The atheneum turned out to be a drafty old library.
Geoffrey arranged the stack of books on the table in front of him. He couldn’t find any military strategy books, not in the 30 seconds he spent looking, but did find a copy of the Krim terms of service, and an encyclopedia of ancient Krim gods and goddesses.
Since Krim was only created ten years ago, and ran on a magic-free basic physics engine, he doubted that the gods would be of any military value. But you never knew.
The terms of service could be useful, though. He leafed through the book while he waited.
What kind of horrible user experience did people have for Krim administrators to have added some of the clauses? For example, by agreeing to the terms of service, visitors to Krim agreed not to sue the grid if they were caught in a bear trap and had to chew off their own arm to escape.
This kind of thing didn’t happen on more civilized worlds, like World of Battle. There, if you were caught in a bear trap, a dragon would invariably fly by and burn you to a crisp so you could respawn your avatar and get back to the game.
You wouldn’t die slowly, painfully, over a period of days while — Geoffrey flipped to the next page — carrion birds pecked at your internal organs and eyeballs.
If Geoffrey was actually going to try to learn to be a decent human being, it didn’t sound like Krim was the place to do it.
Fortunately, he had no such intention.
Flame Bunyips came in, looking a little green around the face.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I was helping a farmer deliver a calf. I mean, the cow was having a baby and I helped.”
There were suspicious stains on her clothes and boots, and Geoffrey pushed his chair back a little bit. He wasn’t squeamish. But his appearance was carefully calibrated for maximum impact. Organic matter could cause discoloration, distress the fabric, and probably smell bad, too.
“Don’t be scared,” Flame said. “It’s perfectly natural. Part of the order of things. And personally, I’m glad to see heritage skills being preserved.”
“Why? Why do you care?”
She sat down. “Well, it’s good for cultural preservation,” she said. “Umm… and if humanity is thrown back into the dark ages because of some calamity, we’d be prepared.”
“If humanity suffered a calamity bad enough that we lost all our technology then I bet all your farmers would be instantly dead,” said Geoffrey. “If they’re here in the Northern Mountains, they’re probably not day trippers, but full-time residents of cyberspace.”
“Well, that will all change if we get a gate here,” she said. “Anyone would be able to visit and spend time on a traditional farm and experience the beauty of nature.”
“Well, it looks like the rest of the council is running late,” Geoffrey said. “Tell me more about yourself. You seem to be extremely kind and caring. Is that all a front?”
“What? Of course not!”
“You’re not just pretending to be kind in order to gain some sort of social advantage?”
“That’s a horrible accusation.”
“So. Tell me what makes you so kind.”
She frowned at him. “Why do you want to know?”
“World of Battle wants me to take a basic human kindness test before they let me back. And I want to go back.”
“How bad were you that World of Battle, of all places, wants you to show human kindness?”
“I may have ruthlessly destroyed some empires.”
“So you want me to teach you how to be kind?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Hold on. You want someone to take the test for you, don’t you?”
“Technically, yes, but if you’re a kind person, it would be a kind thing to do. Right?” He smiled his most endearing smile.
“Helping you cheat on a test wouldn’t be kind,” she said. “I’d just be enabling your bad behavior. Count me out.”
“Maybe if you got to know me, and like me, you’d help me out.”
“Never. I wouldn’t let an evil AI loose on a poor helpless world.”
“Are you still talking about World of Battle?”
“Okay, not so helpless, but still.”
“Better than letting me loose anywhere else.”
“That’s true.” She bit her lip. “But no.”
“I’ll wear you down.”
“Don’t count on it.”
“You won’t be able to resist my charms.”
“Hah!” She crossed her arms and leaned back. “And now that I know what you’re after, I’ll be on my guard.”
The door to the Atheneum swung open and Ayoob al-Hoque Haleem Raadi walked in.
“Ayoob!” Flame jumped up from her chair. “You decided to come!”
“Why did you come?” asked Geoffrey.
“Flame invited me,” said Ayoob. “She’s nice that way. You don’t mind, do you?”
Before he could answer, someone else came in and pushed Ayoob to the side. It took a second for Geoffrey to place the man. He’d been standing next to Duke Percheval that morning… Bartram Snell Ashenhurst. The financier.
“You didn’t think you were going to have an advisory council without me, did you?” Bartram came in and sat down on the other end of the table, across from Geoffrey.
“Good times,” said Ayoob, grabbing the chair between Geoffrey and Flame.
“Flame and I were actually having a private conversation,” said Geoffrey.
“Did it involve any kind of counseling or advisoring? Because if so, I should be there for that. It’s my money that’s paying for everything, you know.” Bartram pulled out a cigar and smelled it.
“Dude, is that a cigar?” Ayoob asked. “I thought they don’t have tobacco on Krim.”
“It’s not tobacco, it’s dried fennel. I have it custom made.”
“So it’s like a sage smudge stick?” asked Flame. “Indigenous cultures…”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” said Bartram. “It’s just a cigar. Hopefully, if any of the expeditions I’ve funded ever make it to the New World, we’ll soon have real tobacco. Until then, this will have to do.”
The door opened again.
“Who is now…” Geoffrey began, turning around, but it was just a page.
“Here.” The page passed a folded piece of paper to Geoffrey and vanished again.
Geoffrey opened it up. It was a note from General Dungerame.
“Anything we need to know about?” Bartram asked. “Advisory council business, maybe?”
“No, just an old friend I need to talk to. I’ll be back in five minutes. Meanwhile, advise each other. Maybe… find us a map?”
“Why are we taking orders from him, anyway?” said Bartram, rolling the cigar between his fingers. “I’m senior here,” he said, as Geoffrey left the room. “Ayoob, go find a map.”