Behind them, Gelman had given up the pursuit for long enough to call Mr Leland and let him know what Marty had dragged his company into…
However ironic it was that – out of all the things Marty had actually done – it was something that had happened behind his back that was finally catching up to him.
Another notification had arrived for Marty while he’d been at his party; a legal notice forwarded from Battling Business World through Abigail’s Thralls. One custody agreement amendment, as authorized by the New York City family court and subject to review in six months. An injunction against unsupervised contact with Julia and all such contact at the option of Abigail Saunders-Tabard, justified by a failure to appear to answer allegations of moral turpitude.
Marty couldn’t say he was surprised. He knew he was no moral paragon, and he’d never been one! But damn! Plus, while he was having that party… Did karma normally work that fast? And now this business with Gelman… Still, that was only partially his fault at best! He was pretty sure that he could still do something about the slaving-mess, but the custody order was another matter entirely.
Still, at least Kevin seemed to be upset too, if not quite so outraged. That was people from core though; always too damned reasonable.
Well, if he couldn’t fix it, and got fired over it, he had a whole multiverse to work in! Talk about ultimate job flexibility! But damn, Julia… He should have been there more.
Ikeran was currently reviewing reports from the Linear Realms. He popped up to attention and bowed when Kevin and Marty came storming in…
(Ikeran) “My lords! I am honored!”
(Marty) “Yeah? What’s this I hear about you outright KIDNAPPING kids?”
(Ikeran) “Sir? I just arranged for them to be purchased once they were captured!”
(Marty) “Oh, captured! That makes it better!”
(Ikeran) “I think it’s better than being used as toys and organ donors Sir!”
(Marty) “Well yeah, but like they had any choice in being captured! It’s not like giving them the offer!”
(Kevin) “Yes it’s better than being killed! But that would have been what, a hundred or so a day? You’ve made direct arrangements to pay people to kidnap more kids and to buy all they can catch! That’s not a rescue operation, or even purchasing kids who are already enslaved! Did you ever consider trying to do something about the syndicates rather than turning them into employees!?! And why did you assign six Neodog Thralls to a mass murderer of children? You know what kind of power that will give him!”
Kevin had to pause there… He had to admit that buying slaves was actually pretty gray, since it did encourage the slavers – but dammit, it wasn’t like he was a big part of the market, and buying kids that had already been enslaved by the local system, and were usually legally up for sale on the market, was (somehow) a lot different from hiring people to snatch kids from worlds with no legal slavery! Setting up your own slave trade was a lot worse than just picking up some kids who would be slaves ANYWAY.
Marty had been getting a better look at the entry on the “good doctor” while Kevin was on a tear – but the silence let him get a word in.
(Marty) “Wait a minute… What a bastard! He thinks he’s HELPING these kids? I’ll gut him myself!”
(Ikeran) “There would be others! I thought it would be best to try and get them to stop and sell kids to us rather than murdering them Sir!”
(Marty) “How about I gut you instead? My most experienced home colleague is pissed, my wife isn’t letting me see my kid, and I missed my chance to bed women today!”
(Ikeran) “If I was wrong, it is only right that I should be punished Sir!”
(Marty) “Yeah, I would do that… but you’re still a kid.”
(Ikeran) “I came of age almost three years ago Sir!”
(Marty slumped into a chair) “Well, we’re going to have to get those dogs back, or at least stop the flow of kids.”
(Kevin) “Hm. You don’t think much of the Neodogs do you?”
(Ikeran) “Rameraz acted very foolishly Sir! He risked the security of the entire operation for four children, when that would increase the risk to many thousands! In addition, after a known security breach, he hesitated to take the necessary actions to escape and that led to the capture of another five – although they were equally foolish to allow it!”
(Marty) “And you gave him to a murdering butcher.”
(Ikeran) “Yes Sir! Operatives and liaisons needed to be assigned to put an end to the organ transplant industry in the Linear Realms and they had already proved their incompetence elsewhere!”
(Marty) “What do you think he’s going to do with exotic animals from an advanced society?”
(Ikeran) “Probably use them to help cover his criminal organization and the capture and transport of children Sir! He probably won’t try to breed them though, since they can tell him how long they take to mature and twenty-odd years is almost certainly too long to be useful. He might fix them to prevent the distraction I suppose, but it’s not like they’ve proven effective anyway!”
(Marty) “Listen, kid, you haven’t seen as many bad sci-fi flicks as I have. Mad scientists don’t think about practical things. He’s going to breed them. That’s what they DO.”
(Ikeran) “Well, they’re only talking dogs without the Thrall-powers Sir!”
(Marty) “He’ll find SOME use for them. And guess who management will blame?”
(Kevin, considering Ikeran) “You act like Rameraz had a real choice about whether or not to try and rescue those four kids. He didn’t. Property-class Neodogs are COMPELLED to protect and obey humans. That’s one reason they’re property; it’s because it means that a human is always responsible for their care! They NEVER had a choice, which is why I’d feel guilty about mistreating them – unlike you. YOU had a choice and opted to serve in exchange for your powers!”
Ikeran was looking a bit confused… He was from Baelaria – a far more ruthless world than Core – and the Neodogs were just DOGS. So they talked. Familiars talked, and that didn’t make them PEOPLE.
(Marty, to Kevin) “Are talking dogs so common there that he DOESN’T think they’re worth respecting?”
(Kevin) “What? You remember Baelaria. That Victorian steampunk place with the mages guild. Only normal dogs there.”
(Marty) “Ugh, my brain… What ARE we going to do?”
(Kevin) “Urgh… He’s 10% right. This does keep the organleggers from killing more kids – but it puts us so far in the wrong doing it that it’s hard to measure the distance to the surface!”
(Ikeran) “Then I should be severely punished Masters!”
Marty STILL had trouble hurting kids – but he was inclined to have the kid explain himself to Gelman and let the good Lord sort it out. He could at least let Gelman know that he’d done this with neither Kevin nor Marty’s permission.
Kevin could see his point – but that would put Gelman in the position of brutalizing a kid… That wasn’t fair either. Hmm… First up; a learning experience.
(Kevin) Ikeran.. You obviously don’t appreciate what the Neodogs have to deal with in the way of mental compulsions or how well they do despite those limitations. I’m changing your base species and damping your shapeshifting.
Kevin pointed – and a crackling sphere of energy left behind one Neodog. He’d never paid much attention to dog breeds, so he left that up to Marty’s input – and Marty suggested the smallest practical (given the need to support the brain) hairless. It might be a bit petty, but he thought that Ikeran SHOULD look a little stupid.
(Kevin) Now, you’ll need a smartcollar, and appropriate shots and such – and a new assignment.
(Marty) “Here, have a chew toy. You jerk.”
Ikeran judged it wiser not to say anything at the moment – and had a lot of new instincts to deal with – so he simply took the chew toy.
(Kevin) We’ll have to limit your responsibilities to where you can’t do any damage for awhile, but I’m sure there’s some job you’re up to out there. I’d put you on child-rescue in the Linear Realms, but I suspect that you wouldn’t actually be much use there. Anything else come to mind Marty?
(Marty) “Could have him do computer work. Neodogs do that. And it’s TEDIOUS.”
(Kevin) “True – but something where humans order him around a lot and he has to keep coming to the rescue would fit… How about to the staff who’re working the madness-meme treatment projects?
(Marty) “Great idea! He can learn some empathy!”
(Kevin) “Empathy… Ikeran? What did you think that this “Doctor Brenner” was likely to do to Rameraz?”
(Ikeran) “Er… He’d gotten the man into trouble, forced him to expend his resources, defied, and attacked him. Severely disciplined at the least. Probably fixed Sir!”
(Marty) “So you were more worried about the mad doctor than the dog? Whose side are you on?”
(Ikeran) “No sir! But I thought that the dog had severely fumbled an operation, and if he was punished for it, it would be no more than he deserved – and if it soothed the murderous doctor without him hurting any more children, that would be a bonus Sir!”
(Marty sighed) “Yeah, the kid’s right. But boy, that solution is troublesome!”
(Kevin) “I don’t really think Rameraz fumbled it… He didn’t really have a choice about the initial intervention and managed to pull it off. If he’d known how corrupt the local authorities were – which SHOULD have been a part of his briefing – he could have turned in some news films and such and made it impossible for Doctor Brenner to get off the hook so easily! It’s not like his Smartcollar didn’t have pictures, and we could have provided any amount of video from that with the processing capacity going to waste on Kadia! As for the murderous doctor… I don’t think it’s necessary to cool down an ice cube!”
(Marty) “Yeah, we can handle an intervention to save a bunch of Neodogs… You REALLY should have told us about this.”
(Ikeran) “You weren’t in touch Sir! You were in the Crusader Kingdoms!”
(Kevin) “For THIS you should have made an emergency call!”
(Marty – with heavy sarcasm) “Yeah, he could have done it, but Rameraz was a bad dog.”
(Kevin) “Damn… He’s made a bargain on our behalf, and left Rameraz and five other Neodogs in the lurch. At least the Doctor apparently doesn’t know about the immortality – and I’ll tell them not to let him know.”
(Marty) “What else are we going to do?”
(Kevin) “Well, first… Ikeran… I’ve heard what you thought you were sending Rameraz into, and you really ARE a bad dog and a failure now. When you get to medical, tell them to give you the same treatment you thought you were sending Rameraz into. Get over there now.”
(Kevin, to the computers) Remind me to see how he’s getting along in about twenty years. Damn it, it may not be one either of us would have made, but we have a contract! Any ideas here Marty?”
Marty was a bit startled. He’d known that Kevin always kept his bargains and contracts – but it wasn’t like HE was exactly fond of breaking contracts either. He’d read up a bit on supernatural pacters and the fey, but it had been kind of hard to take it seriously… was Kevin really supernaturally bound by his oaths and promises? That HAD to be a pain in the ass!
Kevin was busy placing some general orders; from now on, any deals of this – or even remotely similar – magnitude had to be approved by Marty or himself in advance!
(Marty) “Dammit, we can’t break it. How am I going to explain this to my people?”
(Kevin) “My parents are going to kill me!”
Marty had to give him a look at that one. Was he really listening to himself? Even if he hadn’t been legally an adult, he wasn’t really within reach of his parents discipline any longer on any level beyond the social… Oh well. Arrested aging obviously had it’s downsides, and there was no arguing with what went through people’s heads under stress. Personally, he needed a drink.
Fast-chugging a few quarts of high-proof helped for a few minutes – but he recovered too quickly for that to work for long. Fortunately, the system could provide it very quickly.
(Kevin) “Did I overdo it with Ikeran there?”
Marty thought about that for a moment… Ikeran was going to spend quite some time as a dog, on the bottom of even the dog social ladder. On the other hand, he’d made a horrible mess – and all by not looking into doing his job properly. Too much blind belief and not enough understanding.
(Marty) “No, you didn’t.”
(Kevin) “I could put some regular thralls into Neodog form and try and trade them for Rameraz and the others. They knew they might be rented out to use as familiars and such when they signed up, so at least they had a choice about it… He’d still try to breed them for pups though, wouldn’t he? And the shapeshift is complete enough for that.”
(Marty) “Send the ones who can control their fertility. That should work.”
(Kevin) “Well, they can all do that. We can probably bribe the evil doctor into it with a few more Thralls; the Neodog maturation rate really is too slow for his kind of operation… That still leaves us responsible for mass kidnaping and enslavement-turned-indenture though!”
(Marty) “Yeah, and Gelman is not going to be amused by ‘he’s bound by his oaths.’ Dammit, I should have sided with him! If he hadn’t lost his department, he would have stayed back home!”
Well, really, that probably wouldn’t have been the case; a man as smart as your typical sentient computer would have put two and two together eventually – but Marty was kind of depressed at the moment; things had never caught up with him all at once this way before!
(Kevin) “Blast it… Can’t do much about the payment scheme – that’s already agreed on – and it does save some kids lives, even if it means kidnaping a lot more. Not much alternative to shipping them to Kadia… Charging people purchased as slaves their purchase price is also standard procedure.”
(Marty) “So you’re saying we can’t do a damn thing, or close to it.”
(Kevin) “Well…. There’s dry up the sources – but that’s long range. There’s eliminate the syndicates. We could probably get enough information shortly to do that, but it would be being pretty treacherous… Wait… How much is the purchase price on them?”
(Marty) “Thinking of buying them up?”
(Kevin) “No, there was something in that contract… they were being paid for with supplies of smartfibers, either as smartclothes or collars…”
Fortunately, Doctor Brenner had had a very exaggerated idea of the monetary value of smartclothes, hadn’t wanted to disrupt civilization too much, and hadn’t wanted to flood the market – and Ikeran hadn’t been wholly incompetent. The “good doctor” had agreed to provide three kids in exchange for each set of Smartclothes.
(Kevin) “Ha! It’s not ideal, but there is something we can do here!”
(Kevin) “Indenture them until they’ve paid for one-third of a suit of Smartclothes!”
(Marty) “How much is that?”
(Kevin) “About eight credits! The “welcome basket” credit for arriving in Kadia is ten!”
Marty had to grin at that one. That was true… Core tended to give away Smartclothes. Ikeran had been ethically challenged, and blindly fanatic, but he hadn’t been stupid enough to miss an opening that broad.
(Marty) “Yeah, that should work.”
(Kevin) “Lets see… I’ll call it a 2 2/3’rd credit bonus for the first time someone listens to the recruiting spiel… We’ll still be responsible for kidnaping them, and for paying off the thugs who are doing it – but I think I can live with trading “a few kids get snatched and killed” for “twenty times as many kids get snatched and have to listen to a speech before going on vacation”!
(Marty) “I can hear it now, though: ‘Well, Tabard, you solved the problem . . . in the laziest way possible.’ But what the hell, it’s better than just keeping them enslaved.”
(Kevin) “I suppose it is unfair to indenture youngsters who were snatched by pirates and such – but somehow the second-hand snatch is a lot easier to live with than ‘we’re funding a mass kidnaping operation’. I ought to reduce their indentures a good deal too. It’s not really like ‘money’ means much when you have the resources of the Manifold available to pay with.”
(Marty) “Hey, watch it, pal! You say that where I’m from, and you’ll get pummeled!”
(Kevin) “Sorry… It’s just that… well… I built a universe! That’s a pretty big financial base!”
(Marty) “Heh. Maybe I should look into this ‘god’ business.”
(Kevin) “I really ought to find out more about how it works myself!”
Kevin went off to make some arrangements – and Marty headed back to his penthouse, and another drink. He wasn’t so sure about these deals any longer… The wrath of his more moral and ethical colleague had made him a bit leery of them Of course, since Kevin couldn’t back out of the deal, and he was Kevin’s partner, he was stuck!
About that time Gelman managed to get through on the network.
(Gelman). THERE YOU ARE! It took a little sweet-talking, but this system finally put me through to you! What are you and that satanic “Lord Sanwell” character up to! What have you done to FIX THIS MESS!”
Marty explained to him, emphasizing that “Lord Sanwell” couldn’t break his contracts…
(Gelman) “Then he should be a lot more careful of what contracts he makes shouldn’t he!”
The boy literally COULDN’T break his contracts? Could this really be Satan in person?
Marty had to agree there.
(Marty) “Yeah, he should!”
Gelman wasn’t exactly happy with the situation – but at least something was being done about the worst of the abuses. Besides… Perhaps there was hope for both Marty AND “Lord Sanwell”. They’d recognized when they’d gotten involved in a genuinely grotesque abuse, and had promptly done something about it. Not what he would have done – but it was better than he’d really expected.
They evidently weren’t entirely lost to morality. That meant that there was something there to work with.