A waitress hustled up with menus. "Sorry, we just geared up for you, not realizing what a draw you'd be. Would you like coffee or tea?"
Miles ordered and started looking around.
In a hostile environment, it would have been a nightmare. Their group was spread out, split up by tables full of strangers. In an unknown environment it was at least unnerving.
But as he studied the other groups, he realized they tended toward older, studious types, no security in sight. He caught a few amused looks as the strangers eyed the alert guards.
"They seem to think we're funny." Mary Elizabeth was pretty observant and quick on the uptake.
"You are funny." The stout woman at the next table turned around and eyed them. "Well, you're new. I suppose you don't realize that all the waitresses and bus boys are trainee magicians, extremely powerful, and well able to stop any problems that arise. And seeing the hullabaloo, I expect some of the more senior people are around close as well. Nothing is going to be allowed to happen to you."
Miles softened his shields as he looked around the room. All the staff sparkled faintly through firm shields. The two nearest looked over at him, before going about their business. They felt my shields go down, even while theirs were up. Yikes.
Harold Derringer, one of the diplomats was chatting to a stranger. Several others approached the outlying tables and introduced themselves. Harold rose and led his acquaintance to meet the Ambassador. Their conversation was brief, the stranger retreated politely. Another man was vetted through to the Bishop. He scored a major diplomatic coup by being invited to join the Bishop. Miles caught snatches of their conversation, it appeared to be mainly historical and religious in nature.
Their waitress brought their food.
"Who's that fellow that joined the bishop?" Miles asked.
"He's a priest from Arrival. Their religion is descended from Earth's Christianity in the twenty-first Century. But they aren't anti-magic."
Miles sighed. "Ours isn't either. But it does keep in mind that magic can be used to sin undetected, and works to keep us all honest and true."
She wrinkled her nose. "Commit a sin, or a crime? There's a difference. Magic is a means, not an end. A tool. It should be judged by its effects, not its existence."
"I have no idea what you are talking about. I think Xen took a very brief and incomplete glimpse of our society and leaped to conclusions."
"Take the crime of theft. Snatch-and-run, or at gunpoint, or by magic. Same crime? Not really, because the thief with the gun also threatens the victim's life. In our world, the armed robber would be most heavily punished. How about in your world?"
"The mage would have committed two crimes. Robbery, and use of magic in crime. The armed man would also face two charges."
She nodded. "Not as bad as I thought. But using magic in a theft doesn't involve a threat of the victim being killed, which is the main purpose of the gun. Of course, on Comet Fall, the magic users deal with the abuse of magic, not outsiders."
"Bit of a conflict of interest, a tendency to protect ones own reputation by sweeping other magician's crimes under the rug, eh?" Miles studied her, well aware of all the open ears around them.
"Nil doesn't do much sweeping." She wrinkled her nose. "He's more in favor of hard labor, and for the really venal, goathood or genetic engineering to remove the ability to do magic. What about Churchmen who abuse the trust of their positions? Who judges them? Their church superiors or outsiders without any desire to sweep things under the rugs?"
Miles worked through the entire reply twice. "Okay. I got the part about hard labor. I guess I can even swallow genetic engineering to remove magical abilities. But goathood escapes my understanding altogether."
A chorus of snickers from the surrounding table, had him twitching with crawling nerves.
"Physical metamorphosis into a goat. Nil puts them to work herding his sheep, and every once in a while will change one back and talk to him about whether he's prepared to be a model citizen yet or not."
"Physical metamorphosis?" His skin crawled. "Who is Nil?"
"The Master Wizard. There's also an Archmage, and Answer who is the Senior Witch. And of course, Xen and Q can deal with miscreants here." She wrinkled her nose again. "I suppose we ought to be more legally restrained in what we can do. But so far it seems to be working. There's only the one group of magical transdimensional criminals, and a lot of the gang has quit and gone straight. And we've got a bunch in various prisons. Not many of them active, any more."
Miles buried his face in his hands. "Magical transdimensional criminals?"
"Yep. Some from Comet Fall, some from One World, some from Helios. Ask anyone, they'll tell you all about it." She whisked off, returning in seconds, coffee pot in hand, refilling cups all along her route.
Miles caught snatches from other tables, as his neighbors filled them in on the lurid histories of the gang with the mind boggling name of "Hors de Combat."
Then the general conversation turned to a world named Helios, frequently referred to as "The Cannibals." That was good for nightmares. He was glad he'd missed the whole war. Apparently his world had been Disco's first "Populated World" discovery since the war, which was one reason they were drawing more than normal attention.
"We're really looking worlds over, now, for their likelihood for causing massive problems. Another Comet Fall means another World that can create gates wherever they wish." The man talking had a corpse-like complexion and hair that was so black it had purple highlights.
"Err, the thing is, we don't make gates. I don't think we can." Johann was frowning. "The history books talk about the gate that was used to exile us, and it had tons of parts all by itself, spinning super-cooled super-conducing rings and such. And a building full of miscellaneous stuff powering it, and computing where it went, and interfaces with Magicians. I don't think we've ever tried to duplicate it."
The woman at the next table sat back frowning. "I wonder if any of you could learn to do it the Comet Fall way."
Miles thought back to his conversation last night, with the teenagers in the horse barn. "Our society has progressed without magic. There's no advantage to being highly magical, so I expect our level of genengineering is much lower than Comet Fall's. For starters, our old gods haven't been reproducing."
One of the men at her table looked surprised. "No baby gods? So, no one like Xen. That's good news. I think."
"What about that judge, he's the son of the God of Just Deserts." The corpse complexion put in. "Quite useful."
"I've heard him called the God of Justice. And they're supposed to have a God of Thieves and a God of Orgies." The woman next to them eyed the waitress as she brought plates full of pancakes.
"We do not have anything like that on our World." The Bishop's words overrode everything. "And I pray to God the Creator that we never do."
Another of the waitresses looked a bit put out. "We have people being influenced by the collective subconscious to act like archetypes. Not baby gods. Really. You know, The Perfect Wife, The Girl Next Door, The Other Woman, The Tall Dark Stranger. People like that. Not gods."
"The Tall Dark Stranger?" Captain Collier sounded blank.
"You know. He rides into town, defeats the Bad Guys, and rides off into the sunset."
"Right. Gotcha." The captain rubbed his forehead as if he was developing a headache. Miles certainly was.