Federation-Apocalypse Session 106b – Down on the Pharm

   Back in Kadia, Mr Gelman had dark circles under his eyes again. Sending Thralls to look after Ruth was weighing on his conscience – even if they were sending regular reports and were doing the odd rescue mission on the side. It helped – and it wasn’t as if an executive from Battling Business World found anything disturbing in a report that ended in “and then I got killed, so I’m reporting in person before heading back” – but it kept reminding him that Ruth had taken along a child who could actually die, and be gone for good. Wolverine genegrafts (what a choice!) and a bit of healing cyberware might help of course – but what if it wasn’t enough? She had better protect the boy!

   He tried not to consider the possibility of him being a bargaining chip. He taught her better than that!

   He had the Thralls make a special effort on the boys behalf. If it came to a choice between letting Ruth and the boy, they were to save him. Ruth would wake up the next morning at home if she died; the boy wouldn’t.

   Over in the Linear Realms, Ruth was getting acquainted with the realm and giving the neodogs a hand in getting kids out – although the was having a bit of trouble adapting to a realm where casual violence wasn’t the norm… Still, given the current situation there it looked like – for a girl of her talents – there would be a simple way out even if she did get into trouble; the realm was in desperate need of good fighters – enough so that joining the military as a good prospect would get you out of a lot of things.

   Just like her sister in some ways.

   Gelman eventually managed to tear himself away from the reports. At least his wayward daughter seemed to be off on an over-idealistic kick about helping rescue other kids directly, rather than turning evil. It seemed that Kadia WASN’T corrupting her. That, at least, was a relief.

   That left him with those “high stakes games” to consider! Those stakes were a bit much!

   Hm… There are the two categories – the ones who paid for the privilege of playing, and the ones who got sentenced to play.

   Wait, sentenced? What was this, Pyongyang?

   It looked like… juvenile delinquents for the most part, as well as gangs that wanted to challenge each other. Out of each game with 60 or so players the top three won large prizes (if they were voluntary players) and the bottom three got twenty-year indentures to “simulate the possibility of a real death”.

   It said something (possibly bad) about his adjustment to Kadia and the Manifold that his first reaction was NOT to spew his latte all over the holographic display.

   He still wasn’t happy though. Now they were turning indenturing kids into games? They might all expect to live forever in Kadia of course – but twenty years?

   So; the persistent delinquents who resisted counseling were getting dumped into the games; if they won, they got modest prizes. The worst losers were indentured. The ones in the middle just got sent on their way – although if they didn’t take the warning they’d wind up in a game again in a few months. It looked like Kadia didn’t really have any corrective system for juveniles who didn’t respond to computer counseling.

   What, were Core children so well-behaved they didn’t know how to deal with that possibility?

   On further research, it actually looked like it; everyone in Core was raised by the computers, and was throughly used to being counseled by them – and any irrational tendencies were medically corrected in early childhood. It helped that there was really no escaping the computers, or observation, or instantly available restraints in Core. You couldn’t really con people who were used to consulting the computers, or assault people meaningfully, or cheat them, or really do much of anything naughty in Core.

   Core actually DIDN’T have a problem with out-of-control juveniles outside of the ones who wandered off into the Manifold – and THEY weren’t IN Core any longer!.

   So Kevin Sanwell apparently hadn’t considered the possibility of having to deal with juvenile delinquents, which was understandable – but that was what caused things like this to happen! Just like with that Ikeran boy and Dr Brenner!

   The place was so superficially reasonable that he kept forgetting… Kevin drew his administrative staff randomly from across the Manifold. How many upper level decision-makers did he have?

   He was on Business Management and Training, “Kelsaru” was on General Administration, and “Ramira Al’Fatim” was on Data Security. There are some Thralls – a few with “Offices” – who had started handling some stuff though – and a bunch of Neodogs who were running individual projects like “Meme Research”, “Bodyguarding”, “Meme Treatment”, “Uplift Operations”, and “Project Midnight Gardener” – among other areas. What did those mean anyway?

   Tabard wasn’t a major decision maker? Oh, wait a minute… Kevin had worked with him long enough to realize WHY Tabard shouldn’t be making major decisions.

   Or perhaps it was just that he was – like Kevin himself – generally on field operations.

   Apparently the high-stakes games had been introduced by this “Kelsaru” person.

   He came up with a quick proposal for a juvenile correctional facility and checked on setting up a meeting with her.

   She did seem to be available. In fact, there actually wasn’t much on her schedule right now – although she looked like she was in some sort of specialized establishment or environment right now – and… Abigail would be by there early tomorrow too? Why? What kind of establishment? What did a “Core Overlay Zone” mean? A communal household of some sort? And Kevin had his apartments – or possibly a small palace judging by the scale – there as well.

   A communal household and a palace? That sounded suspiciously like servants’ quarters – or a harem.

   Oh dear. The boy had been associating with Marty, and Marty was a spectacularly bad example – it had been pretty obvious that Marty had been keeping several girls around his apartment – and Kevin was a teenager. He’d better assume that it was a harem.

   But that meant… that Kevin was putting his girlfriends in charge of major segments of his organization? When he was operating on THIS scale? He’d never seen anyone go beyond normal nepotism to such an extent… Well, it would explain some of the erratic decisions!

   He sighed, shook his head, and asked Fern if she would like to come along. The device would have no idea of why he might want company on such a visit, but she would do for company anyway.

   Oh well. He’d seen that the boy tended to organize by grabbing the nearest person and saying “You’re in charge of that!” – but now that he’d been providing some guidance the boy had actually set up a training program for administrators, and he’d actually appointed a few managers with defined responsibilities, which was certainly encouraging.

   Wait… was the boy reluctant to make formal appointments because that would constitute an employment contract, and he couldn’t break his contracts? Surely any sensible contract would include a termination clause? Well, at least he wasn’t appointing villains… The trainees were mostly just somewhat bookish kids.

   He decided to wait until Abigail was visiting. At least that way he could be sure that there wouldn’t be an orgy or something going on!

   Unless she was planning something violent. Come to think of it, he’d better get in touch with her first.

(Abigail) “Hello there Gelman! What’s going on? And is there a good source for green food coloring out there? The Saint Patrick’s Day Wars have destroyed every bottle in New York and I need some for the icing! Blackie did get quite excited about participaing though, since he didn’t want to be driven out of Manhattan, even if it was only for a week.”

(Gelman) “Did you know you’re visiting a harem, Abigail?”

(Abigail, looking slightly embarrassed). “Well… Yes. It’s not exactly full of young women in veils though. (She dropped her voice slightly) Kevin’s one of those people who takes recreational medication, or whatever the equivalent is for people like him – and the young dragonesses are quite sensible! More so than almost anyone else I know!”

(Gelman) “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be – wait, dragonesses?”

(Abigail) “Er… Well… Kevin seems to like being a dragon.”

   Gelman puckered… Was that technically bestiality? Well, no; Beasts are non-sapient. Alienality? It wasn’t exactly unknown in Battling Business World. Would it depend on whether or not they were all shapeshifters? That would be fine, if weird. Wait, if they all had souls, wouldn’t they all be fundamentally human? Never mind, he had business to do!

(Gelman) “Ah. I see. I will be joining you shortly. I have business there as well.”

   Abigail had spent too much time in close contact with Marty. For a moment, she looked at him quite doubtfully…

(Abigail) “Business?”

(Gelman reddened) “Actual business – not sex.”

(Abigail) “Ah, well, I really didn’t think that… It’s just… Marty… And I haven’t been able to hit him with a frying pan for two whole months!”

(Gelman) “Why not spar with Jenkins instead? Dealing with the reach will be good for you!” (He will winced, remembering just how nasty Jenkins could be with a naginata.

(Abigail) “It’s good practice, but it’s just not as satisfying! Although… It has seemed more appropriate since I met her ex-husband.”

(Gelman) “Oh Lord. Don’t tell me he started begging at YOUR doorstep!”

(Abigail) “He followed her over once. I gave him some cake; he seemed to need it… He did seem pretty pathetic!”

(Gelman) “Try watching his degeneration week by week at the bar. How many holes did they put in your exterior walls when she found out?” (He was almost certain that most of the holes had been Welshman-shaped).

(Abigail) “I couldn’t count – but the kids fixed them right up. It’s eerie the way they just do that sort of thing so casually! But that was what eliminated my food coloring stocks!”

(Gelman) “Anyway, let’s continue our discussion there. I’ll see what I can do about your supply situation.”

(Abigail) “I’ll see you early tomorrow then!”

(Fern) “Dimensional Roaming Charges now being routed to your expense account Mr Gelman!”

(Gelman) “Oy vey. Well, thank you for notifying me, Fern.”

(Fern) “I think they go under “Petty Cash” anyway Mr Gelman!”

(Gelman) “I keep forgetting. Are you still joining me tomorrow?”

(Fern) “Of Course Mr Gelman! And I found you a decorative alien secretary to help with your office work too! Very efficient!”

(Gelman chuckled) “Make sure you charge up, then. I’d hate to see you incinerated or worse.”

(Fern) “I would hate that too! I’m not under warranty any longer!”

   Gelman procured some packages of food coloring for Abigail – as well as a treat for an old but estranged friend he’d helped when he arrived off the boat from the United Kingdom…

(Gelman) “Oh dear!”

   That was the problem with upgrading one’s smartphone instead of just buying a new one!

(Gelman) “Well, good thing I can repair you. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

   Was the Neitzchian is trying to manipulate the Numbers? Now THERE was a terrifying thought! So many of the Toonworlds illustrated ultimate futility fairly well. Now that he was out of it, it did seem that Battling Business World might fall into that category. Perhaps some sort of shadow war? Did Lord Zero want to move to Core? Wasn’t that a futile effort for a supernatural inhuman entity by definition?

   Well, he had those fire-proofing pills from Corrigan. It was impossible to give them to Fern, but he might need the fire resistance if he was going to visit a bunch of dragons!

   Wait… maybe it was possible to give some to Fern.

   Simply associating with Kevin had resulted in him developing a few special powers. That had been very, very, confusing until he’d researched the matter, and still was a cause for doubts. Kevin wasn’t evil incarnate, but the powers – at least according to what he’d found – meant that he was sincerely supporting the boy.

   He’d asked Sandy and gotten the same information that Ruth apparently had – that some Thralls DID worship Kevin, but that Kevin said that that was silly, since he gave them all the power he could in exchange for their indentures. People who simply supported seemed to be getting some power too, but Kevin hadn’t said much about that.

   Still, if that shift helped the young man run a more ethical and organized operation, he wasn’t going to fuss too much.

   At least that policy of “You can worship me if you want to, but it’s silly” was reassuring in it’s own eccentric fashion. Kevin wasn’t trying to pit himself against the LORD. The boy apparently even accepted the theology of the Unified Church – even if that wasn’t too demanding. He just seemed to draw a distinction between GOD and being a “minor god”. He seemed to consider it a technical term!

   Could he make them into a sapient-smartphone compatible form using his strange new powers? Perhaps a data chip conversion?

   It seemed that he could – although he might just be drawing on Sandy and Illona, who still had a lot more raw power than he did.

(Gelman) “All right, Fern. This should give you some protection from flame breath.”

(Fern) “Thank you! Please try not to get breathed on anyway though! It would ruin your new suit!”

   He was nearly distracted enough to miss the large, sweet-scented, multicolored flowering bush which snaked out a tendril and handed him his long-range uplink amplifier on the way out. He was used to bushes shooting thorns at him, not handing him helpful tools.

(Gelman, absently) “Oh, thank you.”

(Synthesized voice) “You are welcome Mr Gelman!”

   As he was heading out to the flit, he did a bit of a double-take and turned to Fern on his shoulder. (Gelman) “Was that a BUSH?”

(Fern) “Yes Mr Gelman! I finally found a source for decorative alien secretaries!”

(Gelman) “Huh. Well, good work. (Pause) Does it need to be trimmed?”

(Fern) “Not really Mr Gelman! It just needs fertilizer, soil, water, and light! The office systems are handling all of that!”

(Gelman) “Oh, good!”

   Just why had he feared her sapience so much? This was just fine!

   Kevin’s little – OK, rather enormous – establishment seemed to be mostly carved into a small mountain, with a variety of massive balconies and terraces, and was surrounded by some rather lovely gardens and wild areas. At least the boy seemed to have more class than Marty!

   A medium-sized gold dragon with a collar on it answered the door.

   Wait, how did a four-legged, entirely un-anthropomorphic, creature with no hands answer the door? They must rely almost entirely on telekinesis or magic or the local force-field systems to do things… He should have expected that; dragons were beings of magic, and he’d been thinking of humans with scales on.

(Gold) “Hello Mr Gelman!”

(Gelman) “Hello. Is Miss Kelsaru in?”

(Gold) “Yes Sir! Although I must advise you that she is a trifle broody at the moment!”

(Gelman) “Broody?”

   Depressed? Hmm, was there something going on between her and Mr. Sanwell?

(Gold) “She’s going to clutch soon, and – while that isn’t nearly as burdensome as a human pregnancy – it does affect her moods a bit Sir!”

   OH. THAT kind of “broody”. Er, well… Bother. It looked like he’d chosen the worst possible time to show up. No choice though… he’d have to risk it.

(Gelman) “May I speak with her?”

(Gold) “Certainly Sir! Right this way!”

   He went. Hopefully clutching female dragons were not as bad as delivering human women!

   Kelsaru turned out to be a red dragoness, currently curled up in a rather large (and apparently very, very, comfortable) room with a couple attendants and quite an assortment of gems and ornaments. It made quite a contrast to her attendants simple collars… She did look a trifle plump at the moment of course. She seemed to be issuing instructions for setting up a basic educational program for youngsters from primitive realms. Some sort of “outreach program” or some such. She sounded reasonable enough, if a bit impatient.

   Well, she couldn’t be THAT bad then!

   Still, he’d best get to the point then.

   Kelsaru, or course, had been busy setting up another recruiting tool. Now that she had the mass enthrallments so well organized, it was time to see about upgrading the supply side! The influx from the Linear Realms wouldn’t last forever! Still, Mr Gelman had been a marvelously efficient business manager; the shipping business had been bringing in a LOT more money now that he was managing it. If there was something bothering him, it was well worth taking some time out for him!

(Kelsaru) “Mr Gelman is it? What do you need?”

(Gelman) “I came to discuss the high stakes game and a possible alternative.”

(Kelsaru) “What, those? Well, having them publicly executed or some such just doesn’t have the deterrent value it did back home, jail is useless and unprofitable, physical beatings, torture, and maimings are out of style, and short-term indentures are hardly worth bothering with. What else can be done?”

   Oh crud! He hadn’t expected quite such a level of ruthlessness from a female and a mother-to-be. Still, perhaps he should have; she WAS a dragoness! He’d been going to suggest some kind of jail! He was going to have to (oh dear!) improvise! What was keeping Kevin from sticking them in his Enthrallment program other than not accepting in the first place?

   Well that was good in a way; it confirmed the “consent” principle for Enthrallment – and a twenty-year indenture WAS the term that usually seemed to be assigned to the kids who arrived as slaves, except for the ones that that horrible “Dr Brenner” sent in who got twenty hours (long enough to get cleaned up, settled down, and be given some introductory lectures).

   Bother… if they’d listened in the first place, they wouldn’t need discipline. Apparently it never HAD occurred to Kevin that he might get a substantial number of juvenile delinquents and troublesome gangers among the refugees. Had he even been consulted on coming up with a solution or was this another “taken care of while the boss is busy” situation?

   He was shaken enough to make a poor attempt to emulate Marty’s usual style, and blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

(Gelman) “Does Mr. Sanwell know about this?”

(Kelsaru) “What, that a small minority of the refugee children are misbehaving? Why bother him with trivia? If they can’t figure out how fortunate they are to be here, and behave appropriately, they ought to be slaves! But Ailill – or Kevin to use his local name – likes to give people lots of chances, so on the average they each get up to twenty! That ought to be far more than enough for any sophont!”

(Gelman) “Well, there must be a better way to handle this!”

   He wasn’t going to be blatantly impolite, but he made his distaste clear.

   Kelsaru could read those thoughts with no effort at all. Mr Gelman had the power, but he had no experience in screening his thoughts – or his body language. Evidently one of those humans who had objections to enforced servitude. Not too uncommon…

(Kelsaru) “Well, back home they’d lock them up and operate on their brains to install compulsion chips and prevent future misbehavior. I’ve never especially approved of that! It damages their ability to learn and function effectively too much!”

(Gelman, somewhat shocked) “Me either. But since jail apparently hasn’t worked for you, that scuttles my plan… Is Mr. Sanwell still out?”

(Kelsaru) “Well, Jail costs resources, and mostly just serves as an academy for criminals – or at least the ones I’ve seen do. And he’s still at some world called “Necropolis”. Apparently he felt it needed a lot of meddling!”

   Oh dear. Logical enough – as long as you considered human children as unimportant creatures to be dealt with en mass. He couldn’t approve of that – but he’d have to think more about the situation and probably notify Kevin of it. Did that arrogance go with being a dragon? She seemed a bit short-tempered as well, but that wasn’t too unexpected in a woman who’s apparently about to give birth. Well, at least he’d eliminated one worry. Regardless of her superficial form, Kelsaru was definitely a human being, even if she had been born a dragoness. It was the mind and soul which mattered, not the form.

(Gelman) “Hmm. Well, thank you, Miss Kelsaru. Good luck with the clutch.”

   He did hope that her hatchlings would be healthy, even if he suspected that he wouldn’t entirely approve of draconic parenting styles – even if it was a reaction to certain necessities, it was still an extremely high-handed one, and based on her own standards of behavior. She wasn’t making much of an allowance for habituation.

   The gold was waiting by the door.

(Gold) “Is there anything else I can help you with Mr Gelman?”

(Gelman) “Where is Ms. Saunders-Tabard? I’d like to speak with her as well.”

(Gold) “She’s speaking with the Lady Meara at the moment Sir! I shall take you there!”

   (Gelman) “Thank you.”

   Hm. Well, there hadn’t been any silks and veils or harem pants so far, unless some wall hangings counted as silks and veils. Mostly it had just been some jewelry and such to go with the scales. He was no judge of draconic beauty – but, just on the abstract level, there was certainly beauty there. No temptation whatsoever though, at least for him. Some people had very odd romantic tastes… Fern was doubtless finding this interesting, although she couldn’t possibly be getting the sexual connotations. Perhaps talking to the servant would be informative?

(Gelman) “How is Ms. Saunders-Tabard today?”

(Gold) “I believe she is doing quite well. Just down this corridor Sir! Can I fetch you anything?”

(Gelman) “Some setzer water, please… and a tiny chair for Fern here. (He hesitated briefly) Oh yes. And what has bought her here?”

(Gold) “I believe she first arrived seeking information on what Marty and Lord Kevin were doing, then found some of the young women congenial Sir!”

   Oh dear! She couldn’t possibly be wanting to be part of the harem could she?! I always thought she was more level-headed than that!

   Oh well. That did seem pretty unlikely.

(Gelman) “Where did you come from? Were you born a dragon too?”

   The attendant had apparently been a human English schoolboy of some sort, and had been recruited into “Lord Kevin’s” service some years earlier at “Hogwarts” (Really? Isaac loved those novels!), where there were periodic attacks by black magicians and the immortality – and shortcut on all the studying – was really attractive. He had volunteered for the assignment as an attendant when Kevin set up the harem a few months back.

   There wasn’t time for a very elaborate explanation before they arrived at a comfortable sitting room, where Abigail was casually chatting – and having tea – with a bejeweled gold dragoness.

(Gelman) “Good afternoon. I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

(Abigail) “Why not at all! We were just talking about recipes and exotic ingredients!”

   That really was quite a fascinating topic. Kadia offered many ingredients that were certainly unavailable in most places – and not a few that would normally be considered extinct or entirely mythical! Where else could you take a recipe that called for ambrosia, roast of triceratops, and salamander scale seriously?

(Gelman) “Here’s the dye to replace what Terry and Todd wrecked.”

(Abigail) “Oh thank you! The icing would have been entirely wrong without that! There are a lot of local green colorings of course, but I’m used to the standard ones! (Pause) You’d think that the two of them could be considerate enough to take the fight outside when I have things baking!”

(Gelman) “And here’s something for the poor man. I think it’s his favorite thing to eat with tea.” (Bara brith-Welsh currant bread) I think if you put it in your garbage, he’ll find it, and she’ll be none the wiser.”

(Abigail) “I’ll have one of the kids slip it to him directly I think. They’re pretty good at hiding things… Wait; have they been hiding from the truant officers? They must be! They never seem to go to school! Just wait until I get home!”

   Gelman didn’t have the heart to tell her…

(Gelman) “Have you told them to go to school?”

(Abigail) “Well, no! I assumed… they might not go anyway; they WERE assigned to bodyguard me weren’t they?”

(Meara) “They’re probably taking the courses on their Smartclothes. Kevin is quite strong on education!”

   Ah, he hadn’t thought of that! Of course they’d be doing remote education!

(Meara) “I don’t believe we’ve met Mr Gelman; I’m Meara Collins.”

(Gelman) “Ah, hello there. Ms. Saunders-Tabard is a good friend of mine.”

(Meara) “She has mentioned you a few times! I’m pleased to meet you!”

(Gelman) “Positively, I hope!”

(Meara) “Oh yes! She approves of you a good deal more than of Marty! Marty is a bit of a rascal I fear!”

(Gelman) “Rascal is too good for him!”

   They chatted for a bit, and he introduced Abigail and Fern to each other. Fern had a file on Abigail of course, but it was always best for sapient devices to actually meet people as well.

   Abigail concealed her impatience politely; she’d never been all that big on sentient devices. It went with being a chef; sentient kitchen equipment was a terrible hassle when cooking – it kept adjusting its settings to what IT thought was appropriate, rather than letting HER be in charge of the kitchen, and if the oven went on strike, she was screwed!

   Gelman hesitated a bit – but eventually asked how Julia was doing and – why Abigail was here!

(Abigail) “Julia’s been doing quite well – although I had to punish her for feeding three of her classmates who annoyed her to Blackie last week! She’s grounded until the end of the month!…

   Anyway, I’m here because it’s kind of refreshing to chat with several of the girls here, to trade recipes, and to get news of the universe… They have a very unique viewpoint!”

(Gelman, sighing) “Didn’t he see that coming when he GAVE her the dragon?”

(Abigail) “Marty never thinks things through! Besides… Blackie melted them down with his acid breath and then just slurped them up.”

(Gelman) “Ow. I hope he didn’t cause any damage during that brawl in your kitchen.”

(Abigail) “No, no… Julia and Blackie know better than to get involved with the adults are fighting!”

   That was a relief. After all, if Jenkins had had the chance, she would undoubtably have tossed her ex-husband into Blackie’s mouth, given the chance.

(Gelman) “Anyway… could you tell the thrall delivering Todd’s bread to tell him there’s a message in it? I don’t want him to accidentally eat it.”

(Abigail) “I’ll pass that on – and why are you visiting?”

(Gelman) “I was meeting with Kelsaru to resolve a problem.”

(Abigail) “Oh. I haven’t spoken to her much… She’s a bit cranky, and is one of the few here who was actually born a dragon. It seems to make a difference… It certainly would with Blackie anyway.”

(Gelman) “Is there something wrong with him?”

(Abigail) “Well… I was looking into how he’d behave if he was free and unaltered. It wasn’t very nice.”

(Gelman) “That’s too bad. I’ll see if there’s something I can do for him.”

(Abigail) “Well, it seems that the “Chromatic” dragons are just naturally unpleasant – and young males are the worst of all.”

(Gelman) “And, of course, you can’t let him around Julia that way.”

(Abigail) “I’m not sure I’d want him around New York City that way!”

(Gelman) “Definitely not. I doubt even the floorherds of Chicago could handle him.”

(Meara) “Chromatics are quite a handful… That’s one reason why Kevin’s offspring are almost all going to be metallics!”

(Gelman) “Well, that shows he has good sense… Not that Kelsaru’s all that bad. It’s just that young chromatics seem to be dangerous.”

(Meara) “Well, Kelsaru’s actually a rarity – she’s a Gem Dragon, she just likes to look Red because Kevin usually looks that way.”

(Gelman) “Interesting. I shouldn’t be surprised. She would try to please him.”

(Meara) “Well, we all try to please him! He’s actually very nice. For a dragon he’s even quite nice to the other dragons who attack him and try to steal his property!”

   Er… That probably wasn’t going to be pleasant from a human prospective – but he’d probably have to know.

(Gelman) “Er… What does he do to them?”

(Meara) “Well, mostly he makes them into harem attendants. Given that most of them would usually expect to be skinned, or made into magic items, or be otherwise permanently disposed of, that actually tends to draw more challengers… They know that losing won’t be nearly as bad as it would with most dragons.”

   Huh. Compared to the fates they otherwise would face, that did seem comparatively light. It was still enslavement – which he certainly wasn’t happy about – but it was a radically different culture from his own, and presumably they were out to do the same thing.

   My goodness, but he’d been lucky in the draw when it came to realms!

   Meara was still talking though…

(Meara) “He does like to think he’s being terribly evil there though. I think it helps him cope.”

(Gelman) “He definitely didn’t ask to be what he is.”

(Meara) “Well, you do have to watch shifting realms too… Identities can be terribly strong – especially the ones that include instincts or changes in species. And it is a lot of fun being a dragon on top of that.”

   Would it help him understand Kevin? Should he try it? He could probably do it – or get some help in doing it… No, no. He LIKED being a human. And who knows what damage he would cause in a dragon’s body? Still, he should at least find out what it involved. After all, ANYTHING could happen around here.

   Hm… It seemed that the “Dragonworlds” tended to give visitors draconic ID’s – that’s how Kevin had originally acquired one – and those tended to come complete with some very powerful urges, enhanced senses, heightened endurance, magical powers, and all the rest. Kevin sometimes handed out local Kadia ID’s like that. There were other worlds where you could be a dragon, but it was usually a lot more work. There were temporary transformations and mindlinks available if he just want to try it out of course.

   It did sound interesting. Maybe with Sophie if she was feeling bold enough. After all, mating was evidently a part of those urges – and a powerful part (especially for adolescents). Definitely something to consider for a romantic getaway. Contrary to what Tabard might believe, he was more than willing to experiment in the bedroom.

   He asked about Meara’s history too. After all, “Collins” didn’t exactly sound like a draconic name.

   It seemed that she’d originally been a human. She’d been born in a Core interstellar colony, but her parents had taken her and her brother on an unwise Manifold jaunt to a roman empire world. Kevin had bought her out of the arena, and she had asked for the Thrall-powers to avenge her parents and brother. She’d accompanied Kevin for eight years before he offered her this position if she wanted to have his kids. (Apparently he’d had one accidently and decided that he really liked being a parent, and promptly set out to become one a lot of times).

   Oddly enough, that did make him feel a bit better about Ruth… and about Kevin. At least he was trying to be a good father, if by draconic standards.

   Anyway, Kevin had set up a small Harem here, where he could easily create a Core overlay and maximize the chances that his kids would have souls. He’d made provisions for any that didn’t of course – but he’d rather they all did if he can possibly arrange it.

   Wait, what?

(Gelman) “That’s possible?”

(Meara) “It’s possible to improve the odds – in fact, I believe you visited Core briefly Mr Gelman? – that greatly increases the odds already. Being conceived, gestated, and/or born in Core all improve the odds as well, which is why we’re technically in both Core and Kadia here; Kevin has made this area – and several others – an overlay zone. There are a number of similar spots around for vacationing couples who need magic or otherwise can’t function in Core.”

   Gelman had to wonder if he could sell vacations in Kadia back in Battling Business World? It’s not like most of the locals would ask questions… gah, he had to stop that! What would happen if a stronger-souled person started asking questions?

   Well… maybe after he’d gotten Kevin’s business halfway organized. That would take decades at best, and he’d need a vacation himself by then!

   Gelman unconsciously put the disturbing notion of trying out being a dragon off into the distant future – along with his speculative vacation plans. There would be time for that later on. He absently accepted a refreshed drink from the gold attendant, who’d come back with tea and cakes…

(Meara) “Would you care to meet some of Kevin’s other concubines Mr Gelman?”

(Gelman) “Certainly, if Ms. Saunders-Tabard will come with me.”

   He didn’t want to upset Sophie – and having Abigail along would allay suspicions.

   The harem seemed to include eight young dragonesses – although only two of them had been born as dragonesses – and thirty or forty servants, about half of whom had been born as dragons. All of the concubines except Kelsaru were “metallic”, as were a solid majority of the servants. There were a few human Thralls around too, as servants and personal aides to the concubines.

   And everything scaled for dragons… My Lord, the facilities required for this! OK, it wasn’t like supplies were short around Kadia though, but it was still quite a production!

   Lets see… There was Tanis (apparently some sort of Egyptian noblewoman who had tried to summon a demon-god and got Kevin), Lysira (another who’d been recruited from Hogwarts), a girl from some roman empire world (possibly the same one that Meara had been rescued from), “Ramira Al’Fatim” (a born dragoness who had complained about him bringing an unsecured electronic system along), and a few others who were occupied at the moment…

   Fern was quite indignant about THAT. She said that her data security was WAY better than any normal computers! First you had to get past her data-barriers and THEN you still had to persuade HER that she ought to answer you!

(Gelman) “Please, Miss Al’Fatim. Miss BlackBerry is one of my finest employees, and she would never compromise security around here.”

(Al’FAtim) “I really doubt that! I haven’t met ANYONE around here who’s really sensible about data security!”

   Gelman bit his tongue. For all he knew, she came from a world where computer technology shamed Core. He and Abigail were actually learning to tell the rough ages and sexes of the various dragons apart by the time the tour was over though – on levels a bit more sophisticated than “jewels and ornaments = concubine” and “simple collar = attendant” by the time the tour was over though. Dragons did show a lot fewer signs than mammals did though.

   Abigail had never asked for a tour. It had seemed to her like it might imply that she thought they were a zoo or something, and it had never occurred to her to just ask to meet everyone.

   Gelman sighed. He wouldn’t put it past her. She was the most skilled chef he’d ever seen, but her experience outside her kitchen and home was a bit lacking. She wasn’t as bad as poor Sophie though, and both of them seemed to be getting better gradually.

   Strange though… It did seem to be a happy enough establishment. Of course, Kevin was one charismatic guy (er, dragon), and a harem wasn’t exactly a brothel – and it wasn’t like King Solomon, with his nine hundred concubines and three hundred wives (although that had always sounded greatly exaggerated to HIM, wouldn’t they all be killing each other -and probably him – over jealous feuds and impeding his governance? Could a bronze age king even build the facilities necessary for that at his capital? Surely that was an exaggeration!) – but even the attendants seemed pretty happy. Of course, that was understandable in comparison to the fates they’d escaped – and they apparently got a good deal of time off, and an allowance, both of which they get to spend in Kadia with it’s various facilities.

(Gelman) “Meara, where I’m from, there are people with the power to make others’ finances a living hell. Would their powers be able to reach Kadia?”

(Meara) “Probably not; one of Kevin’s rules is that curses, and most mental compulsions and modifications, and diseases and so on, all go away if you stay in Kadia for awhile.”

(Gelman) “Hmm. Then I’ve made a very good decision.” (He turned to Abigail). “DEFINITELY make sure that bread makes it to Todd’s office.”

   Besides… That was an “interesting” rule for a “Demon Lord” to institute. If the boy was trying for a bait-and-switch, he was playing a very long term game… Could you be so subtly evil that it was impossible to tell it apart from being good without hearing the rationale? Or was there somehow a distinction between “The Forces of Evil” and “The Powers of Darkness”?

   Was the distinction simply the difference between “the drives to survive and expand” and “the drives to survive and expand with malice”?

   Kevin did, of course, freely admit to his evil plan. Evil in human souls came with being young – ergo, to keep evil going until the end of time, there had to be a steady supply of new souls. Since new souls came from births in Core and from recent visitants to Core, Core must be maintained and the people of Core must continue to produce more children. The easiest way to make sure that they did was to support, feed, and care for them – and thus make them want to stick around and have large families. While that did ultimately profit the Light as those souls passed into ultimate enlightenment, it was the only sure way to keep the evil going!

   Gelman just was not sure that that was an evil plan… – despite Kevin’s insistence that it was “Very, very, evil!”. To him it sounded more like a plan to guarantee humanity’s survival with (rather thin) evil window dressing.

   Of course, everyone did agree that he was pretty picky.

   He wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea of keeping a harem, but the boy was a Gentile, and they did seem to be treated well. Keeping a harem of dragons was weird (as well as impressive), but that sort of thing WAS a habit of males in unrestrained positions of power. The dragon’s culture did seem to expect it – and it was even relatively small.

   Oh well. Was it proper to send presents when the eggs were laid or when they hatched?

   He asked Lysira. Apparently she’d spent a good deal of time in the Dragonworlds.

   It seemed that it was usually when they hatched, unless you were either absurdly rich or were trying to make an impression for some reason – in which case you sent gifts designed to give the hatchlings early advantages in the competition when they were laid as well. That was rather rare though.

   Hatching day gifts were usually for the mother, and were usually tokens; bits of jewelry, modest artworks, minor servants, tapestries, etc. Hatchling presents could be toys or items designed to help them compete.

   He’d have to see what he could find – and come up with a proposal for dealing with delinquent kids. Perhaps the colonization of some bucolic realm for the ensouled, maybe with phantasm support? A few years of herding or farmwork was a traditional settler…

   Oh dear. In the Manifold you could actually send people to live with Maw and Paw Kettle! or possible the Green Acres crew!

   Would that be awesome or torture?

   Well, hopefully Todd Jenkins would get his message. OK, it wasn’t much more than “Talk to the squirrels and come for a visit?”, but it wasn’t as if things could possibly get any worse for the guy where he was now. And maybe – just maybe – a visit would break the delusions of the former sanest person he knew!

   He’d do what he could to make sure that it worked.