Elliot sat in front of a large oblong table of dark wood, interlacing his fingers in front of him as he glanced between the microphones on his left, with little placards that said ‘VP of Human Relations,’ and ‘Head of Engineering’, and the one on his right, with a placard that read ‘Chief Operations Officer”.
“Good afternoon, and thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedule to attend this weekly meeting of Calvin Incorporated, LLC. I think we all are chomping at the bit to get to the heart of today’s meeting, which is why did our COO, code-name Honey Trap neglect to inform Calvin of the man who evaded the sweeps?”
“But,” Elliot said, holding up his hand. “Before we get started, I’d like to open the floor for our VP of Human relations to air any concerns for the safety of the workforce.” He leaned over and pressed the button allowing the VP, code-name Yellow Jacket, to speak.
The speaker gave the angry buzz of a seriously pissed off wasp.
“Looks like we’re all good on that front.” Elliot said, switching the mic off.
“How about you, SassyBot?”
The second microphone on his left doodled an ear-piercing series of beeps and whistles.
“I already told you, OSHA is no longer a thing. We can have this conversation some other time.” Elliot clicked the speaker off with a sigh.
“Now, let’s hear from Tits McGee why I shouldn’t deactivate Continuity and let her continue living the last moments of her life over and over ad nauseum?”
Elliot opened the channel to Nadia’s little corner of Calvin’s System.
“I wanted to see what would happen.” Her voice came through the speaker, a little faded, but understandable. “I want to see him suffer. You want to see him grow. I think being rightly called a monster would be an excellent learning experience, don’t you think?”
“That’s it?” Elliot asked, finger hovering over the enter key that would turn her back into a babbling wreck.
“Oh,” Elliot took his hand away from the button. “A little heads up next time, COO Gold Digger. I of course expect you to manage the fallout from this on your own recognizance. I don’t care if he’s vilified. In fact, I want him to experience it sooner or later, and while I want our vessel stress-tested, I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not want any permanent damage done, and if he dies, you’re going to be in that empty little black room until Marconen’s sun goes supernova.”
Elliot switched off the microphone, and tapped his fingers against the table before pushing off, rolling his chair back over to the computer sitting beside the viewscreen.
He swiped away Calvin’s notes on his new spell and incorporating it into his current fighting style, and went back to the scrolling feed of Calvin’s system.
Assuming death is the end of him.
Elliot wasn’t sure that would be the case. He cracked his knuckles and started designing a program to isolate the mechanism by which Calvin would become a Maculat Mulieres. If it was like any other undead he’d seen, there was an exploitable transfer of ownership between the living soul and the mutated corpse.
All he had to do was find the opening, and exploit it.
I knew designing and tossing all those vampire mutations in would strike paydirt sooner or later.
Now Elliot had a way in.
Of course he didn’t want Calvin to die yet. Elliot wasn’t done designing the hack, the kid’s body wasn’t fully grown, and his stats were far short of where they needed to be.
Maybe give him…six years. Not old enough to get wise, but fully grown, physically.
Nobody wanted to be stuck in a teenager’s body forever, according to a bunch of early twenty-first century vampire dramas, anyway.
Elliot shuddered and got back to work, shifting between hacking his program together and optimizing Calvin’s Mutations and Build, as the fancy struck him.
***Delu and Keen***
“I’m gonna be a soldier when I grow up.” Delu said quietly, clutching the sheets of his bed, staring at the cheap glass ceiling. It was flaking.
“That’s dumb.” Keen retorted, the girl’s nose wrinkled as if she’d smelled something bad.
“Nuh-uh! You can be a soldier without an apprenticeship, it pays good, and you can become a general if you’re good enough.”
“Soldiers die, professionally, they’re professional diers. Do you wanna die for a living?”
“That makes no sense.”
“Where do you think all these new kids came from?” Keen whispered, glancing around the overcrowded orphanage’s beds. “Everybody’s been talking about it. An entire army disappeared and made thousands of extra orphans. Now we gotta share bunks.” She jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. “What do you think that army did for a living?”
“Shut up,” Delu whispered back, elbowing his sister back.
“You shut up.” Keen hissed, elbowing him back.
“Everyone shut up!” the matronly Jen shouted as she tromped into the room, rousing the hundred or so children who hadn’t woken up by habit. “Get out of bed and go potty, we’ve got a special guest today and I don’t want you hellions peeing yourselves in front of him.”
Delu sighed and peeled the covers away, exposing his body to the cold of the morning. It would heat up quickly once the sun rose overhead, but the first half hour of the day was always tooth-chatteringly cold.
They went to the bathroom and took care of business, one by one, lining up quietly to use the facilities under Jen’s watchful eye. Once that was taken care of they threw on their ragged hand-me-downs and assembled in the front of the orphanage. Delu and Keen knew the drill, but the vast majority of the orphans here were new, so they milled around while Jen tried to get them to settle down.
Once everyone was seated in the amorphous mass, which was the best the matronly woman could hope for, she sighed, and motioned to someone outside the gate.
“Children, I’d like to introduce Princess Kala of Gadvera.”
A beautiful girl in a clean yellow dress came out from behind the front gate, waving sheepishly. Delu’s jaw began to hang open despite himself. He glanced over at Keen, and she was similarly awestruck. None of them had ever seen someone so pretty.
“Hello, children,” She said quietly. It was quiet, yet her voice seemed to carry through the crowd and penetrate the ears of the older kids at the back. It was as if she were standing in front of each and every one of them, speaking to them face-to-face.
“Hello,” they echoed back.
“My name is Kala, And I’m a diplomat.”
One of the kids raised a hand, and Kala pointed at her.
“What’s a diplomat?”
“It means I’m a professional friend-maker. I try to make friends between people, and between countries.”
She glanced across the room. “Now friends help each other without being prompted, and I want to be your friend,” She said, pointing straight at Delu. At least, it felt that way.
“Which is why, when I heard about what’s…happened to you, I felt that my country had no choice but to help out their friend.”
She scanned the crowd.
“That’s why we went and asked around for any of your mommies who couldn’t afford to feed you, and we gave them jobs with room and board.”
A series of women came through the front gate, and no less than fifty children jumped out of the mass of kids and ran screaming to their mothers.
“For the rest of you, don’t be sad. Sometimes life is tough, but we’re going to do what we can to make it a little less awful. We’re going to be funding your orphanage with enough money to keep them going for the next four years, as well as hiring an extra caretaker to help Jen out, until most of you are grown-ups yourselves. And because the room is so tight, we’re going to be adding an extra story to the building.
“What?” Jen asked, blinking.
“This is Captain Gadsint. He’s good at building things.” She said, motioning to an incredibly pale boy a few years older than the oldest at the orphanage.
Jen walked up to Princess Kala and whispered something in her ear, and the princess whispered back. Jen paled, and put a hand to her lips.
“Children if you could come over here, to the front of the yard, away from the building.
They all stood up and traversed the dusty yard they spent their free time playing in, assembling up against the wall.
“You guys wanna see something cool?” Captain Gadsint asked with a grin.
“Yeah!” one of the boys in the back shouted.
The older boy clapped his hands together, before a green fog billowed out of it, resolving into hundreds of metal…men?
“Those are Knick-Knacks!” Keen said, elbowing him again. “They’re traders from below the surface of Marconen!”
“Where do you learn these things?” Delu demanded.
The Knick-Knacks swarmed over their orphanage and started…tearing it apart.
“What in the abyss?” Jen said over the cheers of the children, who were just excited to see some lively destruction.
“It’s fine,” Captain Gadsint said, taking one of the mothers by the hand as he continued to produce the little men by the hundreds with his other hand.
The woman swooned, being caught by the woman next to her. in short order, she was replaced by another, and another.
Soon enough, the surface of the orphanage was covered in gleaming metal, looking like the corpse of a baby gulper covered with ants.
Captain Gadsint let go after the thirteenth mom had become unsteady on her feet, then motioned to the front gate, where a wagon packed to the brim with raw glass plates lumbered through, pulled by a team of guars.
A young Uleisan man hopped off the side of the wagon and stepped over to the building as dozens of knick-knacks broke off and began hauling the sheets over to the building.
Somehow the Knick-knacks lifted him up to the second floor, where the master craftsman began making some adjustments to the building, along with fully welding together plates of glass where the knick-knacks had roughly tacked them together with the white-hot flames coming out of the little nozzles in their hands.
“Your new building should have enough space to give everyone a bed,” The pale captain said, dusting his hands as he watched the creatures work. “At least.”
Needless to say, none of the children were paying much attention to him, consumed as they were by the marvelous display of glassworking.
“How many of you older kids are looking for a job?” the pale captain said, raising his voice. The word ‘Job’ got the attention of all but the youngest children. Jobs meant money, which meant food, which meant survival.
“Because that man up there,” He said, pointing at the master glass-worker wading through the ocean of gleaming metal. “Is looking for apprentices.”
About a third of the children’s hands went up.
“And for the younger ones, we’ve lined up a few people looking to adopt you. Hopefully in a few days time, this place will be back to normal.”
The roof of the orphanage began to shift, carried away on the backs of hundreds of metal men, while the support beams were reinforced and raised, and plates of a new floor were welded in place, waiting for the glassworker to finalize it.
“As normal as can be expected, I guess,” the captain said with a shrug as the mother beside him recovered, fanning herself off.
“Hey,” Keen whispered, elbowing Delu again.
“Cut it out!” he quietly yelled, shoving her lighlty. He was starting to get a sore spot.
“Shut up. Look at that guy over there,” she said, pointing at a tall Uleisan man with some kind of glass girdle wrapped around his waist. He was staring at the two of them intently.
“Think we got a perv,” She whispered knowingly.
“So, how’d it go with adopting your kids?” Calvin asked, approaching Ussein, who was staring at the ground.
“They think I’m a pedophile.” The legend said, staring at the floor with glassy eyes.
“Ouch.” Calvin winced. First impressions were hard to shake.
“Well,” he said, patting Ussein on the shoulder. “You’ve got the rest of your life to fix up that little misunderstanding. In the meantime, we need all hands on deck to get the West Boles Trading Company off the ground. The collapse of the Storm-Stretch group left a niche to fill, and by the gods, I’m gonna be the one to fill it.”
“Why would I want to…” He muttered, his fists tightening before evenetually relaxing. “Even that casual scorn reminds me of their mother.”
“Oookaaay,” Calvin said, backing away. “I’m just going to start the meeting…you come join whenever you’re…feeling better.”
I don’t think I’ll ever know what it feels like to be a father. Calvin thought.
Spend half your life working on a project, only to have it hate you and be stolen by another man, then magnify that by ten.
That’s pretty specific.
Yeah, it is.
Calvin set that aside as he walked into the room with the leaders of the different factions of his budding company.
Veer was the leader of the Seven Wastes, who had been cannibalized into providing the majority of the workforce for Calvin’s new company. He was going to run the day-to-day work of transporting heavy cargo to and from Boles and making sure it didn’t get stolen by bandits.
Nash was the defacto leader of the cobalts, and together they formed a feisty unit of eight hundred Veterans in-training. Their job was pretty simple. They were going to round up the rest of the handful of tribes of cobalts in the cobalt mountains, and achieve a monopoly on the distribution of their spines.
Of course, there’s no monopoly laws in this dust-hole, Elliot said, chuckling.
While they weren’t excited about harvesting their own spines, they understood that it would be far preferable to some other group making their choices for them.
And they’d be able to redistribute the wealth into their own living conditions.
Jinsei had been tasked with teaching no less than a dozen of the more talented orphans poached from the sudden influx of fatherless children, training them into talented glassworkers.
Along with some five hundred fifteen-to-seventeen year old boys and girls who’d leapt at the chance for employment. Those fell under Veer’s supervision.
With Kala working public relations, Calvin gave generously from his stolen horde of the Uleisan’s own money, earning him and Gadvera a glowing reputation for swooping in and saving the day exactly when it was needed.
In the flurry of activity, no one had time to associate the disappearance of an entire army with Calvin or his people, thank the gods.
Grant and Lieutenant Veyer were tasked with rounding up enough monsters from the desert sands to get anyone in his company into their third Break, including the orphans.
Calvin sat in front of a large oblong table of dark glass, interlacing his fingers in front of him as he glanced between the leaders of his burgeoning empire on his left and right.
“So, how are we doing?” Calvin asked.
“They’re talking about making shrines in Kala’s honor.” Ella said with a grin.
“What? What about me?” Calvin asked.
“She outranks you, so of course she gets the glory for all this.” Grant interjected. “Get used to it.”
“Bummer. How’s the land acquisition?”
“We bought the Storm-stretch’s shipping yard and moved into it yesterday. And we handed over possession of the Cobalt’s shop-front to them.” he nodded at the Cobalts.
“Technically they’re not allowed to own property, so they’re leasing it from you for a fraction of their profits.”
Nash didn’t look terribly happy at that, but he nodded.
“Good enough,” Calvin said. “How’s our cash supply?”
“Running on fumes,” Nadia said, “With all the PR campaigning and expansion, if you don’t get an infusion of cash or a steady stream of income soon, this will all come tumbling down like a house of cards.”
Nadia rested her head on her fist, lazily slumping in her chair. “On the bright side, the influx of capital has reinvigorated the slums.”
“Did we try mortgaging the mansion?” Calvin asked. That would probably keep them going the extra month or so before their new company started turning a profit. Veer had to actually go to Boles and ship things back, after all.
“The top moneylender in the city has refused to work with us, one Murak…no last name. Of course, the rest of the moneylenders in the city have followed suit like burr-gliders, so no, we won’t be able to establish a line of credit anywhere, at least not without changing the man’s mind. And I hear he is remarkably stubborn.”
“That’s one of the twelve,” Kala said, straightening, her eyes shimmering with excitement. “And he’s a neutral party to boot!”
She turned to Calvin. “If I can change his mind, we can get you the extra money you need, and he might tip the scales of Uleisian politics! That would be a perfect two-in-one!”
“So what do we do?” he asked, turning to face Kala directly.
“We have to find a way to make the man’s acquaintance,” The princess said, rubbing her hands together. “Then I break the ice.”
“You sure you don’t want me to suffocate him in his sleep?” Calvin asked, raising the vial of bad air.
“Yes, I’m sure I don’t want you to do that!”
“This is him? Kurawe asked. “The survivor?”
“That he is,” Polluq said. “My boys brought him in when he came into the east gate babbling about giant wasps. Once I heard him out, I paid them a finder’s fee and hush money.”
“And can you trust them to keep their lips sealed?”
“They know what happens to people who say things they shouldn’t,” Polluq said with a shrug. “Firsthand.”
“Good.” Kurawe leaned down and plucked the dust-covered man’s gag out of his mouth.
“Tell me what happened.”
“I was up in the mountains, doing advanced watch, you know, see if anyone was coming from a long way out, that sort of thing. Well, I fell asleep waiting for my replacement to show up. I thought the damn fool was late.
“He wasn’t late, was he?” Kurawe supplied.
“Not that kind of late, anyway, sir, um sire…Lord?”
“Sir is fine,” Kurawe said. What happened when you woke up?”
“I started awake early, when the light was coming over the horizon. The average soldier knows you’re not supposed to fall asleep on duty, so I wake up easily if sunlight hits my eyes or I hear someone coming. Don’t want to et caught, you see.”
“Well, I woke up, stood up and looked down into the bowl where the rest of our people were, and I saw these giant wasps,” he held two fists together to emphasize. “Spread out through the entrie camp, moving from tent to tent.
“Were they flying, these wasps?”
“Ah, no sir, they were crawling along. I can’t say I saw any of them fly, at least not until the big ones came out. But that was when I decided to bury myself.”
“Excuse me?” Kurawe asked.
“Bury myself. I grabbed a couple shrubs and dug out a hole in the durt behind a boulder, and buried myself with the shrubs covering me. My nickname was Mole when I was a kid, because I used to hide underground during hide-and-seek – “
“These large wasps, How big were they?”
“As big as the tents, sir, I saw them snip heads off bodies before they tossed them in a pile on the side of the camp. I damn near shit myself.”
Kurawe could think of one person who had earned the nickname ‘The Wasp’. It seemed like it was well-deserved.
“Well, after a couple days underground with my canteen, I ventured to stick my head above ground to check, and there was nobody living, so I headed out northeast, stopped by the Sippit Oasis, and caught a ride back to Uleis.
Kurawe took the man through his tale a couple more times, asking clarifying questions, then gave him a room in his mansion to recover.
“Put someone on him so that he doesn’t leave,” Kurawe said to Polluq as the man left. “I want to pump him for more information about before the massacre after this.”
“You got it,” Polluq said, nodding. The leader of the city’s police lead the weary soldier to an incredibly posh prison cell in Kurawe’s estate. It might take the man days to realize he was under arrest.
So, The Wasp is a summoner. A damn good one, by all accounts. He’d gotten extra confirmation when Captain Gadsint had summoned Knick-Knacks to renovate several apartments and orphanages in a token gesture in the aftermath of the city’s loss.
He was also surrounding himself with Legends, By all accounts, Ussein, Orson’s primary enforcer, had switched sides, along with the greying Ilethan, Grant.
The boy was developing a presence that was getting hard to account for.
I need bait, and I need a hammer strong enough to squash him. My spies tell me that the boy’s almost short of cash and he’s tried to secure a loan using the Manor. That seems like an opportunity.
“You want to use the Mole, Sir?” Polluq asked. “Discredit the Gadverans and run them out of Uleis? With a Truthseer and some good propaganda, they’d be no problem.”
“No, Polluq, not quite yet.” Kurawe said. “That would only work if the lynchpin of the Gadveran delegation is removed. It’s been proven that boy could annihilate a huge portion of the city if he wanted to. I don’t want rabid, revenge-seeking citizens rattling the fence of his mansion. I also don’t want to give him a chance to respond in a public way…”
“Tell Murak that he’ll be hosting a ball, and that the princess is invited.”
“Murak’s not gonna pay for that.” Polluq said, eyebrows raised. “You want me to fund it?”
Kurawe sighed and walked over to his desk, the glass floor creaking under him as he shifted his weight. On the luxurious wooden desk was a small lockbox, He flipped it open and seized two glimmers of Nem, palm-sized chunks of the valuable opalescent mineral, and worth a significant portion of the mansion they currently resided in.
“I’m paying.” He said, tossing the chief of police the Nem.
“Then I’m sure he’d be happy to host a party,” The man said, pocketing the small fortune.
“And send word to our problem-solvers in Boles that we’ve got a fly in the ointment. A rogue Malkenrovian summoner who’s too big for his britches.”
“No problem,” Polluq said, before leaving the room.
“I like that man,” Kurawe said to himself as he sat in his oversized lounging chair, taking the weight off his aching knees.
“No problems, just solutions.”