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26 September 2016 @ 05:35 am

"Ha! Caught it! He controls the cyborgs through a way, way high frequency." Halberd stepped out of the back hallway, as Sokalov turned, eyes narrowing.

Halberd grinned. "Cyborgs? Go to your barracks. Now!" The verbal order backed up with a high mental command.

The two cyborgs turned and walked out the door.

Frost could feel the mental echo, dim, too high to really get . . . She reached for it. As high as she could, and reached mentally for Sokalov. Threw power at his barriers and found no way in.

Damn, damn, damn!

Sokalov spun from Halberd to Frost. "Mentalists! Both of you! Trained mentalists! Foreign mentalists!"

He pounced, hands going for her neck.

Halberd hit him from the back, kicking the backs of his knees. He landed on his butt, scrambled to his feet, and backed up to the wall, staring from one to the other . . . mental pressure built.

Halberd stepped closer and dropped her voice. "Frost? He said the gate was opening. We have to stop it, and you have the best slice. Get there as fast as you can and slice up the beacon. Do whatever you have to, to break it."

"Halberd! I can't leave you here with him!"

"Oh yes you can. After all, I have to advance sometime."

"Halberd!" Frost backed away as Sokalov frowned and increased the pressure.

"You vill go nowhere."

Stupid fool lurched toward her, shoving past Halberd. Never underestimate a witch just because she's young!

Halberd jumped and got an arm around his neck, jerked him back . . . "Go!"

Frost cursed, and went. "Nexus, I need an aircar, fast, and this is an emergency, please override the speed controls."

"Frost Witch! Mentalist Sokalov has gotten loose and is attacking Halberd Arrowdaut . . . He says he knows how to tame her!"

"Poor fool is going to regret it if he rapes her!" Frost leaped into the aircar and it zipped off with more than usual speed. "Where's Mirk? I'm not sure I can handle von Cratz alone."

"He has been summoned to join von Cratz."

Chapter Twenty-four

There were dancing light above the scorched patch where he's destroyed the gate.

Not. Good.

Mirk stared at the ground. I wonder how deeply buried their beacon is? I could try punching holes . . .

"Zo, zoon you will see the true might of the Drei. Not just this pathetic little scouting mission. We vill take all the cities, and put you soft slaves to proper verk making goods for the Drei while ve plan vurther conquests." Von Cratz turned to watch the lights.

Damn. I'll have to deal with him first. Not to mention his two pet goons and the dozen guards stationed to protect the gate.

Then he caught Frost's mental voice.

:: Mirk! Time to start the war. Halberd is fighting Sokalov and you need to deal with von Cratz while I destroy the beacon. ::

Right. Just the two of us. No. Problem.

Mirk looked around at the bulldozed piles of rubbish from the demolished camp. Stepped and pulled a metal bar out. Too short, bent at both ends . . . actually it might work for fighting an over-sized cyborg . . . another bar, this one straighter and longer. He hefted it, left handed. Too heavy, but about a long as the swords he'd used all his life.


Shields, mental and energy, to start.

Something in his stance, or perhaps the crude weapons alerted von Cratz's guards.

As the one to the left started to turn, he brought the long bar down on his head. The cyborg dropped.

Weak skull, with that plate in it.

He absorbed the wash of energy as a laser hit his shield. A right handed lunge. The bent bar couldn't pierce, but it could crush the second guard's trachea. Mirk stepped back from a furious swing from von Cratz.

He faced the big cyborg. "So. Looks like the opportunity for a peaceful resolution has ended. I won't allow you to open that gate again."

"Zo. You haf fooled me all along. I believed you ver a coward." von Cratz grinned. "But now, vinally I haf a proper fight."

Mirk grinned back. "No. Finally, I get to kill you."

Not a word from the Nexus.

Haven't fenced in years. Hope I haven't lost it . . . He settled mentally into his center, even as he danced away from von Cratz's roundhouse swing and leaped to bring the short bar down across the laser. Almost dodged the return backhand, rode it and managed to stay on his feet.

Lunge with the straight bar. Von Cratz grabbed it with his cyber hand. Mirk struck with the short, bent bar. Between the bars of the mechanical forearm. Twist and jerk. Held on as he was thrown, the bar ripping out the wires . . .

He rolled, kept rolling as von Crantz thumped toward him, all the guards trailing, spreading out to circle them. He got to his feet.

Out of the corner of his eye an aircar stopping, Frost ducking low and making for the gate site.

Mirk fended off blows, backing to keep out of reach . . . and draw as many cyborgs as possible away from the gate.


"That was disgusting! And it hurt!" Halberd drew her foot back and kicked the flacid body on the floor. Tripped over her pants, still trapping one foot. Swiped sweat, tears and snot from her face with an angry gesture.

"And slimy. It's disgusting!" She found her ripped panties and wiped her crotch. "And I'm bleeding!"

She got her pants back on and limped out the door. Threw the power she'd saved up form learning the channel into that high frequency mental communication. "Go to your barracks! Now! All cyborgs go to your barracks!" She broadcast it as far as she could.

"Nexus. I need an aircar. Can you observe the cyborgs? Are they obeying? How near to them do I need to be for them to get my orders?"

"They all appear to be moving toward the army camp. Halberd Arrowdaut, do you require medical help?"

"Not yet. I'm mostly just bruised from the fighting part of that mess." She swiped her sleeve across her face. "I still need to deal with the cyborgs, and I probably won't be able to order von Cratz around."


Frost darted from trash heap to trash heap. Trying to watch for cyborgs, trying to not watch the deadly fight beyond them. Two cyborgs were hanging back. watching the fight, but still bracketing the lights dancing above the scorched ground.

Physical shield. Pouring off me, all pouring down my arm and extending like a blade. Long, thin.

She stabbed the ground. And the world exploded.

25 September 2016 @ 06:18 am

Chapter Twenty-three

Halberd bubbled her bicycle riding cyborg friends.

Pinned them on the wall beside Robert.

The other wall was for the bad cyborgs. The total there was building up nicely. And Solakov was running about trying to find his lost cyborgs so much that he was leaving the people at the reproduction center alone. To everyone's relief.

"Even Dr. Haruki doesn't came around much. After all, Solakov did say to do nothing." Frost smirked. "So we aren't."

"So with this much lead time, you won't have to dump any babies?" Napalm thumped plates of something on the table. Always a guessing game when it was her turn to "cook."

Frost nodded. "Toward the end we may need to deliver some a bit early, but I think we can do it."

Halberd nodded. She'd been raised my a mother and grandmother with no respect for life at all, let alone any respect for a mere fetus. So I suppose this is a good thing. We won't . . . I won't be like Teri. Arrow just did what she was told . . . and I pretended to . . . because I knew what would happen if I didn't.

I remember the night we fled. Most of the witches went one way, through the nearest gate. So I went the other way. On purpose.

I hope we never get discovered. I hope I never see Teri, Jade, or Arrow ever again.

"May I come to the reproduction center tomorrow? I've never actually seen it and this could be my last chance for awhile. Nexus said we needed to learn, even while we're an occupied city, so we're starting classes again the day after tomorrow."

"Von Cratz has completed his hunting trip and is returning. He should arrive around midnight."

"Is Mirk all right?" Frost looked worried.

"Mirk Negue is well. He remained in character for the entire trip, and assisted the injured."

Frost sniffed. "Men! Going out and deliberately kill that poor animal!"

Halberd eyed her. I hadn't realized how much Frost liked it here. Even though she didn't have a job, I guess maybe she still fit in really well. Napalm has her biker gang, Mirk liked working in the office. And . . . I enjoyed learning about stuff.

We really do belong here. It really is home.

If we can keep it.


Frost got a frantic late morning call from Norma and rushed to the Reproduction center.

She'd slept poorly, and gotten up to talk to Mirk when he returned. Gone early to the hospital to observe the injured cyborgs. The head injury was especially interesting, the inset panel knocked loose. The cyborg with crushing abdominal injuries had obviously been given one dose of joy juice.

The call from Norma interrupted her attempts to get the doctors to dose him again.

And maybe I ought to let him die. But if Mirk dosed him, he must be worth saving.

At the rep center Norma had a hand to her face and was cowering in the corner. Dr. Haruki was unconscious on the floor. Two ordinary cyborgs stood at rigid attention, doing nothing.

Von Cratz and Solokov were face to face and yelling in German.

Frost couldn't catch much . . . well, von Cratz was angry over the lack of mentalist embryos. That she caught. And Sokalov . . . what about two hundred cyborgs? She opened her shield to incoming thoughts and reeled backwards as the language and the emotions hit her.

"You!" Solakov pounced on her. Shook her. "Why have you not started any mentalist embryos?"

"You ordered me to do nothing. You did something to my head!" Frost put both fear and resentment into her voice. "Every time I think of doing something I freeze. I can't even think!"

Von Cratz bellowed with laughter. "There! You idiot. If you use mental command you'd better watch what you say. I told them I should be the commander of the entire expedition, not just the military operations."

"You? You with your blustering stupidity? You killed four men because you were too bored to just do your job!" Solakov's lips peeled back from his teeth. "So go do your job. Go to the troops and see what is happening to them. Check the beacon. The techs said it lit up twice today, they're searching for us. Go. Now!"

Von Cratz straightened. "The gate! Excellent!" He turned and stalked out.

Solakov spun back to her. "And you! You just started speaking perfect High German/// correct term?/// You have some bit of mentalist ability, and you've hidden it from me. But now we're going to have a very nice little chat. Mind-to-mind. No lying, no hiding."

Frost stared at him, wide-eyed. "What? I don't . . . " her hand went to her lips. "I . . . what did you do to me?"

The two cyborgs started forward, reaching for her.

"Ha! Caught it! Way, way high frequency." Halberd stepped out of the back hallway. "Cyborgs? Go to your barracks. Now!"

Frost could feel the mental echo, dim, too high to really get . . . She reached for it. "Barracks! Now!"

Sokalov spun from Halberd to Frost. "Mentalists! Trained mentalists! Foreigner mentalists!"

He pounced, hands going for her neck.

24 September 2016 @ 07:08 am

Chapter Twenty-two

Mirk eyed the incredibly huge elephant.

Incredibly huge and pissed off. And von Cratz is enjoying the trill of danger. And I'm hardly immune. But my hunting generally involved bears and wild boars at the most dangerous. But however thrilling, whatever the rush after, I need to not give myself away.

He eyed the animal. Where would the brain be, in that huge skull? Could this little rifle that von Cratz thinks I can handle penetrate that skull?

They'd found old skeletons, bones scattered and gnawed. They'd studied the skulls, admired the tusks and broken them loose to take with them.

This fellow . . . must be at least half again as large.

I ought to have practiced more magic. Especially that pinpoint push spell. Tiny cross-section, long reach. I wonder if that also increases penetration power?

I wonder if I could find a more obvious way to attract von Cratz's attention.

The troops split up, the usual four guards stayed with von Cratz, the other dozen walked to the left, flanking the elephant.

The big bull swayed, ears flapping. He kicked up dust as he turned to watch the larger group of these puny animals that dared confront him. Raised his weird snake-like nose and trumpeted.

Charged the troops.

Von Cratz raised his gun and fired.

The elephant stumbled a bit, a red bloom on its shoulder. It swung toward the sound, then back as the movement of the scattering cyborgs registered.

At least the cyborgs still have some sense of self-preservation!

But insufficient speed and the elephant charged.

The bull's snake nose grabbed a cyborg, lifted him, beat him on the ground and tossed him.

All without breaking stride. Two others were run over.

Von Crantz's gun fired twice more.

Mirk could see the hits, but they weren't penetrating. The elephant was definitely limping, the first shot must have hit the shoulder blade and been deflected. Red blood poured down it's odd head from the other hits.

Can't say I'm impressed with the big gun. But then the rest are completely ineffective. And maybe it is fatally wounded, but it's not dying fast enough . . . Oh shit!

The elephant charged straight at von Cratz.

Mirk had been standing well behind the big cyborg. Now he sprinted to the right, cut forward to try to attract the beast's attack.

He stopped and fired three times into the animal's side as von Crantz and his guards scrambled away, trying to get behind the air cars.

The bull's tusks hit the nearest aircar and flipped it. Rolled it across the ground. Across one of the guards.

Mirk fired again, and this time attracted it's attention. It turned and charged straight at him.

He gathered power heat and sunshine. The push spell, narrowed down, a quarter of an inch. Closing his eyes he could see the glow of the living elephant, the brightest glow of its brain. He through the spell right at it.

Opened his eyes and leaped to the side as the beast fell right in front of him.

He stepped away as the dust settled. Spotted von Cratz getting up.

No sign of injury, or damage. Drat.

The troops . . . six were still down. Half the ones on their feet looked a bit shaky, limping. A couple of right arms cradled, and one mechanical arm bent where it wasn't designed to bend.

Von Cratz circled the elephant, grinning. "Now there was a fight! A beast worth hunting, eh?" He clouted Mirk's shoulder and staggered him. "And you! I have misjudged you."

Crap. I hope he means that I didn't piss my pants in terror.

"This . . . isn't one of the emergencies I've trained for." Mirk looked the animal over. "In fact, I'm trained to not cause emergencies."


Oops. Let's talk about the elephant.

"How many bullets did it take to bring him down?"

Von Cratz eyed the animal. "A dozen. Or more. I hit it at least five times, but . . . I didn't bring the sort of ammunition one needs for this sort of target. Armor piercing rounds don't fragment enough to do widespread damage, and I suspect that if I dissected this fellow, I'd find his heart and brain were not where I thought they would be."

Mirk nodded. "Indeed. Umm, do I need to demonstrate some first aid training on your troops?"

Von Cratz frowned at his injured. His eyes especially narrowed as he studied the one with the bent mechanical arm.

"If the damage is simply mechanical, we can fix it. Not sure about the electronics. In either case, it'll have to wait until we get back to St. Louis."

"Indeed." Von Cratz frowned at the healthy cyborgs and they formed up and approached. He pointed at the elephant. "Get those tusks. And dig graves."

Mirk opened his mouth to suggest they might want spare parts . . . and then shut it.

He got two of the slightly injured to help him tip the aircar back upright. He fetched his kit from the back and checked the prone men first. Four dead, one with a head injury, one in shock, probably internal damage. He slipped him a sip of the joy juice. Then turned to the lesser injuries. Splinted and immobilized the injured limbs—two arms, two legs, one finger.

Two improvised and they loaded up to head home.

"The damaged aircar is not safe for use."

The Nexus had been fortunately quiet for some time.

Mirk groaned. "We'll swap the load around. Baggage and tusks in the damaged one. Passengers in the undamaged four. The flat car will work best as an ambulance anyway."

"Mirk Negue . . . " The Nexus trailed off. "I will over ride the safety features that prohibit riding in the back of the flat car."

Mirk glanced over at von Cratz.

The big cyborg grinned. "I think it's finally getting used to the new order."

23 September 2016 @ 07:37 am


"Oh good. There you are."

Frost looked around. "Halberd. Haven't seen much of you lately. Still hanging around with Napalm's friends?"

"Sometimes. Frost? How are the cyborgs controlled? Do you have any idea?"

"Umm . . . I think it would be very dangerous if Sokalov discovered you trying to control one of his cyborgs."

"Huh. I'll bet. But . . . have you tried to listen in?"

Frost frowned. "Lower my shield around that thing?"

"Just to incoming, not outgoing. Didn't Teri and Jade teach you anything . . . oh. Of course not. Because you're so powerful you might have threatened their positions. Huh. Good thing I was too young to be a rival."

Frost heaved a sigh. "I really wish the first Western Witch I encountered had been honest. Someone who'd have sent me to Ash."

Halberd's turn to sigh. "Yeah. I almost wish Disco had caught me. I mean, they wouldn't hurt a kid, right?"

"Maybe . . . maybe once we've cleared up this mess we can figure out how to make gates and you and Napalm can go back. I can't. I was there at the assassination, even though I didn't know they were going to kill anyone.' Frost shrugged. "After that they were quite frank about killing people for money."

Halberd looked away. "I, umm, I hope they caught jade and Teri. My Mother, too. But I'm not even going to think about it until we've solved the cyborg problem."

"So I need to figure out how to eaves drop on Solakov."

"I guess we'd better do some more training. Where's Napalm? I'll show you guys some stuff that you can do with shields."


"Still nothing."

Napalm patted Arthur's shoulder. "Stop trying so hard. This is just meditation exercise."

Annie stretched her back. "Boring. I think we should find a vacant house and practice that bubble-a-huge-thing thing."

"No. We have to be careful . . . until it's time to stop being careful."

But everyone was pretty bored by then. So they rode around the tunnels, spied on the Barracks construction from the broken, open end of the tunnel she and Halberd had repaired.

Just as well the cyborgs broke it. It made it easy to extend all the utilities from here out to the barracks.

"They've got enough barracks to house them all now. Why are they building more?" Evelyn scowled at the big machines placing walls and the people locking them in place. "Yuck, what a horrible way to live."

Only the nearest were visible. Napalm had snuck out a couple of times at night and watched the guards around the blasted area. The beacon, that will summon a new gate. I hope Mirk did enough damage on the other side to keep them away for years.

"Yeah." Ben shrugged. "But maybe they give them lobotomies or something. That thing on their heads? I heard it has wires into their brains."

"I think that Mentalist guy can control them with telepathy." Arthur turned away. "Race you to north end."

Napalm got home in time to join Halberd and Frost in witch exercises. Weird shields and stuff. Meditation and trying to grab the slippery bubbles. At least she could make them bob and push them away now. I will figure out how to grab one. Soon. And not have to ask Halberd to make more for our big traps.

But the other two witches were talking about mentally spying on the Sokalov guy. Napalm kept her mouth shut and thought about being unnoticeable. And listened. Hmm, mental spying. Might be useful.


"I think we should start carefully." Halberd looked over at Frost. "What about that friend of Mirk's who got half changed into a cyborg? How's he doing? Nexus?"

"Felix Pierce is still in the hospital. He is suffering from depression and attempted suicide three days ago."

Frost shivered. "I'll go talk to him."

"Me too." Halberd jumped up from the bare floor where they'd been sitting. "Let's go."

"I just can't stand having people in my head all the time. They hear me, there's no privacy."

The poor guy had a big white gauze square taped down over one eye, and of course, the arm was gone.

Halberd eyed the plate on his head. "I thought it was, like, healing?"

"A bit, then it stopped." The guy tried to smile. "So I'm not back to normal, nor can I be a proper cyborg."

"Hmm, are they dosing you regularly with that, MRM medicine?"

"Certainly not!" The doctor snorted in disbelief. "Regular dosing with alcohol is a major risk factor in addiction."

Frost glared at him. "Not giving it to him appears to be a major risk factor in him trying to kill himself. Next time him might succeed."

The doctor scowled. "I'll get some. We've locked it up while we try to determine a safe disposal method."

Mr. Pierce snorted. "Thanks Frost. Not that it'll probably do me much good, but it makes me feel better for a brief while."

Halberd looked away. The man had always been nice when they'd come for dinner and games. "How's Nancy been?"

"She divorced me and I had to move away."

"Oh. I'm sorry. Mr. Pierce? May I try something? I'm slightly telepathic, and I'd like to try to listen in to these voices of yours."

"You want them?"

"No, I want to learn about them."

He nodded and she touched his temple, lowered her mental barriers to incoming thoughts.

There was something . . . way up there, where she'd never worked before.

A rushing stream of incomprehensible babble. A few distinct voices. One talking about patrol schedules. Another was gossiping. ". . . and they haven't found a trace. They're just gone."

A looming presence, holding it all in his mind. Sokalov.

"It's telepathy. Sort of. I was expecting radio."

"That stopped the third day. Pity, really. It nearly drowned out the rest."

Telepathy. Felix is a little bit magic. Probably no power gene, but what they did to him has sort of activated it. Or something.

"Huh. Well, please? Hang on for just a couple of weeks more. We've got some ideas about how to make them leave, and I think that will shut up the voices. And keep taking that MRM medicine."

She slipped out, and left Frost chatting to him.

Soon. We dare not wait too much longer. If there's a beacon . . . We have too many cyborgs already. We need to make sure the beacon's not working. And thats the one thing they really, seriously, guard.

22 September 2016 @ 08:35 pm
Just because Mirk was doing too good of a job being the weinie mayor. I'll have to sprinkle a few close-to-snapping moments and a bit more interactions with the ordinary cyborgs, too.

Need an opinion, my inner devil says Mirk needs a cyborg girlfriend. Good idea or bad? Should i sprinkle a few female cyborgs around? Their culture has grown out of Germany, Russia and Japan circa WWII, so two out of three are very definitely male dominated, and I only exclude Russia because I haven't a clue.

Not that he was going to admit to enjoying roast wildebeest. He swallowed a last chunk of meat. "It's . . . rather tough. I hope you aren't planning on eating that elephant. It's hard to imagine how hard to chew that thing would be."

Grin. "And you'll get the privilege of cooking it."

Mirk tried to look horrified and let it slide into resignation. "Maybe we won't be able to find it. Him. Whatever."

Or maybe I'll get tired of pretending to be the weakling civilized boy and find out if my shields are good enough to handle your lasers and bullets. At which point I will be delighted to show you how we deal with invaders back home.

22 September 2016 @ 06:40 am

Chapter Twenty-one

Halberd eyed Napalm. "So . . . no more cyborgs in the tunnels?"

"Nope. I wonder why that one was there? Was he checking repairs? Or was he a good cyborg, trying to hide, to escape?" Napalm got all bright eyed. "We should ask him."

"No. I talked to Frost. She said some of the cyborgs are telepathic, but most of them communicate with radios. I'll bet that being under ground, the cyborg couldn't radio out and report us."

Napalm rolled her eyes. "Yeah. But why was he there?"

Halberd thought that over. "Do you think, us being children and all, that we could . . .talk to the cyborgs when we see them? Say hi and smile?"

Napalm wrinkled her nose. "Make friends with them? I don't think that will work."

"Let's try anyway. I mean, they must have been regular people before they got turned into cyborgs." Halberd felt in her pocket for the and stuck it to the wall of her bedroom with the first one. "And maybe they'll know what von Cratz thinks about the disappearing cyborgs."


Frost frowned at the cyborg. "But, Dr. Haruki! That mentalist person told me to do nothing until he told me to . . . or something like that?" She tried to sound like a complete idiot, and it apparently worked.

Haruki pinched the bridge of his rather small nose. "I know. He laid a compulsion on you. You'd think a mentalist at his level would know better." He muttered something in some foreign language, and walked away.

Frost glanced toward the incubator room, where no mentalist embryos, or any others for that matter, had been started.

She exchanged glances with Norma. "We'll keep it up as long as possible."

The reproduction tech nodded. "Every day we deliver sixteen babies and stockpile another sixteen artificial wombs. With a bit of luck, we won't have to deliver any of our babies prematurely, let alone kill babies too young to survive on their own."

Frost nodded, and turned away before her expression broke. Sokalov is so strong. I . . . really wish I had some proper witch training. I need to work with Halberd more. Teri trained her better than the rest of us. Her little pet of a granddaughter. I need to learn everything I can. Because sooner or later it's going to come down to a fight.


"Morning!" Halberd peddled past the cyborg . . .

"Vait! Come back here."

Drat. Now I'm going to have to bubble another one . . . She circled around and glided to a stop beside the cyborg.

"Vat is that thing?" The cyborg was studying the bicycle, not her.

"It's a bicycle. They don't have them where you come from?" Halberd took a deep breath and stepped off into the deep end. "Want to try it?"

They—Halberd and about two dozen cyborgs—had shifted down to the store for full sized bikes and were wobbling around the parking lot and up and down the street when Mentalist Solalov showed up.

Halberd faded slowly back and out of sight as Sokalov screamed at the cyborgs in some nasty language. She slipped back into the store and peek around to watch Sokalov form up his cyborgs and march them off, leaving bicycles laying all over.

The store clerk clicked her tongue. "Now isn't that a shame! That's the first time I've seen those poor things having any fun. In fact, I didn't realize they could!"

"Yeah. Me neither. I'll go pick up the bikes and leave them parked outside in case they come back for them later." Halberd bounced out, grinning. Now that was properly subversive! I need to get word around to everyone to be really nice and friendly.

She racked the bikes neatly then rose her own home.

And studied the two bubbles on her wall.

"Why was that cyborg alone down there in the tunnel? Sokalov came looking for the four in the alley, but not the one in the tunnel." She reached and plucked that bubble off the wall. "Let's go have a little talk, Mr. Tunnel Cyborg."

Halberd coasted the awkward small bike to a stop in the northernmost tunnel of the city. As far away from the cyborg camp as possible.

She got another bubble ready, and reached to rip and pop the old bubble.

Cyborg and bike crashed to the curved floor of the tunnel.

The cyborg scrambled away from the bike . . . froze and stared at her.

"What are you doing down here? No one is supposed to be down here!"

He sounded panicky, darting looks around.

"Huh. I'm skipping school. What about you?"

The cyborg slumped. "I'm skipping work . . . but Sokalov will find me as soon as I leave here. Or sleep and can't keep him out of my mind. Go away kid. I'll try to not give you away."

"You're a mentalist, like he is?"

"Oh hell no. I'm not like him. I won't be like him. All suave and smiles in public, what he does behind closed doors . . . Oh, never mind, you're just a kid, too young to know about that stuff." He sagged and sat down, thumping back against the curved wall of the tunnel. "I'm just a . . . spare kid my mother volunteered for the army, to get the tax credit."

Halberd frowned. "They pay taxes in kids?"

"Yeah, sort of. You give your son to the Drei Mächte Bündniss, you don't pay taxes that year. As soon as I hit eighteen, they handed me over to this." He glanced at his mechanical arm and away. "My mom didn't care, and my stepfather was delighted to get rid of me."

"Wow. Not that my Mom was anything to brag about. But you're enough of a mentalist that Sokalov can mentally locate you?" Halberd sat down beside him.

"Locate me, talk to me, give me orders, and if I don't follow them, take me over and do it himself, using my body. It's horrible."

"Being possessed or what he does with you while you're possessed?"

"Yeah. Both. At the same time." He leaned his head back. "Down here he can't locate me by radio. But I'll have to sleep sometime."

"Huh. I had a problem with four other cyborgs. They weren't very nice. Was that Sokalov's doing?"

He shook his head. "No. Most of us are pretty nasty, right from the start. The voices in our heads, the radio is almost worse than the mental chatter. At least I can block that. Unless Sokalov notices. He's . . . threatened to get me retested for worse things than this."

"What could be worse than this?" Halberd eyed the monocular in his right eye. Some brassy metal, sticking out an inch, with a glass lens at the front.

"The Gate Makers. They're wired into the machines that make the gates, they're a part of the machinery. They don't ever let them go, they die there inside the machine. Five, six years of living hell." He hunched his shoulders, the right better than the left. "I had guard duty at a gate once. You can hear them scream and cry. They asked me, begged me, to kill them."

"Oh." Halberd pulled her knees up and hugged them. "So you're trying to run away."

"Yes . . . this isn't the same tunnel is it?"


"There was just a split second of blackness . . . how long was I unconscious? How did you do that?

"Five days. I can keep you safe until we deal with the rest of you cyborgs."

"What's your name?"

"I'm just a number, now. I . . . once I was Robert Grey."

"All right, Robert. Just . . . sleep." Halberd swooped her bubble back over him and sealed it.

So. Sokalov can control cyborgs mentally, all the way up to Possession. And a lot of the cyborgs are crazy, and mean, all by themselves.

So we have to get rid of Sokalov and von Cratz. And then sort through the cyborgs and . . . what? There are twenty thousand of them. How do we deal with that many?

21 September 2016 @ 06:41 am


The gun roared and Mirk staggered back.

Von Cratz roared with laughter. "Zhat vicious tree haz escaped from you!"

Mirk rotated his shoulder carefully. Nothing broken. I think. "Recoil. Right. Physics, equal and opposite forces."

Snort. "You think to much. Now try it again. Lean into the gun."

He leaned into the gun. It broke his shoulder. Or felt like it anyway. The tree was still unscathed.

"Assimilation Leader von Cratz? I believe I am unsuited to the role of big game hunter. Or anything else involving these noisy, smelly, dangerous contraptions."

Von Cratz took the gun, put the stock to his shoulder and looked down the barrel. It roared, von Cratz barely moved. Splinters erupted from the tree trunk and it swayed . . . the angle of lean increased, and it fell.

Mirked groaned a lay flat on the ground. "I'm pathetic."

"Yes. Now get up. Let's find this elephant."

"If we can. They don't have implanted tracking chips."

Von Cratz snorted.

Mirk got in to the lead aircar. "Nexus, can you take up to the elephants last known location?"

The Nexus had, after much explanation, finally understood that this was not to be a quick efficient trip, but that the hunter had to endure some hardship and danger, else the satisfaction quotient would be too low.

And, of course, if von Cratz actually gets squashed by an elephant I'll shed no tears. Probably because I'm too busy running from the elephant.

Half an hour of zipping along above the grasses and shrubbery, angling around the occasional tree, then they slowed.

"Two weeks ago Elephant 4729013 was here, moving southeast." The Nexus's voice was getting mechanical. It really didn't like this trip.

Von Cratz grinned. "Stop at the top of that hill. Map. Show me a hundred kilometer radius of this point."

Mirk followed von Kratz out onto the rocky hill top and took a long slow look around.

A herd of something in the mid distance. A couple of miles away.

"Wildebeest. Ugliest antelope in the world." Von Cratz turned back to the map. "The river there. I suspect the elephants visit it regularly. Let's scout it out. Oh, and stop near the wildebeests on the way."

Von Cratz stepped back into the lead aircar. Mirk joined him. Eyed the big cyborg as he racked his big gun and examined a more slender rifle. "This should do." The air car sighed to a stop a hundred yards from the wildebeests.

Mirk shook his head. "You're right. They are ugly. Very unbalanced looking . . . "

Von Cranz stood up in his seat and fired his rifle over Mirk's head.

Mirk startled, started to jump up and then wisely stayed low. Peered at the cloud of dust with the dark shapes of fast disappearing wildebeests.

"There we go. Dinner. Since you can't hunt, butcher it and cook dinner for us all." The cyborg grabbed Mirk with his mechanical arm and heaved him out of the aircar.

"This is not allowed!"

"Shut up Nexus. Do as you are told." Mirk kept his voice to a mutter and the computer shut up. Raised his voice and reached for a whine. "Cook? A dead animal?"

Von Cratz showed his teeth. "Do a good job, and I won't use you for bait."

"Umm . . . yes, sir." Mirk stumped over toward the heap of dead antelope. Behind him he heard von Cratz's order and the faint hiss of the aircar receded. He pulled out his phone. "Nexus. Please, please, act like a machine and don't interfere with Von Cratz. Umm, is he going to find elephants?"

"A small family herd. Not his intended prey. Mirk Negue . . . are you going to eat that poor creature?"

"Yep. Can you send to me everything von Cratz is saying, and not send any thing from me to him?"

"Yes. I may need some help in forming appropriate responces."

Mirk eyed the fallen wildebeest. Nice shot. Right through the head. "Must weigh five hundred pounds. Bloody hell." He patted his pockets and came up with a small folding knife. "This . . . is going to be difficult to make look good."

He'd hunted and dressed game, but . . . the nearest tree was definitely too far to drag the beast, not to mention he lacked a rope to use to hang it. The only good thing was that it had fallen on rocky ground.

He heaved it around, with a bit of magical assistance, until it was head down on the slight slope, then started cutting.

He haggled at the skin a bit with his knife, to make it look good then pulled power and sliced down to the major veins. He shoved a rock closer, balanced it on edge, heaved up on the hind quarters and kicked the rock underneath. He fetched rocks as big as he could carry and with a stick for leverage managed to get the carcass up on a pile that tilted it enough to drain a fair amount of blood.

Then he collected fallen branches from the nearest tree and dragged them back. Started a fire. Hope von Cratz doesn't ask me how I did that!

More rock moving, building two long low walls with the fire in between. Back to the tree to saw off live branches, long and straight.

He had a roast, with two sticks through it, cooking over the coals, and was haggling off the hide of the upper shoulder when von Cratz returned.

He knew he was a pretty gory mess.

Von Cratz grinned. "Not too squeamish, then?"

"No. May I borrow a better knife?"

The cyborg laughed and a pair of the ordinary cyborgs—grinning—pulled a nice collection of knives out of the gear von Cratz had packed. On inspection, there were even spices. Not that Mirk had much experience with cooking. Taking turns in our prison. Salt and pepper is about all I ever bothered with. He used them on the first roast, turned it and got back to butchering.

The Nexus nagged him to rehydrate some vegetables for a balanced "barbarian feast."

Mirk complied, with the absolute minimum that would shut the bloody machine up.

Dinner was chewy but flavorful. A nice change from the fabricated or vat grown gooey stuff he'd nearly gotten used to. The veggies were an unfortunate reminder.

Not that he was going to admit to enjoying roast wildebeest. He swallowed a last chunk of meat. "It's . . . rather tough. I hope you aren't planning on eating that elephant. It's hard to imagine how hard to chew that thing would be."

Grin. "And you'll get the privilege of cooking it."

"Oh." Mirk tried to look horrified and let it slide into resignation. "Maybe we won't be able to find it. Him. Whatever."

20 September 2016 @ 07:00 am

The mentalist started grinning. "I feelz you. You are lying by being general, by not zinking uf zee zings you haf done." He stepped closer. "Vee will have zee little talk zoon about zis. But I haf a malvunction in zome zoldiers and must examine zat virst."

Frost paused. Ask? Not ask? "What has happened? What sort of malfunction?"

"A valure of communicazion. At verz I vould haf rezeived a termination signal. But there is nozing at all."

"Oh. His radio broke? Or . . . what is the range. May be he . . . they? Got too far away."

Sokalov leaned close. She could feel the pressure of his mind. "You ask too many queztions. Until I return . . . You. Vill. Do. Nothink."

Frost watched the mentalist walk away, Dr. Haruki scrambling after.

Frost started to follow, slowed, stopped. I just got ordered to do nothing? All right. Nothing it is.

And I hope there are lots and lots of broken soldiers. Because I don't want this little talk with that man.


Halberd looked both ways, but no one here behind the store had seen anything.

"Halberd Arrowdaut. Please explain what you have just done."

Except the Nexus, of course.

"I have scooped the cyborgs up into a bubble. It's, umm, multidimensional, and has a ten thousand to one time dilation. The cyborgs are just fine, and can stay there until we figure out where to put them."

"They are not dead?"

"Eww! No! Just . . . going really really slow. I'm going to bubble as many as possible. But I wasn't going to start quite so soon." Halberd started walking. "I'm going to need another bike. I hope I can afford one."

"Halberd Arrowdaut . . . I believe that 'bubbling' cyborgs is a brilliant civic contribution. You are now getting credit for ridding the city of a public nuisance."

"Oooo! If the rest of the cys don't get nasty about this, we could become rich bounty hunters." Halberd grinned. "But I wouldn't have bubbled these four if they hadn't started asking me what I was doing, and . . . poking at me. It had too much downward potential to go along with."

"Yes . . . There have been several things that . . . have shown me how 'downward' their behavior can be. Halberd Arrowdaut, turn right and go into the third house. Dimitri Solakov is enroute and should not see you."

"Oh? Did one of the cyborgs radio him?"

"I do not understand. But Mirk Negue is of the opinion that what they call True People are slightly telepathic and aware of each other, able to mentally converse, at will."

"Oh. Hmm, that could be awkward. I wonder how many true people cyborgs there are, compared to the normal ones." Halberd tuned up the walk and stepped into the house. Empty of furniture. She stepped to the window and watched an aircar stop at the mouth of the alley. The mentalist got out and looked down the alley. Then both ways of the street.

A quartet of cyborgs jogged up in a neat square and halted beside the mentalist.

Halberd softened her shields to incoming thoughts . . . they were too far away.

"I think we need to have a talk tonight. I'll bet Frost can do bubbles too. Napalm's a bit young."

"Mirk Negue is in a precarious position. His complete ignorance of your connection to the problem may save him."

"Oh. What about Frost?"

"She has recently come to the attention of Dimiti Solakov."

"Oh. Well, maybe I'd just better keep my mouth shut." Halberd watched the mentalist walk down the alley . . . and wondered what sort of 'downward' behavior he would indulge in, if he kept losing cyborgs.

Chapter Twenty

Mirk ignored the smug satisfaction on von Cratz's face, the relaxed, confident aggression of his stance.

Better than edgy and irritated. I think.

"The new mess hall at your base is operational this morning, and ten barracks are completed, furnished and are being moved into. With the stepped up production we should have all the soldiers housed in less than two weeks." Mirk looked at his notes. "The first two Mentalist embryos have been successfully transferred to artificial wombs and appear to be developing normally."

Von Cratz sighed and leaned back. "This is boring. I thought I would be fight a war."

Mirk bit his lip. "I . . . will look into something that might . . . be both entertaining and useful. If you will excuse me a moment?"

An irritated wave. "Go."

Mirk stepped out, and headed to his own office, three doors down.

"Mirk Negue, is boredom dangerous?"

"Yes, especially in someone who is heavily armed. Nexus, you are not going to like this suggestion, which is why I did not just blurt it out. Let's discuss it behind closed doors and quietly."

"That is not reassuring."

"A big game hunt."

"Mirk Negue, I suspect that we are not speaking of a camera safari."

"No. We're not. And much though I hate the idea of senseless killing of animals, I do prefer it to senseless killing of humans." Mirk leaned back in his chair. "Do you know the approximate location of any elephants that are approaching the ends of their life spans?"

"Oh. That is a very horrible, but logical idea."

"Will you allow von Cratz to kill some? What other extremely dangerous animals could we divert him with?"

"Bees and mosquitoes are statistically the most dangerous. I could . . . No?"

"No. The larger and most obviously threatening animals will be needed. Land animals. I don't think whales would be a good idea." Mirk looked at the hologlobe he kept on above his desk. "Where is the largest elephant? Do you have a picture?"

The globe was replaced by an elephant herd. One towered above the rest, huge long tusks, ears flapping . . .

"A magnificent animal. How old is he?"

"He is approaching fifty, and beginning to show signs of age . . . I see your logic Mirk Negue. And . . . I approve this big game hunt."

If you will program a long range aircar . . . We'll no doubt need several . . . with the locations of . . . let's say a dozen individuals from several species . . . of large threatening older individuals that have already contributed to their species gene pool. I'll go lie to von Cratz and try to keep him entertained for a week or so. Killing as few animals as possible."

Von Cratz was glowering at his own hologlobe, looking dissatisfied. "Everything is too far away, and I know all too well the other cities would be just as boring as this one."

"I wondered, umm . . . Do you like to hunt?" Mirk tried to look appalled. "It's one of those dirty jobs we hate to do . . . we don't really regulate the wild animals, but sometimes . . . well, take this elephant. Nexus? The one you showed me? The largest on the world. Unfortunately it's started behaving a bit erratically, probably just the aches and pains of old age setting in, but it's gotten quite aggressive, and for the good of the local herds, it needs to be removed."


"Well . . . killed. It's a dangerous job, getting close enough to humanely euthanize . . . "

Von Cratz roared with laughter. "You stupid little coward! Too afraid to stand up to such a dangerous animal. Come with me. I vill show you how a man deals vith a problem!"

That worked a little better than I'd expected . . . I hope I don't come to regret it.

19 September 2016 @ 05:44 am
  /// team digs in. Lobo gets drunk, is dragged home by irate and lecturing "Sophi," putting Hugo in charge while he's gone. Rael and Lobo leave.

Fuyl, the Exterior Director's official Princess watchdog was a cheerful older woman. She could have stood to lose weight, and today had her feet in fuzzy pink slippers, elevated on a stool. Even the Director's highly starched and proper secretary didn't dare try to shift her out from underfoot. But she did glare when the old princess wiggled her fingers in greeting and waved Rael on into the Director's inner sanctum.

"All right, Director. That worked like a charm." Rael grinned at his openly relieved expression. "What, having conniption fits while I was gone?
Director Ajki of Exterior Relations grinned back. "Not me. Urfa. Probably had the President and Paer riding him. I do hope you don't mind being the unofficial adopted daughter."

Rael snickered. "I don't think it's gone that far. Even if I do have to counsel Paer through heart break after heart break. Favorite Aunt, maybe, but not big sister."

"So, you have any trouble with Xen Wolfson?"

"Gene Lobo, on Purple. He had an ID, friends, a part time job, a shell company, a worthless ghost town out in the desert. And tons of enthusiasm. I think he misses being undercover. He enjoyed himself teaching the guys and pulling them into his fake life." She grimaced. "Did you know it's a felony for a normal or a power to pass themselves off as a Purp? He had to rescue four of the team, including Team Leader Ugho, from the clutches of the criminal court system." Rael leaned back and pondered. "I have a nasty suspicion that if we had planned anything beyond getting into position to watch Earth and Purp relations, he would have found out. And if he didn't like the idea, we'd have been sunk."

"Turned over to the authorities?"

Rael scowled. "I . . . don't think so. Hauled home like strayed puppies by the scruffs of our necks and a lecture applied? Horribly likely. We got a fair amount of that over the hair dye. And expecting to join the elite. I tactfully didn't point out how horribly ignorant he'd been when he came here."

"It's all that princess training. Oozing tact, until you kill someone. Do you think you found out anything useful about Xen?"

"He fit in as naturally and easily as he fit in here. Maybe better, because he'd managed to avoid all notoriety. And his help—involving his property—means that if we betray him, we'll get the chop as well. We have to cover for him, to keep our own cover."

Ajki nodded. "We knew he was good. So that really shouldn't surprise us. Why do you think he helped us?"

Rael grinned. "Ooo! I'm going to tell Fuyl you have no respect for the ability of a Princess to wind a man around her little finger." She sobered. "Actually, I think it's that 'God of Spies' thing. He really connects with spies. I'm not sure but that a memo from you to him about spies in danger wouldn't have had the same effect."

"That is such a weird concept . . . But my agents say it's real, Comet Fall's version of the hive mind."

Rael nodded. "And he's so damned good at infiltration. And Disco apparently has a huge network of spy posts. Most of them unmanned, just Endi popping in, now and then. If there's anyplace you need to know about . . . well, I can try to get information out of him, but he'll know what world you have targeted."

"Do you really think he'd help us?"

She shrugged. "He gave us a lecture. All about real life on Purple, not the pretty part they let show on Embassy. Plus Disco's take on spying, which I suspect is simply his own take on espionage. That the more info we have on each other, the less likely we'll go all paranoid and start something. Or the earlier on something suspicious can be addressed diplomatically."

"He's probably right. Until he's completely wrong, and in the middle of a war. Huge network, eh? Wonder if it is just him popping in. He keeps recruiting people from various worlds, and they all report massive boredom and lots of training. But he's also got a bunch of kids there. Horseboys and waitresses, except they're there for all the magic, sword, barehanded and firearms training."

Rael snickered. "Horseboy has become a . . . higher status job than anyone could have imagined.  It's been what? Six years? And the horseboys here are still teaching each other all the little spells Endi . . . Xen taught them."

The corner of his mouth turned up. "Urfa still refer to him as a miracle?"

"Regularly. I wonder if he'll show up every time I get into trouble?"

/// Team disperses a bit. New jobs for the "Purps" Part time while in college for two of them. Jack gets position as a gardener/chauffeur for the "Lieutenant Governor" who is an Earther "assisting" the Governor, who is a Purp.

/// Six months and Lobo returns, signs off on the four's indentured papers.
/// Kook opens his own plumbing installation and repair shop.

/// Girlfriends happen. Even Purps for the Purps. And a Power GF for Kook.

///Do love story, a powers girl, daughter of the junkyard owner, being pressured to marry, runs away to run the store end of Kook's business. He has trouble telling if she loves him despite the brand, or is just desperate and calculating the value of his possessions.

/// Get job fixing plumbing in a couple of the Trading Houses—Large corporations, owned by the richest Purps, doing business with Earth. Get jobs for the others, driving trucks, making deliveries.

/// Rael back, with Lobo for a visit

/// Big order from Earth. Kook, Hugo, Jack, Mike, Ian drafted to drive trucks to Earth.

/// They get an eyeful of Nowhereistan, and then return to Purple.

/// Can they get work permits, perhaps?

18 September 2016 @ 12:05 am
  Xen just grinned. "But he just gave us jobs. Do you lot know which end of a hammer to hold?"
They all had a reasonable spread of abilities. Her "brother," who was still getting called Kook instead of the proper Klark, admitted to having worked his way through college as a plumbers assistant.
"That means I got all the dirty jobs in the tight twisty uncomfortable places."
Xen looked over at her, his eyes laughing. "And guess what women don't do in this society?"
"Not around men, and not at all once they marry. You can, however, shop and cook." He eyed the various Oners hanging around. "I'd advise against local girlfriends, but casual dating can give you a bit of cover. Now, since none of you are purps any more, I want to make this very clear. Normal men. Do. Not. Date. Purple women. The relatives will castrate you, and not worry about you bleeding to death or whatever. And damn unlikely a judge would find them guilty of anything. Just don't do it."
That got a bit of muttering going, most of it about not touching a corpse lady with a ten meter, umm, pole.
Hugo ordered them off to sleep in the loft, set a watch, with Loois and Carl splitting the night and staying home tomorrow.
Rael was all too aware that a number of eyes watched as she and "Lobo" entered separate bedrooms. Damn it.
She fixed breakfast in the pre-dawn and sent everyone except Carl and Loois off to work. Scowled at the kitchen. I'm used to an autokitchen that will make anything I want, from basic ingredients to a five course meal, ready to eat. This completely from scratch cooking is . . . challenging. Good grief, eggs still in the shell!
Three of the Team drove home at noon.
"Monteleon said we were useless." T-bone Canis, formerly known as Ento Withione, shrugged. "As far as construction is concerned, he's right."
Rael looked at them. T-bone and Andy were dark, Sam fair. "Think about really being purps. Yeah, genetic engineering makes me squirm too. But this is a tried and tested gene complex that a lot of the Prophets' friends had. Yeah, including Endi Dewulf, through his father, who is a Comet Fall Old God. Apparently there's a version that's turned off, there. Well, think about it." She waved toward the table. "I've been looking through the jobs postings. There are some entry level accounting positions, that specifically want Purps. Sales positions. Executive secretaries. Women don't do secretarial work here, apparently we're too giddy, and easily taken advantage of."
They gravitated to the table, and joined Loois and Carl, who were head down in the paper, and to her relief, acting much more like arrogant and angry Oners, than yesterday's quiet and traumatized zombies.
So, some of them working rough jobs and some working in offices. Some Purps, some Normals, and some branded bad boys. Not a bad setup. Rael stepped to the small side door and looked out at the weeds and the scrapheap of a house next door. I'd get claustrophobia, or go stir crazy inside of a month. Maybe both. I'll write up a report, emphasizing the conditions and warning both male and female agents, so they know, psychologically, what to expect, here.
Her lips quirked. And I'm going to suggest that I regularly interview Xen about all those other worlds' societies. She stepped back inside to pick up what Xen had called a shopping basket, a wicker thing with about a twenty liter capacity,  and the cash he'd left, and headed out to find this market he'd spoken of.

The work party hit the barn an hour after sundown, stiff, sore, complaining about the paucity of showers, and eating everything in sight. Rael mentally doubled tomorrow's shopping list. These guys are going to have to spread out, and maybe some local girlfriends to do the shopping and cooking wouldn't be a bad idea.
T-bone propped his elbows on the table and eyed the Purp. "So, Lobo. Sophi says you can do genetic engineering, give us real purple genes while we're here, and then remove them when we go home."
Hugo frowned.
Lobo shrugged. "I can. I don't know if it's a good idea, but that's not my call. It's two days till Sunday, no work allowed all day. If you'd like, we could run up to Ellaiha, Perhaps leave some of the vehicles there." He eyes flicked toward the trucks, full of anonymous boxes and crates under tarps. Ugho had made no move to unload, here in someone else's domain. "You could all get acquainted with the area you are supposed to be from. I set it all up, figuring I'd need to check regularly and make sure the Earth wasn't taking over, violently or otherwise. Turns out this is one of the few worlds they actually get along with, so I'll be a rare visitor, and you can use the town as you wish. I expect you'll get sick and tired of the barn, quickly."
Loois' hand went to his burned cheek.
Lobo nodded. "And I can sign the release papers in about six months, show the court a working ledger, how you're gainfully employed and haven't been making any trouble. And how you've earned back your bond and more. You'll get all new papers, but the brand will have to stay until you go home. Speaking of which, I'll get a ledger. You can keep the records up, and pay taxes."
Hugo nodded. "And carry on like a real company."
Lobo's teeth flashed. "Drop that mindset, it will give you away. Be a real company. Sweat to make payroll, pay all the taxes, the guild fees. Live it, believe it. Be authentic and they'll never question what your hidden motives are."
"But you're not hardly ever here. Why do they believe you?"
Another quick flash of teeth. "Because I'm a Purp. Poor Purps are supposed to put up a front of prosperity, not let the Color down. They all know I bought that town dirt cheap, because no one in their right mind wants it. But it gave me a lot of 'face' so to speak. They laugh behind my back, and think they know exactly what I am. Lazy and pretentious. Oh, and that I'm an alkie. Alcohol addict, which explains the long absences."
Hugo nodded. "And now you've got us. And they know we're not from your town."
"Right. They think I'm putting up some non-purple throwbacks who got kicked out of their family compounds. Probably for a cut of your pay. Grabbed a pretty girl, for bed and breeding, but I can dump her if the kids don't get my purpleness."
"One. Well, no question that you've saved the four of us, and kept the rest from just running back home on the first scheduled gate." Hugo leaned back and eyed Lobo. "So . . . where's your gate. One of these Comet Fall permanent ones, I suspect."
Lobo nodded. "I'll have them close it, or move it, when I leave. It just goes to the Maze, wouldn't do you guys much good. But we, Disco, don't actually want to hand you the keys to our spying web. Sorry. What I can do is a corridor from here to wherever you put your gate anchor. In Ellaiha would be my recommendation."

Kook didn't say anything about his suspicions about Lobo's identity. Partly because he was junior to everyone else here, but mostly . . . because the man fascinated him. He had his shields up all the time. In public he'd felt like a low powered Oner. Servaone. Yet somehow his eyes weren't shuttered. They were deep and powerful. Eleven years ago he'd infiltrated Oner society and shaken it to the roots. Saved the President's life, stopped the invasion of his own world, and changed the Oner's view of the multiverse forever. Kook was more than willing to learn from the best. Even if it meant being a branded almost-slave installing primitive plumbing in substandard housing.
Just today had been an eye-opener. Lobo had worked his ass off all day, and talked his green crew through all the jobs they'd been tasked with. He'd sweated, joked, cursed and laughed. Fit in. And the Oners had been pulled into the crew in his wake. I felt like a member of the group. Even the Purps started treating me decently once they saw I could do the piping. Hugo got treated the worst, branded and nothing special. But he worked, and they all accepted him, by the end of the day. Is this how the Multitude feels, lives? It's going to knock some of my prejudices loose, that's for sure.
He looked over at the two bottles on the kitchen table. Wrapped in paper, and labeled simply "On" and "Off." Lobo had set them down and wandered off.
T-bone, Andy and Sam had had a long talk with Hugo and Jack. Then all three of them had taken a small glassful of "On." Changing their genetics as if it weren't important. Not a big change, mind you, but . . .
The construction crew worked their asses off for the next two days.
And then they piled into the trucks and drove overnight to this Ellaiha place.
In the early light, it was dry and dusty. Something about the untracked blown sand in the streets and the build up in the drainage ditches along both sides of the main—and only—street spoke eloquently of its long abandonment.
"The outsides of the buildings have been repaired, and I've got the  plumbing working in the saloon and the church. The church is to show respect. Don't let anyone hear you not respecting it. Act like it's a chapel of the One, with a Priest living there. You three who are going Purp, I'd recommend you pick homes. I'll put in a corridor to one of the private houses, so you can come and go, at need, but you'll need to occasionally drive back and forth, so people don't notice that you never do. Got it?" Lobo slanted a look at the group. "Actually, it would be in character, and quite typical, for me to order one of the indentured boys to stay here and start watering, landscaping a bit and so forth. Paint my saloon." He shrugged, glanced at Hugo. "Whatever works for you lot." He walked away from the trucks, fishing out a big ring of old fashioned metal keys.
Rael scowled after him. "If he wasn't an expert, I wouldn't even do it short term."
Hugo nodded. "Unfortunately, as you say, he's good. I think we'll follow his suggestions, for now."
Kook stretched. Sleeping in the trucks had been even less comfortable than sleeping on straw. He eyed the little town. Saloon at one end. Two vacant lots then five houses, crowded together. Then, with space around it, a tiny building. Steep roof, with a cross. He nodded to himself. Their intel had been that the Natives had clung to one of the old Christian sects, but had modified it in their early years.
Beyond the chapel, three houses. Across the street from the chapel, two more little houses. That was all that was left of the town. A suggestion of square corners and straight lines in the drifting sand hinted at old foundations.
He followed the rest of them into the saloon. Inside, the desolation vanished. There wasn't even dust on the polished wooden bar, the tables. The floor boards were a bit scuffed and dull, the mirror behind the bar was cracked and the silvering crazed all around the edges. There weren't many bottles on the few shelves. Stairs led to a balcony, a narrow space with rooms behind it, doorways gaping open. The ceiling was wood, unfinished cedar, it looked like. Lobo strolled out of sight under the balcony, and pans clanked.
Rael . . . Sophi . . . looked around and shook her head. "I think someone has watched too many Western flicks. Leader, I'll leave you to organize your people. One only knows whether that man can cook." She strode off.
Hugo looked around. "Well. I suppose we ought to have known Disco was good at infiltration. Loois, I want you to stay here. Play gardener. You three had better stay until you get purplish. That'll give you a minor compass, if you need to raise power. Carl? How are you at rough carpentry? Or book keeping?"
Carl was looking a lot better for having been out of jail for almost four days. "Actually I do fine cabinetry as a hobby. Mostly boxes and stuff. Custom picture frames, if my brother needs 'em. He's an artist."
"Right. Tomorrow you can start working, impress that Monteleon character and you'll be in good shape." He ran an eye over the rest of them. "So, who wants to be the book keeper for a 'general contractor' and what other job opportunities can we find?"
"Sales, accounting, office work, several professions. Are we going to be here long enough to attend college?"
They knocked the ideas around while Lobo and Rael started bring out plates of food.
The sixteen of them half filled the room as they tucked into a big breakfast.
Kook paid attention to where Lobo and Rael were. Deliberately not joining us, making it clear we're on our own. Except that eventually they did join them. Rael came out of the kitchen with a pot of coffee in each hand. Lobo carried two plates and two empty cups to a table near Ugho.
And started talking while Rael topped off coffee cups.
Local history, local customs, legalities. Relationship with Earth, with other worlds. It was a one day cram session. All about Purple, all about fitting in.
And after they had eaten, Lobo walked over to the smallest house, and put in a corridor to the barn in the city, with an illusion over it, and lined out another spot and said he'd see about a permanent gate. "No promises. I'm personally of the opinion that the more we infiltrate each other's worlds and can keep track of what they're doing, the better off we all are, and the less likely we'll go all paranoid and pull a pre-emptive retaliatory attack."
Rael snickered.
"Oh yeah, laugh all you want. But don't think both the Earth and your own government don't trot out terms like that when they're feeling paranoid."
"So you think, the more information we have, the less paranoid we'll feel—and them too?" Hugo narrowed his eyes. "Have you helped the Earth spy on One?"
Lobo grinned. "Nope. I helped the Fallen set up on Earth, but didn't do anything the other direction. Pity, there'd be circular closure that way, wouldn't there?"