World 57 Again: Bioshock Infinite

ROOM AT THE TOP

Previously: Three by Three Stars of Brie

Themesong: Unstoppable by Sia

I groaned… why was I lying on the floor? Why did my head hurt so much? I felt wetness on my face and, raising my hand to it, found that my nose was bleeding. That didn’t seem right… why was… the air in front of me was shimmering, showing an impossible sight. Wolfmen and… and… mosquito-like men were fighting women with animalistic features and strange people I thought I should know but I didn’t… some of them had bits of weapons sticking out of them and everyone was glowing oddly… and right down the middle of this monochrome vision was a hideous crack. Nothing was moving. Everything was still. Everything… I reached out, seeking understanding… and the rift collapsed. There was a flare of pain at the tip of my finger and, looking at it, I saw that the tip of my finger had been shaved clean off.  

The cut was unnatural, shimmering unwholesomely and I would have thought more about it… but a rift opened at that moment and a young woman tumbled out of it, followed by four men who all looked similar to each other, but different.

“W… we got here… time?” the girl asked me, and I blinked in confusion.

“In time for what?”

“What year is it?”

I checked my memory, then shrugged. I was pretty certain it was 1912, and I said so.

“Oh… good. Are you her?”

“Am I?” I asked, looking down at myself and patting my chest with my non-blood covered hand. “I seem to be. Her who?”

“The one who took my other self from the city under the sea, the girl who looked strangely familiar asked.

I blinked again, then looked at the other four. Three of them were close enough in appearance to be triplets, though ones who’d lived very different lives. The fourth was clearly their sister… and yet, that wasn’t right. I clutched my head as pain washed through it and I groaned. I knew that face… knew… something… something was… I just needed to… to reach out for the memory… what was memory… what, where was I?

Columbia! I was… was in Columbia… was that right? It seemed wrong.

~IT IS WRONG.~ A voice said inside my head and I screamed.

“Too… too loud… too loud… loud loud,” I muttered, ignoring the looks between the four who were one who were… this was wrong.

~You have forgotten yourself.~ The voice said again, and in the eye of my mind, I beheld a vast palace of ice… and an egg in the center of a courtyard… an egg blazing with white wings… wings of vapor… and a huge crack down the front of that egg, a crack I’d seen… seen… ~You are not this existence. You are she who transcends worlds. She who stood on the sands of time and did not flinch away from eternity.~

I groaned, flashes of imagery flooding from that crack, illuminating the darkness that had swallowed the vast palace of ice. So many doors, so many… and all covered in ice, unable to open. “W… what happened?”

The girl opened her mouth, but I waved her away… though I sensed she was older than me… and yet not… I was 17… how could she be younger? She looked older… but the voice… the voice…

~I am the voice of Rhapsody, that which was called Atura in another Age and Place and Time. I am that which is yet to be born. Disharmony has caused a crack in who you are. You must remember.~

“I… I can’t… to… to much… too much… so much… remember what?”

~I do not know. I have missed much, I sense, since I entered this gestation… But you are not this child of Columbia. You are not a lost Lamb.~

The word Lamb echoed, echoed, echoed across my mind, my awareness… and I knew that word. “E… Elizabeth is the Lamb… She will sit the Throne of the Prophet and… and Drown in fire the mountains of… of…” I wrenched myself away from the girl, eyes widening. “Elizabeth Comstock!” I pointed my finger at her, gasping. “I… I know you… know… know you… do you want some gum?”

I blinked as she blinked. Neither of us knew where that came from, but somehow I knew I could get gum, and I reached… between words and… and there was gum. It was called Juicy Fruit. I’d opened a Tear in… in the fabric of probability… I didn’t know how I knew that was what they were called, but that was what it was.

She took the packet of gum and nodded. “She’s the one.”

“I…” I looked around the room. It was my room, in my family’s house. There were books and drawings of an engineering nature, including a treatise by Rosalind Lutece on the Lutece Field sitting open and a small device I’d built based on the… based on the… n… no… I… I hadn’t built that device… I… I hadn’t been… this was wrong… not right. “I think so. This… this doesn’t…”

~Place your hand against the wall and think this thought,~ the voice of the egg said, and I did so, trusting it somehow. The thought was incredibly complex, a kind of mental password, but it came easily to me and the wall flowered open to reveal… a Warehouse? It was! It was some kind of incredibly futuristic warehouse.

A butler, obviously inhuman, bowed. “Welcome, Mistress. I see you have a new form.”

“I… yes… umm… do I know you?”

“Ah. You seem to be confused. Please, come this way.”

I followed, leaving the others to follow me through, but they ran into an invisible wall. I blinked, looking at the mechanical man. “They cannot come in?”

“It is possible your mind has been tampered with, Mistress. Your own instructions, should you arrive without memories, are to show you to the medbay for a complete evaluation.” I nodded… that… made a certain amount of sense. I didn’t know where this place was… it certainly wasn’t in my parents bedroom, the bedroom that lay beyond the wall I’d opened this… portal through… but it also wasn’t monochrome like the place I’d seen through the rift… the Tear.

I followed the butler into this ‘medbay’ and found myself looking at technology far far in advance of that which had built Columbia… and a recording of a face that looked… familiar. “Hello, Me. If you’re viewing this, then I can assume you’ve reached Columbia, almost certainly through a Tear, and have had some or all of your memories altered, damaged, or erased. This is not unexpected. Please place your head into the scary looking device that looks like this.” It was scary looking. “You will not be damaged by this process. We have tested it on ourselves before.”

I tilted my head, then wondered why I believed her, but the voice of the egg said I could. I stepped under the device and it clamped down slowly and carefully around my head. I felt… nausea… terrible pressing… and then a flood of information poured into my mind… it was sooo very very much… I flinched, but the machine held me fast and the torrent then slowed and stopped after several moments.

I remembered… there was a… I was a… The data was incomplete. There were doors inside my mind that had not opened, but there was one called “Origin” and one called “Rapture” and one called “Infamous” and one called “Tenchi”… an a litany of powers and abilities that went on and on and on… and… I had to sit down and breath.

“When you are ready, the Mistress anticipated that you would want to speak to the Bankers. I have brought you some tea and a soothing agent.” I took the tea, and marveled as a flood of memories, not many in the grand scheme of things, just about 70 of them… conversations and interactions with a being called The Banker, and a second called Mensarius… and a place called ‘The Arcade.’

The me of the recording said, “There are more memories that we recorded, and many more that cannot be transcribed, but the assumption is that either your, our, memories are being suppressed or have been somehow damaged. We have experienced something similar before and took steps to ameliorate it should it happen again. We updated this particular memory package so that you, we, would, if possible, be able to carry out the plan should the Nature of the Bioshock Universe assert itself strongly enough to… do what it has clearly done. Good Luck. The rest of your memories will probably return at the end of the decade, or whenever this world crumbles into nothingness.”

What a lovely thought, I thought as the memories that were very clearly mine fit neatly together.  Some seemed strained, others incomplete, but I understood what the me of the past had been planning. Now it seemed I needed to speak to the Bankers… but first, I checked on the contents of two crystalline tubes… no… Cryotubes… noo… one was a Cryotube… it contained a middle aged man… a Booker… Booker-Zachary-Booker Comstock-DeWitt… Bookstock… the repentant Prophet… the other was… was a Chronotube?  Was that right?

Why had the other me, the previous me… why had we put this woman into a place where no time passed… I blinked as the information flooded through me… ah… because otherwise she’d escape a meeting that the other me had planned… I had a complete set of instructions that I’d written to myself. And I had only a few hours to set things rolling if my knowledge of events was any indication. It would all begin at the festival… the lottery was only 2 hours away and if I didn’t find Booker there, it was entirely possible I was in the wrong reality. Such confusing concepts.

I left the prisoners where they were and walked where these strange new-old memories were directing me, towards ‘The Arcade’. The door opened as I approached and I entered to find two dapper fellows (one seeming quite untrustworthy, the other frightfully naive) lounging in a strangely circular office.

“I told me to come talk to you,” I began without preamble. “Can you explain what is going on?”

“Err…” said the one behind the desk.

“That is…” said the one on the couch. They looked at each other and then both of them shook their heads.

“Somehow, and we’re not quite certain exactly what happened, you got angry enough to cause a crack in… er… your soul… well, part of it. Your Witch Soul… from the previous setting…” the naive deskman said.

“Except it appears your Witch Soul was also that Egg thing that’s been gathering mental cobwebs for centuries inside you,” the snarky one explained unhelpfully.

“Err… that’s right… and it, that is to say you, ummm… cracked reality? Maybe? It could have been something to do with having that woman in your chronostasis tube…”

“Yes, that tube that you’ve powered with a big of your own power,” unpleasant man continued. “They caused a shunt which threw you into your previous reality before you had finished the one you were in!”

“Now now… I think part of it is that we’d just managed to patch the inconsistency in having two… er… now it seems three… of the same person in the same reality at the same time.”

“So the… Elizabeth in my bedroom is the same as the Elizabeth in the tower who is the same Elizabeth as the one in my medbay?” I asked, confused. “And why are there four Bookers with her? And how is there a female Booker?”

“Two of those statements are essentially correct. The third is less so,” Deskman… The Banker… we called him the Banker… and the other was… was… Asshole McFuckface? That didn’t seem logical… but the Banker was talking again. “The Elizabeth in the tower unrescued and the Elizabeth in your tube are the same entity, they are Elizabeth Prime at two different points along her temporal axis… and the reason we had such trouble connecting the sub-reality of Columbia with the sub-reality of Rapture. Two of the same being can destabilize a reality, especially since possibilities exist here and now that mean if you change things too much, the Elizabeth you have might be changed… as, I believe, is your intent.”

“The third Elizabeth is our work around,” the one with the horrible name explained as if speaking to a very small child. “We located a reality in which the Comstock lifeform told his wife about the origin of the child thanks to that paired reality’s Booker lifeform saying “My Annabelle would have wanted Anna to raised in a nice place… Is your home nice, Mr Comstock? It should be a place of laughter and happiness”.”

“Then how did she get…” I waved my hand, pinky extended.

“She reached back for her father right as the Rift closed. The damage was lesser,” The Banker explained. “It is on par with yours… though that was unintentional. Our intention was to allow you to survive the shifting worlds of this place, since the storyline’s resolution should result in the non-existence of Columbia very shortly. As long as you remain with Elizabella, let us call her, you will be shifted to the reality where Elizabeth Prime is.”

“And the Bookers?”

“That was my idea,” Snarky McClownshoes… clownshoes? His shoes looked normal… why was I thinking such mean things about this… wretched horrible… perfectly unpleasant but harmless… haaa! Harmless!… man. “I found these dregs as we searched realities. One’s from a parallel where Booker was born female. She pretended to be a man to join the military and was more concerned with protecting that image than worrying about being called an Indian. No Anna, no Comstock. One’s from a parallel where Booker never regretted his actions at Wounded Knife.”

“Knee.”

“Irrelevant. He viewed what happened as necessary and did not look back. No Comstock. The third was unable to face the taunting of his fellow thugs and brutes and deserted prior to the battle. No Comstock. The last accepted his heritage as part native american and was unashamed of it. No Booker specific atrocities, No Comstock.”

“So you’ve rounded up… wait… are these idiots companions?”

“If you want them to be,” The Banker said, “We used part of the Matrix to solidify them into this time and place to assist you, as your other companions are all back in and around the restaurant you call Bar Ziggy in the Soul Eater World.”

“So… wait… this… this is in the middle… late middle… of the Challenge?”

“Erm… yes. There has been damage to the fabric of both realities and you will need to resolve the situation here before you can resolve the situation there.” The Banker looked somewhat annoyed at the disruption.

“So… wait… this is like saving a game, then switching to another game for a Change of PACE?” I couldn’t believe my ears.

“No… no… more… having your… what do you call it? Ah… your PC need to go into the shop for repairs, so you kick your Playstation and play a game on it while waiting for the PC to come back.”

“Kick?” I asked, then ohed “Boot! You mean Boot. Right. Okay… this is weird. But, like I don’t need 4 Bookers. They’re all the same… and I pretty much already have one… Bookstock.”

“First of all, as you well know, little miss,” Eyebrows McGurk snarked, “You have Comstock pretending to be Booker. And second… all the Bookers and Comstocks are the same being.”

“Wait… so there are… what… five of them forming a single companion? Like the Twins?”

“They are the same lifeform. They are the same companion.” The Banker agreed.

“So… what about Elizabeth and Elizabella?”

“No. They are not the same?” Couchmonkey said.

“Why not?”

The Banker shrugged. “The amount of dimensional energy in Elizabeth is far greater than Elizabella. Elizabella is a localized entity. Elizabeth is a quantum waveform, similar to yourself or Tokimi.”

“Oh… I… see. So because Elizabeth contains multitudes, she is all Elizabeths… but because you yoinked Elizabella out of the waters of time and she doesn’t hate her… wow… Comstock is still kinda her father in two senses… gods this is making my head hurt… Because Elizabella wouldn’t go along with drowning Comstock because her Comstock wasn’t as bad as all the other Comstocks… She’s not involved in the quantum Elizabeth… or something.  So… do I have choices to make?”

“The choices are largely irrelevant.” Mensarius… that was his name! Mensarius… said.

“She still gets to make those that remain,” The Banker said to his counterpart.

“Fine!”

The wall shimmered and a movie screen appeared. ‘Lambnesia’ appeared on the screen, showing me, in two dimensions, a flat image, with lines pointing to it. To my head pointed a line that said ‘EMPTY, DAMAGED, MALFUNCTIONS GALORE’. To my heart pointed a line that said ‘GOOD FAMILY, WEALTHY, LUXURIOUS HOME WITH PARENTS’. To my hand pointed a line that read ‘OPEN TEARS FOR PEEPING AND STEALING… ALSO GOOD WITH A LOCKPICK’. And to my throat was a line that said ‘BARBERSHOP QUARTET SINGING VOICE, STILL ANNOYING.’

Next to the image of me was a picture of what I recognized as a Skyhook, a money bag,  and a set of lockpicks, a glowing egg (ATURA, COMPANION IMPORT #1, DROP-IN, INTERFERING WEASEL, KNOWLEDGE OF LUTECE PHYSICS & VOICE OF THE PEOPLE, BARBERSHOP SINGER), a set of 5 Bookers (KILLER, COWARD, LADY, EVERYMAN, PROPHET… the last was flashing), a pair of Elizabeths, one older than the other, both skilled in Tears, Lockpicking, and Codebreaking, but the older was also flashing, and there were two question marked silhouettes.

On the other side of my image was the legend “Balance Remaining 800. Potential Balance Remaining 1100.” Beneath that were a number of drawbacks and the legend ‘Limit 300’… and three lines were already flashing. ‘Scavenger’, ‘1999 Mode’,  and ‘Songbird’. The others, ‘Mick’, ‘Fear of Heights’, ‘Unstable’, ‘Dimwit’, and ‘Siphon’ were all grayed out.

I tapped on ‘Mick’ and a warning window popped up. “THAT CHOICE WOULD CAUSE A CONTINUITY ERROR TO OCCUR.” it said. The same happened with ‘Dimwit’ and ‘Siphon’, while the others triggered the message ‘THAT IS CONTRAINDICATED’. I couldn’t even pull up explanations of what they were, though most were fairly obvious.

I could pull up descriptions of the three remaining ones, though. ‘Songbird’ sent this reality’s version of a big-daddy… well, one of the two types (the Handymen filled the construction role of Big-Daddies while Songbird filled the ‘Protect the child!’ role.)… after me… I wondered if I was really as powerful as my new-old memories suggested I was. If I was, Songbird would be no threat at all. 1999 Mode meant I’d be attacked on the regular by people who would be significantly smarter, stronger, and more in command of their Vigors than they otherwise would be… but if my impression of the general level of smarts, strengths, and power of Vigors was any indication, that too was no issue. Scavenger was, likewise, no threat… except to my dignity, as taking it would, apparently, make me into a bit of a kleptomaniac.

Strangely… I had no trouble with this, and wondered why my canines just grew three inches. I wiggled my nose and scratched my ear… with my foot. I looked at myself and discovered that I’d turned into some kind of weasel? No… a ferret. A very large ferret. And somehow I’d stolen the man on the couch’s bowtie without noticing. I handed it back and he looked faintly horrified, shooting a deeply worried glower at the man behind the desk, who just chuckled nervously.

“Okay… I’ll take them, I guess. Seems reasonable or something.” The Drawbacks faded and the Unspent total changed to 1100. A slew of new options appeared, these all costing points. “Do I really do this every ten years?”

“More or less,” the Bankerman said. “Though the average is significantly higher than that.”

“How much higher?”

“This is your sixty-fourth jump and a conservative estimate of your age puts you at more than fourteen thousand years old.”

“I don’t feel that old,” I said, turning back into a person somehow.

“How does someone that old feel?” The sleeze asked wryly.

I poked myself, then shrugged, “Hungry… At night, how come everyone in Columbia doesn’t bundle up? During the day, in summer, it’d be pretty hot here… I’ve been on enough mountains to know that… but there isn’t any great heatsinks to hold that heat… at night it should get pretty chilly. Where do they get their fuel from?”

“Spend the damned points!” the sleeze yelled.

“Err… yes… we would appreciate if you resolved the issue with alacrity. The superpositional state of maintaining your continuity is placing some undue strain on the system.”

“And the viewers are watching! You’re supposed to have spent all your points before the episode begins! This is most irregular!” Mensarius snapped.

“They aren’t your viewers,” The Banker chided.

“I’m getting a coproducer credit. That means my name is on this production.”

“Boys, boys, you’re both pretty…” I had no idea what that meant or why I said it, but it felt smirkworthy, so I did.  Then I looked at the options. The Shield option looked nice… it generated a magneto-repulsive self-regenerating anti-damage shield around me… and if I didn’t take it, I ran the risk of being lethally poisoned by something called Shield Infusions… which (along with Health and Salts Infusions) were on sale for what seemed the bargain price of 50 CP. Shield itself would cost me 400 though. Still, a passive defensive barrier that could stop bullets didn’t seem the worst thing on the table, so I picked it up… and the Infusions. Apparently I’d one a week, and each would add 15% to my base health, Salts, or Shield… though I’d only be able to use 10 in each of the three categories… which was less than a year’s worth… But I could provide them to others, which was good. Giving people health usually would be a good thing, right?

My memories told me that Salts were what Columbia called the substance Rapture knew as Eve, and they were a bluish liquid that, when consumed, allowed the use of Vigors… or as Rapture knew them, Plasmids. A source of which I didn’t currently have, requiring my followers to make do with, of all things, smoking cigarettes to recover expended Eve to power the Plasmids I’d created for them… I scanned the items and grinned “Excellent!”. There was a Salts Machine on sale, a vending machine that would completely restock expended Salts/Eve for free whenever interacted with. That was handy. And cheap! Only 50 CP.

That left 600 exactly and there were three ‘skills’ that cost exactly that much. ‘Vigorous’, ‘Prophecy’, and ‘Veni Vedi Vigor’… which was a joke that didn’t actually work, since the first two words were properly pronounced ‘Weni, Wedi’ while the third was pronounced like it was spelled. Ah well, visual humor if nothing else. Prophecy was a hit or miss randomness of peering through time and probability into the future or alternate realities. Meh. I could do that with Tears if I wanted.

The Vigor Twins were both nice, though slightly redundant, each in their own way. Vigorous would give me 2 free Vigors… and from what my new-old memories told me this was a better deal than it would have been in Rapture since CP bought Vigors were more powerful than storebought… which hadn’t been true of Rapture’s Plasmids and Tonics… and Vigorous would half the Salts cost for Vigors (and most likely Plasmids, though that wasn’t guaranteed)… and it even boosted the strength of all Vigors I did use, either CP or Store bought… But… it was limited to what was on sale…

VVV… or WWV really… that was a different kettle of slugs. It gave me knowledge of the Vigor Creation process and the formula (which was oral rather than injected, at a much higher ADAM cost)… All of which was useless to me because I already knew how Plasmids and Tonics were made and Vigors were exactly the same thing (there had been oral Plasmids, since Souchong had stolen the idea from Fink who’d stolen the idea for Plasmids in the first place from Souchong… ah, intellectual property theft).  Even though VVV came with the formula for any three currently existing Vigors, that wouldn’t be enough to justify the cost or taking it over it’s brother… except that VVV offered the one thing my Rapture-born knowledge of ADAM biotech didn’t… a fiat guarantee that my experiements with ADAM would lack negative side-effects.

I did a little dance at that and pressed the button. A thought out of the back of my mind suggested “Make an ADAM based Super Soldier Serum.” I mmm’d… wondering what a Super Soldier Serum was… and why I was grinning like a goon.

“There, points spent. Can I go?”

“Not all of them are spent yet,” The Banker said, highlighting the missing companions. “You’ll need to spec out most of your new friends.”

“How many points do they get?”

“The unassigned ones get 500 each, and a free Identity. The choices are Prophet, PI, and Businessman. The points can be spent on Skills and Vigors only. No Items.” I awwwed… there’d been a minibar and an airship I hadn’t had the points for… Maybe I didn’t need Shields?  I rolled my eyes at myself. I didn’t need a minibar or an airship either. I already had an airship… I did? My memories were uncertain of this. Something called the Raven… but we couldn’t remember where we’d parked it.

“Ummm… why is the fifth Booker flashing?”

The Banker steepled his fingers and said, “Bookstock as you call him… all the Bookers have the PI package. It includes Sleuth, Shields, and Vigorous. While perks… called skills in this Jumptree… are equally shared across each of them, they are biologically distinct, and so each may have their own suite of Vigors.”

“Ah… and the others have already chosen, while Bookstock is in stasis and can’t?”

“Precisely.”

“What did they take?”

“Each of them has Return to Sender, which creates an anti-damage shield. A charged shield absorbs incoming bullets into an orb of molten metal which can be launched back at enemies. The upgraded version absorbs and collects incoming ammo for reuse… as impossible as that may be.” I thought about that and chuckled. He was right, it wasn’t like the guns fired then entire bullet, shell and all. “The Coward has the Aerokinetic Charge, the Lady the hydrokinetic Undertow, the Everyman the pyrokinetic Devil’s Kiss, and the Killer has the Corvogenetic Murder of Crows.”

I boggled at the term Corvogenetic… it was, functionally, correct… just extremely unusual. “Uhhh… give him Bucking Bronco. The other option is Shock Jockey. He already has Possession and Devil’s Kiss… oh… oh… Can I know how to make Old Man Winter?”

“Err… what?”

“Old Man Winter! It’s the Vigor of Ice… it was the Vigor version of the Winter Blast Plasmid. Suchong… or a version of him from some other Rapture, would have created it. In the DLC Burial at Sea, Bookstock can find Bucking Bronco, Shock Jockey, and Old Man Winter Plasmids. They’re drinkable Plasmids, which means they’re essentially Vigors.”

“Umm… It is an existing Vigor / Plasmid?”

“Yup.”

“Very well.”

“Excellent… then I also know Peeping Tom and Ironsides.”

“I… don’t see those in the tree.”

“They’re from Burial at Sea 2… and they exist… also Amnesia which makes you forget everything you know, Plant Peeper which allows you to read the minds of your houseplants… and Dead Ringer which allows you to Re-Animate dead loved ones and pets! All were created by Fink or Souchong in canon… I’m not even asking for Fungal Healing, Ghost Touch, Kinetic Overflow, Spider Trap, Weapon Slave, or Chameleon… all of which were removed from the games before they were published, but which probably still exist in canon somewhere.”

“You know far too much about this series,” Mensarius accused.

“You know far too little about everything so shut up,” I snapped back, then turned to look at the list, muttering “Shame none of the gear is on offer… wait… gear… ah… heh.” I grabbed a piece of paper and made a list of every single Gear location my new-old memories told me about… many were questionable, but others were or should be set in stone. The contents were randomized… but my memories of Rapture said we’d managed to hunt down every piece of Gear in that city over the decade, though it had required a far larger team of searchers than I had available to me right now and there were more Gear in Columbia than in Rapture. I wasn’t sure why I wanted them, but I did. Many of them were hats and that was doubly important.

“Ooookay… it says I can recruit locals to my specifications or import previous companions… can you bring up a list of the companions I can import… I’m having some… er… trouble,” my head throbbed, “trouble remembering who all of them are.”

The list came up… it was three names long. That couldn’t be right. “I can’t remember fully… but my memory tells me that I have more than that.”

“You do. But all of them are currently in a restaurant quantumlocked by your little temper tantrum and the power of that freakshow you kidnapped,” snarled the unpleasant one. “You get the ones who aren’t. And feel grateful you’re getting those.”

“Ummm… it says that two of them are currently dead and the third is unavailible for activation.”

“Yes… well, you left them behind somewhere. You’ll have to go back and get them before you can actually bring them along,” he said with a sneer.

“So… this is you two being petty?”

“It’s complicated… we could attempt the linkage as normal, but the state of quantum flux…” The Banker trailed off.

“If we did it, it would invalidate your challenge, since they’d be gaining outside challenge abilities,” Mensarius finished for him.

“Ah… very well. I won’t complain… too much. Umm… Astraea… I vaguely… mmm… no… no idea… but something tells me she’s the right choice… give her the Prophet background… that comes with the Cult of Personalty, Baptism, and Prophecy Skills, right?”

“That is correct. She’ll find it easier to gain lackeys, hangers-on, and followers thanks to an aura of importance, strengthen her bond with them thanks to a shared ritual, and see glimpses of the future and sidereal potentialities.”

“Sidi what?”

“Things in other whens,” the odious one snarked.

“Oh… right… Sidiwhatis.”

“She’s teasing you,” The Banker said with a chuckle that carried no small amount of mockery at Mensarius’s expense.

“Yeah… he’s an asshole,” I muttered, loud enough to make it seem like I was trying not to be overheard by the wicked one but heard by the… incompetent one?

“That leaves one slot open and the primary Elizabeth,” His Bankerness said.

“MMM… I don’t want to mess with E-Prime’s personality. For this to work, she has to be herself… will the Private Investigator identity change that?”

“No. It is the Drop-In choice.”

“Ah… then that… give her Sleuth free… Cult of Personality… Voice of the People… and Shield. Don’t want her getting all shot to death. That would be bad.”

“Very good… and the last?”

“Heh… I have an idea… but I’m not gonna tell you.”

“How would that work?”

“I’m going to assign some values and you’re going to put it into… a bottle. And that bottle is going to contain the potential to become the companion… So if it’s accepted, the person who accepts it will become the companion… but they won’t be the companion until they accept.”

“Err… I guess… but you can’t keep the bottle past the end of this jump… well, you can, but it only applies to this setting. So you could, I guess, apply it to one of your other companions once you rejoin them in Soul Eater.”

“Is that really what that other place is called?”

“Yes.”

“Uuuuugh.” I shuddered. Sounded ghastly. “Great… anyway… Businessman… Savvy for business Savvy… Engineer… for all the mechanical and biomechanical things in Columbia… and Weeny Weedy Wigor… for well, you know.”

“She’s going after Fink,” Mensarius snarked.

“Fitzroy. Fink already has those gifts natively,” The Banker retorted.

“Mmmm… you might be right. I change my bet to the old man… what’s his name? Slate?”

They shared a look and agreed, two balls of what looked like nothing I can describe floating up out of each and coalescing into paperweights on the desk. The Bankers looked like a standing US dollar sign, while Mensarius’s looked like a Roman Aquila with the logo SPQRI. I raised an eyebrow, then nodded “Senatus Populusque Romanus Imperius… to differentiate the Empire from the City?”

Mensarius grunted.

“I think that’s everything… oh… umm… what triggered my temper tantrum?”

“Someone squished that vile worm of yours,” the Roman Banker said, as unpleasantly as possible.

“Well… that wasn’t very…” Another flash of agony and I dropped to my knees, shaking with unaccountable rage. The walls crackled most alarmingly, and the monochrome fuzzlines of Tears began propagating across the face of reality. Not one or two… but hundreds… thousands… I breathed, trying to get my temper under control… and it snapped back into place with shocking ease. It shouldn’t be that… easy. Should it? The nascent Tears vanished without a trace. “Umm… weird.” I wouldn’t notice the frankly uneasy looks on the two Bankers’ faces until I reviewed the memory many many years later. “He’s okay, right?”

“He’s a slug… a hermaphroditic, disgusting-”

“Yes,” The Banker cut Mensarius off. “The Slug is fine. He carries the same imprimatur and fiat as all of my gifts.”

“Good… good… um… right… hmmm… I’ll go… now.” I looked around for something, then saw a small girl rummaging in a cabinet. Her skin was bluish-white and she looked familiar. I oooh’d mentally, then grabbed her, hoisting her into the air. She was holding a candy bar and looked guilty.

“I didn’t know you’d be back so soon… I… I got you a snack?”

“Soul of Ice.” I identified her from the new-old memories. “Sword.”

She pouted. “Can I finish my candybar first?”

I rolled my eyes, but nodded, “Follow.” then rejoined the Bookers and Elizabella. “I am… aware of the pressing of time. We have very little of it before things begin to rapidly destabilize. I expect we shall be attacked in short order by a massive biomechanical birdman named Songbird, as well as by agents of the Vox Populi, Fink Industries, and or the Founders. Step one is to locate Booker, and both Comstocks.  Also Daisy Fitzroy if we can. Bookers, please hold up your hands.”

They looked at me, then at Elizabella and, after she nodded, did so. All of them had the letters AD on their hands… I wondered at that.  Why did every Booker have that mark? Each was different. “Briefly, tell me why you have that symbol on your hands.”

The Killer spoke first, not looking at the jaggedly stitched scar, “My daughter. Killed in retaliation for my sins.” The Lady nodded sadly, brushing the simple tattoo, “My daughter, stolen by her father.” The Everyman smiled fondly, stroking the ornate tattoo, “Only woman I ever loved.” The Cowards shuddered, looking at the branded scar on his hand, “Attempted Desertion.” Well… I’d asked.

“Okay. Well, we need to get to the city center… and you five will slow me down unless we take my father’s airboat. So that’s what we’re going to do. And each of you are going to have to cover that up. Round here, that marks the False Prophet and that’s a major nono.” I turned to Elizabella. “And you… I know the Siphon’s got to be playing merry hell with your awareness… and I’m sorry about that… but I need it active for a while. Now come on.”

Outside it was just gone 8am and the sun was shining brightly, a lovely clear day. My new-new memories told me that it was July 6th, 1912, succession day. My new-old memories told me it was the day the game began. And the game was, officially, afoot. I parked the gondola near the Fairgrounds and checked the status of the Raffle. There were still tickets available. Booker had not come this way yet. I’d been a little worried about this, as the earliest time that Booker could possibly have come to Columbia had been 8am. This was established as Hudson’s Fine Clothing’s sign stated that it docked at New Eden Square from 8am to 9am at the earliest and 6pm to 7pm at the latest. Since the sun was fairly low in the sky as Booker makes his way to the Raffle, it had to be either morning or evening. Evidence (namely in the fact that the tickets for the Raffle were sold out, but also the fact that Fink was singing Goodnight Irene and that the fireworks were being set up for the night) hinted that it was late in the day, but I wasn’t counting on such things.

“Right then. You kids tour the city. Don’t leave the gondola, but do get a general idea of the lay of the land. I’ll be here and there. If you need me… think very hard and I’ll be here.” I rose from where I’d been carving a symbol into the deck of the gondola… dad was going to kill me… but then again… screw the racist prick. And with that, I ghosted, waiting, waiting, waiting for Booker to arrive.

At 6:13 and 7 seconds, he strode into the Fairgrounds. I followed him, never too close, projecting a sense of ‘do not pay attention to me’, right up until the point where he used the Possession Vigor to take control of the admission machine and gain access to the street known as ‘The Path of the Scroll’. On the far side of that gate, as I’d known they would be, stood the Lutece. Not the Luteces… the Lutece. As the Banker would say, two bodies didn’t mean two waveforms. Granted, there were personality differences… but, then again, the same could be said for all my selves.

I checked the sandwich board Robert (the male Lutece) was wearing, counting the hashmarks. 122… perfect. The approached Booker and asked him to flip their coin… and that’s when I acted. 122 times, the coin had landed heads up.  This time it landed… on its edge, and started spinning slowly.  I cocked a finger and pointed it at Booker, and he froze… well, not froze… slowed. Massively.

“Hello Roslind. Robert. You’re looking remarkably not dead,” I said, strolling up to them.

“This is a thing that hasn’t happened before,” Rosie said.

“Simply put, and accurate… but hardly useful,” Robert replied.

“How would you two like to not be dead and scattered through space-time?” I asked, cutting off the not-twins banter.

“How would such a thing be accomplished?” she asked.

“Yes, good point,” he nodded. “If the answer is by being dead and confined to a single place, not at all.”

“Right. Smart ass,” I smirked. “I’ve come here from Rapture… the long way round. You know where that is… you took one of the Comstocks there after Anna lost her head, poor duck” Their expression was, in a word, Master Card. “And I’ve brought the girl in the tower a present… and you as well.” I held out the bottle, on a silver salver I’d borrowed from the Blue Ribbon bar for just this purpose. The contents of bottle were purple, and had a C on the label. It was otherwise identical to an Infusion bottle.

“How is this possible?” she asked.

“Oh… it really isn’t,” I replied. “But we’re going to do it anyway… ummm… not to rush you, but I think that’s Songbird diving out of the sky towards us and I really think we should be…” I pulled Soul of Ice and, with a flick of my wrist, launched her arching into the sky, where upon she split into two hundred copies of herself and diced the monstrous birdman into particles so fine one would have needed a magnifying lense to even become away of them. Even the blood was flash freezedried…. I didn’t think it would last. I was betting that more Songbirds would be coming out of Tears any moment now.

“How in the-” he began, but I looked to her and she said, “Right. No time for that. Yes or no Robert? Last time it was my choice to have you jump… this time, you choose.” He considered, then took the bottle and downed half of it, then handed it over. “I… it tastes of…” and then there was a very large explosion as Daisy Fitzroy herself came swinging down from the skylines, aiming her carbine at my head and screaming “Down with the Founders!”

I froze her in place, then winced as I saw how wounded Booker had been by the blast. I summoned a red feather that seemed to be on fire from the Warehouse using the ability the other mes had told me was called ‘Requip’ (they’d said the feather was something called ‘Phoenix Down’) and tossed it at the clearly dying man (he was still slowed massively, so it wasn’t like he was dying particularly rapidly) and then tapped the ground next to him, dumping him into the Warehouse where, if I was to be believed, the robot butlers would whisk him to the medbay for healing.

The Luteces were, of course, fine. When you barely exist, it’s very hard to harm you. “Where to now, since you’ve completely derailed things?” she asked.

“To the Tower to reunite a girl with her father and four of her father’s probabilistic clones… and two of her own… well… one of her own and herself from a little bit into the future. It’ll be fun! Then we can all go talk to ZHC and erase Columbia from existence. Won’t that be jolly and gay?”

They shared that special look that people who don’t know me very well share when I talk to them, the one that says “Oh, Dear, Sweet, Merciful Lord… She’s a raving nutter.”

“Don’t worry. Many many many things can go disasterously wrong… oh look, here come more Vox…” I dumped Daisy into the warehouse and froze all the remaining Vox solid, then launched myself into the sky, assuming that the Luteces, who could be pretty much wherever, would follow somehow. They did, appearing ahead of me then falling behind as I poured on speed… not that I needed to, but stretching your legs… or whatever… feels nice once in awhile.

In fact, I zoomed around Columbia for a good 10 minutes, shooting down two more Songbirds as reality tried to adjust, until I located my Gondola… of course, it was right atop the massive angelic tower-statue that was Columbia herself… and Elizabeth’s home slash prison.

I landed on it and made some introductions, then said “Okay, Lizzy… you and these nice people are all going to go and round up Comstock for me… yes I know, your Comstock wasn’t a giant prick, but this Comstock is… well, anyway. Go get him. He should be on The First Lady… which is…” I looked around, then pointed. Zeroing in on the thoughts of Comstock wasn’t particularly difficult… even if it was highly unnerving.

The minions on the way, I entered the warehouse and pulled Booker out of the Medbay. He looked… banged up, but acceptable. I handed him the Luteces’ Shield Infusion and told him to drink it, and that we were going to get the girl now. He seemed confused, but thanked me.

Twenty minutes later, he was cursing me out as I tied him to a pillar.

“Oh, shut up Booker, you complete prat. This is entirely your fault. Ego, poor judgement, and just spectacular narcissism. I’m Booker, I’m part Injin but my friends are making fun of me so I’m gonna kill people! I’m Booker, my wife died leaving me a single dad… I guess I’ll drink a lot and gamble all my money away! I’m Booker, I’m broke, better sell my infant daughter to some total STRANGER!” I kneed him in the balls and pointed a finger at the second Booker… the one I’d just thawed from Cryo. “I’m Booker, I used to be Zachary Hale Comstock but then I became so obsessed with securing my own legacy that I got a baby’s head CUT OFF then hid from my sins because that’s what I always fucking do!” Then I pointed at ZHC and glowered, “And you, fucking psycho, are the ever loving worst! I’ve fought Zombie Hitler and you make him seem like a prince among lunatics! You psychotic cockwombling fanatic!” I kicked him in the balls twice… he really deserved more. “You murderous, racist, pompous, narcissistic cheese-donkey.”

I spat in his face, then wheeled to Elizabeth Prime (senior)… “And you, little missy. See her?” I pointed at Junior Prime. “You squandered her quite frankly limitless potential FOR REVENGE ON A MAN WHO DOESN’T EVEN REMEMBER THE CRIME!” I looked to Junior and pointed at Senior, “She, by the way, is what happens when you can’t, freaking, let go of your ANGER. Which, I admit, I’m not doing a very good job of at the moment, but my head is really, really hurting right now and if I hadn’t hooked each of theses idiots up with regenerative nanites they’d probably have exploded heads right now…” I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and tried to calm down.

“Booker, Comstock is you, a you that is almost pure evil. A you that deserves to be drowned in a baptismal font… a You that you can and will help destroy. Doing so will erase…” I waved my hand, “All of this. Poof, gone. Never existed. And all you have to do is… accept your own death. It sucks. But you’re going to do it… and I’ll show you why.” I had copied all the memories out of E-Prime (senior)’s head and I showed them to Booker, showed them the true scale of what Comstock was and had been and could become, could make Elizabeth become.

And while he was experiencing all that, I  turned to EPs and said “Do you want to know how your story would have ended, had I not dragged you, kicking and screaming, back here?” She jerked, twisted against the magical ropes that bound her and glared at me. I looked calmly back at her and finally, she looked away.

“You’d have made a little girl suffer, forced him,” I pointed at Bookstock, “to hurt her in order to bring up his memories, then you’d have been killed when the Big Daddy smashed you out of the way to kill him… your superposition collapsed… you’d have doomed all of Rapture to save one little girl… you bitch. I’m cold. Really, really cold… but you? You’re an idiot. Massive cosmic powers and you not only threw it away… you threw it away because you couldn’t let go of your anger. Well, now you can do whatever you like to him.” I dropped a loaded pistol into her hands as I released her. “He knows now. Remembers. He’s filled with the same grief and selfloathing he was when he renounced himself… twice now. Go ahead. Pull the trigger. Traumatize your old self. She is what you were.”

As EPs raised the gun in shaking hands, pointing it at Bookstock’s head, I turned to EPj… “You… are, of course, innocent in all this.This was to be the start of your voyage… and it will be. In just under ten minutes, this tower will be destroyed in what can only be described as The Wrath of God. The Siphon will fail and you will understand… not everything… but so much. I cannot save you, little bird. I can only set you free. You and Booker… you’ve got to save each other.”

I took the gun back from EPs when she handed it over. “It’s hard pulling the trigger, yah? But you’re a DeWitt… you’ve got ruthlessness in you, through and through. Now… I’ve got a claim on you. A claim on both you and him.” I pointed at Bookstock. “But only you get to choose how the story ends. You can come with me, and I dump him into a void so dark he’ll think that light has always been an illusion… You can stay here. I’ll release my hold on you, though you’ve no place you belong in this universe anymore.  Or… you can face oblivion together and I’ll try to save your younger self.”

She shuddered with the kind of pain that only intense emotion can cause and glared at me. “What gives you the right?”

“Nothing. Nothing gives me the right. Nothing at all. This isn’t about right or wrong. This is about the fact that you are in pain and, like your father, you don’t make good choices when you’re in pain. You’re your father’s daughter… and if I don’t help, your line ends in darkness. “

She wept, wept until I had to have Lady Booker guide her onto the gondola and we took off. From 800 feet away, I hit the tower with God’s own thunderbolt, and it came apart at the seams, the entire vast edifice (minus all the books… my robots had stolen those for the Library) melting away like fog…

And at that moment, four lambs gained access to the full extent of their powers… for two of us… it wasn’t much, to be honest. For two… well, one and a bit more… it was anything but. I watched from a quiet riverbank as Booker 123 went into the water and faded away. I watched as Comstock looked down at himself in horror… and vanished into the realm of the never was. I pointed down at the water, looking to EPs. “This is your last chance. You can, in this moment, be the one who died. You can become her, and take your place with your sisters, and erase him too. He’ll be gone and you’ll never have been.”

She didn’t look at me, but I could feel the conflict, the hate, the fear… they were all there, but she didn’t move, merely closed her eyes and clenched her fists and stood, still as a statue. She didn’t take me up on my offer. I guess I’d made an impression… or at least forced her to realize the truth of the old adage about digging two graves when one sought revenge. 

With that, the possibility of a Comstock ended forever. No Booker who went into the water could ever emerge to become Comstock. Only the Bookers who never went into the water could survive… and their lives would be changed without Comstock to interfere. One by one, the Elizabeths vanished until there were only three. Elizabeth Prime of Columbia looked up at me from the water, face sad. Elizabeth Prime stood beside me, tears of thwarted rage pouring down her face for a child who had died for an old man’s narcissism. And Elizabella stood a small way away, surrounded by five Bookers who were out of time…

And then we were outside an office, a baby’s voice crying softly and a rough male voice asking “Anna?” Booker 123 had been reborn, revived by the cosmic retcon, and his Anna was beyond the door in her nursery. No Comstock would come to pay Booker’s debts or take away the girl. This was the moment I’d saved Daisy Fitzroy for. I yanked her out of the Warehouse and whispered ‘wake up’… and then held her as reality… adjusted her. I wanted to feel sorry for her… but she was kinda a sociopath (though with good reason). I adjusted her more, gave her some money and a mission, a very subtle compulsion, then pushed her through the door.

Daisy Fitzroy had, once upon a time, been loyal to Comstock, as undeserved as it might be. Now she could be loyal to Booker… and, though none of them would ever know it, if my tampering did its job right, they’d save each other… just a little bit. After all, someone had to keep Booker from falling off the wagon… and Anna could use a mother figure.

Reality began to fray around the edges, and I could feel my awareness, my old selves, pressing in. Our time, artificially begun, in this reality, was folding in on itself, pushing me back into the role of a very angry little chef… and then, with a click, I was back in Soul Eater… and boy, howdy, was I pissed.

Unfortunately… everyone in the restaurant and for several blocks around it… was asleep. Instead of a fight, Excalibur and Death the Kid (the current Great Old One of Order), were sitting at my chef’s table. “Ahem…” said the sword “We’d like some service please.” I boggled… screw Micheline reviewers… pleasing an entity who lived to make people mad and another who was more OCD than OCD itself was… with my entire staff unconscious… I was going to need a very stiff drink… 

Next: Treasure Planet – Ambush!

Resources: Build, Document

AN: two jumps in a row where my build ended up being changed thanks to revisions in in the jumpdocument… during the writing process.

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon.

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World 58 – Soul Eater

Three by Three Stars of Brie

Previously: Of Slugs and Salvation

Themesong: Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim

“Everyone, this is Brigid. Brigid, this is everyone. Bao here is our director of Passenger Relations. He’s very good at making sure everyone’s having fun. Velma here is our Director of Science and Information. Tokimi over there is our Chief researcher and Technologist. Zane’s our Captain, and Kendra’s his… heh… First Mate. Ziggy is our mascot. Ahab and Joy you’ve met, though they look a bit different… especially since Ahab’s not in his Big Daddy Costume anymore. How’s that feel, buddy?”

“My throat still itches,” the grizzled super-spy muttered darkly.

“Aww… poor Mr. Bubbles.”

“Don’t call me that,” he twitched, then jumped as Joy elbowed him.

“Reggy’s our Director of Biosciences. Gaius is our head of security, and Toph is our gardener. Uriel is our construction specialist. If you need something built, talk to him. Franky and Mini are-”

“Her sex slaves,” Franky interjected, making Mini tickle her as I rolled my eyes.

“Actually… they’re our resident courtesans, yes. But more in the companionship and conversation mode. We’re essentially a triad… though I’m also in a couple of other relationships. It’s complex… but then again, I’m pretty complex myself. Ah…” I smiled as the two young men approached me. “These are Scipio and Invidius. Do not, under any circumstances, do what they ask you to do. They tried conquering the galaxy about 90 years ago.”

“It’s 100 years ago, Auntie.” Scipio said.

“Yes, well, 10 jumps, not 100 years,” his brother said, being much more blunt (and factual). “And that means we’re off being grounded, right?”

“You two do realize I am under no obligation to either be a reasonable adult or to ever allow you out of the Warehouse at all, right?” Their reaction showed how well they knew me, because they just regarded me with level stares and I chuckled. “Fine, fine. Yes, you are no longer grounded… now you’re on probation. That means you get to go out into the settings… but if you screw up anything, cause too much mayhem… I’ll put you right back on lock down so fast it’ll make your heads spin. Am I clear?” they nodded, so I nodded back. “Now. Prove to me that you’re worthy of trust and I might eventually import you into a setting… but right now you’re passengers like Raven and Brigid, not companions. And I have no idea if you’re protected by fiat, so don’t get yourselves killed or your mother will be very upset.”

I waved them away, then continued with the introductions, even including the various pets, demi-companions, familiars, and lurking quasi-real entities such as VIs and Furies. Dr. T just seemed a little overwhelmed, but that was usual. I left her to talk with Metra, who was the closest thing we had to a counsellor and stepped into the kitchen.

“How you holding up,” Zane asked.

“Mmm? I’m fine. Still worried… about a number of things. I don’t know if I can trust Mensarius. He’s clearly a bad influence on the Banker… but the Banker wasn’t exactly harmless to begin with. Remember Metal Gear Rising?”

“I remember. Or Avatar.”

“Or Avatar. Yes.”

“So, why are we trusting them?”

“Two reasons. First… I suspect either one could end all of us simply by willing it. I’m beginning to have an inkling of just how far beyond us they are… they throw around terms like ‘lifeforms’ the way we’d throw around the term ‘microbes’. I’m not certain they actually… exist… in any way we can conceive of. I think they merely are… like the void. I think they’re a space in which things happen, if you can understand that.”

“Vaguely… it’s like… the bubbles trying to fight the bathtub?”

“Yeah. Something like that. And that’s the other reason. I think, like all spaces… they need something inside to have value. They need us, maybe not us specifically, but beings like us. I have a part of Mensarius that only I or the Banker can return. So that largely means that Mensarius can’t afford to have me fail unless he can suborn the Banker.”

“And the Banker?”

“Investment. I can’t know how much of himself he’s invested in me… but after 62 jumps, it’s got to be an appreciable amount. It’s a loss leader… I think that’s the term… I hate economics… anyway… I’m a known quantity and a proven investment. Replacing me would be a hassle. We know that they essentially syndicate our adventures. It’s always better to continue a successful show than try and market a new one, right?”

Zane looked doubtful, but nodded. “I think you mean a Sunk Cost, but I get your meaning.”

I grimaced, nodding “Probably… And it’s not like the Banker has ever done anything to try and get me killed… just highly stressed and annoyed.”

“So far.”

“So far. Yes. But again, if he wanted me gone, he could just send us home. It’s a game to him… But yeah… He’s pushing it. I did not enjoy that.”

“Gonna do anything about it?”

“You really think bitching will solve anything?”

“Better than doing nothing,” he said with a shrug.

“Oh. I’ll say something, but I’m not sure how much good it will do. The Banker might agree with the best of intentions, but I suspect he’d be unable to keep himself from tweaking things just for drama’s sake. And say what you want about it, and I will… the unpredictable curveballs are a challenge if nothing else.”

“You’re kinda mental, you know that?”

“Course I am. That’s half the fun. I do wonder why we’re not going straight into BSI.”

“Maybe it’s down for repairs?”

“Maybe it’s occupied.”

“Oh… Oh… I know… Maybe we can’t go there right now because we’re already there but we don’t know it.”

I opened my mouth to retort, then shook my head, “For a moment, I thought you might have unexpected depths… then I remembered you’re Zane.” He noogied me, I gnawed on his arm. Good times. “Anyway, If there were more than one of me, I think the omniverse would asplode.”

“OH… No… not like parallels… I mean, we can’t go there now because future us went there already.”

“Zane. Future us can’t do things before present us. That’s how time works.”

“Oh… duh… right. Maybe we went already but don’t remember because of Tears?”

“Possible… but I suspect I’d have noticed a loss of time. My Chronokinesis may not be that good for much besides slowing or stopping time, as it’s a submanifestation of my mastery of Ice… but I think I’d still notice a flux in temporality. I don’t think anyone can time lock me for the same reason no one can freeze me. Manipulations of my timeflow rate would be like… trying to change my core temperature. I’m not certain I could stop it… but I’d notice.”

“Huh… prolly… I mean unless the Banker or Menche did it.”

“Yeah, well… Even they have their limits. This is probably just one of those. And who knows… maybe linking the two screwed up quantum timezones directly in a row is a bad idea and I just don’t understand why. It’s one of those things I doubt we’ll ever understand.”

“Soooo… what’s your bet, Higher or Lower?”

We had a kind of game. It was like that game where you flip up a card and try to guess if the next card is higher or lower than it, but with settings and level of suck. “Higher,” I said after consideration, meaning the next universe would be a more fun, lighter setting. “But not one where I can do a lot of fixing. I’m hoping for a vacation actually. It’s been a while.” In fact, my last Vacation had been Slice of Tenchi.

“I hear ya… hey, hand me the Sriracha.”

“It’s empty. They didn’t have Sriracha in One Piece or Bioshock, so we couldn’t restock. I think we have some Chinese Chili Sauce?”

“It’s not the same,” He grumped, but added it to the pasta anyway.

“Food supplies keep changing, bucko. We’ll get some more eventually. Just be glad I have stasis units to put supplies in, or the Sriracha wouldn’t last 20 years.” We usually stocked up on our favorite foodstuffs in various settings, especially wines, but running out of stuff we liked was just something that happened. Only food supply items refreshed endlessly, and some of those were just strange.

For instance, the Infinite Cheese from Redwall was awesome, but had some strange holes in what it offered. It was all European Cheeses… but it wasn’t every European Cheese. And the quality was all over the place. The Brie was excellent… the Camembert not so much. The Bell Passie tasted like off brand cream cheese. There was Asiago, but no Caseri. Parma and Romano, but no Port Salut or Bellavitano. There was Cheddar and Cheshire… but no Colby or Monterey Jack. There was Muenster but no Havarti, Jarlsberg but no Emmentaler, Edam but no Gouda. And there was no Vermont White Cheddar, no Feta, and no Cevre. So we had to stock up.

The basic Food Supply was basic. It was fresh veggies and college food. Mass Produced, prepackaged, and just waiting to be cooked. It also didn’t cover 50 plus people and pets. Thankfully, I’d added to it with CP purchases, and we always had enough to go around and then some, but a constant diet of Shawarma and Cheese could get old, so we stocked up big time.

First off, I had Star Trek TOS food synthesizers, the precursor to replicators, which could do a decent job of replicating basic foodstuffs. They were a primitive teleporter laying down stored chunks of amino acid and carbohydrate, tossing in trace nutrients, boom, you had a ham and cheese sammich. Replicators did the same thing, only using raw atoms of stored CHONPS… Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Sulfur… though personally I think the acronym should have been SPONCH… but that’s me. Toss in some trace elements, and you got some stuff that tasted more or less like food… but it wasn’t natural and it tasted like it. Close, but as they say, no cigar.

Second, we had Toph’s Lifestream Garden, now filling a truly massive Subspace Dome. It produced enough food to feed a small army most times, though availability ran in cycles and it took a fair amount of processing power and energy to keep it running. And even then, while the crops were bountiful, the micronutrients that flavored everything in food were lacking. It just wasn’t possible to create an entire ecosphere no matter how hard we tried. We worked on small batches of trace flavourants in the ground or, in the case of the hydroponics domes (they were also fish farms), water… and even some different air mixtures in the aeroponics bays… but getting an ideal mix was hard… maintaining one was harder. So we had basic megafarmed fruits and veggies… but it wasn’t the same as higher quality agriculture might produce… but then again, I’m jaded.

Third, we had Chronobaric Stasis Chambers, where foodstuffs would last eons, since time passed at one one trillionth of its normal rate inside as long as the door was closed. Food cooked a decade ago would still be hot when you took it out. In fact, 30,000 millenia would have to pass for the food to age even 1 second after you put it in there and shut the door… if people would keep the damned doors shut! There was a reason I’d installed Optical Sapphire front doors! You could see through them and didn’t need to let the Chronotons escape!

But storage was limited. They used up a frankly silly amount of power, and we had just over 800 such units, ranging from fridge size all the way up to shipping containers… but there just wasn’t any way to anticipate all the usage that might happen over a couple decades, and things ran out. We had a fairly ridiculous shopping list running now, as it just hadn’t been possible to buy most of what we wanted in One Piece or Bioshock… hell, even Teen Titans hadn’t had all the desired products. The last time we’d been where we could get most of what was on our basic list was Dresden’s universe… and even there the seven decades we’d spent there had seen product availability change drastically over time.

It was one of the reasons I made sure to buy as many food choices as possible. It made shopping easier and increased options were always nice. Granted, I could just program new dishes for the food synthesizers… but… the food from replicator technology was never quite right… and it was always the same.  Food is more than just the chemicals in it, and any kind of processing or storage leaves its own traces on it.  Granted, I think I’m the only person here who can taste chronotons and there is absolutely no way I can explain to you what they taste like.  Granted, I like the flavor, and it’s super subtle, so there is that… but anyway…

We took things pretty easy for the first two weeks back from Unda Da Sea… things are not better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me… before I visited the Banker, who was still glowering balefully at Freelancer, who was wubbling about in his tank being all sluglike. No higher brain-function for the sluggy one… not certain about the Banker or Mensarius.

“Hello boys. Miss me?”

“Are you ready to discuss your next destination, or just here to visit your pet?”

“Naw… Freelancer isn’t so much a pet as a part of me, you know? And that’s what I’m here to talk about. Don’t go putting things in me that I didn’t explicitly give you idiots permission to put inside me. You think of a little prank like that again, you bloody well ask. There’s a rape metaphor I’m going to bring up once, just to drive this home. Do you idiots get that?”

“Oh. I get it. I just don’t care,” Mensarius snarked. “The mating practices of lifeforms are all equally disgusting.” I rolled my eyes, not even looking at him, focusing on the Banker, who, after a moment, looked away.

“Yes. I… see how that might be an issue. I cannot promise anything, and I will continue to throw curveballs, as your people call them, at you, but I will try and anticipate your reactions to things better and…” he shrugged. I ground my teeth, but I guessed it was as much as I was going to get out of them. They really had no conception of what the concept of violation even meant. I was just lucky they seemed to understand the concept of ‘deal’ and had the faintest idea what ‘fair play’ was. I worried, deeply, about what kind of shit Mensarius put his field agents through, and what realities…

“Mensarius… just out of curiousity… your realities… they’re not based on the fiction of my homeworld, are they?”

Mensarius looked up at that, then shook his head. “Those are part of his purview. Mine are from a different Earth’s set of fiction. One where the individual you know as Gaius Julius Caesar was not assassinated by members of the Senate. He lived long enough to firmly establish the Empire and see Caesarian on the throne, establishing the idea of a living Emperor passing power to his son over a period of transition. Caesarian united the Five Great Tribes under his Empire; Romans, Greeks, Judeans, Egyptians, and Gauls, granting each of them basic equality and semi-autonomy. They attained their industrial revolution in 680 Anno Caesari…” he trailed off, looking almost wistful… or maybe just bored.

“The fiction must be totally different.” I was fascinated, alternate history has always been intriguing to me, but apparently the evil one had said all he intended to say, for he just glowered and looked off into the distance.

“We’ve decided your next jump, as we’re trying to deal with some quantum turbulence with regards to the jump we had planned.” the Banker began.

“It’s cause I stuck E-Prime and Bookstock into a stasis tube, isn’t it?”

“Most likely. Yes. It should be solvable… but not within the one month timeframe. So we’re sending you to Soul Eater instead.”

“Soul… Eater… wait… Manganime about Meisters and Death Scythes?”

“That would be the one,” the man behind the desk confirmed, bringing up the logo on the Jumpotron.

“Huh… Can’t think of anything particularly bad I’d want to fix there… it’s a strange mix of really silly and lighthearted… and grim as fuck… but there isn’t much truly horrible needing fixing. Okay, throw the thing up on the screens and I’ll peruse. And no, nothing from you, gloomy gus.” I pointed a finger at Mensarius. “I don’t need any of your poison.”

“Are you so certain?” he smarmed. “You don’t even know what’s on offer yet.”

“I’ll make do with that’s on offer from this document itself,” I assured him, but I still scrolled down to to take a look at the drawback limit and the offerings. I meant it. I would make do… regardless of how many or how few I ended up taking. There was a six hundred point limit, which was pretty standard, and four drawbacks at the 100, 200, and 300 point level… as well as one at the 600 level that I swear must have been written by Mensarius himself.

See, in the world of Soul Eater, there is a legendary weapon known as Excalibur… and no, you haven’t heard this one before. Now, normally, when there are legends of Excalibur, the sword is something awesome and portentous… but in Soul Eater? Not so much. Sure, E’s one heck of a sword… and the most annoying, self-centered, narcissistic, pain in the ass jerk of a being in that universe. He has a thousand guidelines that must be followed by the one who wields him… such as daily birthday parties… or 5-hour daily lectures on the ‘fascinating’ (i.e. mind bogglingly boring and badly told) history of himself, and more. His guardian fairies haaaaate him. He looks like a penguin and is just… there are no words adequate. The 600 point drawback doesn’t just force one to be around him… no, it striped the taker of most of their power and competency unless they actually wield Excalibur… which he may or may not allow them to do.

I would not take that drawback if someone put a gun to all my loved one’s heads and threatened to pull the trigger. I mean, first, I don’t negotiate with terrorists, but that Drawback wouldn’t just be a death sentence, it would be a death sentence by self inflicted wounds because I’d go Mad and kill myself before the first year was up. Excalibur was the type of being I’d inflict on Joker or Hitler… and then only if I was feeling sadistic. I’d sic him on Thanos in a heartbeat though. Mao too, if only for a larf.

Still, there was no reason to take that one… at all… when the lesser ones would serve just as well to get to a Jumper to 600. I think it existed merely to make the other seem reasonable by comparison.

At the 100 level were ‘Think of the Children’, which gave one a soft spot for kids… or anything that looked like a kid, and would make one put themself in danger to protect those little monsters… perfectly reasonable, if misguided; ‘Weak Soul’ was a nerf to one’s magical and spiritual powers, as well as decisiveness, self-assertiveness, and anti-Madness protection (Madness was a big thing in Soul Eater… We’re talking Cthulhu levels of crazy or close enough); ‘Slapstick’ meant that I’d become the butt of everyone’s physical assaults, but for ‘humor’… ah, yes, domestic abuse is funnneeeee… it would also give me bad luck… not serious bad luck… but banana peels and falling pots kind of bad luck; and ‘I Am God’… which would make me arrogant (shuuut up… more arrogant)… cocky, pompous, and narcissistic (shut it, you!)… and it would make me want to share my awesomeness at random people with impromptu declarations… actually, that one sounded like fun… actually, with my damage resistance… so did Slapstick. I mean… fun for Drawbacks… they both sounded irritating as fuck… but totally in keeping with the setting.

The 200s included ‘Obsession’ (which was exactly what it sounded like, and pretty much encapsulated actually obsessive behaviour, not just haha, she likes Justin Bieber ‘obsession’.  This was full on crazy person obsession… which was doable… but probably not wise), ‘Temptation’ (which was voices in your… my head… friendly, charismatic, and ‘helpful’ voices that wanted me to be happy and to give me good advice… like ‘kill them all, you know you want to’ advice no doubt. Yeah… we had enough of us here to hold them off, but it was already cramped, and the wording implied that, should I take it I’d feel a strong sense of alienation from everyone that wasn’t the voices.), ‘Witching Hour’ (horrific hallucinations from 3am to dawn.  Nooo thanks.), and ‘Fairy’ (shapeshifting lockout paired with a serious nerf to all my abilities for the duration of the jump… though it came with a free fairy alt-form once the jump ended. Yeah… no.).

And then there were the 300s, and you can probably already guess they weren’t nice. ‘Something’s Missing’ would leave the taker feeling hollow inside and susceptible to Madness… and leave them feeling like something is missing inside… yeah… fuuuun. ‘I don’t know how to deal with this!’ would make me terrified of everything… for every waking moment… numbing fear of everything around me… good lord, no thanks! ‘Killer Blood Lust’ would make me crave destruction quote like flowers crave sunlight unquote. Not only would it make me antagonistic, but if I didn’t manage to hold the rage in check, I’d quite literally explode and die.  Boom, Jumper bits everywhere.

Now, I can guess that you’re thinking ‘Well, that’s a lot of information of only marginal use to me the reader, but what the hell are you the jumper going to take?’ and I did have a reason for detailing all that. See, anyone who bothered to count the 300s would see that I only mentioned three, when earlier I said there were four… and the fourth is the one I took. Because I’m clearly insane already. It was called ‘March of the Clowns’… and it meant that I’d be hunted by Clowns for the next ten years. It would start with just one, and if I killed it, a new one would be along in a week.

I know what you’re thinking. ‘She’ll just freeze it in ice. Not dead, no new Clown. She think’s she’s so smart’… and now you know why I didn’t opt for the extra voices… I talk to myself enough as it is… but no… If the Clown wasn’t killed, an additional Clown would appear and join the hunt… and if multiple Clowns were left alive for too long, they might decide to fuse and combine into an amalgamation of two or more Clowns. And now you’re thinking, ‘But SJ! Even a hideous 520 Clown Amalgamation would surely be no trouble for you!’… and you’d be right!… if these were normal Clowns… but in the world of Soul Eater, Clowns aren’t slightly strange people in makeup… they’re a race of beings that are literally Madness incarnate. They would be incredibly hard to kill and would radiate Madness like a bonfire radiates heat. There was a reason this was worth as much as terminal terror, anger, or angst. I was effectively signing me and my companions up for Eldritch Horror of the Week Club. But 300 CP was 300 CP, and I’d fought way more than 520 enemies in a single jump before.

Plus, I had help. Counting my passengers (Raven and Brigid), and the twins (Invidius Vord and Gaius Scipio), I now had 32 companions… well, 33 including the slumbering Atura, 34 if one Sophie the Guard Dog of the Apocalypse… 35 if one counted the Maiden Astraea, though she’d been left behind in Marvel with her husband and sister-in-law (they were passengers in their day as well, though never imported). I also had a veritable menagerie of pets… a slug, many familiars, a host of owls, some horses, a squadron of furies (the genius loci of Codex Alera), and a brace of personal assistants… yes, yes I know PA’s aren’t pets, but Juno and Sabrina never seemed to change. They didn’t engage in social niceties, didn’t ask for time off, didn’t complain that we never paid them anything, and didn’t, you know, act like people. They acted like extremely competent PA’s… but nothing else. The only reason I didn’t think they were robots is I’d looked inside them just to make certain they weren’t fairies (they were from Gargoyles after all), but no… perfectly normal, hypercompetent, CP backed PA’s. I worried about that sometimes, to be honest.

So it wasn’t like the Clowns stood much choice, even if only 8 of my companions would be fully powered up at any given time… and maybe I could finagle more than that, if the need arose… still, what else could I pair with Clownvasion?

I put Slapstick on the shortlist… considered Obsession… but then figured that since Madness was a loss condition, I should avoid it like the plague. This wasn’t a funny setting to have psychological damage. Instead, I put I Am God and Think of the Children on the shortlist… they were there if I found enough stuff to buy. It wasn’t a guarantee, even in a setting as rich and weird as this that I would. Quality control was all over the place in the realm of the Jumpers. As for the potential of running into a childlike Clown… well, I did have companions for a reason. Killing spiders that looked like kids was just one of the facets of that reason. It was always good to know what limits I’d be pushing if I decided to overspend my basic grant, right?

Now… to spend the potentially 1600 CP. First, Origins. Of course, there was the basic Drop-In. No surprise there, though it did come with a sleeping bag and a backpack of holding and came with an extra helping of Madness Magnet for lols.  There was Student Meister (the ones who did the Deamon Weapon wielding at the Death Academy (Shibusen… Japanese name, in Las Vegas… oh, sorry, Death City, Nevada… still… madness). And of course Student Demon Weapon, which were humans who had weapon ancestry… yes… that’s a thing. These people turned into actual weapons, thanks to the actions of a rogue Witch about 800 years back.

But neither of those appealed nearly as much as being a Witch. Sure sure, witches in this world were typically bad news… I mean, as far as I knew they were the major villains of the piece. But still, they were an incredibly powerful, long lived, all female race with the innate ability to wield magic. Unfortunately, that native ability (and a general lack of fucks to give about the fate of humanity… which they might resemble but which they were not a member of) they were incredibly vulnerable to a phenomenon called ‘The Sway of Magic’… a kind of madness that made those who gave into it destructive and antagonistic to the natural order. Witch was [300/1300/1600] and, of course, set my gender to female (oh, the horror. So far I don’t remember any setting where a thing set my gender to male… maybe I was blocking.)

Witches also had a certain theme to their appearance and magic… a theme centered on a specific animal type… gee… I wonder what animal I should pick? It had to be a mundane animal… Three guesses what I went with.  That’s right. Monkey! No. Not Monkey. Good guess though. Two guesses left! No, not penguins, shut up Cirno. That’s right, Ferret! I shall be the Ferret Witch and absentmindedly push things off of other things and then look surprised when they fall. But not people off things… well. Maybe people off things. Some people needed to be pushed off things.

There was also a race section, which included ‘Earth Shaman’ (a naturalistic counterpart to ‘Demon Weapons’ and the only race a Demon Weapon could select), ‘Monster Cat’ (a quasi-witch with nine souls and a plant theme instead of an animal theme), ‘Immortal’ (a monstrous race more commonly known as ‘Werewolves’), and ‘Bloodsuckers’… i.e. vampires… but stupid… well, not stupid as in mentally slow… but lame as in just… goofy design. No thanks. I considered Monster Cat… but that was Cat, not Ferret, and didn’t seem worth the extra cost.

And so, with an origin selected, it was time to move on to perks… and the first thing I saw was a free for all perk called “The Face”, which was described as ‘A gift for projecting absolute disgust with a facial expression, an expression that would convey just how much disdain or annoyance or pretty much other negative emotion I was feeling at the moment. If it was targeted at an individual, even if that individual was blind or couldn’t see for some reason, they’d feel the weight of my irritation. They’d fucking feel it.

As a Witch, I gained ‘Portal Manifestation’ for free, the ability to conjure portals to and from the Witch Realm (a realm held separate from the normal world by someone named ‘Mabaa’ and her Spatial Magic. Only a witch could open a portal to that world and Mabaa apparently was the leader of all witches, with power comparable to Lord Death.). Opening such a portal required a ‘special motion of the body’… a dance actually… wherein the Witch draws a hiragana character in midair with her buttocks. And it had to be with the bottom specifically, so skirts, dresses, jackets, robes… anything more baggy than tights or panties had to be moved out of the way for the portal to open.

Now, normally I’d be like… whatever… but since the Witch Realm wouldn’t follow me from jump to jump, this could be used to open a temporary portal to somewhere else within a mile of my current location in other jumps. These portals would be the side of a standard door and last for around a minute… and absolutely nothing said that the mile had to be in standard three dimensions. I could safely assume it couldn’t be used to travel in time, but this was an ability designed to punch through dimensional boundaries, so I could safely assume that, as long as the target dimension was one I knew was there and it was, dimensionally speaking, close by, I should be able to reach nearby dimensions or realms. Maybe not parallel worlds, but things like Seireitei or Hueco Mundo in Bleach… but I’d have to see… and if reach was a problem, this seemed like a technique I could boost if I put my mind and technology towards. But that was for later.

Witches also gained ‘Levitation’, the ability to fly (barely… like a little faster than walking speed… though with a magic broom that would go up to the speed of an average car)… though with a lot of time and practice the ability would grow. Glad that was free. Might even practice it a little to see how it felt… different perks felt differently, even if I already had a couple of flight abilities and pseudo-flight abilities… tricks to boost each of them could be found in the strangest places.

But the freebies didn’t end there! Witch was the gift that kept on giving (once you paid for it at least). Magical Being was the third (of four!) freebies, which, of course, granted me the ability to wield the power of this world’s magic… stuff like potions, fireballs, broomstick flight… and of course destructive spells. It also covered ‘The Sway of Magic’, the destructive instincts of magic in this world, which would grow stronger the more I developed my local magic. Most magic in this world required a chant (and if my memory of the show was right, those chants were idiotic… like Pum pum pumpkin Smaaash!) combined with the name of the spell. I’d start with no knowledge of spells, but I’d have the capacity to learn / figure them out over time thanks to knowing how the local magic worked.

And last was ‘Totemic’, which was the factor that imparted my chosen animal theme to all my magic. So a fireball I cast might do the weasel war dance, or a lightning bolt sliding under doors or up people’s pants.  And when one combined Totemic with Magical Being, one got a variety of spells related to my animal theme, thus skipping the beginner phase. Totemic could be as direct as ‘Thread Magic’ for a Spider Witch or as vague as ‘Vector Magic’ for a Snake Witch. I think I’d go with ‘Confusion Magic’ for theme. Totemic also granted the passive ability to turn into my chosen animal and back with a bit of magic and concentration… and my chant could help heighten my focus even outside of casting magic.

There were a couple of mid-grade Witch perks, Arithmetic Magic and Familiar Familiars, that I considered and then passed on. The first allowed one to augment magic with math… but I knew that Calculation Spells and Spatial Magic could be learned without this perk, and the perk was pretty much just making the prospective witch good at mental math… which I’d been better than good at for all of my jumping career and which I’d only gotten better at… and the second was a last ditch ‘shunt my soul / consciousness into the body of a familiar animal to escape. Meh.

The lesser capstone, ‘Occult Practices’ was a technomancy skill, and not one I felt was worth the cost… but the same could not be said for the greater capstone, ‘Uplift’. Not only did it magnify the power of my magic fivefold, and not only did it render me immune to the effect of ‘The Sway of Magic’, but it granted me the ability to create ‘Demon Tools’, powerful magical artifacts that had all sorts of useful abilities, such as ‘Eternal Spring’ which could make any machine keep running without fuel or maintenance, or ‘Mortality Manipulation Machine’ which did exactly what it said on the tin. That was worth the [400/900/1600] investment, thank you very much, especially since there was no guarantee the Sway would leave one the jump was over… no sooner had I thought that than a pop-up informed me that ‘The Sway of Magic’ will no longer affect you after this jump ends, regardless of if you took ‘Uplift’ or not.’… well, that was handy.

I was about to check through the other perk trees to see if anything there stood out… and then I saw, in the undiscounted section, ‘Grigori Soul’. On the face of it, it wasn’t that interesting. It was 400 CP to give your soul wings, allowing you to manifest angelic energy wings, wings that could be altered in size, shape, and appearance to effect speed, maneuverability, flight efficiency, and more. But that was, essentially, 400 CP for flight.  But for 200 CP more, a total of 600, it was a different animal entirely.

The improved version not only allowed coloration control… okay, okay, that was a minor bonus… it’s primary purpose was to allow the Grigori to fire bullet-like feathers from those wings at machine-gun-like rate of fire, and if they weren’t, initially, as dangerous as real bullets, they’d grow faster and more dangerous with experience and training… and the more powerful the user’s soul, the faster the flight and the faster / more dangerous the bullets… And that wasn’t all. By sacrificing movement, and shaping the wings into a mouth-like canon, the Grigori could form a cannon, creating and charging an orb-shaped emotion powered projectile that could, at full power for even the beginner, blow away mountains. The emotion used to power the cannon would influence the flight characteristics (love is faster but linear, anger slower but homing, hate wider but more diffuse, etc.)

It wasn’t, really, worth 600 CP. but it just sounded like fun… and I had a pretty damned powerful Soul.I hmmm’d and hawed for a little while, then took it. Wing bullets are cool.

And that took me all the way down to 300 and I still had to check on companion imports, so I did. And there were a load of them. First off, a Student Meister got a free Demon Weapon and vise versa, but I was neither so it didn’t matter. I could also buy a single companion import as Drop-In or either form of Student for 100, or a Meister-Weapon pair or Weapon-Weapon pair for 200… or a Witch, Monster Cat, Black Blood Weapon, Werewolf, or Canon Companion for 200… or even import one of my existing weapons to become a Demon Weapon for 200… while for 300 I could get a Bloodsucer companion, or… and this was where the money was… get a Bulk Import which would allow me to import as many companions as I wanted as Drop-Ins, Meisters, or Demon Weapons.  That was awesome… and then I noticed the annoying bullshit.

“200 more to tune Soul Wavelengths?” I focused on the Banker, testing out my new Face of Disgust. “What is this happy horseshit?”

“Language, please!” he deflected, though I knew he had nothing like the sensibilities needed to actually give a rat’s arse about foul language.

“OOooh, no. You are not charging me 200 CP for what is essentially flavoring.”

“Then you take your chances with random chance,” Mensarius said with a sneer.

“No, I’d be letting you to fucknuggets screw me if I did that. Random means bugger all with you two. God does in fact play dice with the Universe… and the Dice are loaded. Anyway, you two morons owe me big for screwing me not once but twice… you’re going to let me tune them as I see fit, aren’t you?”

Mensarius opened his mouth to say something asinine no doubt, but the Banker waved him down. “We shall… if you listen to the proposal we’ve come up with and agree to give it serious consideration on its merits.”

“What, like a timeshare pitch? I listen to the spiel and, regardless of my answer, I get some token of appreciation for my wasted time?” They nodded, though Mensarius looked like he’d eaten a sour plum. No doubt he’d wanted me to have to agree before getting any consideration, but I saw where the Banker was coming from. Soul Wavelength compatibility was important enough that leaving it to chance with these two arround was the definition of Madness, but paying for it was an untenable tax. I’d have to be crazy to spend the 300 upfront without a guarantee of some kind… and as the saying went “I might be insane, but I wasn’t crazy.”

“Okay… make your pitch. If it’s good, I’ll listen.”

The Banker rose, walking around his desk, and sat on the edge furthest from Freelancer’s aquarium. “Food is a major issue for you, we’ve noticed.”

“She’s a glutton,” the odious one snapped.

“Yes, thank you,” The Banker retorted, “But such comments are not constructive, so kindly shut up and let me speak.” He straightened his tie, then continued, “And you seem less than thrilled  by the idea of interacting with the established storyline of this world?” I nodded. “So, to that end, we propose a challenge. As this is, despite some appearances, an Earth in the modern day, we invite you to take part in the Three-Star Cup.”

“Three-Star? Some kind of race? With Food?”

“Ah… no… not a race per se… more of a prize to be won. The challenge will be this. You’ll be given a restaurant to run, and a selection of perks from a separate document relating to cooking, and, within 10 years you must earn not one, not two, but three michelin stars.” My eyes went wide.

“Three Stars? In ten years? Uh… I’m an okay cook and all… but I’m not good enough to get even one standard star… Michelin 1 Stars make 5 Star Chef’s look like scrappers. 3… christ on a cracker… I mean, I guess with my powers-”

“Ah, ah, ah… none of that,” Mensarius oozed. “This challenge requires you to forfeit your powers, and warehouse… everything not bought in this world or imported into it, in order to get the prize.”

I stared at him, then laughed. “You can’t be serious! Give up my powers to try and accomplish the impossible? Well, highly improbable. I haven’t seen these perks yet. You’re mad. What prize could be worth the risk?”

“A restaurant,” Mensarius sneered.

“Or rather, your restaurant,” The Banker corrected. “It will follow you from jump to jump, and be attached to your warehouse, with all its upgrades and reputation intact, as well as perfectly normal versions of you and your staff, which you and your companions can slide into and out of at will. So you can cook yourself top of the line food… and all your companions would gain some degree of cooking ability, or at least have the potential. That’s up to how they spend their points.”

“Same no limit on numbers companion import?” They nodded, “and they’d be limited to whatever they bought from both documents too?” They nodded. “And if I fail to earn the three-stars… do I fail the chain?”

“No. You just wouldn’t get the prize. Chain Failure would only occur if you die or your restaurant is forced out of business.”

“And you’d be a looooser.” Mensarius added, unhelpfully.

“So… I’d be increasing the danger of Soul Eater greatly, have to run a restaurant and fight off Clowns, get 3-Stars and not die with most of my power sealed away… I assume my Astral Bodies would be put on hold, not be all fighting each other or collapsed into one?”

“Yes, you’d be essentially reduced to your Body Mod state plus your memories… though you’d no longer have a perfect memory… and then the perks from the challenge and the Soul Eater document would be added.”

“Umm…. hmmm… How much CP would the gang get? The import from Soul Eater is 600 plus one of the three non-Witch origins.”

The two shared a look, then Mensarius shrugged. The Banker looked a little sheepish. “This isn’t like when you applied a generic overlay… to get Challenge Points, you’ll have to take on extra limitations.”

I was about to protest that I’d done that in generic overlays, when the import of what they were saying hit. “I don’t get any CP at all?”

“Well, the challenge itself is worth 600 since the setting is so dangerous… but otherwise? No.” The big guy said.

Sleazy vonSleaze added, “You can take up to an additional 2000 CP… and your companions get a fraction of whatever you take.”

“What fraction?” I asked, knowing full well that 1/∞th was a fraction.

“Ahem… that all depends on which tier they’re assigned to,” The Banker added, tugging at his cuffs to try and even them out (something that was impossible as I’d tweaked the code in the projection software). “One companion can be imported or recruited as your Partner. They gain 3/4ths of the Challenge Points you gained. Eight more can be imported or recruited as assistant chefs. They gain half of your Challenge Point total. And any number can be imported, but not recruited, as front of house or utility… I’m not certain I understand what those mean.”

I rolled my eyes. “Front of House is waitstaff and bussers, hosts, bartenders, sommeliers, that kind of thing. Utility are drivers, shoppers, maintenance, cleaning staff, dishwashers… they don’t deal with customers very much, except as delivery… they typically don’t get much respect… and that’s in a business where almost no-one gets respect. It’s generally accepted that a trained monkey could do 80% of utility work… but in reality, it needs to get done or the whole edifice falls apart. No working ovens means no food. Dirty table settings is a crash and burn at the star level. And if the place looks like rubbish you aren’t even going to get the customers in the front door. I may barely know my way around a kitchen, but I know that much.”

“So? What do you say?” Mensarius wheedled. “Going to chicken out?”

“I’m sensing that the two of you have a bet on this one, and knowing you, you’ve bet against me, because you’re an asshole.” I looked over to the Banker. “Let me guess, he suggested this little game and bet you that I’d accept and fail, and you bet that I’d reject it as an untenable risk?”

“He did suggest it, yes, as it breaks with typical procedure… but I wagered that you’d accept and succeed, while he wagered you’d reject, then changed his mind saying that you’d fail the challenge while surviving the main jump thanks to taking too many “Beverages” as the drawbacks are called. That you are laughing implies there is a joke there?”

“Beverages… includes soft drinks and tea or coffee or juice, yes… but it also includes intoxicating or hard drinks. Drunk… on Power. Ya… a leetle yoke. Fine. If I can’t succeed with my support matrix, I don’t deserve a restaurant… though the menu for a 3-Star isn’t going to be diverse… might have to spiff it up once the prize is won. Before I finalize my acceptance, are there any rules I should know? And do you two dipshits promise to run a fair contest. No rigging things to be extra dramatic, right?”

Mensarius harrumphed. “Like we need to cheat to rig the game against you, but no, a wager is sacrosanct.”

“Indeed. If we interfered in any capacity, the wager would be invalid,” His Bankerness agreed.

“Then… assuming the perks on offer in the other half seem acceptable and like they’d actually allow me to complete the challenge, I’ll agree to it. And now, I believe I have listened to your proposal, so that means I get to shape the wavelength compatibility of my Meisters slash Wait Staff… wait a tick… did you say recruited? So, like… I could recruit Nobu as my partner?”

“Who is Nobu?” asked Mensarius. “I didn’t see him in the precis on Soul Eater.”

“He’s not in Soul Eater. He’s on Earth. He’s a 3-Star Sushi Chef. Arguably the best in the entire world.”

“Ah… no,” the Banker said. “You cannot recruit any Michelin Starred Chef… or one of their apprentices as staff.”

“Drat… okay, hmmm… Let’s make Toph my partner for the Restaurant side… she’s got the hard work ethic down and she’s the most involved in our food chain. I need 8 cooks… chefs… Zane, because we work well together and he’s personable… AJ because knives are involved… Velma is hard working and good at picking up new things… Gaius is good with high stress jobs that take a lot of finesse… Bao… he’s a perfectionist and makes a mean cuppa… Yoiko, she already knows a fair amount of BBQ thanks to that stint in Alan Wake among others… Mmmm… Bart, he’s relentless and practical… and Joy for the same reason. Everyone else gets the leftovers… but let’s see… Invidius & Scipio don’t get to be near customers. Yuzuha and Dyna… Ahab and Ryoga…. I’ll take a look and see what’s available… most of the ladies will be on Waitstaff. Heh.  Make Cirno a busser, that way she’s playing with Ice… have to ask if Raven and Brigid want in on this one.  Assuming they’re eligible?”

“Passenger status is your own invention. As far as I understand it’s just a bar on non-drop-in origins, yes?” I nodded. “Well then, strictly speaking, you have 5 passengers at the moment and one absentee companion.

“I have… wait… 5? Raven and Brigid and… oh… right… E-Prime and Bookstock… but that’s four.  Who’s five?”

Mensarius sighed and his hologram made itself a hologrammatic vodka gibson with three onions and a twist of lime. “The boys.”

“The Gaius-Vord twins? Shouldn’t they be 5 and 6?”

“I have no idea how you lifeforms do such things, but where we come from, they are the same… existence.”

“Huh…” I’d have to think about that one. “Does that mean that importing them only takes a single slot?” Mensarius gave me a look that said ‘Of course, you simple ape.’ but I ignored him and looked to the Banker for confirmation.

He considered, then nodded. “It does, though of course, any perk applied to them will be of reduced intensity as it is divided between two nodes.”

“Wild.  Okay then. Let’s futz with some wavelengths… I can pick who’s the Meister and who’s the Weapon, or make someone a Drop-In… right?” They nodded, Mensarius sipping his non-existent drink… or maybe it did exist for him, who knew? “Meister Kendra will wield Zane. That’s the first thing. Mmmm… AJ will wield Francine, since he’s all stabby-slashy and she’s good at thinking… Mmm… let’s pair Meister Yoiko with Petra and Meister Ryoga with RayRay… those four will make a good team…make them crossover as well so each Meister can use either weapon. I’d consider doing the same with Gaius & Reggy and Kohina and her father, but Kagetane and Gaius have a rather intense dislike for each other… no… better equip Meister Gaius with Kohina and Meister Reggy with Kagetane and leave it at that. Meister Toph will pair well with Dyna’s aggressive and flexible techniques, so that’s a lock there. Since I don’t want a duplicate of Soul Eater resident moron meister BlackStar, I decided to stick Cirno into the hands of Meister Velma. That was all the easy ones, though.

I leaned back in my chair, bringing up a view of all my companions… and blinked. “Astraea? She’s back in MCU.” I commented, confused.

“Yes? And?”

“How can I import her into this setting if she’s in MCU?” I asked, which just provoked a snort of derision from Mensarius.

“As if physical location matters. She’s a companion. Her locality doesn’t matter.” the ‘Idiotic Lifeform’ was implied.

“Sooo… If I import her, does she just spontaneously show up?”

“Don’t be daft!” the wicked one sneered, “You left her there. You want her back, you’ll have to go back and get her.”

“Oh… good… right. ‘Hey! Astraea! How you been? Ohhh…. Right… it’s been zero seconds.  Anyway, I’ve been travelling and I brought you presents!’ Yeah…. That’ll go over well… fine… whatever… Mmmm… Heh… Make Bart and Meetra a duo… oh… no… even better, make both of them Demon Weapons, able to wield each other, but officially paired with Meister Caine.  I’m conflicted about Bao and Uriel.  Bao is by far the better fighter… eh… might as well make Uriel the Weapon of that pair and not stress over it.  Tokimi as a Drop-in… She’ll enjoy the Madness and might use it responsibly.  Send Invidius, Scipio, Raven, and Brigid invites as Drop-ins… hmmm… nooo… Invidius and Scipio causing Madness is bad… make them Weapons and make… hmmm… Make them Demon Weapons, like Death the Kid’s pistols… can’t make them compatible with their mom, that’s creepy… Hmmm… pair them with Tokimi… yes, I know she’s not a Meister… But she has a very powerful soul.”

“And the two in cryosleep?” The Banker asked.

“Err… no. for what I have planned, I need them unaltered from their current state. Plus, I’m very much not… I don’t think Bookstock… eh… I’ll worry about it later. Don’t need either of them screwing up my plans. But you distracted me. I’ll take Yuzuha, as she’d bite anyone who tried to wield her besides me and really can’t be trusted as a Meister… plus Ziggy for much the same reason… plus Mini & Frankie because they’re mine own, my precious…” I hissed slightly for no good reason, then giggled maniacally.  If you can’t giggle maniacally from time to time, there’s no point to immortality.

“Meister Joy can have Ahab as her weapon of choice,” I added, still chuckling… then paused as I had a really evil thought… well… not evil… cheesy. It wouldn’t do me much good as things stood, and it wouldn’t be terribly helpful, but Atura’s name was still on the Companion list for Import and, even though he/it/she was still an egg inside my Mind Palace, I could still import the Origin Spirit… which was part of my soul, and thus what powers he had, I had access to… or should, if sleepy thing would ever hatch.

“Astraea as Drop-In… no… Demon Weapon,” I chuckled at the inside joke even as I made it, “Atura as a Meister,” I said, finishing the list, at least for this side… then paused as a somewhat horrifying thought struck me. “Uh… wait… once a companion, always a companion?”

“That does, I believe, follow,” The Banker said, “Though I would not have used those words. Why? Also, you haven’t listed compatibility for Astraea or Atura.”

I grunted dismissively, “Oh, Atura is part of my soul, so I guess that means my wavelengths are Atura’s wavelengths. No… Okay… Garl and Selene… they’re dead. I never paid to import them. Could I just… wave my hand annn…” I trailed off as Garl, Selene… and the Kihara’s… and Vitiate’s names all popped onto the screen… along with a just… unsettling number of people I’d asked to accompany me along the way who’d turned me down, many of whom were very much dead now. Dumbledore, General Iroh, Ocelot… there were almost a hundred names on the list. “I… see… that’s… worrying.”

“Why would it worry you that we possess the ability to raise those you consider dead?”, Mensarius asked, sounding more confused than mocking.”

“Because I saw those people die. I lived through it in some cases… and-” I just couldn’t explain.

“You vaporized Bart just to prove a point,” The Banker said.

“I… yeah… but I’d already linked him into the matrix… doesn’t that make a difference?”

“Should it?” The Banker asked, and I considered for a very long time, then nodded. “I… think it should. I failed to save those lives. If I can just… retroactively bring them back, it’s… problematic.”

“You actually killed Uriel and witnessed the death of Astraea,” the Banker was being oddly gentle. “You murdered Vitiate yourself and are keeping his soul in a holocron. Death means very little as long as the soul hasn’t journeyed beyond. You have a quite impressive collection of Souls in that laboratory of yours. You could choose any of them to be a companion… you do know how to talk to them.”

“I… guess. So, all I’d have to do is return to one of these places and, what, find or summon up the soul in question, then invite them along… or kidnap them… and as long as they exit their reality in my warehouse… that’s it? It’s just like any other object?”

“Ontologically speaking, what is the difference?” Mensarius asked, and I honestly had no answer. Metaphysics and philosophy said there was one, but animism said that all things had souls… though I’d never seen evidence of that. I sighed. “Right. Well… fuck it then. Is there any limit to this?”

“Yes,” they said together.

“And it is?”

“You must be able to recall the soul of the person, or create a copy indistinguishable. Ocelot comes from a world where the dead can be reborn via technological copying as your Joy indicates. Albus Dumbledore exists in a world where paintings and ghosts are real. Iroh resides in the Spirit Realm of the Avatar Setting. Garl and Selen Vinland both come from a world where the souls of the dead are material and died in a world where death has proven highly transitory. And, of course, you have to intrust CP into them for them to be… protected, returning to your side in a day’s time. Should they die unprotected, their souls will be cast adrift, torn between two different destinations… or none at all. These Passengers of yours, however… shall be given special value, we have decided. All CP vested into them shall, until they, of their own free will, choose an origin other than Drop-In, be conditional. It shall not constitute the typical companion contract that the gift or imposition of CP and its… full faith and credit as some would call it… might construe. They are in a grace… no… a demo-period.”

I processed that, mildly disconcerted to realize that I didn’t actually know which of the two had explained it until I checked my memory and found that they’d traded off the discussion no less than twice without me noticing. “So… I can’t import them now, because they’re currently dead?”

“Garl and Selen?” The Banker asked, “You could import them in absentia. They have crossed the Dark Infinities and Bright Eternities with you. They are known to the Warehouse. The Kihara’s? No. They were never given privileges and so the Warehouse did not record them.”

“And my evil twin?”

Mensarius chuckled wickedly, “She is in other hands, as you well know.” I sighed, I did know and it worried me sometimes to consider what she and Trelane were up to.

“Right then… Garl and Selen, Meisters. Both attuned to Astraea, like the girl in Soul Eater Not. I guess I come with more presents… and Sophie can be a Drop-In. She’s a good doggy, the Madness won’t affect her.” I heard a bark from outside the soundproof chamber and chuckled.

“That spends you out, I believe,” The Banker said, “Shall I toss up the Challenge Document?”

“First off… hold up there, bucko. I’m guessing I get Free Stuff from the Soul Eater Item list and I’d like to know what, but I’m actually removing something from my own list.” I focused my attention on the checkmark for Grigori Soul and dragged the entire item off my list… and dropped it square in Atura’s box. 600 CP is what he got, and all 600 of it was what I was using to equip a fragment of my soul with wings. I had two souls… might as well install Grigori on the other secondary one. “There. 600 CP freed up.” I said, watching as Atura’s box also populated with ‘Weapon Partner Proficiency’, ‘Wavelength Communication’, ‘Declaration!’, ‘Comfortable Welcome Gift’, Death’s List’, and ‘Sick Wheels’.  I’d have to read those later as I now had to spend my remaining points.

First, I plunked down the 100 CP needed to buy Wavelength Communication, which the screen was flashing impertinently that as I was not a Meister, I’d need in order to wield a Demon Weapon. Apparently it opened a bridge between the soul of ‘Meister’ and Demon Weapon, allowing them to communicate on a spiritual level and (usually) safely transfer energy from one to another.  It was a good investment and I was satisfied with it.  But it did leave me with 500 left… and I decided to go hog wild and buy myself a Race… Immortal specifically.

See, in the world of Soul Eater, Immortals (aka Werewolves) were a monstrous race that normally appeared as completely standard humans (albeit a little more rugged or wild in appearance). In human form, my stats would be closer to the higher end of the human spectrum (which was good, since my Body Mod’s physical stats weren’t anything to write home about, since I’d never considered the possibility of being reduced back to it waaay back at the end of my first jump when I’d filled it out.) but my sense of smell and awareness of my surroundings would be quite keen, which couldn’t hurt. But at any time I wanted, I could transform into my true werewolf form… which (thanks to the silliness of the setting) had overly large hands, feet, and tails… and physical stats way through roof. Both forms had a very strong vitality and minor regeneration. They also had green souls rather than a Human’s white, a Kishin’s red, or a Witch’s purple. Not sure what color an Immortal Witch might have. Honestly wasn’t keen to find out.

“I thought you were only shortlisting Drawbacks just in case,” Mensarius snarked.

“Eh. This just became a matter of survival. I’d already locked in the Clowns. Those are the real danger. The others are just goofy shit I can cope with. Hopefully.  Okay. Now items.”

Everyone got “Comfortable Welcome Gift” as it turned out, which was a small package that included 7,500 USD and a stylish outfit custom tailored to be a perfect fit, flexible, durable, and suited for combat, self repairing, and designed to grow with the user. It was a pretty decent deally. Witches also got “Matching Pair”, which was a pointy black witch hat and an animal familiar, both matching my chosen animal theme. The hat come with some passive enchantments… it wouldn’t come off unless I wanted it to, and if lost or destroyed it could be summoned back to my hand as good as new. The familiar was a pet, friend, and loyal guardbeasty rolled into one. It would be smarter than most animals (but still animal intelligence) and almost completely black in coloration, and (even though it was a ferret) it would be the size of a large dog… a levitating large dog (not very good levitation, mind you, but comparable to the stuff I’d bought here). Loyalty, friendliness, and protectiveness was all guaranteed.

I checked for other freebies, but didn’t see any, so I gave a provisional lock to the Soul Eater document and nodded to Signore CP-Man, signalling that I was ready for the Challenge Document. I blinked, then chuckled… of course, it was laid out like a menu. There was a list of locations, all of them cities known for having a simply unfair number of Starred establishments. They ranged from the brutal (Florence, Berlin, & Copenhagen) to the sadistic (Paris, Tokyo, & NYC). I don’t think a single one of the ten cities listed had less than 40 Starred locations. NYC had at least 13 3-Star Locations alone. Paris was probably worse. With trepidation, I rolled the.. “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” I snarled, looking at the Eiffel Tower symbol on the dice. This wasn’t going to be pleasant.

I gritted my teeth and looked at the Appetizers selection, which appeared to be the Background selection. There were four choices, each a different position in a standard kitchen, though it did reassure me that, as this was to be my restaurant, I’d be the Chef de Cuisine (the Head Chef). The Appetizers were merely which Chef de Partie… which Line Cook Specialty I had. The choices were Charcutier (she who handles the meat), Patissier (he who is sweet), Sous Chef (they who are overworked), and Tournant (it fills the positions that are needed at the time… no, I kid. A Tournant was the kitchen’s pinch hitter).

The first two were specific chef types who often had their own subfiefs inside a restaurant, since they required the most specialized equipment and training. Charcutiers could often use the standard ovens and grills and fry pans… but aging cabinets, smokers, rotisseries, butcher’s blocks… none of those were out of place for a master of the meats… and no one else really needed them. Patissiers were the bakers and dessert makers, and the specialized equipment for one of them was practically a second kitchen.. one that had good temperature controls, since a lot of the stuff they made was heat-sensitive.

The other two were all rounders. The Sous Chef was the second in command and their job was literally to make sure everyone else could do their job. They assisted the Chef, expedited and finished dishes, oversaw the waitstaff, and typically handed all the various logistics. They were the manager that kept the restaurant ticking along. The Tournant was essentially the Sous Chef’s understudy, doing whatever needed to be done, filling any holes in the kitchen at a moment’s notice.

I glanced at the Entrees (the Perks) for each of the four, and they had some nice stuff each, but it was pretty much what I’d expected. Meat-Man was about heat and anatomy, the heavy part of cooking. Dessert-Girl was about delicacy and subtlety, the airy part of cooking. Sous Chef was about running the restaurant. And Tournant was about the purity of cooking.  I went with Tournant and promptly ran myself out of points buying everything that was on offer.

‘Superior Bladesman’ was the freebie for Tournant and it guaranteed that my knives would always be exactly as sharp as they needed to be, my hands perfectly steady, and my cuts exact, fast, and clean… unless I was dead on my feet. It was nothing to scoff at, as I’d known more than one chef relegated to skutt work because they didn’t have the knife skills for anything more complex or time sensitive.

‘Taste Tester’ cost 100 and transformed me into a Supertaster, allowing me to ID every ingredient in a dish as long as I’d tasted the ingredient before, up to and including age of ingredient, freshness, and where it was grown on the source farm (if I was familiar enough). ‘Jack of all Foods’ was 200 and designed to turn anyone into a savant of the kitchen. Memorize a recipe having heard it once, on the fly substitutions, mental dish composition, and it took the time required to learn a new cooking school from upwards of 2 years down to days or weeks… and it made combining different styles of cooking all the easier.

And then there was the capstone, ‘Your Heart is Pure’… for 300, I gained practically limitless endurance as long as I was pursuing a task I loved, and my productivity would equal that of half a dozen normal people… and though time would seem to fly by, I’d always seem to get things done with time to spare. Pacing in the industry was everything and there was almost never enough time. The utility of this was hard to overstate.

Just for accepting the Challenge, I also got ‘Commis’ which was the basics of knife-work, food handling & preparation, plating, kitchen safety… it was all the hundreds of little techniques and skills that would allow me to function in the best of professional kitchens without making an ass of myself. It gave me the lingo and the know how to take instructions and use them properly. I also got a ‘Speciality de Mason’ free, which was any one regional style of cooking. I could buy additional forms for 50, but I got one free. It wouldn’t make me an expert in it, but it would give me a decent grounding. Out of homage to my ancestry, I picked ‘Jewish cooking’, because I don’t think there has ever been a starred Jewish Restaurant, but if French Cuisine could do it, Jewish should be able to if I put in the effort.

Everyone got one Speciality. Of course, Patissiers and Charcutiers got Baking and Grilling (called ‘MEAT ME!’ for some reason), but Sous Chefs and Tournants got their pick from a list of 8. It included Eggs, Fish, Sauce-making, Fermenting, Veggies, and Brewing… It wasn’t an easy choice. I love tea and stews and Brewmaster was all up in that. Veggies and fruits are awesome, and a skilled Entremetier could turn them from delight to perfection. Baking is… well.. Have you ever had fresh, crisp, still warm bread? Fermenters were masters of pickling, winemaking… cheese making.  Eggmen were masters of breakfast apparently… that I could pass on… but Poissonnier was all about fish and included Sushi. Hell, Sushi was pretty much Easy Mode to 3-Stars… if you could somehow rise out of the sea of other Sushi Restaurants. Ditto Italian and French of course.

Still, I settled, finally, on Saucier.  Sauce-making may not be glamorous, but as a master of sauces and sauteeing, I’d be skilled in controlling heat to sear or crisp or char, to make roux and to mix up all the best ragus and salsas. It was a skill that the professionals valued, and the experts looked for. Though, if I had the points, I’d buy at least one more Speciality…

But I was now out of points and even a cursory glance at the other trees had shown me there were things I either wanted or wanted my companions to have, which meant that I’d have to take “Beverages” to pay for them. Right now Toph would get 450, my kitchen staff 300, and my front of house people 150… Not nearly enough.

The list of Beverages was… eclectic to say the least. Some of them were just… not advisable (Squeamish, Vegan, Key Ingredient Allergy)… while others were interestingly idiosyncratic (Celebrity Chef, Down Home, OCD), and others were more traditional fare (Financial Trouble, One Arm, Organized Crime)… and a couple were just… aack (Fruitarian, Rampant Sexism). For those not in the know, Fruitarians are Raw Food weirdos, those who believe that cooking damages food. A Fruitarian restaurant has never even been Starred as far as I knew. Removing the cooking from cooking was just… stupid. Rampant Sexism was what the normal world dealt with with regards to professional cooking. In the entire history of Michellin when I’d left Origin Earth long long ago (or 1 second by their reckoning) only 1 woman had ever earned 3 stars… in 2014. That’s it. Rampant Sexism made sure the taker stayed female and made the world as rampantly sexist as it was in 1980s.

I avoided both. Instead, I took ‘A Little Bit Crazy’ (worth 100 and guaranteed that everyone knew I was a little bit off), ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ (worth 100 and made my food cutting edge, overpriced, and bizarre… easier to get press, harder to keep a customer base), ‘Midget’ (worth 200 and made my head height equal to that of most cooking surfaces), ‘Om Nom Nom’ (worth 200 and made me a rather compulsive eater and guaranteed I’d put on weight), ‘Bad Press’ (worth 200 and ensuring a lot of bad press until I got my first star), ‘Less Than the Best’ (worth 200 and made it hard to get the best ingredients until I earned my first star), ‘Down Home’ (worth 200 and meant I had to focus on something traditionally viewed as lowbrow… which I’d already planned on with traditional jewish cooking), ‘Celebrity Chef’ (worth 200 and giving me a horrible personality, yelling at people who didn’t ‘get’ my cooking, screaming at my staff, and throwing tantrums when I didn’t get my way… went well with ‘I Am God’ from the Soul Eater side), and ‘Fusion Cuisine’ (worth 300 and required me to fuse two wildly different styles of cooking… I considered, then smiled Chinese-Jewish Tapas… it was fusion and neuvelle and down home all in one. Perfect. And jews have word of mouth and money. I’d just have to bust my butt… PARIS? Fuuuck!)… and that meant I needed a support structure so, grudgingly, I took one last drawback… Beverage…

It is a sad fact that ‘Organized Crime’ funds a staggering number of restaurants. Since so many of them go out of business, or are marginal at best, restaurants make great cover for money laundering, especially since they deal with so much cash and loads and loads of supplies. Allowing my restaurant to be financed in that way was worth 300 CP, even though it essentially cleared up my debts since the mob would make me seem profitable… but I’d have to deal with shady business dealings, police (and anti-terror) investigations, and making sure that the local armed psychos liked my cooking… and in Soul Eater, they very much might want to dine on Human Souls if they were anything like Soul Eater really minor badguy ‘Don Alcapone’ (no, not a typo. All one word.). Combined with the 600 from the challenge, that gave me a total of 2400 and gave Toph 1800, the Kitchen Staff 1200, and everyone else 600. It was now, probably, doable… and I had 1800 left to spend.

First up, I bought ‘Meat Me!’ [200/1600/2400] to give me an instinctive knowledge of how much heat any given piece of meat could take and how to cook it to bring out the best flavour and texture. I had to start out as a Roast Chef, Grill Chef, or Fry Chef and it would take about 5 years each to master the other two… Meat is Serious Business. I went with Roast, since most of Jewish cooking is roasting and I could hedge with Fry Chef using Saucier until I mastered it. Grilling would be very little use this time round, but I should have mastered it by the end of the jump.

I also snatched up the 100 CP abilities from Charcutier and Sous Chef. The first was called ‘God’s Only Begotten Sandwich Maker’ [100/1500/2400] (a reference to Arthur Dent from the Hitchhiker’s Guide novels… and something of a Jumper himself), which gave a sixth sense for which ingredients would work best together, masking negative qualities and accenting positive ones… it also synthed brilliantly with Shaggy’s Sandwich Supplies from Scooby-Doo… and I could supplement my business with a sandwich truck if I could get the fundings. Trucks could be good advertizing and do bang up business if I could find the right location. Apparently the rules were that my Restaurant itself had to be open for dinner at least Tuesday through Saturday, all of which I had to work. Other than that, I could let the junior chefs handle lunch service if I wanted to.

The second was more important, however. ‘Attention to Detail’ guaranteed that no matter how stressed or tired I got, the details of familiar things wouldn’t escape me. I wouldn’t forget key steps (like I used to). I wouldn’t forget garnish if I was rushed. I would spot anything out of place or dirty, or wrong. It was mission critical and for [100/1400/2400] it was a steal.

I wanted more Specialities, and some of the other perks were quite nice, but I figured I should check on the items, since cooking is as much about ingredients as it is skill… and it’s a damned good thing I did, because there was an entire section dedicated to customizing the restaurant itself. ‘Brick and Mortar’ it was called, and it was a small (15 table) restaurant with a functional kitchen, spirits (wine & beer) licence, and 200,000 dollars in debt (which was, for me, essentially owed to the mob). It also had a basic restaurant supply company like Sysco (think big white labeled cans). As a Tournant, I got my Spirit’s License upgraded to a full Liquor License for free (hard liquor and mixed drinks).. Which was nice because the Liquor License was required to buy the Wine Cellar [200/1200/2400] (an excellent selection of wines and two of my front of house staff became instant wine experts… and it came with a special wine supplier, who got rare and excellent vintages for less, which was nice.). I had to have the Wine… it was FRANCE!

I’d also get a free restaurant upgrade depending on what position Toph selected. If she went Tournant too, it would be the Wine Cellar, but we’d be overspecialized there, so I was hoping she wouldn’t. I sent her a message to that subject and she sent back “Thinking of Patissier. It’s the one furthest from your direct control and means I can work early shifts while you work late. Also, comes with the Supply Upgrade… unless you think we need the Kitchen Upgrade from Charcutier instead?” I send back that I didn’t and that Patissier was fine.  The Supply upgrade meant we went from big cans to upscale ingredients with priority from speciality providers… it wasn’t the best… there was a 200 CP upgrade that made it top of the line, but that would be pointless to start with since I couldn’t get the best ingredients until I had my first star anyway. The supply upgrades followed the restaurant from jump to jump if upgraded, otherwise you’d have to shop or source yourself.

There were any number of options, but some were less useful than others. For instance, the B&M could be upgraded to 30 or 60 tables… which was better for business, yes, but made starting out harder since it made the place look empty. I could upgrade later (though the prize would not include the add on most likely) as the business expanded, but space in Paris is at a premium and intimacy is valued. The smaller upgrade came with high end self-updating menus, which was something to consider, but not worth it for me. The larger had always pristine and appealing menus… but it was more of the same.

There Dining Hall and Banquet Hall upgrades, and they’d be great for an established business to make money from… but starting out I wouldn’t have the word of mouth, and they’d be an economic drain that would sit empty. It would be better to rent halls than own them anyway.

There was a pair of kitchen upgrades, taking the kitchen to modern and then to state of the art… but upgrading as I went was fine, and it was a waste of points I couldn’t justify. Sure, the first was self-repairing and the second was also always clean… but that’s what elbow grease was for. Making do with functional would have to do until I could bring in the top dollar crowds… in fact, I think the place should have as rustic a kitchen feel as possible. Not dirty and dingy, but very much period. Wood fired ovens and wooden boards instead of stainless steel and plastic. Marble Slabs, oak and bamboo… it was doable. Functional but down home appeal. I added that to the notes.

Other upgrades were less about the restaurant and more about running it. Apparently I’d start with a small 8 year old car that I’d have to keep running and share with Toph, and an apartment that I couldn’t quite afford… but both were upgradable. For [50/1150/2400], the Car would be brand new and never break down, but still require fuel, maintenance, taxes & Insurance. Another 100 would free me from the need for gas & maintenance, making it self-repairing and always up-to-date on paperwork and insurance… but I figured I could just pay for those things… though the 10 minute respawn time for the upgraded car was tempting.

But more tempting were the other business vehicles. For 50 CP each, I could buy delivery vans that would respawn if stolen or totalled, and kept food at the right temperature and from getting jostled. For 100 CP more, I could upgrade all my vans to be self-repairing, self-fueling, always insured and licensed… and to never break down or get stuck in traffic. Catering is great for word of mouth… especially among Jews… trust me on that. Never having to worry about a dish getting rekt in the horror that was Parisienne traffic… priceless… though NYC and London were just as god awful for that matter. So I spent [200/950/2400] to get two upgraded vans.

And that wasn’t all… for [100/850/2400] I picked up a Food Truck. It was always licensed for any city I took it to, with all the fees needed to legally vend food already paid. It was self-repairing, self-cleaning, and guaranteed to build world of mouth rapidly… though it meant working longer hours.

I could have paid down the massive 200,000 dollar debt for 200 or erased all non-supply or maintenance fees for 400… but that had no lasting benefit and seemed silly when I was already dealing with the mob.  So, instead, I bought the Apartment Upgrade [150/700/2400].

Instead of an overpriced apartment, I now owned a Parisian Apartment Building large enough for my companions to live there (which they could do for free). It was tax free, but I couldn’t sell it, self-maintaining, and in future jumps I could rent it out, as it would appear in my starting city. The apartments were nicish and newish, which would make everything a little better to deal with over the decade… a decade we’d be working our collective asses off.

That left me with 700… and I still hadn’t reached the actual items part of the Desserts menu… shit. This thing was a CP Vampire. No wonder you could get 2600 CP if you were insane… you needed it. But even taking all the drawbacks it was impossible to get everything I’d want… but that was generally true in my experience… at least 1/3rd of all the jumps I’d been to I’d wanted more than I could afford. Which I guess was part of the game to the Bankers. Choices. They were Choice Points for a reason.

“Is there another me out there making different choices?” I asked, but didn’t get an answer either way. Huh. tough crowd.

From the Desserts menu I picked up the universal freebie, a set of Knives that were balanced, comfortable, stylish, and guaranteed never to cut what they weren’t supposed to cut… my fingers were instantly and preemptively grateful. And then I looked at all the awesome things on the items menu and cursed. It was like… a real dessert menu. I wanted almost everything (besides the carrotcake which had no business ever being on an actual restaurant’s menu. Carrotcake was just too plebeian for restaurant fare. Unless the restaurant served potato chips and hotdogs… then it was fine.). There was a Radar device that always found the best restaurant given any set of qualities (Price, style, distance, etc.). There was a spice rack that had every spice and never ran out! There was a perfect table setting set for up to 3,000… with tables and chairs included.  There was an infinitely large Pantry that kept food perfect… forever and was self-sorting… and could maintain or age food you wanted aged. There was even an option to get the phone number from a Random Omnipotent Being who’d pick up food from any restaurant anywhere and deliver it to my current location… ingredients and supplies too!

But those weren’t what caught and held me the most. No, that was the Door of Shopping [400/300/2400] and the Grand Opening [200/100/2400]. The Door went to any shopping district in any world I’d ever been to (as long as it was still extant when I left). It would always be the day after I came last, and I couldn’t do anything to shape that world while shopping, and I couldn’t leave the district except to come back through the door… but they took whatever currency I had at its source’s face value. The Grand Opening was similar, but for dining instead of shopping. The first time I used it, I’d step through the door to find myself at a valet stand that would take me to the opening day of any restaurant I’d even been to, with a reservation. I could then visit that restaurant once for every day they were open (twice if they had a lunch menu). It had the same limitations… but when you’re as old as I am, there are restaurants that I’ve loved that have vanished to the sands of time enough to fill a city with them. I had to have the Opening, and the Shopping was just… nice.

I considered going back through the perks… then shook my head and locked in the Spice Rack [100/0/2400] as well. It promised high quality spices and those could get pricy as hell (saffron runs to thousands of dollars a pound). And with that, I was out of Choice and Challenge Points and hungry. So I waved to the Banker Boys and Sluggy, and exited the room to consider staffing options. I had a stack of tablets waiting outside the door and I motioned for the butler holding them to follow me to the kitchen.

The first I looked at was Toph’s. She’d specialized in Spanish Cuisine for some reason… maybe to do with Tapas or just for a mediterranean feel? She’d also picked up Master Shopper and Gardener from the general Entrees, as well as taking Entremetier (Veggy Chef) in addition to the free Baker from being a Patissier. I hadn’t even noticed the Gardener option, though my memory confirmed it was there the whole time. Master Shopper was a knack for finding the very very best of anything that could be connected to the restauranting world… be it ingredients, uniforms, artwork… and all at the best possible prices. Gardener seemed largely redundant for her, at least until I read it. It wasn’t just growing your own ingredients… it was about cultivating dedicated suppliers… and it came with its own Garden for free.

The Garden was 4 acres of premium farmland perfect designed to support whatever food crops we might wish to grow there. They all had the same microclimate, but could be divided into 16 equally sized blocks where a command console would give us control over the micronutrients and flavorants in the soil. It would attach to the warehouse after the jump and would be as close as possible to the restaurant as local zoning permitted. And the acreage could be doubled multiple times, each costing 100 CP, with each 4 acre plot having its own microclimate.  Toph had doubled it five times… that was 128 acres of premium farmland… it wasn’t huge… but it wasn’t tiny either. Waaay more than a restaurant could use unless we were raising our own cows and sheep. I was slightly surprised she hadn’t doubled it more, but she’d bought some of the Patissier perks as well.

Patissiers got ‘Try It, You’ll Like It!’ for free which was good for getting someone to try something at least once… but only if you liked it and it wouldn’t cause them harm or be unethical by their standards. It wasn’t limited to food. She also took ‘Keep it Cool’ which allowed her to control her own body temperature so she wouldn’t heat things up when she touched them (it also made her invisible to heat sensors as an afterthought), and she could keep things from getting hot… up to the temperature of boiling water. And she took ‘Art on the Plate’ which would allow her to turn anything into art… especially but not limited to baked goods… including actions (pouring tea, watching the rain fall… it would all be art if she wanted it to be). Tossing in the Commis and Knives that all staff got and she was out of points.

I found her and Zane in the kitchen… arguing about partnership and who was the more partnerific. I bonked their heads together and sighed “Children! Behave yourselves. Zane, you’re my partner in combat, and often in shenanigans, but business isn’t your strong suit. Toph is dedicated, hard working, and grumpy.” I favored the Earthbender with a smirk as she glowered at me. She still looked blind though she had any number of forms that weren’t. Some of my companions were forever changing their forms, but Toph wasn’t one of those. All her forms looked pretty much like Toph Bei Fong, just with working eyes and cultural differences depending on the setting.

“Zane, go tell everyone I want them to rotate through the kitchens and make three individual dishes. Something sweet, something savory, and something surprising. They’re not to consult with each other, nor assist one another. I’ll be in my office and they’re to come to me whenever they’re ready. Toph, you’ll be the second judge. Zane, you can either sulk or be third?”

He considered, then grinned. “Can I do both?”

I hit him with a snowball to the mush, then headed upstairs, looking through Toph’s build for Soul Eater. Meisters got three freebies (in addition to ‘The Face’ that everyone got) from the perk list, and two (in addition to ‘Comfortable Welcome Gift’ that everyone got) from the item list. In addition to Wavelength Communication, they got ‘Weapon Partner Proficiency’ and ‘Declaration!’. WPP was an instant ‘years of experience fighting together with your Demon Weapon Partner’ that allowed the Meister to wield the Weapon like a seasoned swordsman might swing their sword, as effectively as if they were of the same flesh, one body in two parts, while ‘Declaration!’ was entirely about sharing your emotional state by yelling about them… this setting really didn’t know if it was slapstick or horror. The items were ‘Death’s List’ and ‘Sick Wheels’, the second being a flying skateboard and the first being a list of targets, evil human beings whose souls were on Death’s ‘you done fucked up son’ list and whose inhumane crimes had rendered them worthy of direct punishment by a Meister and Weapon. A Meister could upgrade their Demon Weapon Partner to a Death Scythe by hunting down and killing 99 such humans and feeding the Weapon the souls of those on the list… and then the Soul of a Witch. The list didn’t have the locations of Witches. And yes, there were very unpleasant implications of that list… but oddly, eating the souls of the evil didn’t corrupt a Demon Weapon… but eating the souls of those not evil enough to be on the list could do that quite rapidly.

I was about to read the rest when I got a strange pop-up on the screen of Toph’s Tablet. “Error. Build may be invalid. Would SJ please report to the Arcade.” I blinked “Build may be invalid? What the hell?” I set down my coffee and headed to the Arcade… it’s strange. I can teleport pretty much as fast as I think, and fly, and move at hypersonic speed… and… I don’t. Not normally. Sure, I jump off the balcony all the time, as stairs are for chumps. But under normal circumstances I just walk wherever I’m going at a normal rate… at least if it’s close. I guess Flash does too, come to think of it. Why does God Need a Starship? Because it has comfortable seating.

“Wazzup, funky butt?” I asked the Banker as I entered the Arcade. He favored me with a look that seemed pained, and a little abashed.

“Please. Do not call me that,” he said as an opener, but I didn’t apologize and after a moment he said, “Ahem… very well… we’ve had an update to the Jumptree. It is a fairly major revision, and so, rather than merely updating the individual builds and sending point corrections…” He trailed off and Mensarius finished.

“He means his ‘staff’ are inept and can’t just make things perfect on the first pass, so they occasionally have to fix oversights.”

“Wait… Update? The Hell? Have there been updates to places I’ve already been?”

“Of course!” Mensarius sneered. “You just don’t notice because they’re minor. A change of wording here, an option that wasn’t there before. Remember the Harry Potter Jump? An ability to control Fiendfyre has been added. And the price of the Philosopher’s Stone reduced slightly.” I mmm’d, then shrugged. It was like… finding out your cable provider had a new deal that you couldn’t get because you’d signed up last month when the deal was different.

“So… when it actually affects me?”

“We try to keep on top of such things, though obviously we can’t know how you would have chosen…” The Banker assured me. “This one just came through at the exact right time. In fact, an update to Bioshock Infinite’s Jumptree came through within the same window, so had you gone there immediately, there would have been an issue as well, though not of the same scale.”

“Okay… so… what’s changed?” I asked, flopping back into my command console.

“Two new races have been added, Fragment… the ‘child’ of an Old One, and Icon… an Artificial being from a magical tome called ‘The Book of Eibon’. Monster Cat’s exclusivity to those who take the Witch Origin has been removed. Witch and Earth Shaman have been updated. You can now buy a Hybrid Racial Origin and there are Racial Perks now.” The Banker began, and I raised my eyebrows. That was a lot… and he wasn’t finished.

“Maka Chop’s price has been halved. The Ripper Perk from the Drop-In line has been given greater flexibility and rebranded as ‘Slasher’ Soul Perception has an upgrade tier. Anti-Madness Wavelength’s price has been reduced. There are 8 new Drop-In Perks, 15 new Meister Perks, 8 new Demon Weapon Perks, 9 new Witch Perks, 36 new items…” I gacked. I was going to have to reconsidered everything… and where was I going to get points for this nonsense? I manifested a slab of ice and banged my head against it. Too much of a good thing.

And he kept going “Magical Being and Totemic have been combined into a single perk with optional upgrades. Levitation has been clarified. A number of Deamon Weapon customization perks have been added, with discounting and pricing changes all across the board. There are two new Companion Import Options… plus 5 new Drawbacks… and,” Mensarius smirked as the Banker said the last, “The Drawback Cap has been raised to 1000.” I banged my head against the ice again and groaned. “And notes explaining who the Old Ones are have been added.” I blinked at that.

“Oh? Really? Huh. They hadn’t come up in the Anime, so I wasn’t even aware that they were a thing. Who are they, anyway? Cthulian abominations?”

The Jumpotron cleared the center screen and five beings appeared in silhouette. Two were instantly recognizable as Death and Excalibur, though they bore the subtitles ‘Great Old One of Order’ and ‘Great Old One a Wrath’. “Excalibur is a Great Old One? I thought he was a Demon Weapon… lovely. No wonder he tries to drive everyone crazy by making them so angry they can’t think.” the other three were listed as ‘Asura, Great Old One of Wrath’, ‘Eibon, Great Old One of Knowledge’, and the fifth was nameless as ‘Great Old One of Power’. I shuddered “Lovely. Two Wrath GOOs. this world is borked. The screen shivered, then the Wrath after Asura’s name was erased and replaced with Fear.

I looked over at The Banker. “Are you subcontracting with otaku to write these things?” I asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion.

“They prefer to call themselves fans. We call them Crafters. And… err… yes. If an author composes a Jump I deem worthy, and it gets enough… you’d call it ratings… from those beings who are subscribed to syndication… then the author gains a free subscription to the syndication and access to their own reality to play with and shape to their desires.”

“To play God,” Mensarius explained, unnecessarily.

“Err… yes. But also to potentially create more interesting experiences.  Of course, most fail to even earn that prize, and of those who make it that far, most fail in the later tests.” The Banker explained.

“I see? So… Benefactors fund Jumpers to create content, and fund… Crafters to define the parameters that a Jumper will use to interact with a Setting. The Jumpers are paid in power to interact and grow, the Crafters are paid in subscription to the adventures of others, and get their own sandbox if they do well enough at Crafting.  Sounds like a racket, and if you can profit off it, I guess it works.”

I shook my head and sighed, then rolled my gaze to look at the drawbacks section… and regretted it. Yeah, there were new Drawbacks… two in the 200s and three in the 100s… and all of them were just… agony. ‘Maddeningly Lost’ was the least ghastly and it would make me ‘Disturbingly prone to getting lost, even in places I should be incredibly familiar with’. Like… ‘You need a guide all the time.’ Lonely Melody’ would make me deaf to all sounds besides Music, and only music for music’s purpose could be heard. Geeeh. ‘Cut Off Uppercrust’ would make me painfully oblivious to the realities of commoner life… and all three of those were 100s!

The 200s, ‘Working out the Kinks’ and ‘All Black’ were just horrifying. The first would make  all my old skills (and powers, but I’d already sold those to the Challenge Mode) beyond rusty… as in worse than not having them at all. Try to fight someone with Karate and kick yourself in the head kind of garbage. The second would strip away all my ability to find fulfillment that didn’t stem from destruction, schadenfreude, or sadism.

“Wow… this is just… evil. Fuck.  I… guess, if I need them, I can take Maddeningly Lost, Working out the Kinks, and Cut Off Uppercrust… in that order… but I’m faintly hoping I won’t.” I then went to see what they’d done to Witch. The first note said ‘You may choose two 100 CP Origin perks to be free, and Witches gain Totemic Magic’ for free… which meant that two 200 CP perks that had been free were now one 200 CP perk that was still free… I didn’t know if I should feel ripped off or not. Then I read the changes, and did feel ripped off. “I have to pay to turn into my corresponding animal now? Seriously? You took away part of the power and now want me to pay to get it back?”

“In trade, you get two new items for free!” the Banker explained rapidly, waving his hands and looking a little annoyed… at Mensarius for some reason. Mensarius on the other hand shrugged “Not my fault. Don’t blame me.” he seemed to say.

“Okay? Thrill me with these new things that are designed to make up for the nerfing.”

“You get a Style Signature… it’s not an item per se, but something similar. If you take it, you may restyle all your possessions, past, present, and future with a theme of your choice. And you can pick whether that representation applies to an item or not, and if the representation is literal or esoteric!” I blinked, then yawned. “So I can make everything I buy have a ferret theme if I want? Yaaaaay.” I mean, it wasn’t a terrible thing, and I could turn into a ferret with my Dook-Dook fruit powers… but still… shapeshifting vs thematic branding? Siiigh.

“And the other?”

“You get an Apothecary Station… it’s a nice big cupboard full of glass bottles to store potions in, and a recipe book full of minor potions with a variety of effects… cosmetic changes, to weight loss to poisons, acids, and elixirs of youth… though no ingredients-” I frowned at him and he hurried to explain, “Whatever you put in the bottles will be preserved pretty much forever!”

I sighed… then nodded, reluctantly. “Fine. I’ll take it. I guess. But only because I have another way of doing it and because I haven’t finalized. You try stripping out sections of powers like this again and we’re going to grandfather that bitch, you understand?”

The Banker looked puzzled for a moment, then nodded, slowly. “I understand. That’s fine.”

I spent quite some time considering the new Witch Perks… but finally decided against taking any of them… well… almost. I did trade in the largely useless Levitation for the only marginally more useful ‘Mother May I’, which was one of the new options and granted me skill at raising children so that they’d grow up into the kind of adults I’d want them to grow up to be… regardless of outside corruptive or protective influences. It might come in handy… and wasn’t something I could already do particularly well, having never actually tried to raise children. I barely had a clue how to deal with the Twins.

I honestly considered taking nothing new from the revised document. It was nice stuff, but I already had a vision for myself in this jump and it didn’t benefit from most of these frankly insane abilities or items (I could buy the Fucking MOON!)… but one dinky 100 CP perk from the Meister line shown out in the darkness. It was called ‘Ambition Without Arrogance.’ and it meant that, no matter how proud and confident in my abilities I became, I’d know my limits. I’d always be crystal clear on my limitations, lacking the capacity to overestimate myself or blind myself to my shortcomings… it was a sense of perspective, and as I was becoming more and more powerful, that might be a very important thing to have. So that got added to Maddening Lost and rolled into my build. I was about to discard the other two drawbacks and closed my build for the second time… when I considered that maybe having Clowns attacking my restaurant every week might be worse than being super rusty at old skills and being a clueless rich girl. I swapped in those 300 CP for the Clowns and breathed a little easier. Now my companions would have to deal with me being an idiot savant instead of being a trouble magnet. I think Mensarius looked crestfallen.

Double checking the list, I discovered a new Immortal Racial Perk I’d gotten as that race’s Freebie and smirked. It was called ‘This Works!’ and made me absurdly good at finding and using improvised weaponry… and made those things I used as weapons more durable than they otherwise would be.

“Right… now I have to go explain to the rabble why they have to reconsider their own builds. I’ll be out there, ducking bricks and tomatoes.”

“Better you than me!” Mensarius called as I exited the chamber.

By the time I got back to my office, every single one of the tablets was flashing a “Build Update” warning, though some were flashing “Approval Needed” or “Invalid Build” or “Rebuild in Progress” or “Master Input Required” as well. I sorted them into piles by type, then looked at the MIR pile first. It consisted of the tablets for Atura, Sophie, Ziggy, and the Astraea trio.

MASCOTS & TEAM ABSENTIA AD ASTRA

I selected Atura’s tablet first to see what was up. The screen showed two sections, one for Soul Eater, the other for Three Stars… and how appropriate, since Meisters were ranked from zero to three stars…. The first thing I noticed was that the list of freebies from the Soul Eater Side had changed. In addition to the Sick Wheels skateboard, there were two new items; ‘Here Lies Jumper’ and ‘Spin Me Right Round’. Figuring that I’d need to know what those were sooner or later, considering how many of my companions were about to become Meisters, I hit the info button… and cringed.

Here Lies was a personalized headstone, a stupidly durable, weaponizable, comes with an open grave in a nearby graveyard headstone. That was spectacularly unuseful, especially for a being like Atura which was not just immortal… Atura was amortal. Spirits didn’t mature and grow. They were just… were. Spin Me was, potentially, even less useful for a spirit, since it was an extremely comfortable swivel chair which doubled as a recliner and never feel over accidentally… it even came with swivel chair combat training so Atura could fight while rolling around in the chair… which is fine (if a bit silly) for normal companions… but Atura had no physical form. Well, at least I could use the chair, I guess. Not this jump, thanks to my reduced height, but… yeah.

The only other change was that, instead of getting ‘Declaration!’ Free, there was now a choice of five… including the ‘Ambition Without Arrogance’ that I’d taken myself.  Atura didn’t need that. The Spirit was pretty much free of either ambition or arrogance as a default. Mostly it was just curious.  The others were ‘Rebel Yale’ which would make Atura a really good and smart student… not necessary… but potentially good, since Atura was keen on soaking up experiences and information; ‘Because We’re Friends’, which which meant that Atura’s friends would put up with his bullshit more… except I was Atura’s only friend (well, me and Soul of Ice and Silent Judge… who were just major parts of me)… and would help Atura put up with our bullshit… which he did automatically by virtue of not really understanding that any of it was bullshit; ‘Patience of a Saint’… which Atura didn’t need because, as far as I could tell, the only way Atura could get mad was if someone spirit bent him into one of those dark spirits; and of course Declaration!

Since four of the five were useless to the spirit (Atura pretty much only talked to me and the various bits of me, and wasn’t the most emotional of spirits, thus negating the value of  Declaration!) I clicked on Rebel Yale and sealed that side. Which left the cooking side… and there were very few of those that didn’t require having a body… so I pretty much took ‘Bistro’ (get coworkers to work faster and more efficiently if you help out) and ‘Staffing Solutions’ (any business you’re a manager or similar at won’t be short staffed or have absenteeism or staff meltdowns) which spent the spirit out on that front too, and locked the build. Then I hit myself in the forehead for signing up for reviewing all these builds. Things I do for friends.

Ziggy’s tablet was, of course, empty, since he only used it to play that game where you bop hologramatic fish. Well, not empty. He’d spent 7000 CP on every regional cooking style on Earth and then some… and Baking. Knowing my little buddy, he’d just poked the strange pictures until they went away and gave him his game back… or got bored and fell asleep on the tablet. From 3-Stars I bought the little fuzzbutt ‘Your Heart is Pure’ since his was. Soul Eater was trickier… Demon Weapons had their choice of two free perks from a list of three, and figuring out what would be useful for a very silly fluffbrain was tricky… or should have been… but the answer was, as it often is, obvious once you think like a ferret.

The choices were ‘Better to Ask Forgiveness’, ‘Backseat Driver’, and ‘Perfect Pitch’. Backseat was all about providing emotional support and catching things that went unnoticed by a busy and hyper focused partner. So that was a yes, since he was my emotional support snugglebuddy most times. Perfect Pitch was all about being a music prodigy… Ziggy had no interest in music at all. Not only did he have no sense of rhythm (his idea of dancing was pretty much just flailing about wildly) he couldn’t actually speak besides making ooks, dooks, and squeaks. Singing was right out. Which pretty much ruled that out and left Better Ask… which was about doing something wrong and getting forgiven by honestly apologizing. Not that Ziggy would use it, since he had no idea what he was being scolded about…ever. Ferrets have no concept of negative reinforcement. None. He’d run headfirst into a wall, then do it again because the wall hadn’t moved yet. Still, it guaranteed that people would forgive him easier, which he frankly needed.

I wasn’t really feeling what kind of weapon Ziggy should be… well, I mean, I was already picturing him as a Chainsaw Halberd, but that was just a form. I didn’t know what to do to make the form a reality. So I read through the various Student Weapon perks… and found what I was looking for at the very end. It was called ‘Wavelength Entity’ and cost half of Ziggy’s points. It would allow the Zig to take on a purely spiritual form and bond with the soul of his meister (me) as a host, empowering me while entrusting me with his weapon form. It would grant a form of serene resonance with anyone he formed a genuine connection with, a link that would bind their souls to him upon their deaths, becoming one with him, a kind of gestalt soul… one that would only grow over time. It would allow us to take on a hybrid form, allowing his meister (again me) to share his powers. It was nice… and it referenced another perk called ‘Uncanny Blade’, which was 200 more, and was also nice. It granted the Zig a kind of super mode that would boost his and his wielder’s physical abilities while granting thematic abilities based on a chosen theme… one based around an element or basic object… for which I chose fangs, because, well… Have you seen the teef on a ferret? Ouchie.

Demon Weapons had their own customization section as well, all about shaping their weapon form. As a default, they had the ability to safely control their weapon transformation and shift between normal and weapon forms quickly and easily. Not only could they transform between the two forms, they could do so piecemeal, though the transformation was one to one, so a hand that turned into a blade would always turn into a blade.  

They could also communicate with the people wielding them through direct soul to soul communication. They also had ‘Mundane Weapon Form’ a basic melee or ranged weapon, such as a sword or gun, but not a chansaw. It was free, so I picked Halberd for some reach, well… more of a Chinese Dragon Blade… though Ziggy would have a ferret / luck dragon motif. Also free was ‘Energy Amplification’, which meant that, while in weapon form, Ziggy (or any of the Demon Weapons) would amp their wielder’s natural energy rather than producing their own. It was like the Meister was a musical instrument and the Demon Weapon was the Amp. That was Soul Wavelength Amplification in action, the sound of the Meister’s Soul amped by a weapon they were in perfect sync with.

Rather ridiculously, the tablet told me that Ziggy also got ‘Alternative Ammo’… which was unlimited spiritual ammo… powered by the Meister’s spiritual energy and useful only to Ranged Demon Weapons… which ZIggy wasn’t. But if I changed my mind, or for the others, it would mimic the shape of whatever it was replacing, arrows, bullets, grenades, etc… and would reflect any elemental affinity the Weapon might have. I guess it was nice, though Ziggy was more stabby bitey than shooty… unless I strapped on his chaingun… and then everything just got holes as he danced about.

Demon Weapons could also become Death Scythes as I’d outlined previously, and that meant they had to have the power to consume souls, though it was a negligible boost they gained from doing so up until that final transformation. I’d have to keep an eye on Ziggy to make sure he didn’t eat any souls he shouldn’t be eating. He was goofy like that.

There were a great many customization options, some discounted, some free… but I knew what I wanted for Ziggy, and went looking for it. Adjustments was a free pick and allowed the Zig to manifest only parts of the weapon form, such as being a staff instead of a Halberd… or just a big knife, that kind of thing. But the real gold was ‘Mechanical Weapon Form’ which cost the last 100 he had, and that added a Chainsaw blade to the top of the Halberd staff. All was good.

I was about to close it out, when I noticed that the Item tab was flashing. I’d forgotten that Ziggy would get items even if he couldn’t use them. Apparently Demon Weapons got a Forest Hotspring that wasn’t so much an item as the fact that, no matter where he was in the world, no matter how unlikely it might be to find one there, every forest would contain a hotspring just beyond the treeline if we looked for it. Weapons also got a pair of ‘Dead-Phones’, which were magical noise canceling headphones with perfect sound quality leading to a hammerspace Ipod with all of Ziggy’s favorite tracks… I don’t think he had any favorite tracks… maybe I’d borrow it. He’d let me if I asked, right? And last was a ‘Love & Care Kit’ which was essentially a first-aid / maintenance kit to be used by the Meister on the Weapon for cleaning and repairs. I’d add it to the basket of Ziggy brushes and vitamins and nail clippers.

Closing out the Ziggy report, I picked up Sophie’s slate, expecting to have to run through it as well… but it was filled out already. She’s a good doggy, and much smarter than her brother (Ziggy, not Mouse… Mouse is plenty smart). Sophie had also taken ‘Your Heart is Pure’ from the Challenge, possibly to balance out the inherent craziness of the Soul Eater Drop In Line. As freebies from Drop-In, she’d selected ‘Sorrowful Howling’ and ‘Family’… neither of which I remembered reading. I hit the info and chuckled. Apparently either my dog or the system was being a smart ass. Howling was a relabeled version of ‘Despair Corner’ which was all about making sad, depressing art, while ‘Family’ was a relabel of ‘Thicker’ which enforced familial relationships, so a mom would have to treat a daughter like a mom should… weird, but from Sophie’s standpoint, probably important.

With her points, she’d bought ‘BARK!’ (a rename of Declaration!) as well as Strong Soul, Unclear Fate, and Mad Moves… none of which had been renamed. Strong Soul was exactly what it said on the tin and granted additional potency to any soul based abilities she possessed and came with peak physical condition as well. It was also a threat, since a Strong Soul was worth 99 normal souls. Mad Moves I had to read three times understand what it was saying. It essentially was permission to act as insane and weird as possible without sacrificing any effectiveness. Crawl as fast as you can run, flick someone with the full force of a haymaker, walk on two fingertips… with your body parallel to the ground, wield a sword with your vagina… didn’t matter how illogical, as long as it was tangentially related to the action you were approximating.

Unclear Fate, on the other hand, was just freaky-weird. It would allow her to submerge herself into a material and melt into it… all without losing any control over her body. So she could bury herself in sand, or sour cream, or water, and become sand… or sour cream… or water. Very strange. But if it made her a happy puppy, who was I to argue?

As a drop in, she also got three items potentially even more useless than those the Meisters got. They were Loose Screw (a screw-shaped knob used to tune your thinking… mounted to the side of your skull… or rather, mounted into the side of the skull. I deselected it for her. I don’t need frankenpooch.) plus Death’s Mask and Cloak (a face mask that reflected your emotions to comedic effect and an all concealing shadowy cloak that hid the wearer’s true shape and size). Sophie didn’t wear clothing… not even a collar.

Astraea, Garl, and Selen were ‘Team Not-Appearing-In-This-Jump’, but I still had their authority passcode master, so I could pick anything I wanted for them. I selected ‘Your Heart is Pure’ for all of them, because that’s the kind of people they were, then decided to emulate Soul Eater Not (the Slice of Life spin off of Soul Eater all about the remedial program at the school and full of yuri / teen lesbian themes), in which the MC was a Demon Weapon girl with two other girls as her Meisters. To that end, Astraea became the Demon Weapon (Better Ask Forgiveness & Backseat Driver plus Adjustments) with Black Blood / Black Blood Weapon, while the Vinland Siblings became Meisters, Garl getting Patience of a Saint and the upgraded Grigori Soul, Selen getting Because We’re Friends… plus the Icon race (Totemic Magic – Lion, Stranger Things, Reading Rainbow), Maka Chop, and Trump Card.

Black Blood was Soul Eater’s version of the corruption of Demon Souls and thus something I knew Astraea would have embraced, as she was very much a martyr, willing to take on personal damnation to save others. It replaced the blood in the victim’s body with a substance that improved recovery time, strength of immune system, blood circulation, as well as physical strength and speed… effectively turning them into a Kishin (an evil monster)… and induced insanity in the person infected by it… which would have been terrible… but that insanity was lessened in impact after the end of this jump, a jump which she would quite likely never visit. The quality of the insanity varied from individual to individual and the specific insanity was up to her… or me. I selected ‘Martyr Complex’ and the system accepted it.

A Black Blood infectee could, if they were in control, make use of the blood’s other properties… such as it could become hyperdense at will, giving the infectee incredibly durable subcutaneous armor, armor that could quickly seal and heal any open wound… such as being able to control, harden, sharpen, and launch any blood that was outside of the infectee’s body… and that was for a normal person. But she was a Demon Weapon now (or would be soon), and Black Blood Weapons had additional abilities. They could liquify for a second or two, self repair thanks to being essentially memory metal, and transform into other weapons for a time. But most horrible of all, they could transmit their own madness to those they injured, spreading the infection. Yes… she was now a sword that could inflict the desire to sacrifice one’s self for others upon those she cut. There was a horrible kind of poet justice in that. After the jump, the Black Blood’s infectiveness would be at will only.

The Icon race was an artificial form of witch (all male, so Sorcerers), and all named Noah (besides Selen), created by Ebion, Great Old One of Knowledge (didn’t know Knowledge was Madness… very Cthulhian logic there). In fact, Icons weren’t just created by Ebion… they were the 7 chapters of the Book of Ebion given physical form. By making her an Icon I was making her a kind of appendix to the book… and I’d made her as powerful as an Icon normally was (far beyond that of a normal Witch). Shame she wasn’t here to help out. Icons got a power called ‘Stranger Things’ which was a guarantee that she’d be fated, even in the most boring world, to meet, see, or experience the most fantastical, interesting, or outright bizarre things that would had to offer. Reading Rainbow was another Icon ability which granted her the power to turn books, or chapters from them, into living beings based on the book, chapter, or even a specific fictional character. The amount of effort Selen pushed into that process (and yes, she could use external energy sources to fuel it) would determine just how powerful the created being was.  It was a fascinating ability.

I also gave her the Soul Eater MC’s primary attack, “Maka Chop” which was a powerful blow with a book summoned specifically to smash in the top of someone idiot’s head. It was purely comedic, bypassing normal forms of durability and protection and leaving a temporary dent in the victim’s head. She could then read the book if she wanted. And I tossed in Trump Card, which made secret attacks that one had been holding back extra effective the first few times they were used. Seemed like Selen’s style.

By the time I’d finished with the MIR… though I really hadn’t had to do anything with Sophie’s tablet, all the others were clear except the Approval Needed flashing on Raven, Brigid, Cirno, and the Twin’s tablets, all of which had specific restrictions in the system

PARTNERS, PASSENGERS, & PROBLEM CHILDREN

Figuring I should deal with the problem children first, I put that off just long enough to check what changes had been made to Toph’s build… not that I’d gotten past the freebies last time. The only change there was that she’d replaced ‘Declaration!’ with ‘Patience of a Saint’, which was a good change. D was more Sokka’s thing.

She’d also grabbed up ‘Strong Soul’, ‘Soul Perception’, and the amusingly named ‘I Will Surpass God!’. Being able to see the souls of the living was a common ability among pretty much all the beings of this world who weren’t vanilla mortals, but Soul Perception was more powerful than that. It could detect hidden or invisible enemies, ID the type of soul and its race of origin, the power of the soul… and even see the mental health of a target. With time and practice, someone with that gift would be able to identify a familiar person based only on their soul data, or even leave the sense on in passive mode. ‘I Will Surpass’, clearly based on the idiotic Black Star (and I refused to even think the star between those two words), was entirely about training, and training hard… and made any such training not only more effective but as effective in training the body as the soul. Meditation could make her stronger… and weight lifting could make her more enlightened… and even effects that amped the physical would amp the spiritual… and vis versa. Any Meister with IWSG would even find that the Soul Amplification from syncing with their Demon Weapon would make them stronger and faster as long as the sync lasted.

I was about to move on to the actual problem children… when it occurred to me that I’d paired Toph with Dyna… might as well check out what the alien had picked up. I’d assigned the least human of my companions to the roll of Utility in the restaurant, simply because she didn’t exactly act like a person at the best of times. That might not matter in as strange a setting as this, but she also wasn’t a people person and found humans a bit confounding. I didn’t want to stress her by putting her in front of crowds.  Which made her part of the supporting crew, where she was happiest being. She too had taken Gardener, which brought the size of the farm to 256 acres, as well as ‘Attention to Detail’ and ‘Talk the Talk’, a general perk that allowed the taker to describe anything so that it sounds fascinating or amazing, or whatever other emotion the speaker desired. It worked especially well on the jaded and dismissive, overcoming ennui and striking at what had made them interested in the first place.

As a Demon Weapon, things got more dangerous quickly, of course. She’d taken Backseat Driver and Perfect Pitch (yes, Dyna liked singing, at least when no one was watching), and the Enhanced Mundane Weapon Form, a gauntlet… to which she’d added Mechanical Weapon From, and Organic Weapon Form… to create Technorganic Power Armor… ouch… She also had ornamental ribbons and active stealth… and the Active Transformation ability, which would allow her to leap across the space between herself and Toph or tackle people even while in weapon form… and she’d scooped up the Drop-In’s Slasher perk to give herself bladed appendages… oh… so unpleasant.  But she seemed to think bladed limbs would help with gardening… and she was probably right, if E. Scissorhands was any indication. With her last 100 she’d picked up the Witch’s ‘Lonesome Toad’ perk which made her easy to overlook. Sad, but in keeping with her character.  I labeled them ‘Team Whipcord’.

The twins too had been assigned to Utility, which I suspect their minder (Tokimi this time round) had taken as an opportunity to banish them to the farm as well, since they too were Gardeners (512 acres), and also had Attention to Detail… but they’d managed to convince someone to allow them to take Superior Bladesmen… I let it slide, since it was knifework not swords… and they already knew more swordsmanship than Aragorn. As a Demon Weapon… I went into their build and replaced Better to Ask Forgiveness with Perfect Pick… didn’t need thos brats with BAF… no sireee. Administrator Privileges for the Win! They’d taken Unorthodox Weapon Form… then taken Multiple Weapon Transformation, which gave them a total of 5 Unorthodox Weapon Forms. They had a list. They were all very silly… a pair of car doors from a 1974 Buick Skylark… I don’t even know if that’s a real car… a pair of comically large boxing gloves… a pair doublebarrel winchester repeating rifles… a double ended Buddhist Priest’s staff with storm lanterns on either end… and a pair of cartoon cannons. Why? I’ve no idea, but they’d paired the weird weapons with the ability to modify the form of damage they did via ‘Melee Damage Alteration’… have you ever been pierced by a boxing glove? Didn’t think so.

They had also spent points getting a Special Ability, in their case one called Twin Teleportal which allowed one two teleport to the location of the other, or the two of them to open a standing portal between their locations… and they’d taken Wavelength Communication so they could link up and use each other as a Meister-Weapon Pair if Tokimi wasn’t around. I suspected that last was her idea, since the boys were not, exactly, simpatico. They fought constantly and schemed against each other no end.

Having checked them, I figured I might as well check Tokimi-chan herself… and found myself wondering why she’d slotted herself in as a Busser. I sent her a querry on the subject, and got back a complete staffing chart that I hadn’t created. It even had a name for the restaurant… “Bar Ziggy”. Toph must have whipped it up at some point while I was with the Bankers. Tokimi, Cirno, and Raven were listed as Bussers, with Frankie, Mini, Kohina, Kendra, and Francine as Waitstaff, Reggy as Maitre D, and Kagetane and Meetra behind the bar. That was Toph’s idea of a Front of House breakdown… and it was so reasonable I almost wanted to argue with her about it.

She’d also broken down the Utility personnel into Supply Side (i.e the Farm… Brigid, Yuzuha, Dyna, and the Twins… which meant the total farm size was about 2048 acres, or just about 3 square miles… which was silly. An acre could produce, with modern techniques, 100 bushels of wheat per harvest… and could do so three to four times a year. A bushel is 60 pounds of wheat… or roughly 56 pounds of ground flour. Sure, we probably weren’t going to be growing our own wheat… wheat isn’t really that difficult to get right… but 2000+ acres was waaay more than we could eat… or a restaurant needed. I guess it was for experimentation.) and Drive Time (Uriel & Petra were assigned to Maintenance, RayRay and Caine as Drivers, and Ryoga and Ahab as our Utility people… i.e. dishwashers and floor scrubbers. Well… at least I hadn’t had to tell either of them that was their new assignment. Yes… yes… I was passing the buck… that’s what partners are for, right?)

Tokimi’s restaurant skills were Attention to Detail (a good thing for a busser to have), Fermenter (i.e. master of pickles, cheeses, and wines… something essentially useless for a busser), and Master Shopper (which suggested she was, perhaps, not particularly invested in being a Bussgirl… I didn’t hold out high hopes for Cirno either… maybe Raven would… naw… Bussing sucks.).  On the violence side, Tokimi had taken Eternal Question (is it male or female? Is it a goat or a waffle? It made figuring out specifics about her… frustrating… and I could see why she took it… besides the fact that it was free) and Slasher (Tokimi the Horror Movie Icon… I didn’t like the sound of that actually.) as well as Wavelength Communication (needed to be a Meister, even if you weren’t one by class choice) and Mad Moves. The two new perks she’d selected were Madness Wavelength (a toggleable and mild Aura of Madness that begins to corrupt the area and people around you very slowly to match your own particular madness… Tokimi’s theme was Answers) and Devoured One (Swallow someone, mind, body, and soul, and gain access to their full suite of powers and abilities… usually by manifesting part of them out of your mouth… and then regurgitate them later, shaken and unaware of what had happened, but otherwise fine… to free up space to do it to someone or something else. Limit one ingestee at a time.)

I dubbed Tokimi and the brats ‘Team Lighthawk’ and moved on to my passengers. Both had, apparently, opted to join this little vacation getaway to the land of Eating… although it was a working vacation. Why not pick up some free skills, or at least experiences, since their CP backing was entirely provisional. The good doctor had Gardener, Attention to Detail, and Try It, You’ll Like it (which coming from here was all kinds of creepy) from the food side, and ‘Thicker’, ‘Slasher’, ‘Madness Wavelength – Discovery’, plus something called ‘Big Top’ and something else called ‘Mad not Bad’. MnB turned out to be a haha, I’m not this I’m that kind of thing. If a damage type targeted the insane but not the evil, she was evil. If it targeted the evil but not the insane, she was insane. Very sneaky. Big Top, on the other hand, would allow Dr. T to manifest her very own Clowns out of her own Madness… infinitely curious Clown-monsters… this in noooo way could go disastrously bad. Why had I invited her along again? Riiiight… I’m not sane. Good note. Thanks me!

As I’d expected, Raven had taken Bussing terribly seriously… not. She’d picked up Brewmaster (for the tea no doubt), Attention to Detail, Iron Stomach (thinking back to the cooking chops of Beastboy and Starfire no doubt), and Talk the Talk. She’d also taken Slasher and Darkness Corner free… plus Strong Soul… and something called Enchanter (it came with free Enchanter’s Gloves)… as well as Maka Chop (which she no doubt was eager to get back home and try out on Garth… Beastboy) and an item called Halloween Year Round… which turned out to be an all but endless supply of candy (complete with bags designed to preserve freshness and keep out ants). Turns out Enchanters mix soul and similar materials with magic to create things… mostly golems… hence their other name, ‘Puppet Engineers’.

I looked out at the pile of tablets still in front of me and decided to go for a walk, clear my head… after one more pair. I should check on my normal partner before I went out among the hoi polloi. Kendra was to be the head waitress… and her build reflected it. She had Talk the Talk, Attention to Detail, and Iron Stomach, plus two of the three staff boosting perks; ‘Front of House’ (pretty much the perfect waitstaff deal… composed and or cheerful no matter what stressors they’re feeling, plus the ability to get even the grumpiest customer to open up and enjoy themselves… also guaranteed never to forget or mess up an order… unless she wanted to) and ‘And What to Drink?’ (Which was a sixth sense for what drinks people will like and what will go with which food, along with bartender and sommelier training).

As a Meister, she had the Patience of a Saint (seemed redundant… she’s put up with Zane for ages, despite his goofball attitude and frankly ridiculous number of affairs… not that I was better, of course, but I wasn’t even pretending to be monogamous… and I think he still out partnered me by a large margin. Not that any of my companions were actually saints in that regard… well, okay, I don’t think Astraea and Garl ever cheated on each other… and Sophie had only been with Mouse that I knew of… though she was a total cuddle slut… she just barked at me… apparently she knows when I’m thinking mean thoughts about her.), Strong Soul, Soul Perception… and something called ‘Anti-Demon Wavelength’, which sounded useful as hell… and it would be. The ADW was a special soul wavelength that specialized in driving away evil in all its forms. Defensively, it was a powered ward against madness, allowing passive sanity regeneration… even if driven over the edge into fullblown crazy. It could even be used to pull others out of madness (though that depended on how insane they were and how strong their soul was). Offensively? It could be infused into attacks to make them extra damaging against beings of madness (even normally intangible ones). And, through resonance, the ADW bearer could grant its benefits to allies… which was bad news for Clowns and Witches, Icons and Fragments alike.

It was all as practical as I’d come to expect from the ex-Slayer. The question was, had Zane been as on the ball? His build was bigger, since he was kitchen staff, so I was curious to see.

He’d gone the path of a Sous Chef… probably hoping to be my second in the kitchen since Toph would be running her own fief in the baked goods department… and specialized in Tamil cuisine… I really should spend some time in India some jump… though I’d never tried tamil food before… huh… should be interesting. His specialty was Poissonnier (not poisoner… a fish chef, including sushi… indian sushi… huh… He’d taken the entire Sous Chef line of perks, going all in; Attention to Detail, Staffing Solutions, Bistro!, and the capstone, Logistical Mind, which granted a constant awareness of the state of our supply chain and how much we had of every ingredient. A thought could fill out paperwork or place orders… orders guaranteed not to contain mistakes (though it didn’t prevent screw ups on supply side)… and once per week he could retroactively place an order so that it would arrive within the next quarter hour. That was cool.

He’d then squandered the remaining block of CP one the Charcutier capstone, ‘Baucher’… i.e. Butcher… which was a mastery of anatomy that meant any weapon or blade he wielded would cut where and when and what he wanted it to cut… on a living being.  I say squandered because a) Zane used guns almost exclusively, b) he was going to be the weapon in this jump, c) fish aren’t hard to cut up, and d) the defensive value (your skin also deflects all but the strongest cuts) was pretty much guaranteed to fail against anything we had to actually fight this jump. It was a good perk… but not one Zane could or would take the fullest advantage of. Maybe it would apply to guns… but cut wasn’t pierce… I guess we’d see.

As a the Demon Weapon of Team Warpath (They’d named themselves) he had Backseat Driver & Better Ask Forgiveness (good… even with perfect pitch Zane should not be singing), plus Enhanced Mundane Weapon Form (Anti-Materiel Rifle), Alternate Universe Weapon Form (Protonic Cannon), the Special Ability ‘Charge Up’… and more wasted points to buy ‘Autonomous’ which would allow him to transform any part of himself into any part of his weapon forms and fight as a half-transformed weapon. Talk about not trusting Kendra… Siiigh.

BOSSES & BADASSES

Setting down the tablets, I walked onto my balcony and yelled “Oy! Team Mini-Boss, Team Vampire, Team Fine China… get your asses over to the Atrium and pick a spot. I’ll be by in ten minutes to try out your dishes. Team Bicker and Team Pigbear… I’ll meet you in the Grand Hall in an hour. Try not to disappoint me.  Team Cassandra, Iceheart, Sundown… you’re last… three hours, poolside.” I didn’t tell any of them what teams they were on, I didn’t have to. We’d been together too long for that to be necessary.

I took my time changing into a fleece jacket and uggs (purely an affectation, since I didn’t experience discomfort being cold… or hot… or really at all), then wandered into the Atrium Dome… it was essentially a botanical garden full of footpaths and small semi-secluded hot tubs and seating areas. I found Joy & Ahab by the model of Trevi Fountain and sat down at one of the small bistro tables and accepted a macciato from one of the butlerbots. Zane and Toph joined me a bit later.

“So… what have you prepared for us today?” I asked, looking all spiffy and bosslike. Joy had gone with a deconstructed grilled cheese and tomato sandwich… it was a bit of a mess, but surprising and not terrible. “And your builds?”

“French cuisine… because someone had to. Eggman Specialization… thats eggs and all the breakfast foods… because someone had to.  Sous Chef all in… because someone had to.” I elbowed Zane to keep him from interrupting, but Joy saw it and smirked. “Someone competent.” she added, then continued, “Saucier Specialization too, since it’s pretty much vital from what I understand… and I Am the Walrus for three reasons. Delicate touch, stamina… and because the Beatles rule.” I nodded, she was right on all counts… Kookoocachu.

“But I changed your design,” she said. “I know you designated me as the Meister of this team… but we talked,” she crooked a thumb at Ahab who gave me a look that said ‘Joy talked, I grunted’. “And decided that we’d both be Autonomous Demon Weapons with Wavelength Communication so we could pair off with each other. Gives us more flexibility. And we work together often enough that in future it’ll be useful. So my weapon form is designed for Ahab’s hands and his for mine.” She waited for me to respond, but I just raised an eyebrow. She sighed “Look, I know it was blowing 66% of our CP, but it made the most sense. I’ll be a Harpoon with Pinprick… that’s essentially extra damage  with the tip… and I took this thing called Eternal Question… I see you know it.” She smiled as I chuckled.

“Okay… yes… know it… and I’m thinking of the ‘Get the Point’ style puns now… so fine. You’re big boys and we’ve got enough combat depth going into this that we should be able to fight off the entire Shibusen even if we’ve been stripped of all our other perks. Though the goal is pretty much to lay low and be restaurant types.  Ahab? What’s your form… tiny little pistol?”

“Boom Box,” he grunted and I looked a Joy.

“Big, heavy enough to hurt, and sonic damage is seldom something things have defense against,” she explained. “He’s got Elemental Manipulation… which means he could even be a boombox that produces silence. He also picked Backseat and Better Ask… and Little Ogre, which is this weird thing that allows you to manifest your inner issues and weaknesses… then beat them up to grow stronger and overcome them.”

I blinked… that hadn’t been in the original I’d read, must have been added in the update. It was kinda funny. “Sounds good. Okay, we’ll go with that. What about on the restaurant side?”

“Master Shopper, Attention to Detail, Brewmaster.” he grunted and I grunted back. Wasn’t like being a UT took much besides Attention to Detail, and with Master Shopper I could send him to get supplies… and he could help with our inhouse microbrews.

“Good. Good. Now get lost and go have fun. Tell everyone that while having fun will be, of course, tolerated, anyone who goes mad gets put in stasis for a decade after this jump ends… and then gets therapy for another jump… same for anyone who OD’s or gets hooked on any narcotics or booze. If I get hooked, I’ll find a way to punish myself. We’re here to work, not to party.” They nodded and left, then i looked to my partners.

“Well?”

“I hope her cooking gets better… that was the worst grilled cheese I’ve ever had that wasn’t on white bread with fake cheese.” Zane commented.

Toph shrugged “It was okay… but the tomato was sliced too thick and the bread was soggy.”

We walked and talked on our way across the Atrium to the New Orleans Jazz Bayou… I’d never been a fan of Jazz, but Zane was, and I could tolerate it if it was upbeat enough. I got a mint Julep and looked to Caine, Meetra, and Bart. “Bart, you’re in the kitchen, so that officially makes you the team leader, even though Caine’s the Meister… I want everyone to be clear on this… the restaurant side is what’s important. The fighting is only for defense of that and the customers. Hunting the bad guys is for the good guys… we’re the food guys. Got me?” Caine shrugged, Meetra looked doubtful, but Bart nodded… intensely practical that one. “That said… Caine, you’ve been slotted as a Driver… I assume that means you’ll be doing pickup of supplies and delivery. You okay with that?”

He nodded, then grinned, “Not like I wasn’t a driver when we met, right?” I chuckled and nodded back. “I figured you’d rely on me to get you what you need, so I went Master Shopper, Attention to Detail, and Taste Tester. If I can get good supplies without needing too much guidance, it’ll help, right?” Zane gave him a thumbs up and Toph raised her ice tea to him. “I picked up Madness Wavelength – Bloodlust… I know it pretty well, after all… and it could be useful… plus Strong Soul and Soul Menace.”

“Menace… that’s the one that allows you to focus your soul wavelength into an actual attack, right?” Zane asked.

Caine grinned… “Yeah… and my wavelength is pure bloodlust and hunger.” I gulped despite myself… he wasn’t joking. He could very well qualify as the Great Old One of Hunger without much trouble if the Challenge wasn’t nerfing him… then again, I could be the GOO of Ice, Entropy, or Sarcasm without trying if I wasn’t limiting myself to try and win a restaurant.

“What about Chuckles and Giggles over there?” Toph asked, hooking a thumb at the Demon-Weapons-to-be.

“Meetra took Empathetic Response… that’ll allow her to sense whenever one of us are facing emotional troubles and figure out what’s causing them and help deal with them. She’s essentially volunteering to be the Counseling department… or part of it if anyone else takes it. She’s also going to be a Light Manipulating Lightsaber… which can modulate what kind of damage it does.”

“So… like… a Lighthammer?” Zane asked.

“A light noose!” Toph chuckled.

“Something light… er… like that. Yes,” the Jedi commented. “As the bartender, Attention to Detail, Brewmaster, Fermenter, And What to Drink… I get that free because you picked the Wine Cellar?” I confirmed and she continued, “Plus Try it, you’ll like it… it was either that or Talk the Talk, but Kagetane took that, so I took TIYLI instead… he’s the other Sommelier apparently?” I confirmed, then turned to Bart, who presented me with a very nice chinese style steak… as in all things he turned his hand too, Bart was a perfectionist.

“Meat is your specialty?” I asked.

“Yes. Argentine style cooking focuses very heavily on meat, so I went with both… plus went all in on Charcutier’s perkline. Sandwich Maker makes me good at pairing ingredients and makes me tops at layering them into a stack or wrap.  Method to Madness gives me control over heat and is thematically appropriate,” I thought about it and then chuckled… he wasn’t kidding. “Don’t Get Out of the Kitchen makes me heat resistant to the boiling point of water, and Baucher-”

“I have it. She knows.” Zane said and Bart nodded.

“I also went with Attention to Detail, Superior Bladesman, Taste Tester… though that’s more for personal pleasure… and spycraft… and Fermenter, since I know how much you like Pastrami, chief.” I laughed.

“Suckup,” muttered Toph.

“I’ll make Thousand Year Eggs for you,” The operative offered and Toph laughed in turn.

“Okaaay. Okay. You win.  But I’m holding you to that.”

I tried not to gag.  Uuuugh. Deliberately rotten eggs. Gross. In a bid to change the subject, I asked for his weapon build.

“Special Ability called ‘Tracker’… Enhanced Mundane Weapon for vibro-sword. Perfect Pitch… SOul Perception… Pulling Potential.”

“What’s that?” Toph asked.

“Means I’m a better amp, able to get more ooomph out of my partner’s soul.”

“Oh. Cool. If you get bored of him Caine-”

“Mine!” the Vampire Progenator snarled and Toph grinned.

“Oooo scary. The Boulder is intimidated.”

“Who?” Caine asked.

“The Boulder does not have to explain herself to you.” Toph snarked.

I flicked her ear, “You are not the Boulder.”

“I could be the Boulder.”

“You could be the Pebble.”

“I can bite you.”

“Later,” I promised, “We’re keeping Bao and Uriel waiting.”

Five minutes later, we found the duo at the duck pond (yes, complete with real ducks and some koi and catfish and minnows) having a picnic and not at all bothered by the wait. Uriel handed me a card that read

Uriel Septim VII – Restaurant Technician

  • Attention to Details – I am aware of my surroundings and coworkers needs
  • Bistro! – When I help out, things go smoother and faster
  • Keeping Up Appearances – I know how to maintain a restaurant
  • Professional Demon Weapon – I kill Kishin and eat their souls. Witches too.
    • Dragon Sword Form
    • Adjustments – I can change my weapon form at will
    • Soul Resonance Finisher – Me and my Meister can combine OOC special abilities into a big finishing technique
  • Earth Shaman of the Wind – I’m a member of the Earth Shaman Race
    • Doe Eyed – I can revert to innocent childlike appearance at will.
    • Elemental Manipulation – I can control the wind

I looked at the mini CV and chuckled, then glanced at Bao to see if he was in on this… he handed over his own.

Scholar Bao-Feng – Tournant

  • Favored Cuisine – Hibeian Chinese
  • Speciality – Brewmaster, focusing on Tea
  • God’s Sandwich Maker – I am expert at mixing up Teas
  • Gardener – I grow Teas
  • Attention to Detail – I notice things about Tea
  • Taste Tester – I am extremely discerning of Tea
  • Heart is Pure – So is my Tea
  • Jack of all Foods – I can make many kinds of Tea
  • Meister – Some call me the Meister of Tea.
    • Patience of a Saint – As long as I have Tea, I am sanguine.
    • Ambition Without Arrogance – I shall be the best at Tea, but humble too.
    • Rebel Yale – I study Tea
    • Path of the Warrior – I walk the just and honorable path of Tea, thus allowing me to grow stronger, learn faster, and become more powerful as long as I stay faithful
  • Earth Shaman – As a Water based Earth Shaman, I have the purest water for Tea.
    • Doe Eyed – This was free for Earth Shaman… I don’t think I shall be using it, as it does not relate to Tea.

“Har, Har, Har… Funny.  You two are real cards… I take it you’ve got some tea for me to… ah… very nice… oolong, with some orange peel and ginger, right?” I revised my count on the Farm upwards… 4096 acres… nearly 6.5 square miles

Bao placed a finger over his lips and pointed at the ducks. I rolled my eyes… it was good tea, but they were ducks… they didn’t care if I talked. I tossed them some crackers… then chuckled as Ziggy leaped from the bushes and chased one big mallad around for a while.

FAMILIAL FOURSOMES

I looked out at the two groups arrayed before me in the Subspace Ballroom / Great Hall I’d had crafted, the shining oak and high glass windows… It was a lovely room which was totally excessive for the number of people I had. It was fit for hundreds. But right now, it held 11… 12 if one counted Ziggy… or my various parts more than once. Soul of Ice and Silent Judge  and Victoria sat in chairs with Zane and Toph, facing me. On one side, standing behind a table with a sign that said “Team Bicker” were Gaius, Reggy, Kohina, & Kagetane. Facing them across a gap was another table, this with a sign that said “Team Bigpear”, and behind it were Yoiko, Ryoga, Petra, and a sleeping RayRay, coiled in a pile, massive head resting on the table.

“That’s Pigbear… not Bigpear, you twits.” Toph snarked. Yoiko gave her the finger and Ryoga bit his thumb at her.

“Today, on Family Fued,” I began, then ducked the various power attacks that lanced my way. “Heeey! This is my show, we do things my way. Yoiko, Gaius, you’re the team leaders, if you’ll come up to the front.” They did so, though my girlfriend was glowering at my father (he was the only parental unit I’d decided to drag along with me on my trip, that made him my defacto father) as if to say ‘This is all your fault.”

He shrugged, “You’ve been with her much longer than I have been alive. Don’t blame me. I’m not even from the world this stupid gameshow came from.”

“Shush you two.  Okay… Gaius… tell me about yourself… and make it a profile, not a list of perks please.”

He rolled his eyes, sighed, then said “Thanks Pat! I’m a Tournant from Italy, a real Utility Meister… that means I can use any tool that comes my way, often more than one at a time! I specialize in Fermenting things, mostly cheeses, but I am an expert in bladework, with a discerning sense of taste and and pure heart! I… hmmm… I’m a Walrus in the kitchen, though there’s method to my madness and I’m a fast study, both in the kitchen and out. One could say that my Trumpcard is keeping the surprises coming!”

I chuckled, “Very good!  Very good!… and Yoiko?”

She glowered bailfully, muttered, “This is stupid.” then monotoned “Hi all. I’m Yoiko, and I sleep with this idiot. I also cook meat. Meat good. Japanese meat. Japanese meat good. Good for sandwich. Good for meat cooking. Cut Meat. Cook meat. Meaaaat!” She pounded her fist to her chest, then grinned “Use Bear Magic for Meat! Turn into Bear! Eat MEAT! People think I am weak link. They are stupid! I am stronge! I am J-Star Strong. J-Star Bear with pure heart! Pure Heart Bear Smash! Uhh… plus, I can use tarot cards to totally see the future and stuff. Am Smart! Also? MEAT!”

Everyone looked at her as if she was mental, which (being a Hibiki) was probably true. I patted her on the head. “Great stuff! Now, we polled 100 people… okay, 25 people four times… and asked them ‘who is the best Jumper?’ Why are you throwing scones at meeeeee!?”

Gaius won that round… there was only one answer at 1200%. I may have cheated on the accuracy of the polling data.

“Reggy, Ryoga, you’re up next. And remember, both of you are human…oid. Use words, not snarls or growls or grunts.” They looked at me with the deep-seated disdain of longsuffering friends. “Ryoga, your team’s behind. Why don’t you go first… Yes, you have to.”

“Look you little brat, I’m going to tan your ass for this later,” he said, looking annoyed, “But sure… fine. I’m Ryoga. I wash dishes, scrub floors, clean toilets because my girlfriend’s partner doesn’t trust me around customers… and she’s probably right. I’m pretty scary. But I took the A… I mean… I… ummm… fuck it… Attention to Detail, that Kitchen thing that makes heat tolerable… Superior Bladesman, even though I don’t use blades much, it says blows or some shit.  Declaration from the Meister side cause the other stuff sucks… Immortal, cause being a werewolf is cool plus they’re good with improvised weapons and I’m all into that shit… Oh, and the despair artwork thing, because I totally understand despair… I mean… not so much now that I’m not an angsty teen lusting after my best friend’s girl who was totally… not into me… that’s fine… whatever… I mean… I’m over it… but I still get what despair can do and it’s totally underappreciated… I’ll shut up now.”

Reggy didn’t even ask me before she started on her spiel. “I agree with him. This is stupid. Talk the Talk. Attention to Detail. Bistro… whatever the hell that means. I thought a Bistro was a restaurant… why would anyone yell “RESTAURANT!”?”

“It’s russian for ‘Faster’. Russian aristocrats would visit france and shout ‘Bistro! Bistro!’ at the lazy french waitstaff who were being all french and totally not falling all over the asshole russians like good peasants should have. The French started calling faster style food service establishments ‘Bistro’ to indicate early fast food.” I explained.

“Well, that’s stupid.” Reggy commented in her typically blunt way. “Anyway… I took Patience of a Saint, because I have to put up with you idiots, and Half-Weapon… I turn into a railgun… because I have to put up with you idiots.” She flicked off Yoiko, picked up one of the tossed scones, and bit into it. “This is dry,” she muttered, then walked off, leaving us behind.

“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is who Toph decided was to be our Maitre D,” Zane snarked, elbowing the earthbender.

“I’ll talk with her. She’s very good when-”

“No. no… it’s fine. A little dry scorn is fine. Maitre D’s are gatekeepers. If she’s a problem, we’ll deal with it then,” I soothed. “Kohina, RayRay, you’re up.”

The perpetual teenager (seriously, she never seemed to age past 16) came up to the podium, while the fiercest of my Mon stomped up looking like the ground should be punished for daring to force her to walk on it (She often hovered for no other reason than she could). “I’ll go first,” Petra said, not even pausing to let me or Kohina say anything. “Pigbear is a stupid name. Bigpear too. The team should be called Rockhead… because that’s what they all are… and my name means rock. But anyway… Since I have to fix things, I took Attention to Detail, that Walrus thing, and Keeping up Appearances… so I can fix things… because restaurants are lame and I didn’t want to be a cook anyway. Can’t we go someplace where we can smash heads in? I liked that Marvel place. Smashing people left and right. I miss pokebattles.” I gave her a look and she siiiiiighed way to melodramatically and continued, “Forgiveness, Backseat Driving… and I turn into a Spider Tank Assault Vehicle because I can… I am totally going to stomp cars.”

“Do you have Autonomous?” Kohina asked.

“Noo… What’s that?”

“Then you’re not going to stomp cars unless your Meister steers you at a car,” Kohina said, smirking.

Petra opened her mouth to retort, then stomped off to go look at a tablet. We all just watched… a minute later Petra snapped “ARCEUS DAMN IT!”, threw the tablet at Ryoga, and stomped out.

“And that’s why she isn’t dealing with people,” Toph said and Zane nodded in agreement.

“Should I go now?” Kohina asked, then introduced herself as I nodded. “Well, you assigned me to waitstaff, so I took Talk the Talk and Front of House and Attention to Detail and And What to Drink… and Keep it Cool… the last just because it seemed like a nice name and I had 200 points left over… I didn’t take Backseat Driver because I don’t want to be a nuisance to Gaius and… ummm… Strong Soul… I mean I took Strong Soul and Pulling Potential… and the Special Ability called Magic Deflection… I can deflect things… attacks I mean… even if they aren’t solid… like energy and spells… and I took the Elemental Manipulation for Madness… cause… Elemental Madness seems like it would be a thing in this universe… is that bad?” She looked around for approval and Gaius gave her a hug while her actual father rolled his eyes and thought murderous thoughts at Gaius.

Kagetane snarled “Don’t ask him for approval. Do the choices make you happy?” the unspoken “you little idiot” was crystal clear to the mindreaders in the room… empaths like Gaius too. Even Kohina seemed to hear it, because she flinched and clung to Gaius even more. I considered stepping in, but this really wasn’t my business. Meddling in intersubfamily drama was something I tried not to do. I didn’t mess with Kendra and Zane’s issues or Bao and Uriel’s spats. I didn’t intervene in Ahab and Joy’s infrequent but highly destructive spats… and I didn’t play favorites when my sextet of lovers were feuding… unless Cirno was involved in which case she was, invariably, in the wrong.

Tokimi, Meetra, Bart, and Toph had relationships outside of the group and so far hadn’t tried to invite anyone to join us. None of them were geared for permanent things really. For the Mon, the idea of long term mating didn’t really occur to them, and Dyna, Petra, and RayRay might be biologically female, but all were essentially asexual. Kagetane was dismissive of the idea of emotional closeness… not surprising since he was a complete sociopath, and Caine had given up sex millennia ago and hadn’t gotten back into the habit as of yet. Raven wasn’t averse to it, but was looking for more than she’d found so far from what I could tell… and Brigid was a survivor of the Camps… I didn’t know if anyone ever really got over that. My own great grandmother had never willingly spoken of her experiences there.

I looked over to where RayRay was sleeping, then went and sat on her head, poking her until she woke up “Your turn, sleepy snake.”

“Can’t I just not?”

“You sleep too much.”

“I’m a dragon. Sleep is what we do.”

“Well, you’re going to be a driver, which means delivery is what you do… on time and accurate and courteous.”

“Fine… but I can sleep once stuff is delivered, right?”

“Yesss… So what did you take.”

“Art on Plates… so I can make things look nice… you know… like setting up the buffet tables or whatever. There aren’t any driving skills… and, it’s not like…” she yawned, then lost track of what she was going to say… which had been ‘driving is hard.’ She did manage to stay awake long enough to say that she’d also picked Forgiveness, Pitch, Soul Resonance Finisher (which made sense since she actually had a massively powerful finishing attack normally), Uncanny Blade, Ornamental Piece (She was very fond of ribbons), and Slasher… (Also fond of blades mounted on her body).

I glanced over at Kagetane. “Meetra said you took Talk the Talk. What else?”

“Sandwich Maker for drink mixing. What to Drink was free… Taste Tester so I’d know what things taste like… Iron Stomach to protect me against things that are a bad idea.  Unorthodox Weapon for gunblades. Active Transformation for the flying gunblade tackle… Death Dealer and Pure Bloodlust.  Uhh… weaponized desire to kill to become faster and stronger the angrier I get… that’s Pure Bloodlust… Death Dealer makes any wound caused by my weapon for to be more lethal… and instilling a sense of impending doom… also good at beheading. If I become a Death Scythe, I will have the capacity to kill that which is normally unkillable.”

I nodded, though I made a mental note to seriously consider if I wanted Kagetane to have that ability. It could, in theory, be used against me and that… that my friends is never a good thing to think about one’s allies.

THAT WHICH IS MINE

Shaking my head to clear it, I dismissed the Judges and went to tend to my own private collection of misfits. Team Cassandra was Yuzuha, Mini, Frankie, and Ziggy… and me. Four Weapons and me.  Because they were mind and I wasn’t going to let anyone else link up with them. Hell, Yuzuha was bound soul to soul, life to life, essence to essence with me. Team Iceheart was Velma and Cirno… and I was more willing to share them, at least with each other… but then my relationship with either was… more complex in many ways than my relationship with Mini and Frankie. Velma was close to being my intellectual equal (at least as close as anyone besides VIvian and Francine could be… certainly as close as a human could get)… and Cirno was very very much not. But relationships are built on emotions not logic and the complexity was… hard to explain. And speaking of Francine, she and AJ were Team Sundown. I honestly couldn’t remember when I’d started referring to them as that… but they were so similar and so diametrically opposed… like Sundown and Sunrise… Somehow the name had just stuck in my head.

Cassandra was a somewhat ironic name I’d given myself, since when I spoke the truth, people believed me, unlike the actual Cassandra.  Maybe she hadn’t believed it enough, or hadn’t been passionate in speaking truth to power. However, for this jump, I’d be a litteral Cassandra if I tried it, since I wouldn’t have my treasured ability. Ah well, the things we do for food.

I walked into the poolside area, set aside for my inner clique (minus the Hibikis) and hugged AJ from behind. “Heya kiddo. Wazzup?”

“M… Mother! I… umm… nothing. We were just waiting for you and Yuzu was claiming that… ummm… you weren’t perfect because a perfect being wouldn’t associate with us… well, her…” I ruffled his hair and shook my head.

“I’m not perfect. Not by a long chalk, but, and this is important, a perfect being wouldn’t judge others for their imperfections. That’s part of being perfect. And stop claiming I’m perfect. I just do the best I can.” I kissed his hair and hugged him until he stopped trying to protest… then picked him up and tossed him into the pool, though he wasn’t dressed for it. “Would a perfect being toss their most faithful friend into a pool wearing a hoodie and jeans?”

He sputtered, then growled “I’m going to steal your hamburger for that.” I used the water to pat his head.

“You go on thinking that. Go get your sister and grab me some eggsalad and a coke.” I walked over to Yuzuha and sat next to her. “Still doubting yourself?”

“N… no… well. I mean… I’m kinda evil and crazy and I do stupid… noooo hugs!  Hugs do not solve… no tickles!!!!!!”

Telling someone they’re being silly never works, but letting them go on with their doubts isn’t a good idea either. When a friend is depressed, all you can do is be there for them. If it’s an enemy… mind control works too. “Tell me about your build… and just because you were stuck in the Farm doesn’t mean we don’t trust you. It just means you do better with nature… you’re a tree, remember.” She frowned… but I’m very good at lying too. “We do love you, you insufferable goofball. ANd we’ve all done bad things when we were hurt.” I didn’t mention that those bad things usually don’t include eating children… but they probably would have. Power and opportunity plus alienation and anger can do terrible things to the nicest of beings. When you’re the other, lashing out becomes second nature. I wondered if that was applicable to Soul Eater?

“Ummm… I took the Sandwich thing cause I like Sandwiches and Gardener and Attention to details cause Toph said I should.” I nodded, making a note to ask Toph if she’d suggest before being asked. “Weapon stuff was easier… I like singing and don’t drive,” I had to bite my lip to keep from pointing out that Backseat Driver had nothing to do with driving. “And I figured you had a sword… so maybe one of those grenade launcher pistols from that movie about the sky pirates and the blue stone?” I nodded to indicate I knew she was talking about Laputa, but didn’t interrupt her ramble. “So I took this thing called Soul Eater that lets me gain abilities reminiscent of the people whose souls I eat… and a Special Ability called Trap Layer that’ll let me shoot traps out… and Wavelength Communication incase you’re not around and someone needs to wield Ziggy.”

I ruffled her head. “Sounds like you put a lot of thought into that. Good choices… go get some hotdogs and watermelon… it’s fresh from the Lifestream. You did good.” Slightly terrifying how similar my most powerful weapon was to an abused dog rescued from a pound.

My next stop was the kittens, Mini and Frankie, who were, as always, together, plotting no good (though always fun). “How’s my girls?” I asked, approaching with arms wide to demonstrated that I had no water balloons up my sleeves… not that it mattered, but the gesture is what mattered. It was an unspoken rule that if you approached someone in that mode, no pranks would be forthcoming… when dealing with what amounted to a pantheon, intention and gesture were all one could rely upon.

“We’ve been plotting against you,” Mini announced, while Frankie shook her head and pointed the finger of accusation at her coconspirator and sister-wifeling. I scooped them up in my arms and hugged them both with a little more force than was needed.

“You two are a delight as always, but plotting against me works much better if you don’t tell me that you’re doing it.”

“WOuldn’t work. You’re a mind reader and those two,” Mini indicated AJ and Francine, “Are too. So are Dyna and Joy and… you have too many bodyguards.”

“And prankcognition,” Frankie added, then bit me on the shoulder. As it wasn’t combat and she’d spontaneously decided to do it, I only knew she was going to do so as fast as she did. I could have prevented the strike, but where was the fun in that.

“Betrayal! Treachery most foul!” I cried, then blew a raspberry on Mini’s stomach. “Ha! Two can play at that game!” Mini of course protested that it was Frankie who’d bitten me and I lied and claimed I was unable to tell them apart… which prompted them to prove how different they were… but those details aren’t for the eyes of others.

As we floated on the pool on an iceflow covered in soft warm furrs, I asked the question. “Okay you two, what did you buy?”

Frankie, as the slightly older, began “We bought Talking the Talking, Attentioning the Details, Fronting the House… stop tickling me! I’m Serious the Being!”

Mini continued as I stuffed a cookie in Frankie’s mouth to shut her up momentarily. “Beverage Sixth Sense, and Iron Stomach.”

“Did you two buy the exact same thing on the Soul Eater side too?”

They shook their head and Frankie opened her mouth to explain, but I silenced her (and prevented a cookie crumbsplosion) and let Mini explain.

“Oh… no. We have different specializations… her’s is Shadow Strike… you know, stepping into and out of shadows or attacking through them…” I indicated understanding by poking her nose then twirling my finger to indicate that she should continue. “And mine is Bullet Time… Since you won’t have your time control abilities and you rely on them… and they’ll be useful for me too… and we have different themes to our magic.”

“Magic? You’re not Witches.”

“We’re Monster Kitties!” Frankie said languidly.

I wrinkled my brow, “I thought Demon Weapons couldn’t buy racial options.”

“Hybrid Monster Cats… costs an extra 100… but comes with two bonus abilities… Totemic Magic… Plant based. Mine’s the Thistle… for Scotland. Hers is the Briar Rose…”

“For Bitey!” the black kitty explained. I rolled my eyes at the terrible joke (Blighty is Britain… Bitey is kitten… see, I can be horribly punny too.”

“And the other ability?”

“It’s called ‘Good Kitty’… I think it guarantees we’ll run into new people… er ‘friends’, every day no matter where we go, and if we help them with their problems, they’ll become fast friends… cute, able bodied types mostly…” Mini voice of reasoned.

Then Frankie ruined it by explaining “It’s also almost guaranteed to be silly!” I pinched her bottom in retaliation. She grinned, “Just consider yourself lucky we couldn’t afford ‘Nice Pussy!’ It was naughty!’

“It wasn’t that naughty… it was a beauty, seduction, and err… flirtation booster.”

“Aaah. Well, I consider myself lucky to just have you two at all… so I won’t worry about the niceness of any… feline references.” I waggled my eyebrows playfully. “Anything else?”

“Just the Backseat Driver and Perfect Pitch freebies.”

“Does that mean you three are done flaunting yourselves in front of impressionable children?” Velma snarked from the side of the pool. I looked over and smirked “AJ and Francine are older than you and you’ve got a naked ice fairy on your lap.”

Cirno protested that she wasn’t naked… she was, in fact, wearing a ribbon in her hair and a collar. I conceeded the point, then apparated off the ice to land behind them… and pushed them into the water. “Just for that, I’m going to talk to the ‘children’ first.”

Velma and Cirno shared a wet look, then smirked, “Just means you’re saving the best for last.” I ignored them.

“Okay you two. Report.” I demanded, standing at parade rest and allowing the ice vapor to coalesce around me into the semblance of clothing.

“Ah… I decided to help out Toph… so I took Patissier… so did Velma in fact… and both of us are Bakers, of course… Though I specialized in British cooking, while she specialized in New England Cooking… I think it was intended to be a joke, but she says New England has moore focus on seafood and less on bland cookies, too sweet chocolate, and beans on toast. I like beans on toast,” he protested.

“You like beans. No matter what they’re on.”

He considered then nodded happily. “And fried foods!” He wasn’t kidding. Didn’t matter what it was. Fish, Sausage, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Rice… if you fried it in a pan (not deep fried, just fried) he’d eat it. You could fry cardboard and he’d probably scarf it down before he noticed… then ask for more. “I wasn’t creative or anything. Just took the whole Patissier line, plus Attention to Detail cause I figure that’s got to be imporant, Superior Bladesman because I am one… Jack of All Food so I can learn fast… Ambition Without Arrogance… that’s got to be useful if I ever run into a swordsman that’s actually my equal… besides you of course.” I nodded but didn’t comment. He was almost certainly better than me in terms of pure skill with a blade, but he’d never admit it.

“You went Witch… so I got Portal Manifestation… just in case you need rescuing… since that power is the only way to get to the Witch World unless we capture a Witch and force her to take us.” He blushed as I gave him a hug.

“You’re too good to me, kiddo.”

“Not at all. You’re… everything to me… to us.” Francine tried to act as if he wasn’t speaking for her; not because she didn’t feel the same way, but mostly because she didn’t like to express emotions… or show weakness… or depend on others… she was almost a cat. “I also took Sleepwalker, which will allow me to fight at full power and skill while asleep or unconscious.”

“He also took War God,” Francine reported, making AJ yelp.

“B… Bushin! It’s called Bushin!” he protested.

“Either way, what does it do?”

“Uhh… makes me a war god… kinda… it said absolutely unbelievable physical abilities from strength to speed to durability… hand to hand combat skills greater than even fully trained Meisters, reality / physics defying feats of pure awesome… like breaking laser beams with my bare hands and then throwing the chunks of light… or punching someone twice with the same hand at the same time… though it’ll take ‘furious training’ according to the document.”

“Huh… Cool. No reason to be embarrassed by that.”

“Seems like bragging,” he muttered, then looked to Francine. “You want me to tell her what you bought?” I couldn’t quite tell if he was teasing her or not, but she pinkened, but nodded.

“She bought a perk called ‘I Beseech Thee Oh God’… it’s designed to allow the user to call upon whatever they believe in most to gain a temporary power up.” He looked up at me and I nodded, understanding who would be the focus of that belief.

“Gotcha… what else? I assume Talk the Talk, Attention to Detail, Front of House, and And What to Drink… those seem popular among the Waitstaff.”

“Brewmaster, Strong Soul, Her weapon form is a Giant Spoon because she’s mental… and something called Death Dealer. I don’t-”

“I know. Yeah. Kagetane’s got it too. And no, he worries me much more than your sister. She’ll be fine. It’s not an instant kill and requires being a Death Scythe to even pull off.”

“I… yeah.”

“And you wouldn’t use her against me anyway… and I’m pretty sure your wavelengths would both collapse at the idea of attacking me seriously.” I left him to think about that with a kiss on the forehead, and one for Francine too though she pretended she didn’t enjoy it.

“Okay, talk.” I addressed Velma. “Patissier, New England, Baker. All in on Patissier. Attention to Detail… that left you 500 CP left. What did you buy?”

The ex-detective didn’t question how I knew. Either AJ had told me or I’d deduced it. I was right, so she continued from there. “Master Shopper, Entremetier… veggies are good for you and have lovely flavors if you do them right. Rebel Yale… it’s a study guide perk… Anti-Demon Wavelength, it’s… I can see you know that one… do you know Light in the Dark?” I shook my head. “Allows me to channel anti-fear emotions into physical or spiritual power… and brute force my way through any fear I do feel… plus a willpower and courage boost.”

“Sounds nice. Cirno, can you give a breakdown I’ll understand?”

“Yes! I bought the Saucy thing! And Eggs! And Poisons!  And… and… I’m really good at cooking… you shoulda put me in the kitchen! I can totally make cakes and cookies… But I also bought the Empathy so I can help everyone feel good… and that one where I get to do whatever I want without Velma having to fondle me… and… and… oh, I can control an Element!”

I sighed, and asked “Which Element?” dreading that she’d wasted points buying Ice… again.

“LOVE!  It’s the best element!  Well… after Ice!… Velma? Why is she hitting her head against the table?”

INSERTION

“WHAT KIND OF PASTA DO YOU CALL THIS, YOU FECKLESS GARBAGE EATING USELESS SHITWEASEL!” I panted… I really shouldn’t let the incompentence of useless beings get to me… I really shouldn’t, but it was damned hard not to when THEY KEPT MESSING UP!

Things had been going… eh… not great for the first few years. I’d remembered enough of the show to know that the Witch Medusa was the catalyst for most of the drama and seriously considered just having one of my followers assassinate the bitch, or just calling Shibusen (the Death Academy) and saying “Hi! Did you know your school doctor is actually a Witch named Medusa trying to bring about your destruction?” But I didn’t.

I had no real interest in saving this world, as it was pretty terminally fucked up and “saving it” was pretty much impossible without becoming worse than Death. Anyway, I had a restaurant to run and a criminal syndicate to appease.

Of course, that criminal syndicate turned out to be Arachnophobia, the secret world spanning organization that had been built by the Witch Arachne over the last 800 years since her supposed death… which essentially meant I was working for Hydra… but my cell was focused entirely on cooking and anyone who came near my restaurant (or my truck) with anything even vaguely resembling orders for me to do anything I didn’t want to do very quickly learned that YOU DON’T FUCK WITH ME!

It’s possible I was insane. It certainly seemed likely. Hyperfocus is a form of insanity, right? And I was hyperfocused. Clueless at times about the reality of normal people… as in why they didn’t think tiny mouthfuls of food were perfectly proportioned… or why they felt they deserved to be treated as if they weren’t scum! Vile, awful, horrible scum… HOW DARE YOU ASK FOR SUBSTITUTIONS! EAT THE FOOD AND GET OUT!

Still, I managed to learn differently, slowly… to appreciate the customers… just a little. I spent a lot of my free time in my Food Truck, trying out new dishes and spreading word of mouth… and occasionally beating the ever living crap out of whatever supernatural baddy thought it could step to me. I WAS UNTOUCHABLE YOU FUCKING HACKS! YEAH, YOU WANT SOME! COME GET SOME! I DIDN’T THINK SO!

Really, it was all very restful running a restaurant and not getting involved in the meaningless garbage of saving the world. I had a strict schedule. I was in bed by 2am, up at 6am to get to the markets, then down for a nap at 8 while the prep team did whatever I DAMNED WELL TOLD THEM TO DO, and in the truck from 11 to 2… then another nap from 3-5 and it was time for dinner. Repeat, Thursday through Saturday. Sunday and Monday were for training, Tuesday and Wednesday was dinner only for me, with other members of the staff running the truck those days, and the restaurant on Sunday and Monday.

Things were tricky for a while, but I set very high standards and Bar Ziggy slowly began to overcome my extreme unpopularity… YOU FUCKING COCKSUCKING COWARDS! I’LL MAKE YOU EAT THOSE YELP REVIEWS YOU UNCULTURED HEATHEN BASTARDS!

As I was saying, I worked hard to overcome negative press and supply problems, and the raging incompetence around me, and even managed to limit my snacking… well.. Not so much limit as assigning an assistant chef named BRAD! (no, it was not possible to speak of BRAD! in lowercase. This is because BRAD! was utterly FUCKING INCOMPETENT AT ANYTHING BESIDES MAKING SNACKS.) I swear, I think he enjoyed being yelled at. Apparently he had a cousin at Shibusen who was, if anything, an even bigger fuckup.

Still I kept at it and by year five I had my first star, thanks in part to cheating by having a tarot reading every day to predict if the Michelin people were coming that day. Sure, sure, I earned my star, but it’s much easier when you know damned well there isn’t a SPY FROM THE STAR PEOPLE in your restaurant on any given day.

I even began catering to the growing number of lunatics by making and selling ‘Anti-Insanity Wavelength Potions’… and my establishment had several “Wavelength Cancelling Pillars” within it to ease the… let’s call them issues… of both staff and patrons. I wasn’t allowed to cheat about earning the stars, but I was going to use every iota of magic to improve my chances with the strange… sorry, with the FUCKING INSANE METAPHYSICS OF THIS FUCKING INSANE WORLD!

But then, then… three more years passed before that second star… and that took a total menu overhaul and a restaurant redesign to achieve… fucking hell, that… that kept me up nights, gnawing on some really excellent baguettes courtesy of Toph… who’d opened a side business as a bakery called “Better than Sex” next door… and the press tried excoriating her for sensationalistic marketing… but fuck them.

By that point, Arachnophobia had long since gone the way of the dodo and things had settled down largely in the metaphysical world, with most beings of any calibur knowing enough to stay the hell out of Paris or the Bar Ziggy Coven would EAT THEIR MOTHER FUCKING EYEBALLS… then their souls… though… of course, their custom was welcome.

Any friend of Death was welcome, as long as it wasn’t a Meister trying to murder me FOR MY SOUL! I mailed more than one of those LITTLE ARROGANT COCKWEASELS back to the academy postage paid.

All that changed, though, a few months shy of my nine year anniversary, when the EVER LOVING QUEEN OF THE WITCHES DECIDED to have her EVER LOVING BIRTHDAY BASH at my restaurant… I couldn’t say no, could I? COULD I? I COULD NOT!

And that’s when the VAMPIRES AND WEREWOLVES ATTACKED! EN MASSE! GOD FUCKING DAMN IT! I… may have lost it at the point where they shattered my fishtank and someone stepped on FREEELANCER. Some big foot moron squished my SLUG!

I yelled… really, really, really loudly… so loudly, in fact… that something inside my soul… cracked… and I fell into darkness.

Next – A Bioshocking Twist

Resources – Soul Eater Document, Three Stars Document, Build

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World 57: Bioshock

OF SLUGS AND SALVATION

Previously: Line in the Sand

Themesong: Bleeding Out by Imagine Dragons

AN: Warning – HUGE RAGING SPOILERS for all three Bioshock games.

Know the big problem with lying on the ocean floor for years… once you get used to the crushing agony of the hunger? Oh god… the hunger. I was sustained, if you can call it that, by the cold, feeding me power enough to continue existing… but it did nothing to ease the desire to eat, even as it kept me from wasting away. Passive abilities still functioned, even for Devil Fruit Eaters. Brook the skeleton didn’t just die when he was underwater. Luffy didn’t stop stretching when he was underwater, as long as someone else did the pulling… and I didn’t stop sucking in the benthic chill that powered my most central defensive ability.

No, the most pressing problem wasn’t the agony, nor the immobility, nor the titanic weight of all that water, nor the darkness. It wasn’t even the boredom. I had centuries of stored media inside my memory palace… no. it was the loneliness.

I began to have conversations with passing fish… well, imagining having conversations. I couldn’t actually talk to them… or talk… or move. All I could do was… lay there, slowly being covered in sand and detritus and small ocean lifeforms that didn’t mind the cold.

And relentlessly, some part of my mind was counting down the seconds until the jump ended… and doing a piss poor job of it because I was going pretty much starkers with pain and isolation by the end of that period.

I wasn’t so much able to see the Pillars rise around me as feel it. I felt the lethargy and limpness leave my limbs and I ripped free of the seabed with a roar as my powers came flooding back into me. I lunged for the pillar marked “Move on!” with all my considerable might and hammered my fist into hard enough to shatter… my fist. I was in such exquisite agony that I didn’t even notice. Every part of my body sang with pain and my nervous system was on fire with it. You think the pain of missing a meal or two or three is bad… I’d missed thousands. Thousands.

I coughed, spat out a mouthful of muck, swallowed the rest of the muck in my throat, and gasped out, “Send me to…” I wanted to say the pantry… but instead did the sane thing “Medbay… and lock everyone flesh out of it.” I collapsed as I fell through the portal and crawled to the medpod. “VIvian… I need IV fluids, nutrients… and a constant feed of painkillers and liquid calories.”

In the next 20 days, I barely moved from the bed. Parts of my body had actively crystallized… my flesh and blood body… I’d been using my bodymod body for that jump and it had what can only be described as cysts of crystal metastable ice… everywhere. My entire gut bacteria… all the bacteria in my body in fact, had died. I couldn’t even eat food because I had nothing left with which to digest it. The medbay had to ween me back onto food even as it removed the strange growths and essentially rebuilt me all over again. I only needed one form that was pure ice, thank you. It was 22 days before I could even bring myself to see people, and I knew I looked horrible. Metavore was a wonderful perk… but it required having enough calories to work… I’d had none. No CHONFOOD for Metavore to synthesize into needed nutrients.

But I was on the mend, slowly. Well, okay, extremely rapidly… but I was like a vampire who’d been sealed in a sarcophagus for a century… I needed to feed. And my companions were just thrilled I wasn’t, you know… dead. They’d scoured the world for me, for some sign I was still alive… but they’d assumed that, if I was underwater, I was dead.

They’d begun to resign themselves to the idea that they might be trapped in One Piece, or at least one faction had. The others assumed that once the jump ended as normal they’d be going back to… wherever it was you went when the chain ended.

Enel had, apparently, decided to establish a religion dedicated to me, and didn’t that sound scary. I was going to miss the psycho bastard. I’d meant to invite him along… but then I’d gone for a swim and plans had changed. I’d have to go back to One Piece some day with some serious tech and do some social reconstruct… but for the time being, I was sick and tired of the ocean.

Finally, after six days of solid gorging on solid food… and ice cream, cheesecake, milkshakes, and every other megadose of calories I could cram into my maw, I wandered into the Arcade Chamber… pushing a fully loaded cart in front of me. It had an entire roast ham, a giant pot of beef and bean stew, enough tuna-noodle-casserole to choke a rhino, and 18 pounds of fudge. I called it afternoon tea.

With Mensarius looking faintly ill as I gorged myself, I thought to the room ~Sock it to me.~ Then shuddered as the word “BIOSHOCK!” appeared on the surround screen. A screen crawl in that distinctive font rolled up underneath it, telling me all about a setting I already knew waay too well.

“Welcome to Rapture, a Metropolis built on the bottom of the Atlantic! Founded by the Objectivist Billionaire, Andrew Ryan, Rapture is a city built with the greatest and the brightest in mind, a city where the artist would not need to fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.

However, all is not perfect in this new eden. The nature of Objectivism has its downside in that it leaves the poor to their misery, and the psychologist and collectivist Sofia Lamb is beginning to stir up the lower classes against Ryan. On top of this, the Head of Fontaine Futuristics, Frank Fontaine, is up to something big, and his company’s discovery of the evolutionary miracle that is ‘Adam’ will probably play a large part in what’s to come. Your knowledge, skills, and powers might be enough to save this city from its downward spiral, but they might not be as reliable as you might think, for the events of the Future are not set in stone.

~Ah, Rapture, the Objectivist Paradise… soon to become the Anarchist Hell. Note to self, murder Fontaine… Lamb too, probably.~ I considered as I snarfed down my repast, glorying in the feel of food, the taste, the smell. I hadn’t had my mouth empty enough to talk since arriving in medbay, though originally it had been a feeding tube, but once I’d been on solid food it had been nothing but. I hadn’t slept in days. ~Talk to Ryan and educate him that a free market relies on people having funds to spend and having an unhappy permanent underclass is counterproductive, stirring up discontent. Reward innovation, but provide people something to believe in and work for, or they’ll turn to religion and anger every damned time. Mostly, just try and keep the city from imploding…~ I was considering things mostly at random, plans flickering across my conciousness. I wanted to save Rapture for a number of reasons. Part of me just wanted to see if it could be done, but the majority wanted to save Rapture because there were families down there, families with a lot of kids… and, from the fact you see exactly none of them in the game besides the Little Sisters… give you one guess as to what a bunch of insane psychopathic murderers did to the kids. I shuddered at the thought. ~When does this start?~

The screen flickered, neither gentleman speaking. The text said ‘Your Adventure Begins on New Year’s Day, 1953.’ I consulted my memory… that was five years before the beginning of the end, and about 5.5 years before Jack would arrive… if I didn’t disrupt that. ~Hell Elisabeth shouldn’t be here either… that’s worrying though… okay… can’t make assumptions. 5 years to get things running smoothly. I can do this. As the tagline says ‘The events of the Future are not set in stone.’ right?~ Neither Benefactor moved.

I flipped through the screens with my mind as I tucked into the fudge. I’d fallen out of the habit of talking to people… I’d have to remember how to do that. I handed some fudge to Soul of Ice who was seated next to me on a high stool, kicking her legs and making sure I didn’t lock her out again. She’d spent the last three weeks telling me all about the boringness of being stuck in the Arcade with these two bozos. Victoria just sulked as she had since I returned. Apparently she was feeling like pinnochio, like she wasn’t a real person since she had technological origins. The fact that Soul had been likewise banished didn’t make her feel any better. I sighed around some ham… oooo… haaaam… I love you haaam. Never leave me again. Where was I?

Oh… yeah… Starting location… did anyone ever pay for that? Why would anyone care where they start enough to squander points on it? And in Rapture? Seriously, all the 8 options could be accessed without more than a short bathysphere, monorail, or tram ride. They’re not even locked down at this time. Oh… it’s not even a pay to choose, it’s just Choose or Roll… well, that’s a bit better. At least that makes sense. I just click random and don’t bother checking the result.

The next section was, as usual, the ‘Background’ section, this time entitled ‘Origin’… ‘Along with your new age and choice of gender, you may choose a new identity. This is more than some paperwork or a disguise however, as you gain all the memories your persona has.’ the screen said. ‘You will still need to find a job, however.’

Well, well, well. That was interesting. For the first time, it specifically said that the persona I gained would conflict with my underlying personality. That was new. ~Well then… I guess I shall be taking drop-In… huh… no drop in… Businessman, Soldier, Specialist, Laborer. Businessman is… let’s see… half politician half desk jockey… specialist is science, art, medicine, musician… soldier is… well.. Duh… Oh… Laborer is the drop-in… no memories other than your own. Missed that… comes with poor living conditions, poor pay. Okay, well then. Let’s go with that. Bonus, it’s free. Huh. they are so often… If I was structuring this, I think I’d charge Jumpers to stay themselves. Guess that’s why I’m the Jumper and not the Banker, right?~

That got a chuckle from the Banker, and a glower from Mensarius.

~Let’s see. Laborers get Endurance for Free, that’s a self explanatory boost to, duh, endurance. They gain a discount on “Advanced Processing” which is the ability to process things on the fly… which I guess is nice, but I have a quantum computer for a brain… at least when computers are a thing that exists… Still… I’ll think about it… and “Willpower”… “Easily shrug off almost all pain and urges, whatever they may be.” Paaain baaad… Okay… that’s worth [300/700/1000].~

I read through the other perk-trees… Specialists got training in a craft, genius in a field of study, and a creativity boost. Meh. Businessmen got accounting (ewwww), business savvy (le sigh), and charisma… ahaahah… that’s cute… not a bad choice, and the price wasn’t bad… but Charisma lets you persuade people to agree with your opinions… Tongue of the Shepherd from Mass Effect allows me to talk people into killing themselves… and I’ve got another half dozen high power charisma, leadership, and social engineering perks to back it up. Soldier… got a bunch of Plasmids and Tonics… ~Can’t I just hunt these down and buy them or steal them… they’re commercially available in the city…?~ I asked the room at large, even as I thought ~Plus, they’re hideously unsafe to use, mutating the body and corrupting the mind of those who used them.~

There was even a warning label that said “BEFORE YOU CHOOSE THIS OPTION, BE AWARE THAT ADAM, THANKS TO THE SAME PROPERTIES THAT GIVE IT ITS POWER, ALSO CAUSES A VARIETY OF MUTATIONS, RANGING FROM DEFORMITY TO CANCER. IT CAN ALSO CAUSE SCHIZOPHRENIA, AS IT STORES THE MEMORIES OF ALL IT HAS PASSED THROUGH. FURTHERMORE, ADAM IS ADDICTIVE AND IF YOU DON’T SPLICE REGULARLY, YOUR BODY WILL BEGIN TO SHUT DOWN. THE MORE YOU SPLICE, HOWEVER, THE MORE ADAM YOU WILL NEED TO PUT INTO YOUR BODY TO KEEP IT GOING.”

“Jesus, fucking, Thor,” I muttered aloud. “Why would anyone sane put this shit into their body actively knowing that. This is even more fucked up than Devil Fruit. SJ no want.”

“Oh. You’ll want them. I promise you that,” Mensarius sneered.

“Why?” I narrowed my eyes in suspicion. I’d hoped I’d heard the last of Mensarius… but apparently he was here for good, his unsanctioned presence still there on my couch, mocking the Banker at every turn. An option was flashing on the screen “Friends in Wet Places”. I blinked at that, then sighed and tapped the flashing Question Mark beneath it with my mind.

“It’s no fun if you just brutalize everyone and bend them to your will. No God Mode for you. But, if you take this option, you can import up to 8 of your companions to Rapture.”

“You’re tempting me, trying to corrupt the paradigm. What do you get out of this.”

“Amusement. And screwing with him.”

“I’m sure. But I’m not certain that letting you use me to screw with my benefactor is a great idea.”

The Banker chuckled “No. Feel free. He might be an arse of cosmic proportions… but he’s right. Go ahead. But you can’t leave the city. No running to the surface and leaving Rapture to itself.”

“I’m not sure you two agreeing on anything is at all safe for me, or the cosmos… when you say the city, can I go outside into the water?”

“Aha… sure. If you can conquer your fear of the water,” Mensarius sneered.

“What fear of the water? I wasn’t afraid of the water last time. Just because I spent a few months lying at the bottom of the ocean unable to move doesn’t mean I’m scared of the water.” I snarled.

“Naw… I think you’re scarred… Psychologically. It’s got to leave a mark,” the odious worm in the sleazy suit said.

I leaned back, grabbed some tuna-mac, and chewed it slowly, then shook my head. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh, no… I insist. Why don’t you take Hydrophobia?” The Banker said, trying to sound reasonable. “I’ll give you 200 CP if you do.”

“Hydrobia is rabies. You want me to take a highly contagious and extremely lethal disease?”

“What’s the fear of water then,” Mensarius asked?

“If you mean the fear of being in water, you mean Aquaphobia or, since this is the ocean, Thalassophobia.”

“Okay, yes. That,” he waved his hand and the text on the screen changed.

“Aquaphobia… in a city at the bottom of the ocean.” My voice was as full of scorn as my stomach was of ham and fudge.

“It’s usually quite dry.” The CP man assured me. “Don’t worry, you won’t be afraid of drinking water… just of drowning.”

“I have willpower up the wazzoo.”

“Won’t help,” Mensarius snarked.

“Ah… nerfing my willpower for your chuckles.”

“Not nerfing… just ruling that it doesn’t apply to stop you from experiencing the fear.” The Banker assured me. “You can still use it to keep from reacting to the fear.”

“So my experiencing near constant terror and unease will make you happy?”

“If it throws you off your game, influences your behavior, yes.”

I ground my teeth, then growled, “Fine. So, how many CP do my companions get if I agree to stay in the city and not go ‘God Mode’?”

The two entities glanced at it each other, then the screen flashed, and Mensarius was holding out a laser pointer as the screen displayed three options. Level 1 was the most minor, taking away all my spiritual powers, meaning I’d have to be corporeal and couldn’t speak the truth and have it automatically be believed. It would also strip me of my bending abilities and my magic, as well as my third eye. It got my companions 200 CP and a free origin. Level 2 was the middle ground. It took away all my super human abilities, including my psychic powers besides my Astral Layers and Mental Palace since I couldn’t use those against others. It got my companions 400 CP. Level 3 locked my warehouse and space dock away but got my friends 600 CP. I wasn’t certain what I’d do with a spaceship in Rapture since I couldn’t go anywhere…

Could I handle the darkness and psychological horror of life in Rapture without going mad… could I risk a chance to save the city under the sea simply because I wanted my friends and family to benefit? I had the screen show me the others in the main room, looking worried, but giving me space as usual. Zane looked up at the point of projection, as if sensing my presence and my question, then shook his head.

He was, of course, right. Mensarius was playing me, playing on my love of my companions and my love of challenge. Not this time. Screw him and screw his games. Nothing in the world of Bioshock was worth risking the innocents of the city.

“Bite me, you bastards… both of you. The prize here is, maybe, the powers of the Plasmids and Tonics… and those can be had for a price other than CP. Fine, I’ll take your Aquaphobia… fear only has power if I let it. And I’ll bring my companions through the traditional way, and we’ll drag the city into righteousness. And if I want to take the kids and others to the surface to save them, that’s what I’ll do. So take your offer and shove it very much.”

“Spoilsport,” grumped the Banker.

“Coward,” sneered Mensarius.

“Do I look like I’m a 13 year old boy? Or are you going to tell me that any Plasmids or Tonics won’t work after the jump if I don’t buy them with CP? Because Jeremiah Fuck-You-Kindly Fink is not smarter than me. If he could invent Vigors that Suchong hadn’t, I can do it too, and do it better. You two chuckle fucks wanna reconsider letting me get my hands on the technology?”

They didn’t respond.

“And I know you dipshits well enough to already guess that after the end of the ten years are up the side effects of Adam are going to be revoked anyway, right?”

“She knows you too well.” Mensarius mocked.

“We have a working relationship,” the Banker replied dryly.

“Yes. You’re a bastard, and Mensarius is a bigger bastard.” I snarked.

“Yesss… let your anger-”

“Shut up you.” I pointed a finger at Mensarius’s image, freezing it solid. The Banker laughed. “And you… If I buy these horrible mutations in a bottle… are they in any way better than the storebought versions I can get from a Gatherer’s Garden ?”

“Errr… yes?”

“Wow. you sound certain. In what way?”

“You get automatic upgrades when those upgrades are invented over the course of the decade.”

“Soo… if I shoot Suchong and Fontaine on day one? They don’t upgrade?”

“Yes. If you kill the source of the creation of Plasmid or Tonic before they exist, you can’t buy them in the Garden.”

“What if I invent them myself?”

“Errr…”

“Look, instead of giving me a bullshit choice of plasmids to buy… which, at a glance, doesn’t even include all those available in the game… why not sell me the science of it. Can I be a genius of making the damned things? That’s the same 600 as buying the largest Adam Pack, right? A pack that doesn’t even include all the ones on offer in the jump.”

“Well… I… Sure.”

“Excellent. Then I’ll take that Drawback I see over there that makes all the mutations significantly increased in severity and frequency, while making all my plasmids and tonics more powerful. I’ll just not splice at all. Free points and all the plasmids and tonics I make will be more powerful.”

“It’s called ‘Adaptation’, Mensarius growled. ‘And that’s not the intent of the Drawback!”

“Hey, you people worded it that way… Mutations are of significantly increased severity and frequency. On the upside, all your plasmids and tonics are more powerful.” I read off the screen.

“So you’re willing to say that your plasmids and tonics are more mutative, but more powerful?”

“Yes. That’s a fair trade. Nothing says I have to give them out to anyone. Free points.”

Word to the wise… never assume you’re getting something over on the omnipotent. Very much don’t rub it in. Of course, I’d just done it to not one but two and the rat bastards screwed me. Twice. But I’ll get to that later.

I had 1400 points with the enforced drawback and the apparently cheesed drawback. Willpower and Savant Genius had cost me 900, and I added Advanced Processing (faster processing speed) for [150] and Intuition (Ideas come more easily and more often) for another [300]. Which left me with 50.

I skipped the tonics and plasmids, going right to items. As a Laborer, I got a Welding Torch and a Wrench free. There were no companion import options… the game is very solo and isolating… and its first sequel sucks… but hopefully I’d be able to head both them off.

“Wow… what a bunch of junk. Can I spend my last 50 on getting a seaslug?”

“What, as a pet? You can just grab one from the sea floor or one of the labs.”

“Yes. A CP backed Adam Seaslug pet. That means it’ll be immortal without us having to whip up some immortality potion for it.”

“Yeah, sure. Go for it.”

And there I made a second itty bitty mistake that was going to come back to bite me. Very very soon. In the meantime, I decided the grotesque thing would be called “Freelancer” for a reason I wasn’t sure I understood myself. Somehow it seemed right… Sluggy the Freelancer. Huh. Probably an in-joke of some kind. I’d worry about it after eating another dozen or so meals in the next few days.

INSERTION

Something was very… very wrong. The table was absolutely the wrong height. It was much too tall. Everything was much too tall… and there was fading laughter behind me.

“Ah. There is girl. Hello?” said Dr. Suchong. I jerked, looking up at the man. He was a giant… no… wait… I looked at my hands. They were tiny… and greyish. Oooo… for the sake of fuck… I was a Little SISTER! Ho… I’d spun the wheel of aging right before I’d entered the jump… it had numbers 1 through 8 on it and a +21 in the center. It had landed on 7… I should be 28.

I froze the doctor in slow time and walked back into the warehouse through the metal stanchion of the table, growling, “What the fuuuck?”

“You asked for a Slug,” came the Banker’s reply. I glared, then glanced at the wheel of time… in tiny letters beneath the +21 someone had etched “seasons”. So I was 7 years old… 28 seasons. “Youuuuu bastard. I got points back for this shit in Railgun.”

“You were stuck as a little girl then. Now you just have to grow up a bit.”

“A bit? Little Sisters become Big Sisters… Big Sisters are fucking huuuge. And unbalanced as hell.”

“So are some of your mature female forms.”

“Yes? Which I seem to be having trouble shifting into. Any idea why?”

“Well, if you shifted, where would Freelancer go?”

“I hate you so much right now… How am I supposed to freaking get anyone to listen to me as a Little Sister?”

“Not my problem.”

“You’re lucky I need you or I’d be stabbing you many many times right now.”

“Speaking of which, you should check your sword.”

With a sick feeling of dread, I summoned Soul of Ice to me… and flinched. She was transformed as well… locked into the form of a Little Sister’s Adam Harvesting needle.

“Ha… ha… ha… these things don’t even exist yet. The Little Sisters won’t be used in this way until the civil war begins. Are there even Little Sisters yet? I mean, the first Plasmids came out… what… in June, 1952? They’re barely a year and a half old? Adam can’t be in short supply already.”

“A bit before that, but you were the first…”

“Oh. Great.”

“To survive the process.”

“I hate you.”

“You wanted to be a Savant Genius and have a slug. Oh. You’re not allowed to kill anything unless you use that… or plasmids. Mensarius was right. You want to save lives… save them all.”

“That’s it. Stabbing time.”

It was childish… but I was a little upset. Unfortunately, the hologram of the Banker was immune to damage, so I had to settle for screaming in inchoate rage for a while instead. Wow… childish temper tantrums… that felt surprisingly good. I took a few deep breaths and walked back out of the warehouse.

I looked at the good Dr. Sure, sure… he was an amoral jagoff… but he was a product of his times, a survivor of the Japanese invasion of China (though he was Korean), and being amoral made him practically saintly by comparison to some of the scum in Rapture. He could be invaluable… as a puppet. I also needed Fontaine to survive for a while as well… though I had to get close to him… where were my agents?

Leaving Suchong still slowed to the point where blinking would take him well over an hour, I contacted Ahab and Joy. “Are you two free to join me?” Joy wasn’t. She was in Minerva’s Den, apparently having appeared in Reed Wahl’s outer office, awaiting an interview. I told her to get the job, as he was one of the people we needed to keep an eye on, and Minerva’s Den was crucial to controlling the city… and I had absolutely no illusions that I was going to have to do exactly that if I was going to save Rapture from itself.

Ahab looked down at me when he came through the new Warehouse Portal. “Well… that’s not creepy. What the hell is wrong with your skin?”

“I’m a little sister,” I said, cringing a little at the very slight lisp my developing palate was causing.

He chuckled. “I can see that. What does being someone’s sister have to do with anything?”

“Shit… that’s right.” I palmed my forehead in the time honored ‘doh!’ motion. “I didn’t give you guys the lowdown on this Verse. You might want to grab a seat, this might take a while.”

He did, and I studied his outfit. He was dressed in simple garb, but held himself like a soldier; a little stiff, with shadows under the eyes. Of course, this was Ahab, veteran of a frankly silly number of wars, but he hadn’t been in the body long enough for his over-arching mannerisms to counter the body’s native inclinations. This body, the local incarnation of Ahab Bahs, or whatever his name was, had been a soldier. Then again, this was 1953… the likelihood of any adult male being a soldier was fairly high… and higher than at any other time in human history.

“Welcome to Rapture. We’re at the bottom of the Ocean,” I began. “But seriously. There is a Man, a City, a Lighthouse. Those are constants. So, it seems, is chaos. This isn’t just one world. It’s a nearly infinite number of parallel worlds. We’re in a very specific one of those parallels, the one where, in just under 5 years, a young woman named Elizabeth will arrive… through a rip in spacetime called a Tear. She will come here because this is the only parallel to which a man named Zachary Hale Comstock has come, also through such a Tear.”

“Okaay. I don’t know how you know all that… but what was that about a Man and a City? Is the Man this Comstock?”

“Heh. Maybe yes, maybe no. But he’s not the Man for Rapture.” I sighed. “I’ll start at the beginning. First, I love this setting… as a setting. There were three incredible games… even if the second disappointed me in several ways, any objective analysis of it would say it was great, if judged on its own merits. That it wasn’t, quite, a worthy successor to the first was unfortunate, but the gameplay itself was actually an improvement, though more on rails with less exploration and more combat. The third game struck a nice balance between the two elements, and was also flawed, but that’s not going to help us. It does however explain why, of all the settings we’ve been to, I’ve got such encyclopedic memory of this place. I’ve played all three games, the first and third multiple times. I’ve trolled the wiki and read analysis pieces. I’ve watched playthroughs and watched interviews. I loved these games. And I haaaate the events that happened with a purple passion.”

“Oh, dear. Zombies?”

“Yeah… kinda. It’s complex. First thing’s first. This city was founded by a Russian-born American Industrialist named Andrew Ryan… Andrei Rayanovsky… born near Minsk in 1911. Jewish. His family fled Soviet Russia in 1919, but the horrors of the Russian Revolution formed the core of Andrew’s world view… in exactly the same way they did for Ayn Rand, of whom he is a genderswapped Expy. In fact, he is essentially a fusion of Rand herself and the deuteragonists of Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden and John Galt. Ryan, a largely selfmade man, built a vast fortune in pre-depression america, but following the creation of the New-Deal, he became disillusioned by what he viewed as the rise of Socialism and Collectivism in the US, seeing people who didn’t deserve it, who he called ‘Parasites’, being supported by the work of others.

He is, at his core, a horrible person. As an example, he owned some woodlands that the government attempted to nationalize as parkland. He burned it to the ground rather than hand it over. After the destruction of Hiroshima, he’d had enough. Science and hard work had, in his eyes, become perverted into a weapon by which the Parasites could destroy anything they could not seize by force of arms.

To escape that world, he decided to build Rapture, a city where, in his own words “the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small”… and where there would be “No Gods or Kings, Only Man”… yes, I know.” I saw Ahab’s smirk at the mention of the name of my most useful ability. “Rapture was built, at the cost of Ryan’s entire fortune, at a secret location deep in the North Atlantic. He was 35 when the city became habitable and he filled it with the best and the brightest… and for a time it was everything he dreamed it would be. Free and prosperous, innovative beyond belief, and secure from the chaos of the surface world. All that will begin to fail over the next few years.”

“Why? This ADAM stuff?” he pulled a bottle of Teleportation out of his valise, looking it over. “Doesn’t look like much.”

“Did you read the warning?”

“Oh. Yeah. I guess. Seemed interesting nonetheless. The badstuff will wear off in a decade, right?” He had a point, so I nodded.

“Okay, yes. As close as I can peg it, about three, three-and-a-half years ago, a scientist named Brigid Tenenbaum made a discovery that would change everything. Brigid is survivor of Auschwitz, also from the Minsk area, also Jewish, though of German descent, high functioning Autist… brilliant mind. I look forward to meeting her, and, if I can convince her to come along I will. She came to Rapture in 1946, right around the time the first phase of construction was complete, and at some point after that discovered the restorative properties of a certain sea slug native to these waters.

The story goes that a smuggler of her acquaintance, one with crippled hands, had seen his hands restored to full functionality after being bitten by said slug. Intrigued, Dr. Tenenbaum… whose title is completely honorific… extracted a substance from the slugs that could heal damaged cells, even going so far as to resurrect dead ones. She dubbed it ADAM and realized that it could allow others to manipulate their own DNA… to, in the vernacular, ‘Splice’.

After being turned away by all the reputable research facilities, she got funding from one Frank Fontaine, owner of Fontaine Fisheries, and together with him, they created Plasmids, which grant the splicer what can only be described as superpowers, and Gene Tonics, which grant the splicer passive abilities such as damage resistance, greater analytic powers, clearer thought, and more. They also set out to mass-produce the ADAM needed to market these things to the people, but ran into some trouble as the slugs didn’t produce enough ADAM naturally to make that a possibility.

So, being the unethical folks they are, they turned to implanting the slugs into human hosts… and discovered that the only hosts capable of producing sufficient amounts were,” I guestured to my body, “little girls… subsequently dubbed ‘Little Sisters’. According to Suchong’s memories,” I pointed to the statue-like figure looming over the room like a scarecrow, “I was implanted with this thing 17 months ago and am an orphan. Right now, all the Little Sisters are Orphans… but that will change as demand for ADAM grows… because, as Dr. T will discover soon enough, ADAM is extremely addictive and must be taken regularly to avoid the rather severe side-effects of withdrawal. And, unfortunately, like most addictive substances, the need increases as you continue splicing, as do the mutative side effects. It causes deterioration of both physical and mental capacities.”

“And they kept selling it anyway?” Ahab looked aghast.

“Awww… is the big bad super spy amazed by the depths of human amorality? Tenenbaum didn’t care, at least at first, and Fontaine is a sociopath who eventually went full psycho. He’s the primary antagonist of the first game and the major driving force of the rebellion that brings Rapture down from the inside. He wants absolute control over the city.”

“I assume he’s our first target?”

“He is, but not to kill. I want to use him and his smuggling operation to save the city, and I have no qualms about forcing him to dance to my tune. I need him to put pressure on Ryan, so that I can push Ryan into implementing constructive change. I have to show him that Objectivism and Collectivism need to be balanced in order for a society to function. Enlightened Self Interest should do the trick, as long as I can keep his own personal neurosis from getting out of hand.”

“You think you can do it?”

“Eh. If I can’t, we all swim. Well, okay, I don’t. I have a massive fear of the water at the moment.”

“Uh… we’re under water.”

“Oh. I know. Trust me, I know. Freaking Banker.”

“Okay, so… what does Elizabeth and Comstock have to do with all this?”

“Right, so, I said there was a Man and a City… well… there are actually two Men, two cities.”

“Comstock and…?”

“Columbia. Just as Rapture is beneath the waves, Columbia is above the clouds. It’s a flying city. With it’s own Fontaine… Fink. It’s own Suchong and Tenenbaum… the Luteces… it’s own Atlas… he’s a local revolutionary leader who’s more than he seems. Daisy Fitzroy is his counterpart. His more than he seems is that he’s actually Fontaine in disguise. Her more than she seems is that she seems ruthless but is actually a martyr.

The theme of Bioshock is Self-Determination. The choice to be good or bad, the choice to save or destroy. The Arc Words are ‘A Man Chooses’ and ‘Would You Kindly’… though the second hides the illusion of choice, though we the player do not know it. In a few years time, Ryan’s mistress will become pregnant and, spoiler time, dun dun dun… Tenenbaum and Fontaine will acquire the fetus and use MAAAAD science to accelerate and condition the resulting young man into a weapon against his father. They’ll implant two commands into his consciousness. WYK makes him do whatever is asked of him, tested by forcing him to kill his puppy.”

I kicked the immobile Suchong for that one, then continued. “And Code Yellow, which is a self-termination command.”

“Those don’t work!” Ahab sputtered.

“Normally, no. This one causes the victim’s heart to eventually stop beating. It’s not a sucide command, so much as a fuck up your autonomic system so bad your conscious mind can’t save you from yourself.”

“So… why do you want to save any of these people? Ryan’s the worst kind of industrialist and a self-centered egotist from what it sounds like?”

I nodded. “You forgot raging hypocrite, power-mad, and tyrannical. His horrible managment allows the rise of Fontaine and the creation of an underclass leads to the rise of Atlas’s rebellion. His growing police-state tactics destroy his city. And his total immorality just makes everything so much worse.”

“Lovely. Suchong is a monster, Tenenbaum sounds worse, and this Fontaine character sounds like he should be shot on sight. I don’t know about Comstock or Elizabeth… are they okay?”

“Comstock, who will be calling himself Booker DeWitt, is a mass murderer, war criminal, massive racist, and religious fanatic… also, he’s mean to kids.”

“And Elizabeth?”

“She murdered her own father.”

“Eh. I think you said that last to shock me. Did he deserve it?”

“Hah. Yes and no. First off, Elizabeth is Comstock’s daughter… and also Booker’s daughter, since before Comstock was Comstock, he was Booker and she was Anna. And before you go thinking… whatever, it’s sooo much more complicated than that.”

“Would I understand if you explained slowly, using small words?” my senior wetworks agent asked (Joy is my senior information agent), sounding extra snarky.

“I… am not sure. It has to do with Quantum Time and the Many Worlds theory.”

“Oh. Uh… I’ll try and follow along then,” he said, suddenly serious.

“Booker DeWitt was a US cavalry man at the battle of Wounded Knee, where he slaughtered a great many Native Americans, all to prove to the men of his regiment that he wasn’t actually part Indian himself. Of course, he was, and it didn’t work, as his compatriots took to calling him “The White Injun” because of it, though they did see him as a heroic figure.

However, Booker was filled will a sense of shame and regret over his actions and sought redemption. He attended a river baptism, common in the preindustrial US and there he either did or did not accept baptism and absolution.”

“Did or Did not? How can someone do both?”

“Quantum Time. Many Worlds. But this choice was important enough that it caused a major vergence in probability. The two Bookers emerged from that event, each in his own timeline. In the one where Booker went into the water, Zachary Hale Comstock emerged. Washed of all his sins, he went on to become a monster. In the one where Booker rejected absolution, he went on to become a drunk, a gambler, and a loser.”

“And he’s the hero?”

“Booker? He’s a tragic figure, and a giant fuck up… and things only get worse… but let me go back to Comstock. Comstock, now deeply religious, became highly influential in the US Government, and went on to found an ultra-nationalist party called ‘The Founders’, who would in turn, thanks to the help of Rosalind Lutece, a brilliant scientist, create the flying city of Columbia. Comstock, now known as Father Comstock, was convinced that the US was ‘The New Eden’ and that the Founding Fathers were prophets of ‘God’s Great Plan’… a plan in which the White man was the only race that deserved true freedom and that all other races were unworthy and lesser, including the Irish.

He too became disillusioned with the US, though it wasn’t a bomb this time but Abraham Lincoln, who he called ‘The Great Apostate’ and who Comstock blamed for bringing war and death to ‘Eden’. He began to distance Columbia from the rest of the US.

In the early 1890’s Lutece, whose Lutece Field and Lutece Particle allowed Columbia to float through the sky, succeeded in creating the first Tears between realities. She made contact with a male version of herself, Robert, who was doing the same experiment and invited him into her universe… though she needed increased funding to make the transferal a reality.”

“She took the news to Comstock, didn’t she?”

“Indeedy. Right you are. He used the Tears to peer into other realities, believing they could give him insight into the future. With the additional funding, the two Luteces were united in the same reality, and Comstock became “The Prophet”, guiding his people with visions that helped protect them from their enemies. He also shared the technology of the Tears with the industrialist and inventor ‘Jeremiah Fink’, who would peer into Columbia and steal Suchong’s Plasmid research to make Vigors… though I’ve no idea where he got the ADAM for it, the lore just says he sent people to the Atlantic to find the slugs… but there are no Little Sisters in Columbia. Vigors are just like Plasmids, except taken orally, instead of injected. There were also oral Plasmids, but that requires greater amounts of ADAM… and so injection Vigors were later invented.”

“So both cities had a jackass in charge, a lunatic scientist or two, and an industrialist peddling mutation and madness in a bottle?”

“Yup… but Comstock wasn’t an isolationist like Ryan. Columbia was a global symbol of american ideology and was sent all around the world on a goodwill tour. Which ended in disaster, of course. They were in… over Beijing in 1901,” Ahab tilted his head, then his eyes opened wide as he remembered the Boxer Rebellion. “Yeah… Comstock opened fire on the Chinese populace. No one had realized that Columbia was a giant flying warship… but the secret was out. The US Government disavowed Columbia and Comstock and tried to recall him to stand trial. Instead, he and the city seceded and disappeared.”

“Groovy. Where does Annabeth enter this?”

“Well, Comstock’s visions had shown him that Columbia would only prosper as long as his bloodline ruled the roost, as it were. No problem there, he thought, I’ll just knock up my good lady wife… except that his overuse of the Tears had not only aged him rapidly, it had rendered him sterile.”

“Ah… so he kidnapped the daughter of his other self? This Booker?”

“Kidnapped… yes… and no. He saw that Booker, who’s wife, Annabelle, had died in childbirth, had succumbed to drink and had massive gambling debts. He sent the Luteces with a message “Bring us the Girl, Wipe away the Debt”.”

“Those sound like Arc Words.”

“Very astute. Yes. They are. Booker sold Anna… and then realized what he’d done and tried to take her back at the last possible second. This produced two different reactions.”

“I’m getting a headache.”

“Yeah… well, hold on… it’s going to get worse. See, in almost all the timelines, the Tear closed on part of Anna’s body. In all but one, it was her pinky, cutting off the tip of it and allowing Anna, now renamed Elizabeth, to create Tears of her own.”

“And in that last one?”

“It cut off her head.”

“Fuuuu… wait…”

“No. it killed her very very dead. But that Comstock was horrified and ran away, becoming Booker DeWitt of Rapture and trying to hide from his past. That was 1893, but all the other Bookers and Comstocks though weren’t done with each other. Years later, in 1912, the Luteces, having been murdered by Fink (on Comstock’s orders), back in 1909, contacted at least 41 Bookers to bring him to Columbia… though, and here’s where things get really headache inducing… passing through a Tear into another universe fucks up your memories, because you’re not native to that universe and your memories are all wrong. So these Bookers forgot about Anna, though each of them had carved the initials AD onto the backs of their hands, and did remember the Arc Words. So they went looking for Elizabeth, not knowing she was Anna.”

“My head… paaain. How did they do all this despite being murdered?”

“Yuh. I know. I know… and the answer is they’d been scattered across time and space, ghosts in the cosmic cogs. Roslind was fine as long as she could stay with Robert, but he wanted to fix Columbia, so they did what they did and the rest is quantum history.”

“The rest?”

“Okay, faaast forwarding. Bookers come to Columbia, most of them get killed, one of the eventually finds and rescues Elizabeth from a giant-angel shaped tower where she’s been imprisoned and experimented on for years. He also rescues her from her giant flying protector, Song-Bird… and yes, he’s based on the same tech as the Big Daddies who built Rapture and who will eventually serve as protectors to Little Sisters. She in turn revives him each time he’s injured or killed by manipulating Tears to get supplies… or even new Bookers.”

“I’m just going to curl up in a corner and cry now… please, continue.”

“Booker and Elizabeth eventually make it to Comstock… having passed through several parallel worlds where Columbia is in varying stages of meltdown into open rebellion… Eventually Elizabeth and Booker are separated and Elizabeth’s final action is to send Booker forward into the future where she has been brainwashed by Comstock into becoming his successor and is now, in 1984, bombing the city of New York, drowning in flames the mountains of man. That future Elizabeth sends Booker back to rescue her younger self… and then Booker murders Comstock by smashing his head into a Baptismal Font… and remembers everything.”

“This is going to get worse, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Now that the duo is free of Columbia, and the device blocking most of Elizabeth’s powers, called the Siphon, is destroyed, she transports them both to Rapture. She reveals that she now can see into infinite worlds, percieve all alternate realities at once… and that Comstock isn’t truely dead, because in countless other worlds he’s still alive.”

“I think I’m going to throw up.” I looked at him… he was visibly shaking and his nose was bleeding. That shouldn’t be happening, I thought. Part of me wanted to stop, but I had to see how far this could go. I had to know just how serious the issue was, and was reasonable certain that Ahab would be fine… if nothing else, I could get him into the Medbay. Was he having this problem because this body of his had native memories?

“Hold fast. Just listen. This is important. Elizabeth guides Booker through a series of lighthouses, both the Columbia one and the Rapture one. One has an elevator that goes down, the other a cannon that launches you skyward, but they’re both the entrypoint to their respective city. She explains everything and Booker blames Comstock for everything and says that they need to go back and smother Comstock in the crib. She agrees, and takes him to the moment Comstock was born. Everything is finally revealed and Booker understands that he is Comstock.

He accepts baptism this time, and many Elizabeths from an increasing number of realities appear and hold him under, drowning, one by one, all possible Comstocks… besides the one where Anna was dead and thus could not appear to drown her own Comstock. Thus, one by one, those Elizabeths too disappear as Quantum Time collapses.”

“Oh… god… wh… what’s happening?” Ahab asked, looking confused now, dazed.

I pressed on, rushing a bit. “But Booker still lived, and Anna still lived, because there was no Comstock to interrupt their existence… and one Comstock and one Elizabeth still existed as well, though each from their own timeline. A Comstock with no Elizabeth to kill him and an Elizabeth who had been set free by the only Booker to accept baptism… and they both end up here… and, unless something happens, they’ll both die here and seal off that timeline forever… and doom Rapture in the process.”

The only response was Ahab being violently ill.

“And I’m going to change all that.” The world rippled, shuddered, and, for some reason, the chair Ahab was sitting in wasn’t there any more. “That was odd.” I commented as he fell to the floor, blinking.

“Uh… what the hell just happened?”

“I think… tell me, do you remember any of your past in this world?”

“N… yes… several… there… there… too many memories… there was a city called Columbia and no World Wars… and there wasn’t and there were two… how?”

“Ah. Gotcha. Anyway. Quantum Time… I’m betting that only I and Elizabeth can cope with it… maybe the others from the Warehouse who haven’t been infected by this world’s timelines. Now… unless you’ve got other questions… let’s go save a city.”

Ahab looked like he had many, but also like he realized that asking them might make him unwell again. And I’d come to realize that the universe was going to actively resist my attempts to change things. Well, fuuuck you, Mr. Universe!

Using Suchong as my “adult protector”, I got him to take me round to call on Tenenbaum and used her to get me see Fontaine and Ryan. They were all the elites of the city, and I manipulated them all. Sander Cohen, Ryan’s chief Propagandist and Fort Frolic’s Artist in Chief, I convinced to avoid Splicing on the grounds that it would impair his artistic genius. Fontaine I twisted into a parody of himself, forcing him to actually act like the charitable figure his public face would have made him be. Ahab became Atlas, a secret figure who pushed for peaceful protest and nonviolent confrontations with the authorities. Joy became Wahl’s second, and when he suffered an accident, she replaced him as Charles Milton Porter’s second.

Porter, originally doomed to become the Big Daddy known as Subject Sigma, was a brilliant computer engineer, with, as most in Rapture’s high command, a tragic past. He was also stalwart enough to resist splicing, seeing it for the danger it represented and smart enough not to fall for Sophia Lamb’s, Rapture’s resident Psychotherapist-in-chief, mumbo-jumbo as he called it.

Lamb, in turn, was fated to become the primary antagonist of Bioshock 2, having been driven a bit mad by the loss of her position and daughter. So to head that off, I arranged for Stanley ‘I am a rat bastard and should be drowned’ Poole, the incredibly weasel-like (and not in a good way) reporter for the Rapture Tribune who would eventually offer proof to Ryan that Lamb should be suppressed (and eventually imprisoned), to attack Augustus Sinclair when the latter offered him a bribe to do exactly that.

Poole, claiming he’d done so out of journalistic integrity, published a scathing report on Sinclair Solution’s various nefarious deeds and, unsurprisingly, found himself accidentally trampled to death by a berserk Rosie. Still, Sinclair’s downfall took out a chunk of Fontaine and Ryan’s public approval.

Fontaine found himself lynched by the poor people he’d manipulated. Suchong ended up locked up in Persephone (Rapture’s Prison). Ryan was facing massed protests against his manipulations. And that’s when I appeared in his office. The year was 1955, it was Chanukah (and the mutations were becoming more severe than I’d expected them to be… and oh god did I hate the windows of Rapture… uuuuugh…) and Jack was just now a fetus still in his momma’s tummy.

“Hello Andrew,” I said, cloaking myself in shadow since I couldn’t shapeshift and I was still barely shy of 10. My voice was modulated… not that I really needed that, because I controlled everything that Ryan was hearing and seeing. Right at that moment he was seeing Fontaine, rope still around his broken neck, talking to him. Telling him to expect three ghosts before dawn.

Yes. Yes. I went there. Because I could. The three Ghosts of Chanukah. I’d checked and Ryan hadn’t read it. He’d never been one for fiction… well, non-russian fiction. I showed him the past, a past he’d been miserable in, oppressed and beaten down. I showed him the present, in which so many, many of the people in the glorious city he’d built, were oppressed and beaten down just as he was… and I showed him a future in which his own son beat him to death with a golf club. A future in which the howling insane masses tore the last of his shining city to ruins and it drowned in the uncaring sea.

“And I should care about these Parasites why?” he’d sneered, his tiny little mustache crinkling in fury.

“Because poor people can’t buy your goods. Because sick people can’t work in your factories. Because angry people make more angry people. Collectivism is crap. Don’t do it because it’s the moral thing. Don’t do it because it’s the just thing… do it because it’s good for your bottom line. Fontaine controlled the masses by smuggling booze and bibles. Lamb controlls the masses by appealling to their pain and suffering. You want to make a better society… it has to actually be better!”

“So I should throw away all I hold dear? Let the weak and the godly control what I do?”

“You’re not a God, Andrei Rayanovsky. You’re a Man. surrounded by men. Without a sense of community, a shared vision of the future, all you make is people who care about themselves. They don’t care about your city, your vision, your future… they only care about themselves. That’s why Atlas is winning. That’s why Suchong is insane. That’s why Tenenbaum is wracked with guilt over the little girls she’s mutilated and turned into monsters. That’s why your own son will kill you if you do not change things.”

“Never! I will never give in to the Communists!”

“Do you know what the greatest threat to Capitalism is?”

“Communism!”

“No. Communism is a doomed snake eating its own tail. No, little man… Capitalism is the greatest threat to Capitalism.”

“Nonsense!”

“Remember Standard Oil? It was a Monopoly. It crushed all competition, because it was too big to go against. Remember Herst? He bought up all the papers, controlled information. Got Hemp made illegal because it threatened his lumbermills. Capitalism in its purest form stifles competition. It serves no one but the corporations. Turns all the rest of us into slaves. Your Great Chain will strangle Rapture if you can’t keep it straight. A chain is not self supporting. It must be supported from both sides, or it drags in the dirt. Your Capitalism supports it on one side… but Socialism… not the Socialism of Marx, but actual socialism… taking care of each other, making sure that everyone has enough to make ends meet… has a safety net so that sickness or accident doesn’t make them unable to work… that will maintain a society. People will work to get ahead if they believe the situation is fair and just. People don’t turn to drugs and god and booze when they aren’t in despair.”

I admit, I pushed him. I didn’t just use the passion of the truth… I pushed on the crazy man’s mind. I forced the choice to make him. It wouldn’t be enough right off the bat… he was still Andrew Ryan after all… but I had several years more to push him along.

And, as it turns out… I needed it. Things were still getting worse… not because of Atlas and Lamb and Fontaine… no, because the people were going crazier faster than they should have. ADAM Sickness was getting out of hand before its time. It took me far too long to work out what had happened.

“BANKER!” I roared.

“Yes, my dear?”

“Don’t you try and come off innocent at me. You’ve done something to the setting!”

“Well, No. You did it. The drawback clearly states ‘Mutations are of significantly increased severity and frequency.’ It does not say that that applies only to you!”

I opened my mouth, then shut it again. Fuck. He was right. Damn it… waaait.

“But my Plasmids and Tonics… the ones I create as well as those I use… those are more powerful than they otherwise would be, yes?”

“That was the deal.”

“Excellent.”

It took me 6 months, bringing the date to New Year’s Day 1956, but just in time for the new year, Serenity labs released the Serenity Tonic, guaranteed to cut your ADAM need and ease your episodes by 60%! It did three things. The first was that it actively installed an ADAM secreting organ into the human body. It wasn’t much, but it meant the Splicer’s body wouldn’t be experiencing crash cycles. It was a maintenance dose. The second thing it did was scrub the body of the trace residue of ADAM use that caused flare ups in the first place, as well as requiring ever increasing dosages. And the third thing it did was, well, act like a cannabinoid. Instead of making Splicers more and more irate… it changed the way their neurochemistry acted so that they tended to be calmer, more mellow… and just have a nice sit down until the world stopped spinning.

It wasn’t perfect by a long chalk, but I figured it would extend things, give me time to work on a second iteration… and to work out a way to make a more stable form of ADAM that wouldn’t record memories. I was also having to spend more time in the Medbay as I aged and the exposure I was getting to other people’s memories, tonics, and plasmids through the ADAM Soul of Ice was recycling… it was literally the only way I could take samples… freaking Banker… was… err… I was beginning to worry about my own sanity as my own body began to become progressively less and less able to produce ADAM. Growing up sucks… especially when you’re going through massively enhanced puberty. Tenenbaum was working on her curative for Little Sisters, but it wasn’t ready yet and wouldn’t be until 1960… at which point I’d be 14.

That said, I was waiting for October 8th, 1958. Assuming all went as it should, that was the day Elizabeth Prime would enter Rapture through the Silver Fin Restaurant and seek out Booker DeComstock. They had a date with destiny… and I was going to be hijacking that soo damned quick it was going to make everyone’s head spin.

I couldn’t know what EPrime had seen through the Tear before she came through, so I couldn’t have anything waiting for her. Instead, I was just outside, having made sure all possible exits besides the front door were sealed and warded. The moment she emerged, I smothered her free will with a blast of Telepathic mojo and walked her right into a waiting cryostasis tube. “And Stay There!” I snapped, then told Ahab “Get Comstock. We’re sealing this hole up right.” He went into a tube as well.

The next few years were a battle, but not an open one. I had to keep pushing Ryan… “Would you kindly consider institution industrial safety standards and consumer goods protections?”, “Would you kindly stop threatening to turn off the air to various parts of the city?”, “Would you kindly stop antagonizing Porter?”, “Would you kindly sign this pardon for Suchong so he can get back to work?”… that kind of thing. I also had to work feverishly hard to keep my Serenity Tonics and Serenity Labs’ other products “Mutease Plasmid, for treating spontaneous mutations in others”, “Regenerax Tonic, for regrowing body parts”, and others designed to lessen the effects of Splicing… and yes… fighting Splicing with Splicing was questionable, but it was a case of Genie out of the bottle.

I also put a stabilized and weakened version of the Super Soldier Serum out there, as “Captain Amazing Tonic”. It was designed to make people more their idealized selves. “Be the Best You that You can Be!” Yes. I was making tons of money, but I was rolling it all back into social programs and education, medicine, and the like. I paid my workers well… so well that my competition had to pay their own workers a similar amount… which meant finding ways to be more efficient… and paying their management less… but then again, Management are almost completely useless, so fuck’m. Talk about Parasites.

I also convinced Ryan that he should marry Jolene and raise the kid instead of continuing to be a billionaire playboy. Legacy, it’s all about Legacy. After all, if the kid respects you, loves you, maybe he won’t put a club through your skull, right Andy? What a jagoff. “A Man Chooses!” yeah, that will overcome post hypnotic suggestion… well, to be fair, it might have in an actual adult… but in a kid with almost no real memories or personality? Not likely.

And I helped Tenenbaum cure the other little sisters… and even treat the other surviving first wave Big Sisters. And once we’d managed all that, I offered her a way out of Rapture, a way to get away from Ryan and his now slightly less twisted vision. I hadn’t made Rapture a Paradise… that would take a miracle and longer than ten years… but I had stabilized it… a bit… if you squinted.

Regardless, 1963 could not come soon enough. When it did come, I very carefully extracted Freelancer the Slug from my insides and put him, squirming and wriggling, on the Banker’s desk… he oozed a bit in the transfer from my insides to his new tank. “I got you a pet.” I snarked, unkinking my left arm that had grown extra long and scaly at about the 9 year mark.

“Is this new person a companion or another passenger?”

“She hasn’t decided yet. Are we going to Infinite Now?”

“Can’t.”

“Can’t? Why Can’t?”

“It’s chronologically before Bioshock… we have to take the long way round.”

“THE LONG WAY… you’re just yanking my chain, aren’t you?”

“You’ll never know.”

“Would you kindly sit and spin?” I snapped, then strode out of the room as he called, “Hey! You can’t leave this thing on my desk! It’s gross! I think it’s staring at me! SJ? SJ! Come back here and move this slug! SJ!!!!!”

It was a petty victory… but one I’d earned.

Next: Three by Three, Stars of Brie

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World 56: One Piece

LINE IN THE SAND

Previously: I May Be Insane But That Doesn’t Mean I’m Crazy

Themesong: Wash it All Away by Five Finger Death Punch

“Welcome to the Cosmic Warehouse, Raven. I think you’ll enjoy your time with us. And, as I promised, no time should pass back in your home reality until we return. Are you certain you really want to leave your world behind?”

“Earth is merely my adopted homeworld. Azarath is the world of my birth. And… yes. If one 1/100th of what you have told me is true, I would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to accompany you to new worlds and learn all I can. Plus… your offer to allow me access to Merlin’s Book… I could scarcely pass that up.”

“Well then, I hope you’ll have fun. You are the first, official passenger on HJS Cosmic Warehouse. I can’t guarantee you won’t be imported by the Banker at some point, but I guarantee I won’t import you without your permission. I understand completely how scary it can be to have another entity in your head. I have a great many inside mine… even an egg. I do hope that one hurries up. The wait is killing me… well… frustrating me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Zane will show you to your quarters. I must have words with the Banker.”

I left the no longer teenage Titan to Zane’s mercy (and puns), and approached the special bay I’d had built around the twin machines. They were rigged to holoprojectors and the room was only accessible by myself… on all wavelengths. “Okay, dickhead. I get that you were trying to teach me a lesson about unintended consequences… but ramping the persona imprint to 9000 is not going to fly. She would barely listen to me, let alone allow me to act… and you pulled out the memory structures and emotion control-”

“Actually… that was me.” Mensarius, who was looking very much like Al Pacino as the Devil, smirked from the projection of a couch.

I narrowed my eyes and growled, glancing at the Banker who actually flinched. He was looking like a somewhat more overweight and middle-aged version of Jack Black, and was seated behind a large wooden desk… or the projection of one. “You allowed him to tamper with my jump?”

“He offered a way to… give you the authority you requested and keep things balanced.”

I practically snarled. “That! Was not! Balanced! That was in no way, shape, or form, balanced! If the failsafe hadn’t triggered, I’d still be in Arkham drooling on myself and eating the prozac flavored Jell-o! She’d never have agreed to come back! And how the hell can he influence anything! Are you a freaking lunatic? He locked you away!”

“To be fair, your darling Banker did steal something of mine first,” Mensarius lounged across the back of the couch like a lothario, his arrow-sharp goatee gleaming in the sourceless light.

“I did not steal your Matrix. You lost it to me on a wager,” the Banker sneered. “A foolish, simple-minded, and ill advised wager.”

“Wait… Matrix? What are you talking about?” I’d given the two of them the capacity to generate forms largely so I had something to glower at… or throw things at… and I was already itching to test if the feedback linkages I’d rigged would actually allow either of these two beings to feel the impact of one of my special tennis balls.

Mensarius chuckled softly. “He hasn’t told you? How interesting. A Jumpmatrix. Each of us… Benefactors… have one. It is how we place pieces of ourselves, stabilized with a chunk of a set probability… what you’d call a reality or a universe… and shape it into what you call CP.”

“And you swindled him out of his Matrix?” I asked the Banker, who shrugged.

“It seemed like it might… limit the trouble he could get up to.”

“And you hid it in the Verse?” I was having some trouble processing this. “You hid a nigh omnipotent item inside a mortal realm?!”

“I did dismantle it first, then scatter it across the Verse.” the Banker said with a faint shrug. “And no lifeform can utilize a Jumpmatrix. You’re all incompatible with the input side.”

“So he’s got 4/5ths of his Jumpmatrix back… can’t he just get a replacement for the last bit?” I asked.

The Banker favored his… counterpart with a vicious smirk. “Doesn’t work that way. Each piece has a specific use. You’ve got the key to all his realities.”

“Key? Wait… you mean he can’t access any of the… how does that work, actually? I mean, why is his stuff antimatter to your stuff?”

“Differing wavelengths. Destructive interference,” Mensarius grunted. “Once one of us mixes our… call it essence… into a reality, that reality takes on our specific flavor. Just as our Jumpers do.”

“So the parts are, what, An Essence Siphon, a Reality Chunk Hopper, a Mixer, a CP Injector, and a Registry Key?” I asked, then grinned as both looked faintly disturbed. “Do all you idiots… and I’m assuming there are more of you… go around underestimating lifeforms as a matter of course?”

“It is very much like watching fleas perform tricks,” Mensarius almost snarled. I hit him with a tennis ball and he actually flinched.

“Watch yourself, skippy. I’ve got a part of you in my possession, and the capacity to warp reality at least a little bit. You don’t want to start with me.” I looked over at the Banker, “And you… are not to let him contaminate my CP-stream or whatever you call it, without my explicit permission. I’m not kidding. Especially since I’ve now got confirmation that you’re essentially spoonfeeding me bits of yourself.”

“I only hand them out. It is your choice to ingest them.” The portly man waved his hand dismissively.

“Yeah. well, I do so because I know what each bit does. I’m assuming that taking Drawbacks doesn’t actually give more CP… it just… what, ties me more tightly to the fabric of a specific reality, thus allowing the actual underlying essence imbedded in the CP to function more efficiently?” The two shared a look, then nodded.

“Right… well… what you two did was dirty pool. You stripped out protections that you knew I’d view as essential, and ramped up a setting I wasn’t even aware you could influence. This is a relationship of trust, B. Am I understood? You clearly get something out of this, or you wouldn’t be doing it… what was it you said to the Outsider? Syndication rights?” The Banker looked abashed. “Well, if I go home, you don’t get new material to Syndicate, right? So let’s not poison the well. And you!” I hurled another ball at Mensarius, who didn’t dodge quite fast enough and who then howled in pain as the ball unleashed a tiny amount of the Banker’s residual energy at him, causing holes to appear in the holographic suit.

“I’ve spent a large amount of time studying what I’ve got of yours. I can’t even begin to understand how it works, but I can figure out enough to hurt you… probably not enough to actually harm you… but if I go home, I take your Key with me. And if that happens… I doubt you’ll ever get it back… no matter how long a time frame you use. I’m agelessly immortal and now, in theory, patient enough to wait through the heat death of an entire universe. I don’t care how you view time, a hundred trillion years has got to register on your time scale… and given that much time, my tech base should find interesting ways to make you suffer even more. So you will stop trying to screw me over.”

“I cannot believe you’re letting this… creature… lecture us,” Mensarius shot daggers at the Banker, who looked incredibly smug as he responded.

“She amuses me. And seeing you suffering amuses me more.”

“How nice for you both,” I snarked. “Now, Mensarius, if you actually have something to contribute, feel free to offer it for consideration. I might take you up on it. I do enjoy challenges, and not even you can be wrong every time. But I’ll be the one making the choice of if to accept it or not. Am I clear? No messing with my mental state or ethical alignment for shits and giggles. No throwing unwinnable scenarios in my way. No powerlessness or amnesia without my express permission. Or I walk. Am I understood? Yanking out my moral center and fracturing my mind isn’t on. Pulling out the support for Astral Layers should have seen me collapse into a single entity… not remain fragmented. This will not happen again.”

The Banker leaned back, studying me with a nearly blank expression on his projection, then nodded. “I’ll tentatively agree. Such options will be presented to you from now on, rather than being assumed… Though I cannot promise absolutely… as events have shown. And Mensarius will submit his… modifications if he has any… for your approval. Now… what is this about bringing the cambion with you, but not as a companion?”

“While we were battling those Rhyming Demons, I had Raven assist me in casting a banishing spell, if you remember.” They both nodded. “She asked where I’d learned it, and I mentioned that I’d gotten it from the Book of Eternity, forgetting that, even though that world is DC-Lite, that she’d understand the significance of that book being in my possession. She’s requested permission to come with us, not as a companion, but as a student. Some of the jumps she might enter as a drop-in, but she’s categorically refused any other form of tampering… especially after we explained exactly how we’d gotten here… and isn’t that a fun conversation?” I chuckled, remembering Beast Boy’s expression as I explained that I both was and wasn’t Salamand’r. Robin got it instantly, though I think that’s more a testament to Christian Education.

I’d had to explain that, thanks to the way this reincarnation ride worked, the vast majority of my awareness didn’t awaken in my current incarnation until the moment of crisis neared…. Where crisis was defined as “Whatever the big interesting thing about to happen was.” Cyborg found it most amusing that the formation of the Teen Titans was my triggering point… but Raven asked if it wasn’t her father’s arrival which had served as the actual triggering. I’d had to explain that there’d been some… irregularity in the transition this time around.

Robin still didn’t trust me for the longest time… I’m not certain when he actually started to trust me again, and it was actually a giant pain not killing some of the asshats who really needed killing, but I’d given my word not to solve the crime problem with bloodshed… and in DCAU-Lite the threat level from even beings like Joker wasn’t too bad. If Robin didn’t trust me, Batman really, really didn’t trust me. Which was okay with me, because I think he’s a jackass, no matter which version of him I’m dealing with. I think he was still smarting from be drubbing crazy-me had handed his creepy Stalker ass. Oh… yes… he’d been a little obsessed with sending me back to Arkham, obsessively searching for any sign I wasn’t actually what I said I was. Just think what he could do for the Joker’s victims if he was that obsessive about Mr. J.

It was weird that I couldn’t find a bunch of the characters I was looking for. I mean… I could locate rumors about them… but actually finding Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, or Superman? Nope. Batman? Yes. Joker? Yes. Huntress? No. Jason Todd? Well, of course, though he was still running around calling himself X, waiting for Robin to graduate to Nightwing, which he did about 6 years in. At which point, X vanished and Robin Mark II showed his weird and slightly villainous face.

As for me? I actually spent most of the remainder of that decade operating an outreach program for teenagers and young adults who had powers and who might have gotten off to a rocky start… or had actual criminal background. My program offered therapy, both group and individual, as well as rehabilitation on the scandinavian model, trying to steer people away from being super villains, teaching them to control their powers, and having positive encounters with members of law enforcement or the superhero community.

Teen Titans really was the Friendship is Magic of the DCAU, and a family friendly take on dealing with troubled superhumans did a lot to rehabilitate the fairly tarnished reputation of Jetfire… not that even with all my powers dealing with the internal psychological damage was easy. Salamand’r was still the most dominant personality fragment outside of the core and she steadfastly refused to work with the rest of us, rampaging through the mental landscape from time to time and occasionally escaping into the real world in one bizarre fashion or another. At one point she actively hijacked our doppelganger creation power and was sending them out to cause mayhem. Thankfully, she wasn’t so much crazy as just insane, and her activities seldom resulted in harm to anyone besides me.

It was like being a bipolar Superhero who occasionally went off her meds. But then again, there are people like that… see The Hulk, Etrigan, Spectre… Raven… Robin… The superhero community tends to be more accepting of that kind of behaviour. Hell, I actually became something of a role model to the mentally ill community for my attempts to keep the instability down… Plus, I had the A team backing me up, and they were very popular…

“Yes, yes. I know all that!” The Banker snapped, “I meant ‘In what way is she not a companion?’”

“Mostly semantics. But as far as she’s concerned, she’s just a passenger… like a cruise ship. She’s aware other worlds will be dangerous, and she’s willing to risk it. She’s not asking for your backing… though I don’t know if her native magic will work in other worlds without it.”

“This is not a cruise ship,” Mensarius grumped.

“It kinda is. We’ve got limitless food, luxury accommodations, living quarters, fun activities, a weirdo captain, and we pull up to random ports and have excursions. Seems like a cruise to me… only with more invasions and less children… the sex level is, I think, about the same… but there are far fewer senior citizens… and less staff exhorting you to come to bingo night… and there’s no casino. We do have shops though.”

“Ah. I shall… dwell on this, but, in order to celebrate your new endevour, allow me to unveil your new jump.” He waved a hand at the back wall and a logo appeared in letters 12 feet tall. I winced as my memory pulled up the data. “ONE PIECE”. After a long moment, I sighed.  

This was not a world that needed saving. Hell, if anything, the multiverse might need saving from the insanity that was One Piece. I’d read about 160 chapters of the manga (to the end of the Alabasta Arc) and seen a dozen episodes of the anime, and if there was a story buried in all that, I hadn’t been able to find it. It was rollicking good fun on Island of the month, and all about the power of friendship. Two thirds of the characters were giant hams and the rest were morons… and the MC’s power (aside from friendship) was that his body was essentially made of rubber. His kryptonite (and the bane of all the superpowered individuals of this world) was that single most common of chemicals… water. Being submerged, even up to the knees, in relatively still water (or being in contact with a local variant of narrativium called Seastone) was enough to immobilize anyone who ate of the flesh of the Devil Fruit, with each such fruit granting the eater a different power. Eating of the flesh of two Devil Fruit was lethal however.

It was, however, an oceangoing adventure tale, about a boy searching for his childhood hero and, of course, a monstrously huge pirate treasure… in a world where physics was taking a bit of a holiday.  As in water flowing uphill levels of bullshit. As in two parallel calm belts that circled the equator and between which was a super dangerous ocean called ‘The Grand Line’ in which traditional navigation didn’t work… oh, and the only continent, ‘The Red Line’ was a ring that ran from pole to pole and back, perfectly perpendicular to the Grand Line. As in Giant Humans so massive that they towered over Brontosauri. As in insane clown-pirates who were actually modular.

“Errr… you twits do realize I have flight powers and space ships, right? And super-science! Is there any specific reason I can’t just, you know… fly to any given island? Or, you know… spend the decade in space? Or nuke the entire insane planet from orbit?”

The Banker looked to Mensarius, and in that moment I realized that they looked like an Agent and a Manager dealing with a particularly bitchy client.  Finally, Mensarius nodded. “I’ve got one. +200 CP Drawback called ‘No Fly Zone’.”

I blinked. “Are you trolling alternate versions of the Jump Document?”

“Naw… call it… the Universal Drawback Database. Some things are universal… others merely apply to specific settings.  This one is a hybrid of ‘Shipping Ban’ and ‘No Exit’.”

“While, I have a vague idea of what those might do individually, what – specifically – does ‘No Fly Zone’ do?”

“You and your companions are grounded for this adventure. Flight and hovering powers are reduced to extremely long jumps (no more than a mile or two) or gliding and all your ships and flying machines have been transformed into Age of Sail equivalents. Items that allow flight, such as broomsticks, are only good for flight near land and become more and more unreliable the higher you go.”

He looked, not to me but, to the Banker who considered for a time, then nodded. “It should work. Very good.” The Banker turned to me “Do you accept?”

“Huh? How does this interact with the drawbacks in the document?”

The Banker mmmmed, then smiled “Oh. these drawbacks are bound by the same restrictions as native ones. Can only stretch things so far, right?”

I shrugged, nodding slowly, then sighed, knowing that it was a stupid thing to do, but would be more interesting than hanging out in space… and hell, who knew what insanity lurked in the infinite dark of the OPVerse. Cthulhu Piece… shudder… Better the devil I knew. “Fine. Yes. I’ll take it.”

Mensarius chuckled, “Excellent. Then I have another I recommend you offer her. It’s called ‘Embargo’. Think of it as a kind of Prime Directive. This would be just like in the Firefly Verse, limiting you to only things of the same technological advancement as the locals.”

“The locals are pre-industrial barbarians,” I groaned.

“Look at her and her judgemental attitude,” Mensarius sneered.

“You’re not going to guilt trip me into this. You just don’t want me paving this place in nanotech.”

“Oh. I’d find that most enjoyable. But I fear the Banker might object to you so… damaging this realm.”

“Yeah? Well, what would this net me?”

“200 More. Plus another +100 if you agree to only access your Warehouse at a port. This includes all replenishing stocks, so you’d have to plan accordingly. Random islands don’t count. It has to be an actual port town or city.”

I growled, low in my chest, then sighed and nodded. “Fine. Fine. Whatever. So, 500 from No Fly Zone, Embargo, and Port Access Only… the limit is 600?”

The Banker nodded, then brought up the Drawback Selection from the actual Jump Tree. There were only three choices in the +100 category. The first, Directionless, made me a Hibiki. The second, ‘Cowardly’ was just lame (just like Usopp, the character it was based on)… but Hungry, which meant that I’d need to eat after any long period of exertion or a proper fight, and if I didn’t I’d become irritable until I ate… that I could handle. Not like I disliked food anyway.

“Okay, so I’m good for points. Let’s see the rest of this puppy,” I growled, flopping back into an easy chair and accepting a vodka-cranberry from a pillar that rose from the floor. I’d really tricked out the Jump Room as Zane called it. I prefered to think of it as the Arcade of Fortune, but I’m better at naming things than git boy.

The logo for ONE PIECE appeared… complete with the symbol for the Strawhat Pirates as the O and the silhouette of the protagonist (one Monkey D. Luffy… japanese naming styles, so Monkey is the family name) as the I. Then Gold Roger… or rather Gol D. Rodger… apparently having the middle initial ‘D’ is significant in OPlandia… former King of the Pirates, appeared on the screens that covered a 270 degree arc of the walls from floor to ceiling. He was in shackles, looking grim and piratical, and also a little insane, and he bellowed at the crowd gathered to witness his execution, “You want my Treasure? You can have it! I left it all in One Piece, now you just have to find it!”

And with those words, the world went… bugshit insane is too polite a turn of phrase. This is the time known as ‘The Great Pirate Era!’… yes, the exclamation point is included. Piracy isn’t just rampant… it’s endemic. It’s pandemic. The World Government (and yes, that’s as NWO as you think it might be) has fleets of Marines… incredibly corrupt, brutal, fascist fuckhead Marines, who, for all the incredible bullshit they’re allowed to get away with, can’t even come close to keeping the Pirates under control. So much so that the WG has actually pardoned and recruited the 7 most powerful pirate lords in the world as their freaking privateers.  Yeah… that works about as well as you’d expect. The Alabasta arc is all about just one of these freaking psychos (named Crocodile) trying to get a few million people killed by engineering a civil war to destroy the country of Alabasta.

No idea how many of them actually do die, since I don’t think canonically anyone ever dies in the present (there are some flashbacks where people die)… and maybe things change in later arcs… but all the villains seem to survive fights with the Protags… somehow.

Still, this Age of Piracy is fueled by the quest to find Gold Rodger’s One Piece, the greatest collection of treasure in history. It’s supposedly hidden at the end of the Grand Line… but since the Grand Line has two halves… I don’t know which end. Alabasta is essentially halfway between Reverse Mountain (the place where Luffy & Crew enter the Grand Line… and just one of the places water flows uphill) and the Holy Land of Mariejois… Reverse Mountain’s antipode. So That shows you how far I’d gotten… or they’d gotten when I’d gotten fed up with glacial pacing. When I’d left my own world far behind, there were at least 800 chapters… 16 years worth of weekly installments… and the story was not, as far as I knew, approaching the end.

As you might be able to tell… I didn’t have a huge amount of respect for the setting. The artist had chops… but largely used them to make every character a caricature, relying on realism only very rarely, and usually to augment the gravitas of a situation. The designs of most of the people were ugly, the plotlines largely incoherent even by Shonen standards, and the protagonists not only blindly, blitheringly, insipidly optimistic, but naive as hell too.

There is, I kid you not, a scene waaay past the point I stopped reading the series (I have friends who didn’t and they steered me to this… lunacy) where Luffy and Ussop (the unneeded comic relief in a series that needs much much less comedy) get into a deathmatch against each other because Luffy, the Captain, has decided it’s time to replace their ship, which is no longer repairable, with a new one. They nearly kill each other because Ussop is soooo loyal to his ship that he’d rather get himself nearly killed by one of the only people in the world who thinks he has value as a person and not just as fertilizer… because he can’t understand the concept of material fatigue.

This isn’t just a fist-fight either. There are high explosives involved. There are shuriken involved. There is a shapeshifting reindeer doctor involved. One Piece… 40% parody, 30% drama, 30% acid trip. Mood whiplash does not even come close to explaining my reaction to the series… and I was going to be imprisoned here for a decade. Still… could be worse… could be Rick & Morty.

I looked at the origins as I rolled for my age… 19. Meh. Drop-In, as usual. Pirate Crewman… Pirate Captain… Marine Crewman… Marine Captain. (oh, yeah… at one point, the git writing this series made the mistake of saying a Lt outranked a Captain… siiigh… oh, and Marines include the sailors too in this setting, because… fuck it, I guess?)… So… Idiot… Idiot with a gimmick… flunky… or stooge… blah… I didn’t feel like paying for the ‘privilege’ of having my head filled with local idiocy. I had my own craziness to put up with. I selected Drop-In.

That would drop me off at my chosen starting location with nothing but the clothes on my back, my totally out of context knowledge of the world, and whatever equipment I bothered to purchase… plus a few days worth of food and water, but no connections to this world… and that was phrased as a downside? Please.

And speaking of starting locations, I spun the wheel.. And got… Free Choice? Wow… that almost never happened. I mean, seriously… I’d done this loads of times and free pick was almost always an option, usually a 1-in-6 or 1-in-8 chance… and I’d gotten it maybe three times in 61 jumps? Huh. Well… anyway. The 7 other choices, not that I had to pick one of them, were:

Loguetown… the city Gold Roger was executed in and last stop before entering the Grand Line from East Blue. Torino Kingdom, a place in South Blue I’d never heard of which apparently was dominated by cavemen and giant birds… and a single massive tree that apparently houses a vast library of knowledge. Drum Island, a winter wonderland ruled by, in succession, a fat asshole with the power to eat anything, a crazy doctor lady, and a man who could turn into a bison. It was on the Grand Line, and I was familiar with it… but eh. Mariejois, the capital of the World Government and its five manchurians the ‘Celestial Dragons’… it’s the official entry point to the Grand Line, though the route largely used by the Marines (and I assume legitimate trade… though there is zero evidence of such actually occurring in this world). Skypiea, an island in the clouds (i.e. Cloudcuckooland knockoff)… didn’t know anything about it but dirt was apparently at a premium and the local god was described as ‘harsh’… i.e. probably a dick.

Also on the list were an Abandoned Island in the middle of nowhere, but clearly not on the Grand Line, as evidenced by the lack of giant sea monsters and the stability of the weather.  Sounded suspicious to me… and Impel Down… a maximum security World Government prison located in the middle of the Calm Belt… as a Drop-In, I’d be a tourist there… but… I didn’t think that sounded like a good plan.

I considered for a good while, sipping my drink, then replacing it with an ice tea and some bon-bons. “If I go to Impel Down, I can scan the Marines there.  If I go to Mariejois, I can scan the government… but I suspect I can find Mariejois pretty easily on my own. Impel down is probably not impossible to find if it has tourists… there doesn’t seem to be any reason to go to the Abandoned Island.  Loguetown isn’t even in the Grand Line, so it should be easy enough to visit if I decide to. Ditto Torino. That leaves Drum Island and Skypiea… or I guess I could go to one of the other places… Alabasta? Stop Crocodile early? I mean… sure… innocent people die… but is that enough reason to go there? Most of those who die are army or revolutionaries, and I’m not in the business of stopping people from being stupid or I’d just show up at Usopp’s place and punch him.  I guess I can’t pick… what’s it called… Raftel?  That’s the island where Rodger hid the One Piece, right?”

The Banker smirked, shrugging, and I rolled my eyes. “Fine.  Yes… Wait… Skypeia… that’s a cloud island? Do the locals fly?”

“No. the clouds are solid enough to stand on or swim in.”

“Huh.  Okay. I’ll pick there. If this God is a physical person… drop me off in his or her presence.”

“Are you certain?” The Banker asked, eyebrow raising micrometrically.

“It’s free pick, right? I want to meet this ‘Harsh’ God.”

“As you wish.”

“Now… I assume the major draw here is the Fruit, right?” referring to the Devil Fruit which granted the vast majority of the super-human powers exhibited in the series. Each was unique and they came in three known categories; Logia, Zoan, and Paramecia. The most common were the Paramecia Fruits, which offered superhuman physical traits to their eaters, such as turning the eater’s body to rubber or blades, giving them control over wax or shockwaves… all of which functioned on cartoon logic.  Zoan Fruits were midline, and usually the weakest, but conferred animalistic… often animistic… traits to the eater. The eater became an animal-human hybrid, with thematically associated powers and abilities, and often multiple hybrid forms. There were even Human-Human Fruits (all the Fruits had names in the X-X Fruit pattern) that could turn animals into human-animal hybrids… and in at least one case a gun had been fed a Mutt-Mutt Fruit to become a dog-gun hybrid… again, cartoon logic.  

Logia Fruits were the rarest and most insane, since they not only granted the ability to control an element but to turn into that element, making the eater incredibly difficult to damage. The only Logia Fruits I’d seen were the Smoke-Smoke, Flare-Flare, and Sand-Sand… and the only one of them I’d seen defeated was the Sand-Sand… who’d required being hit with wet fists faster than he could recover… and his powers had included sandstorm generation and the ability to drain the moisture out of a human in seconds. Spider-man’s Sandman taken to just… scary levels.

“That does seem to be the case,” Banker-Man said. “There are a number of tables, and prices ranging from 100 to 800, depending on Tier… general power level… and if you allow a random factor. Or you can buy a map.”

“A… Map?”

“Indeed. While the selection for each tier is limited to 15 choices, some of which are considerably more likely than others, the Map can be for any potential fruit, with the difficulty involved in decrypting the map and finding the fruit proportional to the tier of fruit you seek. For instance, if you were to seek a common Tier 1 or Weak fruit, the challenge might be no more than finding a specific island in one of the simpler to reach islands of the Grand Line and locating a specific cave.  Anything about Tier 3 however is going to send you to The New World or someplace similarly dangerous.”

“You say any potential fruit… but clearly not the Gum-Gum, Chop-Chop, Sand-Sand, Smoke-Smoke… I mean, each is unique, so I couldn’t have Luffy’s powers, right?”

“That would be incorrect. You could not have exactly the same fruit… but there are multiple variants of each fruit, and yours would be just different enough that it wouldn’t overlap with the canonical one. I will admit that I’m surprised you’d want Luffy’s Gum-Gum Fruit.”

“I wouldn’t. I can already stretch, thanks to last jump. Don’t need Luffy’s ability. Plus… I’m not even certain I’d want to eat a Devil Fruit. I like swimming, and giving it up forever seems like a really bad trade off. Unless it only applies to the form in which I ate it.”

“No, no. If you decide to eat a fruit, regardless of how you got it, all your forms will suffer the weaknesses of the fruit… at least as long as you’re in this world. Should you move on, as seems likely, given your dislike for this setting, or be sent home for whatever reason, then most of the weakness shall be lifted. Only the fruit’s abilities themselves will deactivate underwater. But regardless, only the form in which you eat the fruit will have the associated abilities, as the fruit’s effects change your body’s very nature.”

“Riiight. Gotcha… so, I can either pick a tier and roll, pick a tier and pay an extra cost to choose, or buy a map and… what, specify a tier? Hope? I mean, is buying a Map an utter pig-in-a-poke? Stop laughing you!” I threw another tennis ball at Mensarius. “It’s a real expression!”

“Fear not,” The Banker explained. “The Map you buy will lead you to a fruit that suits your personality. You can specify how much of a challenge you’d like… but there is no refund for a fruit unfound. You’d have to use a return to come back and search again.”

“So I might end up with an Ice Fruit?”

The Banker considered, then shook his head, “Nothing completely redundant, I guarantee.”

“Hmmm… okay.  Fine. I’ll take a map.  If the price is right.”

Mensarius, ever helpful, tossed the data up on screen, snarking. “200. The same cost as buying a specific Tier 1.”

“Ah. So the challenge is everything.”

“Indeed,” he drawled.

“Well, why not.  Just out of curiosity, what Tier is Luffy’s Gum-Gum?”

“It’s one of the rarer Tier 2s,” the evil little shit sneered. “So a challenge you might actually be able to solve.”

“Bite me, Jack-ass. I found your Matrix Fragments across 200 plus planets without a map.” I turned away from him, and addressed the Banker. “Okay, talk to me about Companions.”

“I think your companions are a bunch of-” Mensarius began, but the Banker shushed him.

“As a Drop-In, you can import your up to 8 of your companions as drop-ins as well for 500 CP. It’s more expensive than the ‘Dream Crew’ option available to other origins… but it plays by different rules.” The CP Man explained. “Dream Crew costs only 300 CP and grants each crew member 600 CP, unless you decide to be a crewman yourself. Then the Captain gets 800 CP and can gain up to 400 CP from a maximum of two drawbacks.”

I opened my mouth to protest that I was fine with not being a Marine or a Pirate, but the Banker hurried to explain. “I merely offered that data as a prefatory and for comparison purposes. The Nine Divines, the Drop-In Import option, grants only 500 CP… but allows up to 500 CP each worth of Drawbacks… though each of the +300’s can only be taken by a single companion and they cannot take the more extreme ones at all.”

“More extreme… you mean the one that would bind me to the Plot-Rails or the one that makes everyone in the world my enemy? Oh. Drat.” I said as dryly as I could manage… and I can manage very very very dry when I want to. Cold air contains very little moisture.

“Err… yes… well. If they buy a Fruit, they’ll have already eaten it…” The Banker pointed out.

Mensarius finished the thought, smirking at me. “So you can’t use their CP to get something nice for yourself.”

“You’re an idiot and an asshole,” I said, glancing at him just long enough to let him know I was addressing him.

The Banker chuckled, then said “I believe your companions have already decided who’d come with you.”

“Have they? Cheeky. I’ll have to remind them that I am, nominally, the one who makes that call. Very well, send the relevant information to their tablets and bring up the general perk and item windows. I have 900 CP left to squander.”

I looked up as the details resolved in the massive screens. It was an interestingly compartmentalized document. One panel of perks, one of items, one for various races, one for being a cyborg… there were cyborgs in this world? WTF?!… one for Martial Arts, all of which looked lame… I closed that panel and the cyborg one… and the one for aquatic races. Wouldn’t do me much good if I decided to eat a Fruit. That moved the panel on ‘Haki’ into my field of view and I blinked… what the hell is Haki?

I read the description “This power is, to put it simply, weaponized willpower, giving any who possess it the ability to even the odds against Devil Fruit eaters, despite whatever defenses their power may offer them.” There were three kinds of Haki apparently; Evasion, Armament, and the super secret ‘Conqueror’s Haki’, which was a one-in-a-million thing, allowing the possessor to smother the wills of others through sheer overwhelming… well… spiritual pressure. It did mention that Haki could be learned in setting, if a teacher could be found, and it was slow… but Conqueror’s Haki had to be purchased to be the one-in-a-million. So it wasn’t so much paying 600 or 800… it was either pay zero and give up C-Haki, or pony up the complete sum for the total package and get a headstart on training the two common forms. I glanced at the general items and perks, then said fuck it and locked in 800 for the Haki Package.

Which left me with 100 unspent. Everyone got Nakama, which is Japanese for “Friend Group” and seemed like pretty much a “You make friends easy” kind of thing, which was nice I guessed. It essentially said that Fate in this world would conspire to make sure I had friends. Lovely, really. I felt like a Hikikomori being lured out of a one room apartment by the promise of “Fwendship” for a moment and considered not taking it, just out of spite, but decided against it. More friends is always nice, right?

Drop-In’s got Survivalist free, which was all about knowing where to fish, where to find fresh water, what was safe to eat and what was going to try and eat you… you know, the general knowledge needed to survive on almost any island. We also got Reinforced Clothing, which was tough against basic damage from basic weapons.

For my remaining 100, I could pick up Navigator… but that sounded boring… or Combat Training (yawn), or Swimming (weeeeee), or Gigantism (10 feet tall), some money, some swimming gear, a med kit, a basic weapon, or one of the unique compasses of the Grand Line, a Log Pose or an Eternal Pose. The difference between them was that a Log Pose would direct you from the island you were on to the next island in the chain… pseudoscience at its best… while the Eternal Pose would point you to the same island no matter where you were. They were available in setting… but also fragile and easily trashed. Having the Warehouse Warranty would be nice… hold on. “Hey, Banker guy. If I buy a Log Pose or an Eternal Pose… and it get destroyed, do I have to get back to a port to have it respawn?”

“Err… hmm… no. It’ll spawn in your footlocker.  Assuming you have a footlocker… not that you have a ship.”

“Dude… I’ve got several ships. Remember, Menche said all my high tech stuff becomes period appropriate. Which I think means that it’s seachest, not footlocker.”

“Do not call me Menche, I am neither a dog nor a human,” Mensarius sighed melodramatically. “So which will you buy? The Log or the Eternal?”

“Normally I wouldn’t buy either, since they don’t have any apparent use outside of this setting. Hmmm… yeah… I think… I’ll… Hmm… If I buy a Fruit, I don’t have to eat it, right? That’s just for companions.”

“That is correct,” The Banker nodded, steepling his fingers.

“Excellent. I’ll buy a random Tier 1 Fruit. Then raffle it off to one of my companions who couldn’t come on the trip.” A pair of large fruit themed d8s rose out of the floor on my drink pillar and I tossed them across the floor, giving them an extra helping of english with a flick of my wrist.  They landed on 4 & 6… Wheel-Wheel Fruit, which allowed the consumer to transform part of themself into wheels, with rotational velocity sufficient to move 100 kph on flat ground… as a starting point. The fruit itself rose out of the floor next to me and rotated slowly on the pillar. It looked like a vulcanized rubber kiwi.  Very appealing… not.

“Well done,” Mensarius snarked. “Now you have no ship, are stuck in the sky, and can’t navigate. I do so hope you enjoy being driven around by whichever one of your idiot followers you trick into eating that horrific thing.”

I smirked at him. “Sunny Jim… you don’t know me. You ain’t seen nothing yet.  And you forget… again… I have Ziggy and Yuzuha.”

“Those are companions, which you didn’t import,” the slimy bastard pointed out.

“I can still use them if I… ah… no I can’t. I can’t send a companion back into the warehouse except at ports. And if I use the Executor or Death Star they’re too big to be crewed by 9… How about VIctoria, VIctor, or the Black Jenny?”

“With the tech embargo, the AI sections of them would be suppressed. You would not do that to your companions.”

“Actually,” the Banker said, “The setting has machine intelligences.”

“WHAT?” both Mensarius and I said at the same time.

“Do not look at me like that,” The man-shaped thing behind the desk instructed. “They aren’t part of the dominant tech level, but there are two different tribes of Automata in the setting of One Piece. Both are remnant technologies, but they do exist… as do Cyborgs, despite the lack of an industrialized tech base.”

“Fucking insanity,” I muttered. “Fine. I’m pulling… hmmm… VIctor out as my ship this time. If I decide I need more power, I can pull out one of the other two at a port, but VIctor’s the smallest of the set.” VIctor was my assault shuttle and was nigh indestructible, since most of his body was laced with a substance from the Bastion Jump called ‘Burstone’ which was both processing system and power supply. His power core was the most heavily refined form of Burstone, a Burstone mega-core. Six standard cores could be used to restore an entire world to a previous save state. The mega-cores I’d built over the centuries since then had the power of 24 cores… and Victor had 5 of them installed, three in the central fuselage and one in each nacelle. His armor was a psitanium-uru-mithril alloy that was lighter and stronger than neutronium… and I had no idea how being turned into a wooden boat would screw with all that hyper-tech.  I was guessing not brilliantly… but the drawback would end in a decade, and any damage would be repaired by the cores once that happened.

“Have my faithless minions finished their plotting and scheming?” I asked.

“They have,” Banker Boy confirmed. “Do you want the information?”

“Eh. Let’s just roll with this.  Tell you what. Insert me now, give them the full month, then have them join me.”

“If I do that, your stay in world will be 10 years, 1 month long.”

“That’s fine. What’s a month here or there, really?”

“Very well, as you like. Insertion in ten, nine, eight-”

“Oh. I’m leaving this fruit in here. Since this chamber has security that shouldn’t allow anyone else in, or out, it should be safe here. Don’t either of you think about changing that. If this thing ends up inside anyone without my permission, you’ll owe me a refund… with penalties.” I snarled the last word, then the world went dark as the Banker’s count reached zero.

INSERTION

Huh… for being an island in the sky, this place was surprisingly… not that brightly lit. The world looked like it was inside a cloud.  I mean… not foggy… but like I was in a bubble-shaped cloud.  The sky was white fluffy clouds with no hint of blue beyond. The ground was slightly springy cloud, just as white. All the horizons were white. It made judging distance… tricky.  I mean, I could estimate how far away the walls of the open courtyard I was standing in were (about 200 yards from side to side and about 110 front to back) with a throne-pavilion thing in the center.

Of course, I wasn’t alone. I’d appeared in front of a couple dozen weirdos… most of them goat-headed humanoids in robes of varying degrees of obesity ranging from rail thin all the way up to a 12 foot tall slope-shouldered, no-necked freakazoid mostly human who had clearly never missed a hobbit meal in his or her entire life… and probably eaten everyone else’s lunch as well

There was also shirtless yabo with a serrated nose, 18 inch long earlobes, and, I kid you not, four Japanese thunder-god drums mounted on a silver halo behind him. He was blonde under a white do rag, though he had black eyebrows, and the smirkiest smirk in all creation. He was seated on the aforementioned throne… or rather, lounging upon it, looking for all the world like the picture of indolence and sangfroid. He had, apparently, been speaking to a group of four mega-weirdos who ranged from bomber ace with a feathered helmet and spike moustache, to angry black man with antler-hair, to goatee brother with a chromed dome and black sunglasses so stylish they could have sliced bread, to a living balloon who was clearly of the goat-tribe, despite wearing nearly all covering hat, goggles, and robes… all of theses people, barring the dude on the throne, had wings, feathery ones… but not ones big enough to allow them to fly. They barely stuck out beyond their shoulders and hung barely a third of the way to their hips.

A quick scan of the crowd told me that they were the Army of God, the priesthood that served the God Enel. Chubbazord was the leader of the army, Commander Yama, and he was certifiably homicidal, a true fanatic. Balloon goat-man and his friends were the four ‘Priests’ who ran the local religion… and by religion I mean fanatical despotism. God apparently was the local head of state… but the state was a theocracy and the rule of law was “Alles Verboten” kind of place. The punishment for crimes seemed to range from brutal to savage, though I’d have to scan deeper to get any specifics. Antler-Head was Gedatsu, and he was a fanatic and idiot… dysfunctionally so in fact; Chrome-Dome was Ohm, and he was out and out insane… as in he wanted to kill everyone to set them free of their burdens; Balloon Boy was Satori, a lunatic, sadist, and murderous fuck; and Sky Ace was Shura, a born warrior with a cruel streak… but also the capacity for pity and compassion. He was, by far, the most complex of the quartet; ruthless, dedicated, but not unthinkingly so, and would have born closer inspection…

Were it not for the total psychopath seated on the throne. His name was Enel… and he actually thought he was a god… and not by the local ‘head of state’ definition. His people were known as Birkans, one of three tribes of Skypieans… and aside from the ones standing in this courtyard, there weren’t any other Birkan’s left… because this absolute psycho had destroyed his own homeland (one of the most distant of Skypiea’s cloud islands) after eating the Goro-Goro no Mi… the Lightning Logia Devil Fruit… (I didn’t know the name then, it was just the magical Thunder Fruit to Enel… I learned it later, but clarity, you know?)… and he’d come to Upper Yard (the only place in Skypiea that had an actual terra-firma landmass instead of terra-cumula) to carry out a further genocide here as well… after forcing the previous God’s army to strip a ruined city of gold and use that gold to build him a flying ship that he could power with his lightning powers and which would carry him to, as he called it, the Endless Earth… and as I called it, The Moon… because, and he was deadly serious about this… as God, only he was worthy to do so.

Yeah… he had an actual god-complex… and I’d just appeared out of the ether in the middle of his courtyard of power. Of course, I said the first thing that came to mind.

“Dude. You are not a fucking God. I know. I am one… and you ain’t even close.” I think the expressions on the faces of the Army of Not-God will remain with me forever. When I say something, and say it with passion (and the anger I was currently feeling was making my words extra passionate… and scornful), my words bypass bias and stubbornness (and language barriers), and are understood as capital T truth. In that moment, all 55 beings in that courtyard knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Enel was no divinity and, within moments, they began to consider all the things they’d done in the name of their faith in Enel in a new light. Of course, some of them didn’t care (Yama, Satori, Ohm) while others were too dumb (Gedatsu and Satori’s twin brothers, Hatori and Kotori) to be bothered, but the vast majority were having a crisis of faith.

Enel was just… enraged is too mild a phrase. His expression didn’t even flicker as he launched himself across the dozen yards separating us, traveling at the speed of lightning, his body blurring into a blue electric whipcrack… and I grabbed him and Lightning-bent him, absorbing him on one side of my body and allowing him to flow out the other side of without harm. My core temperature didn’t even go up so much as 1/1000th of a degree.

The crowd gasped, at least those still paying attention, and I turned to regard the utterly confused Not-God. “What? You were expecting an actual God to be impressed by your little trick? Enel, I have ruled an Empire of Quadrillions… I’m not even sure you know what that word means.”

He snarled and swung his staff at me. I stopped it with one hand (okay… that hurt a little, but I didn’t let it show). “Your people are monsters.” I aimed my hand at Ohm and unleashed an Aku-style energy blast, knocking the bald Priest into the opposite wall in an explosion of blood. I never took my eyes of Enel. “You are a genocidal jackass.” I froze Satori, in the process of lunging at me, into a balloonsicle (was there a Bloons TD Jump?), and he toppled forward, rolling around like a marble. “You’ve abused your position of authority over the people of this land.” I summoned up a wind storm and launched Chubbozord Yama into the the stratosphere. “And I. Am. Not. Amused.”

Enel’s electric eyes widened with each of my effortless attacks on his minions, but if he had any sympathy for them and their plight, I couldn’t sense it. The dude was utterly lacking in compassion or, well, any other human emotion. He began to swell, growing larger and larger, like a hybrid of Thunder and Lightning from Big Trouble in Little China… but waaay more blue and three times as crackly.

I tilted my head, then shrugged my shoulders, cracking my neck, and tried to summon my sword… which didn’t show up.  What… the… ever… living… fuck! I wasn’t Requipping Soul of Ice from my Warehouse… I was pulling her out of my very soul! A note fluttered down from the sky. I grabbed it, holding up a hand to Enel “Hold up a second, I have to take this.”

The Note said “Your Sword has an Embargo’d tech level component.” I cursed. Yes… she did have a Pulse-Rifle as one of her components.

“THEN LOCK OUT THAT PART AND GIVE ME MY DAMNED SWORD YOU FUCKING RULES LAWYER!!” I yelled at the uncaring sky.

The Note now said “The Rules Committee is reviewing your request. Expect a Ruling in 6-8 years, local time.”

“BASTARD!” I howled, then sigh-growled and turned to face Enel. “Okay. You’re in luck. I just got some really, really, REALLY annoying news and I don’t get to stab you to death.”

“That’s Lucky?” Gedatsu asked from behind me.

“Yeah. Well, your boss is lucky because it means I’m now so angry that I’m going to punch him to death… slowly.”

“Oh.”

“Well said. Might want to step back.”

Say what you want about Enel… dude has waaay more stamina than I gave him credit for. I can only assume that, if Luffy did canonically fight this jagoff, he won because rubber is a natural insulator for electricity. Yeah. I could totally bend lightning… but there was a limit. The bolts being thrown around in Avatar were only a few thousand volts. Enough to be fatal or cause small explosions. In Fairy Tail, the last place I’d done this kind of thing on any large scale, the bolts had been in the hundreds of thousands of volts. If the name of the attack was anything to go by, Enel’s most powerful attack was two-hundred… million Volts. Sure, it still wasn’t a full power natural lightning bolt, which can get up to a Billion Volts… but it was riding the very limits of a natural lightning bolt’s amperage… which is the real killer. Each blow, and they were getting more and more powerful as his anger increased, was running closer and closer to 200 kA… 200,000 amps… which, thanks to my lightning calculation ability (yes, that was a joke… my brain can run exaflops)… I figure puts his output per blow at 40 TerraWatts… or 1/1000th of a Kardashev Tier 1 Civilization every second or so.

Those blows, despite all I could do to diffuse them… hurrrrrt.

Of course, it wasn’t one sided. I was creating hyper-cryonic snow to steal his energy and focus, leveling massive energy and sonic blasts at him, and ripping bits of him off and flinging them across the landscape, carving huge divots in the surrounding clouds, and occasionally blasting one of the dude’s followers who was standing too close. But most of all I was energy bending him for all I was worth, shorting out his control, his ability to recover, the basic building blocks of his very existence.

The fight didn’t actually take that long. It couldn’t. Both of us were moving far faster than normal humans could even perceive. Lightning moves about 300 million kph. Even I was having trouble tracking Enel’s movements and I can move hyper-sonic… In fact, it was only possible because Enel’s movements were orders of magnitude slower than that simply because his reaction time clearly couldn’t cope with those speeds. He was faster than I was in absolute speed, but I had faster reaction time. It was a battle of attrition and, by the time I finally beat the smirk off his face, I was really feeling the burn of fatigue.

Of course, he was flat on his back, mostly human again, and just sparking occasionally. I grunted, looking down at him and… despite myself… I smiled. “You… are a crappy human being, you know that.”

He looked up at me, and groaned “I’m… not really God, am I?” He looked as if I’d taken away his puppy.

I shook my head. “Not even remotely. But… you’re the most interesting opponent I’ve faced in… fuck… must be centuries. I haven’t had to go this all out since Yhwach.”

“Who’s Jubach?”

“Dickhead who wanted to kill god and remake the world in his image.”

“What did you do to him?”

“Trapped him inside the eye of god, for all eternity, alone and helpless and being eaten by darkness that would never kill him.”

Enel looked up at me, saw my face, and shuddered in soul deep terror and revulsion. I could feel the fear rising within him, an utterly alien emotion to this deranged monster… then he did something that I wasn’t expecting. “Well then… better get started.”

I blinked, surprised… and a little impressed. There wasn’t any begging, or bargaining, or wailing against the unfairness of it all. He knew he was beaten and there wasn’t any way for him to stop me from doing whatever I wanted. I leaned over him, standing crouched on his chest and looked him dead in the eyes.

“Are you expecting me to be merciful and kill you quickly?”

He considered, then shook his head. “I probably deserve whatever punishment you think I do. I assumed my power meant I was God. I assumed it gave me the right to do whatever I pleased. I have clearly offended Heaven, and they sent you to punish me.”

“Well, I don’t think Heaven gave one good damn about you… but you offended me, and I decided to punish you.”

“Go ahead then.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, “Tell me why I’m punishing you? Here’s a hint, it’s not for presumption.”

“I…” he considered, groaning in pain and bleeding a bit from the thousands of scrapes and scratches even his energy being form had managed to, somehow, sustain in our fight. I, on the other hand, looked perfect, and he knew it. He had no way of knowing just how tired and sore I was from the fight. To him, I looked exactly as I had when I’d appeared, a small, white haired, slender girl in a white and green and gold pirate-themed outfit. I’d gone toe to toe with him, and emerged unscathed to his eyes. He was using some sense, something he knew of as Mantra… but which I somehow knew was merely one part of the thing known as Haki… to scan me, to determine what I was going to do… apparently this Mantra… Haki… thing… could predict, to some degree, the future, if only a few hours ahead.

I sighed and reached down, tweaking his nose. “You can’t predict my future. And with me in this close of proximity to you, you cannot predict your own future either. I need a fucking drink… and… like… all the food. Is there anything to eat around here?”

“Aren’t you going to punish me?” He sounded a little disbelieving, and a little disappointed.

“Do you want me to punish you?”

“N… not particularly.” He was only partly lying, half to me, half to himself. Now that he had a bit of perspective, he was feeling a little guilty.  The dude wasn’t a sociopath. He was psychotic, of course… but the two aren’t the same thing by any measure.

“Heh. You’re lying. But I’m freaking starving. Now… can you stand or do I have to carry you. I need food and I’m not leaving you unsupervised… you were planning on killing everyone in Skypiea.”

“I… was.”

“Great. You do some soul searching, but get your people to bring us some food… and booze… and oh, fuck, they’re prostrating themselves.”

It took far too long and I was seriously considering turning into a giant snake and just eating a few of these bozos, but eventually they brought me some damned food. Most of it was fruit and nuts, which was nice, but they also brought fish, which was much nicer. No meat though… and no grain… or cheese… which was problematic. I was really, really hungry.

“So… E. Why don’t you have wings?”

“No idea. Everyone else does… except you.”

I chuckled and grew a massive pair of wings. “I cheat.”

He blinked. “Can you fly with those?”

“Normally, I can fly without them.”

“Normally?” He raised an eyebrow and I laughed.

“Yeah. I had to make a deal with… let’s just say there are things out there that are to Gods what Gods are to… you have bugs? Little crawly things? Many legs?” He nodded, looking confused but with dawning horror. “Yeah… what Gods are to Bugs, there are beings out there that are like that.”

“What are they called?”

“Benefactors, apparently, but I suspect that’s just a convenient appellation. I don’t think even Gods can really understand their nature. Think of them as… the places where stories and history come from.”

“I… don’t think I understand.”

“It’s okay. I’ve been at this for… you’re what… mid-twenties? Early thirties?”

He looked at me for a very long moment, then put his drink down carefully, and asked, “Are you asking a question you already know the answer to?”

I closed one of my eyes and regarded him slowly, then shrugged and nodded. “Yes. That was well spotted. You’re 31 years old, born on May 6th. You’ve got a gift for mechanical systems, and dream of going to the Moon, what you call the Endless Earth, despite having no idea what you’ll find there and having never seen it.  WOuld you like to?”

He blinked, then swallowed hard, and nodded.

“Cool.” I considered for a moment, extending my waterbending senses to feel where the moon was, then stood, pointed towards where it was, then said, “Behold. Fiat Luna!” I called, invoking the muse of dramatic presentation, and moved my hands just so, pushing the massive wall of clouds miles away out of the way with a combination of water bending and TK… and the moon hung in the sky beyond, giant and faintly golden and glorious, a shining crescent too large and close.

Enel fell to his knees, eyes wide, tears coming to them, and the gathered Priests and Flunkies… even Ohm who had somehow survived my blast… dude was tougher than I’d thought all looked stunned.

I pointed at them. “Don’t you fucking think about trying to worship me again or I’ll throw you off Skypiea and see how well you swim in the Blue Sea (they called the local cloud-water the White-Sea and the White-White-Sea… it had multiple tiers of stacked water-clouds… this place soooo laughs at the concept of physics).

As it turns out, I ended up spending a couple months with Enel and getting to know the people of Skypiea. They were, almost to a one, either terrified of E’s wrath or plotting to kill him. Okay… long story short… Turns out that Skypiea’s older than anyone has any idea about, and most of the dirt in the place… dirt as in soil, was from ships from the surface that just kinda get blasted up into the sky somehow (Later found out it’s one of those laughs at physics… and wouldn’t that be a great fake indian name… “Hello, I’m Laughs-at-Physics”… phenomena called “Knock Up Stream” which is essentially a super geyser under the ocean that moves around… somehow). Normally, KUS brought ships, but 400 years ago, it brought an entire damned island called Jaya up into the sky… complete with its gold-plated capital city of Shandora… and its people, the Shandia. Jaya is larger than all the cloud islands combined.

Presented with an unprecedented bounty of soil/dirt/Vearth as they called it, the God of the time made the obvious choice… and declared that only he and his priesthood were allowed to live there… because apparently Enel wasn’t the first dick to be God of Skypiea. So he and his forces drove out the Shandia (another winged tribe like the Birka and the Skypieans), and started a 400 year long war… and yes, the Shandia look vaguely native-american, because why the hell wouldn’t they. There was a definite Christians vs Pagans vibe going on here… though Enel was more… I dunno… maybe it was native americans being squished between christians on one side and buddhists on the other. Or maybe it was just Oda (the author) going ‘oooo, I has Idear!’ and I’m reading too much into it.

Enel and his followers had conquered the place relatively recently and driven out the previous Skypiean God, an old dude named Gan Fall, who’d been trying to get the Shandia to come to the peace table with relatively little luck.

It took a fair amount of effort to get Gan Fall, the Shandia Chief, the chief Shandia warrior (a hothead named Wiper), Shura (as the Birka representative and only sane-ish member), and the current elders of the Skypieans (the local guard captain named McKinley and this technically inclined gentleman with a brillo pad for a beard named Pagaya) all to the table… but I can be very persuasive… and once I had everyone together, I explained that they were going to make peace and come to an agreement that everyone could be happy with, or I was going to banish all of them back down to the surface and try again with a different group. Wiper tried to step to me, but I ignored every blow he leveled against me until he started hurting himself, at which point I asked him a single question.

“Is peace so anathema to you that you’d rather die than work for a better future for your children and their children?” It got through to him, eventually.

In between restructuring Skypiean society into a more rational state, and studying their very strange ‘Dial-based’ technology (Dials are the shells of white-sea creatures that can store various things like sound, or cloud, or kinetic force, or heat, and release it upon command… see also Laughs-at-Physics), I examined the ruins of Shandora and translated a very interesting monolith and other carvings.

I also spent a fair amount of time both talking to and sparring with Enel, who, aside from the whole genocidal psychopath was actually pretty fun to be around. He had a snarky and twisted sense of humor, and a keen, insightful mind. The ship he’d designed, the Ark Maxim, was impressive and could both fly and hover. It was powered largely by electricity of course, but also had backup Jet Dial thrusters. It had a lot of gold… and a weather generator onboard. Dude was a regular mad scientist, who’d been planning to use the weather generator to create storm clouds to obliterate Skypiea.

I couldn’t make him sane… that would have taken way more effort and tampering than I was willing to do, but I could give him perspective and force him to confront his psychosis. God Complexes aren’t uncommon, and they often come with Megalomania and the desire to destroy all those who are viewed as ‘lesser’ or subjects or ‘impure’ or ‘unworthy’. He was, or had been, almost textbook Narcissistic Personality. Unfortunately, this literally meant that the genocidal behaviour wasn’t, exactly, his fault.

I probably could have killed him and made it stick. Probably. Maybe I should have. He was a definite threat and had killed thousands… but in every conceivable way, I was a bigger one and had killed orders of magnitude more people than he had. Sometimes I’d even done so while sane. And… like it or not, Enel was erudite, witty, and the kind of smug bastard I actually enjoyed hanging out with.

He was insightful, and yes, a bit hyperfocused at times, but he put effort into self improvement and, to be honest, we tended to agree on the utter worthlessness of the vast majority of the population. The only real differences were that he felt superior because of his god complex and I just didn’t like them… and where I dealt with them largely in benign neglect, he was actively dismissive of them. However, he had no friends, because he was unable to comprehend people as having value if they weren’t his equals… and thus he also had no pets or lovers.

I wasn’t volunteering for either, but I was willing to demonstrate that a superior could be friends with an inferior… from the position of the superior. And I called him on his bullshit… and he had a lot of bullshit.

He also had actual monsters in his command structure, and so I had to find ways of dealing with Ohm, Satori, and Yama… and to find a place for Gedatsu where he couldn’t do too much damage. I put him in charge of one of the salvage crews that trolled the lower level of the floating cloud-sea for useful stuff knocked up from the surface. The Psychos Three, all of whom had somehow survived my attacks despite not being Devil Fruit empowered, I decided to seal in Ice-Stasis and drop into a pit, then forget where I’d stuck them. It wasn’t a great solution… but it got them out of my hair.

Just in time for my companions to show up in the bay off Angel Island. One moment there wasn’t a ship off the coast, the next… poof. Ship… full of idiots… but idiots that I was glad to see… for the most part. My ‘Nine Divines’ (counting myself as one) numbered Franky & Mini (yay! hugs!), Cirno (an almost perfect choice for the local insanity), Francine (Excellent, someone reliable), Kendra (Avast! Pirate of the Caribbean!), Reggy (who looked extremely unsure about the entire concept of ‘Fun’ or ‘Piracy’ or any of this… she was, however, glad to get away from the boys for a while… and the walls of the Warehouse… and being able to punch someone again.)… plus Kohina and her father. Kagetane has never been my favorite person… but this time I almost enjoyed introducing my old pet psychopath to my new pet psychopath. They hated each other almost immediately… excellent result.

Pulling Francine aside, I asked “Ahab? Joy? Raven?”

She smiled “Auto-Imported for the Bahs pair. Him as a Pirate, her as a Marine.” I considered that, then laughed at the role reversal from Tenchi, as Francine nodded, smiling. “And Raven in Mariejois, looking for libraries to get lost in.”

“Riiight. I assume the Strawhats haven’t even entered the Grand Line yet. So, do I want to know how you picked?”

She shrugged. “Essay competition. Caine judged, since he had absolutely no interest in coming to the place of lunatics.”

I blinked. “Cirno can write?”

“She drew a picture. Caine liked it very much.” I nodded, that made more sense. I mean, yes, obviously Cirno is, in fact, literate.  Stringing together coherent themes and convincing phrases are to literacy as a raindrop is to a bathtub, and that was not a tub that Cirno had a lot of depth in.                                                                                                          

“Well then, First Mate, tell me about our crew,” I commanded with a broad grin.

“I’d love to Captain… but… err… shouldn’t we have a crew name, a ship name… and the Captain’s name first?” she countered.

“Very Well… Apparently, we are ‘The Nine Divines’ Crew, the Ship is the Starward Victory, and I,” I stood on Victor’s rail, looking out at the crowd of small kids and confused not-angels who’d come to examine the new ship. “I am her Captain, Sunny D. Jammer!” I blinked as the crowd cheered. Why had I listed my middle initial as D? I’d meant to say ‘T’ as in James T. Kirk or Jas T. Hook. Then I glared at Francine who was giggling, having just realized I’d named myself after a fake orange-juice cocktail for kids. “Regardless, who, exactly, is my crew… and, more importantly, what drawbacks did you lunatics take?”

Francine smiled that special kind of innocent smile that fools only very stupid and gullible people, then spread her hands as if to say ‘We are innocent of all your doubt.’ I gave her one of those looks that said ‘Oh, please.’ and she chuckled, then shrugged. “Well, we’re all wanted.”

“All of you? My crew is worth 800 million Berry? Huh. I should turn you in for the reward.”

Francine blinked, “You didn’t take it yourself? It seemed like free points to us. Not like we weren’t going to be causing trouble anyway.” I love the fact that she didn’t even worry if I was serious about me turning them in. It was a logical move.

“Naw. I took Hungry instead… should have taken Wanted… ah well. So that’s 700 for each of you. Oh, before I get too distracted, how many of you bought Devil Fruit?”

“Just me. Everyone else bought maps.”

“Great. This entire trip is going to be wall to wall research and decryption. We should head to the capital, cash you in, pick up Raven and Joy, and get started on those maps asap. Have everyone bring me their maps as soon as we finish. You and I will memorize them, then burn them. Don’t want anyone else getting a chance to see them.”

She nodded, then stood at attention, faintly annoyed she couldn’t float in place as was her usual seating tactic. “I filled out my CP allotment by taking something called ‘Warlord’s Fury’ for +300. Apparently I have angered someone named Donquixote Doflamingo-” I snorted at the name.

“Really?”

“Indeed. Apparently he has considerable resources and will hunt me down for some inscrutable reason.”

“Well… that’s your game. I’ll let you play it until you ask for help.”

“Of course. We all got Survivalist, of course… as, I assume, did you?” I nodded. “Excellent. On the assumption that you wouldn’t bother taking the Navigator Skillset, I have taken it upon myself to do so, as well as selecting the Dark-Dark Logia Fruit from the Legendary Tier. It allows the User to turn their body into Darkness and to control both Darkness and Gravity, including the creation of intense Gravity vortexes. It also can nullify the powers of other Devil Fruit users on physical contact.”

“Whoa… nice!” It was. It should have been. It cost 700 points.

“Legend has it that this fruit is also capable of permanently absorbing other devil fruit powers… though how it does so I have no idea. I’ve only had it for a few hours and haven’t experimented with it too much.”

“Huh. Well. Let me know if you figure anything out. And we can test your power later against my new buddy Enel. You’ll like him. He’s mental.  As in… seriously. We’ll have to see if you can come up with any way of treating his… problem.” I flashed her a mental image of him, an image that contained all my impressions of him in one gestalten package. It wasn’t so much information as… awareness, which is why we didn’t use it for conversation, but it had its value.

“I also purchased something called Rumble Formula. It was discounted if you had bought a Fruit… but not if you bought a Map. I suppose it would have been cheaper to buy the 400 point formula and a map for 200, rather than the Fruit and Formula for a total of 900… but I wanted to be guaranteed of getting the Dark-Dark, which a map wouldn’t have.” I nodded. It made sense. And the Rumble Formula, as developed by the Straw Hat’s Doctor, the Reindeer-Man ‘Tony Tony Chopper’, allowed Zoan types to create new and improved hybrid forms for their Zoan forms.

“Uh… doesn’t the Rumble Formula only work for Zoan type Devil Fruit Users?” I asked.

“It has predictable effect on Zoans. It can still modulate non-Zoans… just in unpredictable ways.”

“Oh… is that all? Well, happy… can the Formula be used only for your powers?”

“No. It’s a formula,” she held up a piece of paper, the contents of which I immediately memorized. “Anyone can learn it. Should we burn it?” I nodded and gestured, making it flare to ash instantly. Wouldn’t do to hand out a weapon to a potential enemy if we didn’t have to. The paper itself would probably respawn in the Warehouse at some point, but it was safe there… hopefully. Some of my companions are morons at times.

I sighed, missing Ziggy. I needed a snuggle and grabbing Mini or Franky, while fun… would be for later. There wasn’t, yet, an actual port in Skypiea, so I couldn’t bring him out of the Warehouse… yet. I wasn’t planning on leaving the Island in the Sky until Luffy and Crew showed up, which I figured would take about 6 months tops. Plenty of time to build at least a small port.

“Okay, well, seems you’re squared away… though I didn’t buy a Log Pose or Eternal Pose, so if we plan to navigate anywhere, I hope one of the others did, or we’ll have to follow Luffy and company once they inevitably show up.”

Francine raised an eyebrow “You’re sure they will?”

“Don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. This place has all the hallmarks of a fantastic locale to have rollicking good adventures at. I’m guessing that Luffy was originally supposed to fight Enel.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Rubber Man with heart of gold fights evil Lightning God? That’s a plotline right out of Shonen Jump.”

“Good point. Want me to send the others in?”

“Do you know what they took?”

“Oh, sure. We conferred before we finalized. We had a plan… well, a game plan. Covering the bases type thing.” I nodded as she continued. “Let me hit the drawbacks first. Your girlfriends both took the The Hungry drawback, just like you did… though Luccini tried to convince the Banker to let her change it to Sleepy instead, but he told her she’d enjoy that too much. They also both took Drowning Hazard drawback, hoping that you’d comfort them and give them cookies to ease the anxiety of being at sea.  Of course, this means they can’t swim for shit and if they eat a Devil Fruit, it’ll develop into Hydrophobia and panic while being on the open ocean. I suspect that later on this jump we’ll be forced to block out their fear centers. Are you certain those two are war veterans? They seem perpetually silly.”

“Francy… you served with them.”

“I’m sorry. I only remember the panties. Everything else is a blur of aliens and aerial combat,” my #1 psychic said dryly. I rolled my eyes. “Continuing the theme, they both took 2 maps each. The idea is that the extra maps are for Ahab and Joy. I don’t know if it did this for you, but when they selected the Maps, the tablets popped up a slider for difficulty and a list of keywords. Luccini (Francy almost always called Frankie ‘Luccini’ because their nicknames were so similar… none one called them Francesca or Francine except Bao and he was hopelessly formal.) selected ‘Shadow’ for herself (of course she did, her familiar was Ombra… italian for ‘Shadow’) and ‘Serpent’ for Ahab. For some reason, both maxed out the difficulty slider.”

I nodded. The Shadow-Shadow Fruit was a Legendary Logia, and while Garden Snake might be a Common Zoan, a Serpent could very well be referencing a Legendary creature such as Jormungandr… though I’d never heard of a water themed Devil Fruit… Ice and Snow? Yes. Water or Aquatic? No. Made one wonder if there were any amphibian Zoan or Fish Zoan Fruits.

“And Mini?”

“She selected ‘Wind’ for herself and ‘Joy’ for, well… Joy.”

“Did those lock the difficulty?” I was guessing Wind would.

“Wind did. At Max,” Francy confirmed. “Joy didn’t. Joy had us set it for half way. So it might be Great or Decent… hard to say. Each map has the keyword on the top, so it’s easy to tell which is which.”

I considered, then said “Continue with the drawbacks and maps. We can come back to other details later. I want to paint a picture of the challenges facing us before I consider what new assets we have.”

My able Lt. snapped to attention, throwing off a credible salute. “Yes Cap’in! Kogo’s missing his left leg and right arm… though that shouldn’t matter much for reasons I’ll get to later. Reggy’s got no sense of direction and is missing her left hand. The idiot took the trifecta of annoyance… cowardly, glutinous, and directionless. Little Bit (her nickname for Kohina) took the 300-point one that made the Pirate Whitebeard and his entire fleet want to destroy her. That should be fun to deal with. Kendra took the last 300-pointer, the one that makes her public enemy #1, supplanting Monkey D. Dragon… that’s Luffy’s Dad, right?”

“So the wiki I looked at long ago said. Yes. And Monkey D. Garp is his Grandfather.”

“Why’d you look at the Wiki?”

“I’d decided to watch the Anime again and was flipping through it trying to figure out if it got better later. So I know little bits and pieces of the lore. But not enough to know where One Piece itself is. I don’t think the series had ended when I left Origin.”

“We should have an idea on that. But I’ll get back to that in a bit,” she smirked, knowing she was the only one who could actually keep me out of her mind if she wanted to.

“Fiiiine. Maintain your suspense. Maps?”

“Kogo selected ‘Insight’, Great Difficulty.” I mmmed, considering what that might generate., nodding for her to continue. Reggy selected ‘Queen’, Great Difficulty.” Cirno… spent a long time arguing with the tablet, then bought a Lowest difficulty ‘Snow’ Map.” She was smirking and I had a baaad feeling about that map, but didn’t interrupt. “Kohina took ‘Holy’… Max difficulty. So did Kendra.” I raised my eyebrows at that… what was wrong with my companions!!! Did they think I would relish a decade long Treasure Hunt full of obscure riddles and puzzles? Well, they were right… but did they think I was going to do the hunting for their fruits? I could very well just leave them to their own devices and see if they could find them on their own. I could just spend the decade lounging on clouds, not fighting anyone… that would show them!

“Riiight. Sounds like we’ve got… trouble, right here in River City, with a capital T and that rhymes with P and it stands for Piracy.”

“You’re a very silly entity, Boss Lady.”

“Yeah, well… I try. Give me the highlights of the group dynamic. The suspense is killing me.”

“You’re immortal.”

“Yeah, well, you’re a smart ass… report, sailor!”

“Nag, nag, nag. Okay. Franky took Combat Training so she’d know how to fight with gun or sword, land or sea… and how to operate flintlock weapons.”

“This place is mental. Flintlocks… and Cyborgs. For fuck’s sake.” I shook my head.

“She also took Commanding Presence… I think more for the sake of distraction than actual leadership. Navigation as well, so she can serve as a backup navigator… when she’s not wigging out… and she actually bought a Log Pose, just so we’d have one.” I grunted to show I had no comment, and she continued. “Mini and Koko took Tinkerer, so we have two people who understand the local techbase… though not as good as whoever ‘Vegapunk’ is… and is it just me or do these names sometimes make your ears want to bleed?”

I chuckled, but motioned for her to continue. “Tinkerer is a combo of jury-rigging stuff out of scrap metal and simple tools, serious tech with real tools and money and time… and allows ripping machines down and rebuilding them to learn how they work. Mini took Tinker to get the discount on the Strange Machine that IDs Devil Fruit and she also took the Devil Fruit Encyclopedia. The machine only IDs the Fruits, but until she figures out how it works, it’ll break down every time we use it. The Encyclopedia tells us what the Fruits actually do. It’s a worn out copy, but that shouldn’t slow you down.” It was true. I can read a book with a single touch, and that power doesn’t care if words are smudged or faded; as long as the page was still in the book, I could read the most fall apart delicate text. I once absorbed the data from a book so old it had actually fallen to dust.

“What was Kagetane’s reason? Something to do with his missing limbs?” I asked, beginning to worry about leaving Enel unsupervised for so long… especially with Cirno and Reggy as babysitters.

“Oh… He’s a Cyborg, Self-Made. Apparently as powerful as someone named Franky during the Water 7 Arc.”

“Whatever that is. Well, it’s not the first time he’s been a cyborg. He’ll figure it out. Hope he doesn’t go crazy again.”

“This time he chose it. Makes a difference.”

“It does… now he might have willingly sacrificed his humanity.” She blinked, then shuddered and I could tell I’d hit a point she hadn’t considered. For all her towering intellect, she still didn’t take the human element into consideration as much as she should. But then again, at her core, she wasn’t human. Just very close to it.

“He… um… also took the medkit and the box of Dials? None of us are sure what those are, but he was intrigued enough to want to experiment.”

“Ah… local plot-devices. As in local to this specific part of the setting I’m guessing. The local technology is all focused on Dials… which are the shells of White-Sea creatures. According to the locals, the ships that end up here from the Blue-Sea don’t have Dial Tech. We can have them ID’d and he can pick up a bunch more… unless he has rare ones that belong to extinct species.”

“I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.”

“I’m sure he’ll try and install some of them in his cyborg body,” I snarked.

“That too,” she agreed. “But, moving on to the less human than the Cyborg Killing Machine… Reggy. She took Precision… it heightens coordination and kinesthetic sense, reaction times, aim… the whole package. She’s also our designated Shipwright, anything up to sloops she can repair or build, at least for now. It’s expandible, easily, to the Galleon level. She also took something called Black Leg Combat Style?”

“Yeah… Sanji… the Straw hat’s chef.  It’s his fighting style. Think a combo all the kicking styles in the world. Hitmontop’s got nothing on Sanji.”

She made a face as I badmouthed a fellow Pokemon… then remembered that, as a Psychic Type, she didn’t like Fighting types and shrugged. “Okay. If you say so. The price seemed high for what amounts to a month’s intensive training in it…” I blinked, 600… even discounted to 300 was pretty high for only a month’s training. I’d gotten a mastery of CQC for that price once upon a time. “And she took the infinite barrel of grog or whatever.”

“The one that occasionally makes you break out into spontaneous shanty singing when it’s not filling you with nostalgic melancholy?”

“That would be the one. Yes.”

“Well, won’t that be fun at parties,” I said, half-chuckling. “And speaking of fun… tell me about Cirno?”

“Oh… no. Saving her for last. Kohina next. She’s a Fishman… a Lionfish Fishman.”

I grimaced at that. Fishmen are not nice folk. The only ones I’d seen in the series were the Arlong Pirates, who were anti-human racists, 10 times stronger than a human, brutal, cruel, and possessed of superhuman abilities related to their fish-species. The octopus man could spit ink, the shark man could regrow his teeth instantly… and they were both amphibious and incredibly tough… and in the water they seriously outclassed humans, since they could throw punches and kicks at full speed… see Laughs-at-Physics. If Kohina was one of them, it was interesting… but if she was also a Lionfish… one of the most venomous and beautiful fish out there… with 18 venomous spines, the lionfish was one of the most skilled hunters in the ocean, thanks to a probing head tentacle, bilateral swim bladders that give it exquisite control of its own buoyancy, and large fins… and a huge mouth for its size, which allowed them to both swallow prey whole and blow jets of bubbles to confuse enemies.  They might be small… but Fishmen where human-sized or bigger.

Granted, the poison of a normal Lionfish was rarely fatal to a human… but that was a 6 inch fish… Kohina was bigger than that and her spines would be an order of magnitude larger and, if the series was any judge, much more powerful.

“What else did she get?” I asked, setting that aside. Dangerous allies were good… even though I had a strong dislike for Fishmen… but I couldn’t assume that they were all like the Piratical Arlong and company any more than Piratical Humans were typical of humanity. And it wasn’t like I was vulnerable to poison myself.

“Two Eternal Poses. One to Fishman Island… under the assumption we might want to go there at some point… and one to a place called Raftel.” I tilted my head.

“Why that one?”

“The Eternal Pose description said ‘an island in the Grand Line’, be that Paradise or the New World. She asked for the island where Gold Roger hid his treasure.”

I blinked, then chuckled “Wow… that… is just all sorts of not fair. I do so love this kind of silliness. Okay… yes. Not sure about Fishlandia… but the other place… better have her give me that one. I’ll put it someplace safe. Instruct her and the others never to mention the name of the place or that we have a Pose that points there. Kendra?”

“Both levels of Haki.”

“Ah. Well, Ahab and Joy? No, wait… you said they auto-imported. That’s just freebies. Never mind. Now… spill about the ‘genius’ fairy.”

“She took Giant. At the 400 point level.”

I opened my mouth, then shut it again.

“And WIll of D… the Willpower slash plot armor thing.”

“Argh. She’s a 50 foot tall smiling git!”

“Pretty much. Is there anything to eat.”

I sighed and nodded. “Let’s go introduce the Crew to the locals. And get started on the welcoming party. No idea if Luffy’s bringing enemies with him or not.”

Seven Months Later.

“Captain? Amazon just sent up a ship full of outsiders from the White-Sea.” Amazon was this little old lady that ‘guarded’ the entrance from the White-Sea to the White-White Sea known as ‘Heaven’s Gate’. She was, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly clueless. Thankfully, all she had to do was hand out the welcome brochure and explain the exchange rate (1,000 Skypiean Extol equalled 1 Berry… though I had no idea still how there was even an exchange rate as there was all but no trade between the surface and Skypiea and it appeared that most of our visitors from the surface had no clue Skypiea even existed before ending up here). Prior to my arrival and reforms, she would demand an entrance fee… and not explain the exchange rate which made the sum seem extortionate… then allow people to sail on up without paying… and report them as criminals for not paying. Idiot.

I thanked the runner, looking out of the office from my newly constructed HQ at Port Jammer in the crescent shaped bay of Upper Yard. After she left, I picked up the pictures that Amazon had sent and smiled. “At last.” Standing, I pulled my jacket off the back of my chair and opened the door out onto my balcony. “ENEL! The Rubber Man has come! Cirno, put down that fishing trawler and go open the gate! Someone go find Gan and the Chief and tell them we have visitors!” I smiled as the scurrying began and looked out at the blossoming new city. We’d had to clear a huge amount of the trees that had utterly overrun Jaya since it rose to the Heavens, but even with the logging, less than a 10th of the island had been cleared. The trees were simply massive… and the wildlife extremely aggressive… especially the Shandian Godsnake, which was a surprisingly friendly creature with a very strange laugh… and a stomach full of priceless treasures, most of them gold, which now decorated my office.

As the Straw Hat’s ship, the Going Merry, docked at Pier 4, I lept down from my fifth story office and bounded across the intervening yards, leaping up onto the goatlike figurehead on the prow of the ship. “Avast! Welcome to Port Jammer, travellers! My name is Sunny and I’ve come to collect the docking fee… and to invite you all to dinner at the Governor’s Palace.” I gestured to my massive complex, though it served as City Hall far more than merely being an abode.

The youth in the straw hat blinked up at me and grinned “Is this Sky Island?”

“It is! Well, this island is called Upper Yard, though it used to be called Jaya-”

“Jaya!?” the whole Strawhat crew gasped, practically in unison.

I nodded blithely. “Indeedy. Used to be an island down below in the blue until the Knock Up Stream blasted her into the sky 400 years ago. Since then she’s been renamed the Upper Yard… you know of Jaya?”

“We just came from Jaya!” Nami, their Navigator exclaimed, sounding distressed.”

“Oh? That hardly seems likely… maybe there were two islands called Jaya?”

“Was… is there a city of gold here with a giant bell in the center?”

“There’s a city that used to be covered in gold. Most of the gold was either repurposed to make the previous God’s flagship or used to decorate the Governor’s office. But there’s no Bell in the center of town… just Jack.” I pointed at the obscenely tall double helix beanstalk that towered far up into the heavens. “Up there is where God’s Palace is.”

“God?”

“Ho… no… Not the god you’re thinking of. The local leader is called God. It’s an office. Gan Fall is the local God, but the position is being phased out in favor of the Governor, since the God was only the leader of the Skypieans and the Governor has unified all three tribes under one unified banner.”

The Strawhats looked mostly confused… brains were not major features among the human males, and Chopper’s intellect was focused mostly on medicine… pretty good for a Reindeer. Nami and Nico Robin, the newest member of the crew and a former member of the terrorist organization ‘Baroque Works’ (which, I have to admit, is an awesome name for a secret criminal organization bent on world domination), both looked at me, considering my words and judging if they could trust them. I liked those two… then I peered inside them and confirmed that, aside from some questionable character traits, all these people were, at their cores, decent folk.

I grinned broadly, making a show of innocence, as I asked, “Would you like to see the ruins? I can escort you there in the morning if the Governor says it’s okay… oh, dear… here comes the former God, Enel.” I pretended not to know what was coming.

“RUBBER MAAAAAN! Let’s fight!”

“The Governor is well informed about… err… your identities, I’m afraid. And the Ex-God has been hoping to test himself against your Captain… you are Captain Luffy of the Strawhats, right?” I beamed, flashing a smile that showed that butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth, at Luffy, who blushed a little, then lept off the boat and raised his fists. “Enel! You know how the Governor would feel about you sparring on the docks. Take it to the practice yard.” I turned to the rest of the crew and asked them if they’d care to follow me, either to the Palace or watch the fight.

After a glance at where Enel and Luffy were vanishing off towards the fairly isolated patch of trees we’d set aside for sparring… the location had previously been dominated by the four Priest’s merciless trial zones… the others decided to follow me to the Palace.

I chattered aimlessly as I escorted them, but inwardly I was concerned by Nico Robin’s memories. I couldn’t dive fully into them, not with her awake and aware, but what I could read concerned me greatly.  Her family… Her entire tribe… had been obliterated in something the World Government called a ‘Buster Call’. A Buster Call was, apparently, the One Piece equivalent of Exterminatus, a mobilization of an entire Marine Fleet to destroy whatever target the Fleet Admiral or World Government Mandarin deemed needed destroying.  In Robin’s people’s case, it had apparently been because they were scholars researching something Robin’s memories identified as “The True History”. I needed more information… so I decided to reveal myself.

Escorting them through the Palace, constructed in record time as I’d cheated outrageously in the processing of the raw materials, even if I couldn’t tech things up to any extreme degree.  I still knew how to accelerate the aging process of wood, how to enchant and shape materials formed from the various elements, and I had several superhumanly skilled craftsmen in my employ… and a trip to the moon with Enel had netted us a supply of interesting, and cute little Automata who weren’t half bad at construction. The Ruins there had been… eye opening.

“And this is the Governor’s office. Go on in. The Governor is expecting you.” I opened the door, sending a thought to Francine to enquire how the fight was going. She responded that, while neither was going all out, they seemed to be enjoying the challenge of the novel opponent. I smiled, closing the door behind the Straw Hats and grinning as Ziggy yawned at them from my desk. Nami’s eyes were bugging out at the fortune in gold that decorated my office, and I knew she was trying to figure out how to steal some or all of it. If she actually had the guts to do it, I’d let her have it. I had more than would fit on the shelves and pedestals and display tables as it was.

Chopper looked around, he’s such a cute little guy, then addressed the sleepy, oversized ferretoid. “Are… Are you the Governor?” I couldn’t help laughing, which startled the Straw Hats who hadn’t realized I’d followed them in.

I pulled off my tricorn and tossed it onto a hatrack without looking and adjusted my cuffs as I strode to the desk, growing taller and more imposing with every step, my outfit adjusting to my increasing size as it had been enchanted to do. I very quickly shot from my natural 4’10” all the way up to 6’4” in the space of 10 progressively longer strides. “I apologize for the deception. So many of our guests are, shall we say, of a nefarious bent. My subjects have just come out of 400 years of war and often questionable leadership, and are settling, uneasily, into peace. I am Governor Sunny Jammer.”

“Are you a Devil Fruit Eater?” Chopper asked, trying to figure out how I did the growing trick, since the only way he could think of involved me eating the same fruit he’d eaten, the Hito-Hito no Mi… the Human-Human Fruit.

I laughed. “No no… nothing like that…. Though I do look forward to the experience. I merely haven’t located the proper Fruit yet. But to answer your unspoken question, Tony Chopper, I am magic. Now, Nico Robin…” I said, sitting on the edge of my desk and stroking Ziggy’s soft fur. “Tell me what you know about the True History and why the World Government brought a Buster Call down upon your people?”

I shan’t bore you with the details of the conversation that followed, nor of the details that followed that, as they mostly consisted of me making arrangements to travel to Mariejois. Something was rotten in the World Government, and I needed to see for myself. What Robin was able to tell me essentially can be summarized thusly.  800 years ago, the 20 Kingdoms that eventually came together to form the World Government won a decisive victory against a nation known only as the Ancient Kingdom… and then erased all the history of the event, murdering all the scholars who knew about what has become known as ‘The Void Century’ and burning all the references… except for a series of heavily concealed monoliths known as Poneglyphs… which were, apparently, utterly indestructible to any means known to modern science.

I’d seen one such Poneglyph in the Manga, in the royal crypt of Alabasta… and discovered a second in the ruins of Shandia. The Nicos and their colleagues had been researching the True History… and for that, the World Government had murdered not only them, but everyone on their entire Island and placed a multi million Berry bounty on the head of the only survivor… an 8 year old girl.

Leaving Robin to explore the ruins of Shandia and Luffy to explain about some explorer whose great to the nth grandson was still looking for Shandia to this day, I took Mini, Franky, Kendra, Cirno, Reggy, and Enel, boarded Enel’s Ark Maxim, and headed off towards the capital of the World Government and some answers.

What I found there wasn’t answers. It was… Fury. I discovered corruption and injustice on a scale that I hadn’t seen since Black Bullet. The WG had officially outlawed slavery 200 years back… and yet the World Nobles, the descendants of the royal families of 18 of the 20 Kingdoms, a group of obscenely and decadently wealthy fuckheads, openly owned slaves. They flaunted the law at every turn because they were above it. The WG allowed its Marines to operate a de facto military state, brutally applying a doctrine of Absolute Justice which punished anyone caught associating with Pirates… or even thought to have associated with Pirates… up to and including entire nations.

My investigations in Mariejois let me from the Human Auction Houses of the World Nobles to the offices of the Gorosei, the 6 person unelected Mandarin Council that was the World Government’s executive body… and from there to Marine Admiralty… and from there to Ennis Lobby, the floating city and Marine administrative center built on the surface / top of the undersea tower that was Impel Down, the WG’s prison… and by prison… I mean concentration camp.

Anyone who pissed them off was sentenced to Impel Down… and even if the sentence wasn’t life… the guards were under orders to make sure that no one imprisoned within left alive. Prisoners were routinely tortured and experimented on.

While actual corruption in the Marines wasn’t rampant, the degree of what can only be called Dredd-esque Police-state mentality was unacceptable. House cleaning was in order… but even I didn’t know where to begin. The problem was just too… If I’d assassinated 1 fucker who deserved to die every day I’d be at it longer than my stay would last.

If I had a nuke I’d have seriously considered using it on Mariejois… but the civilian casualties would have been unacceptable.  And killing the entire Marine hierarchy… barring MD Garp, who was well aware of the problems but also lacking a solution… would have meant turning the world into a battlefield.  The WG was just too big for its administrative power to be everywhere it needed to be. I could understand why MD Dragon, Garp’s son, and, prior to my arrival the most wanted man in the world, was trying to bring the government down.

Frustrated, stymied, and (for once) with no easy answers… I returned to Skypiea, and decided, for once, not to get involved. Skypiea wasn’t involved in the World Government and I had my own quests to solve. The text of Will of D implied that those who were part of the D bloodline were being guided to something by fate. I had to assume that if I stepped back that fate would work a resolution.  If my quest for the 10 Devil Fruits brought me into intersection with the plotline… so be it… but I would not spare anyone who crossed me in that quest who I felt deserved punishment… even if that derailed the plot. We gave the world a clock. It had until we had collected the 10th and final Mapped Fruit. Once that was done, it was going to be War and damn the torpedos.

Each map was a mixture of sketched map and encrypted clues. Cirno’s was written in a Double Caesar Cypher, also known as a Vigenere, and the keyword was, as it turns out, WADDLE… the double d’s is what clued us… after ten…. Ten… fucking… weeks! That’s how long it took us brilliant minds to crack a freaking Vigenere Cipher without computers! The only maps that took longer to decrypt than that were Ahab’s… at twelve weeks… and that was written in a one time pad cipher that we actually had to find the gods-be-damned fucking actual text because OTP Ciphers are uncrackable without the original text. As in not in the age of the universe with infinite computational power… and mine… which was written in three different encryption schemes that took us six, two, and four weeks to crack respectively.

That got us a limerick riddle (one week) that in turn led us to a Winter Island (each of the Islands in the first half of the Grand Line had it’s own microclimate, despite each being on or near the equator… because we laugh at physics here.). Following the clues, we entered an ancient crypt under a low mound of stones on a cliffside and, deep inside, having waded through some frankly embarrassingly silly traps (one of them was a large, perfectly preserved pie that had a little sign saying “safe to eat”… in the middle of a trap filled crypt… riiiight. Even Cirno wasn’t that dim.

Total solve time for the first map? Sixteen Weeks… including three weeks of sailing and a week of searching the damned island for a crypt buried in snow and rocks… and that was the simplest of the maps! And do you know what we got for our troubles? DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT LITTLE TWIT’s DEVIL FRUIT WAS? It was the god. Damned. Penguin. Model. Of the Tweet-Tweet Fruit! We. Have. A. FIFTY-FOOT TALL PENGUIN… THAT CAN’T FUCKING SWIM! Oh, don’t get me wrong, she can freaking reflect cannon balls off that tummy and she’s fucking adorable… but… she’s a sea-bird who’s ungainly on land because she’s designed for underwater torpedo operation… and her powers don’t work underwater!

Still, it was a proof of concept and gave us an idea what kind of nonsense we’d be dealing with going forward. Using a fair and utterly impartial system, I determined the order in which we’d prioritize each of the remaining 9 maps… and by Impartial, I mean I played favorites like a proper bitch. My map was first, cause FUCK YOU, I’M THE DAMNED BOSS! I was sleeping with two members of my crew, so they got priority next, with Frankie winning the high card draw with an Ace to Mini’s Queen. Then Kendra… because she’s my best friend’s wife. Then Reggy, Joy, and Ahab… then Kohina and Kagetane. Not that I told any of them my reasons. I may play favorites, but I’m not crazy or mean. I just laid out the schedule, and told the others that they were free to work on the research if they thought they could help.

The research group consisted of myself, Enel, Raven, Mini, Joy, Ahab, and everyone in the Warehouse… and no… none of our damned computers were working, even in the warehouse. We were using abacuses. Even the AI systems were merely supersmart people. I couldn’t even use my hyper-computational processing power because it was beyond the curve… worst drawback ever!

Running through all the damned Ciphers for the remaining 9 maps took a solid year, almost to the day. Some were simple. We solved Kohina’s map in a day. Joy’s map was in the Enigma Cipher. It took us a week to build an Ultra Machine from memory and reference books, but that wasn’t too hard. Mini’s turned out to be written in 18 different symbol sets, then encoded, but it only took 3 weeks with the Rosetta Stone to work it out. Kagetane’s was written in the same language as the Voynich Manuscript… so that took us a month. Reggy’s was clearly written by a lunatic, and wasn’t just encrypted… it was keened… as in the method epic poetry uses to… never mind. If you don’t know what keening is, look it up… it’s fascinating but really really confusing to back decrypt… especially if you don’t know local mythology.  Five weeks of reading weird local myths to make sense of it… and that was after the two months it took to render it into something readable in the first place.

After the decryption phase always came the research phase. Had to take the clues and use them to find the correct island after all… and wasn’t that loads and loads of fun. Kagetane’s map and Mini’s maps required pretty much no research. Mini’s clearly referenced Alabasta, while Kagetane’s was a famous observatory. Joy’s was in Mariejois. No trouble finding those.  Even mine, which had a key on one island and a lockbox on a totally different island, didn’t take much more than a month of research to find either island. But then there was Frankie’s Island… 7 weeks to figure out which of a ring of 10 nodes of a massive atoll where the paths between islands flooded except for a few days every year.  The ring was huuuuge… and all one island according to the Log Pose, but we had to find the correct node and that took time… especially since they were virtually identical and pretty much devoid of landmarks.

But that wasn’t the worst, nor was the ten weeks we spent crawling through government census records to figure out Ahab’s map.  Nooo… that prize goes to Kohina’s map at seventeen!  Seventeen weeks of collecting and reading and cross referencing every holy book in the history of this world! SEVENTEEN! I was dreaming in holy texts! Do you know how fucked up some religions Holy Texts are?  Shudder. I need brain bleach. I used vodka and Binks Brew…

Now, I don’t want you to think all we did was travel round the world in a flying golden battleship and read incessantly. No… we also sparred, tested out new tech and new powers, and spied on the Straw Hats… and continued building Port Jammer in preparation for a coming war with the surface… and restructuring Skypiean society with all the force I could bring as God-King of the Magi. And relaxing. Stressed brains don’t do good work… but we put in a solid 4-6 hours a day, 6 days a week working on these blithering maps, bouncing from one to another as research materials became available and breakthroughs were made that allowed renewed progress.

Then, once we had an idea of where to go and what to look for… there was the trip itself, which often included opposition from one or more unfriendly parties. These ranged from random (and often insanely weird pirate crews, sometimes challenging us to something called a Davy Back Challenge, where the idea was that we’d do stupid pirate themed things in order to win members of the other crew or the symbol of the opposing crew. Me not being insane, told the rival captains that they were idiots and to fuck off.) to deadly (Marine Fleets, Edward Newgate… i.e. Whitebeard, Marshall Teach… i.e. Blackbeard, Shanks… i.e. Luffy’s hero, Donkeyhotey the Pink-git… the only man who could actually make World Nobles look like reasonable people, Big Mom… a giant, insane, and hideously ugly pirate queen with an obsession with collecting things.) Thankfully, very few of them had any defense against my Freezing everything in sight… but Devil Fruit Eaters are fucking scary in the total illogic of what they can pull off.

Whitebeard could create tremors and earthquakes. Blackbeard had the same fruit as Francine and more skill in using it. Big Mom had a fruit that allowed her to manipulate souls… and boy howdy wasn’t that a treat, having my soul ripped out of my body… thankfully I have experience being OOB and punted the fat bitch into the sea. Donkey Boy had control of strings… from puppeteering to monomolecular wire. He was not a fun enemy to deal with.  One of the Marine Admirals was this guy named Sengoku who could turn into a massive golden buddha statue… not into the buddha… a statue of the buddha… what the fuck?

For the most part, I wasn’t interested in fighting these fools, but it did manage to slow me down avoiding them… and you’d think with a flying battleship… the only damned one in the entire world I wouldn’t have to do this shit! I sooo miss plasma cannons!  And Satellite Recon!

Anyway… it took nearly a year to locate my fruit, and while we managed to find the key pretty easily, it took six weeks of crawling through a massive three dimension warren of tunnels some lunatic had bored into the ground beneath Hard Stone Island. There were miles of them… many of them quite tight, and several of them boobytrapped in painful ways… and there was an army of mice… things… voles? I dunno. They were really really hard to fight. Vole Ninjas I think. Voljas? But finally, after fighting through the Voljas and the Skeleton Samurai Hoste, and fighting/solving the ancient warmachine/puzzle box (I couldn’t just destroy it, the fruit was inside it), and then having to sit in decontamination for a month thanks to the MUTANT Ghost-Fleas the chest had been laced with… MUTANT GHOST-FLEAS PEOPLE!… I finally claimed my prize…

The machine ID’d it as the Dook-Dook Fruit. The Book informed me that the Dook-Dook Fruit was a legendarily dangerous fruit that turned the eater into a kleptomaniac and that all previous eaters had been hunted down and destroyed and the Fruit sealed away to keep its powers from darkening the world once more. However, it ID’d it as a Zoan type… I had a sneaking suspicion about this. But hey, when in Insane Rome, do as the Insane Romans do! I ate the damned thing… after making sure I was wearing not one but four Underwater Materia. Because fuuuck youuuu. I’d miss eating Seakings in Stormengandr form… or pretending to be a Sea King for that matter, but I had to try out the Fruit’s power for myself.

Imagine eating raw sewage. No… on second thought, don’t. Regardless, I can’t imagine that Devil Fruit taste any better. Uuuugh. I looked in a mirror… yup… I was ferretmorphic… again. Transforming into a hybrid state wasn’t particularly hard… I just had to think about it… and not think about turning into my Ferret-Tengu form. Of course, the markings were different. That had been a silver-grey asian ferret. This was a european polecat ferret, a bandit… and a big one.

In my tengu form, I had small delicate claws and sharp pointy teef. In my Devil Fruit Hybrid form, I was hulking, with half meter claws, 14 inch fangs, and skin like… I dunno. It was tougher than leather but flexible.  I quickly discovered that I could fit through any gap… no matter how small as long as it wasn’t, you know, molecule sized… And I wasn’t a bad digger.  But where the really meta cartoon logic came in… even more than being nigh-impervious to physical damage… seriously, in hybrid form, I could barely feel incoming blows and if I puffed myself up I just bounced off of the terrain… but I could now fall asleep anywhere… at any time… which was useless… and I could, with minimal effort… I don’t know how to explain it… I could just… radiate this aura of being utterly clueless. Didn’t persist if I did something aggressive, but I could make people think I was an idiot.  But toss a Rumble Ball down the hatch… and shit got real.

I appeared to be able to steal… well… anything. Just as Tony Chopper could analyze weaknesses… I could take things… things like wallets sure, but also things more ephemeral… like happiness, or memories, or your left arm. Me stealing it didn’t cause wounds, didn’t make it not yours, and I didn’t seem to be able to actually do anything with what I stole… they were just mine… and oh, dear lord did I find myself kendering it up sometimes. I kept stealing my enemy’s noses… just to spite their faces.

Worryingly, things I stole had a tendency to… clump together if I left them untended or near each other, and mutate or combine in unpredictable ways… so I tried to give them back or stick them someplace they couldn’t cause problems later… if I thought about it. But napping was often a higher priority. Also, Luffy now smelled extremely tasty and I had to stop myself from chewing on him whenever we would run into each other.

28 weeks later, we located Frankie’s Shadow-Shadow Fruit on an upside down mountain hanging from the roof of an undersea cave so deep I have, to this day, no idea if it went all the way down to the core.  The winds were horrific.  35 weeks after that, We located Mini’s Woosh-Woosh Wind Logia Fruit, and if you think that sounds prissy… we’re talking about a grapefruit that turns the eater into a walking Typhoon at will. Being becalmed is for people who don’t have their own wind elemental. After that it was Kendra’s fruit, which was in this secret level inside Impel Down, which meant breaking into a secure prison, then breaking out of it to access an area the guards didn’t know about but that the prisoners did (it was ruled by drag queens), then breaking out of the secret level without letting the guards know it was there… then breaking back out of the prison with the fruit.  The Hito-Hito Model Kali Fruit that turned Kendra into one of those many armed bronze statues of Kali… 100 feet tall.

That took another 7 months… then Reggy’s 21 week quest to find what turned out to be the “Termite Model: Hive-Hive Fruit”. There was a series of Zoan-type insect fruits called Bug-Bug Fruits… but the Hive-Hive Fruits weren’t Zoan… they were Paramecia and, at will, Reggy could bring forth swarms of termites… which was ever sooo disturbing.  She could also control them, causing them to swarm over her enemies or reshape the terrain… or just eat an entire ship in minutes.  Yerrrrg. But it made her inordinately happy for… reasons.

We were, by this point, 3.5 years into the decade and Whitebeard had been murdered by Blackbeard who’d stolen his power, becoming the only person to ever demonstrate usage of two powers at once, at least as far as I could tell… though everyone assumed I was running around with the powers of a good half dozen fruits at least and my bounty was up to 10,000,000,000 and still climbing… not surprising since I’d murdered by that point 41 World Nobles by crucifixion… I’d had to break into a lot of houses to get the reference books I needed and I figured, while I was there, I might as well do some housecleaning and general piracy… and slave freeing.

There’d been some major changes to the world political spectrum and shakeups in both the membership of the Gorosei and Marine High Command, not to mention the deaths of one of the Yonko (the four most powerful pirates… namely Whitebeard) as well as among the 7 Privateer Lords that the Government subsidized. I had a growing network of spies and accomplices, needed to get me my research material, but paid for in part by Gold Roger’s incredible treasure… thank’s mate. I also funded Monkey D. Dragon’s rebellion, shipping them weapons, as well as arming more remote islands against pirates and funding a counter piracy fleet in each of the Four Blues (the oceans that weren’t Grandline.). I had no idea what the original plotline had been or if I was disrupting it, but I really didn’t care. This world suuuucked.

Joy’s Fruit ended up being the easiest to find… taking a total of 10 weeks and overcoming the storm system that surrounded the Island was by far the hardest element of that trip, as it took half of it and nearly wrecked the Ark Maxim. In the end, we located the Joy-Joy Fruit… yes… seriously… in a cave on a tree that received only a small amount of light each day. The fruit looked like a weird swirling bunch of grapes… and after Joy ate it she spend a solid week laughing, giggling, and chortling. Then again, so did we. It was a Paramecia that held the power to make people happy, bringing forth laughter and good cheer.  She could force it, that much was clear, but just being near her tended to make people feel a bit better, being more positive and hopeful. A sufficiently bad mood could deflect the effects, but it was great for crowd control.

Unfortunately, we clearly got too confident with that easy catch, as Ahab’s took almost as long as mine did. Twelve weeks to solve the cipher, 10 weeks to do the research, and another 19 weeks to actually overcome the insanely nested riddles once we’d managed to navigate round the world and find Skypiea’s evil counterpart, Birkovia. Birkovia was a roving thunderstorm, full of sky nazies who had lightning and thunder weapons… and who managed to capture Enel and me in seacloud shackles that rendered us powerless… yes… even my other powers that weren’t from Devil Fruits stopped working thanks to the Devil Fruit’s curse.  Grrrr. Five weeks to wait for a rescue while on trial as ‘Enemies of the State’.  Then another 2 weeks spend evacuating the survivors of my companions’ somewhat over enthusiastic rescue operation that ended up shattering the Birkovian capital island in the process of blowing up the Birkstag.  I wasn’t kidding about them being Nazis.

Ahab’s Fruit was, indeed, a Mythical Zoan, as it turned him into a ridiculously huge ‘Serpent’… a sky serpent… think Luck Dragon… but five times as long.  He actually once tied himself in a knot trying figure out how to fly in that form.  It was hilarious.  And he wouldn’t let anyone help him so he was stuck like that for daaays!

Kohina’s Drawback, since Whitebeard was dead, seemed to have transferred over to Blackbeard instead, which meant that we had to fight the megalomaniac a bunch of times… 5 to be specific. Most notably for research material. I told you that solving her riddle was easy (less than a week), and the research was grueling (more than 17 weeks)… well, Blackbeard is why. He was on the trail of the same Fruit we were. It was a Legendary Fruit called the Sutra-Sutra Fruit and it contained the power of “The Word”… as in the holy word. As in… well… as it turns out, the power to turn things into books, scrolls, or carvings… to produce books and scrolls… or to even turn parts of your own body into books, scrolls, carvings… or words. Kohina could actually hide inside a text. She could do that thing from Buffy where Willow just sucked all the text out of books… and she could blow away the undead and other impure things simply by utter holy words… it was a little terrifying and well worth the 32 weeks we spent on it.

By comparison, Kagetane’s Insight Fruit… it turned out to be the Eye-Eye Fruit, was a cakewalk of epic proportions. The only part of the 12 week process that took time was the decryption and the travel. Research was a breeze, it took a day to consult some maps. The temple it was in was clearly marked… and the two guardians were almost grateful for someone to talk to and some food to eat that wasn’t mushrooms. The result however, of him eating the fruit was… well… can now call him Panoptes.

His sight became superhuman… from all the eyes on his body… which were or could be everywhere… in fact, he could look at a person and see out of their eyes… or look at an animal and see out of its eyes… or look at a wall and an eye would appear there and he could see out of it. He could see out of the eyes of pictures, statues, needles… He could look up at the sky and a giant eye would appear that he could see out of. He could even create eyeballs to throw at people or launch like bullets.  It was… eyeful… sorry, I couldn’t resist.

And then, suddenly… we were done. Our grand quest, a quest that had lasted five years… was over. There were 55 months left… 4 and a half years and time had run out for the World Government. My army attacked Mariejois in force from both the Paradise and New World Sides in a concerted action, my forces and those of my allies shattering the army of cyborgs they threw against us. For every one of my people who fell, 8 of theirs went down, and within an hour we had shattered the defenses and were pouring into the city proper.

My covert strike team had arranged to assassinate or capture the entire WC and Marine High Command and, without that leadership, the defenders were summarily routed as they couldn’t coordinate worth a damn.  It was all going smoothly… too smoothly. We’d managed to gather up all the remaining World Nobles and freed their prisoners and slaves… when a second fleet hit my forces from either side. On the Paradise side it was the Marines… on the New World side it was Blackbeard and Big Mom, united as one. I sent my companions to fight the Marines, while Enel and I went to face the pirates.

It was one of those epic and epochal fights that take 5 episodes to complete and can best be described as fight porn. The battle raged back and forth across the decks of a dozen ships, splintering their boards and shattering their hulls as we flowed in a dance of destruction.

Teach was using gravity and darkness against me, I was using ice, fire, and the sea itself against him. But for every power I manifested, he had a Devil Fruit that could counter it or protect him from it. He had plot armor the likes of which I’d never dreamed existed.

Finally… finally. I managed to maneuver him to a place where I could beat him… when there was a titanic explosion as all five of the shattered hulks surrounding us exploded. Teach was intangible and even so I saw him flinch and cry out as seastone shrapnel filled the world.

The deck beneath me was sinking… and I couldn’t move. I was covered in sea stone, with needles of sea stone stuck into my skin and I knew, in that moment, how Harry Dresden felt fighting the little nail armed fairies. I was powerless, or nearly so. I was still immortal… and I had Underwater Materia to keep the pressure and lack of oxygen from getting to me… And that’s why I spent nearly 4… fucking… years… lying at the bottom of the OCEAN! But, hey, at least I was at the Beach, right?

Next: Of Slugs and Salvation

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