Federation-Apocalypse Session 154 – The Harmony of the Sneers

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

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Conley was beginning to wonder if he’d made a serious error… Pouring his own magical powers into the gate system had indeed sent him far beyond the reach of the secret police – but he seemed to have miscalculated and sent himself out of the usual array of inner planes altogether. Was the blasted imperial gateway network using something beyond normal magic?

In any case… This miserable place was low-magic, limited technology to the early bronze age, apparently had nothing in the way of elemental or draconic forms to take – in fact, the elemental planes seemed to be virtually sealed off – and apparently even limited psionics to relative trivia (not that he had much skill along those lines anyway). Even the local spirits were pretty low-key.

OK, the climate was fairly comfortable, and the pastoral locals had plenty of goats, sheep, grapes, figs, beer, wine, and bread to eat – but he’d had enough of that within a week. There had to be SOME way to get back to some sensible dimension!

It had been easy enough to take the role of a wandering wise man or seer – his medical skills were far beyond what little the locals knew – and that let him start tracing legends. Every realm had at least a few gates – otherwise he couldn’t have gotten into it in the first place – and in a realm with so little magic, the forces that leaked through such gates would surely inspire legends.

He’d found one eventually – a place called “Bethel” where the locals were talking about building some sort of temple. It was a gate of sorts – and even if it did seem to lead to some sort of pocket-realm who’s inhabitants were trying to establish some sort of mythology featuring themselves as the representatives of some a unique supreme being.

Humph. Everyone – well, everyone in more sensible universes – knew that “gods” were just really powerful extradimensional beings. The nerve of these things, trying to pass off a fraud on such a scale… Most of the stories sounded like a high-powered weather-spirit. Still, at least the realm they were working from seemed to have a reasonable amount of magic available. All he’d have to do was access it – and he might even be able to sabotage their little game a bit at the same time.

It took Conley some time to attune himself to the gate enough to pass it – but he was a potential Opener, and his uncontrolled power rippled across the realm he was stepping into, causing temporary reality warps. He’d prove that this omnipotent being did not exist if he had to shift his way through half of “heaven” to do it! Overgrown spiritual conspiracies, overgrown psychic entities, and egotistical extradimensional aliens did not count! People should just go on and do things because they believe they can, not because some entity was tricking them!

Meanwhile, Kevin and Marty were visiting Menthas…

(Kevin) “Anyway Mrs Menthas, we brought you some get-well presents!”

Kevin unloaded the oddly-selected pile, leaving Menthas watching with some bemusement. The pair seemed to mean well, but they also seemed to have no sense at all… At least they hadn’t put anything too outrageous on their list. She accepted graciously – although, as an angel, she was hardly capable of being ungracious.

(Menthas) “Any news on the Technomancer? I haven’t been told much other than that people are looking into it.”

(Kevin) “Well… he’s apparently stuck in some sort of ancient historical realm based on his first life. I’ve started some research on how to bail him out.”

(Marty) “We’re definitely going to get him out of there.”

(Kevin) “It’s apparently a pretty nasty place.”

(Menthas) “Oh dear, I hate to hear that.”

Right about them a dimensional overlay rippled through the area – leaving the area a tangle of realities, bathed in a brilliant white light, and with a strange hissing coming from the sky.

(Kevin) “Hey! Who’s mucking about with reality?”

(Marty) “Yeah! We’re visiting a friend in the hospital here!”

The hissing reached a crescendo – followed by an enormous BANG. Suddenly the lights went out across the realm as the sun went out – and the sound of numerous angels yelling angrily arose in the distance.

(Marty) “The big guy’s not going to be happy about this…”

(Kevin) “Well, I think the guy who hangs out here is only a local rep… I’ll try to see what’s going on”

Kevin started probing. He wasn’t much of a diviner, but this wasn’t too subtle.

(Marty) “Yeah, but this is still pretty insulting to the guy.”

Marty was busy trying to hide that he was actually somewhat impressed with the intruder’s cheek. It took guts to rush into a heaven full of warrior angels and pull this kind of nonsense!

Ah yes. Over there. A trio of angels chasing a young man across the fields. They appeared to be yelling at him about how difficult it was to replace those lightbulbs… Caught in the overlay of course; they wouldn’t normally act like that, even if there were normally any light bulbs in the realm…

Even Kevin was somewhat nonplussed!

Conley was feeling right at home! He’d just shown that the entire place was a complete farce; even their so-called Sun was actually just a giant lightbulb! It did look like accidentally breaking it in the process had annoyed the locals, but being pursued was making him feel right at home!

Marty headed over that way. Hopefully they wouldn’t knock the guy out before he could ask him how he did that!

(Conley, to the universe at large) “I knew it!”

(Kevin, to Menthas) “Oh dear. Does this sort of thing happen a lot?”

(Conley, keeping an eye out behind him in case he should need to duck) “It’s all a farce!. You won’t hold the people in submission to your outmoded, stifling ideologies any more!!”

(Menthas) “This is the first time actually that I know of. We get the occasional odd visitor or lost wanderer, but they usually don’t have the ability to alter the local landscape like this.”

Marty, still in his “Krishna” Identity, intercepted the parade at that point before they all drifted off into the Monty Python or Benny Hill heavens. It was too silly! He was going to put a stop to this sketch right now!

(Kevin, to no one in particular) “Hm… Another Opener? About time! We’ve only run across… one for sure and a couple of ‘maybes’”.

(Marty) “And what’s going on here?”

This guy was obviously either an atheist or an irreverentist like you found back in Battling Business World. Still, he wanted to know why he’d done that!

Conley started as a multiarmed blue thing appeared in front of him. He wasn’t sure as to it’s intentions, but it certainly hadn’t featured in any of the tales he’d heard of this so-called “Jewish Heaven”!

(Kevin, to Menthas) “It is very rude anyway… I will make sure that the neodogs can come and visit, but please pardon me.”

Conley headed straight for the blue thing – it was blocking the way anyway – and shifted to ferret-form at the last moment to run under it’s legs – easily zipping past the blue thing.

(Marty, executing a telekinetic grab) “You’re a powerful one! I just want to ask you some questions…”

Whoa! He was a slippery one! Even for a ferret! If he hadn’t managed to startle him, he’d have gotten clean away!

(Marty, telepathically) “That took guts! How’d you pull it off?”

Conley considered turning into a mammoth or elemental – but that wasn’t all that good for losing pursuit. Still, it was only three minor “angels” and no more approaching at the moment. It might be worth trying to debate this thing! He started expanding very slowly, preparatory to going back to his near-human form.

(Conley) “I just poked it! Honestly, it was screwed in pretty loosely. But then, if you’d read what passes for their doctrine, you’d realize whoever wrote had to have something loose up top.”

(Marty) “Yeah, tell me about it. You would not believe this Jewish guy I work with. Mitzvot this and kosher that. Geez.”) What are the angels doing?

The “angels” (ah, mostly phantasms of the overlay) were demanding an apology and that he fix the sun – also part of the overlay of course.

(Marty) “Well, you’d better apologize, I think. You did knock out their power. Now fixing up the sun, though… Hey, I’ll ask Kevin!”

(Marty) “Kevin, I found the guy who broke the sun. I think he’s some kind of religious skeptic. Want to help him out in return for a favor from him?”

(Kevin) “What’s up Marty? Putting out the lights is a nasty thing to do in the medical wing!”

(Conley) “Apology!!! You want an apology?!?! If you apologize for holding back the advancement of the people you subjugate with your false promises and pretensions, for the uncountable millions you’ve caused to be slaughtered in the name of a stupid notion, then still no!!!!”

Conley slipped out of Marty’s relaxed telekinetic grip in favor of getting in the “angels” faces and arguing loudly.

(Kevin) “Well aren’t YOU fluffy and cranky! Want a ferret-treat? I’ve got some here somewhere, and some friends you can play with!”

(Marty) “He’s being uncooperative and demanding an apology from them for the people they’ve subjugated and killed. Gotta admire his guts… But he did say the sun was screwed in pretty loosely. Maybe we should do something about that? I’m sure this isn’t the first time somebody’s tried. Don’t think it’ll be the last either.”

Kevin was busy offering Conley ferret treats and more ferrets to play with!

(Conley, nonplussed) “Look, fine, I’m not REALLY a ferret, would you let go of me? I’m having a discussion here!”

(Marty) “Oh. Well, I’m keeping my eye on you.”

Marty let him go, since he seemed to be more focused on arguing than on running.

(Kevin) “More of a rant I think! Sure you don’t want to play with my ferrets?”

(Angel) “You dare enter our sacred realm and utter such blasphemy? We welcome visitors with open arms and this is how you repay us?”

(Conley) “Yes. Yes I do. Cause it ain’t blasphemy if it’s the truth. You’re just using your spells and powers to convince the locals that you are ‘agents’ of some sort of ‘god’, which we know don’t exist, in order to gain some sort of power over them.”

(Kevin) “Well I never claimed otherwise actually! Although I’m an agent of the powers of darkness!”

(Conley) “Then you load them down with rules to follow that require they follow you and submit themselves to your will without question. And that anyone that tries to point out where there’s a hole in the logic, or to help them grow in a direction you don’t like, is an enemy of your ‘god’, and should be attacked ruthlessly.”

(Kevin) “You DEFINITELY need a ferret treat and some other ferrets to play with!”

(Conley) “It’s all a light show. Well, I’m letting them know. I’m on to you, and it ends here!”

(Kevin, switching to offering a bottle of ferrettone) “And it’s still rude to turn out the lights in the hospital wing!”

(Conley) “Look you! I’m NOT A FERRET!!! I just didn’t feel it would be polite to change into a bull and run over the blue fellow here!”

What, it was polite to twist the local reality and assail the very fabric of existence, but not to knock people over?

(Marty) “So, you going to do this in the other versions of Heaven? I think you still need to get to Muslim and Christian Heaven before you can say you’re onto them, and even then, you probably need to do this in every version.”

(Conley) “I didn’t turn off the light intentionally, I didn’t realize how loosely things were screwed in.”

(Kevin, offering another Thrall in ferret-form) “So? They don’t have to be ferrets either…”

(Conley, to Marty) “Oh, I have plans for them!

He didn’t really. What, were those other departments of this fraud-operation or something?

(Conley) “But you have to start at the root of the issue! And what’s with mister giving here? Let me guess; you’re in the role of ‘dark tempter’? (sigh) “You religious loonies are so predictable!”

(Marty) “Hey, I’m not a religious loony, I’m a regular loony!”

(Conley, back to humanoid form and starting to walk away from the angels) “Well, at least there’s SOMEONE I can relate too!”

(Kevin) “I do most of my dark tempting by recorded speeches and my advertising campaign!”

(Conley) “Well, at least that’s a bit more modern than the usual.”

(Kevin) “What’s wrong with a little dark temptation?”

(Overlay-Angel) “Hey, don’t walk away from here until you fix the sun and apologize for damaging it!”

(Kevin) “You know Marty… I think we have an off-Core opener here! I’ve never actually met one!”

(Conley) “There’s nothing “Dark” about it!”

That was impressive! There weren’t many people who could enunciate quotations and capitalization’s like consonants!

(Conley) “It’s just temptation, people call it dark to try and either relieve guilt, or to add emphasis to it to make it easier to resist. And more often, to blame the source of the temptation rather than take it upon themselves for giving in.”

(Marty, sarcastically) “Really, Kevin? I had no idea!”

(Kevin) “Hey, I call it dark because it’s accepted terminology… want a brochure?”

(Conley) “Oh, go ahead, pronounce your holy doom upon me or some such. Just this time, try to leave out all the first born male children, will ya? Nah, I don’t need a brochure. But, what’s this “Opener” thing you keep mentioning?”

(Kevin, with extra-cheery sarcasm) “OK! From now on all your children, will cry most annoyingly when they’re hungry and too young to talk!”

(Marty, to Kevin) “Belramos! The guy’s already annoyed enough, let’s not provoke him further.”

(Kevin, to Conley) “Oh, people with the knack of opening gates and altering reality that way!”

(Kevin, to Marty) “Well be fair Marty! He’s not from a toonverse, his kids will probably be born as infants!”

(Conley) “Yep. Sounds like a religious curse. Either something that is going to happen anyhow, or so far in the past or mystic double talk that they can get away with saying you have no way of proving it didn’t happen.”

The Overlay-Angels produced a twenty-ton lightbulb for the repair work. It was easy enough to get the lights back on, especially since the overlay was rapidly starting to fade. It was difficult to tamper with such an old, well-established, and well-supported realm for long.

(Marty, to Conley) “Anyway, you never heard of an Opener? Where are you from?”

(Kevin, to Conley) “And you did ask for a curse. I just don’t stock them normally…”

(Conley) “If you’re just talking about gates, well, I haven’t opened more than one or two. Mostly just to get across town or such.”

(Kevin) “Or to get here?”

(Conley) “Nah, though I think I took a wrong turn somewhere. I was originally looking for a different plane entirely! Mostly though, to get to some afterlife, you just need to alter your energy form a bit to the appropriate psychic resonance. I think I went and twisted on the 37th binary warp-pulse instead of the 39th.”

(Kevin) “So why are you down on religious types anyway?”

(Conley) “Because they hold sway over several people, and the nature of their arguments are such that just about anyone can use them to prevent people from thinking for themselves. It keeps back advancement and growth. People tend to start relying too much on others and less than themselves!”

(Kevin) “So why blame the angels?”

(Conley) “Their great enemy becomes themselves. I’m just looking to get rid of the excuses people use to keep from advancing, to stay in their miserable mediocrity.”

What, “Angels ate my homework”? People had never needed any excuse to stick with whatever it was they found comfortable and familiar.

(Conley) “They propagate the tools. They provided the tools as a means of control, whether for themselves or for others of their choosing. Regardless of their intentions, it’s not good, and ultimately must be overcome! Besides, if I can get their focus away from people, maybe it’ll give people a chance to think for themselves without quite as much fear of reprisal!”

(Kevin) “Uhm… Humans created both the angels and this realm – and it and they have very little power in Core.”

(Marty) “So you’re saying humans created the means to enslave themselves, then, and they need to throw them off now.”

(Conley, to Kevin) “Yeah, Sure. Humans can barely figure out how to bake bread without taking thousands of years to do so. SURE they built this!”

(Marty) “Wow, seriously, where are you from? It definitely isn’t Core. Otherwise you’d be nodding along with him.” (pointing to Kevin)

(Kevin) “Why not? Worlds are easy… All you need is to dream of them and talk about them.”

(Conley) “I’m saying their allowing themselves to be so controlled, and that religion is the worse crime, as it puts shades over their eyes, preventing them from coming to terms with the reality around them.”

(Kevin) “I’d watch out trying this sort of thing in the abyss though, the demons get awfully cranky!”

(Conley) “Of course. Because their holy or unholy dogma tells them they are supposed to. Have you ever tried to get them to get over that? To talk them past it, convince them to throw off the shackles holding them down, and to become something better?”

(Kevin, privately to Marty) “I dunno! This guy sounds like he’s assuming that the religious realms shape societies instead of the other way around!”

(Kevin, to Conley) “I kind of think that maybe you should talk to one of the unified church guys!”

(Marty, privately to Kevin) “Must be from one of the outer circles then, or really untrained. He seems to like debating, though!”

(Conley) “I’ve talked to the central churches! I’m from Endragar 9, originally, but lately I’ve been on the Throneworld itself. I’ve played around a bit in the frontier, but I’ve mostly mostly stayed around civilization!”

(Kevin) “Oh, I work in Dragonstar sometimes!”

Marty was watching there – and Kevin suddenly looked rather disturbed and shut up. That wasn’t at ALL like him while he was debating… Had something happened on the Dragonworlds that was upsetting him? He just hadn’t been so enthusiastic about dragons lately…

(Conley) “Draconis that is. Not the actual star. Visited it, but it wasn’t anything special. That was a stupid cult. Had to eradicate them before their lunacy spread. What a waste.”

(Marty) “That’s pretty impressive.”

(Conley) “So, now that we’ve talked about me, what brings you here?”

(Marty) “Just wanted to help this fox noblewoman heal a spiritual wound and visit a laid-up angel friend.”

(Kevin) “Well, we dropped by because the angels here did us a favor and we wanted to return it and to visit Menthas and to bring in a lady with a mystical injury for treatment! And that’s why I keep telling you that it’s rude to be running around yelling in the convalescent wards!”

(Conley) “Were that it was a hospital! That would be useful at least… So, how is your friend?”

Kevin sighed and pointed at the chairs, the therapy sessions, and the route to the medical lectures.

(Marty) “Menthas? She’s healing up pretty good.”

(Kevin) “Almost recovered thank you so much! Although all this roughhousing with reality isn’t good for her!”

(Conley) “Glad to hear it. And it was just turning out a light bulb, hardly a distortion in reality.”

(Kevin) “You’ve got two separate realities overlapping each other at the moment actually… Oh never mind.”

(Kevin, privately to Marty) “Now what? We can’t exactly drop him on Cyrweld and expect it to still be there next week!”

(Marty, also privately) “Do you think that Kadia could handle him? If you’re worried about that, the Tux Brigade told me they just finished work on Escrima.”

(Kevin, still privately) “Well, he could be very disruptive almost anywhere… and we have enough enemies without someone trying to kick down the walls from the inside out. Perhaps let him debate with some Thralls?”

(Marty, privately) “Sounds good to me!”

(Kevin) “Hey! Would you like to talk to some of the people who have succumbed to my dark temptations? You can try to talk them out of it!”

(Conley) “Ah. And now you think I’m some sort of joke? I can see that you don’t believe me. Too caught up in your ‘identity’ as a dark lord or some such? Fine, I’ll talk to them. We’ll see if we can straighten them out, then it’s your turn. Though it’s more likely that you all need psychologists than anything else. But that’s not a science either.”

Kevin promptly had his current pocket-companions turn back into young women to debate their contracts with Conley. He’d been getting bored with that pair anyway, so it was time they had a new assignment in any case.

That did divert Conley temporarily, if only because he could see that there wasn’t anything else around that he was going to have to get involved in immediately.

The two girls were pretty firm on their points; they had a contract that they were actually willing to show him. They belonged to “Lord Sanwell” until they managed to make all the powers that he had bestowed on them fully their own. They had plenty of time to do that because those powers included immortality and perpetual youth.

Now that HAD to be the biggest fraud he’d ever seen!

(Conley) “Uh huh. And how do you make immortality your own? You either are immortal or you aren’t. As for perpetual youth… that’s something he can’t deliver. Even if he can keep you from aging physically – and that’s a pretty big IF – he can’t prevent you from getting older, learning more, and becoming more than you already are. So it’s a false promise.

(Girls) “Actually, EVERYONE is immortal. It’s just keeping your memories that’s the trick – and he handles that for you for as long as you like! And he can keep you from aging and you come right back if you’re killed, and – as far as mental youth goes – you’re as young as you feel! It’s all in the brochures and the contract!”

(Conley) “Brainwashing and implanting memories. And you’ve got it there. As young as you feel. Well, if your know more, and become more jaded, you feel older, you are older, so you are no longer a youth, and you are no longer “Innocent.” There is no perpetual youth without brain damage.”

(Girls “By that definition you’d no longer be a youth after the first second of experiences; there’s no hard limit on how long you can be a youth! Maturity can readily be delayed indefinitely.”

Marty sighed. Core and Kadia schooling. Even the kids were willing to engage in semantic debate…

(Conley) “How? How can you keep yourself from growing up?”

(Marty) “Hey, Kevin! Do you have a technical explanation you can show him?”

(Kevin, looking at Conley quizzically) “You can stop the physical aging process by balancing catabolism with anabolism while correcting entropic errors. You can stop mental aging while still allowing experience by locking down the information-processing functions of the mind. That cannot be absolute, but you can slow mental aging by any desired ratio, including a hyperbolic scale. Why should they grow up if they don’t feel like it? You seem to be trying to insist that others conform to your definitions so that you can impose your own beliefs upon their life choices!”

The Angels seemed to have settled down to watching the debate, although Menthas did seem to be enjoying it. So, for that matter, was Marty. Debate still wasn’t really his thing, but it was rare to find someone who could debate with Kevin and his Thralls on equal terms!

(Conley, somewhat impressed) “So, you’re locking down their physical growth, fine. But locking down their mental patterns? You’re keeping them stagnant! How are they growing if they don’t have a chance to change how they think with their new knowledge? Facts aren’t enough, you have to be able to change to use the facts effectively! If the information-processing functions aren’t allowed to alter, then they don’t have a chance to evolve into something that can truly take advantage of the information in new and potentially more useful ways. You’re essentially just letting them choose different tools to solve the same problems, while taking away the ability to change how they see things so that they may approach the problem in a different way, so that where before they may have tried to hammer their way through, they might now try to bypass the issue, or no longer see it as a problem!”

(Kevin) “Yep! They’re getting an extended childhood, just as it says in the contract! Once they’re done with their indenture, they can start ageing again at whatever rate they desire. They don’t have a chance to really evolve during their indenture period – but that’s part of what they agreed to, and it’s what makes me a Dark Lord! You didn’t think that signing such a contract would have no downsides did you?”

(Conley) “And I’m not insisting that they conform to my ideas, but that they be unrestricted to decide their own!”

(Kevin) “And they did. And they signed up. Why is that not a respectable choice? Because it’s one you don’t like?”

(Conley) “So you’re a “Dark Lord”? And how did you come to that conclusion?”

(Kevin) “I decided to take the title – and I have all the abilities and a solid majority of the traits that accompany the definition in the standard unabridged dictionary of 2550!”

That took Conley a bit back again. There were established qualifications for being a “Dark Lord” in the dictionary? Some sort of checklist? What kind of religion WAS this?

(Conley) “Well, at least you’re honest about it… So, they’re not getting past childhood? You’re enslaving children?”

(Kevin) “Yep! I’m enslaving children. That’s why they get full disclosure first!”

(Conley) “That at least puts you ahead of most religions by a fair margin. And you do seem to be delivering on your promises so far, at least from what little I’ve seen… You do release them eventually, correct? No false pretenses, no trying to sway them to follow and obey for all eternity? O.K. with if eventually they choose to follow goals that might be counter to your wishes and desires?”

(Kevin) “I can’t stop them from releasing themselves when they’ve mastered all the powers I give them. Permanent soulbonds are fundamentally impossible – unless you merge souls, which hardly anyone is ready for I think. Maybe in a few hundred billion years and a lot of incarnations…”

(Conley) “And realization, as opposed to fighting the inevitable… I can work with this. Mind if I tag along for a bit? This would be interesting to observe.”

(Kevin) “Oh why not? I do want you to think carefully before you break any more worlds though! People make them to suit themselves, and breaking them is like kicking over someone else’s sandcastle!”

(Marty) “Yeah, I’d hate to see somebody’s hard work get trashed over a silly debate.”

(Conley) “Look. It was an accident. I didn’t poke it that hard. Not my fault if their dogma isn’t screwed down very tightly. At least they didn’t let it get out to run around the neighborhood. Dogma off it’s leash isn’t very pretty.”

Kevin sent a private mental message to Menthas – “Sorry to run off, but I think it will minimize the disruption here if I take him away”

(Kevin) “Oh, it was your projected concept you know! This place predates light bulbs by several millennia; you just imposed your own form on the local reality. You can do that if you have enough power…”

(Conley) “What a bloody stupid way to run a universe, or a theology, if one can cause it to shut it down by accident.”

(Kevin) “Oh, out of the five trillion or so souls running around infinity, there are only about a thousand with that power.”

(Marty) “Hey, I agree. They better screw that lightbulb on tighter this time! That could really cause some problems!”

(Conley) “Five trillion doesn’t seem like that many people. Soul is a useless term, there has been no discernible proof of one. But I’d dare say that there are probably close to that many in the dragon empire alone. And then of course, there’s the scientific theories about multiple layers of realities, as time progresses, alternate choices causing a split into a different universe where things are different. If that turns out to be true, five trillion is a very minor number.”

Menthas, meanwhile, was laughing and enjoying the debate – although she didn’t mind them leaving to keep an eye on Conley either. She wished them all well.

(Kevin) “Oh, souls are easy to test for! Send people realm-hopping, and the ones that can go and come back without getting confused over which memories are real and which go with local ID’s are the ones with souls. They’re also the ones who can either keep areas of a universe from resetting or who remember through it – of just make new universes. All part of the benefits of having a soul!”

(Conley) “I imagine that most of the alternates wouldn’t matter so much, it wouldn’t make a significant difference as to whether I ate my toast before or after drinking my tea this morning, for instance. Those could be overlooked, though scientific theory would indicate that through the quantum fan, both were perfectly viable.”

(Kevin) “Shall we go? And would you like me to assign the girls there to you?”

(Conley) “What, just go realm hopping, and if you come back, it means you have a soul? As opposed to “didn’t get killed by the locals or die of food poisoning”? Decide to move in and set up shop? Get lost on the way back or find a different place that they wanted to go to instead… Sure, lets go. No, I don’t need the children.”

The girls popped back into ferret-form and headed for Kevin’s pockets again.

(Kevin) “Nope! As opposed to pick up a local identity and get lost in it. That’s the first test.”

(Marty) “Well, yeah. You… don’t know that much about the Manifold, do you?”

Kevin and Marty started quietly herding Conley off towards the medical lectures. They needed to pick up Mrs Eight-and-a-Half.

(Conley) “I never got much into mechanics. I believe they help transfer energy from various forms into mechanical energy so that vehicles can move. And picking up a local identity and getting lost in it sounds an awful lot like hiding out from the authorities or wanting to start out fresh in a new place.”

Oh yes. Conley wouldn’t know most of the Manifold terminology would he?

(Marty) “That’s one way of looking at it.”

(Conley) “And much more logical than some mystic “Soul”. Never attribute to the supernatural when there are better, more logical explanations available. Test and proof. Always, test and proof.”

(Kevin) “Why should supernatural things be hard to test and prove?”

(Marty) “Yeah, people who do that where I’m from wind up trying to conquer the world with superweapons. I’ll pass.”

At the lecture area, Raphael was continuing to lecture the class on medical techniques. Istral had taken to watching the classes and participating in the lessons. Raphael noticed their approach and called for a break from the lesson for a few minutes.

(Raphael) “Ah, Ms Istral is a fine student. She is picking up the basics quite readily. I am sure she will make a fine healer one day.”

(Conley, to Kevin) “Because of the very nature of “Supernatural”. Beyond nature. Nothing is beyond the natural world. How can you test what doesn’t exist?”

(Marty) “Look, I saw him blow himself up once, and he SURVIVED. How do you test that?”

(Kevin) “Uhrmm… 999,999 worlds out of every million are beyond the natural world, and the percentage gets closer to unity every second. We’re beyond it now; we’re in a world created by some humans who dreamed it up.”

(Conley) “Is it repeatable?”

(Kevin) “Only under protest…”

(Marty) “Yeah, though I don’t think he’d enjoy the experience.”

(Kevin) “It was painful.”

(Raphael) “And I would have to ask that you do not do it here. This is a place of healing, not a place of self-detonation.”

(Kevin) “Ms Istral? Would you like to stay here for a bit? I can arrange the ability to commute on a weekly basis if you’d like.”

(Conley) “Well, if he can do it, then there must be a mechanic behind it. Just because you don’t know what it is, doesn’t make it something that isn’t real, something that is accounted for in reality. So it’s not supernatural. Just beyond your normal experiences.”

(Istral) “I think I would enjoy that – although, at the moment, I think it would be best to head back home for a bit, so that I can contemplate all of this for a bit.”

They started on out…

(Kevin, to Conley) “Ah, another semantic loop! You’re defining “supernatural” so as to mean “something that does not exist” and then arguing that no examples that fit your definition can be found.”

(Conley) “As for 999,999 out of a million worlds etc., can you go there? Can you prove that they exits? If so, they aren’t beyond reality, are they?”

(Kevin) “We’re in one now – and they’re still beyond reality.”

(Marty) “I think he knows that. You do, right? You don’t seem to think we’re figments of your imagination.”

(Kevin) “Reality is beyond my ability to reset. It’s the universe that existed before complex life forms began creating worlds from their imaginations.”

(Conley) “No semantics. I’m freely admitting that not everything can currently be explained. But it doesn’t mean that it’s supernatural. Just beyond what we’ve learned how it works as of yet. It still has a scientifically identifiable and reproducible basis.”

(Kevin) “And I’m pointing out that you’re equating “supernatural” with “cannot be explained”. The rest of the universe tends to define it as “effects which cannot be produced by mechanistic means in the one-and-only natural universe” – or, more locally, as “effects that cannot be produced within a particular universe without the intervention of an ensouled operator who can tap into the local laws and energies of normally-disconnected realities”.

(Conley) “I’m scoffing though at saying something does or doesn’t exist if you can’t prove it. The burden of proof lies on the person saying that something exists to prove it. And unfortunately for them, proving it makes it something that is no longer supernatural.”

(Kevin) “All things exist, as soon as they’re imagined.”

(Conley) “No. I’m imagining a nice hot cup of tea right now, but if I don’t go get it, or someone doesn’t whip up one for me right now, it doesn’t exist.”

(Kevin) “There’s no burden of proof really; it’s well known that people create any world they imagine – and can visit those worlds.”

Marty had Minel whip up drinks for everybody. He was beginning to see the scholars viewpoint! This was like a knife fight, but with words! Thrust, parry, evade, slash, entrapment, feints… it was all there! A bit slower but more intricate, and with a wider array of hidden facts than anyone could normally carry in the way of weapons but fewer underhanded options, but the basic dance of combat was there… Was this duel of words what Core had substituted for physical combat?

Suddenly that was a bit chilling. Ideas had always been more deadly than any mere physical weapon – and out in the Manifold, that could be very literal and immediate indeed.

(Kevin) “Are you envisioning your cup of tea clearly? And perhaps – say – a place where it’s sitting?”

(Conley) “What, dreaming? That’s hardly the same thing. Mental wanderings while you’re sleeping aren’t the same thing as creating an actual physical universe. Now YOU’RE getting into semantics.”

(Kevin) “Actually, yes they are… Now, have you imagined your cup of tea, and some surroundings for it? Perhaps a wild and crazy universe with your name on the sky?”

(Conley) “No, I was rather imagining one that I could pick up and drink.”

(Kevin) “Hordes of some sort of alien creature mining for sugar for the tea perhaps or whatever else you have in mind? A simple cup of tea you can pick up and drink is pretty banal. Try imagining a personalized universe for it. It’s more fun! Got something in mind?”

(Conley) “Or, I could deal with the reality of the universe that I find myself in, as opposed to wandering off into fanciful diversions.”

(Kevin) “That’s what you’re refusing to do actually. Are you afraid to contemplate the notion that you might be wrong? Will attempting an experiment to discover proof be against your philosophy?”

(Conley) “I’m willing to accept it. Show me that I am, and I’ll freely admit that I am mistaken.”

(Kevin) “Got something in mind then? Add any details that you think would convince yourself; it’s your imagination after all.”

(Conley, sighing) “Fine. One humongous cup of tea in the middle of a valley. Alien creatures mining for sugar, milk raining into the tea from the sky, and a floating resort built onto the inner edge with a diving board so I can go swimming in it.”

Kevin channeled a burst of Mana through Conley. Marty put some in too. That world sounded like a lot of fun!

(Kevin) “If they’re mining for sugar, perhaps the mountains are made of tea-cake! With cream and jelly geysers from the crustal pressure on the filling!… Hm. We’d better not stay TOO long. Universes tend towards the self-consistent, so there’s probably something around big enough to eat this setup that the miners are making…”

(Marty) “Depending on earthquakes, won’t that mess up the frosting?”

A gateway in space and time opens before them, as power was channeled through the thought construct – creating a link and opening a doorway to a world imagined only moments before.

(Marty) “I gotta see this! You first though, it’s your world.”

(Conley) “Right. And now we step through the portal into the illusion you’ve cast. Fine.”

He stepped through.

(Kevin) “Besides… unless we tell a lot of other people about it, and get them interested, it won’t be stable for long – although it may just append itself to the big rock candy mountain.”

(Marty) “We should go there sometime.”

(Kevin) “Ah, I got really sick there as a kid.”

(Marty) “Of course you did! It’s full of candy and you stuffed yourself silly! Come on, let’s see what he’s doing.”

They stepped through after Conley and closed the portal – although they did take care to tell Istral that this would just be a brief side-trip.

(Kevin) “Well, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t like Core candy! It really was just sugar and flavoring and a few nuts and some butter and such!”

Conley, meanwhile, was busy trying to poke holes in the “illusion”… The landscape before them was a teaside resort. The rim of the cup is visible as a bowl around them, mountains of tea-cake and sugar mines could be seen. A light (and rather sticky) rain of milk and honey had begun. There were solid sugar rocks, crumbly cake for soil, and sticky icing slopes… Ah! There were some toast-and-marmalade shales!

(Marty) “LAST ONE IN’S A ROTTEN EGG!”

Marty – back to his usual plump, short Brooklynite businessman form – was going diving. The rest of the people in the resort were somewhat more reserved, and were all sporting British accents.

(Kevin) “Hey Conley? You wanted a drink, would you like a smaller cup?”

(Conley, who was busy testing walls that hadn’t been in view a few moments before…) “Sure. Fine, a cup of tea would be nice… Hey, wait a moment! What happened to the wings and halo? Or to all of his (jerking a finger at Marty) extra arms?

(Kevin) “Oh, those? Those were just a local identity! Worlds tend to fit you in, so you can pick up all kinds of things like that when you visit! Fortunately, souls are more durable than worlds, so if you have a link with one identities are only superficial!”

Conley wasn’t paying too much attention to that… Although he did note that there might be some communications difficulties resulting from their apparent use of a specialized jargon of some sort rather than the definitions he was used to. Some of the phrases they used seemed to be almost… technical.

He was too busy testing solidity, tasting a bit of the landscape, and otherwise poking around. This WAS a good illusion… but he hadn’t seen one yet that could stand up to all the senses he could manifest!

(Kevin) “Anyway, Welcome to the world of Tea!”

Marty was loving it so far. English breakfast tea it was, with sugar and milk… Not at all bad!

Conley was running through the full electromagnetic spectrum, checking particle radiation, analyzing chemical compositions, testing bonding and solidity, and listening in on various frequencies – including the subsonic groans of shifting-teacake substrata.

Every test reported simply… reality.

OK, not too nourishing a reality, and one with FAR too much sugar, but… reality.

In fact, this Kevin and Marty character were apparently exerting their own powers to keep from getting too sticky – and were extending them to cover the fox-woman too.

This illusion was VERY good. Still, he’d never heard of an illusion that couldn’t be broken.

Meanwhile, Marty was completing his refreshing swim and cleaning up after it.

(Marty to Conley) “Hey, you’ve got a talent for this! Can I use this in my dimension?”

(Conley, abstractedly) “Uh, that’s odd. Usually most illusions will give way well before you start checking out the micro-gravity of the minor objects… The chemical breakdowns look good, and I seem to actually be raising my blood sugar tasting things…”

Oh dear. This was “reality” to every sense he could dream up. If experimentation couldn’t show a difference… was there one?

Kevin, meanwhile, was letting his pets gallop about – there was nothing like a ferret on a sugar rush! – and was getting tea for Istral. The other guests all seemed to be phantasms at the moment of course, but that might change eventually!

(Conley) “I think I need something a bit stronger in my tea.”

Marty was talking with the staff, just to see if his unusual accent (for this world anyway) got him any special attention.

Sadly, with the usual British imperturbability, it didn’t.

(Kevin) “What would you like?”

(Conley) “Something that makes sense.”

(Marty) “Ah, that’s good! Even if there’s no alcohol here, their strongest tea is pretty strong

(Conley) “You’ve never had brandy in your tea?”

(Marty) “I’m afraid not. Though it makes sense considering they put alcohol in egg nog.”

(Conley) “Or a shot of whiskey? Scotch? Or tried irish cream in something besides coffee?”

(Kevin) “There’s only one natural universe. The creatures that evolve there are, however, permitted – and no, I don’ t know by who or what – to imagine new ones as desired and to move into those realms when they die or when their population reaches a critical level. That’s just the way it is. Now, shared fantasies make stronger, more enduring, universes.”

(Marty) “Tea with brandy then!”

(Conley) “Uh, ok. And can they go back and forth to these ‘realities’?”

(Marty) “Only if they’re Openers. Then they can make gates, like we just did.”

(Kevin) “Yes. This is a cake-and-tea world. You didn’t imagine much past the hills I suppose… Past them, you can probably reach places like the Big Rock Candy Mountain, or Whizzo Chocolates, or Wesleys Wizard Wheezes – they had candy – without a gate. Opener-scale gate travel is harder, but lets you go anywhere. Magic and psychic powers and such are a lot more limited.”

(Conley) “So, I take it these openers have essentially unlimited resources where they come from, as it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine a world where the resources you need are freely available.”

(Marty) “It depends, doesn’t it Kevin? Not all of them are like us.”

(Conley) “Not all of them are blue sometimes?”

(Kevin) “Yep. At least as far as physical resources go… Dreamers cannot, however, directly create souls; these aliens you’ve imagined can only exist directly here, in this world. Take them somewhere else… and they’d merge into that reality, and take on new roles – and if you brought them back here again, they wouldn’t be quite the same when they reverted. It’s like feeding a message through a bunch of translator programs. It distorts. People with souls aren’t subject to cumulative distortion.”

(Marty) “Hey, I swapped back to my usual ID. Or is this payback for Kevin treating you like a ferret?”

(Conley) “Perhaps not, but with such availability to resources and things, buying the people you need probably isn’t hard.”

(Kevin) “And that is the one true competition in the universe – to find or attract souls to bring stability and independence to the universes you imagine. That may not be the definition of a “soul” that you’re used to, but it is observable, measurable and testable in a variety of ways.”

(Conley) “So, why create these other univers… Oh. Your one personal heaven, catered to you. Yeah, I can see how people would find that attractive.”

(Kevin) “Yes. Now, a lot of people simply use other people’s universes. They lack the discipline, or imagination, or will, to make their own – or aren’t satisfied with their own and want surprises and things they didn’t think of.”

(Conley) “So, if I created this reality, why isn’t it subject to my desires? Why can’t just change it?”

(Kevin) “Because it exists now – and we’re here and seeing it. It’s no longer just your fantasy; now it’s anchored in multiple ensouled minds. Without souls to stabilize it you could change it easily – but its extent and detail would either be limited to what you could hold in mind at one time or it would run wild around the edges. More souls make it more interesting. They add detail, and extent, and surprising things you hadn’t thought of yourself.”

(Conley) “Fine. Let’s explore this multiverse of yours then. In for a penny, in for a mega-cred. Besides, I think I’ve had enough tea for a bit.”

(Kevin) “One-theme universes do get dull quickly… And we must get the Lady here back to her home universe.”

And so they did – although Marty recorded the realm as a possible fourth planet for his godrealm. He could have his cake and eat it too!

Istral – and Conley – already had enough to think about anyway.

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