Federation-Apocalypse Session 85b: The Doctor Strikes Back

    Any reasonable person would have thought that Dr Brenner would be out of action. After all, he’d been caught red handed running an illegal organ-transplant operation using kidnaped kids for involuntary donors. After all, surely the only safety for such an operation lay in secrecy!

   Make that any reasonable person from Core.

   Doctor Brenner had other resources. His emergency escape route hadn’t worked out – the access hadn’t actually been in the operating theater for a start – and his monitoring and approach-alarm systems would have worked better if anyone had been looking out for dogs – but he still had a lot of connections. For starters, he had ties with the criminal syndicates, more thugs, and plenty of cash in reserve. At least he wasn’t big on weapons. Those tended to attract too much attention.

   He had blackmail material on everyone he’d ever provided services for – and that was a LOT of leverage.

   He also had some solid connections and bribes in with the emergency response groups. They often needed medical services, and everyone needed money.

   The Neodogs simply weren’t yet familiar with that level of corruption. They had never had any experience with serious corruption in Core.

   The “Good” Doctor was able to sweet-talk his “friends” in emergency response into letting him go without ever winding up on the official reports and records – although they did save the kids he’d actually had in the operating room.

   There was a well-planned high-powered tranquilizer ambush two days later.

   Rameraz woke up moderately sedated, muzzled, fitted with a shock-collar (and stripped of his own), fitted with control and tranquilizer implants, and strapped down on a veterinary examination table some time after that… While he had only a few aches and pains to tell him, he’d been poked, prodded, x-rayed, given an MRI, and been extensively sampled – tissue, blood, urine, cerebrospinal fluid, bone marrow, sperm, and more. It’d been a full veterinary exam.

   It hadn’t taken a really detailed look at the chromosomes to reveal that Rameraz didn’t have that much in common with a normal dog. He was stuffed full of synthetic chromosomes.

   An examination of the collar had been almost as interesting as the examination of Rameraz had been. It was an electronic system of unheard-of sophistication, its computer power rivaled that of a supercomputer, it could actively restructure itself, and it was incredibly durable. It might even be capable of that legendary “neural interface” since there didn’t seem to be any built-in link that would let the wearer use those functions. Not quite nanotech, but still higher technology than anything he’d ever heard of outside of urban legends – and it had been “willing” to interface with a simple computer and answer all kinds of questions about it’s wearer… All you had to do was tell it that you were a vet.

(Dr) “My, you are a piece of work. I wonder which black government lab you came from?”

   Rameraz whined a bit… No smartcollar meant no remote communications and no computer access (and feeling naked and helpless, he’d worn one all his life). This was very bad. How had the Doctor gotten away? The police should have kept him! No fair!

(Dr) “Yes, you must be from one of the top labs. I’ve never seen a collar quite like this.”

   The collar had been remarkably helpful. It had provided a manufacturing facility, model number, activation time, and system status response, noted being upgraded to military specifications in “Kadia”, and had provided a variety of specifications and records on it’s wearer – including his name, age, veterinary records, educational data, test results, and records of his advanced studies in computer programming and comparative mythology.

   On the other hand, quite a lot of that material – right down to the activation date – made no sense. He was damned sure that there was no such facility. Perhaps all the information was coded or a cover? Still, the educational records were quite straightforward – if equally crazy. Why would a black lab teach their experimental beasts computer programming and comparative mythology? Who would give their laboratory specimen a 120 IQ? Not to mention an ongoing educational program, hacking programs, and quite a lot of what seemed to be custom-tailored adventure games?

(Dr) “Where are you from? What is this ‘Kadia’ black lab? I haven’t heard any rumors about that one.”

   Rameraz rolled an eye at the crazy doctor – even if he’d wanted to tell him about Core and Kadia, he had a muzzle on!

   He tried to purge himself of the drug, and incidently heal the aches, pains, and minor injuries from the surgery. Unfortunately, that was quite detectable; the neural activity that went with using his psychic powers was a dead giveaway – and the system just drugged him again, keeping him a bit dopey – but not out.

   The Doctor – well aware after the MRI scan that Rameraz’s voicebox had at least the potential for humanlike speech – tried a little prodding… It might be revealing.

(DR) “Hm. To unmuzzle or not to unmuzzle? I don’t think I’ll take the risk. Whatever he has to say isn’t going to be pleasant!”

   He had to find a way to breed these things – or at least to successfully clone them. Intelligent psychic dogs… The bloody law-enforcement psychics were the one threat that the underworld had never really found a counter for – up until now.

   Rameraz was done evaluating himself. There didn’t seem to be anything major wrong with his body. If he could just free himself, he could purge the drug easily enough… He couldn’t spellcast or use martial arts while pinned down and doped, the system could detect it when he tried to use Witchcraft, and would just dope or shock him into unconsciousness – but that still left ripping free by raw force or shapeshifting.

   He had to do something. If the Doctor was this clever, he’d soon have more of the Neodogs in his lab – unless he was stopped quickly enough.

   Ripping free by raw force was a bust. The doctor had anticipated that.

(Dr, amused) “Aw. Poor doggie.”

   Well… getting larger would be a bad idea in solid restraints – but cat-form should be small enough to slip through easily.

   It was.

   Doctor Brenner was more than bright enough to realize that THAT stunt was flatly impossible according to the current understanding of physics. Seventy pounds of mass could not simply vanish! Even psychic powers respected the laws of nature! The secrets in this thing!

(Dr) “WHAT? Get that dog-I mean cat! Whatever it is! That violates all the laws of physics!”

   Rameraz spun a multiple mirror-image spell. As long as the cat was out of the bag, he might as well go all out.

(Dr) “I’ll actually bother to help out with this one! I am not losing my cash cow!”

   Normally the Doctor left the physical stuff to his guards and assistants. Still, this was a secure lab, and he had plenty of well-prepared guards and assistants handy. Unless the creature had even more unrevealed powers, there was no way that it was going to escape.

   Rameraz was looking frantically… Sealed doors, no windows, plenty of guards, a distinct shortage of things that would blow up… Plenty of breakables and sharp things though. He called up a poltergeist and went invisible, leaving the guards busy with his mirror images while he tried to get in behind the Doctor and take him hostage.

   He’d have snagged his smartcollar on the way, but the doctor was keeping it on his person anyway.

   Unfortunately, he reverted to canine form – bringing the control implants back on line too – to grab the doctor’s neck in his jaws. He’d been too woozy to think of that, even if he didn’t have all that many other choices. While he succeeded with the grab – and had a good grip – the doctor had read the psychological information on neodogs in general and Rameraz in particular on the smartcollar, and had thought about the tactics Rameraz had used in the first battle. All nonlethal, and as gentle with humans as possible. He thought the actual risk was very small.

(Dr) “Bad dog! No treats for you!”

   A direct and emphatic human rebuke. Rameraz hesitated for a moment – long enough for the doctor to trigger the knockout implant.

   Next time he woke up he was fixed up with even more restraints and was in a bubble that would trap him even if he shapeshifted smaller. At least he wasn’t muzzled this time…

   The doctor was waiting. Clearly this “dog” was no mere animal, and had secrets that even psychic powers would not explain . He wanted to talk to the creature this time – and, if this one didn’t want to talk, his agents had captured and sedated five others. There seemed to be a lot of the things running around – which was odd in itself. How could that be possible?

   Rameraz rolled an eye at the doctor…

(Rameraz) “That’s not fair! How come they didn’t lock you up?”

(Dr) “Why would they lock me up? I run a legitimate surgical practice.”

(Rameraz) “You were killing children!”

(Dr) “My, you’re naive. Did you just escape the lab? Those children would have been doomed to a life in the criminal underworld.”

(Rameraz, indignantly – and forgetting about security) “There’s lots of places for them!”

(Dr) “Oh, really? For unregistered children no one wants?” (He poured himself a well-deserved drink). “I’m granting them mercy! And this way, they can help others. It makes their lives meaningful.”

(Rameraz) “There are lots of places with hardly anyone! And killing them while the barriers are up just keeps them here!”

   It took a moment for Doctor Brenner to make sense out of that. The “Lots of places” was silly to start with. Where had this creature grown up? The Earth was unbearably overcrowded! There were dreams of escaping into space, but – save for a few pathetic orbital installations and arguable designs for generational colonizer ships – those were little more than dreams! He had to laugh…

   As for the second part…

(Dr) “Yes, but it will take centuries to build that many orbital colonies.”

   Rameraz looked blank for a moment – not that it was easy to tell on a canine. The doctor continued.

(Dr) “Do tell me about these ‘barriers’ (complete with air quotes) though.”

   Rameraz hesitated… That wasn’t exactly classified… but they weren’t supposed to attract too much notice. On the other hand, it was too late not to attract notice – and the man did already realize that something was going on beyond his knowledge of how the universe worked.

(Rameraz) “Er… well, the soulwards keep people from leaving between lives, so they have to stay here, and the fertility rate stays high. It’s not really my field!”

(Dr) “Soulwards? Vinny, did LSD get into my vodka again?”

(Rameraz – getting more upset than ever, and still dopey – lost patience) “You’re disregarding what you’re seeing aren’t you? You’re thinking that secret labs, with technologies you’ve never heard of, and new species, and mental powers you’ve never heard of, and developments that should take centuries of research, and millions of disappearances, and even more, all tangled together, are somehow more plausible then the universe being larger than you thought! You are making yourself a crazy person!”

   Doctor Brenner had to admit that there was something to that argument. The sheer number of incredible elements in this situation argued against any reasonable explanation.

(Dr) “Hmm… I will admit that this universe sucks – and that the government can barely keep things together. How could they make something like this collar you were wearing?”

(Rameraz, with another blank look) “It’s only smartfibers. They’ve been around for two or three centuries now. I knew you were a bit behind, but that far?”

   “Only smartfibers”. Oddly enough, that casual dismissal was more convincing than anything else the creature had said. It argued that the technology behind the collar was so well-accepted where the creature had grown up that no one even remarked on it or treated it as anything special.

(Dr) “Hmm… definitely not from this world…”

(Rameraz) “Let me go! I’ve got work to do!”

(Dr) “Well, since you’re obviously not going to cooperate, breeding is out of the question. What are you doing here?”

   Rameraz winced a bit. As a male canine strapped down on a vet’s table, phrases like “breeding is out of the question” brought up some unpleasant associations.

   That was more or less what the doctor had intended; a bit of intimidation always helped get good cooperation. It wasn’t like it was true, after all, he now had sperm and egg samples, as well as more potential breeders, and he could always try cloning. No need to let the creature know that though; why give away information you didn’t have to?

(Rameraz) “Taking people past the soulwards while they’re incarnate and only held by the dimensional barriers!”

(Dr) “So you’re trying to get them out of here to your world?”

(Rameraz) “Lots of worlds!”

   Now THAT looked like an opportunity to Doctor Brenner.

(Dr) “I think we can come to an agreement. I have contacts.”

(Rameraz) “What, you want money or something?”

(Dr) “Oh, no. I’d like some of this smartfiber technology. It could make things much better around here.”

   Rameraz looked blank again. After all, he was used to the notion that the technological heritage of Core was the heritage of the human race, not a bargaining chip. Still, that passed. It wasn’t like he was dealing with a friend and looking for a truly fair bargain. Besides, he – unlike Doctor Brenner – was no negotiator.

(Rameraz) “Er… I guess that would work. Is that all?

(Dr) “Oh yes, that will be all. I do hope we can be good partners.”

   Doctor Brenner really wasn’t very good at looking repentant, although he took a stab at a facade.

(Rameraz) “I take it you have lots of local contacts who were keeping you supplied with children? You’re a very bad man, but master feels that rescuing people is a lot more important than psychological corrections. Are you going to let me up?”

(Dr) “Of course.”

(Rameraz) “Do you want to come to negotiate, or should I bring someone here? Or to somewhere else?”

   Doctor Brenner opted to see a few of those other worlds. After some discussion, he settled on the Living Galaxies.

   The route took them on a brief visit to the stone age Isles of the Hesperides, a descent into the Gulf of Stars – and then into the Living Galaxies, a realm of step-function gravity and Dyson Biospheres of plants tangling together asteroid belts throughout the livable zones around a grid of stars. Rising above the inner “surface”, they stood upon a tree-branch half a mile wide to look out across millions of miles of tropical jungle, at flowers hundreds of feet across, at green chasms that reached down thousands of miles into a floating twilight forest. They smelled the fruits and perfumes of a galaxy capable of accommodating the populations of trillions of crowded earths – and uninhabited. A green sea, filling interstellar space.

   Doctor Brenner lost some of his composure. He’d never even been much for leaving the arcologies.

(Rameraz) “Most of these galaxies are uninhabited. The people who designed this universe got a bit over-enthuisastic about living space. It is one of the few universes where you could theoretically walk across the entire galaxy though!.. Can I have my collar back? All my saved adventure games are on it.”

   Doctor Brenner was still thinking about the implications of that casual word “Designed”. These people designed custom universes – and still valued children. Couldn’t they just clone or breed all they wanted? Wait… Those bits about “keeping the fertility rate high” and “souls”. Was there something to the notion of “Souls” after all?

   Besides… It really looked like Rameraz was actually being honest. That was… unexpected. Were the creatures really raised not to lie to humans?

   That was true enough – and one reason why Kevin hadn’t been deploying them too widely.

(Dr) “Okay . . . but you had better bring me samples of this material!”

(Rameraz) “You can pick up a suit on the way back if you want. The neural interface will take a few minutes to adapt itself to your neural architecture though.”

   Doctor Brenner did want to pick up some smartclothes – and to meet someone who was actually authorized to make a deal.

   The Negotiator was a Thrall from Baelaria – Ikeran, one of Kevin’s earlier recruits from the place. He’d reviewed the situation and wasn’t too pleased about it. The idiot neodogs had failed to maintain security. This one in particular had risked exposure for the sake of one kid – and had bungled things enough to leave them negotiating with a mass murderer.

(Ikeran) “I’m told you have a proposition; essentially that you wish to trade ensouled children collected by a series of criminal enterprises with which you have connections to us in lieu of vivisecting them as organ donors or using them for other grossly immoral purposes, and that you want supplies of smartfiber technologies in exchange?”

(Dr) “Yes, that’s the summary.”

   Ensouled? There were “unensouled” children out there? This was getting more and more interesting…

(Ikeran) “We would, in general, prefer to rescue children without rewarding such enterprises. Unfortunately, as you – like individuals from several other worlds – have demonstrated, this is not always practical. Do you know approximately how many you are offering?”

   Doctor Brenner didn’t really know in detail. He simply emphasized that HE’D never had a shortage and went for an offer-for-each routine.

(Ikeran) “Very well. We must, however, insist that you cease vivisecting or modifying ensouled children while dealing with us. If you need some medical treatments applied to someone, we will provide those treatments as a part of your fees.”

   That was mildly disappointing; there were a few clients who’d be upset if he couldn’t modify their toys for them any longer – but the money would be well worth it. Between the Neodog gene samples and the smartfibers he was going to be pretty well set for life. Not being able to do any more surgeries shouldn’t be a problem… Besides, the negotiator was still talking.

(Ikeran) “Now, you will need an assistant capable of operating dimensional gates and providing emergency trans-dimensional communications and assistance. Of course, such as assistant will also serve as a monitor on your activities with children.”

(Dr) “Oh, that will be acceptable.”

(Ikeran) “Very well. Since Rameraz here initiated this arrangement, is already acquainted with you, is used to operating in your world, and can function as an inconspicious bodyguard, he will be assigned as your aide. Indications are that you have captured another five of the empowered Neodogs; will those be sufficient for your needs?”

   Ikeran didn’t want to assign any really useful operatives to this monster – but those six Neodogs had already demonstrated their incompetence by getting caught. Lord Sanwell was too soft on those who were insufficiently diligent in their service to him! Ergo, assigning them to Doctor Brenner would put them in a position where they couldn’t do much damage to the cause – and the Doctor was obviously ruthless enough that he might even properly punish them for their failures if having to work for a mass murderer wasn’t enough.

(Dr) “Actually, I need to return those to you.”

(Ikeran) “You have another preference then?”

(Dr) “So you’re offering them to me.”

(Ikeran) “They would be assigned to your service in all capacities other than monitoring the terms of our agreement and your treatment of children. Ultimate ownership would remain with Lord Sanwell”

   It sounded like the negotiator didn’t like the Neodogs. Well, if he wasn’t happy with their performance, he should have gotten them better briefings, rather than getting all self-righteous about it. Still, the beasts were INCREDIBLY useful. He’d have to be a fool not to take them – even if that “empowered” bit did sound like any he bred or cloned wouldn’t have all the powers unless he could figure out how “Lord Sanwell” bestowed them. They could still be extremely useful though, both on the street and even on legitimate assignments. The change in operations was going to take some explaining, but he, and his organization, could adapt!

(Dr) “Well then, I’ll keep them.”

(Ikeran) “Very well. Outside of their monitoring responsibilities they will be at your disposal.”

   Rameraz looked pleadingly at Ikeran from the back of the room, was ignored, and moved to take up his new position immediately behind and to the left of the Doctor – trotting at his new master’s heels.

   He’d known he wasn’t very valuable – after all, the Neodog genetic design was public record and there hadn’t been much demand for Neodogs in Core before Kevin – but he hadn’t thought he’d been THAT wrong. Children would have died! How could the security of the operation be more important than that? Rescuing children was what the operation was all about!

   Worse, he’d attacked a human, even if it had been in defense of human children, without being specifically authorized to do so – and later on he’d resisted human orders – and his action hadn’t been approved. The discipline for that was strict. No master wanted tendencies like that being passed on to the next generation, and the doctor was obviously an utterly ruthless control freak anyway. The doctor was a mass murderer of human children, and he’d already offended him.

   Doctor Brenner didn’t really want to go home – after seeing the Living Galaxies, he’d kind of like to see more – but he needed to start getting his organization restructured and making mass purchase arrangements. A deal was a deal!

   It was obvious enough that his new aide was pretty downcast. Normally he wouldn’t have cared – the creature was obviously going to be obedient regardless of how it was treated – but it was an opportunity to understand the creature a bit better.

(Dr) “What’s wrong?”

(Rameraz) “Er… You’re my master now. I tried to bite and fight you. I’m getting disciplined and fixed aren’t I?”

   It was Dr Brenner’s turn to look blank for a moment… Ah, these creatures were still being selectively bred, and Rameraz was assuming that he’d just been classified as a failure and a bad dog. Personally, he would have blamed it on whoever was supposed to be in charge of handing out the assignments; the creature had made a remarkable attempt, and mostly succeeded, and would be responsible for his masters getting their hands on an awful lot of children (which they seemed to want), all in the face of quite impossible odds. His only point of failure had been due to not knowing that the local authorities couldn’t be relied on either. Could the creatures masters really be stupid enough not to realize what they had? All those powers coupled with a boundless self-sacrificing loyalty and enough obedience to stand still for that kind of mistreatment? What idiocy! And what a chance to start a real claim on the creatures loyalty coupled WITH a useful threat to hold in reserve! Besides… He might actually owe the beast a good turn. It had, however inadvertently, given him a chance at wealth and power in a fashion less messy than transplant surgery.

(Dr) “No, I’m going to feed you a steak and get you a soft dog bed.”

(Rameraz) “Really? Thank you Sir!

   Rameraz didn’t quite understand – but he wasn’t going to press his luck or give his new master any reason to change his mind. Doctor Brenner was still a horrible monster of course, but as long as he was rescuing kids – even if he was being paid for it – that wasn’t something that Rameraz had any responsibility for judging. He wasn’t good at, or comfortable with, judging human beings anyway.

   Doctor Brenner was a bit puzzled when he got around to examining the Neodog specifications. The maturation was kind of slow, and the five hundred year lifespan was rather a lot. What kind of civilization designed universes and built 120+ IQ’s and five hundred year lifespans into their pets? Still, he had two males and four females, and cloning systems. All he had to do was to get started.

Advertisements

Federation-Apocalypse Session 85a: Going to the Dogs

   Rameraz trotted down the corridor… People didn’t tend to look too closely at stray dogs anyway, no matter how uncommon it was to actually see one in the linear arcologies. Dogs were part of everyone’s mental landscape, even if most of the ones they actually saw were in movies and games. That was making life much easier.

   It would take a pretty close look for anyone to spot the differences between an old-style dog and a Neodog anyway. OK, he was a big, solid, dog (about 80 pounds, with a broad head to support a larger brain) and he had an odd voicebox and a variety of minor modifications – but you couldn’t spot most of them without a medical scan. Most Neodogs looked sort of mixed-breed of course – he looked more like an Irish Setter than anything else – but the ones who, like Rameraz, had accepted Enthrallment could vary that to suit themselves anyway. He couldn’t see why some of the others hadn’t been able to accept the bond, but apparently some just couldn’t consent deeply enough. Bad luck for them! The powers were fun, and the purpose was better!

   Rameraz was actually a bit more conspicuous than he thought; being strong and healthy simply said that someone was taking care of him of course – but large dogs were pretty rare in a world of shortages, and even rarer in the arcologies. Still, his smartcollar was more than capable of spoofing all the usual tags and registration chips, and a bit of glamour was usually enough to leave people who saw him with the impression that he belonged around the place.

   With the last group of youngsters safely off to Kadia, it was time to start collecting another. The last couple of weeks of rescue-recruiting had gone really well, and they hadn’t had any serious security breaches yet!

   There were more lost, runaway, and unregistered kids down this way… It had been bad enough for them before the disruptions started and their world had started sliding towards war, but these days their lives were pretty miserable. The way the Linear Realms boosted the range on psychic powers was really handy; it let him find hungry, apprehensive, children a lot more easily – and he had safety and a future and entire worlds to offer them.

   The place was pretty limiting on magic of course, but you couldn’t have everything – or at least you couldn’t have everything in any dimension that needed intervention.

   Despite the scale of the operation, the Neodog recruiting-sweeps hadn’t attracted much official notice in the Linear Realms. With preparations underway to meet an unknown extradimensional invasion, and an ongoing insurgency in the linear arcologies, reports of kids disappearing after they followed big dogs was barely a ripple. The linear arcologies were hotbeds of urban legends anyway, and half the legal kids in them were hiding now.

   The street-level crooks were less involved with the big picture, completely unaware of the war of souls, and – necessarily – alert to any change in the pulsing rhythm of the linear arcologies. There were some rumors spreading around the underworld – and they knew that the usual hiding places wouldn’t be enough to accommodate all the kids who were missing, even if they were full to the brim.

   They also knew that they weren’t. The hideouts were crowded – but unless the kids were learning to get along without eating, there were an awful lot of them going unaccounted for.

   Some of them had caught glimpses of dogs, others had spoken to some of the few kids who had refused to go with the dogs – and they were beginning to believe that something unnatural was going on beyond some children’s fantasies of magic rescuers. A few were even sure that the dogs were both communicating with the kids and leading them away somewhere – although the routes they took were impossible to follow.

   One or two had seen a dog and a group of children pass through simple doors and corridors and vanish from the world.

   The Neodogs were used to the computerized monitoring of Core and Kadia, where reports would flash around the world in moments, instead of feeding rumors – and trusted that the fact that they hadn’t had to hack the local systems much to stay out of the news meant that the operation was still secure.

   They were soon to learn a little better.

   Rameraz headed into the lower levels of Linear V, in the East Coast US metropolitan zone. It was forty miles long, forty floors high, and close to half a mile wide at the base, constructed in a series of identical blocks – and supported many millions of residents.

   Rameraz: Standard Neodog Thrall-Attributes. Personal traits: 36 Power, 8 Mana with Reality Editing. Magical Fields: Illusion, Conjuration, and Enchantment, capable of creating level two effects (but only four spells per day in the Linear Realms). Witchcraft Talents: Dreamfaring, Glamour, Hand of Shadows, Healing, The Inner Eye, Witchfire, and Witchsight. Unusual Skills: Mythology +11, Magical Creatures +14, and Computer Programming +13. Bioelectrical martial art with Wrath (bio-electrical discharges and inner strength to let him use it more often). Unfortunately, they can’t carry much equipment when disguised as normal dogs without giving things away. They’ve got a few doses of a tranquilizer (low dose) or knock-out drug (high dose), and a light effector module disguised as collar-components, but that’s about it.

   Down in the depths – or at least within one of the hundreds of rarely-accessed storage and service sectors – of the arcology, Doctor Brenner was preparing for some transplant surgery. Times might be a bit lean, but people were always willing to pay for health – and the reasonably healthy young donors were a dime a dozen. He rather preferred transplants and control implants to lobotomies and modifications anyway. So often the things the wealthy and perverse wanted done to their toys were jobs for butchers rather than surgeons – and where less skill was needed for the job, the pay was correspondingly less.

   Setting up the operating theater had occupied his men for a few hours, and collecting the donors had taken very little more time. The typing work showed plenty of decent matches; it was so easy to cross-index the ethnic enclaves to the desired types these days. It was still best to stick with the unregistered youngsters – you could be SURE that there was no official pursuit or pesky psychic hunting for them – but they were usually easier prey anyway, even these days.

   Rameraz followed the fading traces of panic – and the slow pulse of sleeping minds – past a guard to a couple of locked-up rooms, slipping in through a power-conduit section. His smartcollar and personal computer skills were more than enough to override the access restrictions. He found twenty-odd somewhat underfed youngsters, laid out unconscious, with no ID-signatures that his collar could pick up. Unregistered, nothing apparent in the environment that would knock them out… They’d probably been drugged with something and locked up here, probably to be used for something nasty! That was totally unacceptable!

   Rameraz was so indignant that he almost missed a smaller number of unconscious child-minds across the hall, in Brenner’s operating theater. He was sealing the door of the child-warehouse from the inside – he’d get the kids awake and slip them out through the power conduit corridor – when one of those minds started to fade away.

   Across the hall, Brenner had finished lowering the unwilling donor’s body temperature, opened his chest, and was starting to remove his heart. Life would flicker on in the youngster’s brain for a few minutes, but it would be long gone before they wheeled out the corpse. The boy should have been grateful and honored anyway; he had nothing to look forward to but a short, miserable, and furtive life in the underworld. He’d been going to die slowly and meaninglessly – and instead he had been given a clean and purposeful death and a chance to contribute to society and to give life to someone more productive (or at least wealthier).

   He’d never been able to figure out why the medical association had pulled his license for simply advocating using unwanted and illegal kids as organ donors. Why let them suffer instead of getting some use out of them?

   Rameraz felt the young, unconscious, mind start to sink towards extinction – and scrambled frantically out of the engineering access ways into the antechamber to the operating theater. A human child was dying nearby – and he was not there to help or defend it! The instincts that had been built into the Neodogs were no less powerful for being understood. He was failing in his duty!

   And he was barred from the room. There was a porthole in the door however – and what he saw was a horrible shock. The child was dying at the hands of a doctor, not because a procedure was failing – but because the doctor was deliberately removing his heart.

   Blindly frantic, Rameraz reached out with Witchfire – molecular telekinesis – to infuse the child’s brain with oxygen and glucose. It would only buy the boy a few minutes of unconsciousness-before-death, but if he could get the boy’s body away from his would-be murderers he might be able to find a way to keep him alive long enough for someone to respond to an emergency call for help.

   But the doctor was preparing for another operation! He was even… complaining about the poor condition of the kids he was going to kill! He had several assistants and several guards handy! And more guarding the area that he’d slipped past in the engineering spaces! Even attacking him might not stop him!

   Not that it was easy for a Neodog to think about attacking or defying a human in any case – but a would-be murderer was within bounds. But it probably wouldn’t even save anyone!

   They were putting another child on a table to kill her!

   No-No-No!

   Rameraz frantically fell back on a cliche so old that it’s origins predated the Core computer network; faithful-dog-sounds-the-alarm.

   He used Witchfire to weld the operating theater door shut and triggered the fire alarm. In a structure the size of the arcologies a fire was a major threat, and the emergency crews would respond at speed. They might even get there in time to save the first child! And they could arrest the evil doctor and his compatriots while they were at it!

   He might need all his power for life support – and even at that, he couldn’t keep it up for long – so he settled for leaping up to trigger the alarm manually.

   Unfortunately, Doctor Brenner was both intelligent and alert; he’d noted the wisp of smoke from the edges of the door, and stepped over in time to see Rameraz sound the alarm.

(Dr) “What the hell? A dog that can trigger alarms? Who’d train a dog to do that?”

   Trying to open the door revealed that it was stuck – and Rameraz saw the Doctor as well. There might be a way to save the first child after all! He didn’t have the power to provide long-term life support, and assistance was on it’s way, but nowhere nearby… The boy’s only chance would be to be hooked back up to life support again – and there was only one doctor in the area.

   Rameraz burned a bit more power on a mental suggestion; if the Doctor wired the kid up again, he wouldn’t be risking having a dead kid – and a murder charge – on his hands when the fire-rescue people arrived.

   Brenner accepted the thought – it wasn’t an unreasonable notion – but also started calling for the guards outside the room and the aides in it to break down the door. If he got out, he could escape and it wouldn’t matter if the kid died anyway. After all, it might well already be too late – as far as he knew – to keep the boy’s brain alive.

(Dr) “Get this damn door open! We’ve got to move!”

   The doctor headed back to try and keep the boy alive – and took his eyes off Rameraz.

   Rameraz burned one of his spells on short-term invisibility. That way he could interfere with the guards efforts to get the door open without revealing himself and – if he had to – he could launch a surprise attack if they started to get the door open anyway. He couldn’t let them get it open, if the Doctor abandoned the boy, he’d die!

   Three lookouts arrived – and started to work on the door. It obviously wouldn’t stand up for long if they were allowed to keep battering it…

   Rameraz gave up on invisible subtleties and shrouded the door in Witchfire – sending the guards stumbling back, with mild burns.

   It was HARD doing that to people – but he HAD to!

   He also couldn’t keep that up for long… He burned another spell laying an illusion of fire over the door. They’d just been burned by it, hopefully they wouldn’t notice that it was no longer hot.

   Dr Brenner was busy – but he could hardly miss the guards yelling about the fire just outside the door. He kept his hands moving – but definitely had the energy to complain.

(Dr) “Well this is just great. I’m behind on my Mob protection payment, my flyer’s in the shop, this operation’s a complete botch, and now THIS. Might as well reconnect the kid, no point in risking a murder rap…”

   Rameraz finally got some good news; a couple of the other neodogs should be able to arrive soon enough to get the other children out of the storeroom and take them to Kadia (it wasn’t likely that any would refuse after this) if he could keep the thugs attention on him for a while longer. That might help the doctor get off, but at least the assault, kidnapping, and attempted-murder charges should be good for some time.

   The local systems said that the emergency responders were on their way too – but he’d have to stall for several more minutes for them too.

   But the first child was stabilizing! Deeply unconscious, but stable! At least Mr Evil Doctor was good at his job!

   Meanwhile, Brenner – now that he was probably off the hook for murder – was trying to organize getting the door open. He could survive prison, but he certainly didn’t want to burn to death. The operating theater wasn’t exactly equipped for breaking down doors, but things that smashed were easy to improvise.

   Wait… The actual heat seemed to be minimal, and there didn’t seem to be anything on the other side of the door to FEED those flames… What the hell? The door had suddenly melted shut, a dog had triggered the fire alarm, and now there were mysterious flames from nowhere?

   He set his aides to trying to batter their way out from the inside – and had some instructions for the guards outside:

(Dr) “Get that damn dog! It’s probably got modified paws to hold a blowtorch or something! That should be worth a lot of money on the black market!”

   Rameraz added another dose of real flames around the door to discourage the aides – and snarled and snapped at the three guards coming to grab him.

   Doctor Brenner was still thinking… He’d been watching that time. The flames had flared up from nowhere. Fire didn’t work that way unless someone was somehow feeding a controlled stream of flammable gas into the air by the door. The flames had nothing to feed on, and weren’t spreading.

(Dr) “Is that bloody dog holding a flamethrower or something?!?”

   That was, of course, a “No”.

   The Linear Realms might not have magic normally – but they did have psychic talents, albeit normally only among the humans. Brenner wouldn’t have been an organlegger if he hadn’t been willing to gamble a bit on his intelligence.

(Dr) “A psychic dog? I must have it! The potential profit is too great not to grab it!”

   Rameraz would have groaned if he hadn’t been busy growling. Damn it! The murderous bastard was both clever AND still thinking under this kind of stress!

   Doctor Brenner, of course, would have disagreed with the first part of that assessment. After all, it wasn’t MURDER. Nobody wanted those kids anyway, and it wasn’t like their lives would be good. This way they could help the real people…

   Rameraz, of course, being a Neodog from Core, didn’t think of excess kids as being disposable. Besides, his master wanted them!

   The guards were still closing in… wearing light concealed body armor too, which would be hard to bite them too effectively through. If he got too far from the door, he wouldn’t be able to keep the people inside from breaking it down – and he probably couldn’t win a direct fight! They guards had hands and weapons!

   Besides, they were HUMANS, and it was HARD to fight humans!

   He settled for dodging – and managed to keep that up for some time. A Neodog with Thrall-enhancements and the active-enhancement fibers from a smartcollar threaded through his fur was pretty impressively agile.

   Dr Brenner – watching through the door and through the pickups – was simultaneously annoyed and impressed. The Aides had a few things to say too…

(Various) “What the hell IS that thing? Did it actually set a fire and turn in an alarm? What the hell happened to the door?!?”

   Rameraz – forced into a corner – was running low on tricks. He had a few more minor spells or shapeshifts, his bioelectrical martial art, and witchcraft… If only they’d been able to carry tools and weapons on this mission!

   Wait – the floor was metal. If he let them grab him, he cold use the bioelectrical blast to try and stun them, then use the knockout drug on them to keep them down while he concentrated on keeping the door shut – or at least electrified!

   Sadly, the guards armor was also effective insulation – and electrifying the door wouldn’t have worked out well anyway; everyone in the room had rubber gloves on to start with.

(Dr) “Biolectrical AND Psychic? I MUST have that animal! Use the tranquilizer pistols you use to collect the kids with you dimwits! Get some knockout darts in that thing!”

   Rameraz abandoned the electrify-the-door plan, at least until he managed to put the guards out somehow. He conjured some minor air spirits to try to foul up the guards aim – or to pull the triggers while the guns were pointing elsewhere – and was lucky enough that that actually took out one of them, and spread plenty of darts around.

   He was hard enough to hit – and his fur, backed and supported by a smartfiber web, was thick enough – to avoid being put down. The guards, now under attack by a telekinetically-manipulated swarm of their own darts, were not so lucky.

   The Doctor was still shouting “Take Cover!” – and barely resisting adding “You Idiots!” in classic mad-doctor fashion – when the third guard went down for the count.

   The aides didn’t quite have the door down when Rameraz got back to electrify it.

   Doctor Brenner tried flooding the area outside with knockout gas – he hadn’t lasted as long as he had without learning to take quite a few precautions – but the smartcollar and effector module could easily filter that out.

   Rameraz slipped away to help get the rest of the children out as the fire-rescue services were arriving.