Over in the Linear Realms, things were changing.
The pattern of the realm, anchored by the teeming billions of souls inhabiting the arcologies and their well-established routines, had endured for five centuries, sealed away behind a dimensional barrier.
- The engineers and scientists came up with an endless succession of stopgap measures, frantically compensating for the pressures of supporting far too many lives on one small planet, maintaining pockets and zoos to hold the components of the biosphere in trust for the future.
- The dreamers and planners continued mankind’s creepingly-slow sublight expansion into the outer reaches of the solar system, their program perennially short of resources – like everything else – yet never allowed to die, since it was obviously the one, true, long-term hope of the race.
- The authorities and rare, talented, psychics spent most of their time and resources simply maintaining order; the environment of the arcologies left their inhabitants fearsomely vulnerable to exploitation, cultism, and general demagoguery.
- The nearly twenty billion inhabitants of the great arcologies worked, and hoped, and lived their lives, as people have always done – believing that their world would endure.
And so it did. Always on the very edge of collapse – but never quite falling over it.
Change came from outside. No barrier could hold forever against the mounting pressure of souls. As the barriers weakened, outsiders, familiar with traveling between realms, pierced it for their own purposes.
The disturbances were subtle at first, building in a slow crescendo towards an apocalypse. As they had on so many worlds before, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse would ride, and the harvest of souls would begin.
The Linear Realms had yielded profits even before then; the tightly packed people of the realms inhabited near-identical environments – an ideal environment for psychological research. Given the need to maintain social stability in such an unnatural environment, the locals had been forced to take advantage of that opportunity – and some of their creations were useful indeed.
Still, the use of those breakthroughs as weapons against other realms had led other outsiders, and more benevolent ones, to the Linear Realms. While Ryan O’Malley’s attempt to upgrade the various national defense grids had attracted more official attention, Kevin Sanwell had sent tens of thousands of his Thralls into the realm – recruiting more to be sent back, supporting the defense efforts, running mass rescue and evacuation efforts, and spawning fantastical rumors.
“Hellcat” Ruth Gelman had headed for the Linear Realms version of New York City to see what Kevin was really up to outside of his own realm, to support his apparent efforts at child-rescue – if that was really what they were – and to see what she could do about Dr Brenner.
Unfortunately, the bastard seemed to have cleared out – but the Linear Realms were still crowded and bustling beyond anything she had ever seen. It there had been a crowd like this on Battling Business World, the walls would have been painted in blood in moments. How could they possibly retain ANY kind of control of masses like this?
At least her papers were holding up nicely. There hadn’t been any serious questions, even with the defense push that was on at the moment. Still, that wasn’t helping her find Dr Brenner! She’d come with the express intent of blowing him to smithereens and the bastard was nowhere to be found!
Oh well. She’d just have to settle for blasting his operations – or something along those lines. The Neodogs had been very helpful there; they wouldn’t help her attack the man directly, since he had a contract with Kevin (was the idiot REALLY incapable of breaking his contracts? He ought to be one hell of a lot more careful about what he agreed to then!). Still, they’d been perfectly willing to give her information on the bastard’s child-snatching operations and local thugs; they certainly didn’t approve of those!
Fortunately, some of his scams were running nearby – and her trigger finger was feeling more than a bit itchy!
According to the Neodogs, Brenner’s biggest current scam was a phony religious group which was using the rumors of other dimensions as a reason for “prayer assemblies” – where, if people disappeared, it was “obvious” that they had “ascended to higher realms”. Of course, since most of the people who disappeared had either never officially existed or had faithful parents who were uncooperative about any investigation, and the realm was in chaos anyway, they were getting away with it so far.
That was really pretty disgusting as well as obnoxious! Ruth wasn’t terribly pious – not like Dad, who’d have gone right through the roof – but using religion as a cover that way just got under her skin!
Hm… It looked like they did presentations in most of the major arcology groups every few weeks – with “Prayer Camps” – with free food and games for kids – every week. Some of those were undercover too, which made it a lot easier to pull in the illegal kids – for whom “all you can eat!” was a really big draw.
Now that was going BEYOND being jerks… exploiting hungry, bored kids like that… well, she could go in undercover herself. It wasn’t like she lacked holdout abilities. Her home dimension could be pretty ruthless – it wasn’t like the street gangs didn’t get used as fodder for the Cosa Nostra wars at home (lots of nice bodies to throw into the Mafias’ machine gun fire, and she wasn’t going to get started on what some of the Italian restaurants’ sapient kitchen appliances were REALLY for) – but back home, they woke up the next morning at home!
Well, if infiltrating one of these meetings would help put a stop to it, she’d try it! She might be a little old for it – but it should be doable, especially if she combined it with a little shapeshifting.
Which was still a bit confusing; she was working for Kevin simply as a test – and because her purposes ran with his for the moment – and he was STILL giving her all kinds of powers! Didn’t he even pay ATTENTION to who he was giving power to?
She put on an act of being hungry and lost and tried to drift in to a public meeting – but attracted rather a lot of suspicion; no one knew her – which was apparently pretty unusual. There were lots of rather pointed questions of the “when did you get invited” kind – and she got her own private bubble of space; they seemed to be assuming that she was a plant.
She probably should have thought of that; as closely packed as these arcologies were, anyone who wasn’t known to dozens of others would be pretty suspicious. Bothersome. How could she get a valid invitation? Her own telepathic probes said that it was by… word-of-mouth along the building gossip network.
Drat it! She might just have to be SOCIAL and work her way into the local community somehow! It was clear the social dynamics worked a little differently around here. Situations that you couldn’t resolve by blowing off somebody’s face were really irritating! Perhaps she should just shoot the speaker when he or she showed up? She could probably have some of the neodogs stand by in the wings to support her afterwards – and there seemed to be five available. They could look after Harry (her servant/ local guide) while they were at it…
If it looked like she was going to be captured, they could extract her and bite a few people!
The fact that she still had her own private clear circle in an otherwise packed crowd was more conspicuous than she’d like, but it also gave her freedom of action; not a bad trade-off for her tastes.
The speaker turned out to be a middle-aged and rather motherly woman, with an aura of deep concern.
(Speaker) “Be welcome all! Although, I see we have an outsider amongst us! Let us pray to the Exalted Ones and our patron amongst them that her eyes may be opened to the truth!”
Blech. Attacking her now was attractive, but obviously stupid. Maybe she could sneak backstage or follow her after she left? The clear circle was proving less useful than she had hoped.
(Speaker) “Know this! This wretched starveling world is but a way-station on our eternal path! At the end awaits the open arms of Revalian, our great patron along the way! The time our souls must remain bound here is at an end! One need merely find it in them to pass beyond!”
That sort of thing went on for quite some time – and with some very good speechwriting and considerable oratorical skill. Very professional.
And a lot of it pushing the general notion that those who were youngest – and not yet so bound to the world – would be the ones who lead the way into the higher realms.
Cultic babble focusing on the kids. Ruth listened without making any trouble. That would come later!
They also pushed the notion that those who truly wished to follow the great one, and to obey his prophet, and offered themselves to his service, would be granted some portion of his power as proof to the unfaithful!
And the speaker WAS pulling a few very minor psychic-level tricks – so at least they had a little bit of power. Trivial-level healing, a bit of light manipulation, very low-grade telekinesis… It would have been pretty impressive if she hadn’t seen Kadia – where tricks like that could be learned in a week and real power was on constant display. Nothing beyond witchcraft. Not even very impressive witchcraft – although the locals found it so. SHE could match it! Easily! There just wasn’t much power around this place at all was there… Even the local psychics tended to be near mono-talents.
She didn’t disrupt it – despite all the annoying nudging, and mutters of “Now, surely, you understand the truth!”.
(Ruth) “Uh… yeah, I think so.”
Outside of the cultish gibberish, there wasn’t that much that was really objectionable – although a lot of private consultations were next, which they were trying to exclude her from by the simple expedients of talking quietly and putting a lot of bodies in the way. Huh. She COULD snake a smartfiber over, but just using witchcraft to heighten her senses was a lot less noticeable.
Yep, they were setting up prayer retreats for “likely” kids and a few adults. Well crap. Taking out the speaker would be nice, but keeping up the infiltration might be the way to go… It looked like the sought-after qualities for a “likely” kid pretty much consisted of a willingness to listen. For the parents it was strong belief and a hope that their kids would “ascend” early.
In other words, they were looking for bored kids with gullible parents. She put on a good face, listened, and tried to get picked before her patience ran out entirely – and there wasn’t much left!
It looked like they’d expect her to attend several meetings before they’d pick her – and to show a lot of sincerity! Gah!
Oh well, at least she had enough information on where it would be held to simply crash the “prayer retreat” – and that sounded like a lot more fun. She made it a great point to praise the food, lighting, sound system, and everything else – as well as asking about the Exalted Ones and their plan for her life.
That got her a lot more bumf. A mostly-cribbed mish-mash of the more successful evangelical movements of the past, laced with an almost-immediate expectation of transcendence that actually seemed to be sincere… Weird. She thanked the speaker for her time and headed off.
Outside, Harry was trying to explain why he was lurking outside the place to a police patrol. They thought that he was associated with the cult, and had been waiting for a cue or serving as a lookout or some such.
That was definitely bothersome. Of course, if they saw her coming out it would undermine any attempt to get around them… Still, her stealth skills were very good! She slipped around to approach them from behind, as if she’d just arrived from elsewhere!
The cops were inquiring as to what a kid from Australia was going hanging around the place like this – and where his guardian was.
(Cops) “Look here young man; this isn’t exactly a tourist zone! I want a straight answer, or I’m running you in for investigation! I’m beginning to think that you must be pretty heavily involved with this little mystery cult here!”
(Ruth) “Hey! So this is where you got off to! What did I say about going off on your own?”
(Harry) “Sorry Mi – Ruth! I was just looking around!”
(Ruth) “Officers, has he given you any trouble?”
(Cops) “Just not really explaining himself! And you are…?”
(Ruth) “I’m his big sister. He and I got separated and I’ve been looking all around for him.”
(Cops) “Hm. And what are tourists from Australia doing visiting a perfectly ordinary Linear? There’s nothing here except a bunch of subbies!” (subsistence welfare cases in the local parlance, although most actually had some employment).
(Ruth) “We wanted to see if it was anything different than home.”
It was hard to get much more “classic tourist behavior” than THAT.
(Cops) “Oh for… what would be different? Even the chance of being mugged for having enough money to be traveling is about the same! Linears are a near-standard design across the entire planet! They only change for climactic belts! You two idiots come along! I’m getting you out of here before you get your fool heads smashed in!”
(Ruth) “Right. Thanks. Come on, brother, let’s go.”
The cops insisted on loading them into an airbus going to a more appropriate venue for tourists. Still, the prayer camp wasn’t for three days, so there was no big rush there.
Ruth didn’t argue with that. The Linears were pretty depressing – and they’d have more time to plan.
They went to see some of the great malls, and the parks, around the old Statue of Liberty – which was very different from the Warrior Maid of Battling Business World! She probably didn’t even animate to fight Godzilla! All this one did was stand there holding a torch rather than a sword! It was BORING!
And it seemed like finding some way to animate her and have her help was – sadly – out of the question.
The parks were open to the public, but there was a substantial fee unless you got one of the free permits that were rationed out to schools, to VIP’s, and via a lottery system. Of course, by the local standards, their accounts contained a modest fortune.
Now THAT really bothered her! Everywhere she went, she had a credit account! Granting some limited supernatural powers was one thing – all kinds of entities and minor gods did that! – but even if Kevin hadn’t granted some pretty major ones, manipulating the banking system of the multiverse was something quite different!
The parks were boring too! No deadly grass, no toxic fruit, nothing that fights… just grass and trees bred for durability and pollution tolerance. Wow. Other dimensions were really dull!
Oh well. At least she could survey the lay of the land and find some likely places for a retreat or heroic stand – probably a nice flat area.
Wait! There were free flavored ices! At least they still had those here… what, no fugu? Really? Oh well. She settled for lemon. Still… not even any paintball though! No violence of any kind! It was WEIRD. She’d been expecting to have to dodge all kinds of things to crash the retreat. Were she, Harry, and the neodogs the only potentially-violent group in the park?
Well, the retreat was in the sublevels of the linear, rather than in the public parks. That was something at least!
Apparently social control – and squashing any disturbance – was considered pretty much a requirement with this population density. Thus all this covert stuff going on in the sublevels. At least she knew where that was!
Harry kind of wished that he hadn’t got himself into trouble in Kadia. It was a lot nicer and more exciting!
Ruth had to agree there. One of these days she was going to take him to Battling Business World! It had violence AND a decent environment!
They got some maps – easily enough, the linear arcologies really were horribly standardized – and started planning out their attack with the neodogs doing reconnaissance.
It looked like the area had been partially re-arranged – and there had been an unofficial access cut into the subtrain tunnels. The cultists had rigged up a few checkpoints, some lighting, and a couple of rear exits. Any “disappearances” would probably go that way – either into one of the maintenance areas for power distribution or into the subtrain tunnels. None of it was all that substantial though; the checkpoints were mostly just corridor-turns with a spot where someone could stand guard and hold people back for a time if he or she doesn’t want someone coming in. The larger entrances are blocked off though – some light-duty welding that would be easily clearable with explosives, a half-hour job with cutting gear, or hours of normal battering.
Well, she had plenty of explosives if she needed to make an entrance or an exit! She revised the map and got steaks for all the neodogs that had participated in the recon!
The neodogs felt slightly guilty at getting steak when practically no one else in the Linear Realms ever got any – but they were still yummy!
- Federation-Apocalypse Session Log Index III (ruscumag.wordpress.com)