No, money can’t buy you happiness…but it sure makes a lot of other crap easier to deal with.
Wendell sat upright in bed.
Chuck, Dax, Alhannah and Lili stood around him, and everyone but the island girl was grinning uncomfortably wide. He looked around at all their faces, trying to process the idea.
Alhannah nodded, “Yeah.”
“Me. Fight in Trench Wars.”
Dax nodded, “Yeah.”
“In those robots…”
“S.L.A.G.s,” the gnome corrected him.
“Sorry, S.L.A.G.s…like the ones you showed me on the,” he scratched his head.
“uPod,” Dax finished.
“YEAH!” squealed Chuck, rattling his staff in the air. “You don’t have to say thank you just yet,” he stammered, “‘Hannah here will have to get you a sponsor.”
She threw her arm over Dax’s shoulder, “Actually, I thought it would be even better if all three of us got in the pits.” She nudged the elf.
“Me?” Dax yelped, “SweEET!” He grabbed the end of the mattress and bounced it, “This…is…gonna…be…so much fun!”
Wendell gave them all a weak grin, Fun? Strapping yourself into a giant walking can, with explosions and gunfire and screaming fans all around you? That sounds like fun? Then again he hadn’t truly considered the goal. They wanted him to become the grand champion. Wendell, the geek of all Earth geeks, to be the idol of those millions of screaming fans.
The sides of his mouth slowly curled upwards. Ok, that does sound kinda cool. But there was still a major problem no one had brought up. I’m not a fighter. He thought back to the Roadkill Tavern and his futile attempts on Humär. All he seemed to be good at was getting hurt, and they wanted him to become a champion? He frowned, And these are pilots—how am I supposed to compete against experienced fighters…in a robot? We just went from impossible to impossible and weird. “Wait a minute,” he realized, “didn’t you say humans weren’t supposed to be here?” Wendell laughed, “You know, they’re going to notice a tall, gawky human kid trying to fold himself into one of these S.L.A.G.s.”
“Oh, I have that part already covered,” chimed the wizard. Dax, however, looked a bit nervous at the comment.
Wendell frowned, “What’s he talking about?”
The elf fidgeted, “Well…”
“Oh for TGII’s sake,” Alhannah sighed, “he’s got charms you can all wear that’ll change you into gnomes. You’ll fit in fine.”
“I’m,” Wendell gulped, “going to be squished into the shape of a gnome?”
“We all are,” said Lili, a slight quiver in her own voice.
“Oh you’re not going to be squished into anything. It’s more like shaving off.” Chuck made cutting motions with his fingers, “A little nip here, a little tuck there. You know, stuff you won’t need for a while. They do it in Hollywood all the time.”
Hollywood?!? Wendell looked up to see the wizard grinning at him and thought it better not to ask. He rubbed his temple with a palm, This just keeps getting better and better. “And the gnomes here…the resistance, want me to represent them?”
Alhannah sat on the edge of the bed. “Think of it as being more of a funnel. We create a loyal following of fans who are already conditioned to listen to Trench pilots, then when we have the masses following you, you simply point them toward the G.R.R..”
That doesn’t sound very honest. Looking up at Chuck, “And this is a good thing? No offense, I’m grateful for the gnomes helping me—but…”
“This is the most direct route to you being able to work your way into this society,” Alhannah stressed, “and I think that once you have their attention, you’ll be able to win their hearts, not just their minds.”
Wendell shook his head, “But isn’t this all deceptive?”
Chuck patted him on the head, like one would a small child, “Let’s call it strategic instead of deceptive.” He smirked, “At least until we find the last seal.”
They spent the next two days in counsel, working out the details and specific expectations between Wendell and the G.R.R.. In the end, Wendell discovered he actually respected Motherboards passion and love for his people…which made it much easier to agree to the terms of their arrangement. Plus, he soon realized that he liked the idea of having a place to come and visit. A safe haven that he could relate to, away from the rest of the world. Clockworks was so much like the inner cities on Earth, Wendell adjusted almost immediately and felt right at home. His grasp of the technology around him astounded everyone, especially Lili. Well, repulsed would have been more accurate. No matter how much he tried to show her the benefits and simplicity of technology, she refused to use the gnome magic, unless it was absolutely necessary.
Motherboard’s plan called for a split. Alhannah was chosen to take the lead in immersing Wendell into the Trench games, while the leader of the G.R.R. and its powerful data resources would assist Morphiophelius in tracking down the third seal. Morty saw no need for his presence any longer and traveled back to his warehouse to resume his own research. Though, not before reminding the wizard of his promise. Deloris also decided it was time she resumed a life she had sorely missed…and quickly followed behind him.
Nathan Taylor was eager to get involved in the Trench Wars campaign. He was not only a die hard fan of the sport, Alhannah quickly pointed out that his computer skills could make or break Wendell’s success.
As a previous Trench Wars champion, Alhannah pointed out a few perks they could immediately take advantage of. The title granted her special privileges throughout the city, like preferential treatment, free travel without license restrictions…and her fan base included many of the city’s Centurions, which came in handy. Access back into the games as a contestant would be easy.
“But we can’t get into the games at all without a sponsor,” she explained. “Someone has to bankroll the S.L.A.G., the RAT team and all the gear we’re gonna need. Well, times three, which ain’t cheap.”
Wendell laughed, “RAT team? As in the disgusting little rodents?”
She smirked, “Not quite…and don’t laugh too hard or you might hurt Nat’s feelings. He’ll be heading off your team.”
“Oh don’t worry about me,” replied Nat, looking quite smug, “With Cryo’s help, I’m all the digital muscle Wendell will ever need.”
Dax grinned, “Nice.”
“Not mice, rat.”
“I said NICE, Chuck, not mice.”
The wizard smiled, “Well thank you. You’ve been quite nice yourself lately, which I must say, has been a considerable improvement over your usual charming disposition.”
Wendell grinned,“I think someone needs a nap.”
Nat typed something onto the keyboard and two gnome faces flashed onto the huge overhead screen. “All the information of Clockworks is connected and accessible…if you know where to look. It’s a lot like a spider’s web, so that’s what we call it. The web. This screen is called a…”
“Website,” Wendell blurted out.
Nat looked at him and smiled, “Very good. You’re a natural, Wendell, I’m impressed!”
Lili stared at Wendell in awe. Then again, it could have been disgust. He just grinned back at her and tapped his index finger to his temple. Chuck just rolled his eyes.
“The Brothers Trench site has all the stats for each season, the pilots and the sponsors, Alhannah—but there’s a press release from corporate saying they’ve changed the rules of sponsorship.” Nat clicked a few more buttons and the screen changed to show legal contracts. “It looks like the brothers themselves no longer sponsor pilots. Seeing as they’re still competing themselves, corporate didn’t think it was fair to the other players to have a favorite.”
“Makes sense, if you think about it,” added Wendell, “They run the games. No matter who wins, they win…but if they have a favorite, they’d be shooting themselves in the foot.”
“Hmmm.” Alhannah paced the floor. “Can you pull up the list of current sponsors and their teams, Nat?”
A list of sponsors flashed onto the screen.
“None of the current companies are taking on new pilots,” Wendell noticed. “Does that mean the plan’s a wash?”
Alhannah shook her head. “It just means we have to find a new sponsor. Though I don’t think we should approach just anyone. We’ll have to sign contracts AND be promoters for whoever backs us.”
“Well that narrows things down,” said Nat. “Wendell shouldn’t be beholden to anyone unless they’re friendly to the resistance.”
Dax grumbled, “Ya got any moneybags sympathetic to the G.R.R.?”
Nat’s grin stretched from enormous ear to enormous ear. “Just one.”
But Alhannah kept fidgeting. She hadn’t worn street clothes in so long, she’d forgotten how exposed she felt without her armor. Nat tried to make some suggestions—what would look nice and create a better impression on the potential sponsor. However, the black eye would remind him to think twice before suggesting dresses again. Warrior gnome chicks don’t do dresses, they don’t do bikini’s and they most certainly don’t wear high heels. Shoes should be comfortable and allow a female to run, jump and break bones. Luckily all they had available was an earth tone jumper, used for the night cleaning crew. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than nothing and Nat had conceded without further argument. Alhannah’s hair was pulled back into a single ponytail and she’d put on her nicer earrings…which doubled as razor throwing stars.
Hey, a girl has to be prepared.
“Why couldn’t he come to us?” she complained.
Nat laughed and pressed the buzzer next to the huge wooden doors. “Are you serious? Mr. Philburt Bellows? THE Bellows, come to us?”
“I get it—he’s a rich guy.”
“No, you don’t get it—and I need you to, right now!” he sounded panicked. “Bellows is the main financial supporter for the G.R.R.. He’s also the richest gnome alive. He hates the hold the government has on people, but he’s not interested in getting political.” Nat looked at her sternly, the ring around his eye looking even darker, “That’s why he works through us. We have to sell him on how this will benefit him, not us. I’ll do all the talking, since I represent the G.R.R.. Got it?”
She nodded, “Got it.” The doors, made of actual wood, extremely rare in Clockworks, towered over them. She guessed at least twenty feet tall. Waste of good trees. She started to bite her nails and tap her foot impatiently.
“Stop that,” Nat whispered.
“Look, Nat, unless you want me to pop you in the other eye…” she considered, “and then the nose for good measure, I’d zip it.”
The computer gnome rolled backward a foot and held his hands up defensively, “O-ok. No n-need to get mad.”
It wasn’t just the clothes and feeling exposed that got to her—it was having to enter the Religious tower of Clockworks. She wasn’t what some would call a church-goer. In fact, she avoided the church here like the plague. Not that she hated those who did, or that she even hated TGII. No, it was the hypocritical attitudes and two-faced squirrel-dung members who looked down on those who were just trying to be the best people they knew how. That ticked her off. She refused to be a part of a community that took advantage of a laborer’s skill to build a cathedral, then excluded him from worship because he was beneath the rich.
“Oh, for spit,” she grunted and kicked the doors repeatedly.
Nat almost fell over. “What are you doing!? Stop that!!”
“Oh chill, gnomecart, just letting ‘em know we’re here.”
Before he could complain, the sound of a shifting bolt thunked and clunked behind the wood and one of the massive slabs creaked open. A wrinkled, old, balding butler in a black tuxedo and white gloves nodded his head ever so slightly. His overly large ears, even for gnomes, folded forward and drooped down, his lobes brushing his shoulders.
“Good afternoon,” he said in a perfect tone, “may I help you?”
Alhannah slid in front of the wheelchair and grinned a cheesy grin, “Sure, you can help us—we’re here to see old man Bellows. He in?” She stifled her urge to giggle when Nat gasped in utter embarrassment.
The old gnome raised a single eyebrow so high, she thought it might disappear over his forehead. “And you are…..”
“I’m Alhannah Luckyfeller and this is my sidekick,” she glanced over her should before adding, “Wheels. We have an appointment about gettin’ money.”
The butler raised the opposite eyebrow and slowly studied her from head to toe without the slightest pause. “Quite,” he said in a cooler tone, “Won’t you come in.”
The door hadn’t even closed before Alhannah let out a long single note whistle. Behind the doors the building opened up to an entranceway larger than the whole of Morty’s warehouse. But unlike the cold feeling of metal, everything was made of wood and stone. Granite, Marble and Slate formed the floors, walls and fifty foot column’s which rose to support the giant wooden beams overhead. These were carved to look like flocks of birds flying across the ceiling.
“Woah,” Alhannah breathed.
“If you will follow me,” the butler said firmly. He led them down a narrow hall and opened a wide, but regular height door. He motioned them to enter. “In here.”
Shutting the door behind them, Alhannah started giggling. “You weren’t kidding, Wheels, this guy is loaded! Did you see how high those ceilings were? Bellows must be cuttin into the level above him. I bet that annoys the crap outta his neighbors.”
“Actually,” came a voice from behind her, “I own the floor above us.”
Alhannah bit her lip and turned slowly. It was a small library, clean and uncluttered. Everything was polished, dark stained wood. Every wall had deep bookshelves carved to resemble trees, branches reaching out in the sunlight of the overhead bulbs. Not a single shelf was bare. Rows of perfectly organized books, filled the voids and then Alhannah noticed the pattern. All the carvings of the trees weren’t reaching out, they were swaying in an invisible wind. Bending and leaning in one direction to draw your attention to a small fire popping at the far end of the room. Beside it, in the corner, was a writers desk.
A fat gnome, in an even fatter leather chair, leaned out from behind his computer monitor and pulled his reading glasses down his nose. He looked over them. The smirk on his face was unmistakable.
“And yes, Ms. Luckyfeller, I am indeed loaded.”
Nat rolled forward, swerving in front of Alhannah and straight towards the desk, “I am SO sorry Mr. Bellows. I d-don’t know what to…”
“It’s perfectly alright, Nathan,” Philburt said, almost chuckling, “calm yourself. No harm done. no harm at all. The young lady was simply speaking her mind. A trait I find to be highly under appreciated.” He motioned to the chairs in front of his desk. “Besides, she is right, isn’t she? You’ve come to me about…how did you put it, Alhannah? Oh yes,…gettin’ money.”
Alhannah grinned and plopped down casually in one of the chairs, “So your ears are in the walls, eh Bellows? I’ll have to remember that.”
“Among other places, Ms. Luckyfeller. But I’m a busy man with things to do—so let’s get to the details, shall we?”
Nathan’s jaw dropped open, “Details? As in…”
“As in what I shall receive for my, I’m assuming, sizable financial investment.” But he suddenly started laughing, “Of course sizable is a relative term. I was excited to be asked, if you must know. It’s not often I get to spend my resources on something I consider fun.”
Nat looked to Alhannah, then back at the rich gnome, “You, were asked? But we just got here.”
“Ah, Mr. Taylor, you must know that those with true power and influence do not simply listen in on those around us…we keep our connections strong and fluid.” With a flick of his wrist, he turned the computer monitor around. Motherboard sat in a chair in a similar looking library. He was smoking a long stem pipe.
“I hardly needed to explain the advantages of sponsoring a former champion to Mr. Bellows. You have your sponsor, Alhannah. I’ll leave you to iron out those details.” And with that, the screen went black.
Alhannah shivered, “I’m starting to think we’re never alone in a room.”
Philburt smiled, “That, my dear, would be a wise theory to live by.” He tapped his temple with a finger, “Keeps you on your toes.”
She rose from the chair and walked to the fireplace. Sure enough, it was an actual fire, with actual wood in it. An expensive commodity. Clockworks was heated by coal, gas and some forms of oil. Only the mega-rich could burn a nearly extinct island resource. Maybe it was for the smell. “So, not to shoot myself in the foot, but why would a guy loaded like you want to back a set of pilots? If you don’t mind me asking, that is?”
Philburt took the glasses from his nose and folded them, gently placing them on the desk. “Ms. Luckyfeller, I am assuming that you are aware that I support a major portion of the G.R.R. with my substantial wealth?”
“Are you, however, aware that my fortune also supports the Government and Religious Factions? No, from the puzzled look on your face and the draining blood from Nathan’s, neither of you seem to be aware of that fact.”
“But why would you give money to the Government Faction,” Nat squeaked, “when you support the Gnome Resistance?”
“Ah,” he said, pushing his chair away from the desk and standing up, “because it is wisdom, young man. Now, before your idealistic foundation starts to crack and crumble, it’s important for you to understand that I do, indeed, choose to support the G.R.R., and not the other two factions. I use my resources to gain favor and to maintain leverage throughout my interests.”
Alhannah snorted, “So you’re a despot, just like the rest of the power elite. Come on Wheels, let’s bail…I can find us a better sponsor.”
“No, Ms. Luckyfeller,” Philburt corrected her, “I use my leverage for favors to keep despots from taking over.” His kind expression faded, “As companies fold or are crushed under the weight of government intervention and regulations, my factories remain open. Jobs increase to provide at least a measure of relief for some who are cast out into the streets…and my foremen know to hire those with families first.” Motioning to a framed map over the fireplace, “I buy favors from politicians by placing them in my debt—making it virtually impossible to function without my help, ensuring the longevity of my properties.”
Alhannah studied the red dots spread across the map. Hundreds of them riddling the lower districts of the city. “These are your companies?”
“Every one of them, Ms. Luckyfeller.” He paused, studying her. Watching her eyes trace the patterns of the map. He smirked, “I’m quite the fan of your fathers work—and his agile mind. Let me offer you further information, in case you fall close to the tree. You may look up the wages I pay on the public database—my workers are the best paid in every industry.”
“That doesn’t even seem possible,” she snickered. “How can you create so much wealth without grinding people down?”
Philburt Bellows stood upright and slipped his hands into the pockets of his sweater. “Because, young lady, I do not invest in businesses. I invest in people. They are the only long term venture worth the time, effort and attention. My workers collectively own the companies with me. They share in the prosperity or failure of a business. My personal wealth comes from the small, collective shares of all my combined ventures…which are considerable.”
Turning from her, Philburt looked over to Nat, “Which brings me to our agreement. I am investing in you and your companions. I will provide equal to half the funding of the top team in the league and not a credit more—and the funds will come in pieces, directly from each of my factories.”
“Half?!” she gawked, “How are we supposed to compete against the other pilots? This ain’t season one—they use top of the line systems, weapons and even run research and development divisions to design new gadgets!” Her hands curled into fists at her sides, “You have enough wealth to buy Trench Wars, why…”
“Because every credit I give you, or any other venture, is weighed against the needy and their families.” He waited, daring her to challenge him. Then he said in a matter-of-fact tone, “In return, I do not expect you to win, I require it.”
Alhannah opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off.
“IF you cannot win, then you will create a spectacle that will steal the spotlight from those who are winning. If you fail—you must fail with honor and drama that will make the crowd love you even more.” He smiled wryly, tapping his bottom lip as if pondering, “Yes, a great deal of drama.”
Her eyes narrowed to slits. “I was wrong about you. You’re not a despot, you’re a nut job.”
“No, not a nut job Ms. Luckyfeller, a visionary. I am interested in giving the people hope. Hope in their workplace and hope in knowing that they matter.”
She looked to Nat, whose expression was that of utter confusion. He shook his head and simply shrugged.
Taking his seat once more, Philburt picked up his glasses and casually pressed a small button at the corner of his desk. A moment later, the butler opened the door.
Placing the glasses back on his large nose, the wealthy gnome examined the legal papers in front of him. “I’ll have my companies start transferring funds into a sponsor account within the hour.” Without looking up, “Thank you for stopping by.”