Federation-Apocalypse Session 143b – Stalking the Shadows

The “prayer retreat” started before Ruth’s patience gave out entirely – but it was a near thing.

The plan wasn’t too elaborate, but then she was a teenager from Battling Business World – and it ought to suffice unless the religious kooks were holding heavy weapons or a horde of guards in reserve or something.

She had eight neodogs to cover the exits and provide backup, Harry in reserve, and a safe room in the sublevels staked out to interrogate any captives she caught in. All she had to do was grab whoever was in charge. Once they’d started she’d move in, block the exits, go in and capture a few cult recruiters to beat some truth out of!

They probably wouldn’t have enough weapons or psychic power to stop the neodogs. She kind of wished that they had more than their inherent powers – good though those were – and smartcollars to work with, but they were pretty tough – and they were as willing as she was to “die” to save some kids, it wasn’t like that would put any of them out of action for very long. Six exits though. She had the neodogs double up on the two “secret” exits. Anyone trying to make a break for it would probably go that way – and they could skip the one she and Harvey would be going in through, so that one of the neodogs could go in with them.

It was too bad that canine-style powered battle armor would be sort of out of place in the Linear Realms!  It was pretty cool! Those Akita models from Japan had jetpacks and everything!

Maybe she could pick up some for them for later missions! More people to take home and get fitted!

As the kids started to gather for the “retreat” it became obvious that the illegals were now wary enough that only the desperately hungry were turning up. GOOD. That meant that there was more time to rescue them – but it also meant that Brenner would probably be trying a new scam soon… Anyway, most of the crowd consisted of legal kids with families and a few older semi-fanatics. The mood was pretty enthusiastic too – and there were several “enlightened guides” around doing minor psychic tricks and trying to “help” various kids achieve enough “enlightenment” to gain similar powers.

There didn’t seem to be much natural potential though… and there didn’t seem to be a single real “leader”, although one of the enlightened guides seems to be loosely coordinating things.

Wait a minute… the guides did seem to be getting some results – albeit almost entirely with the ones who had promised their service to the great lord and his prophet. They claimed that the ones who weren’t willing to do so were obviously “not yet worthy”…

Were they fronting for someone like Kevin? Hopefully there weren’t like hundreds or anything, but the boy presumably had at least a FEW competitors – and hopefully some less morally-ambiguous ones.

Oh to Sheol with it. If he did have more ethical competition, they wouldn’t be working with Dr Brenner, or luring in hungry children, or filling the heads of legal parents with cultish nonsense. Kevin might be morally ambiguous – but he apparently didn’t lie to people. He didn’t seem to work indirectly either; there wasn’t any “you are working for some nebulous supernatural entity, listen to the prophet who relays his will!” about his bargains!

She kept a discreet eye on the coordinator – and continued her hunt for enforcers or guards. There ought to be some around – but all she could spot was the rest of the “enlightened ones”. Were they really operating as a relatively peaceful cult or were they just set up to look like one? So far the only real defenses were a few small illusions at the access points after everyone had arrived – and they just made it look like access to the place was walled off.

Well, the “enlightened ones” would probably put up a fight. It was pretty obvious that THEY were fairly fanatical – and their descriptions and dialogue pretty much identified the “prophet” as Brenner though.

Damn it! If only he were here to be shot in person!

It looked like… Eight “enlightened ones”, and – quite possibly – more for every moment that she delayed. That was going to be awkward… Best to strike while she still had an edge. At least the other neodogs could be there in moments.

Damn. They were leading off the first group of kids through the subtrain tunnels, and they had some sort of transport waiting. No time to waste! That pair of neodogs could save those kids. She called the other six in to help her – and Harry – snag that coordinator!

Out in the subtrain tunnels, the two neodogs simply quietly reprogrammed the train and ran the kids off to the local police. Meanwhile – since the locals didn’t come back from death (and just how weak was THAT!) – she started off with a barrage of concussion and knockout gas grenades while a couple of the neodogs moved in to snag the co-ordinator and get him headed towards the exit. The rest of the neodogs – and Harry – could take on anyone who tried to stop the grab or take her on.

It looked like they weren’t really powerful enough or prepared enough for autofire grenades. The “enlightened ones” mostly responded with low-grade psychic bolts and mind-control attempts – and she could easily shrug off the one with her regeneration and the other with her own psychic defenses. She never had liked being told what to do, and the powers she was drawing from Kevin hardened that into a near-impenetrable stubbornness!

It actually looked like their primary “weapons” were purely telepathic… Hopefully they had SOMETHING else in reserve, or this wasn’t going to be much of a fight!

Ruth yawned, elaborately.

(Ruth) “Really? Is that the best you can do? Your prophet sucks.”

There were panicky children running everywhere – and then things livened up abruptly as a tiger landed on her head, clawing and slashing wildly in the clouds of gas

(Ruth) “Bwuh?!?”

Okay! Things just got a lot more exciting! Even if her Neodog guards were already trying to take the thing down, it was raking her badly enough to call for some serious regeneration!

Best to keep it on her though, she couldn’t risk it hurting the kids even if (sigh…) A couple of them were already joining in with their own new powers on the side of the “enlightened ones”. Stupid kids… Had she ever been that stupid? She wasn’t THAT much older than the local brats, surely she’d remember?

She tried to hit it with a curse-paintball; the kids around here were just too fragile to risk her usual explosives 0 but as she let go of the coordinator she’d been dragging, he turned into a gorilla, and started trying to squeeze her to a pulp!

Well, at least that explained the bloody tiger. It looked like the “enlightened ones” got some shapeshifting too. That would make them bloody hard to catch if any of them slipped away!

Fortunately, with her Genemods, she wasn’t anywhere nearly as far behind in strength as a human would be! Much to her assailants shock, she broke away and cursed him too… The neodogs had turned into huge dire wolves to overwhelm the tiger, and were currently throttling it into unconsciousness while the locals screamed and ran.

Unfortunately, at one-on-one, her hand-to-hand fight with the enlightened gorilla wasn’t going so well.

(Ruth) “Ugh. Let me go, you creep!”

(Gorilla, speaking very badly) “Grragh… Blasphemer! You shall not prevent the choosing!”

Harry… was smashing the gorilla over the head with a support beam from the wall; he seemed to have triggered the berserker ability that came with his genegrafts – and the neodogs were proving to be more than a match for the “enlightened ones” and the kids who’d joined in on their side, even with the several extra kids who’d started showing powers when attacked and even sticking to stunning effects.

The neodogs weren’t at all happy about fighting kids, even with stunning effects. That set off a lot of deep conflicts… Still, the knockout gas was working regardless of scruples. A few were holding it off with telekinetic effects though -and the neodogs weren’t too sure what do to about them.

A few more concussion grenades when she got free of the gorilla took care of that. Honestly, the enlightened ones didn’t seem nearly as tough as the neodogs. It looked like the police alarms had been triggered too – but the police take at least ten minutes or so to arrive at an absolute minimum. That wasn’t going to matter.

With Harry having laid out the gorilla, and the tiger busy being unconscious as well – and both of them reverting to human form – the neodogs had begun (very reluctantly) tasering the kids who were holding off the gas – but the blasted kids keep dodging, making fantastic resistance checks, and… damn, there went one trying to shapeshift to a bear.

That powerset was starting to look awfully bloody familiar. The Neodogs were noting that too, and REALLY wanted to probe these people.

Ruth grabbed the coordinator and his underlings, sent one of the neodogs in human form (with clothing!) to get some restraint kits while she and the rest of the neodogs got everyone to her safe area before the police showed up. Then it wass time for probing, questions, and soda and crackers (hey, she was no torturer!).

That upset the neodogs even more though… The “enlightened ones” had smartclothes, and some of the most basic employee-powers…Tthey wanted to take them back to Kadia for some full-scale mind-probing.

Ruth had no opposition to that! She was pretty curious herself.

The Kadia network had a bunch of worried messages from her parents for her… but otherwise the place hadn’t changed a lot. OK, to be fair, she’d only been away for a few weeks, but on the other hand, that was a substantial chunk of the time the place had existed.

Most of the messages from her parents wanted her to check in, although there were a few worried instructions about the dangers of visiting the Linear Realms. Nothing much that she hadn’t already heard about or run into yet though. Hm… the later messages showed a surprising level of acceptance.

Huh! She’d drop by the old place! Her baby brother would be excited to see her, at any rate.

He was indeed – although he’d never been even a fraction as bouncy as he was now… She hoped that he wouldn’t start climbing up her and stuff. She’d liked it better when Isaac would just play quietly with his pharmacy kit and books!

Wait, he’d made her some variant ammo?

(Ruth) “Neat! What’s it do?”

(Isaac) “Continuous-dose knockout, neural paralysis, and temporary blindness for the three that seem to work!”

Ruth grinned and rubbed his head really hard.

(Ruth) “These should be useful. What about the ones that don’t work?”

(Isaac) “Most of those were supposed to turn people into animals! But I can’t get them to work right!”

(Ruth) “Well, keep trying. I’m sure you can do it.”

(Isaac) “I’ll find some way to make it work! Maybe Sandy will know how!”

(Ruth) “Yeah, or know somebody else who can help you. Hmph. I’d better see what Mom and Pops are doing. Can’t give you all the attention.”

(Isaac) “Why not?”

(Ruth) “Because then you’d get a big head, and then how would you walk?”

She punched her little brother lightly on the shoulder. It was nice that she could to that now without him fainting.

(Isaac) “I don’t think it works that way!”

Isaac came along along up to mom and pop, who have been notified of course, and had taken time out to see her from whatever they’d been doing.

(Ruth) “Hey, I’m home and in one piece!”

Pops beamed, and her mother just hugged her without even fainting.

(Ruth) “So how have things been?”

Pops went into some detail about the absurd difficulties of working with Ryan – who, at least according to pops descriptions, seemed to refuse to adjust to people at all.

(Ruth) “That stinks. Does he at least have some cool gadgets?”

(Gelman) “Lots! But he forgets that people aren’t gadgets, and he tends to upset almost everyone who works for him who ISN’T a monomaniac! Smoothing things over for him was a never-ending ordeal! He makes working for Kevin seem quite sensible! And that takes some doing!”

Geez. The man had managed to upset Pops! He really had to be something!

(Ruth) “So like working back in the old world then.”

(Gelman) “Oh… Not quite that bad I must admit. Still, I’m glad that project is over.”

(Sophie) “Have you had much success over in that awful dimension? Will you be staying here for awhile?”

(Ruth) “Yeah, saved some kids from a cult. And I found out some stuff too. Pops, you might want to have a look at this.”

She showed Gelman what she’d collected on the “enlightened ones” and their cult.

(Gelman, who was more than clever enough for that) “Hum. That looks almost as if… Oh dear. They think they’re working for this vaguely-described figure, with notions that sound a lot like Kevin’s – but they’re being told that his instructions are relayed though Brenner as a prophet. Somehow I don’t think that Brenner is doing anything in this but claiming a power he doesn’t have.”

(Ruth, in some shock) “That’s just wrong. He’s sponging off Kevin’s generosity!”

(Gelman) “Well, if that’s all he’s doing it would be… wait, I’ll check… He’s been selling an awful lot of child-slaves recently, of which a VERY high percentage accept Enthrallment. He’s given up on direct kidnaping and is brainwashing people into kidnaping themselves! That’s just… evil AND lazy!”

Ruth was agape – and Isaac was pulling up some linear realms feeds and asking the computers to search for stuff that would be of interest. That got him quite a mix – some stuff vaguely related to the current conversation, stuff on drugs and chemicals, and some children’s cartoon about otters.

It also got Gelman a lot more details on the spread of the religious movement. Combining that with Ruth’s observations, it looked like Brenner’s current scheme was pretty straightforward in a horrible way; the recruits who developed powers were partially reinvested in the scheme by sending them back out to recruit more, and partially sold in Kadia – and he skimmed off the most susceptible legal kids – plus ANY legal kids (susceptible or not) who’s guardians would accept it, and almost all the illegals, for sale as well.

(Ruth) “That’s horrible! And I took out only one measly cell! Sure, every bit helps, but how can I stop it?”

(Gelman) “Aargh! It would be best to stop it from Kevin’s end! Surely he can be a LITTLE more specific on who gets his power! Or maybe throw in some knowledge of how he actually operates with it? I’m just not sure that he even has any conscious control over that! It just seems to happen! Still… Administrators started appearing after I pointed out the need for them, so it must be possible to influence it! And… and that’s even more horrifying isn’t it? If a casual request can influence what power is being handed out on that scale, all it would take would be some manipulative bastard getting Kevin’s ear for awhile. I don’t think the boy has any idea what he’s actually doing! I always thought that Apocalypse really ought to require some thought!”

(Ruth) “Well, you always said we could nuke ourselves to bits in seconds. Not that it mattered then. This is scary.”

For a moment she latched onto the “administrator” thing.

(Ruth) “You think I could talk him into making an inquisition? No, wait, that’s stupid. It worked out so well with the Catholics.”

(Gelman) “I think… perhaps that we’d better REALLY think carefully before we ask him for ANYTHING… Has he ever said “no” to anybody at all?”

(Ruth) “I don’t remember hearing about it.”

(Gelman) “Oh Mighty One of Israel, please grant me this… Let no one else have figured that out yet! Or for a long time please!”

(Ruth) “You and me both, Pops.”

Oh dear. Now she was feeling sorry for Pops! He’d only been seeking the safety of them all when he’d moved them to Kadia, and now he was finding that all kinds of responsibilities came with it. Sure, it was plenty safe, but like he needed more stuff to agonize over!

Still… better that her father be trying to manage Kevin than Marty alone – or most of the other people in the universe!

Abruptly, Isaac – who’d been keeping an eye on the otter cartoon – started yanking her short and pointing at the screen…

(Isaac) “Hey! There you are!”

(Ruth) “Yeah, Isaac, I’ve been here the whole time.”

(Isaac) “No! On the cartoon! (to the computer) Run it back to the beginning of the sequence please!”

Ruth sighed and had a look;

Huh… It was a cat-girl, and a “hellcat” with mysterious witchy powers, and a paintball gun to blast endless hordes of enemies who just come back later (normal in cartoons of course), and it was “Ruthless Ruth, the Hellcat Guardian”, and other bits matched…

(Ruth, grinning wickedly). “Well, looks like I’m famous!”

(Isaac) “Hey wait! If that’s you, then… (he had the computer do a search)… then that’s me!”

Well, it was one young otter-doctor character who kept trying to cure people with wacky remedies.

(Ruth) “Now what’s up with that, I wonder?”

Her glance towards her father was NOT coincidental.

Gelman seemed a but bemused, but perhaps was glad of the distraction… The cartoon seemed to be designed for the Linear Realms, by some expert psychologists. It was educational, involved manifold concepts, and a fair number of the characters were based on people in Kadia. There were lots of cute young dragons who seemed to have a lot of fun too, and lived in a big communal apartment building. It was purely omputer-generated, contained some minor details and subliminal elements about Kadia, and was being provided nearly free to the Linear realms service providers. With his access, it was easy for him to trace it back to orders from Kevin – or possibly from one of his concubines. It was almost certainly Kevin though.

Ruth didn’t see any motive, but it seemed pleasant enough and she was being depicted in a fairly cool light. She had no problems with it!

Gelman was still puzzling. What could that possibly be for?

Ruth considered that… Perhaps advertising and recruitment. The place did seem to suck. Though she hadn’t been to the REALLY bad spots yet.

She ran that notion past her father – and triggered something.

(Gelman, stunnedly) “Recruitment… OH! Wait, is that even POSSIBLE? Is he thinking of that as an EMPLOYEE BENEFIT? That’s INSANE!!!”

(Ruth) “What?”

(Gelman, ignoring her) “SANDY! Get in here!”

(Sandy, popping in quickly) “Yes Sir?”

Gelman just pointed at her, Isaac, and Sophie – and presumably sent some private mental messages.

(Sandy) “Urm… Yes Sir! That’s good I think, isn’t it?”

(Ruth) “Pops, what’s going on? The last time you were that red, you choked that fat guy from work!”

(Sandy) “Oh, wait! Are you worried about recruitment?”

(Gelman) “Err… well… I think he was trying to make it easier for you to travel across the Manifold dear”
(Ruth) “I don’t think I get it. Is he trying to give me more power through stories?”

(Gelman) “It might be… but it’s the Linear Realms, a world with an enormous population, and where people want to escape from, and live in fantasies, and where people – and children – die all the time, and their souls move on to live again somewhere else… Or at least “souls” as the way the Core defines them. I don’t think they’re right entirely, but they are describing SOMETHING.”

(Ruth) “So you’re saying… wait a minute… that’s really creepy! You mean I might have somebody’s soul running around in ME?” Ewwww!”

(Gelman) “Oh dear!”

(Ruth) “And Isaac too?”

(Gelman) “Well… yes. I’m sure he meant well!”

(Ruth) “Okay, but it’s still freaky! And if we start acting funny, you better get a rabbi to fix us!”

(Gelman) “I don’t think it works that way. What the Core calls a soul seems to be more like a memory; it keeps you stable everywhere and records your life – but it takes very special powers to find out what it was doing before it moved into someone!”

Ruth very nearly started cursing. It was only the presence of Sophie that restrained her.

(Ruth) “Well… okay. I guess I’ll just have to live with it.”

(Gelman) “Well, if you hadn’t noticed before, it probably won’t be too much trouble. I’m pretty sure that Kevin thinks of it as a fairly large gift! Besides… you were out doing exciting and heroic things; it was likely to happen anyway. “souls” seem to like recording exciting stuff instead of settling into dull lives.”

(Ruth) “As long as it stops with recording… But hey, nothing bad’s happened yet.”

Kevin had indeed included Gelman’s family in the “get souls for his kids” experiment some time ago. It wasn’t everyone who tried to provide souls for family members as an employee benefit!

Gelman was… appalled. He hadn’t asked for such a thing… Was Kevin, the “random dark lord”, out doing things he thought that people MIGHT want? Aaargh! That level of “obliging” was one of the creepiest things he’d ever heard of! Worse in it’s own way than most of the “eldritch abominations”!

(Ruth) “Anyway, I think I’m going to stick around here for a bit. I promised the neodogs and Harry I’d show them the old world after that.”

(Gelman) “Do be careful with Harry there! He’s kind of vulnerable!”

Sophie puts in a careful query about why Ruth had been keeping the boy if she’d moved on to other ways of rescuing kids.

It took Ruth a moment to realize that she had no easy answer there. Yes, he had been serving as a guide in the Linear Realms, and he’d still be available if she did decide to go for the high-stakes rescue games again at some point – and she had gotten used to him being around – but all of those were really kind of thin weren’t they? Especially what with all the neodogs in the linear realms who had gotten to know a lot more about the place than Harry – even if he did have a detailed knowledge of a particular building in Australia.

Besides… looking at Sophie, and the fact that she was of legal age in Kadia, Sophie was probably wondering if it was some sort of romance thing, and she probably really doubted that Harry had been born in a Jewish family – although he could be considered a jew under the old “one law for the sojourner” bit if he kept Jewish law and was circumcised – and she could doubtless see that Ruth was at least somewhat fond of him.

He still had nearly fifteen years to go in his indenture, even if she had set it up to pay off at twice the normal rate. On the other hand… According to the computers she could set him free with a few words and an order to undo the light dose of conditioning he’d been given Theoretically he might ask to have the wolverine genemods removed – but that was pretty unlikely since they were purely beneficial to him and he seemed to be enjoying them.

She had the computers clear his indenture.

(Ruth) “She has a point, Harry. It was nice working with you, so why don’t you undo that obedience stuff they put on you?”

(Harry) “As you wish. Thank you! “

(Ruth) “And don’t get yourself into gladiatorial fighting like an idiot again! I don’t want to have to bail you out from that!”

If she needed a guide in the Linear Realms again she could just ask a neodog who’d worked there.

(Ruth) “Do you still want to visit my home world, though? It is pretty deadly if you can’t just respawn. I think you can find ways around that now.”

(Harry) “Uhm… maybe I could watch a movie? I’d be glad to visit some worlds where people don’t routinely try to kill you because you’re ahead of them in line though!”

(Ruth had to laugh at that. They did sometimes!) “I’ll see what I can find!”

She’d show the neodogs some of the home movies from Battling Business World later, before going to get them some combat armor! A trip back would be fun, even if it would be a bother to go back to being considered a minor though!

Now, how to tell off Kevin… She’d never imagined that it was even POSSIBLE to intrude into someone’s life in such an incredibly arrogant and high-handed fashion, even if he had meant well! Not so long ago she’d have left that rhetorical minefield to her father – but she was an adult now, and it wouldn’t do to leave it up to Pops!

Argh! Fire off a snippy note about sticking souls in her without her permission? It still felt pretty invasive even if all he really did was stick up a sign saying “neat incarnation over here!”. How could you do something so personal in such an impersonal fashion?

Oh, first up she’d find out exactly what the effects of… whatever he did… actually were.

That turned out to be rather hard. Apparently that was one of the few things that no one was really sure of.

They weren’t sure about Kevin himself either, although it was pretty obvious that he was more than a bit nuts – even if most of them also were unsure as to what the standards of sanity were for a semi-cosmic being!

He certainly washed from extreme to extreme with his ID’s, although he was always scrupulously honest about his bargains, claimed that all the nice things he did were actually acts of evil, sent underage kids home free, ran vast rescue efforts, and engaged in massive slave-trading.

It looked to HER like the boy was simply binding addict with no stable personality who was just making rules to keep himself somewhat stable when he wasn’t in a role!

That was kind of sad really. It seemed like it would be a very painful way to live. So focused on containing his power that it was easier to just make rules than to consider each situation that came up. Perhaps it was a good thing that she’d never actually met him…

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