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05 July 2015 @ 07:20 am

Ebsa reached under the cold buffet, ripped out the 10mm, both magazines. Slapped one in while running to the side. Gunfire, now. He pulled up a basic physical shield. He could sense the sparkle of shields, physical and energy, see their limits. See the soldiers—Helaos!—shooting toward the pavilion. Bullets ricocheting, the flick of light as lasers hit an energy shield. Ebsa added an energy shield to his own collection. He ran to the side, clear of the massed shields from everyone in the pavilion, turned, opened a hole in his shield and started shooting. One, two, three. He was knocking them down, but two were getting back up. They don't have shields, but they do have some body armor.

Where the hell are our soldiers? . . . eating breakfast, no weapons to hand . . .

He raised his aim for face shots and potted two more Helaos before the bulk of the return fire came his way.

He pulled the barrel of the gun back inside his shield and trotted forward, staggering a bit, as the kinetic energy of the bullets punched at him. Stopped to shoot two more.

Soldiers with shields up were running up behind him, scooping up Helios weapons and returning fire. He could hear the Colonel shouting about getting shields up and rushing the invaders. Some gunfire from the pavilion, sounded like pistols . . . A boom that sounded rather like Ra'd's favorite gun . . . Smoke climbing from down the road.

Then Ra'd clear mental voice. :: I need a spotter on the roof. They're crossing with tanks now. ::

Ebsa handed the 10mm to the nearest soldier, the pistol to the next—the colonel!—and bolted for his storage box. Up on it, up to the roof of the kitchen to the high roof of the pavilion. He crouched and ran up to the top ridge.

The Helaos had tanks, and more coming through the third gate. Ebsa bracketed his eyes and called up a spell to magnify his vision.

"They're using the third gate. Tank coming through, now, can you hit the driving slot? Below the turret, to our right of center . . . "

The big gun roared. A bright splash right there. The tank lurched, turned, jammed, shot forward, a twisted wreck, barely clear of the gate.

"Track right. Two tanks on the road."

The first tank took two shots to stop. The second tank . . . the turret rotated, the barrel lifted . . .

"Don't shoot! I'm shielding!" As hard as he'd ever tried, angled up, anchored to the roof, to the beams . . . and he was flying, sliding . . .he stopped himself before he slid off the roof. Three fast shots from Ra'd. Ebsa staggered back beside him.

"Truck to the right . . . it's gone through the target world gate." He scanned. "One more tank. to the left, it's behind the big tent, moving to our left . . . "

Scrambling behind to the left. Ebsa turned and sliced the two Helaos who'd made it onto the roof. Blood flew, a head bounced and rolled off the edge.

One last boom from Ra'd's favorite 60mm. More shots, scattered around the camp. Silence.

Ebsa took a long slow study of the camp. Waved to catch the Colonel's attention. Pointed toward suspicious movement.

The Colonel sent soldiers—armed now—at the run. Two shots.

More silence.

"Well. I guess breakfast is over." Ebsa swallowed and pulled out an easy healing spell and aimed it at his ears. Not too bad. I think I've got the hang of that muffling spell. I didn't even think about it. Even Ra'd's cannon didn't mess my hearing up too badly.

They stayed on the roof while the soldiers searched, then climbed down when the Colonel sent a man up to relieve them.

The pavilion had become the triage center. Paer was moving between the seated injured, a touch here and there. Ebsa sighed in relief. She'd be busy for awhile. Trained in Comet Fall style medical magic, she could repair bones, muscles, skin . . .

"Some cook!" The colonel strode over and clouted Ebsa on the shoulder. Eyed Ra'd. "You know, it's nearly a kilometer to that gate. I'd have though that shot was fluke, if I hadn't seen you take out three more tanks with, what? Five shots?"

"Six. I didn't have any armor piercing rounds. So I had to try for vulnerable spots."

The colonel paused. "No armor piercing . . . You know, if either of you tire of the directorate, let me know. But right now, if you'll excuse me . . . "

Ebsa looked around at the mess. The Helaos had gotten several shots off before the shields were up. In fact they'd probably started with lasers, to avoid noise, and even Paer's first shield had most likely been physical.

And they probably had been sneaking through the army camp . . . killing soldiers as they encountered them. Ebsa winced. And looked around for Wxxo. He was walking back in as two cars roared off toward the gates. Reporting to HQ and Disco, no doubt.

Ebsa hesitated, then turned back to the kitchen. People still need to eat. I'll have hot soup and cold sandwiches on hand all day.

He scrubbed up in the sink and got to work. He got a lot of respectful nods, as people came and went. Didn't see the Lying Moron or the rest of the analysts. The colonel returned the 10mm and his pistols, cleaned and loaded.

Ra'd, still carrying his 60mm, prowled.

Ebsa waved him down. "Stupid of me to worry, but will you check on the baby analysts?"

Ra'd shrugged. "The Intel crawler is empty. Hob's in the hospital waiting in line for a doc. Paer says he'll be fine, but they need to remove the bullet before she heals over it. Do you think there's a problem?"

Ebsa hesitated. "It's just . . . they haven't come by here. If they aren't there, where are they?"

Ra'd looked around and spotted Wxxo, talking to the Colonel, and walked over.

They all walked back.

Wxxo was frowning. "I didn't send them off with the messages—in fact I haven't gotten a reply . . . I'll do a head count."

The Colonel nodded. "I've been looking for bodies, for some missing in action."

"A truck got away. They took the gate through to the target world. It should be easy enough to find them . . . " Ebsa broke off as Wxxo looked to the side where a car was hustling down the road.

The Colonel looked behind them. "Two trucks got away. The other went through gate two. They stole weapons and ammunition. I suppose they could have taken people . . . but why? Lets see what HQ has to say."

The driver started talking before his feet hit the ground. "The Helaos have attacked Home. They struck two college campuses and have kidnapped close to ten thousand students. They think they're going to use them for merge victims."

Silence all around.

The Colonel nodded. "Right. I'll send a company to track the truck that went through to the target world."

Wxxo clenched his fists. "I need Ajha, damn it."

Ebsa and Ra'd swapped glances.

"We'll go find him."

Ra'd nodded. "We'll take the old crawler, just in case, but they were on foot, so they can't have gotten very far."

The siren wailed.

"They're coming again."

04 July 2015 @ 06:27 am

Chapter Six

Ajha looked around at the knock at the doorway. "Ra'd, excellent. This is Tayc, Hioz, Amsi. Wpxa, and Offe. Ra'd is officially Wqlw Withione Makkah, right?"

"Yes. I prefer Ra'd." The young man nodded to the other as his eyes swept the room. "So, what do you need me to do?"

"At the moment, a bit of catching up on what's going on, in Cannibal HQ." Ajha looked around . . . Fean pointed and he stepped over to pick up his mini comp. "Here are the files with the maps, synopses of what our ears are picking up, links to the full translations, and analysis. Feel free to share with Ebsa." Ajha noted Ra'd's flick of glance toward Offe. No doubt Offe had reacted to the mere mention of Ebsa's name. Jealousy plus political ambitions thwarted. One save me, this is why I hate large field encampments. Worse than home, where there's enough space and other people to get away from the bickering.

Ajha drummed his fingers. "Even with translation difficulties, it seems that they are alluding to something, but never actually saying anything they wouldn't want overheard. The question is, are they going behind their superior's backs for some reason, or do they suspect we have them bugged?"

The kids stirred. Five of them. So young, so arrogant, so clueless about how little they have to be arrogant about.

"So Fean and I are going to take quick look across. Hob, you'll in charge." He bit his lip, eyeing Ra'd. "Hopefully you won't have to come rescue us." The young man nodded, looking reluctant, but not arguing. One! I'd nearly forgotten what it's like to work with someone who will follow orders. "Once you're familiar with the situation, I'll take you across to see it all in person. We'll leave after lunch and be back for dinner, tomorrow." He hesitated. "I have a spell, from Q, that stabilizes the Chromosomes in your body, and reinforces you personality, in case of merges. I've pretty-well cover everyone in camp, may I put it on you?"

Ra'd nodded. "A wise precaution, under the circumstances."

He wafted the spell that direction. "Since I'll be taking you through, the next time Q is here I'll ask her to personalize one for you."

At the pavilion, Ajha was surprised to see Ebsa chatting away with the Earthers. Six "observers" who spent more time observing the Oners and the Fallen than they did the Helaos. Of course the Fallen, well, the Disco personnel from Comet Fall usually just popped in to drop off reports, and left again. Not a single one stationed here.

Wonderfully aromatic soup in serve-yourself tureens. Plates with sandwiches, sitting on beds of ice.

Ebsa was replacing the sandwiches as quickly as they were disappearing.

". . . just snob stuff. The office workers try to pretend they're better than field agents, and usually get in the minimum amount of field work that'll get them onto the promotion track back home. Me? I love being out in the field."

His analysts were sitting close enough to overhear, tossing the occasional scowl toward Ebsa and the Earthers. Surely they knew how real field agents felt about the dilatants collecting their minimum required points?

". . . Love the dinosaur worlds. You wouldn't believe the trouble we had getting tracking tags on some of those critters. Oops, excuse me." Ebsa stepped to the oven and opened the door. The mixed aromas of baking pastry and hot fruit wafted across the drafty building.

Pies? The boy is baking fresh pies? Oh Dear One! Wxxo's never going to let him go.

The large oven disgorged eight pies, and Ebsa reloaded it with pies from the fridge. It looked like the fridge was stuffed with them. Then he was back production-lining sandwiches. I don't recall anything about cooking on his records, this must be home grown. All this and brains . . . he'd be a massive intel asset. No one would think he was anything but a really good cook. Not that it matters to me, I'm getting back to X Teams as fast as possible. Ajha winced, and refused to believe he'd transitioned into management.

Back at the buffet tables Ebsa was shaking his head. "Nope those are for after dinner. It'll take me that long to get them all cooked."

Ajha exchanged glances with Fean. "We could wait until after dinner . . . "


They walked across, with backpacks, guns, and unnoticeable spells. On their first trip, they'd had a hideous time keeping anyone from noticing their very different vehicle. Since then, if they needed one, they'd simply stolen one.

Today lines of trucks were streaming to the west.

Ajha bit his lip. "Let's go see what they're up to." The Helaos had no magic, so unnoticeable spells were all they needed to walk closer, with no one ever seeing them. He waited at the edge of the road until the inevitable traffic slow down. They swung aboard a truck, peeked under the canvas and climbed in. It was stacked with crates . . .

"Ammunition. Looks like they're planning for war."

Fean nodded. "But who are they planning to attack?"

Chapter Seven

A grinning Paer came by early. "Oh, this smells heavenly! Mind, you, I think you're underutilized as a chef, but after weeks of vendo food I'm not going to complain. Meals were worse than being treated like a barely trained nurse by the doctors."

"What? You’re a fully qualified field medic, with Comet Fall medgician training!"

Paer's smile was wry. "They don't consider that a plus."

Ebsa sniffed. "I knew there was a reason I preferred docboxes to live doctors."

"Oh? I have a suspicion it involved not having to explain how it happened."

"Well . . . yeah."

"Oh, I'm actually here to get meals for our two hospitalized patients." Paer flashed up the orders on her comp. "Heat stroke."

"Hmm, let me show you how to get customized stuff out of the fab." He opened the control panel and tapped in for special products. It requested his administrator password. He typed in ADMIN. "That's the factory password. I have yet to find a single incident of anyone changing it." After which it was easy to get specialized meals. Fortified soups, in this case.

He sighed as she walked away. I can see why they'd under-appreciate me. But Paer? What a pack of idiots.

Of course the analyst puppies couldn't leave him alone.

Offe in the lead, they came and scowled as he fried meatballs. Equal parts fabbed goo, vat meat, and thawed beef. With mostly real spices. The sauce was simmering in three huge pots, and the fab was mass producing spaghetti.

"You are so far below that girl, you are barely qualified to drive her car, let alone be seen getting private with her. Don't you care about her reputation?"

Ebsa turned down the heat. Turned around. "Offe. Paer is a grown woman who can choose for herself who she wants to associate with. You should respect that. Instead, you manipulated her."

"I did not . . . I was doing it for her own good."

"You demonstrated brutal indifference to her feelings. And then you topped it off by showing her how essentially weak you are."

"She'd have gotten over her pique quickly enough . . . wait. Did you call me weak? You stupid little Closey, what do you mean weak?"

"You allowed yourself to be used by a second rate society reporter to create a juicy scene that would improve her ratings. Were you insane? You compromised the security of the President's daughter and are probably marked down as a security risk. You looked stupid and easily influenced to your superiors. One, Offe. At least have the sense to keep your head down and work your ass off for a while. The recordings were all confiscated and the reporters all warned. It didn't go public. So unless you keep stirring the pot, everyone will forget about all this in a couple of years."

They all stared at him, appalled. The other four sort of eased away from Offe, and he stepped back, a bit pale.

"You guys are supposed to be hotshot young analysts. Ambitious. Open your eyes and take a good hard look when someone dangles something you want. There's always a cost. Always. Analyze it. You're swimming in the shallow end of a big pool full of sharks. Learn fast. Before you find yourself tossed into the deep end."

They meandered off, looking . . . well, hopefully that was thoughtful, not stubborn.

Ebsa shook his head and went back to finish the meatballs, and start the garlic bread . . .

Ra'd snorted, behind him. "Sounds like I missed something interesting."

"Well, if I'd reacted like they expected, they'd probably have had a nice little high society news item." Ebsa took out the first trays of garlic bread, put two more in the oven. "So, you get to apprentice under Spy Master Ajha? Now that I'm jealous of."

Ra'd snorted. "Reading reports."

Ebsa walked down to the fab and grabbed the first load of pasta. Sprinkled parsley, spritzed with olive oil, tossed a bit, and started loading the hot buffet. "Yeah. Actually this is more fun than reading reports, so I'll just shut up. Until you get to do something really interesting." He swapped the garlic bread again, started the next, shoveled the bread into the tubs under the warming lights. Eyes the casual loungers who were drifting in and almost lined up. "Oh, c'mon ahead, you might as well get started."

He shifted the first two pots of sauce—traditional tomato based, and an alfredo sauce—out to the hot buffet, then the meatballs, and started preparing refills of everything.

He grinned at Ra'd. "The scary thing is, I'm enjoying this."

Ra'd laughed. "We'll see if you say that next month."

Breakfast was in full spate the next morning when Ebsa spotted the running men. Running through the tents of the army encampment.

Those are Helios uniforms!

Paer was sitting across the pavilion, facing him, with a couple of the other medical staff . . .

:: Paer! Behind you! Shield! Now! ::

:: Ra'd! Weapon up! ::

03 July 2015 @ 09:25 am

Chapter Five

The man in Facilities had a list of equipment for him to approve.

A kitchen squishy. "Umm, am I the chef?" Ebsa ran an eye down the list.

The facilities man shrugged.

"Right . . . I think I need a bit more supervision, here." He hauled out his comm and tapped the contact number on his orders. Introduced himself.

"Ah, the cook, good. Maybe everyone will stop grumbling, finally."

"Umm, yes sir. May I know roughly how many people I'll be cooking for, what is already on site and what budget I have for more equipment and consumables? Or, excuse me, perhaps I should talk to the current chef?"

"There isn't one. There's a couple of vendomats, a fab, and an autovat."

Ebsa blinked. "Tables and chairs? A building?"

"Right, a roof, concrete floor. The weather's nice. What more do you need?"

"Buffet tables, one hot, one cold. How many people?"

"Oh, call it a hundred, hundred and fifty, I can't be more exact on an open line."

"Dishwasher. Plates and utensils. Actual food to cook." Ebsa looked at the list the Facilities man was making as Ebsa spoke. Ebsa reached and typed in 200 for the plates and utensils. The screen flipped to comestibles, and he started highlighting the basics. All frozen.

"Chest freezer." He added, and winced a bit at the total. "About four thousand reals. Does that include delivery and set up?"

A sigh from the other end. "If it'll shut them up . . . relay the list . . . "

Ebsa synced with the Facilities guy, and the approval number flashed. "When will it be ready to be picked up, and will it all fit on a single flat?"

"Two hours. One flat. Loading bay seventeen."

Ebsa thanked both Facilities and whoever the hell it was on the comm. Clicked off.

"I guess I'd better get packed." And load up on spices.


The driver of the flat looked him over and shrugged. "Can't be worse than the vendomat."

Ebsa grinned. "I hope to do much better than that. Err, Ebsa Clostuone."

"Avro Neartuone. I looked you up. Nothing about cooking. We figured you were just a warm body with a high enough security rating."

"My mother's a professional chef. I grew up cooking, and I've done quite a bit when I was across on explorer teams."

"All one of them? For what, three weeks?"

"Two. I did, oh, a total of eight weeks of an internship across."

"Huh." Skeptical grunt.

Ebsa shut up and watched as they headed way out across the Permanent Gate Area. To pretty much the last gate. The other side looked like a graveled road across a flat plain of sparse vegetation. Avro drove straight through. The flat bounced and shimmied. Make that, potholed gravel road.

One large building, white metal roof, open on three sides. Looks like a horse show arena. Across the road from it, a long row of crawlers, out in front of construction. On the far side of the arena, err, pavilion, large tents in army green.

"I've got the boys taking down the last four panels of the wall—there's nothing on the other side, so we figured the kitchen squishy would be go there. Tomorrow, hopefully, our camp hygiene facilities will be ready for pick up. We'll put them to the side."

"Err, far enough away to avoid odor problems in the mess hall?"

Avro shot a grin his way. "You know, that's probably a good idea."

Ebsa stayed out of the way while they unloaded and expanded his kitchen, hooked up the water and drains, added his dishwasher, refrigerator and chest freezer to the system. It left him a good work space and a strong desire for a sturdy work table. The two buffet tables, when he found the time to unpack and assembled them, could sit just over the edge of the concrete pad of the pavilion. Good enough. He checked all the equipment, ran a short cycle on the dishwasher, heated the oven to see if is smelled of plastics or anything else . . . "

"So where do you want all the frozen food? They like the freezer containers back."

Ebsa gulped. Maybe I ought not have ordered so much . . . "Let's see how much will go in the chest freezer. I need to start defrosting . . . what time is it here?"

"Ten hundred hours. Going to be ready for lunch?"

"I'll give it a try. Umm, what about the stuff in the other box? And what do I do with all the packing material?"

"Eh, those boxes are practically disposable. I'll stick it around the back and you can throw all the trash in there as you use the food, for now."

"Excellent." Ebsa intercepted the boxes of meat patties and the chicken quarters. Lunch and dinner. And the bags and bags of frozen cut potatoes. Have to use them all today! Most of the rest fit into the freezer, the remainder into the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. Ebsa sighed with relief. First near disaster averted. He fetched the box of wheat buns from the ordinary shipping box. And tackled the fabricator and the vendomats for a few common items. The auto vat was not operating. Ebsa cringed and opened it up. Clean and cold. At least they'd had sense enough to plug it in. The yeast cultures all showed green lights. He double checked the instructions and got it started.

He looked at the two crated buffet tables. Not enough time to get them working, but the boxes were a good height for serving. "Just this once," he muttered.

He walked back to the old machines. They were, with great reluctance, producing mustard and ketchup. Good.

"Dishes. Erg!"

Back to the storage box. The dishes were, of course, on the bottom. He stuffed the dishwasher and hit the quick cycle. Checked the time. Turned on the fryer, poured in the oil. Heated the whole grill and started throwing meat patties on it. At least the potatoes came already cut. Into the fryer with the first batch . . .

"One! It smells like food in here!" A man in uniform, a colonel by the insignia.

The man with him sniffed appreciatively. He was in directorate field khakis, grey haired with a commanding body language. "I think it is food. I heard a rumor we were finally getting a cook, but I hadn't realized it had happened."

Ebsa nodded politely their direction, but turned away to flip burgers, then the fryer dinged and . . .

By the time he turned back he had an audience. Drooling. He threw in more fries, dodged down to the fab to collect the condiments and spread them out on the nearest table.

"First batch of burgers coming up, gentlemen!"

He started loading plates, and . . . ran his butt off for three hours before everyone finally went away.

"Holy One, when was the last time anyone fed these people!"

Laugher from the side. "Never!" in a chorus of voices.

He leaned out. A batch of the younger set was clustered around the vendomat.

"Do you do deserts?" A familiar face, a dark haired beauty. "Hi Ebsa. Thank you for rescuing us. Poor Ajha's run off his feet and hasn't managed a single bonfire yet."

"Fean, long time and all that. I didn't even notice you come through the line. I knew Ajha was here."

"Yep. You were too busy at the time for me to interrupt. You need a helper."

"Yeah, well . . . I got the impression that the home office just sent me here to shut up the whiners. How the One Hell did this many people survive on two vendos and a fab?"

"The Army's got four vendos, the Earthers have one—and they all ate here today."

"Yeah, I spotted all the uniforms." Ebsa looked around. The "new" was definitely off the kitchen. "I used all but three plates. I'll have to try to get more." He rolled up his sleeves and got to work. And in between dishwasher loads, unpacked the two buffet tables and set them up.

Just in time to start dinner.

And clean up again.

He looked around the dark quiet pavilion. The crawlers, with their lights going off, one by one. "So . . . where the heck am I supposed to sleep? I don't even know who my boss is."

Not even crickets to answer him. He found a latrine by smell, and surveyed the crawlers. No sign of which one was the boss's. He rearranged everything in "his" box, and sacked out on packing material.

Breakfast . . . He got up early, set the big bin under the fab spout and set it for dough number five. Twenty kilos. Then brown sugar and cinnamon, fruit filling, throw it into the oven . . . start over . . .

The fresh hot pastries brought in a crowd.

Avro laughed. "And here I thought you'd be a nuisance. Damn, these are good."

"By tomorrow I should be fully geared up. And by the way do you know who I ought to be reporting to and where to find him?"

He laughed even harder. "Ho, a self starter, are you?" He pointed at the grey haired man from yesterday. "Camp Administrator Wxxo Withione. If he escapes, the crawler directly across." He pointed again.

"Ah. Excellent." Especially since the man was eating with Ajha.

Ebsa refilled the platters under the warming lights and walked over to their table

Ajha looked up and grinned. "Ebsa. Fean told me yesterday you were here, as she handed me a plate of real food. How'd you get stuck cooking?"

"Beats me. Good thing I know how." Ebsa eyed the other man. "Err, you're Camp Manager Wxxo? Sorry, I ought to have checked in with you yesterday but I was trying to get the kitchen working by lunch time . . . and I wound up really busy until it was too late to go door-to-door looking for my new boss."

Wxxo grinned. "Feeding me was an excellent way to get off on the right foot with this boss."

Ebsa cleared his throat. "So . . . who do I see about finding a place to bunk?"

"Bunk. Oh, now that's a bit of a problem . . . where did you sleep last night?"

"In a storage box."

Wxxo pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm down to a single open bed—in the Ladies Room. I've a few more empty tonight, but that whole batch on home leave will be back tomorrow. And I've been informed that I'm getting a renegade Action Teamer, One only knows why. Or where I can put him."

Ebsa grinned. "Wqlw Withione Makkah, by any chance?"

Ajha laughed. "Oh, they wised up to what you two are capable of, together?"

Ebsa squirmed. "I suspect they think they're putting all their bad eggs in one basket."

Wxxo looked from Ebsa to Ajha. "This bad egg doesn't seem to be a problem. Is the other one just as bad?"

"Yep. I hope he's assigned to me. I suspect he'll be perfect for sneaky stuff. And Ebsa, if your box doesn't work, you can try the seats in my crawler. Ra'd as well."

Wxxo blinked at Ajha in surprise. "You must like them. You don't hardly let me set foot in your sacred demesnes."

"You've seen those dinosaur vids from two years ago? Ebsa here is the lad who stuck his arm in the T-Rex's mouth."

"No shit."

"And Wqlw, better known as Ra'd, did the field aid you saw then, which was one of the least impressive things he did the whole trip. Once they check his range numbers, I'll be fighting the Army to keep him."


"Really. Utterly uncanny shot. He's a bit touchy, pride-and honor-wise. Just be square with him, and he'll do fine."

Ebsa nodded. "He has issues with Action Teamers . . . he considers rape a serious crime and critical moral failure. And . . . fails to see the humor in jokes about it." Ebsa shrugged. "I don't either, but then I've never even been considered for Action Teams."

Wxxo winced. "So hot bunking in the Team Crawler isn't going to work. Maybe I'll have someone scrounge up another storage box."

"Yes, sir." Ebsa hesitated. "Showers . . . "

Ajha nodded. "Use mine. I'm in the end crawler, closest to the Bad Guys. Hob's on home leave at the moment, so I'm the only one you'll disturb. And Ra'd's welcome as well, of course."

Ebsa tapped out a message for Ra'd. Bunk space here limited. Think about bringing a tent. He cleaned the kitchen, programmed the fab for soup base, and the vendos for ersatz salami. Then he headed down the road to take Ajha up on his offer of a shower. Beyond the end of the row of crawlers, there were five rock arches, a hundred meters apart, with odd lumpy, melted looking ruins visible through them. On their side two army tanks stood with their main guns aimed at gate two and four.

Ebsa eyed the ruins. Is the melty look from the merging? It's . . . creepy.

The fifth gate, to the far right, was different. Tall thick green grass, rolling hills with plains and winding river in the distance.

"That's the world they're apparently going to merge with. Damn shame, all the plants and animals. And even Q and Xen will have missed some of the natives."

Ebsa looked over his shoulder at Ajha. "Then why do they want to merge?"

"As far as we can tell, they think their world has slowed to the point that they cannot avoid merging. This time they have no choice, and this will be the last merge."

"Umm . . . are you . . . exploring?"

"Heh. No, I'm the local spy master. I've got bugs all over, over there. Laser relays through the gate here, a batch of translators both here and back home. Hob's running the electronics for me. You left the meeting yesterday before I could talk to you. I gather you were part of the group that freed the students and captured those Helaos officers. Tell me about it."

"Ra'd and I were across on a dinosaur world—guess which one—with a science team. We, umm, well, with the help of Nighthawk—a Disco rep there to open a gate—well, we captured them."

"I briefly joined the interrogators. They were pretty beat up." Ajha headed for the end crawler.

"Survivors of a Triceratops stampede. Mostly."

"Ah." A little smile tugged at the side of the older man's mouth. "And the gate beacon?"

"Nighthawk has some dimensional skills and can utilize bubbles. She scooped the whole thing up, and we did likewise with the prisoners."

"Surely not just you three?" Ajha snickered at his nod. "The subdirector wouldn't tell us how they'd been captured. We'd all been speculating about whether it was the Army or the Directorate that had the small army across. Oh my. Just you three young punks."

"Umm, yeah. The exploration team was a thrown together group of desk jockeys who'd never been across, two delivery drivers, that icky clostuone, and the guy in jail for assaulting his own team members. Needless to say, they didn't expect us to encounter Helaos. I don't . . . Ajha? Why did they have those students there?"

"It was the second most likely world that Helios might merge with. Q said they were probably keeping the students to use in the early stages of the merge, a shadow zone, if they can get their magnetics stations working. Toss them in to merge with other Helaos, so they have some soldiers who can come and go without instantly merging with whatever is on the other world." Ajha hunched his shoulders. "The One World was the third most likely target. Yeah, that got our attention. Now that that has been ruled out, the stress levels have plummeted."

"I'll bet . . . umm . . . do they also have Oners captive on the other world?" Ebsa nodded at the fifth gate.

"Not that we know of. Fean and I have checked, and Xen and Q have checked as well. They're building facilities over there. Very finicky about the placement. We think they're replicating the infrastructure that they want to survive the merge. But . . . most of the population is emigrating to an empty world. Pity they didn't do that a hundred years ago."

"Ah, but what's killing three worlds full of strangers, when it can rejuvenate you?" Ebsa shook his head. "Glad we grabbed those kids. Once the Dino World was eliminated, they may have decided to cut their losses. Or moved them to the next target. Good thing we happened by."  

Ajha laughed. "And then they rewarded you by making you the sole cook for too many people. I swear there must be a requirement to have a lobotomy once you hit a certain grade level."

"Meh. This actually puts me in about the right place to be useful, if there's a problem, another problem, with the Helaos."

"And where Paer is posted." Ajha's forehead wrinkled suddenly.

"That too. And yes, I've met that batch of analyst friends of hers. Had the pleasure of beating up Offe in the dojo, all friendly-like, with a judge and all."

Ajha winced.

"They're your staff, aren't they?"

"Yep. Well . . . hopefully they'll get over it."

Ebsa shrugged. "No doubt they'll be rude about the cook. Don't worry, I'll feed them anyway. Obvious rudeness has a tendency to backfire."

Ajha sighed. "Yeah. If any of them get too bad, I'll have a reason to send some of them home. They're all reasonably good data handlers, but hardly anything special—other than in their own minds."

"We're in the field. Hopefully they'll all realize that messing up out here has repercussions." Ebsa followed Ajha into the crawler, and looked around at all the screens and computers. "Damn. Hob must be in techie heaven."


When he emerged from the shower, all the analysts were grouped around the recorders.

Off straightened. Stiff backed and appalled. "You? You can't be an analyst!"

Ebsa nodded. "Nice to see all of you again. No, I'm usually X Team, but right now I'm the camp cook, here to rescue you from the vendos. See you at lunch." He nodded politely and stepped down out of the crawler. Looking up the road past all the crawlers to the gate home, he spotted another crawler headed toward them. Battered and dented . . . flakes of darkish paint, or maybe those were singed leaves. Surely not. It backed into the space at the northern end of the row, and settled in. Ebsa strode down to it. Yep, the old reliable Junkyard.

Ra'd grinned as he opened the hatch. "Couldn't find a tent. Once Acty and the Dinologists were allowed back to Fort Dinosaur, he took two barracks squishies and two armored ATVs, since they didn't need the sleeping space anymore, sent the old Junkyard back to the spare parts yard. Maintenance took one horrified look and said it was barely fit for spare parts. So when I got this assignment and your message, I asked our new supervisor and he authorized me to take it. Cheapest sleeping accommodations available, he said."

"Excellent." Ebsa stepped in and thunked his armful of clothes into the washer. Eyed the gun safe. "I don't suppose . . . "

"Oh, well, I unloaded the safe before it was turned back in. Acty kept what he needed. And then I totally forgot to take the rest back to the armory. And I didn't want to leave them in an empty warehouse." Razor sharp smile.

Ebsa laughed with him. "We're an order of magnitude more dangerous now. So . . . I'm the camp cook, what are you?"

"Intel Agent. At first it didn't say, then 'the camp manager' sent that I was to report to Intel. Do you know who's the head of Intel here? They don't give names out, back home. 'Opsec' they say . . . Why the grin?"

"Ajha. Opposite end of the camp. Brace yourself, though. He's afflicted with five baby analysts, and they're just ever so important."

"Ugg." Ra'd looked him up and down. "You're walking around unarmed again, aren't you?"

"I'm the cook, not a guard." Ebsa looked at Ra'd's stubborn body language, sighed and turned to the safe. "I could stick that short 10mm under the buffet table." And of course Ra'd managed to keep his 60mm.

"And a pistol."


Ra'd sighed. Loudly.

"Oh kay. To copy your archaic term, which probably actually means something obscene." Ebsa picked up a 9mm, belt and holster. "Most heavily armed chef on the world."

Ra'd snorted. And handed him extra magazines for both. "I'll go check in with Ajha." His gaze lingered on the weapons, but he only took a pistol. And three full magazines.

Ebsa got busy adding good stuff to the soup base, slicing the hard rolls and stuffing them with three different combinations of ersatz meat and cheese . . . taped the long gun underneath the cold buffet table.

Technically, there's no reason the Helaos couldn't pop through the gates and attack us. Just because they can't detect them magnetically, and we've got illusions over the far side, so they can't see them doesn't mean they couldn't discover them. But somehow I think it would be the soldiers defending us, not the cook.

And the cook needs to attend to business.

He got out his comp and pulled up a requisition form. I'll need regular deliveries of various types of bread. Fab bread just won't do. At. All. Both fresh and frozen vegetables and fruit. . . I wonder if I can get away with real steaks? Only one way to find out.

02 July 2015 @ 04:29 am

Chapter Four

In the morning, Ebsa's scheduler directed him to a room at the Intel Center inside the secure gate area. Yet another set of Intel analysts who thought their clever questions could reveal something crucial. It was quite fun going through all the crawler's recordings and filling in the action they hadn't caught. The three Intel weinies were looking a bit aghast at the dinosaur carnage.

"I thought those things were herbivores." One of them shook his head as he watched two hundred honking maiasaurs charge into the swamp and tromp the Helaos' small vehicles into the mud. Deep into the mud, badly crushed. Mostly with the Helaos inside. The soldiers who tried to get away on foot were crushed as well. Three of their doodle bug type things had been close enough to solid ground for them to turn and escape.

"The maiasaurs weigh in at four to five tons each. The mobbing behavior would probably take care of velociraptors, and nesting across mushy ground is the only possible defense against a T-Rex." Ebsa shrugged. "We swung wide of the nesting area, along the shore, then turned into the lake. We anticipated that the Helaos would cut the corner, and we figured either the soft ground or the maiasaurs would get them off our trail. We needed to get line of sight to the camp, well, arguably fort, for a tight beam warning that hopefully the Helaos couldn't tap. But if the Helaos spotted the Fort, it was all for naught. So we prepared to boat down stream, if they were still following. They didn't, so we got our warning off, backed back into the lake and then headed downstream. The very few survivors of the maiasaurs spotted us and followed us for a bit. Then they headed west."

The Intel weinies checked the map. Nodded in near unison. "Back to their base, where they had their gate beacon."

They led him through the whole use of Dinosaurs as a weapon.

Then homed in on Nighthawk's use of a transdimensional bubble to steal the beacon.

Ra'd's use of his to collect high ranked prisoners.

"Where did he get that?"

"I assumed Nighthawk . . . "

Triple glare. "That is the first lie you've tried." the blonde one said.

The brunette crossed his arms. "And it was a pathetic attempt."

Ebsa shrugged. "All I've got is guesses. A lot of Ra'd's past is classified, and usually gets referred to an Izzo Withione Alcairo . . . whom I believe is currently subdirector of the Pacific Region. Or you could just ask Ra'd and he'll probably give you a number to call."

The black haired one eyed him and started tapping at his computer. Then pulled out his comm and tapped a number in.

"Senior Analyst Ohge, Exterior. I have a question about Wqlw . . . Class Nine! . . . Yes, if our need reaches that level." He clicked off and frowned at Ebsa. "Well. At least you are transparent. A Montevideo Upcomer. Mixed up in that disgraceful trial of the Comet Fall girl. All your instructors either loved you or hated you. Your three superiors have all rated you highly and requested that you continue to labor under them. You live in the barracks, save all your money and managed to spend almost five hundred reals at an upscale Italian restaurant last night. What did you do, throw a party?"

"Showed off by picking up the tab." Ebsa shrugged. "After being insulted, except when I was being ignored or sneered at. And, of course, I walked off with the lady."

"And she was even more expensive?" Blonde again.

"Not that kind of lady."

"Riiiight." Brownie tapped at his comp, boggled. "You? You drove off with the President's daughter!"

Ebsa smiled. Ah crap, it's not all over the news is it? I'd better check, quick.

The black haired one eyed his display. "Well that explains the fencing lessons. But do you really think you can go that high?"

"Not if I don't acquire the required skills."

They had sandwiches delivered and kept poking at details. And Ra'd, occasionally.

"Which colony was he raised on?" Blondie looked casual.

Ebsa wasn't fooled. He knew a few info junkies. "Don't believe he ever said."

"And you never asked?" Browny too.

"Too busy, too well mannered, too much fun kidding him about being a space alien."

They finally let him go. He checked his comm.

A message from Paer: Med section meeting until 1800. Ugg.

And one from Ra'd: I'm going to go spray paint everywhere. Recommend you stay away.

So Ebsa checked the dojo, snagged a lesson time and headed that way.

The gym was used to agents and teamers coming and going, with and without appropriate gear. He got the right sizes of much washed whites, a locker number and dressed out to bow to sensei Enni.

"Haven't seen you for a month." Enni frowned past him.

Ebsa looked around. The Moron. Might have expected that. And here comes his cheering section.

Pause and Amsi stepped up to either shoulder.

Drat. I ought to have done some basic research. I have no idea of the man's rating.

"Hi guys. Come to watch?" Ebsa nodded and turned back to the Sensei.

"No . . . but since you're here I thought you might like to spar." The Moron nodded politely to Enni.

Enni shook his head slightly as he stepped close. "Don't bother. Class three Speed, but showy, egotistical, and pushy." His voice was low.

The Moron grinned. "Yeah, listen to him. Level three. I'd cream you."

Figures he'd misunderstand. "Grudge matches are a bad idea, guys. And I'm out of practice, having been across for a while. Maybe next time." Ebsa turned his back, listening to the approaching steps. "Off, just apply some common sense and go away. Or observe the lesson."

Snort. "Hardly any need for that. Your Sensei doesn't even teach at our level."

Enni ran his fingers along his black obi, fingered the rank bands. Sighed. "Very well. I will judge this friendly sparring. No blows to head or neck. You will both be careful, and pull your blows elsewhere. Three minutes." He set the timer.

Ebsa settled into his center and bowed to The Moron. Who was breathing deeply and starting to sweat, a gleeful smile on his face. Ha! Ebsa stepped into his top Speed and let Off move first. Side step, leg sweep, controlling the impact, stepping back to let the poor fool leap to his feet and charge in with a flurry of strikes and kicks. All easily blocked.

Ebsa maneuvered around the pad, blocking and dodging, hitting the man at will, careful to barely tap him. Until Off was starting to tire, getting wild and furious, striking and kicking, with poor control. Ebsa stayed alert, blocking and dodging, until Offs's Speed dropped with his exhaustion, slowing the blows, robbing them of momentum. Then Ebsa went back to hitting him at will. Up one side, down the other, spin back and kick his butt. Gotta give the guy credit for perseverance. Another leg sweep and dump him. Still managing to get up, but Offe wasn't even close to level two any more.

The timer binged. Ebsa stepped back, relaxing, throwing up an arm to block a late punch . . .

"Enough!" Enni stalked forward. "Have you no sense at all? No manners, no respect?"

They'd gathered a bit of a crowd, and another black belt stepped forward. "Offe, your spite and that late blow are noted. I'd haul you off for a lesson, but your bruises ought to be quite enough lesson. Go away. Think."

The Moron glared, gave a minimal bow and staggered off.

The two teachers exchanged weary glances. "Why must we always have grudge matches?"

Ebsa snorted. "Testosterone."

Enni laughed. "Indeed. So. Since you've had your exercise, let's work on technique . . . "

Ebsa still needed to kill a bit of time, so he grabbed coffee and researched Paer's friends.

All Withiones, a spread of clans. Two Alcairos, one Paris, one Hong Kong, one Madrid. City snobs, all five of them. I used to hate living on Grandmother's little farm, while mother commuted to work at horrible hours. And curse Montevideo Clan for having the enclave so far out of the city, but all things considered, maybe I was lucky I had a slow introduction to civilization in the form of city attitude.

Or maybe I'm lucky I'm not a Withione.

Ebsa contemplated the potential he had for being a snotty High Oner and shook his head. "Somehow I don't think Paer would like me as well."

Back to data mining. Honor roll, all. Class rankings high, but not high enough to capture the summa stuff. Of course he couldn't access the actual grades, or the classes they'd taken, for perspective. They'd been on various sports teams, gotten a few awards, nothing special or noteworthy. Then they'd graduated and started with the Intel section, and were still there, between two and five years later. Current assignment had a date and a code number. Classified. Eight months ago? Helios, of course.

Curious, he checked Paer's file. Ooo! very scrubbed and brief.

Checked his own. Heh, nothing to brag about, other than, as a Teams trainee his standings in martial arts was in there, first, first, fourth, first for the start of the semester scores. First in the final, pre-graduation sorting. Sensei Ikku had replaced Sensei Arvi their last year, and the new trainer of the top students had been quite determined that an upcomer clostuone was not going to beat his newly acquired Action Trainees. By the end of the year he'd at least gotten over it enough to score contests honestly. Ebsa sighed. His weapons score was tepid. Internship scores very high. Work history . . . a new job every five or six months wasn't terribly impressive . . . oh wait, what was that? He was listed as of this morning being assigned to the same code as The Moron.

Worth the hassle, so long as Paer is there, too.

He checked in on his comm and there it was. An update on the scheduler, report tomorrow morning to report to . . . Facilities?

"What the heck?" He glanced to the side at movement. Paer.

She set her coffee beside his and sat beside him. "What?"

"I have a new assignment. This code." He tipped the screen so she could read it. Watched the grin spread across her face. "So . . . why am I reporting in to Facilities, eh?"

Her forehead crinkled. "I have no idea."

They walked back to warehouse forty-two, chatting.

"I guess I hadn't realized you already had Crystal before your dad was elected president." Ebsa inhaled and wished he knew the name of her perfume. "You were already a celebrity weren't you?"

"Umm, in a small way, just among the horsey types. I got a lot more widespread notice once he announced he was running, not that anyone thought he had a chance, but I did get interviewed. And then that wild election! I don't know who was more shocked at his success, Dad, Qayg, or Urfa. It was . . . quite an adjustment, going from making a statement to winning."

"I'll bet. But you and all the guards seem to get along well."

"Oh yeah, they're all great. I think they were so relieved I wasn't a spoiled darling that I could get away with anything. Xiat took me under her wing and showed me the ropes. She was a regional champion, before she went to Princess school, so she knew the horse show scene. And Rael, well, it was like suddenly acquiring a goofy big sister, you know?"

"Umm, a goofy sister . . . but then I didn't meet her at her best." Ebsa hunched his shoulders. "Mind you the next time I saw the vids of the assassination attempt . . . it made them suddenly very real."

She huddled into his side. "I thought she was dead. Then Dad told me she'd be crippled for life. I'd visit her in the hospital, and she'd try to cheer me up. Xen came and fixed most of the damage. He's . . . umm . . . probably the main reason I keep thinking about medical school."

Ebsa hugged her. "Sorry. I didn't mean to bring up bad memories. Goofy sister, huh?"

"Yeah, and . . . So, like, within a week of moving in to Versalle, I felt like I'd come home."

Ebsa frowned down the street. "Speaking of coming home . . . " They cleared the last warehouse, and Warehouse Forty-two was revealed in all its glory. "Ra'd's in trouble, again."

Paer snickered. "It almost matches the usual color scheme. Except for the big Dinosaur Headquarters logo."

Ebsa eyed it, compared it to the warehouse across the street. The tan was a few shades too dark, the brick red trim definitely non-regulation. The four meter high logo . . . Concentric circles of red and olive green, the blocky stylized T-Rex stepping through . . . "Either that or it'll really catch on."

Paer giggled. The big vehicle doors were all raised, so they walked in. Sparkling white overhead. Geometric shapes at odd angles all over the walls. The lights flicked on. Not the random surviving tubes, but rather two neat rows, across the front and back, and a strip down the side by the living quarters. Which now had three tables and lots of chairs. And a grinning Ra'd standing at the door of the last room.

"Something tells me you didn't ask anyone's permission for this." Ebsa eyed the weird angled forms . . . Oh. Letters, words, duh. Exploration Team Forty Eight. We eat dinos for lunch. T-Rex Was Here. "This is your graph thing?" Weirdly angled, blocky, outlined . . .

"Graffiti. And the point of it is vandalism. You never ask permission."

Paer shook her head. "You are so logical even when you are being weird. I think I like it. It's . . . a really different style of art."

01 July 2015 @ 05:12 am

"No? Well . . . " Ebsa pulled out his comp. "Let's see if this Franciscos can handle seven of us just dropping by . . . no, all booked up. How about Lucian's? Very upscale Italian? They say they can have a table for us in thirty minutes."

Various glowers, then nods. They all started moving toward the nearest tunnel access.

"I see you aren't too out of touch." Moron eyed him with distaste.

Ebsa smiled back. "So, are most of you analysts?"

"Indeed." Tayc's nose was still well up in the air. "And you are a, umm, field agent."

"Yes. I have info training and a strong science background." Ebsa spoke over his shoulder as he trotted down the stairs. "Whatever it takes to get across. I enjoy being out there on a new world."

Tayc made a little moue of dislike. "We're all 'across' just now, in the most horrible crawler imaginable."

"Aw, at least it's clean and someone made an effort at decorating it." Hioz batted her eyelashes at Amsi. "Such a pity that it's all female."

Paer nodded. "A ten bunker. Not bad."

Ebsa blinked.

"Not bad!" Tayc rolled her eyes. "That . . . Fean woman makes it bad all by herself."

"Tayc insulted Ajha." Paer put in a loud aside to Ebsa. "The Fiend is holding a grudge."

"She's just a secretary! To a clostuone. I shouldn't have to put up with her insinuations."

"Fean is a very experienced field agent. Very well trained in magic, very powerful." Paer smirked. "And she did two years at the Princess School before she transferred to the Directorate School. So she's an expert at social snobbery and underhanded methods of dealing with people she dislikes. Tayc . . . is having difficulties."

Ebsa nodded receipt of the information. It sounded like Ajha is in Intel, watching the Helaos. Perhaps from an Empty World. Which is excellent. Someone with brains and street smarts on site. Although I pity him having to deal with idiot petty bureaucrat-wannabes. And apparently this lot and Paer as well. "You're lucky to have a clean crawler. I've had to clean some before we could use them, and what an Action Team can do to a bunkhouse in just a few weeks is nauseating." Not that I've seen that many that bad . . . and I need to not say things that make me sound like the janitor around this bunch. They don't understand a team all diving in to do what is needed. Indeed the noses were rising again. He stepped onto the roller. The center of the gate area was crisscrossed by the tunnels and their moving "walks."

"At least we aren't in tents like the Army." Paer shrugged, and walked along beside him. "They rotated a lot of officers through. Not very many soldiers stationed there permanently."

Moron sniggered behind them. "I guess all this chatter, with no mention of what or where must be irritating, right Closey?"

Ebsa looked over his shoulder. "Nope. I'm sworn to secrecy too."

"What, about what you've cleaned, and where?" Take looked him up and down. "I'll bet that's the only suit you own."

"Yep." Ebsa grinned, since he couldn't spit in her face. I didn't see them at the meeting. I think they were back in a corner somewhere, no doubt with Paer. And they didn't see me. Too bad, I might get some respect . . .

"It's out of style. And the tie is positively antique."

No, only about twenty years. Ditto the very nice custom made suit. Inherited from my murdered dad, so shut up. The stuff that was out at the cleaners when his house was torched is all I have of a man I never knew. Ebsa turned abruptly and stepped off the roller. I'll walk the last three blocks, before I do something I'll regret.

Paer was on his heels and tucked her hand into the elbow he offered. "I have been so used. They didn't act like this . . . "

"Until I showed up?"

"Until their potential stepping stone started getting away from them. I love my dad, and hate being the president's daughter."

"What was it like, before then? When your dad was just a minor party councilman?"

"Oh, I was nine years old when he jumped from the regional council to the Imperial Council. I remember being scared of living in a strange place, but he brought my pony with us, when we moved to Paris. He hired this nice lady to drive me everywhere . . . well, that's what I thought. I suppose she was more of a nanny than a chauffeur. Then Qayg showed up, and I thought she was grand . . . After a couple of years I started taking proper riding lessons . . . show jumping. Dad splurged and bought Crystal and I started showing seriously, earned a spot in Madam Chin's school."

"Even I've heard of her."

Paer giggled, then grimaced as she spotted the others down the block, waiting for them. "It was a bit of a shock, when Daddy decided to run for President. I mean, since he wasn't allowed to also run for reelection to the Council, he was basically committing career suicide."

"Oh, yeah. If I'd been noticing politics at that age, even I could have seen that."

"Hey, you were thirteen too."

"Ah, but I was an obnoxious thirteen. Really resentful at being uprooted and my mom having to either put me in boarding school or live in an employers house in the enclave."

"She must have hated it."

"Yeah, well, she always put a good face on it. 'This is how I learned all my cooking, when I was younger.' and so forth. I hated leaving my friends and I had trouble making new ones. So . . . obnoxious is probably an understatement. By fifteen I was trying to prove I was big enough and bad enough to join a gang. That's when I got sent to give a message to Rael."

"And that changed everything for you, didn't it?"

"Yep. I hate realizing that if I hadn't been such a jerk, I'd have never met you."

Paer giggled. "Well, in that case, I'm glad you were a jerk."

"Oh, what? And he's better now? Uppity little Upcomer." Moron glared at Paer's hand on his arm.

"Incredibly good." Paer smiled and turned to the restaurant doors. The Maitre'd blinked when he recognized her.

"Table for seven? Ebsa?"

The man gave a quick glance at his comp, then turned all smiles. "Right this way." The table set for eight was prominently placed, right by a big window. The extra place setting was whisked away to another large table in the back . . .

Someone is going to be pissed that they didn't get the good table.

He did the whole hold the chair routine for Paer, and to his annoyance Moron circled the table to sit on her far side. Tayc bumped him with the chair he was standing behind and batted her eyelashes and simpered. "Oh, we ladies ought to sit together, not give anyone ideas."

Something resembling a quiet growl from Paer's direction.

"Oh? You helping the Newsies too? Not really impressive, or career enhancing, you know?" Ebsa eyed her glower and shrugged, held the chair for her, and circled around to sit across the table, between Amsi and Pause.

"What a paranoid little thwat." Pause turned away from him. "Hey Hioz, How are the statistics going on 'that project' of yours?"

"It's very interesting. Rather horrifying, but it leaves no doubt, you know?"

"Indeed." Pause raised the shoulder on Ebsa's side, dismissive.

Ebsa looked across the table. "Do you guys equestriate too?"

More down the noses looks.

Paer eyed him thoughtfully. I wonder what she's thinking.

"Personally, I prefer motor vehicles, but I've done enough falling off to qualify as a rider." Ebsa couldn't help but grin at the snobs. "If you haven't fallen off, you haven't ridden enough to qualify. Honest, heard that from an expert." By the name of Paer.

"The point of riding is to stay on the horse." Amsi was going to have trouble eating if he didn't bring down the nose . . .

"While doing something fun." Paer flashed a smile at a waiter and took a menu.

"Or competing." Ebsa glanced toward the Moron. "But then that can be fun and challenging as well." Paer looked like she wanted to kick him. He took a menu, and pretended to look it over. The conversation dropped to a grumble, while Moron tried to decide if Ebsa was baiting him or challenging him to a duel.

Well, at least the food was good. And when the waiter appeared with the bill, Ebsa produced his wallet and handed over his ID. The only good thing about living in the directorate housing is all the money one can bank. He thumb printed the reader and they all straggled out the door and into a beautiful warm evening.

Paer shook off Moron's attempt to take her arm and trotted down the steps to stand on tip toe and kiss Ebsa's cheek. "Thank you for the lovely dinner." She turned him, and blocked the mischievous looking Hioz, closing in as if to kiss him too.

"Well, I'm afraid I need to get home. Ebsa, can I drop you off?" Paer steered him over to the car pulling up to the curb.

"Sure." Ebsa followed her quickly.

Moron pushed forward. "Hey, can get a . . . "

"No." Paer smiled, and Ebsa slid into the back seat beside her. Snatched his hand away as Moron helpfully slammed the door.

"Oof. I am so tired of that lot. How could it all turn so sour so quickly?"

"They're what? Two years or more older than we are? Or did I just not notice them at the school?"

"Some of each." Paer curled up, leaning on him. "Can you come home with me?"

"If I can collect some clothes, first."

"Right." Paer caught the eye of the guard. A different one than yesterday. "Don't tell me I got reinforcements!"

The woman nodded. "All properly lectured first by Rael, then by Fool, then by Urfa . . . "

Paer snickered. "Sorry, but . . . "

"Yeah we all remember the reaming your first set in New York got." The car slid up to the warehouse and stopped. This time the guard got out, and when the door unlocked at Ebsa's proximity, went in first.

Ebsa flicked on the lights. Blinked at the damp echoing room. "One! Ra'd pressure washed the inside too?" He looked up dubiously at the lights overhead.

Ra'd looked out of his room. "Relax. I checked. They are designed for this sort of thing. It's a warehouse."

"Are you really going to paint it?" Paer looked around. "Not that it doesn't need it, but shouldn't Maintenance and Facilities do it?"

"They have a six month waiting list for minor things. I put the quarters on their list, and signed off on doing the rest myself." Ra'd looked around. "I have plans."

Ebsa grabbed clothes suitable for the theoretically lower key meeting tomorrow, and waved. "See you in the morning."

"Unless they want to grill us separately." Ra'd waved them off.

They snuggled in the car, and slept as late as they dared.

30 June 2015 @ 06:07 am

After a sandwich like that he had no trouble staying up late. The analyses were almost interesting enough to take his mind off his stomach. It was well after dark when he took a break and walked down to the vendos. Something that claimed to be chocolate chip cookies, and a fruity drink. At least the drinks were imported, cold and tasted like they were supposed to.

It was a bit of a scramble in the morning to get into his suit, and across to the HQ building.

His young analysts were with Paer, stuck in a back corner at the second table with other low level staff that had a need to know.

Director of External Relations, Ajki Withione Black Point, took a side chair at the main table. It looked like the Subdirector of Intel was reporting to him. And everyone who might be needed for questions was here as well. The Subdirector of Action and Exploration was present as well, which was unusual.

I wonder what's up? Hopefully not something else they can blame on Comet Fall.

Ajha's immediate boss pinned him with a sour look and summoned him with a crook of his finger. "Sit. You'll probably be asking as many questions as you'll be answering. Just at a guess. I've had a thirty second briefing that scared the hell out of me."

He sat, as Ebko, the Action and Exploration Subdirector rose. "We were providing security for a science project underway on a dinosaur world. Team Forty-eight encountered some Helaos troops." He nodded toward the second table.

Ajha looked over his shoulder and blinked as he recognized the two young men. Ra'd and Ebsa. Did they actually have competent people in the right place?

"As well as personnel from Disco, there to open a permanent gate." Another nod, toward the very serious young woman, in a charcoal grey Disco uniform sitting beside them.

"They tracked them back to an extensive base, and feeling familiar Oner type mental glows, infiltrated and retrieved twenty-five young college students who had been kidnapped over the last week."

Ebko cross his arms and nodded. "From the One World. They raided two separate locations. They know where we are."

Ajha sat back, shocked. Raided. They raided us!

The Intel Subdirector took over. "We'd suspected they had gate travel. That is confirmed. Unfortunately, they have found us, and apparently can open gates to at least two locations. Caracas and Cairo."

Half the world apart, and Cairo—the home of the largest Oner Clan? They could walk in there and grab a dozen college kids? Ajha felt cold. No one felt their alienness? Read their evil intensions? I know they're hard to read . . . I had to adjust . . . Oh. One. Hell.

"We have had ten days to collect information and move assets." Director Ajki addressed the whole room. "Urfa threw some Blackhorse troops into the mess within an hour of being notified. Military Intel is in the process of moving onto the Dinosaur World and will . . . deal with the rest of the Helaos there." He glanced at Ajha.

Ajha took the hint. "This is the first I've heard about it. The Dinosaur World was eliminated as the next target—or victim—of the upcoming merge just a few weeks ago. The One World was barely, within the zone of potential merge targets, but that has been ruled out . . . I can see that they might want to scout ahead, but why prisoners? If for information, why college students?"

Intel fielded that one. "They were picking up some healthy young people to merge with. Probably planning to pre-position them for merging with the first people out onto the target world. They . . . taunted the kids with details of their immanent deaths."

Ajha's stomach clenched. "I see. Our surveillance of the Helaos shows them in a major rebuilding mode. They slow-merged enough infrastructure that they kept the lights on. And now they're working on repairs to other major installations. I'm delighted to say they seem to have abandoned the magnetics centers. They're using material from them, electronics and so forth, even stripping out wiring. We were planning to scout this week, to make sure they aren't using material from some to repair the rest. It sounds like a strong possibility now. We'll go and find out."

Intel Subdirector Omsi nodded and look to the Director. "We've got their offices and meeting rooms bugged. People with unnoticeable spells got them as close as possible to the leaders. So far they have only talked about raiding the other worlds for supplies. Which is why we suspected they had gates."

The Director nodded. "Given their treatment of people on the one merge we've seen, I suppose it was naïve to hope they will settle for stealing livestock and manufactured goods." He shrugged. "All for the short term. They must know they'll have to do it all over again . . . any time now."

Intel Subdirector Omsi scowled and nodded to his Action and Exploration counterpart.

Subdirector Ebko grinned. "In any case, on the dinosaur world, the end result of a very wild encounter was eighteen Helaos prisoners, many of them officers, and the capture of one of their beacons." Ebko waved a dismissive hand. "And various other equipment and weapons, rather the worse for wear after close encounters with dinosaurs, most of which the Team . . . expedited."

Director Ajki leaned back. "Do you mean to say the Helaos got eaten by dinosaurs?"

Ebsa cleared his throat. The Director's gaze swung his way, with raised eyebrows.

"Trampled, mostly. Sir."

"I see." The Director turned his attention back to the subdirectors.

Omsi took over. "Questioning the prisoners has proven difficult. The linguists are up to speed on the language, which is based on something distantly related to Greek, with four thousand years of a very different history changing it. But the prisoners are very stubborn, very strong minded. Despite having no shields and no magic, they cannot be read, and won't say anything other than curses and insults." The subdirector looked a bit wistful. "Pity torture is illegal. But we've only had them for ten days, and most of that was spent patching them up. So we'll get somewhere eventually."

He tapped his comp and brought up pictures. The beacon they'd taken, the analysis, the weapons captured, the range and speed of the vehicles . . .

"We fail to understand their motives. No one in their right mind would want to go there. Their officers have been uncommunicative." The Intel subdirector looked over at Ebsa and Ra'd. "And since we've . . . neutralized their beacon, there's been no other connections to it."

The Action and Exploration subdirector gave the boys a dubious look. "I've evacuated the scientists and placed two Action teams on site. If there's no further activity, I'll think about pulling them back, and just leaving all or part of Team Forty-eight there for security and let the scientists get back to studying their dinosaurs."

They batted it around a bit, brought up a few other things. Ajha begged—with dignity—for cooking facilities and personnel. By the time he'd gotten loose from the senior bureaucrats the youngsters had all disappeared.

Drat. I'd have loved to know what that team did with the Helaos and the dinosaurs.

Chapter Three

Paer slipped out of the crowd as they left the HQ building and they all migrated back to the old warehouse. Paer's guard and Nighthawk's escort both frowning around in disapproval.

"I know, I know. It's old." Ebsa shrugged. "All the new warehouses are closer to the permanent gate area, and this is what science and exploration projects get."

"It just needs a bit of paint." Paer grinned. "I like it. It's scruffy like you." She ruffled his hair, grinning.

"I didn't have time to get it cut, this morning." Ebsa squirmed.

"I like it. You look artistic. But without the suit, I suppose it might be more like unkempt."

Ra'd snorted and started tapping at his comp. "But if we're going to have to stick around here for days, we might as well paint the place. I'll order an air compressor, pressure washer, and paint sprayer."

Nighthawk peered over his shoulder and started grinning. "That's how you paint?"

Ebsa looked at Paer. "I may look Artsy, but apparently Ra'd the one who is going to prove to be really artistic."

Snort. "I am going to paint the warehouse, not a picture. Although some tasteful graffiti might liven the place up."

"Gra what?" Nighthawk wrinkled her nose.

Ra'd looked down his nose. "You don't have, umm, vandalism by mural painters?"

Ebsa and Paer looked at each other.

"It must be one of those Secret Conspiracy To Take Over The World things." Ebsa said.

Paer punched his arm. "It's just . . . oh, man. I can't talk about it."

Ra'd snorted again. "He guessed it, not that I confirmed anything. But no, we officially can't talk about it." He met Nighthawk's gaze for a long moment.

She shrugged. "I'm not allowed to wander around without a keeper, so I'd better go back and report to Disco, not that there was any new ground cover in the meeting."

Ebsa flipped a mental coin and won his bet, as they kissed passionately in full view of the official minder, who would no doubt report this suspicious activity to the subdirector.

Ra'd watched her walk away, then looked around the warehouse. "I'll go collect everything we need. I'll power wash the building this afternoon, and start painting in the morning." He walked out, leaving them staring after him.

"Do you suppose he actually is artistic?" Ebsa grimaced. "I'm having trouble with the idea. But then Ra'd the Good Father blew me away too."

"Ra'd the what!"

"Oh, right, you weren't there when Nighthawk pulled their baby daughter out of a no time bubble, and Oak Nightdaut twisted her daddy around her little finger in two seconds flat."

"Whoa. When did this all happen!"

"About a week ago. Oh, you mean the, umm, well two and a half years ago, after we cleared Nighthawk, she apparently came back for some goodbye nookie."

"And then she kept the baby in a bubble?"

"After three months, she said. She said she wanted Oak to know her excellent daddy from the start, not meet him when she was five years old."

Paer blinked, thinking, or maybe imagining. "You know, I would have paid to see that. Did Ra'd get upset . . . or go all gooey?"

"Oh yeah, I could sell vids, if I had any, which unfortunately I don't. It was precious. Don't tell him I said that. He has proposed marriage four times since, that I know of."

Paer giggled. "Oh, I have got to see this!"

Being confined to the gate area limited the entertainment potential, but there was a movie theatre and several nice restaurants.

And friends of Paer's who spotted them and walked over. Including, unfortunately, the Lying Moron. Off-something-or-other

They all stared down their noses at Ebsa.

"Clostuone? Really Paer!" That was Tayc, the strikingly gorgeous professional blonde. The way she pronounced it sounded awfully close to Take.

"Hey, let's all have dinner at Francisco's." The fluffy blonde was probably brighter than she looked. Hioz. "We can make Pause pay."

Pause—Wpxa—glowered at her.

"Pause lost a bet, last night." Paer glowered at the Moron.

Amsi rolled his eyes. "We'll let him pay off at a cheaper place. Hey Closey, you know any cheap places around here?"

Ebsa tried to look thoughtful. "I dunno. I've been across for awhile. I suppose there's always the main cafeteria if you guys are short of ready cash."

They sputtered at the very idea of eating for free at the employee's cafeteria. Paer giggled into his shoulder.

29 June 2015 @ 06:33 am

Chapter One

1405 yp Fall

"Yes! Paer's comm reads as being home. But turned off." Ebsa scowled at the screen of his comm. "Eat first, see Paer later? See if Paer's even home? She may have left her comm here and gone back across."

Ra'd snorted. "It's almost midnight. She's probably already eaten and is sound asleep. So go wake her up and find out. I'm going to eat, then crash. Remember we've got a meeting tomorrow."

Ebsa looked around the warehouse. The vehicle bay was empty; Team Leader Acty had returned the last crawler to maintenance before heading for a much deserved vacation. He shrugged and headed back out.

Bus service was slow, this late. Paer had an apartment in a nice neighborhood, at the insistence of her bodyguards. The president's daughter might be a trained, active, directorate agent, and frequently assigned across, but when she was home, she got treated like, well, the president's daughter. Living someplace she could be guarded.

Here, that was a nice flat in a seven story building. A small park across the street, other apartments and a few shops up and down the quiet street. Dark, just a few streetlights, the sidewalk in front of the building lit by the glass doors of the lobby.

The doors recognized his implant and opened as he approached. The elevator whisked him up to the seventh floor.

He walked out to see Paer kissing a man in the hallway.

Ebsa recoiled back into the elevator. He reached for the doors as they slid shut . . . then let them close. Staring numbly at the wall while the elevator dropped back to the ground floor. Stupid of me. To have expected anything else. He walked back out to the street and started walking. I'm just a clostuone. I should have expected something . . . something . . . so immaculately timed.

Right out of a stupid movie script.

He turned at the first corner, circled the block at a run. He tapped at his mini comp. Video recording, transmission to storage . . . He eased into the little park from the back. Slight movements, whispers. Didn't sound like necking teenagers, so he slipped quietly closer.

" . . . hoping for a big scene. This is pretty much a bust."

Newsies. The obnoxious sort.

"Nah, her punching that idiot Offe is pure gold. Pity he kept her busy long enough for the Closey to get away. A tearful attempt to convince the lout to not believe his own eyes would have been amusing."

They have hidden cams up in the hallway. Or they've hacked the building security system.

Ebsa found a bench and placed the minicomp for best aim at the group, and across the road at the entrance of the apartment building.

Paer blasted out of the building, looking both directions. "Ebsa? Oh dammit, dammit, dammit!"

A man, and an upright and frowning woman were on her heels. My rival and one of Paer's bodyguards.

"Paer, don't be like that!" He reached for her, recoiled as she whipped around to glare.

"You lying moron. Go. Away."

He stepped closer, trying to loom over her, and the bodyguard grabbed his shoulder and jerked him back.

"Damn it, we need more fireworks, can someone distract the guard?" A whisper in the dark. At least three shapes, two with shoulder mounted video recorders.

"But I love you!" The Lying Moron didn't know when to just shut up.

"And I don't give a damn. I told you, I have a guy. You are just one of my colleagues that I used to occasionally socialize with. So. Just. Go. Away."

"No, no. I refuse to give up on you. Just because an old boyfriend showed up and embarrassed you is no reason to throw away what we have."

"One!" Paer patted her pockets. "Dammit, I don't have my comm."

The bodyguard lady stepped between her and the man, offered her a comm.

Ebsa hastily pulled his out and switched it to text only.

Paer frowned at the comm, tapped at the virtual keyboard.

Ebsa, where are you. I need to talk to you.

He grinned and retreated a bit. Recording the paparazzi recording it all in the park across the street. He stepped to where he could see her face before he sent it. And watched her eyes widen and her lips turn up and part, spread into a grin as she fairly glowed.

"Ebsa, you, you! Oh, dear One, no wonder I love you!" She charged across the street.

The bodyguard charged after her, pulling out a flash.

The three newsies flinched back in the sudden light.

"You again. Not enough news, you need to create some? Trying to look big, here in the cultural backwater so you can get a job in Paris?" She spotted Ebsa and pounced.

After a nice long kiss with lots and lots of body contact, Ebsa pulled his thoughts back together. Glared at the woman reaching for his comp. "Don't touch. Private property."

"You have no right to record me!"

"A public figure on public property? Sorry, but I do. Or are you too small and insignificant to count as a public figure?" Ebsa watched her grit her teeth and refuse to admit it. Then he looked over at the bodyguard. "On the other hand, from what they were saying, I think they must have a cam somewhere up there. Is the hall public space? It's behind security doors. Or perhaps they hacked the building security system, and that is definitely illegal."

"Why you pathetic little Clostuone. I will blacken your name . . . "

Ebsa glanced at the minicomp.

The newsie hissed. "Oops." She swung at it.

Paer snapped over and snatched it. So fast the newsie was left blinking. She handed it to Ebsa.

He turned a contemptuous shoulder to the reporter. "So. I just finally escaped from another all day debriefing, and I'm starving. Why don't we go out for a midnight snack? Your guards will probably appreciate having an opportunity to sweep your apartment for any pickups." Ebsa steered Paer away, kept between her and the glowering Lying Moron and headed down the street.

Around the corner, Paer stopped him and put her arms around him. Crying silently.

He rubbed her back and held her.

"I thought they were my friends. Then they trapped me like this."

Ebsa hugged her harder. "No one ever does anything from pure motives. Just because they might have started with thoughts of getting close to power doesn't mean that they didn't come to value you for yourself, once they got to know you. Which just makes them all the more ready to pull dirty tricks to get rid of an obstacle."

She loosened her grip long enough to thump him. "Stop being so logical. Off didn't care how much he hurt me. It probably never occurred to him that I would be hurt. Probably all the rest of them are the same."

Ebsa shook his head. "Nah, judge them as individuals. Group guilt or innocence . . . is just going to make your job more unpleasant."

"Ugg. They're a pack of analysts. They can analyze my middle finger." She shook her hair back and released him. "C'mon, let's find a restaurant. We can both talk all around the classified stuff we can't even tell each other. I just got back a couple of hours ago. Had dinner with my friends."

"S'all right. There's plenty of other stuff we can talk about. Did I mention we were incubating some Triceratops eggs? Wait till you see the pictures of the hatchlings!"

"Ohhhh! You know me too well. If you ever get all manipulative, I'll be in real trouble."

"Tell you what. If there's anything so important that I'd try to get you to get your dad to do something . . . I'll just tell you about it, and you can use your own judgement about whether to just tell your dad about it and ask him to do something about it."

"There, see? You know me too well."

The auto café was . . . close, handy, and at this hour, empty.

Ebsa wolfed down a quick noodle and beef dish, ignoring the excess salt and chemical aftertaste, while Paer nibbled cookies and watched his recording of the baby dinosaurs hatching.

"Oh, I wish I'd been there." Her comm beeped. She glanced at it. "The guards say the apartment and hallway are clean. Now. C'mon. You can tell me all about Nighthawk and Ra'd on the walk . . . oh, never mind. The ride home."

The nondescript car pulling up to the curb was no doubt armored and vastly over powered.

"My place." Paer added. "I may be sent back in three days, so I'm hanging on to you as much as I can." She sighed. "I have a meeting at eight."

Ebsa cocked his head. "So do I. HQ. Room 820."

"Oooo. I think we may be able to talk to each other about all sorts of stuff, tomorrow."

They didn't talk a whole lot after that. They did get some sleep.

Chapter Two

Ajha Withione Black Point hated large projects.

And spying on the Helaos was very definitely a large project. The only good thing about it was that the Helaos couldn't detect the Disco gates. They had five, now. Four to various places on the Cannibal world, and one to the world it appeared to be taking aim at.

The whole phenomena was frightening. Ordinarily the once-parallel and now drifting apart worlds never touched. Never rejoined. There were some odd worlds they were watching that seemed to be converging with glacial slowness. Becoming more and more alike. Similar people marrying, identical children being born. The same politicians being elected. Historians arguing about two—or more—interpretations of recent history which were all accurate on several close worlds. In theory, they would eventually match so exactly that they would become one.

The Helios world was something else. Some cataclysm in their past had ripped a piece of their universe loose and sent it careening through the inbetween, and through other worlds. From their reading, those passes had had little noticeable effect, until the accidental alignment of some high tech power storage devices forced a merge between the Helios world and the ordinary one is was passing when the storage towers were activated.

A second cataclysm.

That had been no gradual merging of identical places and people. That had been a disaster of appalling proportions, with any similar material snapping into congruence with each other. Just the buildings cracking and falling into each other would have been deadly enough. But everything merged. The people who merged into people survived. Many of them only long enough to be crushed by collapsing buildings . . . Trees, animals, crops . . . the physical world, with slight differences in fault lines, rivers . . .

Once the earthquakes and fires had subsided, the surviving Helaos had regrouped, and studied the disaster.

Because a few of them had seen an opportunity. Their ruling council—the Senior Forum was the closest translation—had overlapped and merged with a boys prep school. The aging rulers had found themselves rejuvenated. Their personalities and memories had swamped the shallow experiences of the more malleable youths . . . and they wanted to do it again, as often as needed, to live forever. The deaths of billions meant nothing to them.

They'd invented gates, they'd figured out how to slow the merge so that compatible (but always younger) victims could be selected. They'd murdered four worlds' worth of people. Each time, ripping away that Earth from its universe. And gradually slowing their cannonball crash through the multiverse. According to the Helaos' calculations, the merge two years ago had slowed them so much that the next world was going to capture them, whether they wanted to be captured or not. Their careening path ended here. This time, that world, was going to stop the Helios world.

And thank the One the brief possibility that it might be the One World has been ruled out! Along with the dinosaur world. Pity, that. It would have been a much more fitting end than the actual target, thinly populated with nomadic hunter societies

"And there's no civilization, no cities full of people to pick and choose from." Ajha kicked back in his chair. "So, ArcHelaos Nikostratos. What are you going to do?"

"That's the big question, Boss." Fean had come up silently behind him. "I just talked to Q. She says Disco has removed every native from the target world—of course she called them 'people'—that they could locate and dropped them on a nice new world. She says they didn't seem to appreciate it, but Disco didn't give them a choice. She sent you a report on the pattern of the Helaos' power gate. She says their surviving population is small enough to evacuate, and large enough to be a real problem if they pick an inhabited world."

"Good." Ajha glanced at his watch. "How'd it get so late?"

"Did you forget to eat lunch again?"


"I can't say I'm surprised, but come and eat something." Fean opened the door and held it. Glowering at him.

"Yes, Mother." Ajha grinned at her expression and stepped out into a beautiful fall day.

The observation base was on an Empty World—one with no native intelligent species—and primitive enough that there were few animals, including insects. Permanent gates at one end of the base led to One World, Earth, and Embassy. On the other end, the gates to Cannibal and the target. The pavilion sported top line autovends, autovats, and fabricators from both Earth and One. The food was horrible. The camp manager had requested a real kitchen and a real cook, but nothing had happened yet.

"I've even been too busy for a bonfire. Not that I have any interest in cooking for this crowd . . . "

Fean snickered. "I hope you realize how cute it is to see you intimidated and behaving yourself in front of all the bureaucrats."

"I am not intimidated. I am making sure that we present a united front to the Earth."

She grinned. "You mean so they don't see you arguing with your bosses until they are reduced to yelling at you?"

Ajha refused to acknowledge that hit, and punched up something innocuous from the fabricator.

"I've got about eight reports to read, before the meeting tomorrow. One only knows why they need this one so suddenly. Eh. I hate meetings."

Fean grinned. "Hob is perfectly capable of minding the monitors while you're back home. Just be sure you get back here before the baby analysts return."

"Umm. Might be interesting, to see if they could take charge and accomplish anything on their own. But I'm not going to experiment on anything this important." Ajha looked at the generic sandwich. Erstaz bread colored to look like whole grain, and a bit lumpy. But not the right sort of lumpy in the rather gooey . . . thing. The filling would taste vaguely like ham and cheese—if one ignored the faint chemical aftertaste. "Will you still work for me if I cry like a baby and beg for a cook and real food?"

28 June 2015 @ 06:45 am

So, lots of stuff happens, Xen and Q delay the expansion of the shadow zone until most of North America is evacuated. Of course, some people refuse to go, and in other nations, there's complete disbelief. So despite the gates, few people go anywhere. When the merge completes, billions die. Lots of big gaps in the writing, so I'll just jump to the end, to give you an idea about why the Oners are spending so much time and effort studying the Helaos.

Nikostratos looked gravely into the vido. "Brave Helaos, the merger is over and now we must pick up the pieces and persevere. I spoke out about rushing this merge, once the ability of the damos to evacuate became clear. But our leaders, having already merged themselves, their families and cronies already merged . . ." He looked away, then back. Public moments of emotion needed to be very brief and very rare. "I have arrested Silouanus and Usiris, but too late, and so some of the blame for this disaster is mine as well.

"We will begin with a census, for the purposes of distribution of stored food supplies. Then we will begin to spread out again . . . "

Behind him, Pent Tarasios led the former ArcHelaos away. Tarasios's wife and children had survived the merge. Nikostratos wished he'd thought of the ashes and water trick earlier. He suspected that the slow merger with the unstructured inorganics had enabled the bodies to take the chemicals into their cells without loosing the cellular structures. The survivors of the process had been in the shadow zone for two days, slowly absorbing new world matter. The application of large amounts of new world water and chemicals at the end had completed a process probably a quarter done already.

Well, it was over. Now he had to form a stable society with shockingly few women. He rather thought that all the trans should be surgically altered to the female this time. They were going to need whores, with all these single men.

He'd need to be seen taking an interest. The greenhouses would be going up quickly, he'd tour as soon as there were green sprouts to form a backdrop of hope. He'd sent Vaslios and the workers to the farms around his citidel. Hopefully they'd find enough livestock to ensue a future. Other farms will have been doing the same. He made a note to send people to the former officials' farms to check. Perhaps he'd distribute them to the officers that had proven so loyal to him.

He spotted the Ertecno standing stiffly to the side, and finished his prepared speech, cut the broadcast.

"Ertecno Okenpkoros. You have the look of a man with unwelcome news."

"The merge has slowed the Universe so much that the next merge is certain to be the last. We will stop, a member of the greater Universe again."

Nicostratos frowned. "Did you not hear me, there will be no more merges."

The Trans smiled sickly. "As slowly as we are moving, we will merge naturally. One final fast merge. In two years. There are several other Worlds near. The most likely is a primitive place, with very few scattered tribes of humans."

Nicostratos nodded thoughtfully. "There are options. We will use the Gates to find a different World, not one in our path, and we will evacuate to it."

Okenpkoros' expression lightened. He nodded thoughtfully. "We have seen Worlds at all stages of development. We must balance a desire for modern living against the growth of populations as technology advances."

"Yes, we need a small population that we can dominate. We will simply have to supply the tecno ourselves." He looked thoughtfully at the trans. "You've had three male only merges, haven't you? We might raid, and move some selected young men to this World we're bound to merge with, get you trans one last addition of maleness."

"The old men and women would be glad of that as well." Okenpkoros looked eager. "We have time to satisfy all. We can simply hold a small shadow zone while we match people up with captives from all over."

Nikostratos smiled. "Indeed. Get me a plan, with your staffing and financial requirements. What of the equipment?"

"Oh, much of it needs a solid workover, but we didn't have any problem with finding the right materials for the critical parts to merge with. They only evacced damos. We'll have a gate working inside of weeks."

"Excellent. We can keep the troops busy scouting out a new home, and new people to merge with as well."

27 June 2015 @ 06:32 am

Chapter Four

Pent Adrastos was worried. There were troubling rumors that the target was evacuating Damos faster than the shadow zone could be extended.

His company had been next up for a controlled merge, but instead they were being sent to the front. _Battlefield merge_ was an insult, it was what you called someone to imply that they were ugly, clumsy, stupid, disloyal . . . And now it was a risk they were all being ordered to take.

His Exis and Eptas had his dokastrato, his two hundred men, ready for him to address. Poor sods.

"For some of you, this is your first merger. To be ordered into a battlefield, unmerged is intimidating. Let me tell you that for many reasons, this is the best way.

"You will be facing – and will merge with – young men, healthy, fit soldiers. Men much like yourselves.

"You will be fighting and so busy that you haven't the time for the thoughts that – trust me – haunt the mind while standing in line waiting for a controlled merge.

"There will be greater disorientation, and a longer primary period of integration.

"We will be hitting a fortified position, but with the merge the walls will be weakened and collapsing. Stay away from the civilian areas. The already merged soldiers and techs will deal with them. Seek the soldiers. Use the gas grenades, the concussion grenades. Kill as few as you can, and don't touch dead bodies. Make me proud today. Go in there and fight. _Take_ what you want."


Memphis was over-run while they were at lunch.

Ben and Jeff's uniforms consisted of blue jeans and a tee-shirt with "Pittsburg Militia" printed front and back on it. They were still doing police work, or something resembling it. Going door to door with evacuation notices, for the most part, and trying to find out where lost family members had gone, hustling drunks and the homeless onto buses to go to the nearest Corridor and on through a Gate. The Dimension Cops were getting nervy about one of the jumps engulfing a Gate and had backed them all up to the West Coast on one side, and Florida on the other. Now Corridors went all the way and one drove directly through to wait in line for the Gate.

At least all the North American Gates were going to the same World. One could hope families would be able to get together again.

They were in line in the mess hall, Jeff waving at Melody in her Tee-shirt and Gwen in her under armor suit when the lights fritzed and walls started forming up around them and through the high school gymnasium they were in.

They jumped toward the tables, stumbling as something like molasses pulled at their heels and a glance back showed the wall, getting more solid by the moment. A brief scream was cut off and the front half of Barry Sanger slumped, hanging from the wall. Debris rained down from the ceiling and there was a rush toward the light, where a window coincided with a door. Ben checked his first panicked rush that direction. A stampede would no one any good right now. Jeff helped Melody off the ground, and Ben opened a functional door in the otherworld's wall. It opened into a long hallway with light at both ends.

"Left!" Gwen snapped and as soon as he was clear, passed him at the run. He sprinted behind her, losing ground. He glanced back to see Jeff and Melody leading a pack of people after them, more people heading the other direction. Gwen led them out the door and turned toward the hastily built ammo bunker.

As enemy troops charged around the corner, Ben raised his rifle and started shooting. 'Slow them down' and 'get them away from us' was at the forefront of his mind as an armored, tracked vehicle followed the troops. Gwen was past the foot troops but the tracked vehicle turned and accelerated to cut her off. Ben stopped and took better aim, trying to hit the slits where the driver or commander probably sat, while it turned away from him and something hit him from the side, a horrible clingy thing that crawled inside his bones and muscles and yelled at him. His head felt like it had been spiked. He felt the smack of hitting the ground and twisted over, flopped in a horribly unco-ordinated fashion, to see a man taking aim at Melody. He kicked out and the man tripped into her, cursing, a note of horror in his voice.

"Shit on the devil! Not a woman, not a goddamned woman! What are you doing! Get away from me!" the voice warbled from high to gravelly bass and they melted together, thrashing on the ground.

What language was that? How did I understand that?

Ben tried to look for his gun, but couldn't move. He could feel his limbs jerking spasmotically as the pain hit and he could do nothing at all. In his field of view he watch as the enemy soldiers cleared the battle field by the simple expedient of melding with the out numbered defenders. Perhaps half the attackers wound up lying about on the ground, helpless as their nervous systems either did, or did not adjust to the new reality. All the defenders were down, as far as he could see.

After some uncertain amount of time, the enemy troops still on their feet circulated, searching through the merged soldiers laying about. Ben was dragged out of the dim daylight into the shade of a building, side by side with other twitchers. Other bodies were left lying, and eventually taken away.

_Dead._ Ben decided. He could hear his heartbeat. Speeding and slowing, perhaps irregular and he became obsessed with listening to it, wanting to live. He flexed his fingers, toes and slowly worked his way back into control of his body. His head settled down to somewhere between foggy and aching. He turned it carefully, then pushed himself up to a sitting position. The man next to him had some fancy doodads on his uniform, which was all patch worked with what looked like the under armor suit of a Guardian. The man, person rather, met his eyes uncertainly. Something about the cheekbones, the color of the eyes, the breasts . . .

"Gwen?" He kept it to a whisper. "If you can take control over the guy you've merged with, keep it quiet. We need to pick our chance to do something worthwhile."

She gave a jerky twitch that might have been a nod.

He couldn't stand, but crawled instead, looking for traces of familiar faces in the slowly recovering bodies.

Jeff, the man he thought was part Jeff was unconscious. The man/woman that was part Melody was still looking horrified, but it was Melody's eyes that were full of terror. "Stick to me, Jeff or Gwen if you can. Pretend the other one won. We'll get out of here." He hoped he could keep that promise and tried to get to his feet.

"Are you all right, Sir?" An enemy in Epta's checks. Haemon.

"Epta Haemon? I've been better." Like, before I automatically answered in this other language.

"Yeah, I did a battlefield merge last time. Sucks bricks. But you're already on top. You'll be fine." He glanced aside uncertainly.

"Go. I'm not in any shape to be giving orders yet."

"Thanks, Pent." He trotted off looking relieved, and Ben searched his ragged and pieced clothing.

A chain around his neck proclaimed him to be Adrastos, with the rank of Pent, and to have the first blood type.

His wallet disintegrated as he tried to open it, the contents useless soft lumps that fell apart in his hands.

The Gwen merge was sitting up and also searching for identity papers. Dog tags. "Just call me Kambyses."

"Master Sergeant, by the checks. Epta, rather." Ben told her, trying to deliberately speak the other language. "Do you remember what your alter ego did?"

"He was the driver of the track. You?" She looked around. There was a tracked vehicle abandoned, halfway to the armory. All hatches open.

"Pent - captain of a ground company." He frowned. "I think we're expected to be out of play for about a week." He took a slow scan around, staggering as he lost his balance. "What happens to the people who don't merge?"

"Everyone merges, sir."

Ben turned to find a medic walking down the line.

"If there aren't any people available, they'll start merging with animals and plants, anything with about the right atoms. We all have some loose atoms like that, where the match wasn't perfect."

"Oh. Yeah." Ben rubbed his temples. I remember, but those aren't my memories.

"The guy you merged with must have been really close to your size and relative proportions. You're doing remarkably well. And without the brain damage, there'll be less amnesia or blank spots."

Gwen took a look down her shirt. "What about _this_! Can't you do something?"

"Err, no sir. That's one of the reasons we prefer a controlled merge following a brain pierce. No trans-genders and fewer fatalities." He looked away in embarrassment. "See your CO about harassment. It'll get better. Your body will keep adjusting for about a week, as it sheds."

"A week. Sheds. Right." Gwen rubbed her legs. "Why am I numb?"

"The native you merged with wasn't as muscular as you are, and thus didn't have nerves out there. That will get better but not go away completely. Once the merge is complete, and we spread out, settle down, there will be surgical options." He was working down the line quickly, and stepped out to quickly shine a light in each of Ben's eyes. "Excellent. You can always tell from the eyes when something gets scrambled in the brains." He turned away and checked Gwen, nodding in satisfaction, and kept moving.

Ben staggered over and sat down. Lowered his voice. "Xen and Q had spells they said would help our personalities win out over the enemies'. If that is what is happening, we need to be very careful who we approach. Jeff and Melody were both around them. Anyone else you recognize, speak to carefully. We need to get weapons, maybe that track if you can drive it. I've got some leftover memories from Adrastos, but I don't feel his personality at all. No conflicting loyalties. I _think_ I'm glad the language stuck."

Gwen cocked her head, nodded slowly. "Yeah. I have no desire to help these parasites at all. Thank God."

"And mind how you curse. Demons, devils. Spit on the devil I feel like shit." He stood up and turned the face the men approaching. He felt heavy, slow and unbalanced.

"Excellent. An officer on his feet." The Tesser nodded.

Ben saluted clumsily. "Tesser Aias. How is the jump going? We seem to be encountering very few civilians."

The Tesser grinned. "Ha. Trust you to get back on your feet fast, Adrastos. Glad to see the brain is working as well. They are evacuating. That's good, in as much as we are mostly merging with soldiers – healthy young men. Bad, in that we aren't getting enough of them fast enough to prevent bad merges among our civilians. Going to be a real shortage of women if this keeps up, but I suspect we'll find them all in another jump or two. We've got to be near the critical portion." He cast a jaundiced eye over the twitching bodies. "I _hate_ battlefield mergers. But they are a fact of life, and since you're in such good shape, I'll leave you in charge of getting this group back into fighting order. Try for a week."

"Sir." They exchanged salutes and the Tesser walked on and around the corner of the building.

"Damn." Ben looked around cautiously. Ran a rough head count. Well, here was his company. His dokastrato. Two hundred miscellaneous soldiers. Friends or enemies? How to tell without giving himself away?

"Well, we have seven days to figure something out."

26 June 2015 @ 04:41 pm
If you want to see the almost final product, and, of course, typo hunt.