Federation-Apocalypse Session 104a – Explosive Investigations

   Ruth headed for to Pops office. She REALLY had to find out more about “Kevin” – even if that wasn’t much of a name for a false god! She half expected Kevin’s pantheon to be a bunch of teenage goth posers headed by Stan, who occasionally gleaned worship from Satanists who didn’t know how to spell!

   That official… He still puzzled her too! He’d recommended to her that, if she intended to keep on entering the high-stakes games, and releasing the slaves she won, then she hang onto the next slave that she won until she won another (in which case it would be time to turn the first one loose) or had to trade him or her in to get out of a loss. After all, missing releasing one but still going on to release others would still be an improvement by her standards.

   She had to admit that having that buffer would be nice – but why had the youngster who was in charge of a slaving operation been offering her sensible, calm, advice about how to rescue the slaves? If he didn’t approve, why didn’t he get another job?

   She’d had other things on her mind at the time though – and the conversation was still tumbling through the back of her head.

(Ruth) “What am I going to do about my parents, though? Pops is really good with checking up on my activities.”

(Official) “Explain? Besides, it’s really none of their business if you retain some of your winnings for a bit. Just think of the explanation you’d need if you lost and got indentured for twenty years!”

(Ruth) “That’s a very good point.”

   The Official apparently hadn’t thought that there was anything wrong with keeping all of them – though; after all, they wouldn’t be indentured if they hadn’t either gotten into trouble or entered the game voluntarily. She had to admit that there was a bit of truth to his premise, even if she couldn’t agree with his conclusion!

   Damn it! Who did that child-official remind her of? She still couldn’t think of it! About fourteen, generically good-looking, remarkable reflexes, standard smartclothes, that same non-accent that even her little brother was starting to use… He’d said his name was Var’rin,

   That was really bothering her too! Were these people assimilating her little brother? He might just be adopting the accent that the teaching program used, and it might not mean much – but it just might! The “Otter Powers” had been bad enough!

   Her parents had warned her about them because they didn’t want her going otter hunting and shooting her brother – but apparently all he did to get them was to ask and agree to it! He hadn’t even asked his parents for permission! OK, they were pretty minor powers – but STILL.

   Dad could wait a bit! She turned and headed for the stream to have a little talk with some otters! Talking otters weren’t too hard to swallow for a Battling Business Worlder, but when they gave out powers to people, that got weird. Was it anything like that unicorn pervert who’d wanted to give her power and adopt her into his herd? Otters were always a bit silly, but Isaac was still far too young for anything like that even in Kadia! Had they just been giving him a teaser? A bit of power to remember them by? That was CREEPY. Had it been a boy otter or a girl otter who had offered him the power?

   Oh, maybe that was a bit paranoid. After all, the otters just hung around in playful groups, rather then setting themselves up as a herd stallion and harem.

   It was only a few minutes trip – and she asked them about adoptions and power-bestowal.

(Otter) “Well, you can’t ever be an otter! You’ve already got some cat-powers! You caught them from Core! They have lots of people there with genetic boosts already!”

(Ruth, a bit offended) “Like I’d want to be something with icky webbing.”

(Otter) “Mr Unicorn was too silly to notice that! Thinking too much with hormones he was! He would have been disappointed!”

(Ruth) “Yeah, I’ll say. He was pretty disappointed when I shot his beard off. No manliness for him either way!” (She grinned at the memory).

(Otter) “Anyway, was that what you were worried about? “

(Ruth) “Yeah, I just wanted to make sure he didn’t get in over his head.”

(Otter) “Why not? He swims really well now! Hard not to improve on human swimming!”

(Ruth, doing a facepalm for leaving an OTTER a straight line) “It was a metaphor and you know it.”

(Otter) “Why shouldn’t he be an otter later on if he decides he wants to be?”

   Huh. Her little brother, the world’s first Jewish otter.

(Ruth) “Well, it’s not really up to me, is it?”

(Otter) “You might be able to stop him! Or you arguing might push him our way! It averages out, and it’s a lot easier for us not to try and argue the point! Why work when you can play?”

   Eh, why stop Isaac’s fun now? He hadn’t been this playful since ever, and the otters – and the minor powers they’d given him – didn’t seem to be doing him any harm. At least they were giving him the choice. She crossed her arms.

(Ruth) “I guess I can see it your way. Pops says we should give you fish whenever we talk to you, so here.”

(Otter Chorus) “Thank you!”

   Sandy turned up to feed the otters. After all, Mr Gelman had promised. Ruth waved hello to him… Slave he might be, but at least HE was a happy one!

(Sandy) “Hello Ma’am!”

   Oh she was stupid! It was so OBVIOUS. Var’rin was another one like Sandy! Wait-a-minute… did these kids all have the same personality? What the hell was going on here?

(Ruth) “Hey, Sandy, do you know Var’rin?”

(Sandy) “Not offhand Ma’am! Does it matter?”

(Ruth) “You remind me of him. Do you have the same personality or something?”

(Sandy) “Not precisely Ma’am! We are all given training in how to conduct ourselves, in Core-style English, and in how to properly provide a variety of services, as a part of the package Ma’am!”

(Ruth) “That must be some good training. What’s it involve?”

(Sandy) “It’s imprinted on us along with the rest of the power package Ma’am!”

   Okay, now THAT was just a bit much! This “Kevin” can tailor people to his needs?

(Sandy) “Along with four martial arts, computer skills, athletic talents, the ability to acquire funds, servant training, and sexual skills Ma’am!.. Er… I’m sorry if you find that last embarrasing or upsetting Ma’am!”

   Well, she had blushed a bit there. Okay… She REALLY need edto talk to Pops right now and ask why he hadn’t let these kids go free! Unless he just wanted to keep them away from Kevin? But what would be the point in that when they were bound to him anyway?

   Still, “sexual skills”?!? How old was he, 14? Of course, they all – or at least the vast majority – looked to be about that age… Still!

(Ruth) “Uh, yeah, that is really weird!”

(Sandy) “But very quick and convenient Ma’am!”

(Ruth) “Yeah. Well, I’ve got to ask Pops about some stuff. See you later.”

(Sandy) “Certainly Ma’am!”

   OK. No more delaying! She HAD to talk to Pops! What in Sheol was going on around here?

   Mr Gelman was, of course, busy in his office, trying to balance some complicated displays – it looked like several hundred combinations of shipping routes. It gave her an instant headache just looking at it? How did he keep up with that?

   At least the others were busy elsewhere… Illona was helping Sophie in the Kitchen, while Isaac was splashing his feet in the pool while reading something on his heads-up display.

(Gelman) “Er… Hello Ruth! It’s not a school day, so how was the holiday today?”

(Ruth) “Oh, good, Pops. Can we have a private chat in your office?”

   She didn’t want to make Mom faint if she lost it.

(Gelman) “That should be simple enough dear; just close the door. What’s happened?”

(Ruth, bluntly) “Uh, yeah. Why haven’t you freed Sandy and Illona?”

(Gelman) “Because I can’t break the link, or their conditioning and programming; they were just assigned to me, so if I tell them to go free, they’d just go back to Kevin… Besides… As much as I hate to say it, their jobs aren’t at all bad, they have been paid in advance for their services, and Kevin does need agents. I’ve begun to suspect that he is, at worst, a necessary evil.”

(Ruth) “There’s got to be something we can do! Have you called a rabbi?”

(Gelman) “There are one or two here – and more in Core and back home – but they’re scholars, not warriors or exorcists. What could they do?”

(Ruth, LOUDLY) “Have you tried?”

   She was trying hard not to scream “lifting your head from YOUR DAMN PAPERWORK! THESE ARE HUMAN SOULS HERE!”

(Gelman, a bit weakly) “I’ve been trying to reduce his staffing needs…”

   Oh dear. Ruth was young enough to be entirely idealistic and unrestrained by practicality!

(Ruth) “Any luck?”

(Gelman) “I have managed to reduce the demand a good deal – but there are now nearly eighty million refugees in Kadia, and four million more arriving every day! With the number per day increasing steadily!”

(Ruth, somewhat appalled) “Well, where are they coming from?”

   Gelman showed her part of the list… currently the biggest contributors were the Linear Realms, the Anthropomorphic Worlds (where getting eaten and permanently dead was pretty normal), and the Crusader Kingdoms, with a selection from various other worlds.

(Ruth) “Huh. And another thing. What’s stopping this Kevin from doing this to me and Isaac?”

(Gelman) “Well, Isaac is underage.”

(Ruth, sharply) “And me?”

(Gelman) “And neither of you really want those powers that much… You’re from Battling Business World, and can’t really die the way most of them could before. And you’re not desperate, orphaned, on the streets, or anything like that – where a guarantee of life looks like a good deal.”

   OK, Pops was being evasive there. That went against everything she’d learned about human souls. She was going to have to be direct.

(Ruth) “Is there something wrong with my soul?”

(Gelman, rallying) “Or something right with it. Kevin’s operatives are required to work in many dimensions – and you’re too adaptable. You’d change to fit in, and that’s exactly the opposite of what he wants his operatives to do; he wants them to have a solid core of abilities to rely on.”

   Ruth had done some research. She knew that such adaptability was the defining feature of Phantasms – and that, at least as Core defined “souls”, they didn’t have any.

(Ruth) “So you’re saying… not having a soul is a good thing for me?”

(Gelman) “No! What I’m saying is that – as Sophie pointed out to me – that I don’t think that the Core’s definition of a Soul is really the right one!”

(Ruth) “I sure hope not.”

   That did bring up a lot of uncomfortable theological questions. What would happen when she faded into obscurity? Would she still return when the Messiah comes?

   Kevin would have said that she was an early manifestation of the racial soul, and would be there when all souls, at the end, were joined at last – but Ruth didn’t know that and, for all his power, Kevin was often wrong.

(Gelman) “Having a “Soul” the way Core defines it means that you reincarnate in other realms and help call realms into being. I don’t think that’s really required to be a person. Kevin claims to be a demon-lord – but he merely indentures his servants, and explains every facet of his bargain – both the benefits and the price – before offering a free choice of whether to accept it. And he sets most of them to work on rescue operations. If he is truly a lord of darkness, he is one that is ascending as others have fallen.”

(Ruth) “That’s weird. The opposite of the Christian Lucifer act?”

(Gelman) “In the boys own, bizarre, way it seems so.”

(Ruth) “Well, thanks, Pops. I was worried.”

   Ruth didn’t say thanks too often.

(Gelman) “You’re welcome dear.”

   Ruth headed back upstairs to her room. She had plans to make…

   With Ruth, plans could be terrifying things. She was meditating on becoming a sort of small-scale female Moses – with guns. First thing was to research some of these realms, to see why kids would be willing to come to Kadia and volunteer for enslavement.

   That did improve her opinion of Kevin a bit; most of them were coming as freely hosted refugees – and he left it up to them whether or not they wanted to accept his sales pitch. The ones who were already slaves had to serve an indenture if they didn’t sign up – but it wasn’t much of one! Food, shelter, all the education they wanted, medical care, lack of aging, entertainment, and chances to make money, with a required workload – most often “man the counter” or “act as tour guide” – of about four hours a day.

   Geez. Four hours was about as long as some of her cashier shifts had been back in New York – and she didn’t get anything but the chance to make money. If they’d gotten robbed, not even that.

   That wasn’t isn’t bad for limited-term “slavery”. It was just the statement of ownership that was offensive. Of course, some of the job-options were pretty immoral (at least by her standards), but he let them PICK what jobs they wanted; anybody with morals simply didn’t take one of the jobs that offended them.

   Anyway… in the Anthropomorphic Realms, being eaten and permanently killed was not an uncommon fate for children. In the Linear Realms, illegal kids were commonly killed or enslaved in a variety of ways by the syndicates or – if picked up by the authorities – were sterilized and put to work. The Crusader Kingdoms and Baelaria didn’t offer much child care, medical care, or much of anything else for stray kids; they had to work or starve. Basically, she had cartoon-style (or ruthless Beatrice Potter style) animals eating each other, no one giving a damn about the kids and cheerily exploiting them despite knowing better, and classical pre-modern attitudes toward childhood – with lesser messes in other worlds, but those were the biggest sources at the moment.

   Well, the animals were animals, and subject to nature even if they were intelligent. The historical and steampunk worlds would need social revolutions for her to have a lasting impact. She’d be going with the Linear Realms. Besides, she wanted to shoot people.

   But how was she going to persuade her parents to let her snag kids and free them in Kadia?

   Fait Accompli?

   But Pops had been making heavy use of the smartclothes features. He’d probably know if she left Kadia. She didn’t want to be grounded with so much to do!

   Wait a minute… Age fourteen to sign up for something that carried a risk of enslavement? Was that the local age of majority? Whoa. She’d never even thought to research that!

   It was fourteen?! In Kadia, she could walk out, ask for her own apartment, and do what she pleased! She could pull a Judith right now! Pops couldn’t have stopped her if she’d wanted to run away with that pervy unicorn, much less if she wanted to do something that was even remotely sensible! It was hard to believe that Pops hadn’t researched this more! He must have been desperate to get out of Battling Business World!

   She knew what she had to do. She was going to pack for school, including guns. And she was getting out tomorrow. Mom wouldn’t be happy, and Pops would definitely blow his top, but she needed to follow her conscience.

   Hm. It looked like the NeoDogs were pretty much running the rescue efforts in the Linear Realms.

   Well, she should meet with one of them. Fuzzy (Gelman’s NeoDog assistant – and that was what happened when Sophie gave things nicknames) had been a really good dog since Pops had bought him home. She’d go find one of the ones who was acting as a coordinator in the morning.

   She dropped in on Haiden – a black labrador-type canine. He heaved himself up into anthro form when she arrived, since he’d been doing computer coordination via his smartcollar’s neural link before.

(Haiden) “Hello (brief pause) Ms Gelman! You wished to speak to me about something?”

(Ruth) “Yeah, I wanted a little more info on the rescue efforts.”

(Haiden) “Well, with the increasing tensions – and outbreaks of open warfare – there, the illegal children are increasingly desperate and many others are going into hiding.”

   Haiden went into a lengthy overview of the massive rescue effort – although it was interrupted when Ruth abruptly really registered the fact that the creature – despite being in anthro form – wasn’t wearing a thing except his collar and fur.

(Ruth) “Lord, put some clothes on! I don’t need to see THAT!”

(Haiden) “My apologies! (Haiden had his smartcollar weave some fibers into shorts) Perhaps it would be best to set your smartclothes to filter such inputs in the future if they disturb you?”

   Ruth hadn’t even realized that that was possible. How much computer power was in these clothes anyway?

(Ruth) “Huh. Thanks for the tip.”

(Haiden) “Shall I continue then?”

(Ruth) “Yeah, go ahead.”

   The overview, with the current Neodog assignments, and the gate layouts, and so on, continued.

(Haiden) “Unfortunately, I can’t participate directly in the rescue efforts, since I proved unable to accept the soulbond and gain the necessary powers – so I’m assisting in the organizational and support side.”

(Ruth) “Any locals working with you?”

(Haiden) “Only a few social workers who have proved congenial. The local syndicates are also engaged in child-selling, but that is – at least – an improvement over their using them as involuntary organ donors, disposable slave labor, and playthings.”

(Ruth) “Grim. Know where I can find some of these social workers?”

(Haiden) “Certainly. I can pull that information for you quite easily.”

   He dumped it into her Smartclothes like the rest of the briefing.

(Ruth) “Ah, thanks for your time.”

   She set her smartclothes so nude people had boxers, and a T-shirt if they’re female, edited in!

(Haiden) “Oh, you’re quite welcome!”

   She had a computer notification anyway; she had signed up in advance for several more high-stakes games today.

   She went to get those over with.

   She’d moved up a category, so it was somewhat tougher.

   On the other hand, she was feeling inspired. She still managed to place second, first, and second – putting her up 7700 credits – and another indenture-slave. She had her choice of three males this time – a thirteen-year-old who’d gotten into trouble, a fifteen-year-old, and a seventeen-year-old. She took the youngest kid again, for the same reasons as last time. He was another one from the Linear Realms. He’d been used to running minor scams to support himself, and was apparently finding it hard to break the habit of scamming everyone he talked to.

   Hm. His daily allowance would normally be about 2.5 credits a week (it was larger for adults of course).

   Ver’rin still recommended that she retain ownership for the moment.

(Ruth) “Okay, kid. You’re working for me until one of two things happen. I lose, or I get another person to replace you. That fine? You get a salary of 5 credits a week, and don’t try scamming me. Oh, what’s your name?”

(Kid) “Er… Yes Mistress. My name is Harry”

(Ver’rin) “Since you’re retaining ownership, he’s had a light dose of obedience-conditioning. That has it’s advantages of course, and he should be obedient and well-behaved, but you are considered responsible for anything you order him to do!”

(Ruth) “Okay, that’s good.”

(Ver’rin) “Do you want him enhanced in any other way? You can certainly afford it at the moment.”

(Ruth) “No, let’s leave him as he is.”

(Ver’rin) “Very well. His smartcollar will provide you full access to its command and monitoring functions and can relay your orders and needs.”

(Ruth) “So, where are you from in that place, kid?”

(Harry) “Australia, Linear R-17 Mistress.”

(Ruth) “Please, call me Ruth. Ever wanted to go to New York, kid?”

   She’d be heading there first since she was curious about the New Yorks of the Manifold.

(Harry) “I never thought much about it Ruth!”

(Ruth) “Well, we’re going up there for a visit.”

(Harry) “We’ll need ID’s and things won’t we Ruth?”

(Ruth) “Yeah, I guess this thing’s not going to do.” (She produced her learner’s permit from Battling Business World).

   Harry was actually pretty impressed with that; his new owner’s family was wealthy enough to have a private vehicle! One that they would let an underage daughter learn on!

(Ruth) “It became sapient when I was practicing parallel parking. Then it decided it wanted to go to Chile. Stupid waste of five hundred dollars.”

   Harry looked pretty confused at that one. Why… Oh.

(Ruth) “Oh, right, cars don’t become sapient where you’re from.”

(Harry) “Er… Not that I’ve ever heard of anyway!”

(Ruth) “So, know where we can get some fake IDs?”

(Harry) “From the syndicates usually, but there might be somewhere around here too!”

   Considering Kadia, there probably was. She checked the listing… It looked like the equipage specialists could provide gear, clothing, false, papers, and more. They did note that she would have to use her smartclothes to upload supporting information while visiting the more advanced realms. She’d have to try to do that as subtly as possible.

   Hm… They could be school chums. She’d be emancipated, and he was her friend. She’d be a babysitter of sorts. His parents were deceased, and she’d adopted him. She could have quite a bit of the local currency fairly cheaply. She’d have to be – supposedly – a bit older than she really was, but that wouldn’t really be a problem.

   Oh, maybe she’d have to think about that a bit more, or just give her specifications to the outfitters and let them come up with something. They’d know the local conditions and she didn’t as of yet.

Federation-Apocalypse Session 103b – Malignant Operations

   Brenner was quite glad that he’d decided to condition the crew. Otherwise they never would have agreed to sail off the edge of a world… Even for him it was a shock as the ship changed around him, picking up paddle-wheels, a steam boiler, and supplemental sails as the steel hull transformed to copper-sheathed wood, and the sky suddenly began to look curiously like a dome. Off to the port side a sea monster was disporting itself, and the bottom was shallow; he could see the sand and weeds of the bottom and the ripples of a steady current. The crew were suddenly dressed like something out of “The Voyages Of Sinbad” – although their smartcollars were still working normally.

   He laughed after a moment and adjusted his own Smartclothes to suit the “Sinbad” role and took the tiller. Why not ham it up a bit?

(Brenner) “Into the unknown, men!”

   The dogs flanked him as his vessel glided over the sea, passing several mysterious islands. The water rippled as it flowed faster and faster towards a horizon that seemed closer and closer at every moment. He called for more coal and full sail as the men pointed ahead in terror;

(Crew) “What is that master! The Sea! The Sea is vanishing into clouds!”.

(Brenner) “That is our destination, men. Have courage!”

   After all, otherwise he’d just shoot them in the head anyway…

   There were cries of shock and dismay from the crew as the sea droped away from beneath the ship. The foaming waterfall, with occasional fish leaping sideways from it to flash in the sun, yielded a rich harvest of rainbows as it toppled down into the abyss towards the… elephant? (Really? Oh come on! Seriously?). He could see the thousand-mile long tusk thrusting forth, a long, long, curve which obscured most of the even vaster turtle below on which the cosmic elephant stood.

   OK, the silliness could be cut with a knife, but still – what a VIEW. That alone was worth the trip!

   The ship hurtled onwards, out across the mist and air, cleaving the clouds above the airs of the earth, it’s paddle-wheels thundering. They drove across the fathomless abyss towards the sign of the Cornucopia, hurtling towards the celestial dome that stood between the earth and infinity – a vast sweep of darkness, infinitely deep, and yet so very close that Brenner could almost touch it.

   They passed into night, to emerge into the wildspace beyond the crystal sphere – and to sweep across the flowing elemental chaos to pass through a curtain of astral mist and into the waters of the Dyson seas of the Step-Function Galaxies – leaving the Great Elephants, the even Greater Turtle, the flat disk of the Earth, and pretty much everything that he’d recently considered the limits of reality, far, far, behind.

   Hm… It looked like the ship was somewhat more modern than it had been – had his pets been meddling? – and evidently the place wasn’t QUITE uninhabited; there was radio traffic from roughly twelve hundred miles away…

(Brenner) “Did you tinker with the ship Rex?”

(Rex) “Things do tend to adapt when you shift realms master! Especially in the more extreme realms! But we did upgrade the ship a bit on arrival here master! It would be hard to get fuel oil here!”

(Brenner) “Oh good. I felt like I was in a cheesy B-movie, and that would get old… I should visit some more of these worlds when I have more spare time.”

   Hm. The radio traffic had some light scrambling – but it wasn’t anything that the smartclothes couldn’t decipher easily. It seemed to be nothing but simple chatter from some sort of exploratory group – quite a coincidence that, unless there was some sort of rule that drew people together here. There might be; how else could they find each other in a dimension where livable space came by the cubic light year?

   Still, he could simply survey a few of the nearest asteroid-archipelagos while he listened. There were a few references to a “High Lord” and to passing reports back to… Mars? Clearly not from any place he was familiar with! They did seem to be at least quasi-military though.

   Brenner opted to avoid them. No need to make trouble with possible military forces and it wasn’t like there weren’t millions of square miles of ocean for them to get lost in.

   There were fish, breezes, storms, asteroids entangled in plants, places where trees miles tall reared out of the ocean… and plenty of usable asteroids suitable for a little homesteading. Let them try to pull his medical license here! He could simply declare his own country!

   Hm… Scenery was easy. Every spot with a clear view of the sky showed hundreds of millions of square miles of scenery… The rougher asteroids provided a towering mountainous backdrop, with many crags and valleys – as well as gas bubbles, caverns, and hollows suitable for a secret base.

   Somehow he was beginning to give himself a distinct super-villain vibe. He’d have to watch for that; if he found himself starting to cackle, encasing himself in powered battle armor, or tinkering with orbital mind control lasers, it would definitely be time for a vacation…

(Thatcher, who had been watching him survey the layout of the land) “Will this do Master?”

(Brenner) “Can you tell if it’s hollow?”

(Thatcher) “I think there are some major hollows deep inside, but there are a number of deep ravines, gas bubbles, and caves that might do. How much space are you looking for Master?”

(Brenner) “Enough for an aircraft carrier, perhaps?”

(Thatcher) “I don’t think there are any quite that big on this side Master! I can’t feel anything more than five or six hundred feet across!””

   Five or six hundred feet? Wait, how big a vehicle could one of these dogs move? He’d never had much interest in naval units, but…

   Better than a thousand feet long. Hundreds of feet wide. Many stories. Up to a hundred thousand tons or so. A floating base for nearly six thousand people, a hundred planes, and any number of small boats.

   And they could hold a gate open for hours. One of these dogs could more an army or a naval fleet between worlds – and he’d been handed six. Casually. He could go into partnership with some petty warlord and seize some primitive world if he was so inclined…

   Argh! He could feel the super-villainy, he evil cackle, and the bad fashion sense sneaking up on him now!

   For now, he’d settle for a cavern suitable to house his secret base… Hopefully that wasn’t the first step towards a mask, tights, and cape!

   How extensive were this “Kevin’s” operations anyway? What was he involved with?

(Brenner, to Thatcher) “See if you can find a good cave, then.”

(Thatcher) “Yes Master! There are some over this way!”

   The caverns had an odd look to them. They were much more wildly irregular than he’d expected. Of course, the fact that the local gravity was pretty minimal changed things a lot… It had been pretty comical to watch the crew flailing about before getting their bearings. Oddly enough, it hadn’t seemed to affect him… Ah. His pets had exerted a bit of telekinesis to stabilize him whenever he was having a problem. Now that was quiet and unobtrusive service!

   Still, he’d laughed at the slaves a good bit… (they’d apologized for their clumsiness). Could he get gravity control for his quarters? There was probably something that could be done about it out here. If there could be worlds that were literally being carried on the back of elephants riding on cosmic turtles bigger than Jupiter, there weren’t many things that were impossible.

   Exploring turned out to be less exciting than he’d thought it might be. There were some very large birds and oversized squirrels, giant butterflies, big dragonflies, crabs, shellfish, bobcat-sized cats, a few lizards and… ah. The place had been DESIGNED to be a hospitable environment for humans. It was hard to believe that some hostile creatures wouldn’t have crept in somewhere – but given the scale, and the fact that he had been looking for a safe refuge, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that he wasn’t finding much in the way of dangerous animals – and his pets were quite capable of keeping him out of danger from anything short of a major disaster. Come to think of it, with no tectonic plates, intentionally-stable suns, and self-organizing Dyson-sphere-worlds, were major disasters even possible in this universe?

   Anyway, there were exotic fruits and flowers, fresh air, fish, and – by Linear Realms standards – an endless – and almost literally boundless – luxury of space and natural surroundings. It was a delightfully relaxing environment, complete with his pets to attend him – and the sailors to busy themselves with ship maintenance, cooking, building him a shelter, and setting up a picnic.

(Brenner) “Ahh… I feel like crab.”

   Rex ran off to fetch some while Thatcher stood guard.

(Brenner) “This is a good secret base site. Don’t you think so?”

(Thatcher) “Yes Master! It would be difficult to get more concealed from most of the universe, and that exploration group is at least eight hundred miles away, and probably a good deal more!”

(Brenner) “Good dog.”

(Thatcher) “Thank you Master!”

   He had the slaves start to set up the foundation for a small commercial space in one of the caves – deep enough inside to make it awkward for any “explorers” to wander in. A sea entrance, a suitable area for docking the boat, a “secret headquarters” back up in the dry area… He’d have to get some real equipment though; there was only so much that could be done with rocks, wood, bamboo, and seaweed outside of classic sitcoms.

   He’d have to go back to the hellhole of the Linears. As much as he hated to. He could get used to this fresh air… it would be easy to retire here. Maybe after he had his real estate setup making a profit?

  Before he went back…

(Brenner) “Thatcher? Why were you and Rex willing to obedience-condition the crew?”

(Thatcher) “Well… they were brought into Kadia as your property, so you were entitled to have them modified – and obedience-conditioning is pretty standard for slaves master.”

(Brenner) “How traceable would this be back home? And just how dependent are these men on me now?”

(Thatcher) “A strong psychic probing their minds could easily note it, and might be able to undo it. They regard you as their proper owner and master, but are capable of functioning with a fair degree of independence, just as we are. They are bonded and programmed in a similar fashion, albeit far more throughly on the conscious levels. We can’t go as deep as Lord Kevin does with us though.”

   Hm. That was easy enough. If he kept them on the ship, they weren’t likely to encounter a strong psychic. He’d just have to make a note of that when it came to crew replacements. Still, he was pretty leery of conditioning all his employees. Psychics were slippery…

   Of course, anyone he imported here probably should be conditioned. He wouldn’t want anything unexpected going on behind his back – and it was going to be bad enough concocting a cover story for the trip. Maybe medical stasis? Or at least making sure that the portholes were very grimy and stuck shut? That would be cheap enough, and ought to work just fine.

(Brenner) “How does Lord Kevin make you anyway?”

   That got a fair amount of explanation. They’d apparently been normal Neodogs – although that apparently meant boosted physical abilities, high intelligence, self-healing, and speech – and then “Lord Kevin” had used his divine powers to conclude a contract with them, granting them lots of additional powers.

(Brenner) “Divine power?” (He wasn’t going to argue with it after having seen the Manifold, but it was still hard to swallow!)

(Thatcher) “He’s a god or demon lord. The terms are really sort of interchangeable and depend on which culture is looking.”

   A demon-god? It fit in a way… Well, he couldn’t say that he cared very much as long as he wasn’t singled out for some sort of divine wrath!

   He spent the next couple of weeks establishing a facility and importing more personal slaves. It was such a scenic place – and watching the slaves flail around until they got their bearings never got old!

   Besides, while he was getting a bit of information back, he was still waiting on the locations of the last few safehouses for the Red Scimitars.

   The fourth trip back abruptly got exciting…

   As he was coming off from the monotrain from the docks, a middle-aged fellow nearby abruptly detonated a bomb-vest – but Rex knocked him flat ahead of the blast.

   Goddamn Red Scimitars! They’d caught on somehow! Probably one of their damned psychics!

   They had a followup team too! At least three people blasting away with small arms and two men moving in with knives!

   He always kept his gun handy – but he had to hope that his bodyguard-pets were pretty damned good at their jobs – and Thatcher had already taken a couple of bullets; he’d better not expect too much from her. At least Rex was moving to defend him – but five to one wasn’t good, even with screaming-and-running innocent bystanders about to use as cover. At least the pistol fire was slacking off as the knife-and-hand axe (how traditional could you get?) men were moving in.

   Oh, one of the pistol-users seemed to suddenly be on fire… Now THAT was handy; he’d almost forgotten that his pets could do that. Fortunately, most of the likely witnesses were running like mad at the moment.

   He started rolling back while firing at the guys closing with knives – focusing on the one that Rex wasn’t lunging for… A (fortunate) shot to the chest took him down, unconscious or dying. With Rex locked in a fang-to-hand grapple with the other melee artist, that left Thatcher between him and two gunmen. Fortunately she managed to take a couple of bullets for him.

   Presuming they survived, both of his pets were definitely getting steaks when he got home. Brenner rolled behind a bench and kept firing. The light structure wasn’t much cover, but it was the best available, which – along with the fact that a little way beyond this point there were a lot of possible routes available, was probably one of the reasons the ambushers had picked this particular point.

   Only a couple of hits so far, and nothing too serious. His smartclothes were handling the glancing shots – but Thatcher took several more slugs hurling herself towards the gunmen, even if she did get her jaws locked around one gunman’s hand.

   He put a slug into the one fighting with Rex. It was the only one he had a clear shot on – and it would leave Rex free to take out the other two; the one who’d caught fire had it out and was up again. Rex would take a few slugs doing it – but better Rex than HIM. He didn’t have enhanced healing powers!

   Rex rolled free, lunging towards the last gunman as the one who’d been on fire burst into flames again and went down. He took a couple more hits – but he was still doing fairly well when his blood-soaked pets took down the last of the hit squad. He’d taken several more small hits – but the willingness of his pets to take multiple bullets for him, and his smartclothes, kept his skin mostly intact.

   They actually were loyal enough to die for him – and he knew damned well that they didn’t approve of him. How the hell did “Kevin” achieve that result and still leave them independent enough to act effectively? For that matter, how could they still be on their feet? Thatcher had taken at least eight bullets, but was still moving. Rex had several stab wounds and some bullet wounds, but seemed to be in better shape. It had to be part of their psychic abilities – although maybe their smartcollars were doing something. They ought to be in shock at the least, or suffering from multiple organ failure even if the smartcollars were blocking most of the bleeding.

   Still, as long as they WERE still functioning… He had several unconscious attackers and a few dead. He grabbed the most important-looking one amongst the unconscious and got out. Security had to be on it’s way, and with an explosion and gunfire the police wouldn’t be far behind – if they didn’t beat the local security, who wouldn’t be any too eager to get into the middle of something like this.

   Hm… At a quick guess, “most important” looked like one of the melee specialists. The unconscious body he grabbed seemed incredibly light though. Adrenalin? No, that would be wearing off. One or both of the dogs STILL had the power to spare after keeping themselves alive to help him out with telekinesis?

   Well, he wouldn’t look the gift horse in the mouth.

   He headed for the closest safehouse… It took some sneaking, and a minor illusion or two courtesy of Rex and Thatcher, but they successfully evaded the police.

(Thug) “Geez boss, what happened?”

(Brenner) “I decided to eat Chinese. What do you think happened? Restrain this idiot.”

   He got into his surgical outfit, with all his lovely sharp tools – and waited for his new “patient” to wake up. He checked Rex and Thatcher while he was waiting… Rex was mostly healed already, and Thatcher was healing at an incredible rate – although she found his getting the bullets out helpful. Well, that saved on sutures and anesthetics.

   They both seemed a bit… embarrassed? Oh for… It was becoming pretty obvious how they thought; they’d been assigned as bodyguards, they’d failed to spot the ambush, and now they were feeling guilty about it. It wasn’t like they could possibly be perfect – and they’d spotted it in time to push him down before the blast wave hit. It was hard to ask for more than that.

(Brenner) “Hmph. That was a well-planned ambush. But we’re all in one piece… mostly.”

   He had the aides bring them some steaks.

   Hm. On evaluation, evidently the “military models” had no compunctions at all about attacking, killing, or enslaving, humans. Maybe their makers weren’t as soft and crazy as he’d thought. He’d gotten a fair deal then!

   His prisoner came awake shortly after he’d gotten back to him – and had started to froth a bit, then had stopped.

(Brenner) “Everybody step back!”

(Thatcher, on the private links) “He tried to poison himself Master! I’d heard of the “hollow tooth” gag, but I’d never actually seen it!”

(Brenner) “Oh. Well, he’s in for it now.”

   Brenner engaged in a bit of interrogation, and had his thugs knock the guy around a bit – but found that the dogs were capable of reading surface thoughts, even though they said that the guy had apparently had some basic shield-training somewhere.

   Well, that at least confirmed that the tong had some minor psychics.

   Hm. It looked like the Tong had noticed his inquires, traced them back somehow, and had decided to terminate them with extreme prejudice. Still, his pets could read bits of routes, thoughts of safehouses, and a good deal of other information; it might not have been enough on it’s own – but his agents had reported some information, and he’d had some already.

   Dammit. Well, time to get direct.

(Brenner) “Well, you’re going to answer them for me.”

   He picked up his most intimidating set of forceps.

(Brenner) “Or we’ll widen your mouth so we can get them out. Now… where is the nearest Tong safehouse?”

   Ah, that did get a few more useful bits from his thoughts. He should be able to find them fairly soon, especially if he sent one of the other dogs to look.

   Well, he clearly couldn’t let the man live, and if I recall correctly, I’m banned only from vivisecting children. Still, enough torture might get a little more information – and he looked healthy enough. His organs would fetch a decent price on the black market.

   Rex still had enough power left for some healing, which made the eventual breaking much more of a sure thing – although it took a lot of time to put together any really coherent answers.

   Rex, of course, felt that he was working for a monster – but Kevin had assigned him here, so it presumably served Kevin’s purposes, which was good enough.

   Eventually they had some good locations, and a fair amount on the structure of the Tong.

   Rex noted that – if they took him along the next time they went to Kadia – Brenner could have obedience and easy answers.

   That wasn’t a bad idea. The man was ethnically Chinese (really the only reason he’d assumed that he was important), and – once made obedient – he could be quite useful. He’d sedate him and keep him under “observation.”

   Rex was better satisfied with that. At least he was saving SOMEBODY. It was hard to blame people for wanting to kill Dr Brenner. He was NOT a nice man!

   Dr Brenner got a bone for Thatcher while he was at it, since she’d been hurt more severely.

   He had to think about acquiring some personal power. That “move an aircraft carrier”, “stop eight bullets and still fight and heal in hours afterwards”, and “adapt a ship to the physics of a flat world on elephants and a turtle” was sort of saying he was involved with things he wasn’t entirely ready to handle, no matter how good he was in his at using people and the dogs. Oh well, that was a note for later. The Tong was a little closer to home, so he’d focus on that for the moment.

   It looked like most of the Tongs income came from the classics – drugs and sex. Low expenses, fairly high profits, and with the world running downhill a big demand. They weren’t above providing services that were pretty hard on their “employees” either. He put the other four dogs to work hitting the profits for the moment… Sending masses of vermin into their brothels, using molecular-level telekinesis to ruin their drug shipments, and so on. The dogs were rather a lot of supernatural muscle, and he had no reason not to use it! It wasn’t directly traceable either! It’d be slower than a direct attack – but there wasn’t any rush when he had such a secure location to fall back to.

   Direct attack… Wait. The dogs could easily shapeshift into the form of small animals, and canine jaws did have devastating effects on throats. He doubted that anyone would notice a rat skulking into some Tong operative’s apartment – and the mysterious deaths would have some impact. The size-shifting shapechange was one of the things the local psychics just couldn’t do.

   That did start causing some chaos. He let them do a little kidnaping too, using “Charm” spells on some of the kids of upper-level Tong types, as well as throwing minor curses, illusions, and similar indirect stuff to go with the hits.

   Should he hold the kids hostage? Their tender little hearts were so tempting… High-quality child organs were so profitable! People would pay ANYTHING for their own kids to live! Still, he had agreed to sell them to Kadia… He let the dogs guard them while he made up his mind.

   Just having the kids vanish would provoke some chaos, and was less risky then messages were – but there was something… (Rex pushed a bit) Oh, that was so OBVIOUS! Ship them to Kadia as slaves to be programed to obey him! That would be a really long-term takeover scheme of course – but it would make great backup! Why kill or imprison your enemies when you could dominate them instead?

   His pets warned him that it had limits; if he abused his slaves too much the conditioning would eventually start to fail. It would only take a modest amount of consideration to keep them from ever considering trying to resist though.

   He’d watch out for that – although it made it a lot easier to populate his asteroid-island! It would be a near-perfect safehouse!

   And by now he’d gotten enough equipment and materials there to be getting pretty comfortable.

   How could he get more of these wondrous “Military-Class NeoDogs”?

   What could he trade to “Kevin” – who evidently had enough to simply assign them by the thousands to gathering children and was his only known source – for more?

   Well, “Kevin” wanted more kids. Well, he had a deal on marketing the ones from THIS dimension – but they’d probably be ready to make more deals for kids from OTHER dimensions, and he hadn’t guaranteed that he wouldn’t ask for other prices for some of the ones from the Linear Realms!

(Brenner) “Rex, Thatcher. Tell me what worlds are nearby.”

   That was another long discussion – and wound up talking about souls too. That limited things down to the “Disaster Realms”, which had lots. How many kids would it take to buy another dog?

   He’d have to work on some more trips! And some more reward-options other than steaks… What would they like?

   Oh. Treats, walks/runs, someone assigned to do petting, combing, etc, permission to spend a bit of their daily power reserves on themselves and their own comforts sometimes, new computer games, educational programs, chew toys… Well, he’d been going to get some toys and such for the captive kids, now that he had to keep them conscious and not remove their organs, even if they were being turned into docile little slaves. Might as well throw in some stuff for his pets as well.