Book 3/Page 116/Transcript

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Hooking in at Topstation was part of a regular preparedness drill Charlie ran every ten turns, so even under a full-scale crisis like this one, things went according to procedure.

The Foxers placed his wheelie on the little landing, spun the door open, and disappeared upward into the darkness. Red light shone down through the boltshaft, as they each cast an emergency powerball. A moment later, they flew back down and hauled him up through the hatchway.

Once they were inside the bunker, Tondelayo locked his wheels into the platform sockets, while Queenie secured the door behind them. Tondy brought down the headset, and Queenie relayed Delta's waiting switchboard report onto the main wall, via Foolcast.

Info at last! Glowing pictograms of his own design indicated action on 40. Also, all Shockmancy functions were down, citywide.

He'd assumed as much. This almost had to have been an attack on the portal column from below, which had led him to worry that Parson's Dirtamancer was now in play. But no enemy units had been spotted other than the one, so this was more than likely Lilith's work.

Nothing new from the Magic Kingdom, of course. The pictogram for Parson's last position was gray and hashed, coding it as stale and unreliable. Switch traffic seemed to consist of FOPS communications piling up everywhere, plus a great deal of sidewide noise from a number of panicked Archons who were violating their training, and making Delta's job harder. When this was over, they'd have to have some meetings about that.

Cold metal discs contacted his scalp, and finally he could begin to sense the hundred and seventeen brilliant channels of the 'dish network. Even as Tondy was completing the hookup, he hungrily sorted his way through the hierarchy… or tried to, anyway.

The connection was maddeningly slow. He'd forgotten how bad an un-Shocked connection could be. Normally Topstation had the second best hookup in the tower, due to its direct physical contact with the antenna which bore the max-sized Arkendish. But that was not as good as touching the 'dish itself. And with Shockmancy down everywhere, Topstation was the only way he could get ondish, short of having the 'dish brought down to him (a time-consuming process which would lose him the use of many channels) or actually going up to the top of the tower (his option of last resort).

The hierarchy trickled and stuttered through his mind, eventually yielding the channel he was after: Cast Claim.

He carefully verbed out some proposal language which matched his long-established contingency plans, watching the 'dish slowly accept his instructions, thought by thought, word by word, into its basic template. Even for simple Language, this was agonizingly slow, and required all of his precious concentration.

When it was done, he read it over and winced a bit. He hadn't had time to word it very cleverly. But time was money, time was magic, time was lives… He sent it off to Parson without personal embellishment.

A lot of work needed to be done, yet. But having accomplished this much, he could deny himself no longer. With teeth-clenching slowness, he sorted his way down to the very bottom of the hierarchy, down to the pitiless depths of the Gardening Channel.

Opening his head to the power of the flower, he let the pain escape him for a few beautiful moments.

---

"Okay, tell me what I'm in for, then," Parson said to the worried-looking Foolamancer. "Just give me the quick v—"

He gasped. The sky dimmed. His train of thought derailed and exploded.

He was used to Thinkagrams, but he'd never had one that stopped him in mid-sentence and demanded his full attention, the way an order from Stanley could. Words appeared, like… behind his eyeballs. The message read:

CONTRACT CLAIM FROM CHARLESCOMM

IN REDRESS FOR BREACH OF AGREEMENT

City of Gobwin Knob
City of Warchalking
City of Orgchart
Thinkamancer Maggie
Warlady Georgia Power
Warlord Winston Payne
Warlord Tim Foilhat
Archon Lilith

All infantry units currently stationed in
above cities, minimum total levels: 440

Select heavy units currently stationed in
above cities, minimum total levels: 36

[ACCEPT] [DECLINE] [COUNTEROFFER] [PARLEY]

At first, Parson thought this was a menu of choices he was being asked to select from, to indicate which thing he was willing to send to Charlescomm. But staring at the words on the list did nothing, until he looked down to the ones at the bottom. These would light up in response to his attention. It dawned on him that the entire list was Charlie's demand.

"Ffffffhuck that," he managed to cough out, under his breath.

Jack and Marie had both said something to him in recent seconds, and Jack touched his arm. But within the head-space of the claim, he couldn't really parse any words other than the ones he was seeing in the air.

He focused on the word [DECLINE]. The image seemed to register his will, making the word flash brightly in response. Much of the text-clutter in front of him winked out, and was replaced by:

DECLINE CLAIM - ARE YOU SURE? [YES] [NO]

His attention immediately went to the word [YES]. There was absolutely no way he could send Maggie and the rest of those people and cities over to Charlescomm, so this choice was pure reflex. However, some defensive instinct kicked in and made him hesitate. A Charlie gambit was in play here, and he was a few steps behind. What happened if he declined? Was there some kind of default action that was even worse?

His ears had been ringing with a literal bell sound, like a cheap alarm system. The volume of that ringing began to increase, and the edges of his sight grew dim. Some kind of active timer applied to his selection here. He focused on the word [NO], and imagined touching it with his finger. His hand might even have reached up into the air to press it, but he couldn't feel his body much. He could only think clearly in terms of the Thinkagram.

Whatever, it did the trick. The offer details and original menu items returned to blot out his whole field of sight, and the ringing grew less urgent.

"It's the claim," Parson said, or hoped he said, to Jack and the others. "Gimme sec."

He read down the list of cities and units Charlie wanted again. Feeling sick, he selected [COUNTEROFFER] and mind-punched it.

A tall, thin rectangle appeared to the left side of his vision. Maddeningly, it moved like an eye-floater when he turned his head to look at it. He spun himself almost completely around trying to see it. It said: 411,940.

Next to the thin rectangle was a large, fat one taking up most of his view. To the right of that were the words:

[ADD ASSET] [CLEAR] [SUBMIT] [CANCEL]

He chose [ADD ASSET], and saw the words ENVISION ASSET in the middle of the large rectangle.

After a moment, he thought about Gobwin Knob, where he'd spent most of his time in Erfworld. ENVISION ASSET disappeared and "CITY OF GOBWIN KNOB" appeared at the top of the fat rectangle. To the left, the thin rectangle now showed a bar of Charlescomm blue about a third of the way to the top, and the number read: 273,835.

He winced. That was not much cash for a Level 5. For that Level 5, as tough as it was? And what would happen, would they have to rename the side? What about the units there? He thought-clicked [CLEAR], and both rectangles went blank again.

What could he do? They had some gem stores left, right? Stanley liked to convert them to Shmuckers as soon as they were mined, because he loved bragging about his big treasury number. But they had some on hand. He chose [ADD ASSET] and thought about all their gems. "ALL GEMS" appeared on the list. The progress bar jumped to about one-quarter high and read: 311,440. A long way to go.

Charlie's original demand list had been ordered by cost, with cities first, then a caster, then warlords, then regular units. He'd have to offer some cities or high value units. He chose [ADD ASSET] again, and thought of Unaroyal, a Level 4 on a capital site. It was in the middle of GK territory. Once the truce was up, they could take it back.

"UNAROYAL" appeared on the list, and the number moved to 214,045. Almost halfway, but not as much as he'd hoped. What now? He thought-added all units stationed there, and saw:

Warlord Jonah Vark (decrypted) - level 3

Warlord Murray Antoinette (decrypted)- level 2
pink dwagon - level 1
red dwagon - level 2

120 infantry (decrypted) - total levels 144

Astonishingly, this only moved the bar up to 163,880. He was giving away Stanley's dwagons now, too. And it started to dawn on him that giving Decrypted units to Charlescomm might be a terrible idea. Just like having the Archons made Charlie nervous, giving him Stanley's dwagons and Wanda's people to play with might be worse than just losing them.

The bell in his head began to ring louder. He touched [CLEAR], and the boxes went blank again. This time, though, the ringing did not subside. In frustration, Parson added ACE HARDWARE to the list, as the caster they could probably best afford to lose. Then he remembered the guns, and that Ace was Decrypted, and hit [CLEAR] again. Ace had only been worth about 35,000 Shmuckers anyway.

The ringing got very loud. The dimness at the edges of his vision began to flash. It occurred to him that Charlie's original offer had actually been pretty reasonable, speaking purely objectively. Gobwin Knob would lose a Thinkamancer, and the three farthest cities from Spacerock, but they would remain in a strong and strategically viable position. Coming up with a counteroffer that would hurt the side less than that might be tricky.

But to give him Maggie… and to hand over Lilith after she'd told him she'd rather kill herself than go back to Charlie? No. He couldn't do it.

The ringing was deafening now. He thought he might be doubled over or clutching his ears in pain, but he couldn't feel his body, couldn't sense anything outside the claim. He just did not know what he should do.

He mentally clicked [CANCEL]. The rectangles went away, and the ringing returned to normal. He breathed hard. At the list of items in Charlie's original claim, he picked [PARLEY].

---

The parley request pulled Charlie out of the garden, and all of his old pain rushed in again. He smiled anyway. The hero was calling. Parson required a noble way out, and he happened to have one of those in mind.

From the depths of his carefully dug pit, the roaring of big game could be heard.