LET THE CHILDREN DANCE
Previously: So Much Senseless Violence
Themesong: We Shall Overcome by Mahalia Jackson
AN: I don’t normally do this, but trigger warnings for the end of this chapter. Also, just an FYI, this is a long chapter, and it barely scratches the arc planned. There will probably be a total of three more chapters covering this world, so buckle in, hold on tight, and, as the woman says, “Let’s be about it.”
There was a little girl, four years old, daughter of a friend of mine and a former master of mine, running around my Warehouse, giggling and trying to catch Ziggy. Ziggy, being a silly thing, thought this was a lot of fun. Atura and I, being (in theory) reasonable people-like objects, just stared in open confusion.
“Did you…” Atura began.
“She’s not mine… either way,” I said, waving my hands in negation.
“So you…” she started to suggest.
“I did not take a four year old from her parents. I only shanghai people, I don’t kidnap children… not counting Black Bullet. That was a rescue op.”
“I don’t know. Look… I’m sorry you had a rough time. I… I’ll hook you up with a better vacation from the violence next time.”
“Actually,” she said, blushing and scratching the back of one arm. “It was strangely cathartic.”
“I was not… perhaps… being fair. About the Entities. I knew they were evil. I knew it… I just… there was so much collateral damage. We destroyed entire worlds… and it wasn’t the first time. You did it while I was incubating. In Halo Collection. Worlds full of living people. And… and I couldn’t understand how you could kill all those innocent people.” I opened my mouth, but she shook her head and kept speaking. “I… I didn’t have the perspective. It’s not that you were killing them… you were just unable to save them without putting everyone else at risk or making victory impossible. Gastrea, Fleet/Flood, Entities… I had my own… mutants, cybrid joes… not as bad… cartoonishly evil at times… but I understand now. Like the Zombies you faced so long ago… it’s like an infection. Sometimes healthy tissue has to be cut away because it’s too close to the rot to save. Like…” she swallowed hard, tears in her eyes. “Like cutting down healthy trees to make a fire break.”
I nodded, feeling the weight of all the lives I’d sacrificed over the ages as a firebreak against one creeping horrible threat or another. Against Imperial Guards, against Serpents, against Vord… Against the uncontrolled rise of Planet. The blood on my hands would drown the world if brought together, or so it seemed. “Still. I’m sorry I forced you to be part of that. Most of the Entities were on uninhabited copies of individual worlds, but sometimes they or their Shards… I had to get them all. The cycle was cosmic cancer and we only had one shot to get them all.”
“I know… and I know that for every world you… we… destroyed, millions… billions of copies of that world and its people were saved… but dealing with numbers and transdimensional math… it’s hard to think of those things as real. It was like…” she trailed off then, then sighed. “So I was angry. Not really at you… just angry… and then… then you must have messed with the system to send me to a world where I could let off steam. A world full of horrible people and horrible…” she shuddered. “Horrible mutants. And so we had to fight every day to survive… because I didn’t want to let them win. I didn’t want to go down fighting. I wanted them to stop being horrible, but they couldn’t… not as long as they lived.” she hugged herself and sighed. Then she smiled a wan smile and asked, “So… how was your decade?”
I blinked, then laughed. “There was a great deal of punching, kicking, elbowing, kneeing, and in general hitting people with parts of my body and trying not to get hit by parts of theirs. But almost everyone I hit was trying to hit me, so it worked out well.”
“There was this one shark-toothed elf-like kappa-boy. He was just… creepy and opportunistic. I only smacked him through a few walls… but I’m not certain if he actually took damage any of the times I used Sense Bestowing Fist.”
“Is that like Get a Clue Kick?” she asked archly.
I laughed, “I haven’t used that since Ranma. Ah… Good times… Anyway, that little girl is named Akira Hopachai. She’s the daughter of a very sweet and simple Muay Thai master named Apachai Hopachai and a very silly young woman named Shirahama Honoka who mostly studied Chinese Kenpo, though only to the Disciple level. And I have no idea why she’s here… I guess it’s something we should ask the ‘expert’ about,” I said, referring to Jumpchan.
“Is she doing any better?”
“Still a raging booze hound and meth head, but yes. Martially functional. Has taken up gardening over the last few years… why are you giggling?”
“You said Martially functional!”
“Oh… I meant mostly… or mentally. Not sure. Anyway… you coming back inside? It feels empty up here,” I tapped my temple. “And I can’t imagine it’s very comfortable in there with Soul and Judge and no extra space.”
She nodded and her form dissolved as she (and all the abilities she’d taken from me) flowed back into me, along with a decade of memories of fighting mutants and cyborgs… and wow… that was a lot of bacon. And a lot of really cringe-worthy dialogue.
“Jump…” I asked, opening the door to the new greenhouse I’d installed for Jumpchan. “Why is the…” I trailed off. Holy shit that was a lot of… “Is this… weed?”
The Chamber came out of the near jungle and snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. These aren’t weeds. It’s mostly a mixture of Piper Methysticum, CBD-Dominant Cannabis Indica, and THC-Dominant Cannabis Sativa… though there are some Papaver Somniferum over there and some Erythroxylum Novogranatense in the back. And I’m setting up smaller groupings of others.”
I blinked, then groaned. “So you’re saying you’re growing Kava, Marijuana, Opium Poppies, and Coca? You’re growing drugs?”
“Purely recreational. Not medicinal!” she protested, as if (somehow) that would make it all better.
“You’re growing all this for personal use?” I asked, keeping myself as emotionally contained as seemed reasonable. In general, I only use emotional controls when I absolutely need them… they have a tendency to blunt the experience of living. Also, I was faintly amused by this in addition to being a little outraged.
“Not only for personal use! I’ve also been selling some!”
“Oh. right… because what’s a timeless methhead to do if she’s not also a drug-pusher?”
“Not the drugs. The plants!” She fumed. “My plants are healthier and stronger and have improved chemical loads with greater ease of extraction and fewer counter-whatsits!”
“Riiight… great. EssJay’s travelling interdimensional quasi-legal pharmacopoeia… fuck it… I don’t care. Not my shitshow, not my concern what people do to their own bodies. Anyway-”
“Seriously? You’re fifteen thousand years old, largely immune to side-effects, and you haven’t experimented with psychoactive substances?” It was like being lectured by an aunt about doing drugs… except in bizarro-land.
“Mm… no? I mean some weed… and a lot of booze… and some skooma… but uppers and levelers and psychotropics bug me. I don’t mind depressants so much I guess. But I don’t like things that fuck up my thought processes too much. Awareness Spectrum Narcotics are okayish… hallucinogens? Not so much… But that’s beside the point! There’s a four year old chasing Ziggy.”
“And how the hell did she get into the Warehouse, Chamber? I didn’t clear her and, as far as I know, I’m the only being who can clear anyone for entry!”
“Mmm…” she said, then brought up the command console in midair. “She’s listed as a paid companion.”
“What? I didn’t pay for her… and she’s four… she belongs with her parents!”
“Free Companion, one free for all. ‘Master’.”
“Wait… what? Master is a Companion option? It didn’t say they came with… and I picked her father, not her!”
“Mmm… nope. It says you entered Ryozanpaku Master: A. Hopachai.”
I opened my mouth… closed it, then summoned a book to smack my head against. Several times. Finally feeling a little better, I asked, “What… exactly… is she supposed to be a master of? She has trouble even staying on her feet. She’s barely mastered being potty-trained! SHE’S FOUR YEARS OLD.”
“Four years and two months,” The Chamber pointed out pedantically.
“Thaaanks,” I drawled, then shook my head. “I can turn down freebies. Put her back.”
“I can’t.” She shrugged.
I narrowed my eyes and half growled, “Why not?”
“We’re already disconnected from her home reality. You can’t use a return for at least a jump. I suppose you could put her in stasis until we can return her… but…” she slowed, considering something.
“Well, you’re planning on sending Atura to someplace nicer, this time? Yes?”
“I…” How did she know that? Of course. Silly me. “Higher’s sent you a plan for something, haven’t they?”
“They have. They suggest something called ‘Disney’s Frozen’.”
“Frozen?” I paused long enough to recall the film and all my feelings about it. It’d come out a few years before I’d entered the chain and I’d loved it… and even joined in the shipping war on the side of Elsanna. Elsa was, in fact, a bit of an idol of mine way back when I’d first become an Ice Conduit and more than once on Svalbard I’d stood on a mountaintop and sung ‘Let it Go!’. On one hand, it was a great place to send Atura and the little one… but on the other… “Awww… I kinda wanna go to Arendelle,” I muttered, pouting a little, then asked, “Speaking of which, where am I going?”
“Somewhere called the HonorVerse,” Chamber replied, spritzing some budding Sativa. She watched me do a little happy dance and remarked, “I assume this means you are pleased?”
I was, in fact, so pleased that I kissed her cheek and whooped. “Remember the uniform I wore in Kantai Collection? That was a Royal Manticoran… aaawwww… poopy.” I sighed heavily, part of my elation falling away.
“Poopy?” She asked, arching an eyebrow. “This, by you, is appropriate speech for a Senior Jumper?”
“Senior huh? I dunno about that, but yes, it’s appropriate for me. I’m so torn!”
“Torn? Torn how?”
“Well… I kinda want to be a naval officer and do all the official stuff… but I also kinda want to be a treecat! I mean, I can probably get my own treecat… probably not wise to import the Zig as one… but it would be really cool to be able to be a treecat… so I’m torn… but still Honorverse! YAY!”
“Higher has ‘An Offer’ they believe you will want to take, a form of challenge mode, with a reward they believe you will enjoy.”
“Oh? Cool. I like that kind of thing… as long as it’s fair. Is it fair?”
“Yes. You will be paying for it by taking a number of drawbacks, some of which you will know about, some you won’t until they become self-evident. The reward will be secret until you’ve managed to earn it.”
“I suppose the earning it will require a secret test of some kind?”
“Simply do your best,” she assured me. “Would you like to know the restrictions?”
I looked around the greenhouse, then asked, “You got any product ready? Of the high THC variety?”
As it turned out, she did, and we retired to my lounge to get well and truly blazed as we discussed the options and limitations, as well as Atura’s build for Frozen. I was quite looking forward to sampling her experiences when she got back. It sounded like a lot of fun.
======OF FROZEN WATERS=====
“This won’t quite be a normal Side-Jump. Atura will be the Jumper, not just the Primary here. This does mean that should she die, you face chain failure, I’m afraid, but Higher does insist, since you and she are effectively one being. You’ll have to trust her to be able to avoid danger. The benefit of this arrangement is that companions of hers need not take drawbacks to pay for the vig as you call it. She’ll be starting, in fact, with one-thousand Choice and your Floating discount from Single Shot, and each companion, eight of them, will gain seven-hundred Choice to spend on perks, but not items, as well as gaining a free origin and associated freebies.”
I consulted with Atura, and she seemed to think it was reasonable. Not like there was much of a threat in Frozen… but it wasn’t without risk. “Okay. Anything else?”
“Yes. She’ll have to face her own challenge, a hidden drawback, and do so without any access to superpowers, that being anything overtly OCP and ‘vulgar’, or your more extreme clarketech. Local tech plus a reasonable amount.”
“Ummm… huh… I suppose… We suppose…. But we want a guarantee of no accidental deaths or stuff that there was no reasonable way to anticipate and stop. If she’s going to be nerfed that hard, we need to make sure nothing ridiculously unfair is going to happen.”
“Very well. Nothing unforeseeable or out of context or totally random shall befall Atura during the next jump. I don’t think it would have anyway, but I understand your caution. Now, who do you want to accompany her?”
“We don’t know,” I said, speaking for the both of us. “It largely depends on what origins are available… So what is available? Something based on Elsa & Anna, something based on Hans, something based on Kristoph, and something based on Olaf?” I guessed.
Chamber exhaled slowly, the cloud of euphoriant smoke coiling lazily, and consulted her notes. “Royal, Townsman, Foreigner, and Nonhuman.”
“Is control over Ice the Royal Capstone?” Atura asked, using our voice.
“No,” Chamber said, shaking her head. “Elemental Queen is an undiscounted five-hundred Choice… though the ability to be an Elemental yourself… Atura’s self… is the capstone of the Nonhuman line. But the element in question is not limited to merely ice. Elemental Queen allows one to command one of the elements on a grand scale, be it fire, water, wind, earth, rock, lightning, wood, gems… common physical elements… not things like darkness or magic… though like Elsa, Atura will need to learn to control it or risk hurting others… though never herself, of course. Abominable X-Man uses the same elements, but turns you, Atura, into a living golem of that material. The actual Royal Capstone is True Love’s Kiss, which can be used to heal someone you truly love or be healed by someone who truly loves you. It will heal even the worst wounds, remove any curse, and even clear away madness… though it can’t be used too often. Once every ten years per person, it can be used to bring someone back from death if they’ve died only a short time before… and once per jump, it can be used to bring you back from the Dark God’s realm.”
“Oh… that’s… uh… Nice…” Atura managed. I understood her reluctance. She was a caring sort… but the emotional bond of love was something spirits really didn’t do. To love… or to hate for that matter, as a spirit? It was to fundamentally change the nature of the spirit… forever. “Nonhuman? Is that just snowmen? Or… I guess… woodmen, firemen, or rockmen?”
“Oh. No. Normal animals and magical creatures too… though they don’t come with powers unless you spend points on them.” The living avatar of a stone room wrinkled her brow… “Though the description is a bit… wonky. It says you can be an animal or a magical creature… then says you can only be a normal animal… that’s not very consistent… I’d say you can be anything that’s not human that doesn’t have any special innate powers.”
“Hmmm… Arendelle is Norse, right?” Atura asked. Then I nodded, which to an outside would seem as if I was agreeing with myself… which to a large extent I was. But Atura and I did have separate personalities and she couldn’t automatically access my memories nor I hers. There was a degree of compartmentalization, no matter how close we were.. And that was when we were in total sync. Right now we were mending our relationship… but it wasn’t there yet. A little more distance and cooling off was probably warranted… especially considering that the coming jump for me was likely to be one of war and intrigue. Atura could really use a relaxing Disney Vacation… man… I miss Disneyworld.. I used to love going to Disney… it was the most magical place on Earth… funny how infrequently I went to amusement parks now, even when they existed in a given setting. Funny I hadn’t built one on any of my worlds… I wonder why not.
“A stand-in for Norway, yes,” Chamber agreed. “Why?”
“Oh… I was thinking of maybe being a Sjora?” Atura proposed.
I had to dig deep into my mental records for that one, though I did find it. A ‘ra’ was a spirit or troll in scandinavian lore… but the lore of them was very spotty at best. The most well known was the Huldra, or Forest Troll. A Sjora was a freshwater spirit, more a nymph than a troll, but still a bit famous for drowning the unwarry. An image came into my awareness as Atura showed me what she was thinking of. It looked like a furry lamia or naga, a dark-skinned, white haired… maned really, half woman (upper half), half snake (lower half). It would probably have worked as an image of a selkie as well, if selkies weren’t shapeshifters.
“Pretty,” Chamber said, examining the projected image. “Seems fine to me… So… freebies… Everyone gets the ability to sing quite well, even while dancing about or coming up with a song right on the spot… that seems to fit with what I know of the Disney milieu… and as a Nonhuman, you gain the perk ‘Talking Up a Storm’, which means you’ll always be able to communicate with someone else, even with just body language, gestures, and facial expressions, as long as you know a language they understand. You can also speak without the needed speech organs if you like.” She paused then, making a face and rolling her eyes. “As for your free item… I remind you that you can turn down freebies.”
“Is it that bad?” Atura asked.
“That depends on how you define bad. Not bad per se… more like extremely annoying in an attempt at being endearing,” was the reply. We just fixed Chamber with a steady gaze and, after a few minutes, she sighed and said, “Fine. Fine. Remember, you asked for this. Jumpies are copies of you, only ankle height. Mischievous, troublesome, clumsy, clueless, easily distracted… and dedicated to trying to make sure you’re having fun… a dozen of them or so. And they come back a few minutes after being killed.”
“Soo… ferrets?” I asked.
“More sapient and tricksterish than most ferrets,” Chamber explained. I favored her with an ‘Oh, please.’ look and she blushed faintly.
“Wait… would they be tiny versions of me? Us? Her?” I asked. “And if her, you mean as a Sjora?”
“Yes. The last. Little tiny amphibious fur-snakes girls,” Chamber said with a nod.
“Oh. That sounds… like they’d be chased all over the place by Ziggy… and probably enjoy it immensely.” I commented.
“It’s free… I’ll probably regret taking it, but it’s free,” Atura said. “So what else do nonhumans g… oh… right. I wanted to buy Elemental Queen… can it be Metal?”
“Mm… yes. I guess. Seems a bit vague, since the vast majority of chemical elements are, technically, metal. Let’s say yes, but that it must be classical metals. Tin, Aluminum, Copper, Nickel, Zinc, Cobalt… say everything that’s not radioactive between Titanium and Gallium, Zirconium and Tin, Halfnium and Bismuth… and aluminum… and only in alloy with each other or relatively pure forms, no yanking iron out of people’s blood. Does that sound reasonable?”
We nodded. It was pretty reasonable. Of the first 118 physical elements, 90 were metals or Metalloids. Removing everything in the first three and last three groups, all the metalloids, and everything radioactive left 33 elements (it would have been 34, but Technetium was odd-man-out in group 7, being the lightest element that existed only in radioactive isotopes). That the power would grant the ability to create and control most of the more useful metals was just… bwahaha… and when the two of us came back together… my control over ice and her control over metal (which would be insanely more powerful than my control over metal) would allow us to do some very real fuckery. Good Fuckery… i.e. against our foes… and the laws of physics. Always a good thing.
“So… what does being a nonhuman have to offer… aside from being a golem?” I asked for Atura, who was distracted trying to figure out what kind of dress she could make out of metal… and how to work a dress around a mane and tail.
“Two other perks. Memories of a Batter Time and Troll Magic,” Chamber said.
“Sorry. Better Time… I was thinking of making some brownies… I’m starving,” she said, looking around for something to eat.
“There’s always food,” I said, clapping my hands and summoning Butlerseid. “Bring us approximately a hundred thousand calories worth of junkfood… sweets for her, chips and dip and greasy food for me,” I ordered, then turned back to Chamber. “So… tell me about Memories. I think I already know Troll Magic… healing, weakening curses, nearly perfect memory alteration?”
“Yes. Essentially spot on,” she agreed. “Memories fills you with cuteness and an eternal wellspring of joy, happiness, and innocence that will last through no matter what you experience or how long you live. One could honestly mistake you for the personification of a little girl’s memories of childhood wonder. Other people can sense this in you, making you a lot easier to get along with and a lot harder to do nasty things to.”
“Oh… well… huh. I guess I’ll take both… that’s 300?” Atura asked.
“Yes indeed… ooo, cake!” the benefactor said, snagging a whole chocolate cake the size of a dinner plate from the cart Butlerseid was pushing.
“So… I’ve spent 800 of my thousand… What costs 100 or 200?”
“Not taking any other drawbacks?”
“I… mmm… no. I don’t think so. This is a vacation, right?”
“Indeed. Well, let’s see, there’s a Valley of the Living Rock for 150. That’s a secluded valley-”
“Full of annoying love obsessed trolls. No thank you,” Atura said dryly. “Next.”
“Lets see… For 100 we have an unbreakable sword… winter clothing… a canon companion… an elemental dress… an unlimited supply of snow and ice…”
“Wait, what was that?” I asked.
“An unlimited supply of snow and ice? It’s called ‘Winter Supplies’. It’s 100 CP. All dispensed from your warehouse.”
“Atura… think what we could do with that.”
Atura hmmmed, about to protest that we could already generate as much Ice as we needed… then she paused, realizing that this would cover the one major limitation we currently operated under… we needed a source of water to generate ice. We could store up and expel cryonic blasts and huge amounts of water… but it wasn’t unlimited. With this we could terraform worlds… or just drown them if we wanted to. “Ah… yes. We’ll take it. Thank you… oh, and the elemental dress too.”
“Power Clothes. It’s called Power Clothes. Able to form itself out of any element you can control or the four basic elements of fire, water, wind, or earth. Despite their material, they’ll never be able to harm you or any other person.”
“Excellent. We’ll take it. We look fabulous in elements,” Atura joked. “Now… unless EssJay objects, I think I’ll take Ziggy and Sophie, who could use the romp in the snow, Petra, Cirno… taking Ice to an Ice Fairy… AJ and Francine… Tokimi-Chan… and of course Akira.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said, my voice the same but the intonations and accent were different.
“It’s very disturbing when you two do that,” Chamber commented, then sent build information to the tablet on the table next to me. We had two builds to do, since Akira wasn’t old enough to do her own build and Ziggy wasn’t smart enough… arguably, in the past, Cirno hadn’t been smart enough either… but that’s beside the point.
I left that process to Atura and chatted with Chamber about inconsequentialities while scarfing down mexican springrolls and nachos. By the time Atura was done, records indicated that everyone else had filled out their own builds and were lined up at the door to mooch snacks and present.
First in was Sophie, who wuffled, dropped a drool-soaked pad on my lap, then padded over to where Ziggy was sleeping and flooped on top of him. A moment later, a small nose poked out from under the fur, but that was the limit to his protest.
We’d given Ziggy ‘Nonhuman’ of course, making him a Fylgja, a norse animal spirit that follows a person and marks their fate in some way. A white mink of course… and yes, that meant he’d be followed by a dozen or so goofy tiny ferreties, which was win-win in my book. We also gave him Memories of a Better Time, because he already was a little girl’s sense of innocence and joy and wonder… and True Love’s Kiss… because Ziggy LOVES EVERYBODY! Lick lick lick.
Sophie had also taken Nonhuman, as an Adorable Pet apparently, though I was looking forward to her singing only slightly more than I was to Ziggy’s, as well as Memories of a Better Time…. Because again, she was a font of joy and happiness and fluff. She’d also gotten Troll Magic, and the Townsman 400 called ‘Nice Guy Syndrome’ which was where, when you did nice things for people, they were genuinely grateful and liked you more… unless they told you to fuck off and you kept doing it… because that wasn’t what Nice Guys (or Good Doggos) did… and Sophie was Best Doggo.
Petra was our third nonhuman, and between stuffing her face with mini pizzas, she explained that she’d picked Arctic Mountain Gorilla… i.e. a yeti for all intents and purposes… and one with elemental control over magma… if that was okay with Chamber.
“Magma?” Chamber considered, then shrugged. “Lava? I… I guess. It’s a commonish physical elemental substance. Why?”
“Not Lava. Magma. Lava is just surface Magma. Magma is all of it. The underground, the on the surface, the solidified into Basalt, Pumice, Scoria, or Obsidian,” Petra explained.
“Oh. Right. Very well then,” Chamber agreed agreeably.
Among the humans (well… people who’d be in human guise) were Akira (who’d gotten the entire Townsman line), Francine (who’d taken the entire Foreigner Line), and AJ, Cirno, & Tokimi-Chan who’d apparently decided that Elsa and Anna didn’t have enough siblings to enhabit that big old palace. For Akira, this amounted to the Nice Guy perk, the warm winter clothing, a freebie called ‘The Real Me’ which meant that people would see her and judge her for her inner self, not for acting like a Hopachai… or her mother, the brocon twit, and a perk called ‘Wild Man’ that would allow her to get along with animals (nearly to the point of speaking with them)… even normally hostile ones, and make her good at wilderness survival. The capstone was called ‘Bit of A Realist, Mostly a Hero’, which would encourage people around her to be a bit more realistic and likely to think about what they’re doing rather than going off of superstition and impulse. It encouraged people to be reasonable and have more common sense, to reach solutions that were morally good and ethically sound and would generally make them happy. It was an all round perk that seemed entirely fitting for the little girl… and would also work on her… so, double bonus.
We also grabbed her the royal freebie ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” which would make her words and pleas easily pierce through the mental, emotional, or physical barriers people erect to keep others out, forcing them to listen to her and judge her statements fairly and genuinely consider her requests… as long as she can find the right words.
If the Townsman was the nice guy package… the Foreigner was the scumbag package and we regarded Francine long and hard when she presented it. That she started off with, “I thought we were going to be doing intrigue and spaceships… not tea-parties and snowball fights,” did not endear her case to us particularly.
“I am,” I said, “Atura is taking the little girl and you guys to Disneyland: Norway for the decade. Now… why?”
“Someone has to be the badguy?” she ventured.
“Riiight. Try again,” I drawled, then pointed out. “Francy… the freebie specifically states ‘The Real You is a slimy, sneaky, devious little snake!’ and ‘in reality, you’re as villainous as they come!’. This is not a good thing to take!”
“Hyperbole. I checked. It’s not an enforced personality trait. It’s an example. It just means you… me… I’ll be fantastic at hiding how bored I’m going to be surrounded by mental midgets.”
I eyed her suspiciously, but she just smirked. Finally I muttered, ‘Go on.”
“Well, Head Heir makes me the favored child of my parents, or adoptive or surrogate parents, meaning I’ll get the best treatment and best toys… the best inheritances!”
“Sounds reprehensible,” I muttered darkly.
“New Age Conqueror makes me a master at infiltrating courts and organisations, making myself established and influential and indispensable until it’s time for me to take over the position of a superior! Repeat as needed! And with Claim it for Yourself, the capstone, I’ll always have that one chance I need, whatever my current goal. Well, once a year at least. The more outlandish the goal, the less progress the chance will offer… but it’ll be there!”
“Yes. I know. I read the blurbs when doing Ziggy and Akira’s build. It’s… really sketchy.”
“I know! It’s going to be soooo much fun! I always wanted to be a Grima Wormtongue!”
“No you didn’t,” I growled.
“Yuh huh! I mean, not really, but playing the role is fun! It’s like smirking and rubbing your hands together. The Vizier, the power behind the throne! The whisperer in the dark.”
“Siiigh. You’re doing this just to get on my nerves, aren’t you.”
“Maaaaybe!” She said, bouncing out… and then we realized all the spoons were gone. Damnit!
AJ just shrugged as if to say, ‘Hey, I just sleep with her… you’re the one who recruited her.’ I frowned at him and he bounced a pearl onion off my nose, then caught it on a plastic cocktail sword before it fell into his drink.
“I represent the only boy and middle child of the family. At 15, I was twelve when King Agnarr and Queen Iduna disappeared at sea. We’re assuming that Arendelle’s monarchy passes to the eldest child regardless of gender here. Cirno and Tokimi are twins at 14. They haven’t decided if they’re going identical or fraternal yet. We’ve all got ‘Loved by the People’ which makes us clearly royal and gives us the talents to be excellent queens… or I guess kings, though it doesn’t say that. They’ll accept us for our selves, not holding unnatural powers or beliefs against us… unless we purposefully hurt them for fun… but as long as we treat them nice, they’ll like us…. I was torn however. I bought True Love’s Kiss… just in case… but that left me with 200 CP and I didn’t want to take Favored Heir from Foreigner because that would probably make me the next king instead of Elsa… and I didn’t think it was right to take Memories of a Better Time since that would have made Anna much less lonely… so I went with Wild Man and decided that I routinely escaped the palace to go running off… Cirno and Tokimi took Elemental Queen each… Plants for Cirno, Gemstones for Tokimi… and the explanation is that they’ve been secretly raised by the trolls and Elsa and Anna don’t know about them, remembering them as the daughters of their aunt Griselda thanks to Troll Magic and stuff.”
I considered that, then conferred with Atura, and in the end we felt that was a reasonable and respectful treatment of the story, so we wrapped up the meeting, and called for a family dinner to say goodbye for another decade, then, after a long party, sent Atura and her companions into the jump and got down to working on the details for Honor Harrington.
=====THE CHALLENGE INTRODUCED=======
Once more back with Chamber, this time without the drugs (at least on my part) and in my office, not the lounge, I was looking over my Honorverse notes and asked “Okay, Chamber, you mentioned a ‘Challenge Mode’ for a prize… what are the rules of this challenge?”
“Well, first, instead of starting the jump at age 35 in PD 1900, you’ll begin the jump when you’re born, and only regain your memories slowly over the course of several years… along with your skills and abilities, of course. Your companions will likewise be starting the same way,” she said, settling back, and I could tell from her posture that this was not going to be a short list. I nodded, not saying anything, but indicating for her to continue. “Second, you’ll be here at least 100 years, but you may stay as long as you like or until you die of old age.”
I quirked an eyebrow at that, since I was effectively immortal and ageless, but merely added it to the growing list of questions I had, still not interrupting.
“Third, your ships are limited to the local tech level in terms of weaponry and propulsion, shielding and communications. No intersystem FTL-Comms, no hyperdrives, no planet busters… though you can still bring out Disco-Moon and War-World, or Paradiso or the Executor in all their massive glory.” I smirked at that. So far, while I did have questions, I had no direct problems. “Fourth… this is a space opera. It would look silly if you flew around freezing starships in ice and TK detonating missile salvos or using the Killing Curse on the Field of Honor… so all your out-of-jump superpowers and all abilities or items that could be considered magical are hereby locked out… though of course you can make full use of your Warehouse, your advanced intellect, your skills, and all of your out of jump technological knowhow, you incredible cheeselord.”
I blinked at that, then decided I had to ask, “a) who the hell taught you the term Cheeselord? b) what about technomagic, c) do my companions get anything for being forced to live through infancy and childhood again, and d) does that include things like my Mental Palace, Astral Layers, Soul of Ice, and Silent Judge?”
She grinned, then chuckled. “To answer your questions in order; Your Son, if it can be taught to in-setting scientists without perk-sharing or giving them magical potential it’s technology, they get another +100 if imported and it only applies to imported companions, and while the Mental Palace and Astral Layers are purely mental, it would normally include Soul of Ice and Silent Judge… but we’ve got an offer for you and them that we believe you’ll take, as it addresses your previous concern.”
“Oh? Really? Care to lay that out?”
She pursed her lips, then shook her head. “Allow me to finish the list of challenge restrictions first. Next… fifth… as you enter this jump, you and your companions will be stripped of all knowledge about the Honor Harrington novels, storyline, or setting, retaining only whatever in-setting your jump-identities manage to gain or gaining a basic generic citizen level of knowledge for the locale they start in if not imported. Any attempts to cheese around this by leaving yourself reminders, stored memories, copies of the novels, etc… will automatically fail and such things will mysteriously disappear until after the jump ends.”
I frowned at that… shit… that was a lot of my plans out the window… and how the hell was I going to keep from upsetting the very delicate web of cause and effect now… Shit.
“Last, at least of the drawbacks you’re allowed to know about, is The Salamander. Because we… Higher that is… expects you to be exciting… you’re going to be a trouble magnet to outright fate-bending levels, always guaranteed to find risky adventures, death-defying battles, and harrowing crises on the regular. You know… just like Honor herself. Worry not, you’ll have opportunities to rest and recuperate, but leading a truly quiet life or just running off and hiding? Not going to happen. Now, to be fair, if you’re near the Salamander herself and not in a different faction, this will simply guarantee you place among her supporting cast as long as you remain in her vague proximity.”
“Oh? Is that all?” I snarked, shaking my head slowly.
“No. There are a further 300 CP of Drawbacks that you will have to discover on your own. That brings your total to 800 CP worth of Drawbacks plus 100 CP just for Items, your floating discount from Single Shot, and +200 for each of your companions, of which 8 have been paid for, each of them getting a background, all freebies, and eight hundred… sorry, one thousand CP to spend as they like, though not on other companions of course. And as for your Frick and Frack,” she said, referring to Soul and Judge, “They will be given access to a different jump-tree that also leads to the HonorVerse… one where they will be incarnated as Tree-Cats for the duration. Your fleet girls… and Odwet will also be using that document to outfit their shipselves, as they will be locked into the mode of Ship’s for the duration.”
I muttered at that… Yuzuha might not be happy about that. Ziggy was spared it, since he was off with Atura… “What about VIvian?” I asked, since technically my Warehouse’s central computer was a Third Generation Juraian Treeship, though she seldom left the Warehouse for any reason.
“No. She lacks a human form. If she leaves the warehouse, she’ll be restricted just like your other ships are, same for VIncent as humanoid robots are not part of the HonorVerse mythos, but they are not technically companions or fragments of you.”
“In that second document, you’ll be allowed to select up to two drawbacks to add to the 1000 CP that will be available to spend on the cats and ships. You, and not the cats, will have to deal with those drawbacks, and they cannot contradict or overlap ones you take from the primary document.”
“Gotcha… shit… ummm… What’s the Drawback limit on the primary?”
“There isn’t one,” she said, waggling her eyebrows at me suggestively. Of course there wasn’t. Higher was just trying to get me to bite off more than I could chew.
“Riight. Fine… Fuck it… show me the Cat Document’s drawbacks first… just the ones I can take…” I tapped on my desk surface as the list showed up as a set of 11 boxes, prices ranging from +100 to +300. “Just two?”
“Just two,” she confirmed.
“Mmmm…” The +100s were a lunatic’s idea of a good time. ‘DNR’ would give me Honor’s inability to use Regen therapy… and amp it into a fatal allergy to all but the most basic first aid… fuck that, not for +300. ‘Ordering a Pizza’ would make everything more complicated and take longer… not for +200 would I take that one… and ‘Reporting With Precision’ was almost exactly the same thing, meaning every report I gave or received would be needlessly long. Space battles might be long tedious affairs during the closing and missile flight sections, they could and usually were split-second affairs in the thick of it. Idiocy. “No. No. No.” I said, sliding them into the garbage. Not a promising start.
The +200s were just… so much worse! ‘Manticoran Missile Massacre’ meant that wherever I was in battle, the Missiles would prioritize my ship as target… fuuu… huuu… ccck… that. Even at my full power that would mean taking multiple IMPELLER-POWERED 500 Megaton plus nuclear warheads to the face, and it scaled up from there. X-Ray Pumped Fusion Lasers? Dozens, or hundreds of them? The Deathstar would not have lasted particularly long against the kind of missile salvo a single squadron of Manty Pod Super-Dreadnaughts could pump out… and certainly didn’t have the range to fight them… Hell, even my upgraded DS2 (now called Disco-Moon) would have trouble shrugging off the kind of missile salvos that got thrown around in the later books… Hundreds of thousands of advanced fusion powered ECM protected missiles accelerating at over a thousand gravities and protected by impeller wedges? Good Grod no thanks. What was the builder thinking?
‘A Little on the Young Side’ was marginally better, but not in the fun ‘I’m jailbait’ kind of way. Nooo… If I took it I’d be being blackmailed by the Young Family, the Manticoran Earl of North Hollow… rapists, blackmailers, and scum through and through… errr… And killing the North Hollows would see the release of the information, information guaranteed to see me shunned and possibly lynched by any society. Couldn’t pay me enough CP for that one.
Then there was ‘Cut Yourself On the Bleeding Edge’… which would make the concept of tech advantage even more fleeting and would effectively lead to power escalation that would likely see the Honorverse plunged into an era of planetary extinctions being the norm. For god’s sake, does no one at Higher actually consider the ramifications of such things?
In fact, the only one I’d have considered taking was the final +200s, but I’ll get back to that in a moment. The +300s were actually a mixed bag of idiocy and bonkers. ‘Aircar Accident’ would only cost you 30 seconds out of your stay… but could result in you killing an ally or a surrendered foe… or just blowing yourself up… or worse? Using the unrestrained powers of a jumper. +300 for something that might have you commit uncontrolled genocide or kill yourself? Not for +1000. ‘Nova in the Chamber of Star’s’ and ‘Peace at Last’ were both chain-fails waiting to happen. The first required making the Solarian League function as intended by the end of (at most) 52.5 T-Years… and the second required reuniting Grayson and Masada without allowing either to be destroyed or without overt tech… as a man, it would be hard. As a woman? Nearly impossible. The less said about the blacked out ‘Satan Cat’ drawback, the better.
Which left me considering the +200 ‘Jumpower Incorporated’, which was horrible, but doable. It would shift my starting location and genetic origin to a Manpower Incorporated slave pen… on my way to the euphemistically named ‘Phenotype Technicians’… i.e. trainers for sex slaves… for ‘processing’… i.e. rape and torture. Fuck it. I didn’t need a reason to hate Manpower, but with my knowledge of the setting removed, having my slave number tattoo’d on my tongue would guarantee my everlasting hatred of those eugenics embracing bastards. Also, it was one and done for 200… If I couldn’t escape on my own at first… well… would tell… and it’s not like I wouldn’t have my technology.
“Okay… that’s set,” I said, leaning back and shaking my head. “Most of those were garbage. I could have done the Solarian one or the Grayson Masada one with knowledge and or powers… but I wasn’t sure how far the tech ban for the second extended and I don’t like the Solarian League enough to save it in its current form.”
“Very well,” Chamber said. “Do you want to do the cats and ships first? Or your main group?”
“Which is shorter… never mind. Cats. Let’s do that. That’s only 1200 CP and the ships… I think I’m getting a headache from the myriad options… okay… so… what’s up with the Cats?
====UP WITH CATS====
“First things first. This document has nationality and background, as does the main one. In this, there are (in fact) more of each than in the other, but the overall options are less. For Nationality, this one features Manticoran, Havenite, Grayson, Solarian, and Mesan… all of which are in the main document; Beowulfan, which is included in Solarian one would assume; and Silesian, Andermani, Erewhonian, and San Martino, which are not. In the main document, each of the nationalities has their own perk tree but not an item tree, while in this, each merely has a single trademark perk that’s free for that and 200 for everyone else. For occupations, they both have Drop-Ins called Drop-In, but while the main features only two others in the form of Navy and Civilian, both with complete perk and item trees, this one features three others in the form of Marine, Spy, and Commander, each with a complete perk tree and two discounted items.”
I considered all that for a moment, wondering why there were two different jumps… then realized that there had been three different Star Wars Jumps to date… and were probably more out there… The main one was probably based on Honor and the other on Treecats? Or the Torch Series? Or maybe the short stories… it was a fairly massive series, well on its way to 40 books back when I’d left Origin. “Okkkay… I mean, I guess the overview is nice… but aren’t Treecats only from Manticore? Or can Soul and Judge… heh… Soul-of-Ice and Silent-Judge are pretty decent Treecat names… be Andermani or Grayson Treecats… technically there are Grayson Treecats by the end of the series… but not when I’m starting or for years after. And Treecats are all spies… or marines kinda.”
She chuckled a bit, took a sip from her Tom Collins (I’d spent some of the last decade educating Chamber in the finer points of food and drink, and while she was still too unpicky, if that’s a thing, she was getting more discerning and less liable to eat actual garbage or drink lite beer… especially not American Lite Beer… uuuugh. “I mention it partly because being a Treecat technically means being a Manticoran Drop-In, but also because you have 6 ships and 8 slots, so you’ll have two leftover slots for more traditional companions here… or you could import the ships as people and not as ships,” she explained.
“Oh… well… cool I guess. Now… do I get the perks they buy? Or do they?”
“You’re still technically the same being. So you’ll all have your admittedly reduced perks as a collective… though you’ll have to communicate on a less soul to soul basis assuming you can locate each other… though Higher says that won’t be impossible… you’ll still have much of your luck. Regardless, since the Cats are Manticoran, you’ll be collectively receiving the freebie called ‘BuWeps’, which means you’ll inherit the advantages of the Manticoran techbase… a thorough grounding in local technology, from material sciences and counter-gravity to Warshawskis and molecular-circuitry… as well as gaining a significant boost in R&D capabilities paired with a ‘feeling’ when there’s more to explore, allowing you to make progress even when the rest of civilization assumes a problem is insoluble.”
I grinned at that. “Groovy. I love tech perks,” I said, rubbing my hands together in glee. It really wasn’t anything I didn’t already have per se, what with Civilization’s ‘Tech Tree’ allowing me to see all the steps between what I had and what I wanted to develop… but that assumed I knew what I wanted to develop. If I was in the dark… I was in the dark. This wouldn’t exactly provide a map out of the cave… but it would be like a breeze tugging at my consciousness… and that’s not a bad thing. [AN: because of using both the Honor Harrington and HonorVerse jumps, I’m renaming perks from the secondary jump (HonorVerse) that have identical names to ones from the Primary (Honor Harrington). My reasons for using both will become apparent eventually. BuWeps originally bore the name Jeune École. The other that got renamed is The Saganami Tradition, which (as you’ll see below) is renamed A Tradition of Excellence.] “So… What’s free for Drop-In, or is this one of those jumps where the Drop-In’s get hosed?”
“No, no. Nothing so cruel,” she hastened to assure me as Judge and Soul manifested themselves as phantom cats (normal four legged felines, only transparent) and sat on the desk, watching the proceedings since they hadn’t been asked for feedback yet. “Though it’s not particularly useful for Cats, seeing as how they can’t speak… it’s called ‘Bridge Repeater’ and allows you to convey data quickly, accurately, and with an efficiency of effort. No tripping over strings of alphanumerics or failing to be hyper-accurate because of limited time concerns.”
“Yaaaaay?” Soul hissed, ears back, then yelped as Judge swatted her.
“It’sss Free. Don’t complaaain,” the darker feline said, then curled up, head on paws and eyes slitted to stare at Chamber.
Soul meanwhile just flopped over on her side and sighed, “But it’s booooring!”
I had to agree, but didn’t say so outloud. Both cats knew it anyway, since they were part of me. “Now… about being a cat?” I asked, “Does that come with anything? Like Empathy or improved balance or something?”
“Well, yes. It comes with the Treecat body as an alternate form, as well as the upgraded version of the Empathy Perk for free. If you buy it again, you can upgrade it to Memory Singer, thus allowing you to share not just emotions and thoughts, but also memories with other treecats… though honestly, your psychic powers already allow that, and since that’s not a superpower for cats in this setting, those two will retain it… will they be a single cat or a pair of cats, by the way?”
I was about to answer that, when Silent Judge mrowled, “Meee? Share space with herr? For EssJay knows how long? Noooo thank you.” Soul drooped her ears, then noticed Franchesca’s Ombra in the branches of VIvian and decided to chase the eternal panther cub.
“I guess that answers the question,” I said, wondering if Treecat fur was really as soft as the books said it was. In the books, the cats were 140cm long obligate carnivores with six limbs and telempathic powers… though a full half of their body length was from their big fluffy tails. Every part of the Treecat was dedicated to survival, from the centimeter long retractable claws on feet, handfeet, and truehands, to the needle-sharp teeth to the prehensile tail that could unfurl to reveal a dorsal gripping pad or coil up tight for more balance. They were arboreal hunter-gatherers, and not only could they take out a human in a fair fight, but in groups they were able to bring down even the most dangerous of their world’s apex predators… the Sphinxian Hexapuma and Kodiak Max… They were generally viewed by most of society as cute but mostly harmless and as intelligent as a Terran Dolphin.
This was a charade, and one that had lasted centuries. In fact, despite being the smallest known sapient in the setting, they were, thanks to having not one but two brains, full tool users and arguably as intelligent as human beings. That they could read the emotionals states of human beings and even form very real mental bonds with human bondmates was an impressive example of cross-species adaptation, though between their own kind they were fully able to communicate telepathically and empathically, with Memory Singers being able to read, store, and distribute the memories of other cats, thus rapidly propagating any new skill or innovation across the global population… hence the centuries long charade. They could even adjust the emotional levels of their bondmates, making them happier, more stable, and more emotionally healthy in general.
They were one of the selling points of the series, to be honest… though also one of the settings greater tragedies, since, prior to the development (relatively recent in the timeline of the HonorVerse) of Prolong, the Cats had almost always outlived their human bondmates, since the Cat’s normal lifespan was on the order of two and a half Terran centuries. That the cats had continued bonding with humans even after realizing that their new friends would age and die long before the cat did was testament to the strength of their affection for humanity as a whole, since a cat whose bondmate died often soon wasted away as well. That some of the fandom felt the cats were secretly manipulating humanity was just idiotic…
I turned to Chamber. “The hidden drawbacks better not be that the cats are secretly evil or i’ll be seriously pissed off.”
“No no… that is an option, of course, but one locked out by your purchasing of Treecats as allies.”
“Good… Now… any other freebies?”
“Well, yes. A free Hang Glider that will make you feel more centered and make your traumas a little easier to push away after you take a brief glide… and a Celery Patch so fertile it can be harvested multiple times a week, full of Sphinxian Celery.”
All three of me perked up at that. Normal celery was like… ambrosia to cats. Sphinxian Celery contained the trace nutrients that the cats relied on to keep their telempathic organs in top function… something only available prior to its development by humanity by locating a rare and not particularly tasty native plant. In fact, it was the Human colonist’s development of the local version of celery which had brought the two species into contact, as prior to that the Cats had deliberately hidden themselves away from the strange invaders.
It was Honor’s great-to the umpteenth power-grandmother Stephanie (she was born 352 years before Honor) who discovered the Treecats after one of them, known to the cats as ‘Climbs-Quickly’ and to humans as ‘Lionheart’, began stealing celery from the various greenhouses in her town of Craggy Hollow. Stephanie (from whom Honor inherited her middle name), at age 11 T-Years, figured out how to photograph the thief and tracked him into the Sphinx Bush… only to have her hang-glider crash. With a broken arm and a wounded leg, she would have been killed by a Hexapuma but Climbs Quickly felt her fear and panic and came to her rescue. After he was wounded defending her, she managed to mortally wound the hexapuma with a vibro-knife.
Not only was she the youngest person ever to discover an alien sapient species, and the first person to bond with a Treecat, and the only human to ever survive a Hexapuma armed only with a vibro-knife and survive, but she was responsible for transforming the Sphinxian Forestry Service into what is described as ‘the finest eco-management organization in the sector’. Furthermore, she was the driving force behind the Ninth Amendment to the Manticoran Constitution (which she also wrote) which formally recognized the Treecats as sentient beings with full (minor child) legal status. She had six children, kept her maiden name, and lived a little over a T-century. When she died, Lionheart suicided, but their legacy lived on in all the hundreds of other bonded pairs over the next three T-Centuries. She even married a man who was part of a bonded pair. Long story short, it would be very interesting to learn exactly how celery tasted to the six-limbed arboreals.
“Oh… that will be nice… now I just need a bunch of raisins and peanut butter… or a bottomless pitcher of bloody marys… Ah, thank you,” I said as Alegra, my fox familiar brought me a squeaky California Raisin toy someone had given Ziggy at some point. The Warehouse, for some reason, kept all of Ziggy’s toys from wearing out… anything of mine not CP backed? Needed maintenance or occasionally to be replaced… I knew which of us was the favorite. But to be fair, he was my favorite too… but I scooped up the white furred red fox and tickled her belly. “Okay… anything else?”
“Indeed. While not technically free, for accepting the Shipping ban, you’re being given two minor items from this document, gratis. The first is called ‘Old Tilman’, which, in addition to being a regular supply of Honor’s favorite beer, also comes with a refilling set of drink specific containers each for an excellent beverage of your choice, be that cups of cocoa, sweet Potsdam wine, or simply some hot Earl Grey with Ginger. Your drinks will always be at the perfect temperature.” As she spoke, a highball glass containing yes, a bloody mary, appeared on the desk in front of me. I sipped it as Alegra savaged my fingers with her tiny teeth and Chamber continued. “The other is a set of Skinsuits for you and your… cats. They come with all the amenities, be that an automated first aid system, self-sealing capability, and biofeedback servomechs to allow even suited personnel to thread a needle in vacuum. Normally, they take some time to prepare, but yours slips on and off incredibly easily, even over other clothes… it can be donned or removed in less than ten seconds and you won’t even muss your hair. Your personal suit will be integrated into VIctoria, who will serve as your suit’s ensuite AI… not that there are such things in this universe normally.
“Excellent, excellent,” I nodded, then asked, “When, exactly, do I get access to my Warehouse?”
“When you turn twelve,” Chamber said, and I grimaced, but nodded. That would be a reasonable time… but it meant that I couldn’t rely on any of my equipment to escape Manpower.
“Wunderbar…” I muttered, then said, “Okay… hmmm… tell me about the perks on offer… oh… how many CP do each of the ships get? And how much will that cost me… us?”
“The price has already been paid for importing 8 ships or companions. They will get their choice of nationality and occupation, as well as the associated freebie perks and discounts, and 600 CP. Like you, they will be destined to rise to the heights of their professions. The ships will get a ship form dependant on how much you pay for it and you get 1000 SP to start with and may buy more Ship Points from BuShips at the cost of 50 CP for 100 SP. Importing each is free for smaller vessels and 100 each for Ships of the Wall… plus paying the cost of the actual form.”
I thought about that for a minute… then grinned. “Cool. But let me see if I’ve got this right? I pay 100 for each ship of the wall to import them… and more for upgrades I guess?” She nodded. “Could I import, say, Executor? Make it a CLAC?” I asked next, referring to the Light Attack Craft (LACs) Carriers that were developed part way through the First Havenite War. LACs were non-hyper-capable intra-system mini-destroyers, essentially a hybrid of patrol boats and fighter jets and previously thought to be all but useless in the modern military before the CLACs changed all that.
Chamber nodded. “Of course. But that won’t make Executor a companion, merely give it a local form, and any systems you’ve bought for your shipyard.”
“Great!” I grinned, then asked, “Is there anything that stops Ships who are also Companions from spending their own CP on SP?”
Chamber blinked, face falling, then checked the document… twice. “Uh… well… huh… technically? Maybe? Depending on how you interpret… no. Nothing that comes right out and says so. But since that would allow you to simply buy all the upgrades by purchasing them once… I’m going to say that the Ships can only spend their points on their class.”
“Excellent. I’ll leave it up to them to decide how much they want to do of that. But… let’s drop 300 CP into SP… that gives me 1600 for systems… and I’ll make four of them Ships of the Wall, assuming they want it. If not? Well, more systems. She’s my flagship and the one most likely to bitch at me… You said the various forms have a cost? How much are we talking?”
“LAC is free, Frigate is 100, Destroyer 200, Light Cruiser 300, Heavy Cruiser 400, Battlecruiser 500, Battleship 600, Dreadnought and Pod Battlecruiser 700, Superdreadnought 800, and LAC Carrier or Pod Superdreadnought 900… plus 100 each for Q-Ship or Flagship” she responded, still looking at the document as if it had personally betrayed her. “Be aware, the extra 100 CP comes from the fact that they’ll have to wait until any technology you pay for them to gain is invented to get it. So, for instance-”
“For instance, if I make Paradiso a CLAC, she’ll start out as something else then be magically refitted as a CLAC once those exist? And I only have to buy the technology once, right, not once for each?”
“Yes and Yes… though not ‘magically’… her consciousness in the form of her XO will be transferred from to the new ship that bears the same name… assuming she hasn’t been destroyed, captured, or scrapped before then.”
I frowned at that, but didn’t say anything. This was, after all, war. “Well… I’ll send out the suggestions…” I looked at my desk, then composed a brief message explaining what was going on and my planned Flotilla. Two CLACs in the persons of Paradiso and Ark Magna, two BCPs in the form of Yuzuha and Bargain, and two Heavy Cruisers in the form of Odwet and Jenny… and then I blinked and looked up at Jumpchan. “Uh… you miscounted and I didn’t notice… what about WIndjammer?”
“Oh. She opted to go into Frozen with Atura. Said she didn’t want to do more Space Opera and wanted to be on the water.”
“Didn’t pay to import her,” I pointed out.
“No. She invoked the general rule. For that matter, so did Toph, Korosensei, Lizzy, Beth, Caine, a couple of The Bookers, Bao, Uriel, Kendra, Buji, Simon, and Reggy and her daughters. I believe Invidius and Scipio are quite… irritated at the moment,” she said with a smirk, flipping her pencil… where had she gotten a real wooden pencil from? Stupid Chamber. I didn’t allow writing implements that didn’t use nano-ink that VIvian could scan and wouldn’t get into any of the various systems. You would not believe what graphite could do to certain systems after a few hundred years.
“Wait… Kendra went someplace without Zane? Are they fighting again? He didn’t say anything.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
I frowned, sent him a message asking if he was okay and then sent off the invites to the rest of the group, as well as to Anne and Amelia to accept the last two slots in the secondary set. For the primary, my thoughts were still spinning but I was hatching a pretty good plan, even if it was skirting close to cheese.
Zane sent back a thumbs up and a smiling round faced icon that it took me far too long to realize was supposed to be a baby. Ah. Kendra was feeling pregnant. I guess that made sense, as she was now four months along or so. This was the slowest pregnancy on record, but I wasn’t in a hurry to deal with another screamer… oh, good lord. If this kid grew at the rate of one month per jump… I’d have to shoot it. These months in-between Jumps were my sanctuary from madness and adventure. Good lord… what has my existence come to when I need an occasional vacation from adventure and awesomeness…
The system pinged six times as the fleet signalled their agreement in rapid succession. Well… mostly agreement. Jenny asked “Are you saying I’m fat?” Heavy Cruiser Humor… I hope she wasn’t being serious… one of these days, I’m going to have to create a text system that carries nuance… but I’m a goddess, not omnipotent. So that was 400 of the 1600 gone buying what Chamber said were called ‘Keel Plate Owner Plaques’; 1200 left for upgrades.
I tapped the desk again and a list of the major technological advances for the next half century popped up on the screen. “It’s just tech that already will exist right?” It looked like it, Manticoran innovations like the FTL Comms, Ghost Rider, Apollo, Keyhole, Mistletoe, and Bow / Stern Sidewalls; Grayson’s Compensators; Haven’s ‘Donkey’: Mesan cheats like the Graser Torpedo or Streak & Spider Drives… and even Manticoran duds like the Grav Lance and Energy Torpedo… though no Multi-Drive Missiles, I noted.
“Well… yes and no. it’s each of them… but Jumpchain enhanced versions of each… although you do get Enhanced Automation free, which bumps you over the curve, meaning your ships will be two orders of magnitude more efficient, requiring 1/100th their former crews instead of 1/10th. LACs or Frigates could be run single-handedly.”
“Yes. Really,” she confirmed.
“Dang. okay… So the compensator? That’s based on the unique Grayson design for compensators that allows for drastically improved acceleration, right? Like twenty or thirty percent higher, I think.” She nodded. “Let me guess, this one has no chance of failure even running at 100%?” She chuckled, nodding again. “Right. Don’t need that one. All my ships are fitted with Necrontyr Inertialess Drives. I’ll accept those being nerfed down to Grayson levels with 100% safety though.” That earned me a frown, but she nodded.
Necron ships never had real space drives that ran at 80% of light speed, so the drives could, in theory be stressed too far, but I’d copied the tech from what I’d found in the depths of the Court of the Heathen Star (which was obviously the result of my battle with that rogue Jumper, only set loose in time and space), and the maneuverability those drives gave my ships normally would make BuShips’s eyes bug out if not limited, so it was a compromise.
“Now… it looks like I can afford a fair amount of this stuff… Not the Streak Drive…” i said, referring to the Mesan Alignment’s super secret hyperdrive which was capable of using the Kappa band of hyperspace, two full bands higher than anyone else could, making Mesan ships nearly 40% faster point to point than even the fastest normal courier ships. A Theta-Band Courier ran at an apparent velocity of 2500c. Kappa’s exact numbers weren’t known to me, but the Zeta band was only 60% of the Theta, so assuming the ratios held stable… “It would be impossible to explain in setting and useless out of setting… what’s the bonus on it, anyway?”
“Not at all useful outside of this setting. It makes your ships count as being 40% lighter when going through a wormhole. But if you buy it, you’ll know the theory is possible,” She pointed out.
“Yeah. and that’s why I’m going to buy the Streak Drive,” I said, referring to Mesa’s other More than Top Secret drive, this one designed for real space. Spider Drive ships used tractor beams to push themselves off the hyperspace walls rather than the huge gravitic wedges that doubled as impenetrable force fields protecting the top and bottom of normal ship drives. It made them incredibly stealthy… but much slower and offered no protection at all… not even the sidewall energy-shields which were used to protect the parts of a standard ship not protected by the wedge “I’m hoping the bonus there is that I can use it with a standard ship design instead of having to completely redesign the ship?”
“Yes. This can be easily retrofitted to work in any standard ship,” she confirmed.
“That’s 200 of my remaining 1200, so 1000 left… While we’re the subject of Sidewalls,” I hadn’t spoken my thoughts aloud, but the leap was not unobvious, “I’m going to assume that the Bow and Stern Sidewalls (front and back for you landlubbers out there) don’t kill acceleration if bought through you?” Normally, a ship could create port and starboard sidewalls without a problem, but that left the throat and tail of the wedge utterly undefended. The invention of Bow and Stern Sidewalls covered that weakness to a degree, but normally a ship couldn’t use its impellers to accelerate (in space there is no deceleration, just acceleration in a different direction) with the Bow or Stern walls up.
“Are you certain you need me to be here for this?” she asked dryly.
“I’m just thinking of the biggest weakness for each piece of tech and countering it. That’s another 200 SP, so I’m down to 800… FTL Comms… That’s an omni-directional system… So it’s counter is a whisker transmission mode?” Faster than light communication had been mankind’s dream ever since leaving Old Earth roughly two thousand years previously. In the early years of the 20th century Post Diaspora, the Manticoran military had solved the issue on the intrastellar scale. While it didn’t work across light years, gravitic pulses did propagate FTL and by using morse-code at first, then more and more complex coding methods, the light-speed lag was largely eliminated in system. But anyone could pick up the pulses, even if they couldn’t decode them. It wasn’t particularly subtle. A Whisker Comm was normally a focused laser carrying information in a tight beam. If you weren’t at the other end of that beam, you weren’t going to get the message.
“Yes, again. Your grav-pulse generators will be able to generate tightly focused gravitic pulses, though you’ll have to be extremely accurate.”
“The ships I’ll be targeting will be lit up with their own gravitic wedges. I just have to aim. They’ll get the message at FTL speed. Compensating for distance is easy.” I waved off her concern, marking down another 100 SP, leaving me at 700. What was next? Weapons or sensors? Did I even want ‘Donkeys’… Donkeys were, I supposed, the natural extension of Missile Pod technology… but I guess I should explain Missile Pods first.
A ship can only carry so many missiles in its magazines and can only dedicate so much of its surface area to launch tubes. The solution then was to build disposable pods that were self-contained launchtubes and storage. Simply dump a pod out a podbay door and then command the pod to flush its tubes. If you win, you can go back and collect the spent pods and reload them. Hence Pod Superdreadnoughts and Pod Battlecruisers, or rather Big Slow Pod Platform and Smaller Faster Pod Platform.
But internal storage was a problem, especially with the developement of the new and larger multi-drive missiles (MDMs) and Donkey was the solution. Instead of being limited to what your SDPs could carry internally (or externally using Andermani Flatpods, you brought along a bunch of fast supply ships loaded to the rafters with pods and then parked them way outside the fightzone and used Donkey Pods, essentially tractorbeam generators to tow a simply ridiculous number of pods… but the Donkey Pods slowed you down and were defenseless, so if you lost a Donkey, you lost the Missile Pods it was towing… and even giving a Donkey shields wouldn’t help much. The entire system relied too heavily on being able to bring along those supply ships and having time to set up. Donkey wasn’t useful in a defensive position, because a space station didn’t need to haul around pods… it just needed them someplace nearby and fitted with attitude thrusters and maybe some shielding.
I crossed Donkeys off the list… then turned to the other specialized pod design. See, Single Drive Missiles had had one huge weakness. The drive ran full out until it burned out and then the missile was essentially ballistic and unprotected by its wedge. You could increase the powered range of SDMs if you launched them while accelerating your own ship towards the target, since they inherited your velocity when launched, then added their own… but that was it. The advent of MDMs changed all that. Adding just a second drive to a missile allowed it to have an initial boost phase, a ballistic cruise phase, then a final attack run under power and protected by its wedge. Or the drives could just be run in sequence or together. And some missiles had as many as three drives.
But that massively increased range presented its own problem, and that’s where Ghost Rider and Apollo came in. See, that problem was that old foe, light speed. The missiles now had such monstrous range that command lag was getting unworkable. The solution had been obvious… sacrifice some of your missle space for a bigger missile that contained a grav-pulse generator and a grav-pulse transmitter. These Apollo Missiles had no warheads, and were the size of two of the already massive Three Drive Capital Ship MDMs, but they allowed the capital ship the ability to control their missiles at huge range with much less lag. Also, each normal control channel on the ship no longer controlled a single missile… now each channel controlled one Apollo, and the Apollo controlled its own swarm. I couldn’t imagine how that had been improved, but I wanted it regardless… still, I asked.
“No light speed barrier at all. As long as you can still get the signals, you can control the missiles in real time.”
“Hmmm… not what I would have improved… I’d have given the … mmm… no… I guess not… that’s a dumb idea… no… not that either…” I shrugged. “I guess it works. I’ll take it… what about Keyhole? I need Keyhole II for Apollo.” I asked. Keyhole were sensor platforms that Manty ships tractored out through their sidewalls which allowed them to better control their own missiles even while facing their wedges towards their enemy… the Wedges normally interfered with sensors something fierce. Keyhole also allowed the ship to see past the wedge interference created by their own counter missiles, making those missile-killer-missiles much more effective. “What’s improved about them? And do they upgrade to Keyhole II when that comes out?” Keyhole II was the FTL upgrade.
“Yes they upgrade, but no guesses?”
“I mean, the only weakness of a Keyhole platform is that it’s not protected… what, do these have shields?”
“No… nothing like that. You’re just always guaranteed to have another somehow. People won’t notice you’re burning through more of them than your ships should be able to carry.” I opened my mouth to say something smartassed, but she cut me off. “They have to be taken offline by enemy action or accident… you can’t just throw an unlimited supply of them out there for your allies.”
“Darn,” I said, snapping my fingers. “Okay, so Apollo & Ghost Rider are 200, that’s 500 left, and Keyhole is 100, so that’s 400… And would you look at that… there are 400 SP left of systems. Mistletoe, Grav Lance, and both the useless and the useful torpedoes. I guess I’ll take them all… Mistletoe’s a stealthed recon platform… how is it upgraded?”
“It comes with a small single-shot laser on each platform you produce… and they’re easily reproduced. It won’t punch through a sidewall, but it will be devastating against an unprotected ship… even a warship… and all without sacrificing stealth. Your drones are good enough to get visual prints off an opponent’s hull, even if they’ve got their wedge and sidewalls up.”
“Christ… that’s fucking evil… Okay… the Graser Missiles are those Mesan fucking monsters… even having them without being Mesan is going to be evil… I guess at some point I’ll just be inspired to make them? Are these any better than the Mesan ones?” A Mesan Graser Torpedo was a gamma-ray laser (graser) attached to a missile body. In the old days, ship to ship missiles were just Nukes. But Nukes required contact to take out a spaceship and with the advent of sidewalls, Nukes had fallen out of favor. They’d been replaced by nuke pumped X-Ray Lasers, or Laser Warheads as they were called. The nuke fired, lasing a fuel rod which pumped out X-Rays hard enough to smash into a ship. The beams generated by each warhead lasted milliseconds, and each warhead generated several of them to maximize coverage. The Graser fired for a full three seconds in a single focused beam, able to sweep a single ship or even multiple targets if they were close enough together.
“You graser torpedoes will be easy to reproduce and can be reprogrammed on the fly, making optimization of attack runs easier.”
“I guess it’s something… okay, now the Grav Lance and Energy Torpedoes are essentially useless… does buying them make them other than useless?” In the series, the G-Lance and E-Torps had only appeared in the first book and both had been less than ideal. The Grav Lance was a spinal mount, single-shot weapon that could, in theory, take down a sidewall with a single shot while doing massive damage to the target ship’s propulsion systems. It took almost all the power a Light Cruiser could output to fire the thing and had a disastrously short range. The Energy Torpedoes were actually pretty awesome. They could be fired rapidly, didn’t take space for ammunition, and had a halfway decent range (about a light-second… not great for missiles, but not terrible for energy weapons… x-ray lasers could do about 500,000km against sidewall protected enemies). Since they were energy, they travelled close to lightspeed, so they were incredibly hard to stop… unless a ship’s sidewalls were up… because they were stopped cold by the sidewall, not even damaging it. So… useless.
“It depends on what you’re looking for, I suppose,” She said, then expanded on that. “The Lance is far more easily recharged and much more precise, reducing power requirement and allowing to be used in rapid succession… enough that it can be used as a form of point defense against incoming projectiles… As for your torpedoes, they generate negative interference in the target’s sidewalls, causing fluctuations in their reactors, leading to power surges and eventual overload.”
I blinked at that, then stared. “You’ve got to be shitting me… a Light Grav Lance and… those torpedoes are fucking evil,” I started chuckling, then cackling. “Oh… that’s evil. I just hope I remember this idea once I get to that point.”
“Oh yeah… the major problem with a Grav Lance is the power requirement. It means it can’t be mounted on a LAC… or Missile… and LACs equipped with these Disruptor Torpedoes? Oh, yes please. Come to momma.” I rubbed my hands gleefully, then, seeing that only Amelia and Jaan had finished doing their builds, I brought up the Perk & Item Menu to contemplate how to spend my remaining 900 CP.
I immediately discounted most of the items; I didn’t need the instructions for Prolong, or a suit of Battle Armor, or an Assault Shuttle, Pinnace, Vibroblade, Cybernetics, a self repairing Mess Uniform, a Flechette Gun, Pulser, Armored Skinsuit, Sword, Plasma Gun, Recon Armor, Tribarrel, a Grayson Dome, or a Hab Tower (think skyscraper / archology, but built by a society that’s mastered Anti-Gravity and super-tensile materials). However, the Viral Nanotech and Joyful Station items were not blatantly obvious, so I didn’t know if I needed them.
“The Station is a spaceborne theme park, while the Viral Nanotech is an assassination and subversion tool that compels the infectee to perform acts out of their control. It is nearly undetectable and all but impossible to resist,” The Chamber explained. “Do you really want either?”
Huh… I’d just been thinking about how I hadn’t built any theme parks… but no… I could build one. I didn’t need one handed to me. “Mmm… not really. Maybe if I can’t find more than 600 CP worth of perks worth buy.” I closed the items section and slid the perks section up on the desk. There were twenty-five perks I didn’t have already, one general, nine national, and fifteen vocational. Most of them were grey’d out to show that they would do little to nothing for me.
The remaining Drop-In perks were Summervale’s Match, a duelist’s package including heightened reflexes and senses, and sharpened focus and opponent reading, but only on the field of honor; Beauty and the Beast, a thing that kept subordinates assigned to my team regardless of what BuPers (Bureau of Personnel) might have to say on the subject; and Duty of an Officer, a perk that would make me into a better teacher… if I wasn’t already so good at it. All were marked as limited utility, a service provided not by Chamber or Higher, but by VIvian, who was able to see the same information Chamber was. I could have too, but I prefered to get reports than to read long descriptions. I’d read them later to make certain of what I’d gotten myself, but discussing options with another was always the best way in my experience, to separate the wheat from the chaff as it were. I slid all three into the waste bin.
Next were the Marine perks. Time on the Range would make me an Expert (in the military sense) with all of the personal weapons (from tiny sidearms to armor mounted impeller missile launchers) as well as enough skill in using Battle Armor to juggle eggs… it also made it so I’d never get bored in my armor or need to scratch an itch. I didn’t need it… my armor scratched my itches for me and had a really good audiobook selection. Martial Arts Master would make me an eighth degree black belt in either Coup de Vitesse or Neue-Stil Handgemenge, two of the more common and lethal martial arts of this era… I figured I had the hand to hand element down fine, thanks. Genie would make me marginally superhuman… I didn’t need it. And Resistance Leader would make me an expert at every step of overthrowing a government, including the inspirational charisma needed to be a leader of such a group. I had that in spades and had no desire to overthrow the Manty Government… even if I could have used more experience rabble rousing… but it was 600 and I wasn’t paying that. Into the bin they went.
From the Spy line there was Cachat-ing a Break (a truly terrible play on the name Victor Cachat, one of the more sympathetic Havenites and a master spy). It was, of course, the expert spy package, including torture. Meh. Join the Club, at 200, was more interesting, as it made the taker a master of improvisation and switching plans on the fly, as well as accounting for new information to gain the best results… VIvian had that listed as potentially helpful, can’t hurt… so I tentatively added it to my list and applied my floating discount to it. That left 800 CP.
Crying Onions granted an uncanny ability to detect major conspiracies and secret organizations based on very little and entirely mundane evidence. It was tempting, but that’s what I have spymasters for… as well as Sarah. Naw. And that left Oops, which made the taker a galaxy-class hacker, both of computers and all other electronics too for that matter. Again, useful but the kind of thing I farmed out to subordinates. I slid the others into the trash, but made a note to Joy and Ahab about Crying Onions.
That left the Commander line for vocational perks and there was much there to recommend it, at least from my standpoint… but I suspected there’d also be stuff like this in the primary document as well, so I was looking for something very specific. I discounted the 200 and 400, Operation Smoke and Mirror Box and Crushed The Crusher respectively. The first was about taking the enemy by surprise and wasn’t bad… but I’d have rathered a perk that protected me from being taken by surprise. I guess I’d just have to be on my A-Game. The second was a genius for military tactics, someone to rival Harrington or McQueen… and if I wasn’t one of those already… well, there’d probably be something pretty much identical on the flipside… and probably for cheaper than 400 since I’d get a discount over there.
No, what I was more interested in was the Commander’s freebie, Javelin-Jockey, which would make me an expert ship-handler, giving me top notch astrography and piloting. Now I already had the piloting, but the astrography was new and dealing with impeller wedges was something I hadn’t had to do before. I’m certain I could pick it up without the perk, but for 100, it was a steal. That left 700.
And I promptly squandered 600 of it on the Commander’s Capstone because of one single line of text. A Tradition of Excellence was a charisma boost, the kind of charisma that inspires death-rides and projects calm and control even in the face of disaster. All that would have been enough to inspire me to take it… but what really sold it was the line ‘There’s nothing that happens on your ship that you don’t know about, from ratings bullying other ratings to truly minor engineering accidents.” I had to have it… that it came with a guarantee of legend making was just gravy.
And then I had 100 CP left, which meant I wasn’t getting any of the national perks, but there was that single 100 CP general perk…Paper Neo-Tiger… which would allow me to trick people into underestimating me in politics and warfare through a combination of acting skills hiding my true personality and just plain chutzpah to try. Sure, once I dropped the act and got serious, they’d realize they were supping with a serpent, but by then it would be far too late… and like that I was done.
=====PASSING THE BAR=====
I stretched, then checked the fleet. All but Odwet and Paradiso were done. I told them all to join me at Bar Ziggy and motioned for Chamber to join us. Yuzuha swaggered in at the head of the group, with Paradiso looming behind her, Iana and Jann chatting behind them, Jenny arguing with Amelia, and Anne tugging Odwet along as he tried to pull his uniform into a semblance of neatness… and failed. Joy, Ahab, and Emma arrived a few minutes later, Emma looking extremely cross and Ahab looking smug as a bug in a rug.
“Okay you two, what’s up?” I asked as I invited everyone to sit down.
“He… He’s a pig!” Emma snapped, pointing the J’Accuse! finger at Ahab. He just smirked.
“He’s picked a barbarous lot of… of… of polygamists! As our starting point!” she fumed.
“Yup. That I did,” he agreed. “Tried to get the system to drop us on Masada, but had to settle for Grayson.” He was teasing.
I could tell it.
Joy could tell it.
Emma could not. She just fumed, glaring at him, then turned to me. “See! You… you can’t let him do this to me! These people are savages! Misogynists! It’s a culture of Rapists and Bible thumping child-ra-” She didn’t get any further as I backhanded her telekinetically. Not hard, but enough to snap her head sideways. She clutched her cheek and glared around the table, unable to tell which of those around it might or might not have had psychic powers. She’d been with us for a decade and hadn’t bothered to learn most of my companions’ names let alone powers.
I placed both hands on the table, shifting to a more imposing physical form and said, voice cold as winter… seriously, there was snow falling on the table… “You will not speak of what you don’t know in my presence again or I will personally spank you. I cannot ground you, as you’re linked to Ahab, but if you honestly think I’m going to side against someone who’s been with me and served me well for longer than recorded history based on a temper tantrum thrown by a spoiled brat who bullied her own best friend into what amounts to a psychotic break, you have another think coming. When I first read of your world, I thought surely it was Sophie Hess that was the primary bully, but it was you, you horrible horrible person. I have literally killed people for acts less inhumane than that. In a world full of the fucking Slaughterhouse Nine and Empire Eighty-Eight, I despise you the most. So sit down, shut up, and feel grateful that I don’t simply murder you at the beginning of every jump just so I won’t have to see your bitch face again for another decade.”
She sat, gaping at me. No one at the table bothered to look at her.
“Now, as for your commentary on Grayson… yes, they are in many ways backwards. They start the series with many sexist cultural markers and some of them are absolute scum… even discounting the ones who are secretly aligned with Masada. And yes, the faith of Masada is an abomination. But just because Masada condones child-marriage, unwilling marriage, and spousal rape, and denies personhood to their women, that does not mean that Grayson does. Grayson and Masada are products of history and their environment and the Graysons have done the best they could under conditions that would have broken most of humanity. And over the course of the books, they have made every effort to set the sexism behind them!” I stared at her for a long moment, waiting until she squirmed, then snapped. “What? Speak!”
“But the… the polygamy!!!” she whined.
I just stared at her for a full sixty seconds.
“T… it’s b…. bad… right?” she stammered, gulping, looking around the table for support. She didn’t get any.
Another sixty seconds passed.
“I… it’s sexist… o-one man having m… many wives,” she insisted, but her voice was tiny and if I hadn’t had enhanced hearing I would have needed to be able to lipread to make out the last two words.
“No it isn’t. Monogamy is not a measure of equality. Many monogamist societies are just as sexist as the Masadans. Polygamy and Polyandry, collectively called Polyamory, are just different cultures’ ways of dealing with such things. For the Graysons, where women outnumber men four to one thanks to a genetic defect that makes male births fail three quarters of the time, and where more men died working the land and in wars, it made sense. In fact, for most of human history, it makes sense because many men are off serving. In fact, I’d venture to say that the ideal family group probably consists of two to three men, with a decade or so between them and a dozen or so women.”
“Wh… buuu…” was all she managed to get out.
“A family like that provides enough support for raising the children, enough variety of skills that most household tasks can get handled, and enough workers to support the family economically.”
“And enough whores for the men,” she muttered and I thought about slapping her again, then just rolled my eyes.
“Grow up, you narrow-minded prude. First off, nothing I said implies that any of the people involved are straight, and no, that doesn’t mean I think they should be gay either… and if you say anything about homosexuals being pedophiles or bisexuals being confused or sluts I’ll change my mind and just dump you into a box for as long as I think it will take for you to get a clue. I said ideal. An ideal family of such a breakdown should probably include multiple overlapping pairings both straight and homosexual. The ideal family shouldn’t be divided by an outdated convention that serves to foster envy and jealousy. And the concept of slut, while entirely real, should not be used as pejorative for women who have a healthy amount of sex. Perhaps for people of any gender or sex who crave it and indulge it to an unhealthy level. As for whore? Some of my best friends have been prostitutes. I’ve been one. The difference between a wife and a whore is vast. The difference between a sex-slave and a whore is even vaster. In the world you came from? Most of those who worked the slave trade were slaves. A little fucking respect for their suffering is in order, you useless…” I exhaled, then shook my head and turned to Ahab.
“Honestly? To teach this twit how good she’s had it all her life. Also, the Grayson perk, ‘Well-Tested’, grants both resistance to heavy-metal toxicity and other environmental hazards, as well as the ability to recognize less apparent options when I see them.” He shrugged… “But mostly because it pissed her off.”
“Fair enough. Occupation? Did you go with Spy?”
“I did. Maybe we’ll be infiltrators into Masada was my thought,” He agreed, though Emma made a face. “I’m hoping the overlay for this empty vessel is more useful… I also took Spy because giving her a perk for spycraft might help her understand how not to act like… like her. Spent the 200 on Crying Onions… nice to have 200 now… though starting as a child is going to be a bear. The completely silent, never dulling Vibroblade is a nice freebie too.”
I nodded. Apparently it could cut through hull plating if you were patient enough. “Great. Sounds like a plan. Joy? Spy?”
She shook her head. “Silesian Marine, though on the flipside I’ll probably go Solarian or Manty, assuming I was born in Silesian and immigrated. Not certain what’s there, but I got a pop-up warning that there was no Silesian origin in the other. Or maybe I was Solarian born but to parents stationed in Silesia… whatever. Anyway, I went with Marine to get the Genie perk and, I guess the free Battle Armor with the battery that never runs out is nice too, but the Silesian perk ‘Chalice of Blood’ will give me impeccable connections with dozens of different pirate fleets and all sorts of bargains on lightly used vessels or goods, or mercenary contracts. Or, you know, scare off any pirates I run into. Also works on most undergrounds… so it’s a kind of spywork, right?”
I considered her words as checked to see if Odwet and Paradiso had finished their builds. Neither had. I checked their progress. Paradiso had 50 CP left, Odwet hadn’t started, having 400 points left since I’d told him to spend 200 to make himself a Heavy Cruiser. I pulled of the fleet order of battle and blinked… that wasn’t right. I looked to Iana and Yuzuha, frowning.
“I thought I told you two to buy Pod Battlecruiser.”
“It was her idea!” they both accused the other in near perfect sync.
“I didn’t ask whose idea it was… why are you both Podnoughts!?”
Yuzuha humphed, “Well, it’s not fair that those two get to be CLACs,” she pointed to Paradiso and Iana pointed at Jaan… had to admire their teamwork if nothing else, “While we gotta be dinky little cruisers!”
“First off, BCPs are huge for Cruisers, being practically half the size of pre-pod Battleships. Second, CLACs are usually Dreadnought sized, not Superdreadnought… and you knew that and that’s why you’re both using this one chance to be bigger than Light of Paradise and Ark Magna.” They flushed like children caught being naughty. “I wanted you two to be Battlecruisers because BCs are lighter, faster, and more nimble than Ships of the wall and pretty much untouchable by smaller classes unless manned by idiots. BCPs are able to fight Pre-Pod SDs and win. Now you’re going to be slow and clumsy.” I fumed a little.
“We asked the system. We can be BCPs early on and SDPs later… essentially it’s like Fearless… you just buy the biggest ship you want and you can be smaller ones until then… can’t go down though. And once the jump is over, it’s all locked in,” Iana explained.
I looked to Chamber, and she nodded. “Essentially, it’s putting down the most you’re willing to spend and the final form you want, but the ships will start out at something that reflects your current rank… just don’t get them destroyed.”
“Huh… fine… I guess. Now… Paradiso… why haven’t you spent your last few points?”
Draken Paradiso looked at Yuzuha with annoyance. “I wanted to buy Flagship with it, but she,” it was her turn to point the Finger of Accusation and Yuzuha’s turn to be pointed at, “has commanded me not to.”
“I’m the flagship. She’s just got bigger boobs,” Yuzuha snapped back, as if that made any sense. While yes, Paradiso had the largest breasts of any companion besides Maidseid, Yuzuha was utterly flat in all her humanoid forms. She had no boobs to speak of. Seeing as how her true form was a tree, it was somehow humorous to point out that she was flat as a board.
“Is there anything else you can take?” I asked.
Jaan said “I took Q-Ship. So did Iana. Only Yuzuha and Paradiso haven’t.”
I quirked an eyebrow at that, then looked at the duo.
“I ain’t pretending to be a merchy,” Yuzuha growled. “I’m important.”
Draken looked like she was about to agree with Yuzuha, then grinned and said, “Ah. Silly me of course. Makes perfect sense. I shall, of course, be happy to be a Q-Ship, Admiral.”
Yuzuha frowned at that, feeling that somehow Draken had scored a point over her, but Yuzu isn’t the most astute of my ships, and she often fails to pay attention or try to understand people.
On the other hand, I’d understood almost immediately. Draken had been a flagship before. While the extra bridge offered by the Flagship and the shortcut to the boatbay for emergency evacuation weren’t part of Light’s design, a luxury suite for the admiral was. And as a Q-Ship, if I needed a Q-Ship, I’d have to use Light as my flagship not Yuzuha, who didn’t have the disguise ability needed to blend in with freighters. It was not going to be a pretty scene when Yuzuha figured that out. Ah well.
Buying all that ship stuff had burned most of their points, of course. 1000 SP was 500 CP and they only had 600 to spend, so it was down to freebies and a single 100 CP perk for each of the four biggest ships. That had been another reason I’d suggested BCP, which would have given Iana and Yuzuha another 100 CP to spend, but they were big ships (literally); they could make their own decisions.
“So, what are your origins and vocations?” I asked. “And how did you spend your last 100?”
Yuzuha started, of course. “I…” she said, affecting the worst fake german accent ever… honestly, it sounded more russian… maybe she thought she was doing a Prussian accent? “Am an Andermani Spy!”
“Are you now?” I asked.
She nodded, pulling a Totenkopf Hussar’s hat from nowhere and plopping it on her head. It looked ridiculous and too big for her skull, but it rested on her ears in a way that probably wasn’t that comfortable. “Yus! Andermani Totenkopf Perk means Yuzuha can intimidate people no matter how silly Yuzuha is! Substance of Actions over FORM!”
I nodded, then pointed out, “Yes… but the substance of your actions swings wildly from loonie to evil to juvenile.”
“That hat is silly.”
“Yes, you can have a cookie,” I siiighed. “Once you tell me what you spent the rest of your points on.”
“Am Spy. Joined Club. Good at Improzivation,” she said, now mangling english.
“Riiight. Good.” I tossed her a cookie, then turned to Iana. “You?”
“Same, but Erewhonian… do I get a cookie?” I smirked, then tossed her one as well.
“Go ahead, ruin your supper… ahhh.” At that moment the food arrived and I waited until everyone had been served before praising the chef (Me from Soul Eater / Three Stars, able to manifest on her own thanks to the magic of Bar Ziggy). “What does the Erewhonian perk do?”
Iana paused, looked at her smoked lobster bisque, then ignored me long enough to take a taste while it was still piping hot. “Erewhon Nam? It makes me a master smuggler, knowing all the tricks about how to hide stuff, but also giving me a sixth sense if the Authorities might be looking even before I enter a system.”
“Huh. Cool…” I turned away from her, letting her get back to her soup and turning to my CLACs. “Jaan, Paradiso, what about you two?”
“We’re both Commanders,” Jaan said, starting to rise but I waved her down. “I’m Solarian, Draken is Beowulfan… so on the same side initially… not certain how we’ll all end up under your command? Maybe we’re just ships that were named for Beowulfan or Solarian individuals or something? I don’t know… anyway, I took Paper Neo-Tiger and got Six Mandarin free… that’s a mastery of political manipulation and delegation so that either I look brilliant if I succeed and my underling takes the rap if he fails. The Solarian League sounds remarkably like a less functional version of the Imperium of Man… I should really read these books… do you have a copy?”
“I’m having them run off from my memory, yeah… but the end of the series hadn’t happened when I left Origin… Paradiso?”
“Right.. Well, Jaan already covered most of it, but I took Operation Smoke and Mirror Box… actually, I changed it from Paper Neo-TIger after I took Q-Ship… and the Beowulfan freebie is Cherwell Conventioneer which makes me a master of the biosciences and genetic engineering… especially when it comes to fixing and countering harmful bioengineered issues, like removing genetic slavery conditioning, dangerous adaptations, and maybe finding a way to block nanoviral programming. I assume the Cherwell Convention is some kind of strategic limitation on genetic engineering and biowarfare?”
“Yeah. The Final War, so called because it nearly destroyed Old Earth, was fought with bioweapons and supersoldiers. It was apparently horrific and Beowulf’s Biosciences League or their BIological Survey Corps… their covert operations force, helped repair the worst of the damage. Beowulf and Mesa are like Grayson and Masada, except with biosciences instead of religion. Mesa was founded by renegade bioengineers from Beowulf and now Beowulf runs around trying to cleanse the universe of Mesa’s tainted philosophy. Honor Harrington’s mother is the little sister of an officer of the Biological Survey Corps who eventually becomes one of the Planetary Board. Her father’s people are from a heavy grav world, genie stock, called the Meyerdahl Beta line, with enhanced strength, reflexes, and intelligence. The royal house of Manticore is also genie stock, though there just enhanced intelligence and, apparently, blackness.”
“Enhanced blackness?” Joy asked.
“Even after a dozen generations of intermarrying with people of pale skin, Wintons are chocolate brown,” I explained. “Incidentally, that enhanced intelligence is almost certainly what is responsible for the disproportionally large number of Harringtons and Wintons who have been bonded with Treecats.”
“Really? How does one make skincolor superdominant like that?” Joy asked, looking to Draken.
“I’ll tell you once I know, I guess,” he responded. “Why?”
“Curiosity. I can think of ways of doing something similar with nanotech, but designing it into the genome directly? Never thought of that… hyper dominant? Something that recodes the other side of the genetic donation to match the dominant side?”
I left them to their consideration and turned to the last pair of ships. “Jenny, you’ve picked… why don’t you start, then I’ll help Odwet with his build.”
“Oh. I helped him already. He thought you would want to do it so he didn’t do anything. But we’ve got it squared away, right sprout?” She asked the smaller boy and he nodded, then slipped under the table with a basket of sourdough muffins. We all sighed.
That boy was a mixture of puckish and painfully shy, often verging on what might be considered Autistic, though it was more personality than neurology in his case… I’d checked. He just didn’t like making eye-contact, and not for the normal reason. He was, at his heart, a wild animal. A huge spaceborne wild animal, but a wild animal nonetheless… and a predatory one at that. Eye-contact usually meant he was either about to attack or thought you might attack him. With me and some of the others, he knew an attack was like being pounced by a sibling, play fighting… with others? He couldn’t be sure and so he usually hid… then ambushed with pranks.
“We’re both Marines, me Mesan, Oddy San Martino… San Martinian? from San Martin. Heavy Cruiser cost each of us 200 CP, leaving 400 to spend. I took Genie and Operation Smoke and Mirror Box, and Mesan gave me Jumper-Line. That’s peak human performance in intelligence, reflexes, strength, healing, toughness, resistances… plus a lifespan of 200 plus T-Years before prolong… with it? Six hundred… and there’s probably some synergy with Genie as well. It also comes with an education in the basics of genetic engineering and the biosciences… but nothing as good as Paradiso got.”
I peeked under the table, then handed Odwet the honey butter, then looked up and nodded to Jen. “Sounds like a good build. Oddy?”
“Oh. Resistance Leader and Cachat-ing a Break. I figure the charisma boost and spy training will help bring him a little more out of his shell.” She smiled like a big sister and the shrugged. “Better than nothing, right?”
Considering if ‘fixing’ Oddy was right thing or not… he certainly wasn’t happy with the status quo, but nothing said that he had to be outgoing… I looked to Amelia and Anne, then had to wait while the soup dishes were cleared away and the salad course was served. Once everyone was tucking into their duck, almond, and asparagus salad, I asked, “So, Ladies?”
Amelia nodded for Anne to go first, and Anne grinned, then straightened her silverware just so before reporting. “I am a Havenite Spy, though one in the pay of Manticor, and dedicated to toppling the Legislaturalist government. I am deep cover, and was… or will be, sent to Haven as a young woman where I will join one of the people’s committees and do my best to infiltrate the resultant government, should I survive that long. To that end, I have taken Crying Onions, Join the Club, and Oops, where the ability to discover plots, improvise, and hack should stand me in good stead. The Havenite perk, The People’s Power, is a study in organization and efficiency, or work schedules, public information campaigns, and legislation designed around getting the best out of a group of people. Even to the point or rearranging entire economies and making a Basic Living Stipend that actually works.”
I nodded at that. A BLS wasn’t fundamentally bad… it was just incredibly tricky. Funding it was a nightmare, distributing it fairly and without corruption a headache, and making certain that your people were dedicated to their work ethic enough to still work was a challenge. The trick was to make the BLS enough to survive on, but not enough to thrive on. Find that balance and people would still work, and work hard, but they wouldn’t be afraid to take economic risks, like looking for a new job or demanding fair pay and fair treatment from their bosses. The major benefit of a BLS was, once you had it up and running properly, it was self-sustaining as long as you could keep it in the sweet spot. More money in the hands of the lower and middle classes meant more spending per capita, and that meant a healthier economy, improved investment in the arts, and in schools, and in public places… but if you allowed your people to become complacent, to lose hope for a life better than mere survival? You got the People’s Republic of Haven, a system that cannibalized other nations to feed an ever growing cancer.
“Amelia?” I asked, after a pause long enough for the salads to be finished and the steaks to arrive. Mine was a tomahawk, medium rare, in tarragon butter with cracked black pepper sauce, and exquisite.
“Solarian Commander… hopefully I can get high enough to kick Rajampet’s arse,” She said with a snarl. We’d talked about the Honor Harrington books before… in fact, I’d read her the entire series from memory, and if she’d ever hated a fictional character more than Fleet Admiral Rajampet Kaushal Rajani, the Solarian League’s de facto military Commander in Chief and an associate member of the Quintet (aka. The Five Mandarins, Permanent Under Secretaries all… Commerce, Education & Information, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Treasury) who actually ran the Solarian League. The only reason it wasn’t a Sextet was that the other five only included him when direct military force was needed. They were bureaucratic scum of the first water. “Of course, I’m probably too smart for that, so I took Operation Smoke and Mirror Box, Crushed the Crusher… I can always be a better tactician, right?… and Empathy. Just in case I can find a Treecat… I like cats,” she said with a feline smirk. She was, after all, as catlike as a human is monkey-like… if not more so.
====THAT WAS SUPPER, TIME FOR DINNER====
After desert, Chamber and I retired back to my office for the second, and no doubt longer, of the planning stages. I was already at eight-hundred points of drawbacks and Chamber had indicated that there was no official soft limit on drawbacks (the hard limit would, of course, be to take all of them… unless, like Generic Roleplayer, there was something that could be taken over and over and over again. I pulled up the list while Chamber pulled out a crack-pipe and stepped onto the balcony to light up. VIvian helpfully dropped a forceshield between us so my office wouldn’t smell like burning cocaine.
At the top of the list were three zero point toggles; ‘Long-Running Series’, ‘Self-Insert Mode’, and ‘I Reject Your Canon and Substitute My Own’. Interesting. LRS just meant that, as Chamber had said, I could stay as long as I wanted. I assume this was why she’d said that. I toggled it on without even a first thought.
SIM would allow me to import myself into any canon character whose age, origin, and faction matched my own… with Drop-In being the default for anyone who wasn’t either Naval or Civilian… wow… there were people who weren’t either? Fascinating I guess. Technically, that meant I could become Honor if I wanted to. I didn’t want to. Meeting Honor and being friends would be enough. I didn’t even want to recruit her… In fact, if I was going to recruit anyone from this setting, it would be the Havenite tech expert Shannon Foraker or Manty Captain Ivars Terakov… but I probably wouldn’t. So I left that one alone… and double checked that it was off so that my companions didn’t try pulling what they’d pulled in the DUNEverse.
IRYCaSMO was a fanfiction toggle. I hadn’t even known there was fanfiction for Honor Harrington… but I guess anything that popular must have generated at least a little. Still, I didn’t know of any, so I ignored it.
There were eleven more drawbacks that weren’t toggles, and I scanned down the list and immediately selected more than half of them for discard. Even the names were enough to tell me that I didn’t want them, though the fact that a couple were pulsing a sullen red (VIvian’s tag for NOOOO Badbad no touchy!) was a bit of a clue.
Immediately off the list was ‘Cats are Evil’… what the fuck? Both Builders had included this nonsense about a secret conspiracy of manipulative treecats. Feh. FEH, I SAY! Although at least this one was worth six-hundred… not that I’d have taken it for twice that. Cats are niiiice.
Also at six-hundred, and also flashing red, was ‘Enslaved’ (it had a note saying POWER REMOVAL / WAREHOUSE LOCK). It was close to what I’d taken in the other half of this weird double jump, but harsher than what I was already operating under… as befitted the tripled cost. Still, I needed the two hundred there and taking this would overlap that and probably force me to get rid of it. Into the trash ‘Enslaved’ went.
The final sixer was not flashing Red; in fact it was Yellow for doable but annoying or risky. It was called ‘Ballroom Target’. Fuck no I didn’t want to a target for the Audubon Ballroom. They were awesome! An anti-Mesan terrorist organization, the Ballroom was almost entirely comprised of ex-genetic slaves and, occasionally, their descendants and they dedicated themselves to killing slavers and freeing their victims. Even if I hadn’t been planning on going in as Mesan G-Slave, I’d have hated Mesa and respected the crap out of the Ballroom. No thanks.
I also ditched ‘Cat’, which would make me a cat (I had that from side two… or was it side one since I’d done it first?); ‘Dolist’, which would cripple my motivation and work ethic; ‘A Short Victorious War’, which would have taken my ability to plan for the unknown (either known or unknown), sheer blind bad luck, and chance out behind a shed and throttled it, then buried it in a shallow unmarked grave; and ‘Disgrace’, which would have, well, made me persona non-grata for reasons real or imagined. No. No. No. and GOD NO. As for ‘Sanctimonious’? I was already preachy enough at the best of times. I didn’t need it reinforced by drawback fiat.
That left exactly three out of eleven. And I could live with all of them. ‘Seniority’ was only a plus one-hundred and would make people believe that I’d gotten my current position by being either rich or well-connected. It was overcomable, with a bit of a struggle and would require proving myself over and over again when dealing with or working for people who didn’t already know me well. I guess I’d have to make a lot of friends, what?
For two or four-hundred was ‘Over-Dueled’ which, at either level, meant that I’d be challenged to a duel at least once a year… and have to duel them or face ‘epic social disgrace’ for the rest of the jump. At the lower level, those duels would be fought under the Dreyfus Protocol, which was single shots until first blood or one party yielded. Death was still a risk if someone shot to kill with the first shot, but it was a rarity. At the upper level, it would be the Ellington Protocol, which was pretty much a keep shooting until out of ammo or one person was leaving on a gurney. Serious injury was practically the minimum outcome of an Ellington duel and death was extremely common. Yielding in an Ellington duel was considered the same as confessing guilt… but killing a lot of people in duels was reason to consider someone as being slightly off.
What the drawback didn’t do was remove any of my tech or skill advantage… and even nerfed as I was, there were very few who could outdraw or outshoot me… and that was before dealing with luck and my nanotech subdermal armor, or whatever remained of my increased toughness. I signed up for the Ellington. Screw ’em if they couldn’t take a joke.
Last was Nemesis, at plus three-hundred. A powerful, influential individual who lacked any fundamental human decency whatsoever… and hated me. Hated me enough to dedicate their life to ruining mine. Utterly unable to be reasoned with… it wasn’t scaling, wasn’t respawning, wasn’t unbeatable… in fact, it was pretty much free points and a potential annoyance. Eh. I could cope. All told, that was another eight-hundred, bringing my available Choice balance to a whopping twenty-six-hundred plus one-hundred for items and a floating discount of one-hundred. I guess it was time to start spending
First, I locked in Manty and Navy. No point in being on one of the loosing sides… plus I liked Manticore. I’d once designed a fantasy setting where the playable races were humanoids named Kymera, Sfinx, Mantikor, Syrn, Gryffon, and Bazalyzk and so I’d instantly taken to Manticore when one of my brother’s friends lent me a copy of ‘On Basilisk Station’, the book that had started it all. I’d been eighteen at the time, and believe you me, the revelation of Honor Harrington as a dominant and competent female lead had been transformative.
Before reading the first three books in less than twenty-four hours, I’d been a far bigger fantasy fan than a sci-fi buff, viewing sci-fi as largely sexist, boring, or weird. The only sci-fi series I really liked before that were DUNE and Foundation, with some Star Trek and Piers Anthony books thrown in for good measure. After Honor? Military Sci-fi became my favorite genre and I’d go on to read the Familias Regnant, Vatta’s War, Kris Longknife, Dahak, Lost Fleet, Aldenata, Troy, Cyteen, Prince Roger, and Safehold Series to name but a few. So yes, Honor was very much a hero of mine… and Nimitz of course. I’d even considered naming my first ferret Nim…
“Huh…” I said. Alarms were going off in my head.
Chamber was saying something, but I wasn’t listening… how long had it been since I’d thought about what I’d left behind. I’d had a life… friends… family… pets… back on Origin. And I’d bought a perfect memory in my very first jump… so why couldn’t I remember the names of those people… or their faces… or… I had a feeling that if I could ask the Banker he’d tell me something like “A Jumper Pining for what was left behind wouldn’t be very interesting. I just suppressed those memories until you could get comfortable.”
Fucking asshole… and he wasn’t around to kick. Shit. I couldn’t remember my father’s own name. Or my brother… or… did I have a sister? FUUUUCK… this was hard. It was like… like… digging through time.
“VIvian. Bring up every copy of Earth’s internet you’ve got cached and pull up the record for… for…” shit. “Never mind. I can’t remember my own name… or where I grew up… or… or… I mean, I have all the memories… but the specifics are all… they’re not there. I know I had a friend… or two? Someone I cared about… very tall. Damn…”
I turned to face Chamber. “Do you know why I can’t remember most of the specifics of my original life?”
“No,” she said. “But I imagine it’s because it doesn’t really matter. I do know if you choose to ‘Go Home’ at the end of any jump, you’ll gain a fresh memory dump of your original life.”
I leaned back, rubbing my eyes, then sighed heartily. “Well, I guess it’s a kind of proof that I’m really me and not some fictional character.”
“Why do you say that?” she asked, sounding honestly curious as she settled back into her chair, propping her feet on my astoundingly expensive and delicate coffee table. It had belonged to Jane Austen and I’d paid upwards of twelve million dollars for it in Yu-Gi-Oh at auction… good lord having buckets of cash was liberating as hell.
“If I was fictional, none of that would matter and I’d still know all the names… I have to be real, if only because those names might be a source of vulnerability so they’ve been removed from my mind as a form of security.”
“What, so…” she began, then it clicked inside her head. “Oh… so whoever the audience is for this adventure of yours doesn’t learn of them and try to use them to get you to throw the game, as it were? That must mean there’s gambling going on. Beings gambling over what you’re going to do next!” She was smiling!
“You’re altogether too pleased at that idea,” I grumped.
She shrugged, and I didn’t blame her. It wasn’t her concern, but it was the type of thing she’d find amusing.
“Anywaaay,” I said, wrenching the conversation back on track. “Manty… Navy… What do I get free?”
“Aside from Manticoran citizenship and a guaranteed commission, you mean?”
“Yes. Aside from that. But good to know on both counts,” I agreed.
“You gain access to the Prolong Treatment. You’ll gain it yourself of course, but also the knowledge and information needed to administer it to others or mass produce it. Within this jump, unless you or one of your minions solves the age limit, you’ll only be able to administer the treatment to those young enough to benefit from it. Afterwards, age won’t be a limiting factor, though obviously, the older the patient, the less extension they’ll gain. Unfortunately, this is a genetic treatment, so you’ll need to science it up a bit if you want to adapt it to people who aren’t at least mostly homo sapiens, genetically speaking.” She was studying her fingernails as if to show disdain for the concept of ‘humanity’ in general, but I knew she was beginning to come around to having a physical body and she certainly enjoyed abusing it.
“Hmm… I haven’t done that much in that regard… some anti-gerone research, but Yuzuha has made that a secondary concern… but I can take a look at the notes and see what I can find. Might be a nice way to make a few trillion dollars in a normal setting. Especially if I can stockpile the doses in stasis,” I commented, sending off a note to the construction crews to begin a massive expansion to the medical wing’s drug storage lockers. If I couldn’t produce at least 200,000,000,000 doses over my time in the HonorVerse, I’d be shocked. That would be enough to treat nearly thirty Second Millennial Earths, every man, woman, and protohuman. I also made a note to begin planning production of Beowulfan Uterine Replicators… I was thinking perhaps half a million of them would be a decent stock. And then, because I was thinking of it, I commissioned a Theme Park feasibility study… and a blackbox hyper-advanced Video Game Console… “What did you say?” I asked Chamber.
“I didn’t. I threw a bonbon at your head. You were lost in thought,” she snapped, frowning, then asked, “Can we continue? I have been sober far too long.” I rolled my eyes, but nodded for her to continue. “Right. Next is a general perk called Anti-Chaos Theory. It’s free while you’re here, but if you want to keep it, it’ll cost you three hundred CP.”
“Yeah? Well… you forgot to tell me what it does.”
“It keeps you from butterflying away plot points. Essentially, as long as you’re not deliberately trying to derail a given plot point, or haven’t caused such utter chaos that the plot point happening would induce an outright plot hole, the overall storyline will remain reasonable intact. It’s togglable, but once off, things may rapidly spiral out of control to the point where turning it back on won’t help much.”
“Ah… well. Hmm… that sounds like an excellent investment. Too many times I’ve had to be extra careful to keep butterflies to a minimum and I’m astounded in retrospect that some of those panned out… So yes. I’ll take it. That’s 2300 left,” I said, then thought about it for a second. “There’s no point in companions taking this, as it procs off my having it, right?”
“Yes. as long as you have it active, your companions are covered in the blanket protection. It specifically calls out that you have to be deliberately intending… so unless your companions are really trashing the place, you should be protected against their actions.”
“Great… Great… Now, I assume Navy and Manty both freebies? A perk for Manty and a perk and item for Navy I think you said?”
“That’s correct. No item lines for the national allegiance. For Manty, the free perk is called ‘The Saganami Tradition’, which reflects the fact that the RMN has arguably the best training in the galaxy and you’ll have been through that training program eventually… assuming you don’t get yourself killed first.” I stuck my tongue out at her. “You may pick one military speciality or profession involving violence and or war, and become an expert at it. While this won’t make you the best in the Star Kingdom at it… at least not by itself… you’ll be top ten at the very least. It also comes with a boost to your moral courage. Unless you allow it, you will never let fear, pain, or even certain death stop you from doing what you believe to be the right thing.”
“Oh… thats, hmm… I mean, don’t get me wrong, that’s very nice… even if I was unlikely to let any of those things get in the way anyway,” I chewed my bottom lip, considering. “No, the real issue is picking only one… Ah. Asymmetric Warfare. You know, siege warfare, commerce raiding, resistance groups, anything with an adverse correlation of forces.”
“Yes,” she said dryly. “I have sponsored enough knights to know the concept. Not particularly honorable, but war seldom is. Next, the Navy Perk is called ‘Commanding Presence. It, rather obviously, gives you an intensity of charisma, a presence that allows you to take control of most situations, guiding and directing even the most panicky or recalcitrant of individuals into doing as you direct. Be aware that this isn’t mind control, simply knowing how to speak, how to act, decisive and authoritative.” I opened my mouth to comment, but she help up a hand preemptively, “Aht! Add in the ‘White Beret’ item, the traditional RMN headwear of a ship’s commander and you’ll be taken much more seriously with it on, the sigh of you in it serving as a massive morale booster to any forces under your command… of course, it needn’t be just the White Beret. You can combine it with any hat you already own and in each future jump, it will transform itself into the headgear of any military you find yourself part of.”
“Well, I do love a good hat,” I said, smiling, then sighed. I missed Ziggy… sometimes, I’d put him on my head for no reason and claim he was a hat. I could do that with Alegra, of course, but she didn’t curly up as well as Ziggy did, making a better shoulder wrap than a hat. “Regardless… tell me about the Navy Perks, if you would?”
“Certainly. At 150 each, we have ‘Legendary Intuition’ and ‘Foraker-Hemphill’. The first gives you the almost supernatural intuition for when something is not right… and a sense of how you can take advantage of it. The kind of intuition the best commanders have, the kind that allows you to plan entire maneuvers in your head and rarely, if ever, leave an important factor unaccounted for. When it comes to leading ships and fleets, it’ll make you one of the best,” she said, looking to see if I was impressed. I wasn’t, but it was a good perk for the price. I kept quiet, waiting for her to explain the other.
“As you no doubt know, Shannon Foraker and Sonya Hemphill are among the most innovative people involved in the Havenite Wars. This makes you an innovator on their level, able to design and build technology literally decades ahead of the competition… or build at the normal levels but with a tiny resource base… or built so quickly that it staggers belief. Each faction has a tech perk which boosts this and defines your specialization, but at even if you don’t take one or more of them, you’ll gain the vast knowledge and in-depth understanding of this Universe’s tech.”
“Each faction has one? Really?” I scratched my chin, thinking about that. There were five factions in this document; Manticore, Haven, Solarian, Grayson, and Mesan. “Manti’s are Weapons and Communications? Grayson Propulsion? Or is that Mesan? Can’t think of what it would be for Haven and the Solarians.”
She looked smug, as she wagged a finger at me. “Ah! No! Bad guesses! I guess you need Accurate Assessments!” She teased. I didn’t rise to the bait, however, and she humphed, then ticked them off on her fingers. “Most of these is the 400 point perk for that faction… Manty’s get ‘Jeune Ecole, which is a genius among geniuses for new and improved tech, especially, yes Weapons and Communications, but across the spectrum as well. It doesn’t help you when it comes to making whole ships or shipyards, it does make you all but unmatched in your field. You’d be able to take a normal design and come up with a hundred new and feasible ideas for it… though getting them produced may be expensive and time consuming. Haven gets ‘Bolthole Protocol’ which is specialized in reverse engineering with a thousandth the time and effort it would take anyone else. The Solies get ‘Rapid Engineering’ which covers mass production, shipyards, and support systems, churning out an entire fleet in the time it would take others to make a prototype… though it probably won’t be the best quality.”
I grunted in amusement at that, but she didn’t slow down.
“Grayson’s ‘Never Goes Out of Style’ is a talent for finding new uses for old tech, for making systems that are extremely adaptable and robust… especially environmental systems. And then there’s Mesa’s ‘Behind the Shadows’, which is only 200 CP. It’s stealth technology and building things in secret.”
“Mmm… right… well, I guess I’ll pick up Legendary Intuition… that seems like it will be extremely helpful in and out of this universe, sensing ambushes or opportunities like that… and sure, the two discounted tech perks, Foraker-Hemphill and Jeune Ecole. Might as well, though I don’t know how much they’ll help what I’ve already got… but better to have and not need than want and not have… that’s another 500… so… back down to 1800… Now, explain about Accurate Assessments,” I commanded.
“Don’t you want to finish with Navy and Manty?” She asked.
“It’s the capstone of the Drop-in Line, so it would be 600 for you. It’s an incredible ability to review and study data utterly without any kind of bias-”
“SOLD!” I yelped, leaning across the desk and startling Judge and Allegra who were playing Sorry.
“Don’t you want to hear the rest,” Jumpchan complained.
“Sure, sure… but it’s not going to change my mind. The ability to set aside my own bias is something I’ve struggled with for ages. I’d probably have bought it if that was the only thing it did… but I’m certain it does more. Doesn’t it?”
She nodded, then continued a little more subdued as I marked down my available points to 1200 and gave out scritches to apologize for startling the fox. Judge should have been paying more attention. “You’ll find you can extract unbelievably, incomparably exact analyses and assessments. Comes with the skills of a top-grade intelligence officer and analyst, one capable of divining plans and intentions from all but the sparsest actionable intel… as long as you have some.”
I sighed and shook my head, “Well, the bias removal isn’t the only thing in that that’s worth it, but close. Still, we shall have to see how much this is able to boost my predictive abilities… of course, in this jump, I won’t have an IQ measurable in YottaFLOPS, so I’ll probably need it.”
“Yottawhat?” Chamber asked.
“Floating Point Operations Per Second, FLOPs. It’s a measure of computational capacity and speed. Yotta means one Septillion in the short scale, or ten to the twenty-fourth power in base ten… regardless, it’s a lot of mathing around. By my calculations, the human brain performs at roughly an Exaflop, give or take. An exaflop is one one-millionth of a yottaflop. My planetary brain runs at about 20x the capacity of a human brain per unit volume… in other words, for every 1500 cm of volume, on average, I run 20 exaflops.”
“Is that a lot? I’m not sure.”
“Chamber… my planetary brain is the size of Neptune. I contain 40 yottabrains, each running 20 exaflops. That’s 800 Quintillion Yottaflops or the calculating power of 800 Septillion average humans.”
“Oh… that would be many… But back to the perk trees… umm… where was I… oh, right… Navy… Flying High is the capstone. It means you’ll be first in line to be promoted-”
“Pass? But… I don’t understand.”
I rubbed my eyes, then sighed. “Look. I’m perfectly willing to bend all kinds of things in my favor. I’ll reshape entire societies because I can, and I’ll abuse the heck out of improved charisma and intelligence… but that’s cheating.”
“Che… this is all cheating. Normal people don’t get to choose what they’re good at and they certainly don’t get to keep stockpiling abilities lifetime after lifetime.” She harumphed.
“Yes. That’s true. But if I get a promotion, I want it to be because I fucking earned it. I want to have done the thing and made the mistakes and come out on top. No thank you.”
“Fiiine… um… Manticoran… Getting Along is the next one… it’s about integrating different ideologies into your organizations without… never mind, you do that fine on your own…” I nodded to signal my acceptance of her moving on, “The Capstone is The Harrington Effect. It’s a luck slash plot armor effect that guarantees that, all things being equal, you’ll pull out the win… though it may cost you and this won’t protect you from trials and tribulations along the way. Even if the odds are really stacked against you, this gives you a non-zero chance at victory. Be warned though, abuse this or be incompetent and it will abandon you. You have to try. Heroes always Try.”
“I think I can manage that.”
“On the survival side, however, you have the kind of death insurance that only the MC of a long-running and extremely popular series has. Unless you’re actively trying to get yourself killed, you won’t be. Maimed, imprisoned, tortured, slandered, shamed, discredited, discharged, or beaten on… and this won’t protect your companions, allies, or friends, but unless you commit suicide… either intentionally or via epic stupidity… you’ll probably survive… unless you’re rendered helpless and then your enemies deliberately confirm the kill ‘on-camera’ as it were.” She grinned at the meta humor, then said, “Yes, this means that no matter how many flagships explode out from under you, you’ll probably still escape in time to show up for the next thrilling installment.”
“You have been watching too much TV,” I told her, then added the plot armor to my build…. I was down to 900. “Any interesting items?”
“A Cartel in third place after Hauptman and Dempsey? That’s 400. The North Hollow Files for 200? The Audubon Ballroom for 400? A document that serves as valid authorization for you to enter any military or law enforcement building. By reading it out, you may take temporary command of any military operation or facility… at least until they check with base… but they’ll only do that if you do something incredibly suspicious.”
“Mm… okay… yeah. The Cartel and the Ballroom are interesting, but a little pricey… can companions buy them?”
“Good. Then I’ll pick up the orders… now… I’m looking for… hmm… charisma boosts, things that will help me recruit and maintain a cadre. I know I have this stuff already, but I’m not certain how nerfed it’s going to be… and little boosts do add up.”
“You’re looking at… huh… would you look at that. You’ve got 800 CP left and you’re looking at two perks that cost a combined 800… Rabble Rousing, it’s from the Havenite line and is all about manipulating people with your words, knowing what to say to get your words into their heads and provoking whatever response you want. Also gives you all the tricks to get your message out to the masses. That’s 200, and for 600 from the Grayson Line is ‘Grayson Loyalty’ which flat out means you inspire incredibly lasting loyalty, be it through grand gestures or simple interpersonal relationships or just being a likable person. People will hold to you through thick and thin, as long as you make the effort to maintain that loyalty. You’ll gain a sense for what will cause someone’s loyalty to you to fray and how to counter it… or to subvert someone else’s loyalty to their old ingroup and shift it to yours.”
“Yes. That was the type of thing I was talking about… hmmm hold on. I have my floating discount and 100 CP from the ship limitation… the Shipping Ban… that’s for items… what items cost 200 CP?”
“Oh. Don’t worry. We spent that for you. We bought you a shipyard. It’s the Navy Item Capstone…” she looked to where I was restraining my annoyance. “Oh, don’t give me that look. We know you. It’s a fully fledged orbital shipyard capable of making any and all ships you have the knowhow to make. It’s as automated as it can be and has a… let’s call them NPCs… essentially a bunch of locals who’ll be loyal to you… they’re expert technicians who are not and may never become companions. Anyway, the Shipyard will create the resources to build ships or space stations ex nihilo, out of nothing at all… generating enough to build a Manti Superdreadnought every three months… and that’s before you supply more resources of your own. It’ll update automatically, creating new docks as you find or make new schematics, along with generating any specialized materials you might need besides super-rare materials… those it does generate, but much slower… so if you want a second Death… er… Disco Moon, you’ll need to wait for it to generate more Kyber Crystals for the main gun. If the ship absolutely requires sapient beings to create, the station will generate NPCs with whatever qualities you need.”
“So… you’re telling me that this Shipyard can make, say, Dahak? Or a Shadow Battlecrab along with a telepath to be its operator?”
“Dahak… Dahak… oh. Yes, the Lunar-sized fleet carrier from that series you’re inordinately fond of. Yes. It could make an Uttu or Asgerd if you knew how to make… are those schematics for an Asgerd?”
I grinned. “I have a brain the size of a small gas-giant and access to Magi, Juriyian, and Alpha Centauri Clarketech. No. That is not an Asgerd. That… is a Haddad Class Superplanetoid… Using all my best tech. Now, granted, it’s no Asgerd… it’s faster for one thing. And it’s using retro-engineered Shadow and Vorlon tech, with Magi transgal drives, Necrontyr anti-inertials, Alpha Centauri Chronatonic shielding, and Asgardian transmatter beaming technology. The weapons include Chaostatic projectors, psychic disruptors, antiproton beams, phase-state collapsar missiles with neutronium shells, and the point defense systems are Deathstar cannons…”
“And you have this ready to go, why?”
“Every mad scientist should have at least a dozen plans for doomsday weapons,” I replied, buffing my fingernails on my blouse.
“Am I to understand you have eleven more… plans like this?” she asked archly.
“Are you calling me mad?” I asked, grinning maniacally.
“Then of course I do!” I giggled, then flopped down. “Send all the companion imports to my desk.”
That got a look from Chamber, a look that was part surprise and part worry. “What are you up to… you never tell your companions what to buy unless you’re annoyed at them or importing them against their wishes.”
“I’ve figured out a way around your lockout of all details I wouldn’t know about the HonorVerse… and I’m pretty certain you can’t argue that this is cheesing the challenge,” I said, looking a little grim as I regarded the 8 blank slates in front of me. One by one, I started assigning origins and perks to each of my chosen eight, and then I went further, penciling in background details for their nascent personas and their families and social circles, planets… I was shaping specific individuals for specific tasks.
Chamber walked around behind me to look over my shoulder. “What are you… oh… I see…” she commented. She’d seen it too.
See, nothing in the challenge changed my people’s fundamental loyalty to me. If I couldn’t get information from out of context sources like the original books, I had to get that information from in-setting sources… and if those sources were loyal to me rather than the Star Nation they served? Well, it had worked for Mesa, hadn’t it? Deep cover agents conditioned from before birth? Yes please.
As a group, I called my chosen eight into my office and explained why I had done what I’d done. “You won’t remember the details, and I can’t give specific instructions, but here are your orders. You are to serve your organization faithfully and try to rise to the highest position you can as effectively as you feel is reasonable. The build system is limited, but gives me some control over your lives until the age of 12, at which point your full memories and what abilities you’re allowed to bring in will be nearly fully manifested. It is also then that all safeties will be fully removed. You’ll be relatively safe from random nonsense until then, but not outright stupidity, so try not to indulge.” I favored them with a smile and a wink, then continued.
“That said, remember that ultimately, you’re not one of them, you’re one of us, one of mine. I expect updates as often as you personally feel is safe, via the Warehouse Communications network.” I looked each of them in the eyes until I’d gotten a nod of understanding. “Good, Now, I’ll explain in detail so each of you understands as best as whatever mindscrub will allow. Maggy, you’re up first.”
My eldest stepped forward, snapping to attention. “Yes Sir, Papa Sir!”
“Oh, hush… You’re a Peep Drop-in, child of escaped genetic slaves and child of the streets. It’s going to be fucking hard as nails and you’re going to need to make allies and ones you can trust. I’ve given you Accurate Assessments and Rabble Rousing, which should allow you to read people and anticipate trouble. I’ve also given you something called “Theisman Tough’ which will keep you from giving up, no matter what happens. You’ll also get skill in dueling and a dueler’s pistol… but I expect you’ll be using them more on the streets than on the field of honor. You also have the North Hollow Follows, or your version of it. It’ll give you the political dynamite you need to find high value targets and make a name for yourself. And you’ll have the Ballroom at your back. I can’t be certain you’ll remember the details, but remember this… The Legislaturalists are the enemy of the Havenite People. They must be brought down. Your task is to make certain you’re among those who do so… but try to keep the collateral damage down, if you can?”
She thought about that, then nodded. She knew I was pushing her to join what would, eventually, become the Committee of Public Safety… and hopefully as one of the Aprilists or a faction like them that was more focused on rabble rousing and targeted attacks rather than outright terrorism. If she could become part of the ruling body, it would be amazing, and I wasn’t aiming her at one of the top three slots (Rob Pierre, Oscar St-Just, and Cordelia Ransom)… nor even hoping she could become the fourth member of that clique of tyrants… but I was aiming for a high placed People’s Commissioner, someone who would become important in the restored republic. She stepped back into line, falling into what I would call ‘Parade Slouch’.
“Mini, my love. You’re up,” I called, indicating Maggy’s half-mother.
“Do I get to be something spoopy?” she asked, giving me puppydog eyes.
“No… because that’s a stupid term and it doesn’t mean anything,” I growled. Sometimes slang is the dumbest thing in the universe. “You’re a Manty Drop-In. I gave you A Glowing Mind, which will make you attractive to Treecats, and Dancing Skills, which will make you a fighter in spirit… well, I know you already are… but this will help make certain you’re an agent for freedom, for liberty and justice, without being a blind idealist. It’ll give you a bit of pragmatism that you’re going to need, since you’re the head of the Androdyne Cartel… or at least the heir apparent. And yes, I chose the name because Androdyne means Manpower. You also got Accurate Assessments, which you’ll need to help you help channel money and agents into fighting Manpower. Androdyne is now in the business of building custom ships for the Beowulf Biological Survey Corps. Think you can handle it?”
“You know it, babe.” She blew me a kiss, then grinned. “If I do a good job, can we have a wedding in this universe?”
I blinked, then blushed a little at the giggles from all three of my children. To deflect, I hrrmed, then said “That, my good woman, is entirely up to Velma, Franchesca, and you. Carwyn couldn’t care less about such things, right?” The elf shook her head, tossing her crimson hair. “Cirno doesn’t get a vote, and the Hibikis are gone. If they come back and get upset, we’ll cope with it then, but the joy of seeing them again will be worth the headache. But I’m certainly not in a position to say no after getting married to that idiot,” I hooked a thumb at Zane who grinned and howled. “So if you three can agree, fine. But until then, no weddings. And no, Zane, you don’t get a vote.”
“I never vote. Politicians are all liars and cheats,” he said, not meaning a word of it.
“Good for you. And since you volunteered, you’re up next, brother mine.”
He stepped forward, tilting his head, “Oh? Are we to be siblings again?”
“Indeed we are. Of a sort. You’re a Manty, Civilian… Diplomatic Corps hopeful. That’s your Professional Expertise, Diplomacy. And you’re an ordained priest, or will be. I bought you Religious which comes with a knowledge of practically all galactic religions and your understanding will match the greatest priests and scholars… plus, you’ll radiate an aura of calmness and authority, making you a dab hand at resolving spiritual issues and conflicts… In other words, you’re going to be a confessor and arbiter, and thanks to Getting Along, you’ll try and make certain people do just that. And you’ll have Credentials… thats proof you’re qualified to do anything you’re actually qualified to do… and a really nice power Suit… but I also bought you lands, your lordship… which unfortunately makes you the eldest… but that’s fine. Oh, and if playing fair isn’t your strong suit, you also have the Solarian Freebie, ‘A Gift for Graft’ to let you sniff out corruption and understand how to use it to achieve your goals. Find those willing to take bribes and use them… or get them out of your organization. I’ll have to trust you to know which is which.”
Zane considered, then shrugged. “I don’t get it. Maggy and Mini are infiltrating the Havenites and Beowulf and both are helping the Ballroom… what am I doing? Just… talking religion with people?”
“Zane, Zane… you’re just going to be yourself. You are going to be exactly what you see to be… an agent of her majesty’s government and a Rabbi who travels to distant lands and convinces people to get along. I imagine your list of contacts will be suitably massive in a few decades. Any information that crosses your desk? Much appreciated. I would prefer it if you were a Liberal or an Independant in the Lords, but will understand if you’re a Crown Loyalist or a Centrist.”
“Why… oh, right. You could tell me, but I’d forget. Right. Right. Never mind.” He nodded, then stepped back into line. I hadn’t told him about the undetectable to security needler I’d spent his last 50 CP, but he’d figure it out.
“CT… Got a hard one for you. Also civilian… but Mesan. Professional Expertise in Genetic Engineering. Expertise in Blackmail. And you’re going to be a very very big name in the Alignment. I’ve gotten you The Perfect Combination, which means you’ll be an upstanding pillar of the community, richer than most nations, more influential than several heads of state… wealth, power, respect… and the knowledge to use them to maximum effect. Your skills in politics and finance will grow to match Pierre and Hauptman respectively. And you know how to make everything work together, looking like a saint and smelling like roses the whole time. I also bought you Alpha Line, so you’re going to be pretty close to superhuman, and all your genes will have massive stability and the ability to manifest anything in your genomic past… Together, unless I very much miss my guess, you’re going to be very very close to the center of the Onion from birth. Go with it. You’re pragmatic enough to do so… so do it. I… we, need that information, and you’re going to give it to us. Oh, and you’ve got All for the Profit, which will make you good at convincing people to do terrible things for you, and Alignments and Factors, which will make you a true master of intrigue and conspiracies. If you’re not at Detwiler’s right hand by the time someone shoots him in the face, I’ll be astounded.”
“Taking one for the team, am I?”
“Not at all. I know you’ll enjoy the game… Taylor. You wanted to be a hero, wanted to join the bad guys to bring them down from within? Well, this time you can do so with a clear conscience.”
She pursed her lips, then nodded. “Okay… but only because you’re a devious, manipulative bitch.”
“That’s why you love me,” I said without a hint of a lie in my voice. Carwyn and I were a good match in many ways. We were both egotistical, smug, sarcastic, self-satisfied bitches. And more than a bit perverse at times. “Now, get back in line and let me talk to Frankie.”
Carwyn flopped into the chair next to Chamber and whispered something to her as the Romagnian witch hopped up onto my desk and licked my nose.
“Yes, you’re very cute,” I confirmed, “but you’ll have to set that aside a bit, my dear. I’ve set you upon the path of Peep Naval Officer… and people, I know you won’t remember this, but I want you to remember that the People’s Republic of Haven is not the enemy here. The Solarian League is not the enemy here. Mesa is an enemy, but our real enemy is corruption. Remember that. Corruption is the enemy. Human societies are undermined by it, twisted into unnatural shapes and sabotaged from within by it. The idea is to make a better future not just for whatever society we find ourselves part of, but a better future for as many as possible. That’s not limited to just a narrow view of humanity. Humanity is not just Homosapiens. It’s all beings capable of feeling and thinking. We should treat all of them with respect and strive to help build societies that encourage that respect.”
“Even if they’re yummy?” Frankie asked.
“You can respect the sow even as you eat the bacon, pet.” I ruffled her hair. “There’s a reason all Magi livestock are treated well, and that’s part of it. Pain and suffering makes us tougher, harder, meaner. We don’t want that in our food, and we don’t really want it in our friends. A little suffering is natural, vital even. Progress requires stimuli, but we don’t want it so hard that it makes us bitter… either as food or friends. Now please stop gnawing on me.” Frankie grinned and I flicked her nose.
“Right, Peep Navy. With Legendary Intuition and, for you I’m willing to cheat and I got you Flying High. I want you to be a major peep naval officer… And a good one. I’m aiming for a sector commander or maybe even one of Thomas Theisman’s inner circle… Also picked you up Teisman Tough because you’ll need it, and Getting Along because it’s best to be surrounded by people who like you and will protect you. And you get a private pennace that’s always parked nearby for emergency escapes.”
“Can I paint kitties on it?”
“Now get off my desk, it’s Alex’s turn.”
My son looked at me, then at the desk, “Do I have to climb up and give you kisses?” he asked, smirking.
“Only if you want to,” I responded, which made him blush furiously.
“Papa got Alex good,” Amaryllis stage whispered to Maggie who nodded, then gave me a thumbs up. Alex squirmed away from his mother who decided to ruffle his hair. The fact that her default form looked two years younger than his current default would have made the scene seem farcical, but farcical was part and parcel of my universe… often interspersed with the darkest of human tragedy.
Alex escaped his mother, dodged his half mother, then hopped up onto the corner of the desk, turning into his female form as he did, complete with cat ears. “Okay, okay, enough teasing. Whatcha got for me, pops.”
“Don’t call me pops… and You’re going into BuWeps. I’m setting you up to be a brilliant young turk in the Manty Navy. Commanding Presence, Legendary Intuition, Harrington Effect… those should get you noticed by command. Saganami Tradition specialized in engineering, especially high energy systems like weapons and shields, plus Jeune Ecole and Hemphill-Foraker… take risks but don’t cut corners. I want you squarely situated someplace you can do some good work… also, I think you’ll be a good fit there. I also got you a Shipyard to play with… that’s the second we’ll have access to.”
“Nifty… should I be male or female?”
“This is Manticore. It matters not an iota. Be what you like.”
“But I like booooth!” he complained, shifting back to teenage boy as he hopped off the desk, flashed me a salute, then flopped onto Chamber’s lap and said, “Hows yooos doin’?” A moment later he oofed as she shoved him onto the floor with a disgusted ‘hhmmmph!’
“Am I next?” Amaryllis asked. Gaius pushed her forward, giving me a look that asked ‘Why am I here?’
“Yes, Amy… you’re up. I’m afraid I have a somewhat boring job for you.”
“I don’t mind boring… can I take my speeps?”
“Some… a couple. I’m slotting you into the Solarian Navy, and giving you A Gift for Graft and Bewildering Bureaucracy, so you can navigate the byzantine corridors of the Solarian Navy. I also got you Rapid Engineering and Behind the Shadows, two tech profiles… but instead of giving you Foreaker-Hemphill, I’m giving you The Big Bluff… That’s so that people will overestimate you a lot. I’d love to make you super-competent at tech… but in the Solarian Navy, it’ll be better if everyone thinks you’re hot stuff. I want you to try to get into a major position, preferably in the Maya sector… sorry… in a largely self-sufficient but geographically remote part of the league… of your starting nation. Grr… hard to judge what will and won’t be edited from memory… anyway, do your best. You’ve got our third shipyard, just FYI.”
“I’m gonna make a Speep Drive! It’s like a Spider Drive, but fluffier.”
“I’m certain you will… Now, Gaius… You’ve drawn the short straw, I’m afraid. I need someone absolutely pragmatic… someone who I already know is willing to allow slavery on a huge scale to continue without batting an eye. Someone willing to sacrifice an entire city… and then do it again, and again, and again… to win the war.”
He sighed, then grunted. “I’m your man, then Septima… I’m going to be Mesan Navy, aren’t I? Mannerheim?”
I nodded. “I need to know where Mesan’s military forces are. And that’s you. Commanding Presence, Legendary Intuition, Flying High for the military side. All for the Profit, Alpha Line, Alignment and Factors for the political. If it gets hard, remember that this is all in service of bringing down someone a billion times worse than Kalare. Oh, and you’ll have an undetectable, untraceable needler in case anyone needs to be removed… be circumspect… be ruthless. I have faith in you.”
“Great. Wonderful thing to have faith in someone for.”
“Hey, it’s all about the right tool. And you… you’re a pretty decent tool.”
And with that, the meeting wrapped up. As they were leaving, Ahab, Emma, and Joy, currently looking like Deirdre Skye, came in.
“I take it you two and a half have managed to spend your paltry sums in an appropriate way? Ahab, I take it you doubled down on Grayson? Civilian or Drop-In?”
“I did, and Civilian. Expertise in Engineering, and I bought Lands, which I’m pretty certain makes me a Steadholder. Are all the Steadholders’ known?”
“What the crap is a Steadholder?” Emma blurted out. “Fuckface here won’t tell me shit.”
“Language!” Ahab snapped.
“Bite me, old man!” she snapped back.
“Children!” I barked, then looked at Ahab, “I know she’s a hassle, Venom… but it was a reasonable question… if asked in the rudest possible fashion.” I turned to Emma. “We are apparently stuck together. I don’t even know if I can get rid of you, which means you’re going to have to learn not to piss me off. Anyway, a Steadholder is one of the feudal lords of the Planet Grayson. There are 82 of them that make up the Keys as it is known informally or the Council of Steadholders as it is known formally. The hold corporate equality… that is, in a group, the Council of Steadholders are the equal of the Council of Steaders and of the Protector.” I held up a hand to forstal more questions. “I’ll tell you when I’m finished. Now shush. You asked for this.”
She shut her mouth, a pout marring that rather pretty face.
“Steaders are residents of a Steading, the domain of a Steadholder. There are 85 Steadings, three of them having been merged into the Protector’s Steading, the Protector’s personal dominion. The Protector is Grayson’s Monarch… effectively an emperor, as within their steadings the Steadholders are all but sovereign and each is considered a head of state. Grayson does have a constitution, though its powers have eroded by the start of the series. Regardless, the Mayhew Restoration, based on the Meiji Restoration of Japan, will shift that. The Mayhew clan, as you will know when you become Grayson, holds the Protectorship as well as being a Steadholder. The heir to the Protectorship being Steadholder Mayhew.” I turned back to Ahab, “And no, to answer your question, only 32 of the 82 are known if I’m remembering correctly. I only skimmed that section of the Companion, it was mostly a list.”
“Ah… hmm… any recommendation?”
“Well… several of them seem to have been named after famous athletes. Elway and Magruder and Canseco and Coleman… while others were seemingly named after historical figures… Denby and Garth… and one might have been named for a fictional police officer… but several are probably just named for fans of David Weber in what’s called a ‘Name Drop’ where an author names some minor character after a fan. Usually a fan who has been active in a forum the author frequents… my only recommendations are don’t be Steadholder Weber, Ringo, Flint, Baen, or Buckley… you’ll probably end up dying in some humorous and or ironic way.”
“How about Steadholder Kipling?” Joy suggested.
“Doesn’t have the right… je ne sais quoi,” I commented. “Maybe Steadholder Witkin, but the family name is Kipling?”
“Whaa?” Emma asked plantively as Ahab considered.
“Usually, a feudal domain is named for the original land holder,” I said. “But often that family line dies out and a cousin takes over. Say Steadholder Witkin had two children. The older, Thomas, is the heir. The younger, Clarissa, is not. She marries Roger Kipling. They have a son, Seymour Kipling. Years later, Thomas is now Steadholder Witkin, but his only son died in a boating accident. He makes Seymour his heir and when he passes away, Seymour Kipling is now Steadholder Witkin. The domain doesn’t change names just because the family running it changes names. Often, it will be phrased ‘Lord Seymour Kipling, Steadholder Witkin’. In Manticore, it would be something like ‘Lord Franklin Meers, Earl Blue Creek or Earl of Blue Creek… or just Blue Creek, or Lord Meers, or Earl Meers.’ Understand?”
“That’s stupid. Nobility is stupid. That’s why the US doesn’t have it.”
“No. The US doesn’t have a hereditary aristocracy because the founders were somewhat delusional in believing that they could somehow avoid it. And because they did, they created a plutocracy where the concept of long term dynastic planning and noblesse oblige… the duty of nobles to give back to society, are entirely absent.” I turned to Joy, “But enough of that. What about you?”
“Since I’m likely to be your only asset in Silesian, I went all in on the Solarian whose parents are diplomats in Silesia. So Solarian Civilian for me there, Professional Expertise in politics, Bewildering Bureaucracy to deal with the snakes and liars, and Credentials to make certain I can prove I know how to get stuff done. Maybe I’ll be recruited into Frontier Fleet’s Marines? Who knows.”
“Who indeed. Okay folks. I think that’s a wrap. We’ve got three weeks before Insertion, so get some down time, meet up with everyone you want to meet up with… We’ll get through the next period, but it’s probably going to be a little lonely on the Team Jumper front, what with us scattered all over the galaxy.” My words were being broadcast across the Warehouse.
Chamber tapped me on the shoulder. “One thing you might want to deal with.”
I looked to her, “What’s that?”
“Well, since this is a massively spacefaring setting, Paradise will be placed somewhere in the setting, and all your Maegi will be subject to your Baseline Import Rule. In fact, all your companions will as well. That’s just so they’re covered by the infoban.”
“What’s your poi… oh… gotcha. I need to have a word with some orks, don’t I?”
“That might be best, yes.”
I looked ’round the terrible decor of the Greenskin side of Dustopia, the Dustrats’ Den of vehicular chaos. “Okay… you have to change your name.”
“Woi?” Muffin da Destroya asked.
“Because… well. You’re going to be humans for the next… Muffin… you do know that name isn’t very scary… what made you pick it?”
“It were ei’ver dat or Cupcake da Ruina.”
I frowned. “Also not fearsome.”
“Buscuit da Wrecka?”
“Mmm… no.” I shook my head.
Muffin considered for a very long time, then said, “O’s about Steve? Steve’s da scariest name oi knows!”
“Fine. you can be Steve.” I agreed.
“Steve da Slaughta… er… Slaughtera?” the genderless ork stumbled over the proper mangling of Slaughterer.
Feeling a headache coming on, I suggest, “Slayer?”
‘He’ threw his arms in the air and bounced around like Rocky Balboa. “Yah! Slaya Steve! Ows dat?”
“Wonderful,” I said, penning in that his name was now ‘Steve Slaya’, technician fifth class.
“Yus! Oi’s da best at names, oi is!”
“Yes yes. Very good. Now go get Doc.”
Three minutes after ‘Steve’ left, there was a knock on the doorframe (the door was missing entirely, likely having been scavenged to make a side panel for a vehicle… or a roll slide so a mechanic could slip under a vehicle to fix it. I looked up to see the biggest of the orks.
“Boss?” He asked, hat literally in hand and being squished into a sausage.
“Yes Bob?” I asked, curious as to what had brought the big but mostly harmless (except in actual combat) ork in to see me.
“FISTMASHA BOB!” he insisted.
“Yes yes. Fistmasha. How can I help you.”
“Oi eard as you was lettin Muffin change ‘is name an…”
Letting was it? “And?” I asked.
“An oi was wondrin’ could oi change moi name too?
“I don’t see why not… but let’s go with Thom Fistmasha, ai?”
“Oh.. ya, dat’s groovy, dat is.”
He left, happy, but 20 minutes passed with no Doc, so I ended up having to go look for him. “Doc?” I asked, finding him at the bar.
“Ain’t changin’ moi name.”
“What da grot’s wrong wit me name?”
“Exactly zero humans in the history of humans has been named Doc Teeftaka.”
“Oi should smash hyer face in, ye bloody oik!”
“I’m literally powerful enough to take on a dozen Weirdboys and a pair of Meganobz at the same time. You have as much chance of smashing my face in as you do of flying around the room by flapping your arms.”
“Dat’s it, we’s throwin’ down, roit now!” One very short throw down later. “Roit… umm… Wot’s a good Ummy name den?”
“How about John Tolkien?”
“Dat sounds like a toff’s name.”
“Dat’s betta… How’s about Jimmy da Toof?”
“Err… sure. You can be Doctor Jim Datoof,” I agreed, wondering what kind of doctorate he was qualified for.
“Ooright. But on’y cause yoose beat me. Next toim, I’ll beatcha and youse can be Jimmy.”
——Later, in a hallway, trying to find Toof-snatcha’s room.—–
“Youse don’ like moi name? Dat makes me sad.”
“Naw… I mean, it’s a bit weird, but Krumpa McGirk actually works for some humans.”
“Aw… really? Dat’s great! Wanna fire me Cannon? Firin’ me cannon makes me ‘appy!”
“Maybe later,” I agreed, then smiled as I found the room at last. “Toof-Snatcha, you in here?”
“Oi?” The room was a vast junkyard, random machinery stacked atop more of the same, shelves full of it… and the music was thunderous and awful.
“I asked ARE YOU IN HERE?”
“TOOF-SNATCHA! I’M TRYING TO TALK TO YOU!”
“Youse say sompin boss?”
“Never mind. Your name is now TS if anyone asks.”
“You have to change your name.”
“Fek off an die.”
“Humans are not named after power tools.”
“Fek off, die, an… an… did youse know I a’ays wanted to be called Sally? Sally’s a purdie name, in’it?”
“Yes. Very purdie.”
“Goody. I gets to be Sally da Buzzkilla.”
“Sally Buzza or Sally Buzzilka maybe. That’s a decent name for a girl.”
“Oi don’t wanna be a gurl.”
“Well then, you can be Sally Buzilka the boy then.”
“If you want that to be your nickname, sure.”
“OOOO.” Orks… so easy to please.
SOLACE OF MANTICORE
Chapter 1: Let the Children Dance
C-76a/169-11/11 was four years old today. She knew she was because she remembered everything. Every moment of her life since she’d first become aware in the tank. She was four years old, though she looked six, even if she was unaware of that fact. She had no name, only a number, but somehow she was faintly aware that that wasn’t right. It wasn’t right for people to have numbers instead of names, but when she’d asked why she didn’t have a name, the look of disgust and fear on the Creche Monitor’s face had told her she’d asked the wrong thing. She did that sometimes, but never more than once.
C-76a/169-11/11 was her number. It told her why she had been created by her current owners, who called themselves Manpower Incorporated, and much more besides. She was a genetic slave, a C-Line genetic slave at that. C-Lines were pleasure slaves. She didn’t quite know what that meant, but she felt that it wasn’t a good thing. 76 was her variant number… she didn’t know what the other variations were, but it worried her that that meant there had been 75 previous variants. (a) meant she was female. Female meant she had a slit between her legs, rather than the floppy thing the males had. That seemed to be the only difference, but she was smart enough to sense there was more to it. 169 was her batch number… that meant that there had been 168 previous batches of the female variant 75 of the C-Line… and she was the 11th of 11 to be decanted. Most of the others in the Creche were of 3 or of 5… and there were often several of them… she was the only member of batch 169… which implied, even to her young mind one of two things. Either she was a somehow defective member of a very popular variation… or she was a very lucky member of a line that was both popular and prone to culling.
Either way, she knew she was being watched. Closely. And so she tried to act meek and servile, because that was what the Monitors wanted. She did not want to be culled. She didn’t know what, exactly it was, but those who were culled never came back and were never talked about. One of the males had asked a Monitor about it once and been smacked viciously. C-76a/169-11/11 had noticed the look of pure venom on his face, and mentally committed his number to a special place in her mind. K-86b/273-1/5. A personal servant line. He had something special within. She’d remember him.
On the morning of her fourth-year day, she awoke before the lights came on in the Creche. She always did, needing far less sleep than the others, it seemed. Laying there in the dark, she counted the breaths of the others, dreading the coming of the lights. She’d seen the faces of those who came back from their 4th year day screening. They had not looked well. Many of them had looked very very not well, but everyone in the Creche knew that you had to get over it, get through it… or you were culled. Two years would pass and the screenings would get worse and worse until you either adjusted and graduated, or they culled you. Either way, you’d leave the Creche and never be seen again.
The lights flickered on and Monitor X-17 entered the Creche. X-17 was the worst of the Monitors. Most of the others were M series, Monitor Series… but X-17 was a Special Monitor, a Phenotype Technician, and she was quick to punish, quick to hurt… and she always oversaw the 4 year day screenings. C-76a/169-11/11 didn’t know how to tell how old Monitors were, but X-17… she didn’t know the woman’s full number, the Monitors only had three or four digits on the breasts of their uniforms and never showed anyone their tongues as far as she knew… looked old. She had streaks of grey in her hair and crinkles around her eyes and her mouth was always pursed in a sneer. Every word she spoke was poison.
“C-76a/169-11/11,” she snapped as she entered the Creche, standing right in front of the door. The door was a special kind of door, one that was really two doors, one where only one of the doors could open at a time, and the inner door couldn’t open from inside. There were other doors in the Creche, into the examination room, and the storage closet, and the office where the Monitors filled out reports. There were doors to the education room and the exercise room and the food room and the waste evacuation room. Those doors could all open from either side, and while they might be locked, usually they weren’t. The Creche was all the world to C-76a/169-11/11, except on the rare occasions she was taken from it for a screening.
She rose, brushed down the front of her singlet, then pulled it off and changed into a fresh one. She always smoothed it down before taking it off… she didn’t know why, but it was important to her. She folded it neatly, slid it into the hopper, taking just a few seconds too long, knowing it would anger X-17. She wanted her angry. Angry was good. Angry was when people, Monitors and… she didn’t know what to call non-monitors… they were just people like her. The Monitors never used a word for them collectively… maybe they didn’t want… us… us was a good word. The Monitors didn’t want Us to think of Us as a group… a collective. C-76a/169-11/11 considered. Had she heard the word ‘Us’ before? She didn’t know… but it felt right. Us… and Them. The Monitors were Them… but so were the Doctors. The Doctors had names. The Doctors looked at the Monitors the way the Monitors looked at Us.
C-76a/169-11/11 wanted X-17 angry because when Monitors were angry, they made mistakes, just like Us. So she took her time pulling on the new singlet, sliding on the fresh pair of panties. She didn’t why know they were called Panties… they didn’t look like small pants. The Monitors wore Pants, the Us wore panties, though the panties the male Us wore were a little more roomy in the crotch than the panties the female Us wore. Then she pretended she couldn’t find one of her slippers. You had to wear slippers outside of the sleeping chamber. It was a rule… and so she’d kicked one of her slippers under the bed in the middle of the dark time when she’d gotten up to eliminate waste water. She was good at planning these things.
“C-76a/169-11/11, come here immediately!” snapped X-17, voice straining with the building anger. Good. Good.
C-76a/169-11/11 palmed the small sliver of metal she’d taken from the Doctor without him noticing a year ago. She’d kept it hidden in her mouth for an entire year, tucked inside her cheek except when she was being examined or brushing her teeth or eating. Then she hid it other places. The Doctor had had it on his neck cloth, and she’d taken it when he’d had his fingers between her legs, the slick squeaky rubbery feel of the latex glove against her skin making her want to kick him… so she had. She’d been punished viciously for that, but it had distracted him from her theft of his metal thing. She’d unfolded it, forcing it open farther than it wanted to go, and rubbed it against the white lines separating the blue tiles in the waste elimination room until the edge of the thinner part could cut rubber. The shiny yellow metal had left a stain on the white lines, and she’d had to be very careful about where the watching eye was, but there was an area where it didn’t quite reach if you nudged it out of the way with a thrown bouncy ball. Removing the stain had been tricky until she thought of licking it off, which tasted of chemicals, but had to be done.
Thankfully, the two times she’d been caught in the waste elimination room during the dark time, she’d pretended to have fallen asleep in there to justify why she’d been in there so long. After that, she’d taken care to only do two or three quick firm rubs and then lick the tile clean. After all, she had a year. Or rather, she had had a year. Now it was time. She knew the layout of the walk between here and the screening room. There were 31 vents on the walls. Three of them were near enough to tall things that she could get on top of and use to reach the vent… if she had help. Help was the hard part. She looked around. K-86b/273-1/5 was already dressed for the day and limbering up. He liked to do some tumbles before morning food time. Tumbling was his favorite thing in the world. He was almost 6 years old… she was hoping he was as worried about that day as she was about this.
C-76a/169-11/11 approached X-17 and the special door, and said, as happily as she could, in a voice she knew would annoy the Monitor even more than she already was, “I’m Heeere Monitor Eks Sixteeeeeen.”
The Monitor growled, grabbing the front of C-76a/169-11/11’s singlet and lifting her off the ground, pulling the child face to face with her. “How dare you keep me waiting you littl-” She choked, clutching her neck where the very very sharp edge of a gold tie pin had sliced through both left jugular veins, the left common carotid artery, the larynx and esophagus, and nicked the right common carotid artery. She gurgled as she began slumping, eyes wide, fingers unclenching from the little girl who was covered in her blood, in the blood that was spreading everywhere. The little girl… the little bitch… little whore who had killed her. She tried to scream as the little girl coldly cut out her left eye.
“What are you doing?” one of the others asked, confused and a little scared. They were going to get into trouble no doubt.
C-76a/169-11/11 ignored the asker and hissed, ‘K-86… I have a plan.” Within moments, she’d showed the others how to use the eye to shuffle as many of their number as wanted to go out into the hall as they could. She herself took the left eye, leaving the others with the right. Both should work. The space between the special doors was big enough for fifteen of the Us to squeeze into, and if the one with the eye stayed to operate the doors, they would be able to empty the Creche in under 75 seconds. She did not stick around to see how many of the other Us followed, pulling K-86b along with her, heading towards the place where the machine that dispensed the hot pungent and delicious smelling drink that the Monitors drank was.
One hundred and fifty-one seconds later, an alarm went up, but by that point, the two slaves were inside the ducts of what neither of them knew was the Kappa Center on Mesa, situated under the city of Darwin. It would take them another five weeks to figure out how to get to the surface and escape, and along the way they ended up killing sixteen adults. After that, it was a matter of finding a way to survive, and they did, sneaking through the underbelly of Mesan Seccy districts, stealing to eat and growing ever more cunning and resourceful. Manpower might have been as evil as corporations got, but they made top quality products.
Eleven weeks after escaping the Center, they located a Jessyk Combine depot and learned of a slave-ship heading towards someplace called ‘Silesia’. Neither of them knew where that was, but it had to be better than staying on Mesa, so they snuck aboard, bringing with them the few weapons and supplies they’d managed to gather. It was everything in the universe that they owned, except for the names they’d given each other. Jimmy and Sandy. They’d heard the names on the street as they’d lurked in hiding, waiting for what the people outside the Center called ‘Night’. They used names for each other, and so now Jimmy and Sandy not K-86b/273-1/5 and C-76a/169-11/11 boarded a transport off the world of their creation… and from the transport they snuck off into the service tubes and air ducts of the Jessyk Combine freighter ‘Rimward Serpent’… And then they waited.
Neither of them knew how to operate a ship, so they knew they’d have to wait until the ship got to where it was going. But they also had to do so without getting caught… and that was proving harder than they’d thought it would be. There was so much less room on the ship, big though it was, than in the city or even the Center. But they were clever and found ways to keep hidden. What was a bigger problem was that they’d had no way to know how long the trip would be, and their supplies were only enough for four days, even eating as little as possible… and that meant getting more. But how? They couldn’t take the food from the other slaves. That would be wrong… but the slavers? If they took food from one of them, surely it would be noticed?
As it turned out? No. They watched, amazed, on the ninth day of the voyage (and the fifth without more than the scraps of food they could get from the mess hall’s waste cycler that they’d partly disabled (it took an extra 20 minutes to start processing anything dumped into it, but the crew didn’t exactly waste food) as one of the ship’s maintenance men snuck some food out of the mess after hours and fed it to a small domestic feline he had hidden inside an out of the way storage locker. He spoke to it as if it were a person, even though the cat could not speak back, of course, and told it how they were going to jump ship when they reached someplace called Psyche (Jimmy thought that was funny but impossible considering how big the ship was, but Sandy was pretty certain the scruffy and somewhat smelly man meant he was going to run away from the ship, just like they’d run away from the Center. Jimmy wasn’t certain).
“Why would one of them want to run away?” he asked, dubious of the entire proposition.
“I don’t know… maybe they won’t let him keep his feline… he seems fond of it and like he’s keeping it a secret… maybe we can use that?”
“If we convince him that we’ll help him get his feline off the ship if he helps us get food?”
“We could threaten that we’ll tell if he tells?”
“Yes… we know a secret and he’ll know a secret… but we both shouldn’t expose ourselves… I’ll do it, and if he looks like he’s going to bet-” Sandy began, but Jimmy shook his head.
“No. I’ll do it. I’m faster than you, and can keep away better. You’re stronger, and better with a knife… you protect me… if I need it. But remember, if this goes wrong, it’s your fault.”
Sandy bit her lip, knowing this was a risk, but nodded. They needed food… and information. If this man was going to run away from the ship, he’d have to know when they’d get there. She watched from her vent as Jimmy slipped into the room behind the man, holding a stunstick they’d gotten from one of the Center’s security people.
“Davis,” Jimmy said… that was the man’s name… it was on his uniform. Jimmy was half whispering and the man yelped, slamming the door on the locker and causing the feline to yelp in surprise. Sandy hoped the feline was uninjured.
Davis whirled around, putting his back to the locker, gasping, a panicked look in his dark eyes, then anger filled his features as he realized he was looking at a slave, a child (they’d learned that’s what small people like them were called) slave at that. “H… How… you… You shouldn’t be… I… I…” he stammered, looking around for his talkbox that would let him call the others. But Jimmy had moved it away from the cart that Davis had left it on. His brownish skin turned ruddy and he looked at the stunstick in Jimmy’s hand. “L… Look. I… I won’t tell anyone you got out if… if you go back to the hold now.”
“I didn’t escape from the hold,” Jimmy said. “I snuck on board back on Mesa. I heard you. You’re planning on running away from this ship when it gets to another place. With your animal. If you help me, I can help you get your animal off the ship without anyone finding out.”
Davis snorted. “You? You’re a kid! You… you can’t… I should report… but if I do…” he gulped. “They’ll hurt you. I… I mean. They’ll… if you really did sneak on board, they’ll kill you… toss you out into space. You… you should go… I… I can’t be caught talking to a… They’ll think I was helping you and they’ll space me too.”
“Then you have nothing to lose. I need food. And to know how much longer until we reach the place where you want to get off.”
“I caaan’t,” Davis whined.
“Then tell us… Me how to get into the food supplies. W… I’ll get enough to feed your feline too.”
“Fe… you mean… it’s called… she’s a cat. A pe…pet. Not like a s…s…sex thing… just… just you know… companionship? B…but it’s against the rules. I hate the rules… h… hate this stupid-” he kicked the cart, making it wobble. “I… it’s all insane… I… I didn’t sign up for this. I was just… I did some things wrong… In Visigoth… and… and the Gendarms… the cops… they… I had to run. I… I signed up for the first ship out… J… Jessyk… di… didn’t know about the slaves… b… but I needed the money… and… and for… for a while… I could l… look t… the other… other w… way… b… but so… some of the crew… th… they’re m… monsters… th… things they do…”
Jimmy just stared at the adult. “What are you babbling about?”
“I… I don’t… fi…fine… you… you h…help me… I… I’ll help you… bu… but if you ge…get caught… you… you gotta p…promise n…not to r…rat me… me out… an…and I promise n…not to rat you out. D… deal?” The man held out his hand and Sandy recognized the gesture as half of a handshake. They’d seen this back on Mesa. It was a way to make deals and promises which were like deals but nothing physical traded hands.
Jimmy eyed the much bigger man, then transferred the stunstick to his left hand and shook. Sandy didn’t know if Davis could read Jimmy’s body language, but she could. Jimmy was waiting for the slightest hint of betrayal to strike… but Davis shook Jimmy’s hand once, then dropped it like it was too hot to touch.
“W… what’s your n… name? D… do you have a name? S… some of the slaves use names when they think no… no one’s listening.”
“H… Hi. I… I’m R… Rudy. Rudy Davis. I… It’s short for Ruddigore, b… but only my m… mom called me that.”
“Why do you talk weird?”
“I… it’s c… called a… s… st… st… st… stutter. P… people m… make f…fun of m…m…m…me all the t…time for it.”
And that was how they managed to survive. The trip was a long one, and Rudy never reported them. In fact, it quickly became apparent that Rudy was very much odd man out on the ship. He spoke only to his cabin-mate, who everyone on the ship loathed, and even Rudy, who was scared of his own shadow, disliked. Rudy let them pet his cat, and told them about his life before joining the crew of the ship, a life that apparently amounted to eating a lot of spicy food (they tried some of it and it nearly made their mouths die), drinking intoxicating beverages (they tried some of that too and it made their heads throb), and stealing or breaking things while intoxicated and then running away from the authorities… who seemed much more lenient than the ones on Mesa. Apparently, one night he’d gotten very very drunk and woken up in bed with a woman who was ‘married’ (neither of them knew that that meant and Rudy couldn’t explain it in a way that made any sense) to someone important and she’d claimed he’d ‘raped’ her (he said he hadn’t and they’d both been drunk and she’d invited him back to her place)… more concepts they really didn’t understand, though this time Rudy couldn’t even bring himself to speak any kind of explanation, just staring at them and turning progressively redder as they stared back.
Things were going well until Rudy’s idiot cabin-mate followed him one day and discovered the cat. Rudy was hauled off, but the cat was left in the locker until the ‘Captain’ could inspect it and the ship’s doctor could dissect it to make certain it wasn’t sick. Jimmy and Sandy knew that they were taking a terrible risk, but Buttons (that was the cat’s name) was their second friend (Rudy had explained the concept of friends, he was their first) and while they couldn’t help Rudy, they could help Buttons. So they liberated the cat before anyone could come back for her, stashing her in one of their boltholes… making certain she could breath okay… that was very important for cats as well as children… and then made it look like the locker had been improperly latched when they’d hauled away Rudy.
They wanted badly to spy on the Captain’s meeting with Rudy, but they didn’t know where it was, and they didn’t want to risk being anywhere near the cabin where they’d always met up with Rudy in case he turned out to be a promise-breaking not-friend. So they hid, going back to scavenging what food they could and hoping Rudy was okay and hadn’t given them away. According to his time table, the ship would reach its first port of call in someplace called either Echo, Psyche, Saginaw, or Silesia… they weren’t really certain which even though Rudy had tried to explain it was all four… in just nine days. If they could hold out that long, they could try and escape the ship. In the meantime, they searched the vessel as best they could for Rudy.
Eight days later, they hadn’t found him, though they had found the cabin he’d been originally assigned to (the smell of Rudy’s special food was unmistakable, plus they recognized the cabin-mate). They’d considered killing him, or being really mean to him, hurting him until he told them where to find Rudy… but they didn’t know if they could restrain him and keep him quiet and hurt him that badly all at the same time… and if they killed him, the rest of the crew might get suspicious. Instead, they decided to try and follow him on the off chance he led them to Rudy.
They were doing just that… when the ship lurched. Rudy had told them to expect this. It was called ‘Coming out of Hyper’ whatever that meant and it wasn’t going to be fun. Mean Cabin-mate man, who’s name was apparently Smeghead even though his uniform said ‘Harold’ and everyone called him ‘Emeer’ in a tone of voice that said they didn’t like him at all, stumbled into a wall and Jimmy nearly laughed, but Sandy covered his mouth for him. He nodded to her and they continued crawling through the ductwork.
Another lurch, and another… Rudy had said they were travelling in something called the Gamma Band and there would be four lurches. Gamma to Delta, Delta to Beta, Beta to Alpha, and Alpha to ‘Real Space’ (how anything that existed could be not-Real Rudy couldn’t explain)… but shortly after the fourth, there was a fifth. And then the alarms sounded.
A voice came over the Smeghead’s talkbox, what Rudy called a ‘communicator’ or ‘communit’, and said, “This is the Captain, we’re about to be boarded by the fucking Manties and the damned bay doors aren’t responding. Anyone near the bloody bays, get down there and see if the manual override is working or we’re all-” there was a burst of static and the ship lurched again.
“They’re going to space the others,” Sandy whispered.
Jimmy considered, then nodded. “Yes… we should try and stop them?”
“I…” Sandy swallowed hard. It was terrifying, the idea of revealing themselves, and to do anything, they’d have to run down to the bays through the corridors. They weren’t far, but crawling would take too long.
In fact, they were close enough that Smeghead was already pounding that way as fast as the lurching allowed. Within seconds, the two children were out of the vent and following him, Jimmy with a kitchen knife in one hand and his stunstick in the other, Sandy with a box opener and a small pistol that only had four shots left that they’d liberated from of one the security guards at the Jessyk depot back on Mesa when they ambushed him in the bathroom (they’d learned that term as well, even though there was no bath in there… adults were clearly crazy).
The duo arrived at the slave bay just in time to see Smeghead wrenching open a panel that said “MANUAL CARGO OVERRIDE: Use Only In Emergency” on it. He was reaching for the lever inside when Sandy’s first shot spanged off the wall above his head. She corrected milimetrically, exhaled, and shot again before he could even finish turning to look at her.
The hypersonic needle entered his open mouth and the back of his head exploded. She could see the bulkhead through his head for a moment, and then he collapsed, spasming violently.
“Major,” came the voice over the armored figure’s suit comm, “we’re at the bay… you should come down here.”
Captain Mary Smythe, Royal Manticoran Marines, looked around the bridge of the slaver’s freighter. The command crew had all gone down fighting, knowing that they’d be hung or spaced for running slaves, and it had been a futile gesture since none of them had had heavy weapons and she and her squad were all in power armor. She sighed at the mess, then sent back, “Be right there.”
What she saw when she arrived would haunt her for the rest of her life. Two children, neither of them older than seven, were surrounded by the bodies of almost a dozen adults, members of the crew by the look of them. The children were covered in blood, some of it their own, and one of them looked badly wounded. The other was standing over their fallen comrade, holding off a squad of Manticoran Marines with what looked like a police issue taser and a boxcutter. The child looked feral.
“Sargent, let me handle this,” the Captain said.
“Yes Major,” the NCO replied, granting his superior the rank upgrade since there was only ever one Captain on a Queen’s ship and even if they weren’t aboard HMS Fearless at the moment, and even though as a Light Cruiser, Fearless’s Captain was merely a Commander, that Captain (one Raoul Courvosier) was still ‘The Captain’ and Captain Smythe was ‘The Major’.
Mary pulled off her helmet and dropped as lightly to one knee as her armor allowed, looking the child in the eyes. “My name is Mary… I’m from Manticore and I’m here to help. Can my friends help your friend? We promise not to hurt you, or your friend.”
The child shivered, that blood coating him or her must be chilly, thought the marine. He or she seemed to be studying her face, as if looking for a sign to trust her. “M… My name is Sandy,” she said at last. “And this is Jimmy… He got hit in the head but I killed the man who hit him… Are you really from Manticore… our friend Rudy said Manties… he said that was short for Manticore people… he said you didn’t like slavers and slavers were scared of you… also Beowulf people and Haven people and… Mandermani people?” She wobbled a bit. “We were looking for Rudy but the ship started booming and then we had to save the others… they were going to space them…”
The girl slumped, dropping the taser and almost shocking herself, but Mary managed to catch the taser in her armored hand and crush it before it could hurt the child. She realized the girl, this close she could see how ragged the child’s clothing was… it was like she’d been wearing the same garment for half a year… that the child had dozens of bruises on her body and likely several broken ribs. The boy was bleeding from a scalp wound, but he was breathing.
“We’ll get you to our ship and have a…” she paused, some slaves, especially the younger ones didn’t not respond well to the word ‘doctor’, “someone take a look at you and make sure you’re okay. Okay?”
The girl shook her head, “N… no… gotta… gotta find Rudy… and… and get Buttons. C… can’t leave without Rudy and Buttons.”
Mary opened her mouth to tell the child they’d look for them… but knew it would be a lie… and somehow knew the child would know it too. Those eyes had been old eyes, despite their youth. “If you’re up for it… what do Rudy and Buttons look like?”
Rudy, as it turned out, was in the ship’s brig, having been rather badly beaten… Buttons… was a cat… a cat that had had kittens very recently. Rudy and Jimmy would spend the next two weeks in Fearless’s medical bay. Sandy, once she was cleaned up… wouldn’t.
Instead, she followed Mary everywhere… even when told that she wasn’t allowed to. The only other option was to lock her in her cabin and the one time that they’d tried that, the child had nearly broken her own hands pounding on the hatch. Once released, she’d been perfectly calm, but had refused to so much as enter a cabin unless Mary entered it first. The only time the girl would leave Mary’s side was when she was examining the tiny kittens clumped around Buttons in the medbay… they’d had no other place to put them.
On the third day, Sandy turned to look up at Mary and asked, “Where did they come from?” When Mary had tried to explain about pregnancy and childbirth, the little girl had freaked out and started screaming that Mary was a liar and babies came out of tubes filled with bad smelling liquid. She’d then run off and it had taken the entire crew that could be spared almost 18 hours to find one small child hiding in one small starship.
After that, Mary had steadfastly refused to allow the girl out of her sight until it was time to load the now freed and checked over slaves onto a transport bound for the Star Kingdom and from there to Beowulf, which was more than willing to take in escaped or liberated slaves and had the experts to make certain they got whatever help they needed. Rudy, having been granted his (Probationary) freedom for assisting the pair, was going with them, having turned Crown Witness against the rest of his crew. He took with him Buttons and her litter in a small tool chest that had been converted into a pet carrier. Mary saw off the kids, telling them that they’d be placed with foster parents once they arrived in Beowulf.
Jimmy looked less than thrilled at the idea. Sandy looked resigned. Mary assumed she’d never see them again. She was right on seven counts and she was wrong on two. Of Jimmy, Rudy, Buttons, and four of the kittens, she was right on the money. Of Sandy and the kitten named ‘Raoul’… well….
===Three Months Later===
“What do you mean she vanished from the staging facility?!” Captain Smythe practically screamed at her comms screen. She’d been back from deployment for 26 hours and, after catching up with her husband Hope Smythe (really Hope-and-Charity Smythe… his parents were weird, but it was adorkable) and their son, the nine T-Year old Loyalty-Unto-Death… Loyal to his friends, she’d decided to check up on the status of the little girl and her friends… only to discover that somehow a 5 year old (who looked 7) had managed to escape from not only a secure facility aboard a secure military installation… but had apparently also managed to either hide out in said station for over a month… or had managed to escape HMSS Weyland entirely.
“We can’t explain it, Captain,” the Marine Lieutenant on the other end of the channel said. “She and one of the cats… normal house cats you understand, not the Treecat variety… they just vanished. Here one day, gone the next.”
“Mooom!” called Loyal from the other end of the house. It was a big house, made possible because land on Gryphon was relatively cheap and Hope’s stipend from the rabbinical seminary where he worked was quite reasonable.
“Hold on, Lieutenant Langtry, I’m being summoned,” she said, turning from the screen. “Dear, I’m on the comm.” she had to resist calling herself Ema (Hebrew for Mother) as she usually would have, then kicked herself for not muting the screen. “Is it a dire emergency?”
“I dunno,” the boy yelled back. “But there’s a strange kid lurking around outside and she’s got a cat on her head.”
With a sinking feeling in her chest, she turned back to the screen. “I don’t know how it’s possible, Anthony… but I think it’s probable I’ve found our run-away. I’ll get back to you on that. And either way, I think a security review might be in order. But if it’s any consolation, this girl apparently staged a breakout from a secure genetics lab on Mesa, snuck aboard a Jessyk Combine freighter, then helped kill a dozen slavers to keep them from dumping the cargo.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a little marine in the making there, Mary. If you don’t want her, I’m sure the corps will be more than happy to have her,” he said with a smirk, then signed off.
Twenty minutes later, Sandy and Loyal were staring across the kitchen table at each other as the kitten tried to figure out what to make of the duck-shaped salt and pepper shakers.
Mary sighed, “If I asked how you got here, would you even bother giving me an answer?” The girl considered that, then shook her head. “What am I supposed to do with you?” She shrugged. “If I take you back, are you going to run-away again?” that got her a nod. “If we let you stay here with us… assuming I can arrange it, will you agree to stay? And not run off?”
“Do you have food? For Raoul.”
“No, but we can buy some. When was the last time you ate?”
“Two days, eleven hours, fifty three minutes,” the girl answered without having to think about it.
Loyal blinked, then looked up at his mother. “She’s mental… can we keep her?”
“That is something your father and I are going to have to discuss… and then we’ll have to take it up with my CO and probably a lawyer.”
“Ewww… Lawyers are creepy,” Loyal said.
“They have their uses,” Mary replied, going to the fridge and pulling out some leftovers from the welcome back dinner. Setting the slab of cake and a bowl of near-tuna noodle casserole in front of the child she asked, “What do you think of the name Solace-and-Justice?”
“Sounds too long,” was the response. “But Solace is nice… what does it mean?”
“It means comfort, especially in a time of great sadness,” Loyal said, eager to show off his vocabulary to this strange little girl who’d followed his mother home from beyond the stars.
The girl looked up at Mary and asked, “What is sadness?”
“Have you ever felt a pain in your chest and tears come to your eyes and you can’t stop it?”
The girl considered, then nodded. “Yes. When you left.”
The coolness with which the girl responded, the simple matter of fact way she said it, nearly broke Mary Smythe, Captain, RMMC.
OMAKE: Relationship Chart (Updated, because you are awesome people… the old chart is still there for anyone who wants to go back a few pages to compare.)
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I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in progress here. Please Check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed, temporarily on hiatus. It isn’t very long.
ATURA AS A SJORA
ZIGGY ISA DWAGON!!!