Federation-Apocalypse, Session 89a – A Shadow against the Darkness

   At home, Gelman was pleased to discover that Sophie was blossoming a bit… the timid maiden was taking up canning, and drying herbs, and hand-weaving to go with the needlepoint, and a whole selection of rustic crafts. She seemed to have a real knack for them… There hadn’t been much opportunity for such things in New York of course – but he’d never even realized that she might be drawn to them.

   Of course, in Battling Business World most of the plants fought back savagely and harvests tended to be limited by how much a farmer and his armored harvester could gather before being killed off for the day… There wasn’t much room for homesteading.

   Isaac had discovered that his smartclothes gave him virtual access to entire libraries, and was alternating between romping around, diving into the water, and reading books on pharmacology – on review, some of them far too complicated for an eight-year-old. He was keeping Ilona pretty busy – and hadn’t fainted in days. Ilona said his nature magic was developing a bit too – but it was still pretty minor at best.

   Ruth, of course, was rummaging around in the computers looking for… weapons, additional combat training, enhancements, magic, and what would be the best possible deal she could get for four hundred credits.

   Oh dear. She was past the local age of majority and Mr Sanwell encouraged combat training. That meant that the prices would probably be even lower than the already unreasonably-low prices that the computers defaulted to. He’d be lucky if she didn’t find a way to get PAID for picking up and training with a pile of combat gear.

   He had a lot of other things to think about and pull information on anyway…

   For example, Sesame Street. He was fairly sure that no super-powered creator had been involved in turning a gentle children’s television program full of puppets into a world of it’s own. There had been no one involved in its creation except Henson and his vision and millions of children.

   Wait… The worlds of Sinbad, of Tolkien, of Star Wars, of popular games, and a thousand more were all open for visitors.

   Shared visions.

   And Sanwell had a devoted “audience” of hundreds of thousands. Was it that simple? The power to create a world lay in nothing more than involving others in your vision?

   Still – had there ever been any secret to shaping the world deeper than that?

   The information he could gather from the computers suggested that there was more; creating a world was easy – but doing it quickly, defining it’s details, and maintaining control after it had been created demanded an iron will, a vivid and detailed vision, and tremendous power.

   Was “Lord Sanwell” simply on the high end of a scale that started with a child’s drawing or imaginary friend?

   He NEEDED a Rabbi. One who already knew most of the background of what he was dealing with! If he couldn’t find one in Core, perhaps someone from the Unified Church – although they were another puzzle. They went out and talked to “gods” – including Zeus, Odin, and – reportedly – MULTIPLE versions of the Lord (surely just imposters – or, perhaps, limited aspects – masks for the truly divine called into being by human dreams like the nature-spirit otters or the worlds of the Manifold) – and did theological research. They treated it like another branch of science, traced souls through incarnations, and produced regular miracles. And yet they were tolerating “Lord Sanwell”. WHY?

   Still… He had never questioned the ancient cry in Battling Business World. The answer had seemed all too obvious. Was the answer elsewhere in the form of multiple worlds and apparently near-endless lives? How often did the psalms ask “Preserve my life oh Lord, let me not go down into Scheol!”?

   He needed a synagogue; it didn’t feel right not having a Minyan – and there were undoubtably some left. He had no trouble with ecumenical efforts, but the Jews had been holding out against complete absorption for a very long time indeed.

   Was Sanwell another such answer? There had been suggestions in some of the theories about soul-binding… Speculating that binding a soul to yourself was one of the greatest of pleasures – or, perhaps, “rushes” – in the universe, exceeded only by enlightenment, and far more easily and regularly repeated. A pleasure as great, if less subtle and more immediate, as bringing a new soul into the universe. A manifestation of the urge to oneness – and more addicting than any drug. Deeper and stronger than the soul-links of sex or love… An addicition?

   The next morning he talked to a few of the born neodogs – including some of the ones who were simply working for Sanwell.

   They were… nice. Friendly, kindly, idealistic, deeply protective of human beings, and desiring to serve. With a code of ethics and a morality as strong as his own. Could an amoral culture have created a species like this? He hired a couple as assistants.

   The Core worlds had fourteen well-supported theories about Openers, the nature of their power, and it’s origins – all contradictory. The most popular was that they were foci for the massed will of the human race (although, if that was true, the process of selection was either semi-random or the race had some very odd ideas). As for the Openers themselves…

   They were vanishingly rare to begin with, and many had vanished into the depths of the Manifold.

   They all seemed to have at least the potential to draw on a variety of energies other than the “Mana” they used to open gates. It was believed to be an aspect of their basic power.

   They were invariably imaginative and adventurous, and most were young when their power had first manifested. It was theorized that – while older and less adventurous individuals might possess the potential – they rarely expressed it.

   They were wildly individualistic. Many of them had multiple “Identities” – although few were as self-contradictory as Kevin.

   Gelman REALLY needed to speak with Kevin. Who gave him this power? He would think that the Lord (Lords? Three Lords? Really?) would be careful with these things! Surely it wasn’t truly random… That would be too much like Battling Business World!

   Besides… It was possible that he’d drastically misjudged the man. The sheer number of refugees he was taking in – and providing with support, medical care, allowances, and educations, would strain any organization. He still tried to recruit them – but he didn’t seem to be particularly pushy it. He didn’t punish the ones who refused his offer either, even if he did indenture the ones he purchased as slaves.

   But such an offer! Was any possible payment worth having your soul bound? Even temporarily?

   On the other hand, was it possible that the culture shock was making him act like MARTY? That was a depressing thought – but he was a foreigner here. And the Thralls seemed to be happy enough with their captivity.

   But soulbinding… It opened them to all kinds of abuse! Things far worse then mere death! And mass kidnaping was CERTAINLY beyond the pale!

   Would the Neodogs be tolerating Sanwell – much less aiding and abetting him – if he was that evil and was exploiting human children?

   This wasn’t getting him anywhere. He was going in circles.

   Had Kevin and Marty thought that the kidnaping was unacceptable too? He hadn’t thought about that before – but Marty must have known what was going on with the Thralls and the powers he was tapping. He surely had more than two to draw upon, and he was used to traveling with Sanwell… He might still have been startled to see him doing such a thing – but startlement would not explain that look of horror.

   Besides… It wasn’t like him to lose control like that. He preferred to control his rash impulses. He normally gave Marty a chance to explain himself before things got physical – although he often caught him lying, and then things got physical anyway.

   Being one of the more excitable people around was definitely a new experience for him!

   Hm… His smartclothes would have recorded what was happening – and he bet that he could persuade the local system to give him Marty’s communication records for that period.

   It turned out that he could – and found that Marty had been inquiring as to what had happened while he was away – and THEN had looked horrified. A close examination of that look was in order – and even a computer analysis with the local expert systems. It certainly looked genuine – right down to the information from the neural pickups, pulse, blood pressure, and other physiological readings. (Oh dear… He’d had an idea from Isaac, but just HOW much did smartclothes monitor you? What would happen if a suit went sentient on the wearer? The LEAST it might do was kill them! He’d thought that a military targeting system becoming sentient was dangerous… All the clothes had to do was tighten a few threads to take their wearer’s heads off! Did the people of Core realize just how vulnerable that might make them?).

   Still…

(Gelman) “My Lord, Tabard DOES have some decency!”

   He’d always assumed that Marty was an amoral bastard! (It hadn’t helped that he’d shown up for his job interview drunk – and then had promptly challenged him to a duel when he’d called him on it). Could Kevin possibly be a GOOD influence? That thought was chilling… He had to speak to this mysterious young man… Marty had obviously changed, and wasn’t in to talk to.

   He started making inquiries.

   Kevin, meanwhile, was – as usual – using multi-tracking to run six projects at once while keeping a few slots open for emergencies.

   He had new recruits to bond, reserves to send to the Linear Realms, to reinforce the House of Roses where they were closing in on Vekxin (he’d picked up some clues in the Crusader Kingdoms after dealing with Death – but he badly wanted to know how a phantasm like Vekxin retained his identity across the Manifold; it would give his dragon-kids a lot more freedom), he was starting a search for any non-human worlds that were threatened by the ring nova, Kelsaru would be clutching soon, he was trying to manipulate Core (and was sounding out the possibility of adding some limited “rights” to his contract as a sweetener), he was reviewing the information that had come out of Death’s debriefing, reviewing the search-engine project for the Rosary of Memories, looking into what was up with the Neodolphins, trying to coordinate the search for routes to the other worlds that were under attack, attempting to hire the Syndicates away from the Linear Realms, preparing for a quick visit to the Dragonworlds, preparing an answer for Hogwarts, attempting to collate information on Merlin and Arthur, considering following up on the advice that they’d gotten from the Jedi Master, checking in on the Mirage and on the bunch from Singular, reading the meme-research reports, organizing the intelligence network, and more…

   And half the universe wanted to talk to him. Of course, Gelman could get by the computer screening he was on the organizational chart as a department head anyway, even without the willingness of the computers to bend things a bit for him.

   Gelman was considerate enough to check Kevin’s schedule first – and was a bit startled to find that it routinely listed him as doing six things at once. How could he multitask so efficiently? If he was THAT busy, it was easy to see how one operation doing amoral things could escape him.

   He was starting to feel a bit guilty… Marty and Kevin didn’t need his condemnation, they needed his help!

   The systems put him through readily enough though. He feared he hadn’t made a good first impression; He’d been nearly as ruddy as Abigail when he called! While it had been a private call to Marty, he wouldn’t put it past Marty to have shown the recording to Kevin so that they could both have a good laugh at him. He’d done it before…

   Marty hadn’t – he’d never seen Gelman so angry, and this time he’d have to agree that he’d had good reason. HE’D never managed to draw on the Thralls for anything like that – and wasn’t at all sure that Thrall-power had been all that was involved.

   Kevin was a bit surprised to have a tall, terribly thin, and – from his point of view – rather elderly man calling… Oh yes, Mr Gelman. Marty had talked about him quite a bit at one point or another. A sort of rival and the straight man in their particular duality. One of the sanest people in Battling Business World – not that that was necessarily saying much. On organizational specialist.

   Well, he couldn’t say that THAT wouldn’t be handy.

   Mr Leland, of course, had assumed that Gelman would scout out the operation, review it, and assign himself. He was a very hands-off manager – although Gelman had never even suspected that the operation would have such scope.

   He was leaning toward supervising the supply chains, but even that appeared a bit overwhelming. So many factors!

(Kevin) “Ah, hello Mr Gelman! I’m sorry I haven’t made time to meet you before now, but Mr Leland transferred you to the Manifold operations while I was away and I’ve been a bit swamped since getting back. I’m informed you’ve been working on organizing the trade operations to work efficiently? How can I help you?”

   Could “Lord Sanwell”, the binder of souls, shaper of worlds, scion of darkness, angel of shadows, and only the True Lord knew how many other titles – really be this… polite adolescent boy? He knew that the boy was older than he seemed – but he was bringing up a teenager of his own! If the boy was counterfeiting being a teenager, he was doing an incredible job of it – especially for someone whom he could see was doing several things at the same time as he was conversing! Did his arrested aging actually go that deep?

(Gelman) “Where can I begin? In all my years as a procurement specialist, I’ve never seen such a massive operation.”

(Kevin) “I’m afraid that’s inevitable; Core alone includes more than a hundred and fifty worlds, and the worlds of the Manifold are essentially endless of course.”

   Gelman had to admit that. He’d only been able to identify the major areas of trade… The Core was primarily interested in magical and psychic services, with a secondary luxury trade – but was by FAR the biggest market. Magical items and technology were big elsewhere, but the most reliable items are supplies wend raw materials; a LOT of worlds have specific shortages.

   Gelman always had preferred the reliable stuff. Big numbers were nice, but a business lived or died based on the day-to-day things – despite the fact that most of his colleagues seemed to completely miss that little item. More importantly, it was obvious that it would be easy to improve matters a great deal; Kevin and Marty had been opening offices with no apparent system at all (outside, of course, of “we’re here now!” and “this place sounds neat!”). While Kelsaru had been trying to sort out their priorities, she hadn’t done much towards organizing regular trade.

(Gelman) “I would like to help you with your supply and materials lines, Mr. Sanwell.” (He still has misgivings about calling Kevin “Lord.”) “I’m glad you’re working with basic items, but the logistics could use some work.”

   Gelman instinctively braced himself for a counterattack. Even Mr. Leland sometimes had a violent response to criticism.

(Kevin) “An excellent idea, I’m afraid that most of my personal attention goes to the emergencies, the military operations, and trying to find the personnel to handle those.”

   Whew. He really was quite reasonable. It was nice to see that the Core education lasted even through whatever gave him his power. He’d point out some more of the flaws… That was mostly what Mr Leland had valued him for; he was a perfectionist and saw flaws in the majority of business plans. Taking the lumps was worth it if it created an airtight strategy.

   It wasn’t like there was any shortage of flaws. There really didn’t seem to be any organization at all!

   He was prepared to go on for quite some time – or at least until Kevin started to look bored – but he was gently interrupted. Kevin pointed out that there was no actual planning at the moment: offices were opened and given general orders, and then were left to sort it out between each other according to local demands. It was simply organized around “look for what might make money, find a route, and ship stuff”.

   That was better then the way that most bosses would have done things in Battling Business World – “Here’s your office!” and leave – but it meant placing an awful lot of trust in your subordinates and either frantic busyness or not really caring about the potential profit as long as you acquired local contacts. Still… It was hard to believe. Could Kevin possibly he THAT naive? He’d thought that the boy was an extra-dimensional horror! This seemed to be nothing but a young man trying his best to muddle through a massive situation! Was the boy paying any attention to the money? Did he even HAVE any organization beyond grabbing the nearest Thrall and saying “you handle that!”? Given his power level, the way that he seemed to be trying to handle EVERYTHING personally, and his apparent tendency to visit minor subordinates, he might not… No wonder things were in chaos! Especially since the Thralls seemed to be random kids with a standard power package plus whatever little they’d come in with.

   He pulled the Org chart again; he’d thought that he was getting a censored version – but perhaps “Kevin” “Kelsaru, Marty, and Gelman”, “Computers”, “Thralls”, and “Neodogs” really was as far as it went…. even the “Offices” were just a list of locations and assignments, and the ones who were assigned to other organizations – the “House of Roses”, “Hogwarts”, the “Department of Mysteries”, “The Linear Realms Military”, and others – seemed to just go with whatever local organization existed.

   He looked at Kevin – and realized that the boy had never really sat down to sort it out. He’d been operating in a continuous emergency mode since his organization had started expanding four months ago – about the same time that he’d created Kadia – and probably considered most of his Thralls as being semi-interchangeable anyway. Come to think of it… Kadia… an afterlife realm of fey and nature spirits and woodlands and rolling hills where every prospect pleased… Arkadia. An idyllic place of refuge out of legend. Did Kevin even know what that name signified?

   Regardless, the operation needed a properly organized staff and a training program for coordinators set up NOW. Did the boy even know what a budget was?

(Kevin) “Er… Budget? The only thing that’s usually short is agents.”

(Gelman) “I’m afraid I’m still adapting to a post-scarcity economy. But, well, you seem to be involved in many things that threaten the dimensions. I have no plans to leave Kadia any time soon. I’d be happy to help you with the planning.”

(Kevin) “Well, I’m always happy with competent help; there are a lot of things going on.”

   Gelman hesitated… Should he say it? Well, it wasn’t like he could die!

(Gelman) “I do wish you weren’t using children. Are things really that desperate?”

(Kevin) “It’s a common question. Unfortunately, I can’t grant the powers to anyone who already has significant abilities of their own.”

   What? Could it be that simple? If it was… it still wouldn’t sit well with him, but it would certainly be more understandable!

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