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?
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.