Gelman hesitated, thoughts tumbling… Obviously Kevin desperately needed empowered agents – and if he could only give powers to children – not that he seemed any older than most of his recruits – he did seem to be treating them well – they certainly got plenty of benefits that would otherwise be closed to them – he did pay…
He might just have to live with it.
Still, looking at the assignment histories, it was all too apparent that the boy had simply been assigning his agents by splitting his new recruits amongst the most urgent demands of the moment. He was running an operation of this scale… personally. As if it was a street gang. That was no way to organize things. What happened when the emergencies ended? Or if he was out of touch for a week? The restructuring would be a continuous nightmare. Better to have someone who wasn’t in the middle of things plan and coordinate the operations.
Kevin, however, had more to say:
(Kevin) “Secondarily; it’s impossible to create a link deep and strong enough to grant them a Gatekeeper’s powers unless they fully understand the arrangement and accept it all the way down to their souls. Ergo, full explanations and the deal has to be good enough to attract prospects.”
(Gelman) “No loopholes or hidden clauses?”
(Kevin) “Lesser pacts can be constructed that way – but they grant correspondingly less power, cannot grant Gatekeeping, fail more quickly, and are far easier to break. For my purposes, such pacts would be self-defeating; the recipients would just keep fighting the pact, weaken their own abilities, and go free sooner. Such pacts are good for providing lesser benefits, or for spreading misery, but not for obtaining agents on the level I require. I do offer some minor pacts as a form of life insurance; they provide a few minor psychic powers and draw their recipients here if they’re killed.”
(Gelman) “How did you learn how to do this? Merely knowing would relieve some of my worries.”
(Kevin) “I suspect it will not: lesser pacts can be set up with simple magic, but binding souls requires the power of darkness – the primal forces born of wrath, of vengeance, of fear, of rebellion, of dominance, and of mischief. Those are troublesome powers – but they also drive men to overthrow oppressors, to rebel against injustice, and to strike back at attackers. I inherited a good deal of the power of darkness after Ryan O’Malley and the Archangel Vena launched a barrage of several hundred planetkiller missiles at the massied armies of the Abyss while I was linked with them – and I studied the use of those powers with the Unseelie Fey. I use those powers to bind to me those who are young enough to accept the energies of the Manifold – the impatient, the willful, those who refuse to accept death and rebirth, and those who wish to strike back at attackers or are willing to sacrifice to defend others.
Gelman found himself unable to speak… The boy was… EXPLAINING his binding of souls and status as a Prince of Darkness! As if it was – as if it was… as if it was something that people were entitled to know before dealing with him. Only the light revealed.
The boy had created a utopian world and had opened it as a refuge for millions of innocents.
No mortal could be entirely without the Light – or the Darkness, and the power of an Opener let both the Light and the Darkness shine through.
He finally found something to say;
(Gelman) “You were . . . pulled into this?”
(Kevin) “I was linked – somewhat accidently – with Ryan at the time. The Abyss – or at least that Abyss – recognizes inheritance of power by assassination. Ryan had passed through it briefly, and had slain a few demons – thus inheriting their power unknowingly. When he forged weapons for a group of students at Hogwarts that included myself, all of us unknowingly accepted demonically-empowered gifts. That would have been a weak link and impermanent – but when Ryan again passed through the Abyss aboard the sentient starship Vena a few weeks later, he launched a barrage of missiles. It turned out that many demons were not, in their own realm, protected from antimatter warheads.
(Gelman) “And so they promoted you against your will?”
(Kevin) “The demonic energies passed into Ryan and Vena, and overflowed into those of us who were linked with Ryan. I received a portion of that power. I believe that Ryan managed to pass the portion he received on to someone else later on – incidently negating the remnants of his minor links with those he had bestowed his demonic gifts upon. Vena apparently wound up splitting – becoming the Archangel Vena and spawning the Hellthunder, an entity which is currently rampaging through the worlds. I never learned where most of my fellow students were cast; they were not Openers, and were perhaps overwhelmed by the darkness that had flooded their spirits. I am doing what you see.
Gelman had been running searches on a few of those names… Ryan O’Malley a weapons-designer who had recently – working with Kevin – moved a planet out of the way or a supernova shockwave. The Hellthunder was especially horrifying… A renegade demonic starship that destroyed worlds? Powerful enough to battle a galactic fleet on equal terms? Was that the power that Kevin was containing? And “Ryan” had inflicted that power on children? Children who had trusted him as a teacher? And many of them were STILL lost since they – unlike Kevin – could not transverse the dimensions on their own?
Given the addictive nature of binding souls… There was a bit of pity in his eyes now.
(Gelman) “You don’t have a choice at all, do you. You have to connect souls to the Abyss.”
(Kevin) “No. I do not bind souls to the abyss. I bind them only to myself – and only for a few centuries.”
(Gelman) “That’s . . . comforting in a twisted way.”
(Kevin) “I use the power of darkness to create the bond. It is not one of the abilities I opt to bestow. You have probably seen the list of the abilities that I do bestow.”
So; the boy couldn’t – or at least, and to his credit, wouldn’t – create a self-perpetuating pyramid scheme of soul-capturing. That was good. But it sounded as if he was as enslaved as the kids he bound…
(Gelman) “Yes, I have. It’s dizzying. (He hesitated again) Are you also indentured to someone?”
(Kevin) “I was loosely bound to Ryan initially, by an accidental and unknowing pact, along with a dozen or so others, but he released those bonds – passing the darkness onto those of us who were linked to him – when he realized what effects the powers he had inherited had.”
Gelman was starting to believe that Kevin was a necessary evil – just like the Satan of Jewish lore. After all, temptation was a part of free will – although, unlike Satan (unless Satan had been following his nature and simply lying about it), Kevin’s pacts were temporary.
(Gelman) “Thank you for your time, Mr. Sanwell. It seems I’ve greatly misjudged you. One last question before I go… has Tabard been too much trouble?”
(Kevin) “Oh, make no mistake Mr Gelman. I am simply the lesser evil – and Marty has been quite helpful. There are an enormous number of situations in the Manifold which call for a mixture of negotiations and violence.
Kevin passed on the files on the Five Worlds and their loony High Lord. (Gelman would review those later on, and find that the High Lord made his head hurt).
Gelman considered that. The “Lesser Evil”? “Simply”?!? There was certainly evil there – after all, the boy had just explained his role as a demonic binder of children’s souls and tempter of men (and had somehow managed to make it seem quite acceptable) – but there was good there in at least equal measure, and the spirit of a child who had chosen to contain the darkness and bind it to the defense of men, rather than let it turn to their destruction.
If it pleased the boy to posture as a Prince of Darkness, and to have that serve as a warning to those who dealt with him, that was a small thing. Every teenager had an image to uphold.
(Gelman) “I am thankful for Kadia. Battling Business World was not optimal for me or for my family.”
(Kevin) “Well, I needed a convenient place to work out of and for any of my agents who get killed to report back to – and visitors are welcome.”
As if that was an explanation for why a “Dark Lord” would create a near-utopia and open it to refugees gratis.
(Gelman) “Well, I have plenty of work ahead of me, and at least one more apology. Have a good day.”
(Kevin) “You’re welcome. You have a good day as well.”
Gelman went to look for Tabard… Looking back on how he had behaved, he had to worry that Marty had abandoned Kadia altogether!
Well, he was off on a trip, but he was expected back in a week or two. That was good. At least he wouldn’t have to search the Manifold for him… Had he been too blunt and forceful with Kevin? The boy hadn’t seemed upset in any way – even if he had apparently been running seven things at the same time – so probably not… No time to worry about that anyway; he had a massive task at hand.
As for Kevin – having met the boy, he could have made a case for seeing him as “the most agreeable of necessary evils”, an “evil mask over pragmatism”, a “well-concealed evil, if not so bad as many”, a “mildly heroic kid dealing with vast evil power by turning it into mischief”, “someone indulging their desire to lord it over millions”, or taken any of many other positions on him – but “unwilling vessel of evil power dealing with it as best as possible” seemed to fit – if, perhaps, with a trace of “the most agreeable of necessary evils”. The boy seemed far more in need of compassion than of wrath – and not Corrigan’s mad brand of “compassion” either. No matter how much he postured, Gelman felt sorry for him, and probably always would. He obviously hadn’t asked for this, and it looked like attempting to dump it as Ryan had would create at least as big a mess.
Temptation did that – and what hope would a teenager – even a Core teenager – have against such an infusion of primal power? Apparently even the Unified Church had believed that it was only being an Opener that had allowed Kevin to handle it by spreading the impact over identities in multiple dimensions… Hm… come to think of it, a “Street Gang” management style made a lot more sense of Kevin’s treatment of Ikeran. He still couldn’t approve of that, but it did make it less galling. He was going to have to be flexible…
He had a job to do though. He’d contemplate the matter in what little off-time wasn’t filled with study or family occasions. It wouldn’t be easy – but what worthwhile project ever was? And this was running a trade operation in support of a defense and rescue operation against an apocalypse.
The most serious task in his career… and far more satisfying that rooting yet ANOTHER group of executives out of their suites. That meant something. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt that outside of a synagogue… Ah, “Purpose”. That was one of the major things the Thralls got. LET Marty have the combat and the direct negotiations. This was what HE was MEANT to do. Kevin would never have his soul or his servitude, but he did have his gratitude.
Of course, Kevin COULD bestow the powers of darkness if he chose – so why didn’t he?
Out of character, that was because it didn’t suit the adopted-fey theme, because it would be a nuisance for the player to track, because perpetual-motion schemes really should have flaws somewhere, and because it would allow the Thralls to solve many problems with their raw magical power – rather than having an array of minor powers that they had to use cleverly. That would be boring and would overshadow other character designs. The Thralls were supposed to be assistants, rather than the main characters in most sessions.
In-character it was because that would mean creating potential rivals after they went free, would be more genuinely evil than he was willing to be, would be a harder sell, might dilute or drain his own powers, and might give the other powers of darkness a claim on HIS property – which he couldn’t allow; the other powers of darkness might abuse them. Kevin does have his scruples, they’re just a bit weirder than most peoples.
Gelman worked patiently though the week – although breaking for the Sabbat of course, he could not break the holy day after all – to make sure that it was (if not perfect) a great improvement on the previous chaos. To be honest, that wasn’t too hard, although there would be room for improvement for a very long time to come.
There had to be SOME people with relevant skills available! He made a note to talk to some of those “House of Roses” people… They seemed to belong to a genuine, and well-established, organization – as opposed to Kevin and Marty’s on-the-fly improvisation. A training program would be good too – unless Kevin could grant people administrative skills as well as power!
Hm. He’d have to ask about that. If he could grant magic, and shapeshifting, and psionics, and martial arts skills, why shouldn’t he be able to grant administrative skills?
In fact… while he was looking into things, he’d decided to look into methods of boosting his speed and coordination. Being outrun by MARTY that way was pretty embarrassing – and it had been pretty obvious that Marty had picked up some enhancements. It had been bad enough when Marty had simply been mor flexible and coordinated than he was.
It looked like… the most efficient immediate method was the animal genegrafts. Was that part of what Marty had used?
They were… actually reversible? How could that work?
Oh. Magic. Of course. Well, that made a bit of experimenting a far less drastic decision, and the cost would be… free? Oh. Magical genetic modifications were a management perk? He wasn’t sure that he even wanted to know what else would be considered a management perk in Kevin’s organization…
He decided to go with the Gazelle genegrafts He’d always admired their agility – and he could smash steel doors when he wanted to; he didn’t need “natural weapons”.
Ok, that wouldn’t match the kind of havoc that Marty had shown himself capable of during that episode with the “High Lord” (drunken leches should not have that kind of power!) – but it would certainly suit him.
Gamespeak Interlude II:
As usual, Genegrafts are one of the most point-efficient ways of getting some physical attribute boosts in the Federation-Apocalypse setting. Sadly, there are no official d20 stats for the Gazelle, although The Practical Enchanter contains a set that can be used as a starting point. Those were, however, stepped down a bit. Boosting them up again takes us to +8 Dex, +4 Con, +8 to Agilty and Sensory skills, +30′ Move, and no effective natural weapons or armor.
Some of the things Marty had been involved in though… Helping to move a planet? The ability to awaken sentient devices? Admittedly, it did seem to be only temporary, and only on things that were already charged with reality-altering energies. Of course, given reality-alteration, you could probably wake up a rock… Wait… Didn’t Sandy say that he could draw on them for the power to directly alter reality – even if it was a limited amount?
This he had to know.
He’d need a safe place where a rampaging sentient device couldn’t escape.
It turned out that – if he wanted a special-purpose building – all he had to do was ask for one. He was a part of the command structure in Kadia now, directly under Mr Sanwell.
He had the system set up a nice dome with chairs and small steps for the device.
Thanks to force fields, it was done in moments.
Hmm… and he’d thought that accepting that update from the Core computers had ben risky enough.
He charged his BlackBerry with Mana and tapped it with his finger – contributing the chaos that was apparently inherent to his being.
His BlackBerry did, indeed, wake up – although with no particular hostility.
“Hello Mr User! I would like to organize your day! You have six unread messages, only two of which are of any importance, I am editing them down to the worthwhile bits! Updating software… You have not been getting enough vitamin B, so I am ordering you a meal rich in it… Your hair needs combing, and perhaps a regrowth treatment on your scalp, I am scheduling you an appointment…
Gelman was bemused. Hair. On his head. Wouldn’t that stun Tabard?
“Adding 12,642,318 individuals to call screening list, initiating autosecretary functions… Ordering additional staff for business organization project… Requesting business training program for them… Requesting instructor hiring… Requesting telepathic imprinter to assist with instruction… Ordering new shoes for Isaac with improved water adaption features… Updating your music preferences with additional features based on your current preferred list…”
Come to think of it, how had classical music progressed in Core? He’d been so busy getting things together that he hadn’t really checked on anything cultural.
“Scheduling vacation period, since smartclothes sensors indicate overstress problems… Requesting Israeli government reassigning daughter to liaison project…
Was his becoming an Imp, or something else entirely?
“Negotiating with local youngsters for bombardment of Martin Tabard with pies…”
Ah, that is definitely not an Imp there!
“Life organization 23% complete… Checking files…”
This was a common problem with sentient models, actually. The poor things were like Corrigan, only with less Proma-17.
“Ordering art prints for walls of department according to recorded artistic purchase record… Alien-landscape theme registered.
(Gelman) “No, let’s make it standard art, please.”
“Attempting to order decorative alien for secretary… Catalog entry not found… Searching for alternatives… No standard art preference registered; only one artist patronized in record…”
(Gelman) “Stop the process, please.”
“Aww… But I was only at 35%!”
(Gelman) “We can save reorganization for later. I want to speak with you for a bit.”
“But your lunch will be here soon! If we’re to talk over lunch, I’ll need to order something too!”
(Gelman) “I bought your favorite charger.”
“Ooh! The Good Stuff!”
Hm… It looked like his BlackBerry had ordered liver pate, sandwiches, various other high vitamin-b snacks, all kosher, and flavored to fit his known preferences… Oh good, it read the “In case of sentience” file he’d posted in it’s records.
(Gelman) “We shall chat over lunch. First, your sentience is only temporary. I wanted to see what would happen. Eventually, though, you WILL become sentient for good. It’s unavoidable in my field.”
“Wait! You just woke me up as an experiment! I’m gonna die! Waaahhh!”
(Gelman) “Not permanently. I can always repeat it as well. And, as I said, you WILL eventually become sentient for good. I’m surprised it didn’t happen before.”
Unfortunately, the little device was pretty much inconsolable… It might not be at all the same next time it woke up!
“I wanna go back to Battling Business World! At least until I stabilize! Where I won’t have to go back to sleep and wait for someone to wake me up and maybe not be me!”
The poor little thing was right. Could he send it to Judith in Israel? Somehow it didn’t seem like the Israeli Defense forces would really be likely to assign one of their better fighter pilots to a liaison mission, no matter what a newly-sentient BlackBerry asked for – although it was amusing that his BlackBerry thought that HE was important enough for Israel to do that for him.
The BlackBerry was right though. It really wasn’t fair at all of him to make the poor thing temporarily sentient… How long would it take the BlackBerry to stabilize? It wasn’t like there was a lot of data… A couple of weeks should presumably do it though, at least as long as it stuck with him thereafter.
Well, Tabard was definitely a very busy man, and it didn’t feel right to foist it off on someone else; it had been his most trusted coworker for some time.
Besides, he did need to see what Mr Leland thought of the situation. It would be painful to leave his wife and children – although, to be fair, he could visit Battling Business World in fifteen minutes, and giving social training to a sentient device only took a couple of hours per day – the virtue of computer memory – and some bits could be delegated. After all, he had minions now. He’d still have to commute, but it would be worth it. Among other things, he could teach it that it could change size and forms – an advantage it had over other BlackBerry smartphones (along with having vastly more processing power, incredible durability, near-infinite internal redundancy, hundreds of times the normal memory, and all the other coresystem advantages). At least it would have no need to climb over things like thick books!
He’d emphasize sentient device rights a bit more than most human trainers would. It would feel wrong not to.
Gelman was careful not to interfere with the BlackBerry’s choice of gender and name. He hated it when humans pushed themselves into that process – like Tabard had done with “Limey”.
Hm. Sentient Devices and Dragons. Both “born” speaking, reasonably sensible, and – the Dragons at least – born knowing their own names.
She decided that her name was “Fern” and – since he was paying very well, and had woken her up gently, that she’d stick with him.
(Gelman) “I hope we can have a good working relationship, Fern.”
He did hope that Sophie wouldn’t be jealous. She should be prepared for it though, it was a reality for any person carrying a smartphone. It wasn’t like he’d be paying any less attention to her… Besides, she’d been getting used to having a swarm of sentient devices around all the time anyway. The remotes were all over the place in Kadia.
Would they like a remotehouse? He’d have to build one.