Peter Leland sighed. It had been entertaining for a bit – it wasn’t as if mass destruction really had any real effect on Battling Business World – but after watching Zero destroy Manhattan every day for the last three weeks, it was getting pretty old. Even the variations on numerical apocalypse were no longer amusing… His office building hadn’t been touched – and Zero never seemed to notice that – but that didn’t mean much. Even though most of the staff had made it in on one day or another (and then stayed) there was no way to do any business with the rest of New York destroyed and communications cut off!
He wasn’t entirely sure why the Amarant Solutions building had been surviving – it probably had something to do with the Balrog of Moria, or Corrigan, or those six interns that Marty had sent in – but it didn’t seem like that big a favor any longer.
Still… Today the destruction was taking a break when it was only about half way done. Had Zero finally tired of it, or was this just a lull?
Of course, there seemed to be a lot more screaming today…
He went to have a look and found that most of his personnel in several different departments seemed to be having personal meltdowns instead, screaming about the horrible numbers and bailing out of the windows so that they could run off and kill themselves.
He’d been hoping that it was finally over. Where was his beloved pet opossum Sadie?.. Ah, she was still curled up with Gelman’s skullcap for a blanket.
Whew. He’d been worried for a moment. It sounded like Accounting had recruited some new personnel… Oh well. If they were leaping out of windows and running off to commit suicide after they bounced, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem! Most of them would be fine tomorrow morning… He still felt sorry for them though. And there was no ensouled Marty around to take the risk of subduing them…
Still… There were such a LOT of them… HAD Zero had found a way past whatever it was that had been protecting Amarant Solutions? He’d better go and help with the cleanup! He had a role to maintain around here, and besides, they needed to be spared a fate worse than death!
Sadie was just relaxing.
(Leland) “Well, girl, I’ll need all your help with this one.”
He motioned for her to come.
Sadie grumbled a bit, tied her blanket under her chin, and climbed up on his shoulder… He gave her a treat, and promised her another if they survived… or, for that matter, in the morning if he didn’t or if he was compromised and she had to take him out. Numeric manipulation was no laughing matter!
Downstairs, the Balrog was ignoring the screaming, frowning out the window rather disconsolately, and feeding money into Lou the vending machine. He did seem to have acquired a few sparkles of his own though…
(Balrog) “It is enough to make you lose faith in the powers of evil! Destruction in pursuit of power, or darkness, or to accomplish some purpose, or even just to pass a few idle hours, is one thing! But this – THIS is just silly! It all comes back the next day anyway and any proper lord of darkness surely has better things to do with three weeks of time!”
(Leland) “Ah, Mr. Balrog. I hear some new accountants in the building. Would you like to help us stop any takeovers?”
Hmm. The Balrog’s work with Corrigan had been going well! You know, sometimes he just had to wonder how much Corrigan really saw and simply didn’t admit to. Or did Corrigan just get along on sparkles without actually seeing?
(Balrog) “Why not? That might actually be an effective mode of attack!”
(Leland) “Then we should move quickly before they find our payroll records. And you too, Lou. We might need your soda.”
(Lou, Mechanically) “Right!”
With Lou lumbering along to provide fire support with his explosive sodas, they headed on down to the personnel department… It looked like… Almost everyone in the building who used a computer had suddenly caught a case of accounting. That was almost everyone in the building! What was going on? As far as any of them understood, accounting had to be learned through dark rites and college courses!
They picked up Corrigan and – and held a quick conference; bite the bullet and take on IT first, or go to some of the softer areas, like maintenance? Wait! If it came in through the computers, then shutting off the building’s power to shut them down might help – but all he laptops had backup batteries.
Still, they could leave extracting those batteries to those interns Marty’s friend had sent them!
Leland looked around for one – and, as usual, they popped up right away when he called them. Efficient youngsters… Always ready with coffee and sandwiches too!
That had to be some special intern power. It wasn’t like anywhere else in Manhattan had been open for more than a few minutes in weeks.
(Thrall) “Hello Mr Leland Sir! Almost everyone’s gone, so the coffee runs won’t be as busy today!”
(Leland) “We’ll have to wait on the coffee runs. I need all of you to extract the laptops’ backup batteries.”
(Thrall) “We’ll get right on it sir… Including the sapient ones?”
(Leland) “All of them. I don’t want the accounting to spread any more.”
(Thrall) “It tried to get into our clothes too sir! We had to shut them down!”
(Leland) “That is a bother.” (Wait. It could get into SMARTCLOTHES?!? That was quite impressive… and rather frightening, if whatever-it-was could get through Core’s computer security.)
(Leland) “Mr. Balrog and I are heading to the building’s power supply. When you finish, I want you and the other interns to meet me there.”
(Thrall) “We’ll get right on it sir!”
(Leland) “Be careful!”
He’d have to give them something if they pulled this off… Certificates of recognition? A free lunch coupon? Never mind, this had to stop!
There were a few, short, skirmishes – but, for the most part, the only staff members left are a few janitors and non-computer users. It looked like almost everything on the systems here had been downloaded elsewhere though. Even the physical files were a mess – and the accounting records, both physical and on paper, had all been wiped blank; the data had, apparently, been transferred.
The personnel records – what little there was on Marty’s special project – had gotten the same treatment… Fortunately, only the most basic records on Marty’s special projects were kept outside of Kadia – and he was thankful for that. Still, this was a takeover without even an assault.
There was only one person with the skill to do that.
Leland shut off the power supply anyway. Jenkins might be on her way, and if that was the case, he needed all the advantages he could get. He was pretty sure that she couldn’t see in the dark – another small item to be grateful for.
He managed to brief his troops – such as they were – before Jenkins did, indeed, show up. Drifting a foot off the ground, holding her naginata, blazing with the unholy green light of a horrific numerical aura, and speaking with an overlay of hundreds of screaming voices.
(Jenkins) “HOW HAVE YOU BEEN EXPANDING OFF THE BOOKS?! IT DOES NOT BALANCE!”
Wh-when did she learn to fly? It had been many years since he had actually been frightened! What was Jenkins becoming?
(Leland) “I… I… well… it was Marty Tabard’s idea.”
(JENKINS) “YOU LISTENED TO MARTY? ONLY *Y*O*U* WOULD LISTEN TO MARTY! YOU WILL RETURN TO YOUR ROLE. AMARANT SOLUTIONS WILL NOT EXPAND BEYOND BATTLING BUSINESS WORLD. THIS MEDDLING WILL END.”
What was going on? He was hearing an overlay of many voices! Had she… no, that was impossible! The Number Lords were supposed to be too powerful for humans to oppose! She said so herself! What to do?
(Leland) “Lou! Explosives, now! Interns! Binding spells! Torkaranzu! (The Balrog) Entangle her!”
Lou’s barrage was more distracting than harmful – and Jenkins found it easy enough to overload the Intern’s bindings…
(Jenkins) “MORE OF ABIGAIL’S SQUIRREL-CHILDREN? I AM PREPARED FOR THEIR MEDDLING. THEY SHALL BE SACRIFICES TO MY LORD ZERO, AND SHALL WRITHE IN THE REALM OF THE NUMBERS IN ETERNAL INFLICTION!”
Dammit! There had to be some way to solve this! He had not come all the way out to the Seventh Circle to be devoured by insane digits! Yet… he might well be up against a godlike force here, nigh-invulnerable to anything except a specific countermeasure…
Wait a minute. What would dividing by zero do here? It was a major violation of the numerical laws – and they had to be halfway into the domain of the numbers for this to be happening…
Well, he was no numerologist, but he had to do SOMETHING to stop her!
Leland took out his pocket pad – in some ways, the emblem of a manager’s authority – wrote down the 1/ part of the equation, and showed it to her.
(Leland) “Jenkins. Don’t make me complete it.”
(Jenkins) “FOOL! YOU DO NOT HAVE THE POWER TO COMPLETE IT! A SYMBOL ON PAPER IS NOTHING! ONLY THE MOST POWERFUL OF ACCOUNTANTS OR A MASTER OF REALITY COULD SO DISRUPT THE STRUCTURE OF OUR WORLD!”
Meanwhile, the Balrog had entangled her in flaming strands – her naginata passed right through them without cutting – and Corrigan had darted in to dose her with Promo-17.
They were slowing her down at least… and she had him. He was no master of reality! That was why he’d needed an opener to get to Battling Business World!
Wait a minute… Corrigan was so blithe and accepting of his reality that he probably had that power! How else could he be so comfortable and find the universe so obliging? And… didn’t the Interns have a bit of that power too? Hadn’t Marty said something about him being able to draw on them? Even if they were currently half-flattened with spell-backlash? That was why Jenkins seemed to be ignoring them anyway…
Maybe he really could pull it off!
Leland moved towards Corrigan…
(Leland) “You know where I’m from, Jenkins. I have few strong ties here.”
He was trying to keep calm, but the whole situation was giving him second thoughts about this CEO thing!
A couple of the Interns were still barely conscious – and seemed to be quietly working on getting the others awake again.
While Jenkins is toying with the Balrog – who wasn’t enjoying the experience – Leland shuddered (the Balrog should NOT be that easy to handle!), quietly shuffled Corrigan towards the Interns, and used his healing hands technique to get a couple more of them fully awake.
(Leland) “Please, can you complete this equation? I tried to finish it, but my hand came off.”
(Intern) “Sir? But that… makes no sense. As you wish though!”
Leland was the manager – and tried to focus his Intern’s powers, and whatever power Corrigan might possess, on completing his final gambit. He had no desire to be a sacrifice, he had no desire for his people to become sacrifices, and he wanted to calm his head of accounting enough to speak rationally with her.
Neither the Interns nor Corrigan had been drawing on that aspect of their power recently. Jenkins whirled as the equation glowed brilliantly, and began to emit strands of energy
(Jenkins) “NO! THAT IS NOT POSSIBLE! YOU LACK THE POWER FOR… THOSE SQUIRREL-CHILDREN! WHAT ARE THEY!?!”
Leland was concentrating on the effect – and hoping that she didn’t throw that naginata of hers his way. He had ideas, but he’dl tell her about them AFTER she had calmed down!
The hallway was abruptly clean, neat, and full of people – his staff – bustling around. Outside the windows, there was a… vaguely-sketched in Manhattan. Everything looked… rough. Unfinished. On a pure white background…
A rough draft, sketched in colored pencils. Cruder and cruder as you looked further out, until the sky and horizon were a mere few lines.
Still, Jenkins aura was VASTLY diminished – and her feet were back on the floor.
(Jenkins) “Confound it! You’ve generated an unstable pocket dimension! Only half thought out!”
Her voice was back to normal too! No more hellish overtones of thousands screaming in agony!
(Leland) “I did what I had to do. We should be grateful that there’s something here.”
(Jenkins) “Where the HELL did you get six aides with the power to shape reality that way!”
(Leland) “Tabard assigned them to me – and that Kevin kid sent them”.
He was busy regretting listening to Tabard’s briefing on the interns while on that missile launcher tag retreat. There might be more about them that would be really useful to know at the moment.
The Balrog was climbing back to it’s feet – even if it was swaying a bit groggily.
(A Thrall, mentally) “We might be able to restrain her here Sir! Her powers are much more limited, since you made the place! But it won’t be stable for long!”
Ah, telepathy as well?.
(Leland, privately, to the aides) “Do it before she can attack again. Today has been hectic enough.”
The Thralls got back to spinning restraining-spells.
(Jenkins) “Confound it! Miserable creatures! Like a swarm of silkworms! Don’t you understand? You cannot be allowed to oppose Lord Zero! Or to conspire with his enemies! Or to disobey the laws of the numbers!”
(Leland) “Why? I’m not an accountant.” He’ll leaned in close enough to whisper. “You know I’m not even from this dimension. Now calm down or I’ll go home.”
(Jenkins) “You are… Out of place, out of balance, and out of control! The numbers are no longer prepared to tolerate such variations from the natural order! Other powers must be banished from Battling Business World so that full control may be maintained!”
Leland had to revise his assumptions suddenly – and started to feel a little sorry for her. Were the number lords completely mad? What would it be like to serve such a master? Didn’t she know about Japan? That was how he and his Opener got in! They took a flight from Tokyo to New York for crying out loud! On Mothra Air!
(Leland) “Jenkins, listen. Can you honestly say the Number Lords have full control over this world?”
(Jenkins) “Such holdouts will be subdued! SANITY WILL BE RETURNED!”
Well, that was just shouting in her natural voice. Obviously more than a bit gone though… Oh well, that was a job for the Personnel department!
(Leland, to Corrigan) “Jim?”
(Corrigan) “Ow!… Here!”
Wow! Even his sparkles were a bit dimmed… Jenkins must have hit him hard!
(Leland) “Please sedate Jenkins. With Yes-Doz, not your wonder drug.”
The poor woman… He’d known she was irrational, but he’d never realized that it was to this extent. What had her masters done to her?
That resulted in another brief melee – but, cut off from her supporting accountants, Jenkins was no match for the bunch of them.
(Thralls) “Sir? This place will be coming apart very shortly. I think that SHE’LL be drawn back to her master – but the rest of us are likely to be drawn into Kadia, since the six of us are all linked there. Is that all right, or should we try to steer for someplace else?”
(Leland) “Kadia?…” Ah yes, the vacation world… “Yes. I need a vacation after this.”
That was easy enough.
Meanwhile, over in the world of NIMH, the plot of the 2127 sequel was not to be denied. In the original, the Supervolcanic eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera had done immense damage – and had called for an alliance of men and rats to allow civilization to survive.
Thanks to Marty, Kevin, and Xellos, the eruption had mostly been shunted to another world, and had done little damage – but the trio had also revealed the existence of the rats of NIMH to the military at large, and had told the military to just get on their communications network and consult the rats if they wanted more information about “Openers” and “The Manifold”.
The center had been monitoring the traffic from the human’s satellite network for some time – mostly for the geographical survey information and the news. That had become especially urgent when they’d discovered the news about the impending eruption – but the humans had rapidly escalated the clearance levels on the data until their traffic became unreadable. Fortunately, and quite recently, a passing traveler from the Manifold had given them a set of algorithms that read most of the military encryptions handily.
Those visitors had also – according to the information that the humans were exchanging – done SOMETHING at Yellowstone. Unfortunately, THAT information seemed to be so highly classified that it was only being transmitted via courier.
The humans had always said that curiosity killed cats, but Direll had never realized that it could gnaw on a rat like this!
Then, one day… part of the militaries communications stream seemed to be… Addressed to them?
He called everyone else over. Should they answer it?
(Temin) “Us? It could be a trap.”
(Direll, reading the output) “They want to know about… Raven and Coyote? And how they’re related to gates and the volcanic eruption? That’s just WEIRD.”
(Variss, the monitoring team leader, after a few moments of thought) “Yeah… too weird to be a trap. Sure, let’s answer it. It’s not too hard to slip a coded reply in that would be really difficult to trace anyway.”
(Variss) “We know quite a bit about Raven, Coyote, and volcanos, but what do you mean by gates?”
Variss actually knew something about realm gates – but he wanted to make sure that the human military already did too. After all, they didn’t want to give away information THAT valuable if it was still a secret… It might make quite a bargaining point later on!
The humans provided an account of the shapeshifting creatures who had – somehow – capped the Yellowstone supervolcano – and of the hawks who were STILL circling the area, apparently regulating whatever-it-was that shunted the force of the eruption away.
Currently, the only coherent “explanation” – or at least a set of names and descriptions which seemed to loosely match – they had was from amerindian mythology.
That provoked a discussion… Shapeshifters? That wasn’t any of THEIRS. And how did you stop any volcano – much less a supervolcano – from erupting? That was a tall order for any psychic! The people over in the New Imperium had never said that their force-users could do anything like THAT!
They’d known a bit about that – the vortex could be seen from orbit, but it had been being reported as an effect related to the supervolcano itself.
OK, in hindsight that had been pretty thin – but they didn’t exactly have any other examples of supervolcanoes to compare with!
(Direll) “I know that Raven and Coyote are tricksters. Maybe they slipped elsewhere?”
According to the humans… the volcanic eruption was still being funneled through a hole in the universe sixty miles across – laid out by a huge black bird that flew around yellowstone at supersonic speeds and apparently being tended and maintained by a group of hawks.
They were pretty much lost – but the creatures had apparently told them that, if they wanted explanations, they should “talk to the rats”.
(Variss) “Visitors from the manifold of course – but power like that is almost unimaginable! Psychic tricks, yes, even opening portals at the weak points between dimensions perhaps, but this…”
(Temin, to the rest of the rats off the net) “Looks like the cat is out of the bag.”
(Direll) “Perhaps an “Opener”? The bunch over in the New Imperium said that some of them were really powerful.”
(Variss) “That powerful? Still, I’ve certainly never heard of anything else that might account for it – and a hole in the universe certainly sounds like a portal!”
(Variss, to the humans) “Looks like you’ve got yourself some powerful Openers. They can jump between dimensions at will as long as their power holds out.”
(Humans) “Er… They can just make holes in the universe on a whim? How? And how much power do they have to work with – presuming that there’s some way to measure it? And have you dealt with them before?”
(Variss) “Well, a gate is a hole in the wall. It’s just that this hole is connecting two universes instead of two rooms. Not all Openers have the same amount of power. Some can barely make a gate without resting, while some… some can apparently stop supervolcanos from erupting. And yes, we have dealt with a few Openers before.”
(Humans) “Can they all transform themselves like that? And are they mortals, spirits, or what?”
(Variss) “Some are better at transformations than others. They can apparently slip into local roles-maybe ours, maybe yours. I THINK they’re pretty much mortals, though what you’ve told me is making me wonder.”
(Humans) “Are “gates” permanent – or do those six birds circling around have to maintain things?”
(Variss, hesitantly – there just wasn’t enough information available on gates!) “I’m not sure. I know you can pass between worlds without gates, but the routes are really hard to find.”
(Humans) “Can we set up some sort of conference on this? If we’re going to be dealing with shapeshifting things with godline powers that move between universes, I have a feeling that the differences between the various creatures of the earth may not mean much in comparison with the differences between us and whatever’s out there.”
(Variss) “Well… I don’t know… can you give me a minute?”
(Variss, after getting off the network) “Well? If we’ve got helpful Openers like that running around, there’s got to be some nasty ones like that too. I don’t think we have a choice!”
(Temin) “Could we do anything but hide if we ran into an unhelpful one with power like that? What if he, she, or it had decided to open a hole into a star instead?”
(Direll) “I don’t think so – but the humans wouldn’t be able to do anything but hide either.”
(Variss) “What would we have to lose?”
(Direll) “True – and it would be awfully nice to actually get some recognition. It’s our world too!”
(Variss) “Okay, I’ll tell them then!” (Back to the network) “We accept your offer. Where would you like to meet?”
They settled down to calling in the diplomats and sorting out some conference details – with the rats doing their best to make sure that it was not a trap. It was worth the gamble though – and the humans did seem to have bigger things to worry about at the moment.
As it turned out, it wasn’t a trap. The power level that their visitors had displayed had the humans throughly frightened as well.