214 entrants. The first, second, and third-place prizes were 800, 400, and 200 credits. How could whoever was organizing this be making any money? A charitable organization, perhaps? Something more sinister?

   Around this place, they’d probably just tell him the sinister scheme if he asked.

   So he did.

   Apparently everyone in Kadia got a modest allowance, and kids got more for doing well in their studies. Quite a number of activities – martial arts training, target shooting, magical studies, and so on – were subsidized and encouraged. Some of the youngsters also got parental allowances, and even more tried to get money on the side – taking part-time jobs, setting up their own small businesses, working in the arts, providing personal services, or by competing. The competitions were sponsored by the computer systems – as created by Lord Sanwell.

   Mr Sanwell could make sentient devices? Oh dear. Somehow that struck a lot closer to home than the claims that he’d created this entire world. Obviously Mr Sanwell was encouraging the activities and training he wanted.

   Youngsters were, however, allowed to spend or bet themselves into indentures if they were silly enough to ignore the computerized advice not to do so – and there were plenty of opportunities to observe the powers he handed out and to get recruited.

   So he allowed people to blunder their way into servitude, but warned them beforehand… Sanwell sounded more and more like the Jewish concept of Satan all the time.

   He paid the fee to make sure that Ruth was staying out of trouble – and was pleased to find that she had quite enough sense for that. She’d had 19 luxury credits – 10 for the Kadia “welcome basket”, 4 for two weeks so far, and 5 for academics. An entry fee of 5 was relatively steep – but they were offering a sizeable set of prizes there. He couldn’t blame Ruth for taking the chance. That was a good risk/reward ratio and he couldn’t deny her skill.

   She was still doing very well – she was in the second-to-last round now, although the system had insisted that she stick with paintballs rather than blowing up the targets. The variety of hand weapons in use here was rather large – ranging from the mediaeval through the science-fictional (and possibly downright supernatural) – and quite a few of them were things that he’d believed entirely fictional.

   They didn’t have all that many people in the audience, although there were plenty of disappointed competitors. Ruth spotted him pretty quickly, and waved happily. Well, it was a diversion from the last week of being investigated…

“Hi pops! Not to bad, eh?”

(Gelman nodded and smiled) “Make me proud, Ruthie!”

   Hm… Now the mecha battle entrance fees were high. It looked like it was the sheer maintenance-and-repair costs. It was one of the few ways to spend yourself into an indenture with only a few contests. Truly an amusement park gone mad. At least the more conservative kids could play the virtual-reality versions cheaply enough – it was only the youngsters who wanted to really pilot one in battle that had to pay a lot. The prizes were decent too, but – unlike the target shooting – not enough to be profitable on the average.

   He sat back and relaxed. Here, no one was likely to start shooting the audience if they lost, even if a couple of the early losers seemed a bit cranky about it. Something about “reflex genegrafts” and “not fair”. Most of the others were pretty good-humored about it. One girl was a bit more upset; it seemed that she was about 50 credits down, and wouldn’t be able to afford any more special goodies for a month or so unless more people than usual wanted live-music performances. Still, “Cranky” was better than “lead-backed temper tantrum” any day.

   He spent some time getting information on “genegrafts” and such from the computers. He had to wonder what local rabbis had ruled on it – although it looked like the “Core Jews” were pretty liberal – and (hmm…) it looked like the groups that had been against genegrafting mostly died out in the epidemics, or from pollution diseases that they refused the countermeasures for, or were abandoned by people who wanted that extra four hundred years of lifespan.

   Well, that was a pretty blunt sort of winnowing – but he couldn’t argue. One had to separate the wheat of tradition from the chaff.

   What kind of religions were operating in Kadia anyway?

   There were a few local “religious services” listings, but they were a VERY odd selection.

   The competition wound up about then. Ruth wound up placing second – a fairly impressive feat – and qualified for that 400 credit prize.

   He might have to offer her some advice on that. There were a lot of throughly inappropriate services available on Kadia!

   She apparently found it a bit disappointing – but not too annoying. She was used to being among the best, but – on the other hand – she didn’t know the environment that well yet, and second was not bad. The prize money – equivalent to a couple of years of a basic teenager allowance – made up for a lot of “but I thought I was the best!”

   Gelman decided to encourage practice. After nearly being sucked into a vortex of apathy and realizing how dangerous the other realms could be, it seemed like a good idea – although he was going to have to teach her not to focus her anger on anything that wasn’t trying to really seriously harm her.

“I’m sure you’ll win next time.”

   As for religions… A number of the local ones actually listed what special benefits they offered – including Lord Sanwell’s (Gelman sighed… The boy wasn’t exactly pushy, but his influence was omnipresent. On the other hand, if he really had created this world, that was kind of understandable).

   The Unified Church had a small presence, and there was also a small Jedi Temple, temples to the Greek and Roman gods, several small (and sometimes very odd) cults, the “Vinculum” (whatever that was), a selection of semi-Buddhist sects, the “Church of Starry Wisdom”, and a bunch of other oddities.

   He’d have to ask the Unified Church about Mr. Sanwell. They HAD to be paying attention to him if he could build a private divine realm!

   For now, though, he was taking his family out to dinner to celebrate! He need to start coaxing Sophie to venture away from the apartment anyway – although she was actually blossoming a bit (to his delight). The scariest thing around the apartment seemed to be the occasional wild animal, and none of them so far have been at all hostile. The most dangerous plants around were simply sticker-bushes, and even Sophie had no problem with rose bushes having thorns on them. She’d even taken some short walks on the walking paths in the fringes of the woods.

   He’d been encouraging that as much as he could. They weren’t in a place where rampages and chase scenes were an everyday occurrence anymore!

   With a little encouragement Sophie was willing to brave a more settled area. She’d rather not go TOO far just yet – but she was willing to be persuaded to visit someplace with more people. She was used to  Manhattan after all, and having no neighbors at all was a little weird for her.

   There was a modest town – called “Estvarin” – not too far way. It was primarily an outfitting and jumping-off place for people who wanted to sign he release forms and go camping, exploring, or hunting in the late Pleistocene primitive-survival zone. A fair number of people, but mostly shops and things.

   Gelman asked for the restaurant closest to the outskirts and crossed his fingers.

   That turned out to be “Big Bob’s House of Mammoth!” – a place with a late ice age theme. (Oy Vey…) Mammoth Steaks, bigger than you can eat! Classic dishes, long thought lost but now recovered for your gustatory pleasure!

   That didn’t sound kosher… Wait; they had Auroch. It chewed cud and had cloven hooves. Dietary restrictions could be annoying at times, but they did remind everybody that they had a need for purity.

   The Auroch was really very good, if a bit lean and chewy. Definitely free-range stuff. Manhattan offered many unique styles of cuisine, but Auroch had always been out of the question… There weren’t even any notable disturbances beyond a fellow who was very pleased with the Mammoth he’d just shot, and wanted to have the robots bring it in to be cooked. Sophie and Isaac were a bit upset about the great hairy dead thing; Sophie thought it was in poor taste to park it in the street outside – and Isaac thought it was yucky.

   For that matter, he did too; the man could have gone taken it around the back.

   Ruth wanted to shoot him for upsetting her mother.

“No, Ruth, he doesn’t know how sensitive your mother is.”

“Phooey! This is a restaurant! Wanting to bring an uncleaned dead animal in is probably a violation of several hundred health codes!”

“It’s a hunting town, dear. They’re more relaxed about that.”

“Well, can we arm the mammoths?”

   Isaac seemed pleased with that idea. Oh dear.

“Arm the… How would that work? They have no arms…”

“Hey, they’ve got cyberware and stuff here pops! Mammoths with pop-up missile launchers and subdermal armor!”

   Both he AND Sophie went a little pale at that notion.

(Sophie) “Dear Ruth… Perhaps that wouldn’t be a very good idea…”

(Gelman) “I agree. That would be dangerous!”

(Ruth) “Well, that would be kind of the point pops! Make it more sporting!”

(Gelman) “What would happen if they reached a civilized area, though?”

   Well, at least Sophie was no longer looking at the mammoth that was being taken around the back. That was something. Was Ruth doing that on purpose?

(Gelman) “It would take an entire police force to subdue them, and who would keep the peace?”

   Ruth was actually looking a little thoughtful…

(Ruth) “I don’t think they could really… The place is supposed to be semi-infinite, so unless they know how to navigate, it would take them centuries to get anywhere. Besides, you know the locals would never do it!”

   Oh dear. Was she coming up with a plan? He’d have to keep an eye on her, low local age of consent or not. He didn’t know what to say to that anyway.

(Ruth) “I’ve got 400 credits! What should I get?”

   Oh dear. He put in some quick queries… What were the prices for missiles and subdermal armor? Oh dear. It looked like she could afford a few such things for herself, but at least it looked like getting them put into a mammoth would involve special costs – more than she could pay for at the moment. She could buy herself some weapons, or quite a few special lessons, or a bit of magic stuff, or pay for a servant for quite a while though.

   Gelman quickly suggested investing in melee weapons and training. Sophie was a bit disturbed by the suggestion, and he had to do some smoothing over with her – but guns weren’t really allowed in raiding situations. As much as he hated to admit it, Ruth would probably have followed after him in corporate raiding if he’d stayed in Battling Business World. At least Isaac wanted to be something sensible; he wanted to be a pharmacist when he grew up, so that he could cure the fainting that plagued Sophie, his brothers, and himself.

   Dinner went pretty well otherwise, even if Isaac was a bit hyperactive and wanting to poke into everything. Still, that might just be excitement. He’d been nearly as bad as his mother, only going out for school and synagogue. It didn’t help that playing with the other children had been a problem too. Still, he was easy enough to rein him in when he got out of hand even if he did keep wiggling in his chair.

   They played “can you identify the plants and creatures on the menu” for a bit. Some of them – like “giant ground Sloth” were easy, but a lot of stuff simply had scientific names and pictures, and many of which were supposed to have been extinct for hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions…

(Isaac) “Can I go swimming now?”

(Gelman) “Swimming?”

“In water! You know! Don’t be silly daddy!”

“When we go home, certainly.”

   Swimming? Where was he going swimming? In the pool? Well, a swim would do them all some good. There was a pool, and there were some lakes nearby with swimming areas. Isaac would prefer the lakes, so why not? They were much better than swimming pools, and if someone (Marty) fouled a spot it was easier to avoid.

   They got into their trunks and headed down. More relaxing wilderness. Not a single nut slinging tree or berry bomb bush in sight.

   Ruth was a so-so swimmer (there weren’t really a lot of chances to practice in Manhattan really), and Sophie tended to dabble gently around the edges as usual – but Isaac kept making Sophie wish that she had a leash to put on him.

“Not so far out, son!”

“Aw, daddy! Why not?”

“Your mother and I will worry. Why don’t you come closer to the shore? I have a ball for catch!”

   Gelman was careful to keep things under control so that he didn’t throw it across the lake – but it was easy enough to get Isaac romping up and down the beach with quite absurd amounts of energy. What had gotten into him? He hadn’t even needed to be dressed for the trip; he’d managed on his own – and at his age getting dressed was often a bit of a struggle. Was he just growing up a bit? Could he be acquiring a soul? Usually one just moved in when that happened, although any behavior change or increasing tendency to do-their-own-thing when no one else was around could be a sign of it. Of course, he was getting an education from Teacher now, and Core kids seemed to be far more responsible anyway. Hm…

“I’m proud you’re changing into your trunks without me having to ask.”

(Isaac) “Is easy now! These are much better!”

   That grammar… That was a lot like that young sentient computer that had been with Marty. He’d seen the INS paperwork. Oh, surely even Marty wouldn’t have the gall to try and replace his son with a sentient computer? It was probably just a symptom of eight-year-old over-excitement. Still, he’d better test… He used his procurement power to pull a flash drive out of his trunks. Young computers LOVED data. If they knew a flash drive was full of interesting tidbits, they’d invariably try to stick it in an appropriate port.

“Ah, I was looking for this. All of Daddy’s work data.”

(Isaac) “You shouldn’t swim with that daddy! You said, never put electronics in the water!”

“Yes, I know… Daddy must have misplaced it while we were packing. I’ll put it in my bag. Maybe I can salvage the data at home…”

   He hated lying, but he had to know. If Marty had laid a finger on his son…

(Gelman) “Besides, you can never have too many data storage devices.”

   Gelman continued to play catch with Isaac, sometimes running in the water, sometimes on the beach – and watched Isaac for signs of unusual interest in the bag.

   There really wasn’t any sign of it. Perhaps he was just a bit over-excited? There was something a bit odd though; he could swear that the boy had swim fins whenever he swam a few strokes, but just sandals when he was on the beach.

   That could just be the smartclothes – probably how he’d “changed into his swim trunks” so quickly come to think of it; he’d just had the clothes shift for him – but why would he change them for just a second or so? It wasn’t any advantage for splashing around.

   He joined Isaac in the water to get a closer look – and Isaac swam rings around him. Not quite normally – and his hands and feet were definitely odd-looking when he was swimming.

   He took a closer look under the guise of checking sunscreen. When Isaac was in the water, his feet were a bit broader, the toes were a bit longer – and they were webbed. The same went for his hands and fingers, although it was hard to see while Isaac was splashing water at him.

   Webbed? That certainly wasn’t normal, and Isaac was way under the local age of consent so it shouldn’t be a genemod.

   Was there anyone to ask nearby?

   Oh of course; Sandy and… what was her name? Oh, yes; Ilona – had let themselves out of the birdcage and were poking about in a small boat at the other end of the lake.

   Wait; he could check Isaac’s telemetry too: he was his parent – and even here, the systems seemed to like him anyway.

   Hm. Muscular shifts, spinal ligaments instead of tendons, increased muscle density compensated for by notably increased lung capacity, changes in the skin – an oil coating to protect against osmotic swelling (the “water-soaked wrinkled skin” bit) and to make it easier to slide through the water. Mild bone restructuring. Greater tidal volume on the lungs, nictating membranes that kept water out of the nose, lungs, and eyes while swimming, increased metabolism and recovery, muscle tension shifts to adapt the lens of the eye to focus properly in water.

   More than he even remotely understood – and something of a shock, just how much sensory and computer power was in a set of smartclothes? It sounded like the things had better bio-analysis systems than a full-scale hospital back home in just a handful of cloth.

   Anyway, that all sounded like some kind of marine animal.

   Did genemods normally do that and maintain a human appearance?

   That query was pretty simple – and, while it seemed that the best genemods could do a lot of that, genemods didn’t reshape bones in fractions of a second, and that was happening every time Isaac stepped out of the water.

   Gelman was getting more and more worried… He tried not to show that, but he moved the catch game a little closer to Sandy and Ilona – definitely within telepathy range.

<Yes sir?>

<Sandy, there’s something wrong with little Isaac. The telemetry’s giving odd readings.>

   He passed them on.

<Do you mind if we refer to the main systems sir? That data is outside our competence.>

<Not at all. Just don’t let Sophie know yet.>

<Hm. He is too young to request genetic modifications, and they don’t work like that anyway. I’m not detecting much psychic energy coming from him… Some magic. Nothing major. He is young enough to be very adaptable though.>

<Are you sure he hasn’t been replaced?>

<It’s possibly that someone might have gotten past the computer system, fooled his smartclothes, and gotten past us and fooled us too – but I don’t think it’s likely. We can’t ever be absolutely sure about something like that, but it would take a LOT of skill and power and the return doesn’t seem large enough to justify it. He mostly just plays and uses Teacher – and you wouldn’t need to replace him to do that. Anyone can do that for free. He might have learned to tap into some local power on his own, but it’s a lot more likely that someone opened a channel for him. Does he have any other new abilities sir?>

<He’s feeling energetic. Sophie is having trouble controlling him.>

<Anything else that you know of sir?>

<His grammar also seems to be a little awry.>

   Gelman passed on the example.

<Hm. Well, the most direct test would be to take him so one of the other worlds – perhaps back to Sesame Street – and see if it still happens; if it doesn’t, it’s just him picking up a local role. If it does, then something’s actually made a long-term change in him, probably some sort of enchantment. It doesn’t seem harmful or anything at least sir.>

<That’s good. I’ll try your suggestion. Thank you, Sandy.>

<You’re welcome sir!>

   They went home when everyone – well almost everyone – was tired of swimming. Not too surprisingly, Isaac had to be scooped up and carried along. He didn’t seem to be tiring at all easily.

“There we go! It’s time to go home!”

(Isaac) “Aww!”

   Sophie had no objections to a return visit to Sesame Street, and the lack of local kids made a fair explanation.

   He didn’t show the shapeshifting and such there. So he’d picked up a local identity. It was good that he was integrating, but where did he get it from? He’d ask while they were in a safe place…

“How did you learn to swim so well? You needed a vest before.”

(Isaac) “I was playing with the otters in the steam and they showed me!”

“The… otters? Talking animals?”

(Isaac) “Aren’t they supposed to, Daddy?”

   Well, Ruth had shot a unicorn. Talking otters were mundane compared to that.

“I suppose so. You could have told Daddy.”

(Isaac) “Don’t they all talk? They do on the cartoons!”

“Not in all places, son.”

   It looked like a conversation with the otters was in order. He wouldn’t want them stealing his son.

   He went that night. Sophie was used to him staying up late studying or tinkering.

   The otters came out easily enough when it became evident that he’d brought fish.

“Hello. I heard you met my son.”

(Otters) “Hello! Hard not to! Humans are very conspicuous about splashing in the water!”

“He’s become a much better swimmer since he met you. A real handful, as well.”

(Otters) “Of course! We showed him how to swim better! It would be hard for a human to swim worse anyway!”

“I was just . . . worried. The changes in him were sudden. You’re not planning to make him an otter, are you? Or snatch him?”

(Otters) “He’s much too young for that!”

“Wait, that matters?”

(Otters) “Of course! There are rules!”

“What are the rules?”

   Talking otters had rules? The Manifold was VERY strange.

(Otters) “You have to be of age of consent, and you have be competent to make a decision, and you have to have everything fully explained of course.”

This sounded all too familiar.

“Is Kevin Sanwell involved in this?”

(Otters) “Nuh-uh! He only recruits people with souls, so they can go anywhere! But he made this dimension, and so we have to follow his rules!”

“You’re not from here?”

(Otters) “Oh, sort of! He made us here, but we’re lots of places and we’re much older than him!”

   These weren’t just “ordinary talking animals.”

“What are you, really? And don’t say otters, that’s obvious.”

(Otters) “We’re totems and phouka and dreamtime spirits! You dreamed us! In lots of ways and lots of places!”

   You? Oh, humans had dreamed them into being… Nature spirits. Well, it wasn’t like he hadn’t read enough literature to have SOME idea of how to handle them. Still, it would be worth consulting… Yep. Sandy was keeping an eye on Sophie and Isaac while Ilona was lurking nearby.

<Illona, how should one deal with nature spirits?>

<The minor ones are usually fairly benign – especially here, where no one can really be killed by stupid pranks. It doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t try to recruit Isaac as soon as he’s old enough, but even that might just be a stronger local role. I can do a little research>

<I’d appreciate it, dear.>

   Gelman occupied the otters with more fish while Illona consulted the computers.

<It looks like the stronger ones are amalgamations; the more roles a phantasm plays across the manifold, and the more lesser – similar – phantasms join with it, the more it becomes an independent entity and aware of it’s various roles. I’m not entirely sure what that means; I’m not sure anyone does. They don’t seem to lose anything by merging; they just establish aspects in multiple places>

<Hmm. Well, thank you.>

<I don’t see how they can be one thing, but not be linked. That makes no sense>

<Odd.>

“Well, could you do me a favor?”

(Otters) “Er… What? And you’ll owe us a favor too you know!”

“Of course. I don’t want you recruiting or changing my family without my permission. In return, I, or someone in the family, will feed you every day.”

(Otters) “Well… OK, he wouldn’t be old enough to try and recruit for DECADES around here anyway!”

“Any fish preferences? Nothing too exotic now.”

   He could get rarities with his procurement powers, but that could get expensive… Fortunately, it looked like they preferred anything relatively small and freshwater – crayfish, freshwater mussels… They weren’t too picky. Just as well. Shellfish weren’t kosher anyway.

   He thanked them for their time and went home.

   Isaac was asleep at last, and Sophie was all worn out. Still, Isaac hadn’t fainted in days, and both of them thought that that was worth little tiredness! Perhaps he just needed to be away from the city and all its stress?

“We all did, I think. It’s no fun stuck in the city all the time… Oh, guess what I found when I was out walking!”

(Sophie) “What dear?”

“There are otters in the lake.”

   Gelman got Sophie some aspirin and water. She’d been through a lot of excitement today.

(Sophie) “Well that’s rather nice really! Otters are adorable!”

“They looked hungry. I’d love to correct that. Do you think we should feed them, dear?”

(Sophie) “Well, they do say not to feed wild animals – but no one objected to Ruth shooting at a unicorn, so they probably wouldn’t mind feeding otters!”

“Good! Fish is inexpensive, so it shouldn’t interfere with the budget. I’ll procure some for tomorrow.”

(Sophie) “I’ve been wondering about that dear. They don’t seem to charge for anything here except speciality items – and I and Ruth and even Isaac keep getting automatic deposits to some sort of account! Where does it come from?”

   Oh dear. How much to tell her?

“I think it’s some kind of subsidy, like the Scandinavian countries.”

   Well, that was technically true.

“I’ll have to look into it.”

(Sophie) “Well it’s nice… but who does all the work? I never see any maintenance staff, but even the woods around the building are always cleaned up!”

   Well, that was the computer remotes… Sophie wouldn’t see much looking out except occasional bits of blinking light – easy enough to mistake for fireflies

“Have you seen those glowing balls, dear? They’re sentient devices, dear. They handle the maintenance.”

(Sophie) “That many of them? Are you sure they won’t rebel or take over or something?”

“They seem to treat everyone like me.”

   Oddly enough, he was beginning to find that sad: he was starting to miss arguing with Handel and Lou!

(Sophie) “Really? But don’t they wake up from people pounding on them?”

“Maybe they’re enlightened.”

(Sophie) “I’m having a hard time with this dear… It’s a lovely place – but all the machines and people insist it was only created four or five months ago! There’s hardly anyone here but children and unicorns and things! They say all kinds of things about “Lord Sanwell”, and half of them are contradictory! the place is full of slaves, but half of them say they were rescued! What’s going on? Who is Lord Sanwell person, how did he get to be in charge of the world, and what is he up to?”

   Oh dear. He’d known this was coming – but he hadn’t thought it would be so soon. It was time to tell the truth, and hope that he was still married when the dust settled. Perhaps he could explain it all without giving her a a headache.

“Well, Sophie, the best place to begin is with the place we came from. Our world is just one in the cosmos. As I said before… it isn’t suited for us.”

   The explanation went on to the basics of the Manifold, and about phantasms – and that, much to his regret, that she and the kids fell into that category. He stressed that they mattered to him and to all their friends, and that that was what mattered. He explained that they were in Kevin Sanwell’s private dimension – and that it had some of the rules of Battling Business World, most particularly pertaining to death – but that it was otherwise much more logical and safer for them all.

   That was an awful lot. He stopped for questions and to let it all sink in.

   The “phantasms” bit didn’t seem to matter to her, and she’d had some idea of what the Manifold was about anyway. She was nervous and retiring, not blind. It was just that this “Sanwell” person seemed so self-contradictory that it was hard to get any idea of WHAT he might do!

“Kevin Sanwell is a confused young man, dear. He believes – or likes to pretend – that he is a terrible Dark Lord, but in some ways he acts like a hero. That’s why there are slaves around. He saved them from nasty situations – and if they don’t want to become his agents, he has them work off a rescue fee. He seems to firmly believe in contracts, and is fair in all his dealings. As far as the world goes… It apparently really is only a few months old. He managed to make it somehow.”

   Sophie was looking pretty pale. She seemed to find that as shocking as he had.

(Sophie) “How can anyone have power like that? I can see how it would be confusing, and lead to a boy being arrogant and acting like he has a right to own people – but how can it be possible? Even the Numbers don’t do things like that! Surely creating entire worlds should be reserved for the Lord!”

   Gelman leaned back in his seat.

“I don’t know HOW he does it. In my opinion, the Lord has plans for this boy… If you’re angry at me, I understand why. I deserve your full wrath for being dishonest. But I couldn’t stand our world any longer. Core, a place of pure rationality, would have adversely affected you and the children. This was the best option… I’m sorry.”

(Sophie) “Why, because you tried to take care of all of us? I think you should try to get the older boys to come and visit and see if they like it here – at least if we can find out what, if anything, “Lord Sanwell” is up to. Is it just collecting youngsters according to his rules? Why does he want them?”

   Gelman was profoundly grateful. Did he deserve that much forgiveness? Tears came to his eyes.

“Th… thank you, Sophie. Yes, he does collect them by his rules. The children are fine, they don’t have souls – and I do think Jacob and Daniel will like it here… Judith will be a problem though.”

   Judith was his oldest daughter. She’d run away to join the Israeli Defense Force at eighteen and was currently flying fighter planes for Israel.

(Sophie) “I think, perhaps, the definition of “soul” you’ve been given is too narrow…”

“Yes… what mortal can quantify a soul? You and the kids have enough soul for me… One last deception I must reveal, though; your parakeets are actually bodyguards.”

(Sophie) “Now that – true or not – is just silly.”

“Sandy, Illona, could you prove it to her?”

   Gelman got behind Sophie, so he could catch her when she fainted. She swayed a bit when the kids transformed – be she’d been warned, so it wasn’t that big a shock – at least not since the trip through the tree.

(Sophie) “That’s still silly! Making them sit in a cage when there are dozens of empty apartments around! That really was dreadful of you!”

“I know,”

   Gelman rubbed the spot where the yarmulke covered the back of his head.

“I had intended to deprogram them. Unfortunately, whatever binding Sanwell has on them is too strong for that. And I didn’t know how you would react. Again, I am sorry. They can have an apartment if you’d like. They’ll do whatever you tell them; they treat me as their master. Apparently that came with the assignment. I do wish we had a way to free them; I intend to ask Sanwell about it – and I WILL find quiet parakeets for you.”

(Sophie) “Wait a moment there! They’ve been in that cage for weeks! With no clothes on! And no chaperone!”

   Sophie did faint – and Gelman caught her. The kids had smartclothes on now – but the did seem to vanish in bird-form. Evidently bird-form was beyond the smartclothes limits, and the shapeshifting just automatically made them vanish somehow. She woke up shortly though.

“Don’t worry, Sophie, they didn’t have sex. I told them our views on sex outside of marriage – and they obeyed.”

   Well, they presumably had after he’d had that talk. Perhaps it would be better not to ask about whether or not they’d indulged in the first couple of days they’d been in the cage before he’d made his opinion known.

(Sophie) “Hmpf! Better they should refrain because it’s wrong, but that’s better than nothing!”

   It looked like his marriage would survive. Did he really deserve that kind of trust?

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