Chapter 5: Evaluation
04 October 2018 at 01:13:19
Part of For Better or Worse
I pressed myself against the exterior wall of a decrepit housing block and desperately tried to repress my urge to cough. Overhead the harmonic whine of a Mobile Lawyer's twin jet engines betrayed the patrol hiding in the smog. Normally when the smog got this bad I would just turn up my Oxygenation Aug, but the resultant grid of nanomachines would mark me like a road flare. I slowly reached up and pulled the handkerchief around my neck over my mouth. It wouldn't do much, but if I coughed now, the whole job would be ruined. After several breathless minutes, the jet engine's whine finally shifted pitch as the Mobile Lawyer decided to look elsewhere. I finally leaned out from underneath the rusted and gutted air conditioning unit that had shielded me from the Lawyers digital eyes. The slow acidic drizzle stung my eyes as I scanned the sky through the smog with my Retinal Aug.
The Moon, some stars, a handful of satellites, a few drones, more advertisement displays than I care to count... No Mobile Suits...
I crossed the street, careful to stay under the thickest sections of power and data conduits spanning the street. The drones overhead had rather low quality sensors, but if they detected me after curfew, they would call the Lawyer back on top of me. I counted the bricks in one row from the corner of the run-down convenience store. Once I got to the correct one, I knocked on it twice. After checking the sky again, I walked out to the manhole cover in the center of the street. I stomped on it, also twice, in the same pattern as I had knocked. Finally, I pried the cover up and carefully lowered myself inside.
As I settled the cover back into the manhole, my Retinal Aug offset the pitch blackness with an infrared night vision overlay. The pitted concrete maintenance tunnel stretched into darkness. On my left, several conduits and pipes ran along the wall. On my right, the concrete wall was covered in graffiti as far as my Auged vision could see. The air was thick with mold and damp, but the relative coolness was a relief from the oppressive heat and humidity above.
Hopefully they were listening for the signal. Now, twenty-one meters down the tunnel and tap twice on the biggest conduit.
I used the built-in rangefinder in my Retinal Aug and carefully walked the distance my contact in Detroit had specified. On my left, a thick bundle of conduits glowed in infrared with their heat. I knocked on the biggest one and waited. Only a few seconds later, a bloom of nanomachines highlighted by my Retinal Aug mushroomed from the graffiti-covered wall on my right. My Retinal Aug's vision range was cut to only a few feet as the cloud of nanomachines enveloped me.
A section of the wall rippled and was pulled aside, revealing it as a carefully hung variable-display curtain. A massive mechanical hand composed of two hydraulic "fingers" and a similar thumb shot out of the darkness and grabbed me by the shoulder. Two eyes, corneas glowing blue with their own Retinal Augs, shone down on me from the darkness of the side tunnel.
"Got a light, stranger?" the deep synthetic voice rasped, static crackling behind its words.
"Sorry, friend, I don't smoke." I answered, completing the challenge and password as my contact had instructed.
I was yanked into the side tunnel and hauled by the massive cyborg through the darkness. His movement was surprisingly quiet despite his apparent size. We stopped in front of a metal door with a large submarine-style hatch-wheel in the center. He cranked the wheel, pulled open the door, and thrust me into the room beyond.
I was momentarily blinded before my Retinal Aug's infrared mode turned off and my eyes adjusted.
Oh, well this could go better.
I was staring down the glowing barrel of a massive plasma cannon with several other projectile weapons of various design surrounding me on each side. Above the plasma cannon, a pale man with fiery red hair peered at me with suspicion.
"Me ‘in the lads were gettin' a bit nervous. Your man said you'd be here an hour ago." he stated suspiciously.
"Sorry, there was a Lawyer sniffing around, I didn't want to lead him here." I explained, careful to leave my hands exposed and my Augs on standby.
I was suddenly knocked on my back and pinned my multiple sets of hands. The apparent leader pressed his plasma cannon against the side of my head as he leaned his face close to mine.
"You bring a Lawyer around here, lad?" He asked menacingly. "If I so much as hear a Suit, I'll cook your skull-"
I shot awake with ice-cold water dripping down my face and body as the guard laughed at me.
"Sleep well, Outsider? Let's go." he said as he threw the bucket into the corner.
He unlocked the chain restraining me to the floor. I quickly got to my feet and kept pace with the guard, who had already turned and started exiting the cell. I knew from experience that if I took even a moment too long, he would yank the chain attached to the slave-collar. The abrasion from wearing restraints for weeks now had torn up my skin, but I was finally forming calluses. I had also begun to cope with the mental fog caused by the slave collar. I was still unable to access my Aug Interface while it was on, but with some careful mental discipline I could keep my train of thought.
Wait, that is our turn. Where are we going?
I had always been taken down the corridor we had just passed for the morning feeding. I had never been in the corridor we were moving down now, but the guard seemed to know where he was going. After several minutes of walking through winding corridors, the guard jerked me to a halt in front of a door no different from any others we had been passing.
"Slave. Inside this room you will be inspected. Do not cause trouble. If you fail to meet expectations, I will personally beat you to within an inch of your life before the Breakers take you."
Inspection, huh? Do they really think I have become a perfectly obedient slave? Better fake it though, I'd rather not meet the "Breakers".
The guard knocked and then hauled me inside. The room was dim, with a rough wooden table and a chair on its opposite side. On my side of the table there was a metal ring in the ceiling. The guard locked my chain to the ceiling and left the room. I stood there in nothing but a loincloth and waited. The fog of the slave-collar pressed on my mind and I began to drift.
I snapped alert as I could be when the door on the far side of the room opened. A thin elf in black robes and gold cuffs stepped inside, flanked by a heavily armored guard. The thin elf carried a large book which he opened on the table after he sat down. The guard leaned on the wall behind him and crossed his arms, gazing with open contempt at me. The seated elf looked up at me from his seated position appraisingly.
"So, Slave 671. I am tasked with evaluating slaves which have completed the first portion of their training. Tell me, how are you being treated?"
How am I being treated? What answer is he looking for?
I couldn't get my brain to think effectively enough to formulate a clever answer, so I settled with the first thing that came to mind.
"Like a dangerous animal. I am kept chained and mentally... crippled. I am fed the bare minimum of swill to keep me alive. I am-"
"EXACTLY!" The evaluator interjected. "Individuals with magical aptitude are extremely dangerous to those of us who must do things the mundane way. This is why the law decrees that you and those like you are to be enslaved upon detection of your ability. You are lucky however. Most nobles enjoy hurting their mage-slaves. It is something of a national pastime in Adympia. Baron Tarsk, your Lord mind you, thinks of that habit as foolishness. Only he sees the utility of slave-mages. Most nobles are too scared to allow their slave-mages to be trained as they could become dangerous. Baron Tarsk has decided to train his slave-mages in stages. You have been given a basic introduction to magical theory and proper behavior of a slave-mage. I am to evaluate you. If you satisfy the standard, you will be introduced to the second stage. If not, however..." He trailed off as he tilted his head meaningfully at the guard beside him.
Second stage? Lovely. Well, it's not like it could get worse.
"So, you are an Outsider blown in my the Banestorm a little over a month ago. You were brought here by Slave Trader Karkan. You were tested for magical aptitude, and during the testing you... killed a guardsman?" The evaluator looked up at me in surprise. "They let you live after killing a guardsman?"
'Well, I don't really know what happened, but the staff blew up on its own. I didn't do anything." I explained.
"I see. So after being enslaved, you were brought here for training. Oh, and a small footnote, humans have extremely short lifespans so your aging has been stopped. Does anything I have told you sound incorrect?" The evaluator looked up at me expectantly, so I shook my head.
Is the evaluation really this easy?
"Tell me Slave 671, what is the conversion rate of Vitality to Mana, and how low can one's Vitality pool get before permanent damage is done?" The evaluators voice had changed from a dismissive conversational tone to a more serious monotone.
Thought too soon, this is the test.
The evaluator asked me an endless series of questions of various difficulty. The subjects were mostly magical theory, but he touched on Adympian noble rank structure and local politics as well. The slave-collar made me slow to answer, but he must have been satisfied. Finally, the evaluator closed his book and left the room. The guard spit on the ground before he turned and followed, leaving me alone and chained to the ceiling.
Karkan, Slave Trader
I have had it with this wretch! Completely useless. All I ask for is prompt and competent obedience.
The pathetic slave-mage cowered beneath me. She was dirty, bruised, and she stank. I compared her to the Baron's gift who stood by my side at a perfectly respectful distance. She stood ready to obey any command, she was clean and well-groomed enough to be at my side in social gatherings, and she had proven so far to be educated enough to complete any task I set without needing detailed instructions. Again, I looked down at the Wretch, and I aimed a solid kick at her ribs.
"You are dirty, ugly, and useless. I hate to even stoop to the level of speaking to you anymore. Kneel in front of me and open your mouth."
She whimpered as she knew what was coming but obeyed. I held my hand out, and my perfect slave handed me the pliers. I looked into the Wretch’s mouth, but was surprised to find no more teeth to yank out.
Well, now what do I do? She must be punished...
I threw the pliers at her in disgust and grabbed a fistful of her hair. I dragged her through the room and out to the balcony. Once there, I locked her chain to a loop above the door. This would leave her hanging by the collar on her toes and exposed to the elements. I preferred not to resort to this particular punishment, due to the chance of my slave suffocating, but at this point I didn't care. I stormed back inside and addressed my perfect slave.
"Send a letter to the whorehouse owner. I want to know if the sister of the Wretch is still there. If so, offer to buy her back. If not, tell him I have some damaged goods he can have for a bargain."
The slave-mage bowed deeply and began to turn to leave. A thought struck me.
"Wait, in addition stop by the tavern and find my caravan guards. Tell them the location of the Wretch and that if they can stomach her, they may use her body as they wish. They must make sure she is still alive when they are done, however.
Satisfied that the Wretch's punishment would be good enough for now, I allowed the other slave to leave.
I really need to find a replacement for the Wretch. I think she won't last another week.
At some point I fell asleep as I dangled from the ceiling ring. I was awoken by the far door opening again. I looked up, seeing the evaluator's guard and another one in similar armor. They did not address me, instead removing my chain from the ring and leading me out through the far door.
The hall we exited the room into was noticeable nicer than the halls I had grown accustomed to in the dungeon. These were wider, better lit, and more clean. It was still clearly a prison, but no longer the deepest section. I was led for several minutes until we reached a cellblock. Once there, I was imprisoned in one of them, but not chained to the floor as before. This cell had a sack of straw as a bed. This felt like a serious upgrade over the cold, grimy stone floor I had been sleeping on. I sat on the sack, and actually relaxed for the first time in weeks.
I was interrupted only a few moments later as another guard entered my cell. I quickly stood and waited for instructions.
Well, I may not be mentally subservient, but they've succeeded in training my muscle memory. Soon I will get out of here, just have to be patient and keep playing the game.
"Slave, turn around and stand still", the guard ordered.
After I did so, he released the collar from around my neck. A familiar sensation of ice running down my spine heralded the return of my full mental faculties. A green checkmark momentarily appeared in the corner of my Retinal Aug.
"You have been moved to the next part of your training. You have already seen your first reward, this much more comfortable cell. You will also have your collar removed, as long as your behavior continues to be obedient. More rewards will be given if you continue to be obedient. Do not forget your place though. You are a slave-mage. You have no rights, and any mercy granted you is at the whim of Baron Tarsk." The guard finished his speech and left the cell.
No more collar huh? I can get used to that...
I reclined on the pallet of straw and checked on my Augs.
[Startup, Authorization: Erin go Bragh.]
[Pending Repairs Status]
The Retinal interface displayed the requested information:
Nanomachine Factory 0: complete Nanomachine Factory 1: 4%
Well, here we go. Things really are looking up!
[Engage Nanomachine Factory 0. Divert produced nanomachines to repair tasks.]
Use internal materials for production: y/n
I thought about it for a moment. Internal materials meant my body. I had not been fed very well these last few weeks, and I had definitely lost weight. There wasn't much nearby either to use for material. Mostly, nanomachines were formed of organic molecules, but some trace amounts of minerals were also needed. The last thing I needed was to die of an iron deficiency.
Maybe there will be enough uneaten at feeding time to convert some to materials.
[No, end last task.]
I settled down to sleep for the night, marveling at the comfort of the simple straw pallet.
The black-robed steward stood before me and gave his report.
"My Lord, the Outsider has progressed through the first phase of training without issue. He does, however appear to be able to mentally function slightly better than the average elf while collared. He has been confirmed to possess no Mana reserves, supporting your theory that all humans share that trait. His Enervation reserves are also higher than an average elf. Tomorrow we will begin individualized mage training. Lastly, the loyalty conditioning seems to be going as intended." The steward finished his report and bowed, waiting for my response.
"I am pleased, my servant. Go and know that your Lord smiles upon you. You may adjust your monthly stipend by five percent", I intoned, layering my Voice with power.
The Steward was helpless to resist my Voice, and he smiled with almost childlike glee at my praise. He bowed again, and exited the balcony we had been standing on. I turned and placed my hands on the railing, leaning against it as I thought. The Voice was an incredibly useful tool. It wasn't quite powerful enough to force someone to do something directly against their wishes. It was, however, perfect for slowly twisting the minds of those around me. Over time they would serve me with endless loyalty, hoping for just a few words of praise.
I do not know what Boon my secret master will bestow upon me next, but if it is half as useful as the current one...
I surveyed the city of Aktrot before me. Tall and strong red stone walls flew my banner, patrolled by loyal soldiers. The central market buzzed constantly, giving my city its lifeblood. Rows of dwellings and shops provided my citizens with work and shelter. Beneath it all in a deep winding dungeon, the real gem of my Barony laid hidden. With the massive mage-training complex, I was producing an incredibly powerful army. I did not have the population to support a large enough group of mundane soldiers to be able to challenge my neighbors. With slave-mages though, I could wipe aside any resistance and expand my holdings. With even more land under my control I could find many more to train. My army would swell ever more as I gathered more land under my flag. Eventually I would become the new Emperor of a united Adympia.
I thought about the painting in my viewing room. They called me "The Bloody Baron", but they didn't really understand the gravity of the situation. One could not forge a strong sword with which to fight evil without hammering the metal from pieces to one whole. My slave-mages would be the hammer and the forge, and I would be the weapon smith. Once the armies of dead came, they would find themselves cut down by my empire.
Besides, who better than the Bloody Baron to be the prophet and servant of Vironax, the God of Blood?