Banish all the World Ch. 02byStultus©
Today's show was at the hoary old Austin Convention Centre right across the Colorado River at Town Lake from the famous El Marvelo movie theater, and more importantly quite near Sandy's Frozen Custard. I won't even discuss the bad chain hamburger place that sits on the other side of the El Marvelo. Even I have some food standards.
I'm skinny enough that I couldn't afford the weight I'd lost this year, and I figured that a program of visiting Sandy's for breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and supper, followed by a late night snack of yet more frozen custard, just might get me back into better fighting form. Walton promised to get a flunky to make the custard runs for me so that I could snack while staying on-duty.
Simply put the ACC is a dumpy old concrete dive that ought to be bulldozed at the earliest opportunity; preferably yesterday. Style-wise, the place is pretty much a featureless semi-round off-white stained blob, greatly resembling an extremely unsatisfactory bowel movement.
Every year a City Council motion for selling bonds to fund a new bright and shiny modern convention centre goes up for vote... and is shot down by at least 65% of the vote. Nothing involving raising taxes even a bent penny stands a ghost of a chance of being voter approved in Austin. Despite being the Capitol of the Republic, our city is an arch-conservative, anti-government and fairly contemptuous of 'big business' sort of place. Even the local university students are stolid and staunchly libertarian. Never any student unrest here. If the Republic had any less government we'd be an anarchy.
The layout was pathetically simple and uncomplicated. Glass doors in the front on the riverside for incoming and outgoing customers, and a single large back door from the hall that lead to the loading dock on the west side. Easy squeazy for even semi-competent security to supervise. The convention floor was isolated enough from other smaller meeting rooms and staff offices on the east side to rule those smuggling routes out as well.
Dollars to donuts (or more custard) that our thief was most definitely not getting the items out via any of those ways. This almost certainly meant magic, by some means or another. That still left an awful lot of options, and I didn't like most of them. This whole operation smelled of a 'Renegade' Wizard.
BMA's attitude towards magical practioners is very simple. Obey the laws, what few there are, or we will send ill-tempered Wizards to your door to make sure you do, or give you a proper burial so that you'll never repeat the offense again. Low ranking Adepts, like me, and all Wizards must all submit to government testing and training, or pledge a great Oath to never, ever use our powers again. To become licensed we get a free college education and training for our skills, but we also have a mandatory period of duty in government service. Mine was just five years, but full Wizards must serve for at least twenty. Don't feel bad for them, they're very well paid civil servants and most of them have an ego the size of the Alamo.
With power comes very definite responsibilities and there are always some people that you just can't trust with as much as a burned out match. Sometimes bad people will do bad things, in a bad sort of way that annoys a lot of good people. If the bad guys have magical abilities, that just makes it ten times harder to clean up after their shit. Do this sort of crap once and you might get your hand slapped; do this sort of shit habitually and you'll be soon be declared 'Renegade'. A 'mad dog' of a Wizard legally declared to be unfit for society and with a bounty price put on their head, dead or alive.
There is a Wizard prison somewhere in the bowels of West Texas near Roswell, but most renegades don't live long enough to see it. Invariably they always try to go down fighting, but real government trained Wizards are a lot nastier and win ninety-nine times out of a hundred.
Usually, the smarter magically inclined criminals will keep to the down-low and try to live quietly to avoid detection. Usually these guys will work for various criminal or otherwise not-quite legal operations for protection. Kind of like my estranged father, who lives near a swamp in sunny southern Florida, making his living as a fringe player in a Confederate smuggling ring.
This particular renegade appeared to be involved in a weapons smuggling ring. Nobody else needs to steal an average of seventy-five guns a week for the last three months. That's a lot of firearms, and there were a lot of potential buyers for them.
Our neighbors to the east, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America are old, old adversaries. They've fought four major wars in the last one hundred and fifty years; the Confederates won the first one big and the next two were very disappointing (and bloody) ties. The USA claimed a pyrrhic victory for the most recent one. I won't bother mentioning the other twenty odd 'border disputes'. The USA is much larger, has more heavy industry and has a much greater population, but the Yankees still fear the use of all magic, forbidding its use entirely until fairly recently. This has evened the odds considerably for their weaker southern rivals who long ago embraced magic as a core of their religion and culture. Things have been quiet for awhile, and both sides now usually prefer to talk rather than shoot. They even trade with each other openly and legally, but smuggling is still habitual on both sides. I don't think they'll ever become friends.
Within our Great Western Alliance, our member nations don't always see eye to eye, especially with California and their upper coastal neighbor Pacifica, but we've never had anything close to a civil war. Each Republic enjoys considerable political autonomy and our Emperor is largely a figurehead with only minimal executive powers. Our only true enemies are to the south and the north. The remnants of Mexico and our insane demon-possessed neighbors in Deseret.
Like the squabbles between the USA and the CSA, Mexico has declared war on the Republic of Texas three times, and once more upon the entire GWA. We cleaned their clock every time and annexed a lot of their territory over the years until we had full control over virtually all of their silver mines.
Silver is the blood of magic, more precious than oil, and an essential ingredient for nearly every minor, moderate or major magical crafting. Silver is much too valuable now for use in coinage and in times of war its value is nearly comparable to gold. Like every smart mage, I keep an eye on the precious metal markets and buy banged up old coins and bulk bullion whenever the market takes a dip, or if I'm feeling rich. You just can't have too much stored away for a rainy day. Artificement uses up silver especially fast!
There are malcontents below the border hoping for some grand 'reconquesta' someday that squirrel away guns for a rainy day. This wouldn't be the first gun smuggling ring that the BMA has broken up in Texas, or even the fiftieth, but they didn't usually use their scarce wizard resources this way. Still they do need the guns, which makes them a prime suspect, even if this particular caper was a bit too subtle for their usual way of doing things.
We've got no inclination to start a new war with them, as our current border with them is relatively short and very defensible. No one really wants to have to police another couple of million angry Mexicans in any new captured territory. At least not this week. The ones we already have are mostly assimilated and good GWA citizens now, mostly due to the extremely libertarian philosophies of the GWA. Pay your minimal taxes, don't start trouble and trouble won't come looking for you!
"Live and Let Live" is pretty much our Imperial motto, and it really works very nicely actually... except for the wild-eyed desert sun baked brains of the Nerunites in Deseret.
The madmen of the Theocracy of Deseret have more than held their own in an on-again off-again war with us that has raged across the high central desert regions for hundreds of miles around the Great Salt Lake since the 1850's. Magic is their bread and butter and what their war machines lack in quantity, they more than make up for in quality. We have no peace treaty with them. At best, we have a quiet uneasy armistice.
Their religion is loathsome; a perverse off-shot of extreme Mormonism, perverted science (including institutionalized policies of racial eugenics), and corrupted American Indian and Aztec religious practices, combined with a zeal for death in combat that would make a Viking berserker yearning for Valhalla feel proud.
They have a harsh and firmly pyramid structured political order of 'Warriors' (all lower classes of rabble), 'Warlocks' (mostly Adepts, who are their aristocratic overseers) and 'Priests' (Wizard class magicians), whose every word is law.
Women are chattel. Slaves by virtually any definition, who perform the physical labor and are sorted by their breeding value to the Warriors, Warlocks and Priests. Other uglier rumors can be heard about horrific and terrible magical rituals, perhaps including forced breeding with various 'visitor' races from other planes, to create a stronger race of warriors or more potent Warlocks for future generations.
They are a culture that only values strength or power, and abject submission to those above you. By weeding out the weak from their gene pool, they hope eventually to create the ultimate caste of obedient but lethal soldiers, ready to kill without the slightest compassion or mercy in the name of their dark Gods.
It's Darwinist principles at their most frightening, and this scares a lot of people. And it should.
Deseret also shares a long border with the western flank of the United States, above Colorado and or Oklahoma Indian territory northern boundaries (politically part of the Republic of Texas, but that's another story). They don't like those crazy fanatics any better than we do and there is some popular support in both countries in favor of a military partnership to deal with them for once and for all. This idea of a military alliance frightens the CSA enough that it is unlikely for this very desirable event to ever occur.
The world would just be a happier, healthier place with the last Nerunite sent off to meet their dark Gods in the afterlife, and as soon as possible. I'd even volunteer to help dig shallow graves or light the burial mounds, with my bare hands if necessary.
They breed hordes of warriors for the sole purpose of dying in battle to cull the weakest and select the survivors for breeding stock. And they need guns.
Deseret always needs guns. Their factories are operated by female slaves, and they emphasize quality over quantity. They didn't have any particularly impressive native firearms manufacturers and mostly make copies of other makers' products. Their current army field rifle is a hybrid variant of the old Mauser and Mosin-Nagant, but I've heard rumors that they're slowly switching to a full automatic version of a newer Imperial Russian assault rifle, the Kalashnikov. A deadly accurate weapon engineered and built to the smallest tolerances. Most definitely an upgrade of their older bolt action rifles, and far superior to the USA AR-15 series rifles which are mass produced to sloppy tolerances and quality control and incapable of hitting a target bullseye at even fifty yards.
One report I read a few years ago just before I left government service, reported that during a recent skirmish with USA troops in western Kansas, only about half of their warriors possessed guns. The ones without weapons charged into battle with all of the rest and stooped to pick up the weapons of the fallen. This suggested that they didn't even have enough obsolete weapons to supply their front rank troops, let alone their reserves.
Since Deseret is landlocked and surrounded by very unfriendly nations, it is easy to maintain a trade embargo on them. There are smugglers everywhere, it's true, but the demand of for weapons there surely far outweighs the supply.
If our sneak thief was supplying Deseret, this was a major ring stealing nearly four thousand weapons a year. This was enough to stock a couple of Regiments or maybe even a Brigade. Now imagine that this thief wasn't alone and had buddies in the other Republics of the GWA also stockpiling weapons. Now we were talking about tens of thousands of stolen and smuggled weapons a year, enough for an Army Division or Corps.
That was exactly the sort of high end scheming we knew to expect from Deseret. Suddenly Walton's little problem didn't sound quite so little anymore.
I took a last spin around the dealer's exhibition hall before the show opened to gather a few last thoughts and I made a quick last minute phone call into the local BMA office. I didn't exactly bleat for help, but I did tell the Adept on duty to send a flash request to all of the other BMA field offices throughout the GWA asking if they had been getting reports of regular mysterious possibly magic related gun thefts, especially at gun shows. I didn't expect an answer back until Monday at the earliest, but I'd be extremely surprised if I didn't receive back several affirmative confirmations.
I walked the convention hall all day long and didn't see a thing to put my nose out of joint. Rifles and hand-guns disappeared like clockwork just about all day long and by closing time for the day I still didn't have the slightest clue how it was being done.
Walton wasn't too disappointed. He hadn't quite expected a miracle solution on the very first day and I wasn't the only Adept standing guard duty. The thief was really very, very smart.
They let me stay on for awhile with the crew of off-duty Austin Police Department that worked night security while I tested out several possible theories, none of them very probable. The possible solutions mulled, I retreated on home to think some more while I loaded up my precious Artifact with the new Arcana Stones. If I was even half right I was going to need every bit of advantage that I could scrape up.
Sunday morning, despite not getting much sleep the night before, I was up bright and early and equipped myself for trouble. My Christmas encounter with the Stalking had ruined my very best protective warded duster coat, suit jacket, pants and vest and still put me in the hospital for a week with over a dozen stitches. It had taken me months of my very limited free time since to even get their replacements even half prepared with new imbued protections.
My old suit would have laughed off bullets, with the new one I wasn't nearly so confident. It was better than nothing, but it made me feel like I was half naked... I was so used to walking around better armored than a tank.
The new bracers changed that. I knew immediately after putting them on what had driven poor deluded Gloria into attempting to summon things far outside her ability. This Artifact just oozed raw power and it itched to be used. With both bracers on, the three Ley lines that crossed my house now seemed like huge rivers or super highways of limitless power. With just a thought now I could grab on any or all of them and drink endless power like a sponge, to do anything I wished with just a casual whim.
Oh, yes... I was very definitely upgraded well into major Wizard class power now and I could understand why the egotistical bastards are usually such utter pricks. If I could have naturally wielded this kind of power right from the start, I'd probably be an insufferable ass too. Wearing these bracers would definitely let me smite the wicked and leave their smoking boots in some impressively large craters. Bring it on!
Taking off that left bracer and leaving behind at home was probably the hardest and most difficult decision I'd ever made in my life. With both on I was sure that I would be utterly omnipotent... and that was exactly the problem. I was just like a magical junkie soaring high on borrowed power and willing to let that power start making decisions for me, and probably not the same decisions that my cold sober under-powered brain would have made. This was exactly the sort of warped thinking that made Gloria decide to summon a major Shadow Stalker that she had no prayer of controlling. My own mistake would probably be worse.
If I even pretended to get used to that kind of raw power I'd become useless and a real danger to others. Every single problem would start to look like a nail, and I would become the Hammer of God looking for things to smite.
With just the right, older bracer on I was still bursting to the teeth with boosted latent power, but my brain could now think... if I didn't get too excited. This was a racehorse that I thought I could hang on long enough to ride and maybe even be able to command. Reservations about my new toy or not, I knew I'd need that extra firepower today.
The last day of the gun show on Sunday started right off where Saturday ended. Weapons were disappearing right and left and I still had no clue how it was being done. Neither of my so-called brilliant ideas was bearing out any fruit.
My first thought was that the Renegade Wizard was using miniaturization. He or she would shrink the weapons down with a touch to fit inside a hand or a pocket. The tiny weapons could then all be easily hidden and not detected by the security guard when leaving. There was just one small problem. Mass. Miniaturization is a very tricky skill that only has very limited applications in the real world. You can make a foot long item an inch long instead, but the mass and weight of the original item are both going to remain. Seventy-five guns, more or less, was going to weigh many hundreds of pounds, far beyond what a guest could carry off, even if he had a team of helpers.
This was my first guess for how the theft could be carried off. It was indeed possible, but not very practical. I told security nevertheless to keep an eye out for customers that seemed to regular meet and discuss at a fixed place, apparently also exchanging small heavy pocket items. No likely hits were noted.
It was still possible for this sort of scam to be run by a gun dealer, who would load up their unsold weapons along with the stolen ones in great large trunks and wheeled out on flatbeds at the end of the day, so I changed my focus to them. This notion also fit well with my second idea, that the Wizard was using Translocation.
Frankly, the idea that the thief could use Translocation that efficiently really frightened me badly. I have very limited skills in that art and in the past I've been able to perform minor feats like relocate a handgun or a book from someone else's hand and into my own. With lots of concentration and nearly exhausting my own magical energies in the process. The mere idea that someone could do this nearly non-stop fifty to a hundred times in an afternoon and at a distance was worrisome.
That was definitely major Wizard class power, and without at least one bracer on I was going to be badly outgunned in a direct confrontation.
The beauty of using Translocation for theft was the neatness and pure simplicity. The thief just needed to concentrate on the item for a moment and then it would appear in his hand... or would it? My powers, normally only Adept level, wouldn't let me shift an item directly from point A to point C without a stop at point B (my hand) first. But was this true for a talented Wizard? I decided to find out.
The experiment was simple. I went over to Walton's large display booth area and selected a small box of ammunition and moved it by hand out of place onto another table. Concentrating on that box I then tried to translocate it directly back to its original starting place. With a surge of wizardly power it was returned there in an instant. Yes, it could be done!