Federation-Apocalypse Session 140a – Reaching the Core

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With the announcement of the Midnight Gardener project, the Core Military councils had called an emergency meeting… While other Openers had caused a great deal of trouble here and there – the ring nova, the great Midwestern Orc Invasion, the Dalek Crisis, the Hindi-Rakasha conflicts and the endless problems with Crusader were only some of the most blatant examples – a project like that was something else altogether.

Kevin’s Thralls had been a concern simply because they multiplied the boy’s reach and power. An analysis of just how much of the trade and travel across the Manifold they were supporting had been disquieting – but the sheer lack of focus had made the situation manageable. The Thralls had not been a serious menace beyond the sheer instability having so many gatekeepers around implied.

But this… Kevin had put hundreds or thousands of his Thralls to work on a single project – and not just on a project to build the Manifold’s greatest amusement park, or to provide emergency services, or some such like most of the others were at work on; the boy had started a project to re-design the cosmos without even bothering to consult any of the people in it. The arrogance – and sheer ambition – of such a scheme was monumental. Even Ryan had never proposed a project that would influence the universe on such a scale!

Even the Ourathan Robots – at least according to their cautious communications with them – had never heard of such a thing.

In fact, that report was causing some interest on the galactic end. Several alien groups found the concept of such a project of interest – and the news that a young, newly-discovered, outlying species was actually undertaking it of even more interest. There were problems with making contact of course, especially since the Ourathan were so reluctant to share information – but all of that could be gotten around given a little time.

A through, in-person, evaluation of the situation was in order. Fortunately, the boys meddling in Core – even if it was simply in pursuit of legalistic recognition of his fait accompli recruitment and ownership of his Thralls – provided an opening. There were focus groups all over Kadia and poking into half of the boys operations across the Manifold. A few more wouldn’t cause any particular stir – and they needed a military evaluation of Kevin’s operations, of Kadia, of the Thralls current occupations, and of how many Thralls the boy might already control.

Dr. Albert Parsons – scholar, sociologist, expert (even if Core-limited) psychic, and amateur detective – fit the bill almost perfectly. He was already going to participate in a focus group anyway, and was congenial enough about adding a military evaluation to the sociological one he’d already been planning at the request of the computer systems. At almost four centuries, he’d seen the Manifold open fifty years before – and didn’t entirely approve of magic and other fanciful nonsense, even if the Manifold did make it real.

Permission to visit Kadia was easy enough to come by even if you weren’t an adolescent kid or under treatment for something like the meme-weapons.

Dr Parsons took his “focus group” of experts – Radheya (engineering and computers), Jerome (religion, mythology, and magic), and Nadyenka (tactics, combat augmentations, and military history) – and headed for Kadia…

(Gate-Operator/ Greeter) “Dr Parsons and party? Welcome to Kadia! You are registered as being here for a vacation and to visit a youthful third cousin who is in service to Lord Kevin, so these briefing packages have been prepared to suit the purpose of your visit. You are welcome to roam the malls and other public areas of course, if you would like a live guide, one can be provided for a very modest fee. The systems can supply a list of attractions and vacation areas on request. Is there anything else you would like explained at the moment?”

The gate-operator seemed to be…  an adolescent anthropomorphic deer -boy, who had his smart-clothes (or collar) set for a quasi-amerindian guise – a loincloth and headband mostly, even if his hooves made the classical moccasins impractical. The kid seemed happy and well-treated enough – save for the fact that his personal-ID broadcast proclaimed him to be one of “Lord Kevin’s” personal properties…

Of course, that could be true in Core too – the last time the laws on the topic of owning sapient non-humans had really been reviewed and updated had been for the neodogs, many decades before the Manifold had opened and other forms of animal-people emerged from the realms of myth into fact – but somehow he hadn’t really expected “Lord Kevin” to rub his visitors noses into his slave-trading quite so blatantly.

Even worse, since Kevin taught his Thralls to shapeshift, and could, obviously enough, transform them himself, who could say that the boy hadn’t started out as a perfectly normal human child, and simply been transformed into a form which the computers would accept as property? If Kevin WANTED to provoke controversy, he could hardly do better; less than thirty seconds into a visit, and already he was on the horns of a moral dilemma…

Well, there was no point in asking the boy if he’d started out as an Anthropomorph. It would arouse suspicion at the least – and it wasn’t like it would matter in Kadia or even as if he could call the kid on a lie.

(Parsons) “What would you recommend? This is our first time visiting.”

(Greeter, cocking his head as he picked up the datafeed on Dr Parsons and his friends) “Vacation is it sir? I’d suggest the shapeshifting to a naturally flying form – or perhaps a neodolphin – and the whitewater sports! Once you’re a little tired, there are some lovely art museums and such too!
Or perhaps a carnival? They wear after a bit, but they’re always good for an afternoons diversion!
I’d stay out of the wild zones though Sir! You can’t wander in by accident – they’re a long ways out and the systems warn you – but they’re unrestricted and you can easily get killed there, and then you lose the rest of the day before you wake up back at one of the visitor centers! It’s even worse if you fall and break a leg or something. That can cost you several miserable days! (Pause) Is there anything else sir? I have to be getting ready for the next group of visitors if there isn’t!”

On the psychic level… there was… rather a lot of power there. An astounding amount  actually. The boy practically radiated good will and cheer, but then he was assigned as a gatekeeper and greeter. Still… he did seem to believe what he said – and there were some indications that he regarded being in Kadia as an escape, despite his enslavement. An implanted idea, or was he really from someplace far worse?

(Parsons) “No, I think we’ll be fine. Thank you.”

(Greeter) “You’re welcome Sir!”

Well, general observation before anything that might tip their hand… Visiting a few of the various recreational facilities should let them evaluate Thralls who – presumably – would not be on guard. Besides, a bit of diving and water-sports might be fun.

Still… He had to agree with Nadyenka; the greeter’s power signature had frightening implications. If Kevin gave power like that to simple gate-operators, what were his actual combat operatives like? Did Kevin give them ALL the full power-package? The gate-operator had to be a gatekeeper of course – but did they really need all those other powers? Even if he had created this dimension as a custom project, could he possibly be THAT generous with the power he handed out?

Not too surprisingly, information on the total numbers of Thralls in Kevin’s service was NOT publicly available – fairly basic business security there – but it was certainly implied that they all got the same standardized power-package.

The recreational facilities were extensive, cheap, and almost ideal – albeit with plenty of areas rated at anything up to “almost certainly lethal”. Apparently the bit about “dying just means waking up tomorrow!” was entirely accurate.

They were also a fair number of high-powered young Thralls there too. Not enough samples for any firm conclusion yet – but they knew of several thousand Core kids who had signed up with Kevin already, and yet the vast majority of the Thralls they encountered didn’t match any of them. Either they changed quite a lot when they became Thralls, or a sizable majority of Kevin’s Thralls were not from Core – and that implied tens of thousands at the very least.

He was known to run rescue services – and to offer employment to kids who got rescued – and was known to buy captured kids and offer them the choice of his pact or an indenture. The indenture terms were apparently mild though, they’d certainly been reported on often, and consistently, enough.

(Jerome) “Well… the entire PACKAGE is hard to believe. Still, the benefits of simply wanting to work for him have been fully examined, and certainly make it more credible… At the moment, there’s every indication that his contract is being honestly and fully explained – but the obedience programming and soulbinding makes the kids who take it loyal, docile, property – and “Lord Kevin” seems to have no scruples at all about doing it – or about treating them as pets! He doesn’t seem to be abusing them at the moment – but that could change. I suppose the real questions are simply “Is that likely to change?” and “Should Core acknowledge that the children he bonds are in the same category as property-class Neodogs after being enthralled?” In some ways it’s just a technicality – acknowledging it won’t really change anything – but a lot of people see it as a moral threshold.”

Dr. Parsons sighed. He’d have to admit that he was in the group that saw it that way. Neodogs were one thing, but real humans – transformed though they might be – were something else entirely! Yet Kevin apparently didn’t see any real difference… It certainly seemed like – to him – property was property. He provided some basic rights for the kids who took his contract in the contract itself – but the fact that he formally granted those rights, instead of assuming that they were inherent, also said a lot.

The boys early biography was normal enough. When had be become so inhuman? The reports from that “Gelman” character had indicated that the whole “prince of darkness” routine was more a pose than a fact – and that the boy might simply be deeply conflicted. The heightened senses and sensuality of the dragon-form might explain an adolescents interests there – but he did seem to have gone overboard. Did he just want to shock? Most of his public actions did seem to have at least some beneficial motivations – and the personal oddities might just result from his being a powerful and privileged adolescent who could indulge in everything he wanted to.

It was hard to say without more direct contact. Best to save that for later though; confronting Kevin directly carried substantial risks – of being influenced if nothing else. The boy seemed to be impossibly charismatic.

The group adjourned to the Aurochs Steakhouse (a computer recommendation) for dinner and discussion. Apparently the place did a mammoth steak that was supposed to be excellent!

And mammoth would be interesting…

The Steakhouse bordered on some hunting preserves, and would clean and prepare your catch if you were feeling independent – but most guests just ordered though. It had an ice-age primitive-man theme, although the modern air conditioning and other conveniences were still present – just hidden.

That was… interesting. It looked like the hunting preserves covered several different eras of the age of reptiles, along with several other major eras from the past. The prey was apparently simple phantasms, but they were precisely based on patterns drawn from the originals in the Manifold. The ice age longhouse reconstruction was somewhat fanciful – but the local computer systems would cheerily explain what the originals were like, and why changes for comfort had been made, for the benefit of anyone who was interested in accuracy. There were similar restaurants for other historic and geological eras, with several other themes. An assortment of historical – and mythical – cuisines were available as well. Even if most of the staff was phantasmal, the customers generally were not.

Hm… Kevin had gone to a lot of trouble here – and, far more importantly, had both resources and Thralls to spare to search out obscure originals and cuisines. That had to be a long ways down on the list of priorities for any organized world-conqueror – unless he really was simply an adolescent who was indulging his whims.

The meal WAS very good – and, almost as interestingly, the next table over had been claimed by a small group – oddly enough, the phrase “pack” came to mind – of youngsters who had brought in an actual auroch to be cooked. It looked like… mostly normal children, albeit not from Core, along with a couple of Kevin’s Thralls – apparently hired escorts. A group from the Old Republic star wars universe – a fairly privileged bunch of senatorial children in early adolescent rebellion who had apparently skipped out ahead of the imperial takeover with a good deal of funds. They seemed pretty happy about the entire deal.

Well, that was intelligent of them. Hopefully they were also smart enough to heed the warnings about gambling away their freedom. They did show some slightly odd mind-sets though… Sharply predatory and very group-oriented. Their order was almost entirely rare meat and there were a few physical peculiarities that didn’t fit in with Star Wars…

Jerome identified THAT easily enough. A pack of werewolves… it might just be a local identity, but it was still an unusually potent one for a group of random kids to be able to manage… Ah. A bit of research on the local network confirmed that Kadia apparently made any kind of shapeshifting, transforming, or magical identity really easy. Dragons would not be out of reach of a talented youngster.

Wonderful. Another headache and complication. Not only were local powers in play on top of the Thrall-powers, but it could be very hard to tell who anyone was! Hiring guides made sense in this magical madhouse!

Had the children taken werewolf identities to keep up?

Hm… It looked more like a combination of some romantic notions about primitive life, the fact that it was personal power that wasn’t “the force” and was completely unheard of in their home realm, and a touch of “us against the world”. Judging from the conversation, they’d had a few close calls in escaping their original world ahead of the Emperor’s takeover.

Teenage curiosity mingled with rebellion. Perhaps they could find a place in that New Imperium place after the novelty wore off – unless Kevin recruited them in the meantime.

They decided to talk to them directly; their local impressions would be from quite another viewpoint.

(Nadyenka) “That’s an impressive quarry you have there.”

Yep, definitely a “Pack”, at least for the moment. The package had to include a fair chunk of instincts – although it would take that just to keep the legs straightened out. The youngsters  quieted and looked at them rather suspiciously – but things returned to normal when they concluded that the group was harmless enough.

(Kids, in a rush) “It is good isn’t it! We got it ourselves! We’ve never caught our own food before! It was cool! It kicked Tarvis there, and it broke his spine, but he got better in a minute or two! It rained and it was no bother at all! Salin got mud in her fur though!”

And a happy announcement from one kid that “Jedi can’t do THIS!” as he shifted into wolf-form and took a big chunk out of a rare steak.

Nadyenka had to blink, several times. Most places they weren’t quite so… public about talents like that. And didn’t find them so easy to acquire either.

(Dr Parsons) “No, Jedi definitely can’t do that. You’re clearly enjoying yourselves. What else have you done here? I wouldn’t mind some recommendations.”

The kids had taken combat lessons, a couple of them had visited “adult” facilities (no surprise there, and not even naughty by Core standards), they’d looked into other realms to visit – or to take refuge in – and had reviewed the old empire’s usual cycle (concluding that the New Imperium looked a lot better). They’d done lots of sightseeing, visited a carnival (old 1900’s gypsy style), checked on buying personal body armor / smartclothes, and had visited a “house of horrors” and a costume party – where someone told them they could actually try being werewolves if they wanted, and that it came with a lot of boosts.

So that’s where they learned about werewolf identities. The “adult” facilities had probably been shocking at first, and then liberating to their sensibilities. They weren’t gauche enough to say it, but the kids were clearly refugees.

It looked like… they were all allowed to stay if they wanted. Housing and such was free, just as it was in Core – and so was a pack-territory if they wanted to claim one. The kids were currently planning on some mountain-climbing and other rough sports; they were a bit over-excited about their new regenerative abilities – even if they were a bit nervous about the “return from death” idea. It sounded so… unlikely, even if they had seen one of their guides do it during the trip to the gate out of the Old Empire. The young man with them had been killed when he’d lured off a few bounty hunters – and they hadn’t been expecting that kind of service from a hired guide.

A few discreet inquiries there revealed that Kevin had deployed some Thralls to the Old Empire as guides out when the cycle started to turn. They’d charged if people could pay. If not… they’d apparently do a rescue on credit if someone wanted one, but they’d owe a month’s indenture as a fee later – much of it to be spent on orientation and recruiting spiels.

The spiels seemed to be the same recordings that they’d analyzed before; very, VERY, through, offering a complete explanation, with all the benefits and consequences explained clearly. No apparent supernatural manipulation, although lots of implications of all the thralls around them being very happy with the deal. Powerful – like a combination of Core legalism and the cults of prior eras. Kevin was certainly a master orator – and apparently completely honest. He covered every doubt and question accurately – but made very sure to make it all palatable.

Dr. Parsons sighed again… Much as he hated to say it, there was STILL nothing wrong with that – although he couldn’t help but find something unpalatable about Kevin binding people to his will, no matter HOW clear he made it that anyone who signed up was his property and pet for the next several centuries! Accepting was understandable for the recruits from the nastier realms, but why would any child from the Core wish to accept such a thing?

It was only later that night that it occurred to him that – perhaps – Core was too well tamed. Kids were carefully shielded from what conflicts there were, and sheltered from the dangers of the Manifold – and Kevin offered them excitement and power. Would that – and the guarantee of survival – be enough to get a parent to approve such a contract for a child who was determined to adventure in the Manifold? Many who had gone out without such protection had suffered terrible fates… Was that why the computers currently agreed that, in some cases, working for Kevin was a viable option for a child? It was about the best such pact on record, and one of the few that seemed to be reliable – and there were always the kids from the Manifold in the first place with uncaring parents, or no guardians in the first place.

Blast it! “Was it worth the price” was not supposed to be such an ambiguous question when it came to enslaving and soul-binding children for centuries of delayed development! Not to mention that Kevin could do whatever he pleased with them, and they’d be fine with it!

Well, at least it came with a mental link to Kevin: if he caused them a lot of pain, it would cause him pain too – and if he was trying to be malignant, he was being subtle enough to fool the computers. He had certainly made a great point of claiming to be a demon-lord though. Still… if he wanted to abuse his Thralls in-Core, as their guardian he could simply tell them what to ask him to do and then “reluctantly” agree to whatever “they wanted”.

Good god… Was his wanting to take formal ownership and responsibility to go with the actual ability a protection for them? Acknowledging that he owned the Thralls would mean making him responsible for their treatment and decisions at the small cost of… appalling many Core citizens’ sensibilities.

They would have to dig a little deeper tomorrow.

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