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matapam
03 December 2016 @ 11:47 am

Chapter Six Nalda

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Full Moon

Earth, Jupiter, Saturn 17*

Del thought about taking herself out for an early dinner . . . but the air, while hot, was also dry. No sound of motorcycles. No sound of drums. She hiked up the hill behind the house and sat to watch the sun set. The cow wandered closer, and eyed her suspiciously. Then it laid down twenty feet away to chew its cud or whatever cows did when they were just laying around. Across the fence to the north, a trio of horses looked her over, decided she wasn't going to dispense sugar cubes, and wandered away again. I ought to at least brush Missy . . . she's practically mine.

A faint rustle in the dry grass . . . a thin black dog circled around her, and slid under the fence and into Bev's pasture.

Overhead, the sky darkened to a deep blue. the western sky glowed golden and as the sun sank, deepened to orange, to red, a faint ripple of color . . . Surely we're too far south for an aurora! A flick of wind raised dust devils. One blew over the cow and it lunged up and fled down the hill.

The sun was gone, the colors faded, the blue deepened. Her eyes adjusted to the light . . . she had a shadow. She turned. The moon was rising over the trees. Just past full, a faint eroded edge away from perfection.

The dry grass rustled, a bit of cool air brushed against her bare arms. The delta breeze, Mother always called it. Adiabatic winds, if I remember rightly from science classes. I remember as a teenager, camping in the backyard, and the relief almost every night, and the sticky discomfort when it failed.

It was different, in Pasadena. But I still liked camping in the backyard. I was camping out, babysitting Prissy, when the police came, about the car crash . . .

Del jumped to her feet and walked back down the hill. No point in remembering the bad parts. I'll work at getting to know Prissy better. And anyway I'll need to come back for more clearing and cleaning.

***

Sunday they hauled out more news papers. Patty left a bit early, so Del bought a sandwich and took it up the hill to eat. The cow peered out of the barn, but looked suspiciously up the hill and didn't follow her this time. Suspicious my ass, it's probably nice and cool in there.

The black dog—surely part german shepherd, not coyote—looked so wistfully at her sandwich that she tossed him half. It inhaled it without chewing, and vanished back into the tall grass.

The late afternoon was so golden and peaceful that even the odd hunched form below her on the slope wasn't alarming. Del shaded her eyes from the late afternoon sun, stood up and walked closer.

"Hello?"

The figure turned; an elderly woman with a basket. "Oh, hello, dear. I didn't know any young women lived out here."

"I just came out to . . . " Del trailed off as she looked down the hill. No farm house. No barn. Weedy furrows with the stubble of some grain harvest. She walked stiff legged down two more steps. "What?"

The old woman turned toward her, and stepped . . . inside her with a gluey sticky sensation that sent shudders down Del's spine. Her brain felt like it was trying to squirm away from foreign ideas, and she would have whimpered, but she didn't seem to have vocal cords . . .

"Oh dear. Oh, Sophia! I thought we'd both dodged the Hunter, last month." Del put her hands to her moving lips. "And you're a bit young for this, but I don't think there's anyone else around. Hmm, you don't believe in magic. What a pity. All that native ability and my knowledge won't do you any good if you don't know you can do it." There was an odd sucking pull and Del staggered away from the woman and sat down on the summer dried grass of the slope.

"What was that!" She scrambled away, her voice was high in panic, she panted for breath. Sweating in the heat, chilled to the bone.

"The Alignment, Dear. Let's see. Not quite a month to go until we reach the peak of stress. When Jupiter and Saturn on one side and the Sun on the other stretches reality, and things leak through the weak spots. The narrower the angle everything falls within, the stronger the effect And the Moon can help or hinder. The next two months, those will be the most dangerous times. And the most advantageous as well. When the Change can happen. When all thirteen Worlds can trade both the best and worst they have to offer. The Worlds can accept or reject either. Choose wisely."

"What? You stay away from me!"

"It makes me uneasy, that it's starting a full month ahead . . . Be careful on the Full Moon as well as the New Moon. Oh dear, if this is as strong as I fear . . . every full and new moon could stress the weak spots for years . . . I wish I still had access to the . . . "

Del blinked sun blinded eyes and backed up, away from the strange . . . nothing. She shaded her eyes and looked down hill again. There was the house, the horse barn, the old dairy. No old woman. She took a deep breath. Released it. Her hands were shaking.

"Calm down. I fell asleep, sitting up on the hill and had a nightmare. That's all."

She rubbed her arms, the skin of her hands rough. Dry and old looking. "Very weird. Was that my subconscious telling me 'more hand lotion in the low humidity!' Ha, ha." She rubbed her hands on her jeans. Old and worn, suitable for cleaning a disastrous mess, they ripped a bit more.

Then her careful control slipped and she bolted down the hill, and into the barn.

The black and white cow was there, looking past her. Head up and alarmed, but nothing was in sight. The sloped pasture was empty. Dry. The breeze whipped up a dust devil, golden in the setting sun.

"What was that?" Her voice was shaking and high. She was panting, woozy. She cupped her hands over her mouth. This was no time to hyperventilate.

The cow snorted, shifting a bit, clearly uneasy.

"And where were you, eh?"

The cow looked from the hill to her, and apparently found her uninteresting. It looked back up the hill and shook her impressive horns. Fortunately she seemed to be threatening something out there, not Del. Up close, the cow was huge. She could barely see over its back and the shoulders were even higher.

"Huh. Disappearing and taking the house and barn with you. Guess I shouldn't talk to animals, either. People will think I'm crazy." She breathed into her hands for another minute. The Universe stayed where it ought to be. "I must have nodded off. Had a nightmare. Stress at work, and jet lag and all."

The cow snorted, as if amused. Del reached over the inside wall of the draft horse sized stall and found the switch. The modern lights in the ordinary old barn banished all shadows and calmed her further. She let herself out of the stall. The cow left her post at the door, forgetting her scare—which had probably been caused by Del's panic attack—and wandered back out to the pasture.

She turned the light off as she let herself out the front door. She shivered a bit at the memory of her dream up on the hill. Silly. Just had a case of nerves. The sun was still well above the western ridge, the sky was light, the yard sunny. Nothing scary at all.

After the strangeness up the hill, the house looked cheery and bright. Normal. She hustled across the yard and locked the door behind her.

Not quite a month until . . .

No. I just dozed off and dreamed . . . something very odd.

***

Early Monday morning she hauled the trash out to the curb. The dawn light was silvery as the sky lightened.

Turned and froze at the sight of the girl. Twelve? Thirteen, perhaps? Naked, dirty, cringing and frightened. Her gaze darted around, as if looking for a place to hide.

"Are you . . . all right?" Del swallowed. The girl was obviously not all right. "Come inside, we'll call the police." She held out a hand.

The girl stared at it, glanced up at Del, obviously surprised. She reached across, right hand to right hand, turning and backing into Dell with that same sticky, horrible sensation . . .

The stranger wanted to merge? With a worthless hornless fugitive?

"Hornless?" Del croaked, staring at hands that suddenly seemed smaller, thinner. Ragged nails that had never seen polish.

The girl cringed—they both cringed, their bodies merged—"Se behah . . . I cannot change for the Dance. I cannot hunt. I am the hunted."

"Who hunts you?" Del remembered the dance, the satyr . . .

"Yes, him. The King of the Dance. The Hunter. My father." Tears ran down their face. "When my moon times came, I could not answer the call. My one year's grace is up, now I must run. Soon they will catch me, and I will be the sacrifice to the Moon Goddess."

"Why are you here?"

"The nexus is close, I thought I could escape to another world, but I can't, I can only merge. And that, only while the wave is flooding outward. The ebb will pull me back under."

The edge of the sun cleared the trees on the ridge. Del straightened blinked in the bright light . . . Of course there was nothing. No naked waif, either inside or outside of herself.

"I really wish those odd . . . dreams would stop." She hunched her shoulders and felt her tee shirt rip in the back. It was old, and getting worn.

She looked around. The world was normal. Except when it wasn't.

She walked around the house and stared up the ridge. The nexus, the weak spot, the dancing floor. Am I really going to turn my back on this . . . insanity? Never find out if it's real? Or if the trash in Aunt Sophia's house was growing psychedelic mushrooms?

What if it is real?

What if it keeps happening?



Chapter Eight Fly NYC

Monday, 6 July 2020

Waxing Crescent

Earth, Jupiter, Saturn 16*

Delphi showered, dressed, and took Prissy out for a farewell lunch.

"I'll be back July 17th. If you can possibly get out here next Sunday, bag up more nasty cushions and put them out for the garbage men."

"Right!" Prissy's eye lit. Apparently have a filthy old house to herself was better than babysitting.

Probably true, from what I've seen of the kids!

***

The flight was bumpy, the cabin lights acted odd, with sudden shadows flitting by. Blasts of chilly air . . . Del staggered into her shared apartment at three in the morning. Set the alarm for seven and collapsed.

She managed to get to work before ten.

"How was the funeral?" Marti the receptionist-and-everything-else looked obscenely perky and bright.

"Meh. It was a funeral. I met a bunch of her lady friends, a couple of guys whom I hope saw her as a motherly figure. My little sister and I tried to de-junk her house. Ugg! Turns out she was one of those old women you hear about, never throws anything out? I've already got reservations to fly out, the weekend after next. The boss is going to scream."

Marti nodded. "He has some people in for a financial audit, from the company that is thinking of buying us. I'd recommend just getting to work and keeping your head down, for now."

Del huffed out a breath. "Well, sooner or later one of those companies will actually buy us, and then we'll find out if we still have jobs."

"Yeah. Depressing thought, that."

At home, Vanessa and Kerry comparing weird dreams.

"Ha! I've been living weird." They all laughed at her descriptions of the piles of trash, howled at her descriptions of the "Alien brain sucker.". They ordered pizza, drank wine. The other two "owned" the lease on the apartment. Del had sub let their extra room three years ago, when the previous occupant—a mutual friend—had married. She still dreamed of her own place, and more solitude, but Van and Kerry were good company.

I'd have plenty of solitude in Reilly Creek.

But it was back to work in the morning. Jack had tested her program and left a list of problems on her computer. The man had a twisted mind and could break programs in new and unforeseen ways. Worth his weight in gold. Del sighed and started digging. Nothing like a day of debugging code to make one appreciate hallucinations. Or hallucinatory mushrooms.

A friend was crying on the sofa, when she got home. Van and Kerry had already supplied tea and tissues.

". . . acted weird all weekend." Chrissy glanced up at her, cheeks damp, eyes red. Hot tea and tissues on the coffee table in front of her. She gave a little wave and kept talking. "Then this morning, like, click! All of a sudden he's back to normal and accusing me of acting weird all weekend! We had a huge argument, and wound up screaming at each other." Chrissy wiped her eyes. "So I need a break, some time away from him. Can I crash on the couch?"

No problem.

At work Del got pulled into meeting with the prospective buyers. Explained all the programs she'd worked on the last four years. Got taken out to lunch and found herself being steered into talking about herself. Navy and enough college to get a few certifications . . . they didn't look impressed. Her boss looked depressed. Uh oh.

She worked eleven days straight. "Weekends? What are those? Look Chrissy, I'll pack up more than I actually need for California, so there's some closet space. You take the bed for the weekend, so you at least get some sleep."

She packed Thursday night, took her suitcase with her to work and then headed for La Guardia.


 
 
matapam
02 December 2016 @ 10:36 am

A granola bar for breakfast, then she loaded the car with heaps from the bathroom and headed for the recycling bin. Still full from yesterday's cleaning.

"Drat." She scowled at the dumpster, then turned at the sound of a car . . . Her nemesis rolled down the window.

"There's another one at the old school on Green Point."

"Ah. Thank you."

"Umm, a bit of situational awareness is in order. One of our less sterling citizens is visiting, with a dozen friends, all on their Harleys. They're pretty easy to track, just by sound; we've been getting complaints all night."

"Yes, they toured the neighborhood early this morning. Thank you, I'll keep my ears open."

He gave what might be interpreted as a friendly nod, rolled up his window and drove away.

Del slid back behind the wheel. Where the heck is Green Point? She pulled up a map on her phone . . .

The high school was deserted on a Saturday morning. She spotted the recycling bins at the back of the empty parking lot. California. I've only lived in New York for five years, but I'd already forgotten about everyone driving their own cars everywhere. Even a lot of the students. With her window open in the warm morning air, she been aware of the distant rumblings of motorcycles. She listened carefully. They weren't that close, and what would they do in broad daylight, anyway? She drove across the lot to the bins.

Plenty of room. She offloaded all the newspapers and turned back to her car. The deep rumble intensified, suddenly. The dozen bikers sped around the corner of the building, running on the lawn, crunching over some low bushes. Rude gestures and laughter, a thrown can. They spun a tight circle and revved their engines as they spread out in the parking lot. Raced across the lot and skidded, throwing a few bits of loose gravel to ping against the car.

"Hey, Cunt, come ride with us!" One of them yelled over the rumble.

Del leaned against the car, trying for nonchalant. Raised her voice. "Sorry, I'm busy Saving the Earth from my Aunt's hoard of moldering newspapers."

"C'mon, Bitch, you know you want some." Rude gestures, some explicit suggestions, but they roared off without actually venturing to touch her.

Her hands were shaking. Del swallowed, and walked around her car. "Just a pack of young men making nuisances of themselves. Not really dangerous." She slid into the seat and closed the door. Locked it. "Really."

She drove back for another load. And when Prissy called and said her mother needed her to help at home, Del was relieved. That pretty little girl needs to stay away from those men.

"I'll come help tomorrow after church. For absolute sure."

"No problem. I'm just hauling papers out to the recycle." And I'm going to be listening much more closely from here on out!

***

Once the water was turned back on, both the sink and toilet leaked. Two trips to the hardware store and that was fixed. It doesn't take much to fix these little things, nor to clean up and throw stuff away. Aunt Sophia was either depressed, dirt poor, or both.

Prissy was impressed. "If we clean it, we can stop using Aunt Sophia's bathroom. Then we just need to clear out a bedroom. Maybe this one will be easier than the Alien Base." She tried the next door. It opened an inch and stopped

Del leaned on the door, shoved to force it open. As she suspected, piles of magazines had collapsed against the door.

Prissy peered around her shoulder. "Hey! Here's all the furniture!"

"Umm, yeah." Del didn't like the scampering sounds . . . "Let's get the papers out of here, and see what we've got."

Creaking tables, broken chairs, ripped upholstery, all piled and stacked . . .

"Eep!" Prissy dropped the cushion she'd lifted and levitated about three feet to the door. Mice fled the rude destruction of their home.

Del stiffled a giggle. "Don't worry, they're more scared of you than you are of them."

"Very funny!"

"You know, this is all just going to have to go to the dump. I'll have to hire someone. We've got all the paper stuff out, let's go on to the next room."

Prissy backed out the door. "Good idea! Mice are supposed to be cute little white things in cages!"

Del followed, trying to hide her relief. Mouse traps? Then there will be dead mice to deal with. Maybe something sonic to chase them out?

They cleared the dining room, clearing the cheap battered table and discovering two more wobbly chairs to match the one Aunt Sophia must have always used.

Prissy dashed off at the first sound of her mother's car.

Chapter Seven Two weeks

Monday, 22 June 2020

New Moon

Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn within 31*

First thing Monday morning, Del dumped everything in the fridge into heavy duty garbage bags and hauled them out to the curb. She sprayed down and wiped the fridge, then showered. It was going to be a long day.

She drove to the courthouse to deal with the traffic ticket. There was a line. She sighed and resigned herself to waiting. My flight out isn't until six tonight, so it hardly matters.

She thought that over. No will, that we can find. A mess that's going to take ages to clean and search well enough to go to a judge and swear there isn't a will. She got out of line to seek a place with free wifi. She emailed her boss to tell him she was taking two weeks vacation, and changed her plane reservation.

***

Dell opened the door to the furniture room. "All right. All you mice? You have an hour to vacate the premises, then I'm getting nasty."

Fortunately the mice did not reply.

Then she walked over to the room full of dairy equipment. It wasn't that there was very much of it, but some of the equipment was large, and the rest of it was all over. She thought about the broken table . . . and started shifting milking machines.

Actually, the old battered table in the back room was solid wood. She shifted the cheap table from the dining room into the dairy room and started stacking. The wood table practically fell apart, which made it easier to haul out to the living room. The other stuff was either turned into improvised shelves for the dairy things, taken to the living room to be worked over, or tossed into the garage, to be taken, eventually, to the dump. The mice had apparently taken her advice and departed. Hopefully not for another part of the house.

A run to the hardware store for sandpaper, solvents, scrapers and proper wood glue . . . Spackle and paint . . .

By the weekend they'd whipped the back bedroom, the bathroom and the hallway to the living room into decent shape, and Del had had a bed frame and mattress delivered.

No point in getting more stuff.

Silly to patch the walls and paint them.

Really.

And changing the utilities to her name would just simplify things, and she needed to internet connection . . . it didn't mean she was staying.

***

Another week had the trash cleared. A nice, normal week.

The broom was pathetic. After the seventh old vacuum cleaner she unearthed also failed to work, Delpi gave in and bought a new one. And a broom. And a mop. And lots of spray cleaner.

She found the keys to the truck way back in a drawer behind clothing too old to even give away.

The house started looking . . . like a clean wreck. There were dishes, badly chipped, mismatched . . . real silverware, incredibly tarnished . . . pots and pans, some of which she could get clean enough to dare to cook with. On the single burner that still worked.

And finally, under a table in the last bedroom, they found boxes of documents. Bank account statements. A statement from a stock broker.

"Hmm, an annuity . . . probably it'll end now. We'll ask."

"Well, as three years ago she had a bank account with twelve thousand dollars in it! Wow! Do you suppose it's still there?"

"I doubt it, she was living on something. If we can't find any more recent statements . . . well, we'll have to check with the bank in any case. Ha! Here, we go." Del pulled out a proper file. "The deed to the house, car title, a safe deposit key, tax returns . . . up to three years ago. I guess she hadn't totally lost it and maybe we can find the last three years, I hope . . . and a hand written will."

With Prissy hanging over her shoulder, she worked out the careful handwriting. "As expected, it's all ours. Let's make an appointment with that old lawyer fellow, and finish this. I've used up all my vacation days. I need to get . . . home."

"Do you have one of those super fancy incredibly expensive apartments?"

"No, I have a bedroom in a moderately sized, not too run down apartment in a not too bad part of the city. Which is still a huge chunk of my salary."

"Oh." Prissy looked disappointed. "I thought you might be one of those rich IT kind of people."

"Sorry. In fact I need to get back home before Vanessa and Kerry rent my room to Chrissy. She's crashing there after breaking up with her husband."

"So you've got a bunch of friends? How about boyfriends?" Prissy eyed her dubiously. "You aren't lesbian are you?"

"Nope. No interest in girls."

"We met lots of cute guys at the party. Have you called any of them?"

"No. Last thing I need is a boyfriend clear across the country from home."

***

Old Mr. Peters scowled at the handwritten will. "At least she had that much sense."

The beauty of a small town. They walked to the courthouse, waited a few minutes, spoke briefly to a judge who had known Sophia Jeffries, remember their mother. They walked out with Del as the appointed executor of the estate.

Mr. Peters took down all the bank numbers, and then assigned an associate to go with them to the bank with the safe deposit key.

"In case there is another will. We need to check that first. Thank God she filed taxes . . ."

They walked across the street to the bank, and spent an hour sorting through the papers stuffed into the box.

"Nothing less than eight years old." The young man was getting sideways looks from Prissy. His attempts to look professional and all business were getting a bit wobbly. "You'll need to have a stock broker look into these certificates. I recognize a couple of the company names, but I don't think they're in business any more, but they could have merged."

"Right. I know a man, here in town." Del hesitated, and pulled out the last statement from the stockbroker . . . "Although I'll have to talk to this brokerage as well, so I might as well do both at once." She gathered up all the certificates. "Let's copy them, for the records, and I'll call this number."

Back upstairs a bank manager looked over the old bank statements, with a sneer. "We switched to all electronic statements three years ago. Unless the client absolutely insisted. Mrs. Jeffries did not. Now . . . You've got the certified copy of the death certificate . . . You're the executor, so if you will just sign here and here and give us an email address to start sending the statements to . . . "

Del signed. They left the rest of the details to the associate. She pulled out her phone and called the brokers' number . . . so sorry to loose an old client, just drop by to fill out paperwork and leave the certificates . . .

"Call your Mom. We can go by the stock broker to fill out papers, then I'll drop you at home. Once we sort all the estate out, we'll get separate accounts and split everything fifty-fifty. Including the house, when it sells."

"But you could live here, you could keep it!"

Del opened her mouth to refuse . . . "Umm, do you want it?"

Prissy squirmed. "It's just . . . I always dreamed that Aunt Sophy would change her mind and want me there. I always hoped it would be my home." She looked down and shuffled her feet. "Or maybe you'd come back."


 
 
matapam
01 December 2016 @ 09:35 am

In the bright morning light it all seemed so . . . silly.

Del spotted the woman across the fence, waving. She waved back and walked over.

"Bev Gardner. So sorry about Sophia." She waved a hand at an oversized dusty hulk. "That's Missy, the last of Al's draft horses."

"Oh, my. I'd forgotten how big they were. How old is she? Umm, I'm Delphi."

"I remember you when you were a little girl, always up on a horse or tagging after Al. The old gal must be pushing twenty."

"Oh dear. That's a bit old to sell. I suppose once we sell the place, I can afford to board her."

"Not to worry, I can keep her for now, or put her back out on your place to graze until it's sold."

"Umm, I live in New York, I'll be coming and going, as needed, for the next few weeks."

"She just needs water, and pellets; I can drop by. Don't step on me, Jimbo." A collection of horses had come over to see what was going on. Bev pushed a fat quarter horse away. "I board the local police horses, Jimbo's one of them. Big pussy cats, every one."

"I guess they have to be. Otherwise they'd be more of a hazard than help."

"Oh yes. And these are the others Buck, Tall Boy and Vivi."

Since Buck was a buckskin, and Tall Boy a lot leggier than the others, Adele figured she'd be able to remember half of their names. Not that she wanted to have much to do with the police, but if they were all as picky as that Barclay person she'd probably wind up meeting them all. With or without horses.



Chapter Four Hugh ride

Saturday, 20 June 2020

New Moon

Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn 33*

Armand eyed the Other, the shape changer king. "We can use them."

"They both have the blood of the Enemy." The king tossed his head. "Kill them both. Give the witch no allies in your world."

"No. We should use them, as we used their mother. Their blood is filled with magic, a resource we should not squander."

"Bah. Don't play your games now. This alignment will be even stronger than the last two. The Sun is slow and weak, less able to interfere with the actual merge of the worlds." The king broke off, head turning, ears pricking.

Armand listened. Hooves. Trotting. He'd merged so many times that he had picked up a bit of the senses of the Horned Ones. And a bit of their magic as well. I want more! I want to merge as often as I can . . . but perhaps with magical humans, not these uncanny things. Not that they aren't fun, occasionally. When the strain is enough to merge in the Dance. I could entice yet another girl of that damned family, to merge, to dance, to mate. But no matter what I do to them, it gains me nothing! He shrugged his ire aside and stepped out of the circle. The King disappeared, the trotting hooves were closer. He walked between trees to where he could look down the steep hillside, nearly a cliff. The river was a hundred feet below, the trails a dozen feet above the bouldered riverbed. He spotted the rider, and bile burned his throat. The other man I hate. Strong enough to be a wizard, completely ignorant, unbelieving. He has everything I want, and cares nothing for it. He looks at me and sees a man accused of defrauding his clients. Not a wizard, he never sees the magic in me.

If only I could kill him.

***

Huge Barclay trusted the horse to watch where he was going, so Huge could look at everything else. Or think, and try to get his head back where it belonged. Which was on the job, no matter what. "I worked to get the Chief to see that we needed a Serious Crimes Division."

Buck twitched an ear back at him but didn't otherwise respond. Hugh growled. "I should have ridden Tall Boy. He might have given me a fight and maybe knocked some sense into my head. You're too damned nice. I mean, the Chief finally agreed that we get enough burglaries and muggings and rapes and drug dealing to need a dedicated officer."

He thumped his thigh in frustration. "And then he gave it to Barney!"

Hugh dropped his voice to imitate the Chief's habitual growl. "He's too old to keep running the Traffic Division any more. I won't demote him, so this is where he's going. Traffic is the most important division. All those traffic fines pay our salaries, you know." Hugh slapped his thigh again. "And I had to smile and take it." He lifted his left hand, the one holding the reins and tapped Buck's side with a heel. The sturdy gelding loped down the trail, and Hugh breathed the hot dry air. The California foothills at the end of summer were golden brown with dried grasses, splotched with the dusty green of the local scrub oaks. He slowed the horse and turned him down toward the river.

"What I don't have to do is pass it on to people driving through town. Especially not Sophia Jeffries' niece, eh?"

Buck swished his tail at a fly, and walked on.

The Pioneer Trail was roughly on the same track as the old pony express route, running for miles along the American River. Technically speaking, the federal land along the river was out of his jurisdiction, but with four women raped along this twelve mile stretch this year, it felt like his responsibility. It was all well and good for the Park Police to blame visitors, and the one homicide had been way north, and probably the boy friend . . . But it seemed like the Park Police spent more time ousting the Howler clan from one campground or another than they spent trying to catch the rapist. So Hugh rode the trails at least once a week, as did several other officers. If nothing else, it might keep the perp away from his citizens. Of course, if all the rapes were the action of a single man, he was most likely living in Reilly Creek. And sooner or later, he'd change his pattern enough to commit a crime in the town's jurisdiction.

And then Barney could investigate it.

Hugh shrugged his shoulders irritably and cut sharply uphill. From the crest of the ridge, he studied the new houses that had gone up along southern part of Little Valley road. The new people—defined as living here less than two years, the town wasn't all that clannish—mostly worked elsewhere and just slept here. Most of the houses were built toward the back of the properties, to gain elevation and view. Great huge things. His biggest worry was the rapist deciding to start breaking into houses, instead of molesting campers.

Well, not true. His biggest worry was persuading the youngest Howler kids to stop stealing candy before they started stealing things that would get them into serious trouble. Old Man Howler had given Davy and Sue the evil eye, and they’d been on their best behavior since. Pity the parents of the new teenagers in town wouldn’t do the same. Those kids had a nasty edge that the local's lacked. A spoiled, privileged bunch, with, as the Chief had said, an average of one point two lawyers per family to make his job a nightmare. The only good thing about the whole building boom was that his Traffic Division was happily pulling in fines at a rate that practically guaranteed they could hire a couple of new people. Maybe they could get enough people to start a night patrol out here.

He fought down a grin. A bunch of the new people claimed to be Witches. To have an organized coven. The rumors about them dancing naked at the full moon out here somewhere should make getting volunteers for night patrols easy.

He rode out to the end of Coyote Bar. The sand bar stuck out into the river at a bend, and was a favorite hangout of the local teens. Fortunately the 'park' didn't have any of the amenities that would have brought in hordes of outsiders. The bend in the river gave him no satisfaction. "Barney. Investigating serious crimes. Damn it. I'd better find some professionalism, though, or I can just hang it up and, and . . . " He came up blank on what he could be, besides a police officer.

He rode back up Coyote Bar Road to the first cross street. He had too much personal history on this street. The C Bar Creamery, a small dairy where he'd worked until he went away to the Police Academy, looked decrepit and forlorn. It had closed shortly after he'd left, Al Hyde's daughters and sons-in-law having no interest in taking it over. He turned north on Little Valley. Sophia's house was looking a bit run down, almost flattened, with all these crisp new mansions around with their high ceilings and steeply pitched roofs. The police horses, all four of them, were boarded at the Gardner's next door. He rode on, past the remains of the Zapata place, badly overgrown. It had burned down three years ago, Miguel too drunk to cope with what had started as a small kitchen fire. The property beyond had sold, a fancy show stable for the lawyers' snobby kids was under construction. It was fenced now, in safe plastic rails over taunt cables. A huge arena was gaining a cover. It looked like they were going to install portable stalls under metal roofs, high so they got a cooling draft during the summer. Empty, so far. A cleared space with stakes and strings, where a house would no doubt be under construction shortly. He turned away without going further. The north end of the road had too many memories, too many responsibilities for him to bear. His parents’ ranch. He'd sold the house, kept most of the land. Leased it to a rancher to graze cattle. He could ignore it, forget it.

He rode back to the Gardner's, and their old barn.

"Pretty place down there, isn't it?" Beverly was shoveling out a stall on her own.

"I wonder how those high roofs are going to do in the winter. It's nice in the summer, but that won't cut the winter wind." He hauled the saddle to the tack room.

"I think they must be planning on some sort of barrier, to block off the north side at least." She straightened and worked her shoulders to loosen them. "Have you met them? It's a brother and sister operation. The sister's good looking, you should go introduce yourself."

Hugh snorted. "I think I've done the family thing, thank you."

"Oh, and have you met Sophia's niece? Seems a nice girl, she looks so young!"

"Beverly, you're a horrible matchmaker. Find those nice young women someone a bit less . . . " Likely to take out bad moods on the handiest target.

"Less worn out from raising his two unruly brothers? Hugh, it's been three years since the ungrateful whelps left. And good riddance. You are not to blame for how they turned out—near replicas of your father. But you've got your mother's temper, and picked up some money sense from who knows where. You should lighten up and realize that you are quite a catch. Your life is too empty. At least meet these women, make some friends.”

“I don’t think I know how.” I’ve surely messed up royally. "Anyway, there are two nieces, aged twenty-eight and eighteen. One way too young and the other doesn't seem terribly interested in men. She even resisted Navarr's charm."

"He's a good looking man, makes good money. Of course women notice him, he's worse than that pretty Sheriff's deputy I meet occasionally on the trails. If you'd stop glowering, they'd notice you, too."

"Yes, Mother."

Bev snorted and threatened him with a forkful of manure. "Speaking of cleaning stalls, have you seen Ed Howler lately? He hasn't shown up for two days now."

Hugh thankfully concentrated on the last sentence. "Haven't noticed him in town. Do you think there's a problem? Above the usual?" He finished brushing the horse and led him into the stall.

"Ah, you know how superstitious they are. The old man was saying something about bad omens, Sophia dying and the stars lining up and he was going to have to move the kids again. Ed's been looking nervy ever since. I swear that family . . . Amy's the only one with a college education, and a real job. And you never know which one will—or won't—show up to work."

Huge nodded. The old man, Grant, was the patriarch of a clan of siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews . . . the school district thought they had everyone straightened out, and knew who belonged to whom, but Huge had his doubts about it. Doc MacGee examined mothers and babies and issued birth certificates, but even he admitted that every single one of the babies was born at home and he didn't see them until the mothers felt like bringing them around. The father's names were apparently just guesses.

"If I see any of them, I'll remind them that there's a job out here for someone. One of the teenagers might be happy to earn a bit of extra cash."

Hugh sat down in his pickup and sighed. "Did I really do that? I know Alistair's been dead for a decade, but still, why didn't I catch on when I saw her name?" He looked at the old house as he drove past, but didn't see the overly ticketed Miss Hyde.


Chapter Five Bikers

Sunday, 21 June 2020

New Moon

Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn 32*

The Sunday morning quiet was broken by the sounds of motorcycles. The deep rumble of large ones, not the whine of dirt bikes.

"Beats the hell out of dancing satyrs." Del pried herself out of the backseat of the car and stretched. "And I am not getting used to the garage. It is very much not home."

The roar of motorcycles swelled, rolling in through the open window to fill the garage. She stood on her toes to peer out . . . A dozen bikers. Their black leather and helmets looked slick and reptilian . . . Damn it, was Aunt Sophia a druggie? I swear I'm half hallucinating the oddest things. They were headed east on Coyote Bar Road; the last passed and the rumble faded.

The door from the garage to the house was now clear of trash. There was a bathroom at this end of the house, right next to a laundry room. The washer and dryer had had a clear trail to them, so presumably they still worked. The bathroom . . . was still stuffed full.

"Maybe that should be today's project. Clear the room and see if anything in there works." But for now she wound through the remaining piles to Aunt Sophia's bathroom for her morning routine.

She paused briefly at the return of the roar. The Bikers hadn't stayed long at the river. They turned down Little Valley and cruised past the house . . . the road dead ended half a mile further on, so she wasn't surprised when they came back. She eyed them carefully. Leather jackets. Helmets. Perfectly ordinary. They roared out of sight and hearing, and she turned to eye the remaining work to be done.

A granola bar for breakfast, then she loaded
 
 
matapam
30 November 2016 @ 09:37 am

Chapter Three Funeral

Friday, 19 June 2020

New Moon

Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn within 34*

In the morning, she took two loads of paper to the recycle bin, then, suppressing her squeamishness, took a fast shower in the only working bathroom. It looked too depressed and dismal to be haunted. She dressed in black and headed for the funeral parlor.

Del glanced at the old woman, and felt not the faintest flicker of recognition. I wrote her a single letter, when I graduated from basic. Never got a reply. Never tried again. Too late now.

She stepped away, sat up at the front by the head of the coffin. Stared at the empty room. And sat up straighter as a clatter of footsteps turned into this little room. A cluster of women, one looking like a contemporary of Aunt Sophia's, the others younger. Del heaved a sigh of relief, glad that people had come.

"I'm Elenora Unger. Your Aunt was such . . . an interesting person. Not that she approved of me!"

Elenora looked to be in her mid-forties, trying to dress like an eighteen year old.

Maybe this is all the black stuff she owns.

Behind the women, Prissy edged cautiously in.

The girl tossed a glance at the coffin from a distance, and huddled in a chair in the back corner.

Another woman turned away from the coffin. "So. She really is dead. Interfering old . . . " She broke off with a glance at Del.

Or maybe I'm not gratified.

Del shrugged. "I haven't seen her for fifteen years or so. Once mother married my stepdad and they moved to Los Angeles, we didn't visit much." Never, in fact.

Heads turned. Six women here, at least she had people she interacted with, even if there seems to have been some negative . . . elements.

Elenora's eyes widened. And her smile. "Oh, of course. I'd nearly forgotten. You must be Temple's girl. Temple was a member of our . . . group. Despite her father's attempts to keep her away from us. He was furious, but as we pointed out, we're women. And he could call our dancing sinful, but it was some man that got her pregnant."

"Well, obviously." Del shrugged. So Mom went out dancing with her girl friends? Big deal, they were all underage, then, so they weren't drinking . . . unless they had fake ID.

Elenora introduced the others. No sign of grief or even moderate sadness.

No wonder mother never came back, pack of harpies and perhaps a fundamentalist father. I don't recall that, about grandfather, but then I was ten when we left.

The oldest of the Harpies smiled faintly. "Such a pity Sophia had no children. She really ought to have remarried, after Jeff died."

Del shrugged. She didn't remember an uncle, but there must have been one, since Aunt Sophia had changed her name.

The Harpies swapped knowing glances and filed out, as a man in a dark suit stepped politely aside.

Tall, slim, dark hair with dramatic streaks of silver at the temple . . .

"Miss Hyde? I thought I ought to drop by . . . " The man broke off and glanced over his shoulder as if startled, when Prissy moved. "Oh, err, both Miss Hydes? I was sorry to hear about your aunt . . . "

"So nice of you to come by." Del stood up and stepped forward, keeping her voice firm and business-like. "I am Delphi Hyde and this is my sister Priscilla Mayhew. And you are?"

The man had a nice outdoor tan, but managed to blush. "Armand Navarr." He held his hand out.

She clasped it briefly, pulling away from the slight tightening of his grip.

Handsome, well dressed, looked prosperous. Looking at her. Standing not-really-too-close. His balance was forward, leaning slightly toward her. Sexy as all get out, but . . . the stance is a bit too dominate for my tastes. Really. She wrenched her attention away from his warm brown eyes and stiffened her emotional barriers. Remember? You are going back to New York. This man has trouble written all over him.

"I so admired your Aunt. A strong woman, indomitable. Are you . . . well, I guess asking if you're enjoying the visit is stupid. But I hope you've met some of the locals . . . " His voice trailed off and he glanced over his shoulder, as if to check that the flock of harpies wasn't about to attack him.

"Just briefly. We're busy clearing the house. Once we're done with probate, we'll sell the house, split the money. It'll put Prissy through college, and I will go back to my job in New York." Assuming it's still there, and the company hasn't folded altogether. Realistically, I ought to be looking for a job here. A lot of tech companies shifting inland from Silicon Valley . . .

Prissy circled around to stand beside, Del.

"Ah." His face was hard to read. Relieved? He looked over at Prissy. Leaned towards her. "Do you live with your parents? Nearby?"

"Roseville. I just graduated. I'll be attending Sierra College . . . " She looked around at Del. "Do you think I'll be able to afford Davis right away?"

Del must have looked blank.

"The University of California at Davis. It's thirty miles from my parent's house." The girl shifted nervously, not meeting Navarr's gaze.

Del nodded. "Real estate prices are down, right now, but the land ought to be good for four years of college." I really ought to go back to college, get a real degree to make my experience look better.

"Oh, should we wait to sell it? I mean, I can go to the junior college and live at home . . . "

"Taxes, maintenance . . . " Del looked over at the man. "Do you know anything about the local real estate market, Mr. Navarr?"

"Oh, Armand, please! No, I'm a stock broker." He shrugged. "I only know what I read in the papers, and they refuse to admit we're still in a recession. It'll be another decade before housing prices rebound . . . of course, your best bet is probably to subdivide your Aunt's property, and sell it piecemeal."

"Umm, I suppose so."

He eyed her thoughtfully. "Sophia felt a duty to keep the old place."

"I don't, and I don't think Prissy visited much, either."

"Once. Mother—my adopted mother—wouldn't let me come back after that. And the house is in even worse shape, now."

"So I've heard." The man gave Prissy a toothy smile, and then switched it back to Del. "They called her a witch, around here. Superstitious fools."

"How unfortunate. I'm afraid though that she was just an old woman, living alone." Del eyed the man. "Did you think she was a witch?"

"Oh . . . witch is such a medieval term. Carrying a ridiculous amount of negative associations. I think your Aunt was a very sensitive soul. So was your mother, but wilder, a bit spoiled perhaps, being so much younger than her sister."

"You knew her?"

He shrugged. "She was two years ahead of me all through school. So I didn't know her well."

Del relaxed a bit at that. He would have been fifteen when I was born, so at least I don't have to worry about him being my father.

"She was the Bad Girl we were all warned away from." There was a shadow of a smirk to his expression.

At least I hope to heck he's not my father.

He glanced over his shoulder as another man entered.

The new man paused, his eyes narrowing. Armand stiffened. Not friends, and they definitely know each other.

Armand turned back. "So nice to have met you, my condolences." He stepped away and walked out.

Del eyed the new man. Shorter, broad shouldered, no gray in his dark hair.

He nodded politely, and stood in front of the coffin, looking down. "It was a real shock, finding her. I guess it seemed like she'd live forever."

"Mister . . . ?"

"Oh, sorry. Hugh Barclay. I'm the idiot who ticketed you yesterday."

"Ah. Yes." Del didn't see any need to extend the conversation.

"I took your Aunt's old horse next door to Bev's. Do you know anything about horses?"

"Nothing. I . . . didn't know about the horse. I'll check on her."

Barclay glanced back at the coffin, smiled a bit sadly, and walked out.

Prissy grinned. "Two cute guys. Pity they're too old for me, but . . . "

"No. I'm going back to New York."

"That doesn't mean you can't even date a guy!"

"No." Armand Navarr? Officer Reflecting Sunglasses? No. Just, no. Even if they were both good looking.

And old man tottered in. "Kenneth Peters. Knew her all her life, my daughter's best pal. Wretched woman. I never could talk that woman into being sensible. I was her lawyer. Mind you she didn't much need one, hadn't seen her professionally since her father died. Never could talk her into writing a will. She said once that she'd written one out, but even God might have trouble figuring out where it is, more than a decade later." He looked down into the casket, and shook his head. "Oh, Sophia. You were too young to go."

Del blinked. Mother's older sister. A bigger gap than between me and Prissy. Twelve years, was it? But still . . . "She would have been, what, fifty-seven?" Younger than I'd realized.

The old man nodded. "I'm so sorry. And now it's just the two of you."

An hour later, with no more visitors, Del treated Prissy to lunch at a diner in the old historic district. The funeral director had all the paperwork for the cremation, no point in hanging about.

"Mom wants me to babysit tonight, and threatened to kill me if I ripped her best black dress cleaning house in it."

Del nodded. "The high heels are impractical."

"The high heels are painful. I can't believe anyone wears these things."

"People do all sorts of weird things."



Chapter Four Dance

Friday, 19 June 2020

New Moon

Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn within 34*

Del eyed the old house, and tried to think how she felt about it.

Her grandfather had bought it from his uncle who'd bought it from the daughter of the gold miners who'd decided to stay put. This part, and then that had been remodeled, burned down, rebuilt, knocked down and replaced. Except for the fireplace, she doubted any existing part of it was more than fifty years old.

Technically it was still a farm; Aunt Sophia had kept twenty acres, sold the rest to pay off her sister for her half of the estate, with enough left over to live on.

Crazy old lady, couldn't hold a job.

Pity mother didn't keep the land, instead of putting the money into an over priced house down south, and lost all the equity when the housing market crashed.

The orchard that climbed the ridge behind the house was patchy, with a dozen old trees hanging on. The garden was too small to grow enough to sell, but big enough that the old lady had obviously had trouble keeping it up. The draft horses granddad had driven when she was ten were gone. I need to check with this "Bev" person, about the horse. Maybe she'll want her. Or know how to sell her. The dairy had been closed even before that, when he got too old to keep it up, and either he or Aunt Sophia had apparently sold most of the cows. The gates sagged, the grass was long. Unmowed, almost ungrazed; she'd only spotted a single cow out in the pasture. It hadn't come near, so apparently it didn't need to be milked or fed or whatever one did to a cow on a day-to-day basis.

Del climbed the ridge and watched the sun set. When the last light had faded, she turned her mind to the next three days, and started a mental list. "Clear the house. Clean like mad. Buy paint, trim paint, wire brush, caulk . . ." She looked back down the hill at the old house. No point to it. It'll sell for the value of the land, and not a cent more. They'll tear it down, subdivide the land for McMansions.

A breeze rustled the dry grass, and stilled. She could hear a deep thumping. Drums? A neighborhood kid with rock star ambitions?

Del listened carefully and decided the sounds must be coming from the east. There was a stretch of parkland along the river. Barely maintained. She driven down, out of curiosity. Nothing but the dry California hills. Paths worn into the ground by countless ATVs, a well maintained riding trail, a sand bar with surprisingly little trash. No organized parking, no picnic tables. She remembered riding one of her granddad's draft horses on the trails. Just plodding along in the hot sun day dreaming about heroes and monsters and sword fights. That had all ended when her mother married and moved to Southern California. Her step-dad hadn't approved of her grandfather, and they'd never gone back. Until the accident. She and Prissy had been brought back to their only relative and been grudgingly allowed through the door by their aunt . . . their child protective services escort had taken one look at the house and taken them away, again. Aunt Sophia had made no effort to make her house a home for her nieces. CPS had made no effort to keep the sisters together.

Del shrugged away the bad memories. Look at the house! She was obviously crazy. And I saved enough money to get most of the way through college, after my enlistment was up. Programming, well, it's more about doing it yourself than learning squat in a classroom. Even if the company goes belly up, I'll be able to find another job.

She force her attention back to the present. To not think, to just soak in the warm twilight . . . and hear the drums.

Obviously someone was throwing a party somewhere over the crest of the ridge.

She looked at the quiet house. Back up the hill. She failed to resist. A pair of matching oak trees on either side helped her get over the Federal Park boundary fence, then she walked as quietly as possible up to the crest of the ridge. The full moon was halfway up the sky, but downhill to the left tame lightening flashed. Red and yellow, flickering. A fire? On this dry hillside? No, the flickering was too regular, too intense. A strobe light? She spotted a deer trail in the bright moonlight and slunk down closer. Cars were parked on a dirt road, a small generator was running in a corral of cushions to dampen the noise and an extension cord led back uphill to the north. She followed it to a piece of flat ground. It was quite a set up, a spot light shining upwards through the blades of a small fan that kept strips of colored cellophane in constant motion.

Del choked down a hysterical giggle. Such a safe, environmentally friendly "California" answer to the problem of dancing around a bonfire. The music was artificial as well. The bass beat she'd heard from the barn was now a part of "Primordial." The popular instrumental was heavy on the percussion. It cycled back to the start. The strobe started flashing, synced to the beat. Her heartbeat sped to match the rhythm. Dancers appeared from one flash to the next, caught in mid-motion, distorted, jerky. Flick. The colors from the strobe tinted the naked female bodies. Flick. The animalistic masks made them look almost inhuman. Flick. The lights hit the rising dust like an illusion of the aurora. Flick. It gave the dancers an air of authenticity. Flick. Then it cleared and the masks were obvious. Flick. There was movement in the trees. Flick. But it was gone on the next flash. Flick. Now the dancers looked wild, real. Flick. She shuddered as if chilled and rubbed the goose bumps on her arms. Flick. Odd colors danced in the air. Flick. She stifled a cough as a billow of dust swept over her. Flick. She backed away. Flick. Between one flash and the next, a new dancer on stage. A demon . . . no a satyr. Flick. Complete with a goat's horns. Flick. She tried to think of a disparaging comment. Something amusing. Flick. But this satyr wasn't amusing. Flick. Muscular, dramatic. Flick. Curved horns grew from the mottled hair that matched the spotted coat of the body. Flick. Almond shaped eyes in a muzzled face. Flick. Swollen penis, stiff and hard. Flick. The strobe's stop action flashed, jumped him around the 'fire.' Flick. Here cupping a breast. Flick. There kissing a neck, Flick. Now pulling a woman up against his organ. Flick. One woman was all over him. Flick. A knee lifted.

Del kept backing up, she didn't want to see this . . . orgy in stop motion. Flick. Then he had jumped again. Flick. To kiss the back of a neck . Flick. A woman bent over for him. Flick. Pulling her hips back to his loins. Flick. The demon threw his head up and looked straight up the hill at her. Flick. The air was clear between them and he still looked very convincing. Flick. She backed between two cars, not able to look away for the deer track she'd followed down hill. Flick. His lips peeled back and he keened, painfully high pitched. Flick. He pushed the woman away. Flick. He stepped toward her.

Del turned her back and ran. She choked on the dust, felt like she was breathing solid dirt . . . she burst into clean air and spotted the twin oak trees. She kept it together until she'd gotten over the fence, then her careful control slipped and she careened down the hill, pulling out of the snare of branches, and running in a panic. At the bottom of the pasture she clawed at the gate latch, her breath sobbing in her throat. She made herself stop. She flung herself around, back to the gate and looked up the hill. Nothing more menacing than the immobile shadows of trees on the hillside. The slope was brightly lit in the full moon. No one was following her. No satyr. No man in a costume. She could still hear the primal drums. Or perhaps her heart beat. It looked at me. The slope was empty and innocent under the full moon. It looked at me.

"It was not a demon, it was a satyr. I mean, it was a very good costume. Funny lighting effects." Her hands were still shaking. It wasn't real. "Idiots don't know a thing about either Wiccan or Satanism. Thank god they were wearing masks, I didn't actually recognize any of those women, so I won't have too much trouble keeping a straight face the next time I meet . . . any woman in town."

The house looked dark and cold, the yard darker. It looked at me. She froze at a flicker of movement. To the right, on the other side of the cross fence, but close, down off the hill. Movement again, and her eyes deciphered the form. The black and white cow was half invisible in the black and white moon shadows of the orchard trees.

She released a long breath. I forgot about the cow. She let herself out through the wobbly gate and chained it closed behind herself.

I'm going home Monday. All I have to do is survive the weekend.

Tomorrow I am definitely going to find a hotel.

No matter how far I have to drive.

 
 
matapam
29 November 2016 @ 11:33 am
Okay. Found this on the thumb drive . . . can't believe I'm showing it to _anyone_ It started out as a quick and dirty Paranormal Romance for the Mayan-end-of-the-world. Fortunately it did not get finished in anywhere close to enough time. I poked it into shape for a planetary allignment . . . but I really don't think it can be salvaged.





Alignment

Pam Uphoff

Chapter One

Friday, 5 June 2020

Full Moon

Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn within 45*

Russians and Americans.

Nalda was chatting with Sophia when the child ran down the hill, and past them. The two women squinted at her pursuer.

"A three way merge." Nalda frowned.

"I think an American, a Russian and one of the Horned Ones." Sophia exchanged glances with the other old woman. They stepped into each other . . . merged and walked out to confront the Hunter.

"Enough, old woman, the girl is our legitimate prey, a pathetic throwback, unable to change." He tossed his head. No muzzle, with two humans in the merge, but his horns still arched over his head.

"You have chased her into the dry lands. Let her go, to live or die by her own cleverness."

"We do not take orders from a female. Would you like to Dance with us? I can make you like it. Or perhaps you would like to be the gift to the Lady of the Moon?"

The old woman stood firmly in their path. "Three of you in there, I see. Three worlds. The Alignment is coming, best we all stay away from the weak spot and tend to our own."

The merged men sneered. "Better we seize the opportunity."

"Hunter, your people, of all worlds, stand to lose the most, by adding genes from people with no magic."

"Yet some of the worlds are strong. Even some of those 'Americans' are able." He flicked his flat cheek bone with a dismissive gesture. "Even this one. A man simply has to be cautious about who he merges with. As always, some will win and some will lose."

The old woman sighed. "And many will die. Go back Hunter. Attend to your dance and don't let this ambitious fool lead you astray."

The Hunter raised his head and eyed the shimmering curtains of light beyond the woman. They were getting thin, nearly invisible, and pulling slowly back to the Nexus. As it swept up behind the old woman, the Hunter prepared a spell. The old woman's eyes narrowed.

The curtain swept over her. The Hunter threw the spell.

The women split, as their worlds split. As their protective spell split, it collapsed. They dived for the ground, one to each side. Not that they could see each other, anymore.

Across the two curtains, the Hunter cursed as he realized he'd hit the wrong old woman. The Hunter faded as the first curtain touched. The two men left in the merge turned and ran, staying within the fringes of the effect. Without the Hunter, they were no match for the old woman.

They ran across the hill, getting trees between them and the old woman . . . then the retreating curtain faded altogether, and they were each alone in their own world.

The man stepped around a tree, and watched the old woman pick herself up off the ground. She clutched her chest as if in pain and staggered into the house.

"If she dies . . . I'll have a free hand with the nexus, just as the Alignment begins. Now wouldn't that be nice."



Chapter Two Cleaning, Tickets

Thursday, 18 July 2020

Waning Crescent

Earth, Jupiter and Saturn within 35*

"What a filthy wreck." Delphi Hyde stood in the doorway, appalled.

"Let me see!" Her sister tried to peer past her. "Ewww!"

Del edged in. To the narrow center of the room. There were stacks of papers and magazines all over the room. Lining the walls. Half collapsed cardboard boxes. All covered with dust.

Del sniffed carefully. A faint rotted odor. She eased over to look deeper into the house. She reached and flipped a switch. A single bulb lit, halfway down a hallway, to the left. To the right, a dark hallway. Ahead, a dining room. Table stacked high with newspapers, a stack of letters, crumpled packaging . . . more piles tucked into the corners of the room. The smell was stronger.

There was a sliding glass door at back of the dining room . . . half blocked by piled . . . stuff. Del looked through the dusty glass. What was left of the old dairy barn to the right, the horse and hay barn to the left, the dry pasture climbed most of the way up a low ridge beyond them.

Prissy shuffled in behind her. "I know Aunt Sophia was . . . eccentric . . . but . . ."

"But this is, well, old age, isolation, maybe dementia. What a mess." Delphi braced her shoulders and picked her way over the peeling linoleum to the refrigerator. Opened it. Shut it. "Well, cleaning that out will not be pleasant. I wonder when garbage pick up is? We should do it that morning, so it doesn't sit around and get warmer and even smellier."

"Good plan."

They followed the path through heaps and boxes and bags, down the unlit hallway and around the corner, five doors . . . the last was larger and heavier, and led to the garage. Half filled by a dusty pickup.

"Oooo! I just got my learner's permit!"

"It's got four flat tires." Del wiped off some dust . . . "last registered twelve years ago?"

Prissy tried the truck doors, gave up with a sigh. "Locked. I wonder where the keys are?"

"Under twelve years of detritus, most likely."

It had been a week since the call from the police, to inform her of her aunt's death.

Reilly Creek was a small town. The police had had no problem finding someone old enough to know about Aunt Sophia's orphaned nieces.

And with a name like Delphi, the police had had no problem finding the right Hyde, to notify her of her Aunt's death.

"It's going to take forever." Prissy sounded cheerful. "I was afraid I'd wind up babysitting the brat pack all summer."

Del looked down the dim hallway. "I have a job. I need to get this done and get back to New York." I could have come sooner, but work . . . not to mention the cost of the tickets on short notice . . .

Her little sister just laughed. "It's going to take weeks just to clean and clear out the house." Prissy brushed her wild hair out of her face—again—and gestured at the room. "It looks like Aunt Sophia never threw anything out."

Except us.

Del shrugged. "I don't need to be here for the legal stuff. I will sort out the financial situation . . . if we can find any paperwork in this rat's nest. And I don't care how hot it is, I'm opening some windows."

"The air conditioner . . ."

". . . is a swamp cooler, it won't help the humidity one bit. Assuming we can get to it, to see if it works. So I'm going to start with a window."

Prissy snickered. "Go ahead—if you can."

Del backtracked and eyed the piles of newspapers and magazines heaped all over the living room. "Just as well she refused to adopt us when Mom and Dad died. She was obviously sick in the head." Pretty Prissy was five, and was adopted. I was sixteen and no one wanted me. Well. The foster parents could have been worse. I was alternately yelled at and ignored until I graduated. Then the Navy was home for four years. And then I got as far away from California as possible.

She reached over a stack of tottering newspaper and pulled the curtain back. Dust puffed from the folds and the swag awkwardly draped across the top. Del drew back, and the newspaper pile slid down to heap on the floor, covering what passed for a path through the hoarded . . . crap.

She growled, and leaned back in . . . the window sash wouldn't budge. The paint was peeling and flaking, and still sealing the window shut. "Right. There were recycling bins outside that school down the road. Surely one of them is for paper. I'm taking a load there right now."

"But, but, there could be something valuable in here. I read a book where they got a Medium in to psychically locate a valuable stamp in a house like this . . . " Prissy broke off. "You don't need to glare! I just . . ."

"Okay, look, I know this is all new to you. You turned eighteen a couple of weeks ago . . . " Del sighed. "Okay. Newspapers and magazines only. The other paper stuff we'll look through before we pitch it."

"At least there wasn't much in the refrigerator to mold."

"Yeah, it could have been a lot worse. But we can't put this stuff out for the garbage men. There's too much of it. C'mon, grab an armful. We'll fill up the trunk and backseat of my car."

It didn't take long.

Hideous cheap rented econobox. Maybe I'll buy a used SUV or something. Cheaper than the rental, in the long run. I can give it to Prissy when I leave.

Prissy held a last load on her lap as Del backed out of the cracked driveway.

She shied away from the thought that Prissy might want to come with her. She has a loving family. She barely remembers me.

She spotted the red and blue flashing lights, and dropped her gaze to the speedometer. A hair over thirty . . . what was the speed limit? Surely . . . she pulled over and the patrol car pulled over behind her.

"Oh!" Prissy sucked in a breath. "You are going to get a ticket!"

Del sighed. "No doubt. I suppose you'd be in trouble with your parents if you did." She wound her window down and dug out her license and insurance card.

"You'd better believe it!"

The officer wore wrap around reflecting sunglasses that hid his eyes and all expression. His voice was challenging. “Miss, do you know what the speed limit is here?”

“I didn’t notice a sign, so I expect it’s twenty-five miles an hours.” Del kept her voice neutral. If he wanted an argument, he would have to look elsewhere.

“Exactly. Now I have you on radar at thirty-one. While this is not very far over the limit, there is a school ahead on this street. There have been some problems, so we are working to make everyone aware of the speed limit, and that it will be dropping down to twenty right in front of the school.” He sounded like he was warning her against taking aim at children walking to school.

“I see.” Arg! And I’d better not mouth off about the school being in session for another hour at least!

He frowned at her license. "Delfy or Del Fi, like the Oracle?"

"Oracle."

"Huh." He walked back to his car. Del watched him in the rear view mirror. Nice shoulders, a rebel part of her brain pointed out. She ground her teeth. I’m not noticing!

"Ooo! He's cute!"

Del rolled her eyes. "Don't let your parent's hear you say that!"

She giggled. "You ought to let your hair grow. You look too professional. Guys like long hair."

"I am a professional, and I'm not shopping for men."

Officer Reflecting Sunglasses strode back. "Please sign here. It is not an admission of guilt, it is simply an acknowledgement of the receipt of this ticket and a promise to appear in court. On the reverse side you will find the instructions for handling this through the mail.” He sounded like a robot, emotionless.

She signed and took her copies.

“Please drive safely and have a nice day.”

Grrr.

Six miles an hour over the speed limit. It hardly warranted a warning, as the visibility had been good, the road surface clean and dry, no bicycles, hours before school let out . . . Well, she'd pay it and forget it. She had more important things to worry about today.

Prissy snatched the citation and peered at it from several angles. Sighed. "I can't read his name. I think the first initial is H. and his last name starts with a B and ends with a Y."

Next stop, the hardware store for the basics. WD-40 and duck tape. A cheap razor blade knife. I'll take a look around the garage for tools before I spend any more.

The street was parked up, blocking visibility, as she left the store's parking lot. She eased out far enough to see, but for all the parked cars there wasn't much traffic.

Red lights in the rear view mirror. Del muttered a few choice words under her breath and pulled over.

Prissy sucked in an apprehensive breath. "Ooo! Delphi!"

Yes, the same bloody cop. "I was not speeding."

"You also were not stopping before pulling out onto a street."

She set her teeth and handed over her license. Again.

He walked back to his car. Returned a few minutes later, clipboard in hand.

And next do I get the lecture about keeping my license and registration up to date, right?

"I see you are from New York, and the car rented. Are you moving here?"

"No. I am here to deal with my recently deceased Aunt's estate."

His hands froze for a moment. "Would that perhaps be Sophia Jeffries?"

"Yes. Our mother's sister."

A pause. “My condolences. Sign here."

After three trips to the recycling bin, and as many to the garage to scavenge for tools to get the window open, the living room was nearly livable.

"Not bad for a first day." Del admitted, finally relaxing. "After all, we just got the keys this morning. The funeral will be tomorrow. Such as it is."

"Do you suppose anyone will come? I have no idea who her friends are. Or if she even had any." Prissy looked around the depressing room. "It almost looks worse without the piles."

"Yeah. I thought there'd be other furniture underneath stuff. One chair is . . . sad. It would be nice if we could unearth a working vacuum cleaner in here, somewhere." Del shrugged in irritation. "Is your family going to come collect you, or do you want to sleep here?"

Prissy shuddered. "Mom said they'd come at eight . . . they're late. Mom always is."

Mom. Damn you for having people who care about you!

Prissy's eyebrows dove. "Where are you staying? Not here!"

Del looked down the hall. Piles, boxes, the old vacuum that hadn't worked and more stuff lined the wall, leaving a path along one side. Four bedrooms, each worse than the next. And I'm not sleeping in Aunt H's bed. Nor using the bathroom where they found her body. "No. Not here. I'll drive out to the freeway, there were two motels there."

When Prissy's parents showed up at nine, they—and the six other foster and adopted kids—they gave them a brief tour. The kids were rowdy and loud.

"Delphi, these are my parents, Angelina and Collin Mayhew ." Prissy started pointing at kids. "Guadalupe, Patrick, Todd , Wayne, Tammy and . . ." Prissy looked around. "Where did Richie go?"

Del looked at the kids as they scattered. "Pleased to meet you?" She felt herself flush at the dubious tones in her voice.

Angelina laughed. "Yes, they can be a bit overwhelming. And loud."

"Hey! Look what I found!" echoed from somewhere down the hallway. Small bodies homed in on it.

"Goodness. Um, how old are they?"

Collin chuckled. "Prissy's our oldest adoptee. Guadelupe's fifteen. Patrick's twelve, Wayne's fourteen, and Tammy and Richie are both eight."

"Wow . . . you guys are brave." Del followed the cheerful voices to a back bedroom full of . . . Things. Formerly shiny stainless steel tanks and, one of the kids, Wayne, she thought was waving a tentacled monster . . . "Oh, that's all Grandfather's old milking equipment. Good grief, it does look . . . "

"Alien!" Wayne screamed. "It's going to suck all your brains out!"

Guadelupe shrieked and ran, Wayne chased her, waving the milking machine's tubes . . . Tammy hid behind Prissy, who gave the other boys a stern look. They took off down the hall, trying to catch the older girl.

Del surveyed the equipment. "Why didn't they just leave it all out in the dairy?"

"Because the roof was collapsing? What is all this stuff?"

"That's a pump, it all ran on a vacuum system. That's the cooler, to drop the temperature quickly, that's the cream separator . . . pasteurizer . . . more milking machines. They had straps that went over the cows' back, so they hung up off the ground."

"It looks like a monster." Tammy continued to cling.

"Yeah. the suction cup things on the hoses went on the cow's teats and the milk was collected in the . . . I don't remember what they called it. Maybe just a tank." Del shoved the thing back out of the way.

"Alien spaceship, sucking your brains out!" The kid troop galloped past, apparently now chasing one of the boys.

Collin was hot on their trail, and they could hear Angelina's voice raised and telling the kids to calm down and assemble. The kids galloped back, and Prissy reached out and grabbed the alien spacecraft as they passed. She cleared her throat. "Mom and Dad may have finally overdone the foster thing."

Del made polite noises as they were all herded back into their humongous green SUV—apparently named the Green Monster.

And sagged in relief when they drove away.

.......No room at the Inns, return to the house.

Sleep—poorly—in the car. In the garage.

 
 
matapam
29 November 2016 @ 09:23 am

Now the Science majors, those were some interesting talks, even though they were short on time and could only briefly explain the main areas of study.

Then they were marched off to the Humanities Building. Buildings.

"Now we're going to split up between a number a specialties." The tour guide started pointing. "Political Science, Social Organizations. Women's Studies. Ethnic Studies. And our new concentration, Responsible Masculinity. Over here we have . . . "

Alice pasted an eager expression on her face. "I'll be in there!" She pointed at Ethnic Studies.

Mrs. Cummings nodded approvingly and she turned to Jenni and Tori.

Alice dodged into an empty cubbie.

Back to landscaping and red brick. She waited.

Huffing, scraping of claws. The Badger staggered around a corner. Stopped and collapsed.

"You know, you're in even worse shape than the Phoenix. It's a good thing Milwaukee is friendly. And really, when I talked to the Phoenix, he seemed to really miss the friendly rivalry. And he was too fat and out-of-shape to fly very far."

A deep sigh from the badger. "Yes. We had some good times, when our teams played."

"So . . . why not go back to that. Agree to respect each other's borders. When the WisGrid goes live, wait. Be friendly. Talk to Milwaukee. The two of you together, as friends, would show him that you can be trusted."

"Because we trust each other?" Sigh. "At least I can go out with dignity. I suppose Milwaukee's is some hideously dangerous creature?"

"The most dangerous animal on Earth. Go talk to the Phoenix. Stand together."

The Badger propped himself up, dipped his nose to eye her over his spectacles. "All right."

Alice stepped back through the d-door, and trotted over two d-doors to the Ethnic Studies presentation . . . Where Mrs. Cummings was looking around in dismay.

Dad's going to ground me for the rest of my life, when he hears about this.

But at least I missed a good part of this miserable "concentration." Ethnic studies? What kind of job does that prepare you for?

For the second Humanities lecture she chose Political Science. Eye-crossingly uninteresting.

Then they headed for Engineering.

One big auditorium here, as well. She took plenty of notes. Then they headed for the math department. Alice lost her chaperones in the crowd and ducked into a cubby.

She checked the time. If the WisGrid is on time . . . it could be going live right now.

She stepped out, and found the Badger and the Phoenix side-by-side, facing a gateway through the woods.

Barton Street stood just the other side of the gate. "Good afternoon. May I come in?"

Badger and Bird nodded and he stepped though, onto the badger's turf.

"Thank you for not attacking me. I . . . have never managed to be friends with another AI. Shall we try?"

Madison and Green Bay looked at each other and nodded.

Alice tossed a grin toward Barton Street, and ducked back through the d-door.

Wow. I think I can actually behave for the rest of the trip!

Chapter Three

Dimension: One

Location: Milwaukee

The charter bus pulled off the road into the alley and sighed to a stop. The driver opened the door and one of the chaperones descended, and led the way in through the side door.

Alice stifled a yawn. Not that she was sleepy—unfortunately the government had clear Alert for use by children over ten. Now she never slept. But that didn't mean she couldn't get bored.

Especially sitting between Tori and Jenni. They were only a year older than she was, but all they ever talked about were clothes, hair and boys. Assigned seating is the pits!

And another of the chaperones was keeping a beady eye on Alice. Drat it all, I didn't think they'd notice I was missing. But here we are home again, and the Madison and Green Bay AIs were only a little belligerent. A talking badger and a flaming kamakazi bird! I wasn't expecting them to both be there, I'm lucky they didn't gang up on me. But, they're talking to Barton Street now, and maybe they'll cooperate instead of attack on sight. Or as soon as Barton turns his back.

She tried to look innocent as she stepped down out of the bus, Mrs. Cummings on her heels, as if she expected Alice to make a run for it. The girls all clumped together in the building atrium. Worn sandstone blocks, fake ruins . . . the décor was echoed in dimension five, well what they called dimension five, Alice had no idea if there was a logical reason for the numbering.

Mr. Dover stepped up on a block. "I hope you all enjoyed our trip to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And learned something about their curriculum and the career opportunities they can give you." He gaze hung up on Alice, and he frowned. "Your assignment is to pick three of the academic majors we heard about, and analyze why you might want to pursue each one. Due Friday."

"Pursue?" Tori's voice was barely above a whisper. "Didn't see a single cute guy there to pursue."

Jenni sniffed. "I wish they had let us go by the stadium. I was hoping to see the football team. Danny Harkness looks so good on screen . . . " her voice died away as Mr. Dover frowned their direction. Probably at the whispers.

Alice spotted a tall broad man off to the side. Dark complexion from his African heritage, arrogant arched nose from the Jewish side. Her father.

"It's late, but I recommend you make notes now, before the information gets too stale." He waved a hand toward the elevators. "Dismissed."

Alice hung back from the rush, edged over toward her father . . . maybe if she got in there first . . .

"So, Pumpkin, how was the trip?"

"Boring. Got lost twice, got reamed, got extra work assignments."

He crossed his arms and scowled. At her, and then at Mr. Dover and Mrs. Cummings. They both looked a bit taken aback. Guess Mr. Dover's never met my father. This could be . . .interesting.

"They've got a very impressive biology department. I think I'm going to dig into their site for some specifics on genetic engineering."

That diverted her father. "You and your little . . . rat things. I hope you aren't planning on inflicting more of them, or something worse, on the World."

Mr. Dover wasn't really short, but George Brown topped him by close to fifteen centimeters. Probably double his weight. "Er, genetic engineering is a very rigorous field . . . " The teacher's voice trailed off as her father narrowed his eyes.

Without even moving, he loomed over poor Mr. Dover. "I do hope you aren't one of those idiots who think people should live on the government's largesse, however disguised as games and lotteries?"

"No, no, not at all." The teacher stuttered.

"Mr. Dover hasn't had me in a class yet." Alice jumped in.

Mrs. Cumming sniffed. "I'm surprised you wandered off during the talk on Ethnic Studies. With your varied background . . . "

Her father looked like he was inflating. Definitely pissed.

"The math department was more interesting. Not that there are many careers in pure theory." Alice intervened again. Good, maybe this will work. "But I think the knowledge could be applied in other fields."

Her father snorted. "Nice to have met you. Alice, your mother is waiting for us." He led the way to the elevator bank.

"Oh, by the way. I happen to be an expert in diversions. I did not miss 'got lost twice' nor 'wandered off,' young lady. You are grounded. Spare me the details of where you wandered to and lost yourself." He held out his hand.

Alice handed over her phone.

And hid her glee. Poor parents don't realize I can't be locked in. Too bad I can't call Joe tonight, but I'll tell him all about it tomorrow. "I think the children of FBI Inspectors ought to be exempt from professional analysis."

"In your dreams."

But after dinner she buckled down and wrote up reports encompassing Biology, Math, Engineering, Political Science and just because she was feeling grudgy, Ethnic Studies. "Two extras for extra credit." She said aloud as her father paused behind her.

"Thought you missed that presentation."

"Unfortunately, not all of it."

He just snorted and moved on, collecting clothing from the wardrobe, and leaving.

Alice glanced at the time, snatched clothes and headed for the mini-spa. The rules—well established by many, many groundings—were that one of her parents would walk her to school before they left for work. It was embarrassing.

Today it was her mother. Two older girls she didn't know snickered at her escort. Mrs. Cummings was near the school entrance, and looked relieved when she spotted Alice's mother. A slender and elegant combination of Caucasian, Phillipina, and Chinese. Alice hugged her mother and walked on.

Mrs. Cummings hustled Alice further in. I guess I'm the high school's designated Bad Girl. "Well, it was so nice to meet your father again yesterday. He is tall, isn't he? Did he play football in college, or, er, high school?"

"No, I believe he was actually a nerd, before he joined the army." Alice gave the approved response. The FBI didn't like to advertise where their agents lived, nor who their dependents were. So the parts about "officer," "law school," "PhD in Cyber Security" and, of course, his current position got left out.

"Oh. Dear. And such a loud voice. He even yelled at the police over than little mixup at the County Annex . . . "

I like Mrs. Cummings, but she is definitely from a different background. I swear, some people treat military service about the same as drug gang membership. "I need to turn in my reports on the field trip, before History." Alice managed to steer the teacher over to a work station. She downloaded the reports and then meekly followed her to the video cubby for this week's history presentation. Did not turn her head to show she'd noticed Joe slipping up to the workstation to check the chip she'd left there.

Mission Accomplished. Madison and Green Bay AI's contacted and peace treaty signed. Now we'll see what happens when the superstrand opti-cable connects Milwaukee to the Minneapolis St Paul net. Maybe the AI there will be friendly.

 
 
matapam
27 November 2016 @ 11:41 am
Have I snippetted this one?

Badger and Bird

Pam Uphoff

Chapter One

Dimension: One

Location: Milwaukee

Alice's father scowled down at her. "Try to behave." He held out the phone.

Alice managed to stifle a comment about how she might even behave well, and accepted her phone. Not that he said anything about me not being grounded. He just wants me to be able to phone if there's an emergency.

"Thank you, father. See you tonight." She was already dressed and ready to go. Not that it really mattered, four in the morning was no big deal, any more.

Their home was the new way of living.

Without a need to sleep, all anyone really needed was a bit of privacy and space to store things. Oh, bathrooms, showers . . . when people had started living out of their gym lockers, the gyms had started renting large closets.

Then a tech breakthrough. Access to another dimension. A very boring and limited dimension. Cubbies—six meter cubes of extra-dimensional space—were the new housing of choice. In-town high-rises had embraced the potential with gusto. Plumbing still couldn't cross the shift plane, but they installed plenty of shared "mini-spas," restaurants, stores, theaters, arcades . . . and of course, exercise areas. The money just rolled in. And they still called them gyms.

In the "real" world that Alice and a few friends called dimension one, the dimensional doors took up a two meter by two meter patch of wall, and needed a meter deep foil lined space behind them. There were over four thousand of them crammed into the Barton Street Gym. All under the control of a cutting edge computer . . . that was much more than a computer in the other dimensions.

Because cramming so many cubbies together had allowed access to even further dimensions.

And those dimensions were not boring at all.

I'll have to sneak away from the field trip group. Slip across the dimensions and see what's happening in the AI wars in Madison.

***

"It may be a side effect of connectivity."

Captain Mirabeau Xicara raised skeptical eyebrows, but kept his mouth shut. He wasn't one of the scientists arguing about the dimensional strain.

Colonel Kessler scowled at the map. "Chicago is smoothing out, since you took care of that . . . problem AI. And Milwaukee has settled down nicely. We'll monitor how that changes as the Superstrand Opti-cable spreads beyond the state next month."

General Heinz jabbed a finger at the map. "Milwaukee's only a single city. The strain is climbing all around the rest of the state."

A civilian domehead nodded. "It's the WisGrid. The whole state is getting connected. They've finished most of the smaller cities, and larger towns, with the strain climbing with every addition. The Milwaukee people decided to finish the state grid connections first, so that they are in place when the Superstrand connections to Minneapolis-St Paul are installed. The WisGrid will go live today." His eyes flicked to the clock. "Probably in the late afternoon."

Beau nodded to himself. That's why we're here today. To see if something. . . odd happens.

Chapter Two

Dimension: One

Location: Madison, Wisconsin

Madison was only a bit over a hundred kilometers away. Even with a bit of traffic getting out of town, it took less than two hours. The University grounds were all dewy in the warm autumn morning.

Screwy weather. Next thing you know, they be yammering about Global Warming. Again. I'm glad I was too young to remember the Ice Age is Coming marches, claiming that Canada and the whole upper tier of states would be depopulated. Sheesh. Climate changes. Always has, always will.

She was stuck in the aisle seat, with Tori on her left, and Jenni across the aisle.

She been completely unable to ignore their chattering past her the whole trip. She huffed a breath of relief as she climbed down the steps and walked off a few steps.

Alice took a slow look around. Beautiful landscaping, trees turning color, buildings both old and new looking well kept. I wonder which ones have cubbies in them?

She hefted her small briefcase—overkill for this recruiting day, but it could be useful if she had an opportunity for, umm, more fun stuff. She joined the class trooping in to "Meyer Hall."

Jenni was giggling. "Really? Named for Oscar Meyer Weiners?"

But more interesting than a multigeneration, centuries old company were the d-doors lining the main hallway as they walked down to a big auditorium style lecture room. Cubbies came one size only, so rooms like this were still needed. And cubbies didn't have plumbing, so Alice made note of the restrooms near the entrance as they trooped past into a rather chaotic scene.

The university recruiters had obviously invited students from dozens of high schools. There were easily a couple hundred students, all talking loudly, so they could be heard over the other kids who were shouting so rudely.

Alice walked down the aisle, slowed to let a couple of the guys get ahead of her, managed to grab an aisle seat. Watched the chaperones count heads and nod in satisfaction.

Richard, sitting beside her, bumped her, grumbled about the small seats.

Alice leaned and looked around him. Lupe in the next seat was also a well grown fellow. "Yeah, you big guys need to spread out don't you?" Two girls passed her, heading up and out. "I'll move." She flashed a smile and whipped out of her seat and around the two girls. Kept them between her and the chaperones.

The girls walked into the restroom, and Alice kept going.

First d-door, class in session. Ditto the second, but the third was empty.

The outside of the d-door had two small white ovals on the right side, rather like hinge covers. Magnetic locks, actually, limiting the scope of what the d-doors could do. Although the manufacturers probably put them there to keep the front and back of the door together. As far as she could tell, very few people had a clue about what the doors could do when crowded together in a residence gym, and hopefully, here in this row of small lecture rooms.

Alice closed the door behind her, and eyed the ovals on this side.

Right where they should be.

She got her finger nails under then and twisted them off. Shifted them a few inches and stuck them back on the metal door frame.

Was the local AI powerful enough to have a dimension six? She pushed the door, and it swung open on the same corridor she'd just left. Pulling it down from the top showed her a giant-sized computer, from the inside. Nothing moving. She let it snap closed and tried it from the bottom. Beautiful landscaping, walls of red brick like this building.

Alice set the brief case where it would block the door and hold it ajar. Stepped through.

The brick walls were not buildings. They were just walls, and corresponded to the locations of the computer components she'd looked at a moment before. A scraping of claws in a hasty stacatto . . . A badger the size of a pony galumphed around the corner and skidded to a halt. Dark eyes in a black and white mask peered at her through horn-rimmed bifocals.

"What is that bird up to now?" Wrinkled muzzle, clear diction.

"Umm, I'm not aware of a bird . . . umm, Hi, I'm Alice. I'm a friend of Milwaukee, and he's trying to form a loose group of AIs that won't attack each other . . . "

"The big city? Friendly? Ha!" The badger showed some impressive canines.

"If you'd like to send him a message . . . "

"Try this message!" Teeth bared, he rushed her. Well, lumbered.

"Just email milwaukee at milwaukee dot gov and . . . "

And the badger was getting way too close.

Alice stepped back through the d-door, kicked her briefcase out of the way and let the door drop closed.

"Well, that didn't go too bad." She scooped up the case and stepped out of the cubby. Slid quietly into the back of the auditorium, unfortunately just in time for a video presentation of all the best aspects of the university.

Mrs. Cummings had her head cranked over her shoulder and made an emphatic summoning gesture.

Arg! Alice trotted down a few steps and slid into the seat behind her. "Sorry, lady's room."

Glare.

Oops. She must have checked.

Then the walking tour of the campus. Alice ducked out in the Law School Library, and through another d-door. This time she emerged on the periphery of the Badger's domain. An impassible forest—tree trunks so close they nearly touched, intertwined branches, the approach to the trees full of thorny brambles.

A crackling, flapping . . . up above the trees . . . a bird, and very large bird to be flying at all. At first Alice thought it a peacock, with the sun hitting it oddly . . . but the feathers weren't green and red, they were green and flames, glowing as the bird flapped closer and dropped to the ground with a thump.

"University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Phoenix, right?" Alice watched as the big eagle-like bird panted.

"Yeah. So the Badger's put up a guard, has he?" Pant, pant. "Well I can take a scrawny little thing like you with no problem."

"But why? I'm here hoping to make friends. I'm friends with Milwaukee, and he's a bit lonely."

"Ha! So lonely he'll assimilate us! Me."

Alice suppressed a smile. "Ah, so you don't care what happens to the Badger?"

A ruffle of fiery feathers. "We used to talk, just . . . a friendly rivalry between colleges. But the band width keeps expanding. And the WisGrid is going to blow the walls down. The Badger can come and get me."

"Did you enjoy that friendly rivalry? Will you miss it?"

"Well . . . "

"Perhaps you and the Badger should agree on a division of territory. The two of you together against any hostile AIs."

The feathers flattened. "Milwaukee's going to kill us."

"If you don't attack, I think he'll be friendly. If you are so sure he would win a fight, perhaps you should try friendship first."

"That's . . . ridiculous."

"Think about it. His email is milwaukee at milwaukee dot gov."

Alice stepped back through the d-door. And out of the cubby study hall.

She popped out of the Law School Building, and spotted Mr. Dover frantically looking around. She waved and jogged over to him, got hustled back into the tail of the group.

"Sorry, sorry. Something I ate, maybe."

Glares.

At least I missed most of the Law School sales pitch.

 
 
matapam
26 November 2016 @ 09:16 am
Yep. All done.

So, when I get home, I'll polish up _On The Run_ and _God of the Sun_.

Then the first major rewrite and expansion of _Cannibal World_.

Then _Trouble in Paradise_, _First Assigments_, Surveillance Camp_, and _Fort Dinosaur_.

And while I'm editing and publishing all of them, I'll be working on _The Last Merge_ to finish off the Cannibal stuff.

Entertaining you guys might be a bit tough for awhile.
 
 
matapam
25 November 2016 @ 08:18 am

Chapter Finals

The last weeks of classes were peaceful. Finals not bad.

His digitization of the List of Warriors was sent for approval. It would be months before it was published. But he still pulled a 4.9 for the class.

And good scores in everything else. Got both rifle and handgun certs.

And . . . accepted an invite to Paris for the winter holiday.

After all, he needed to double check a couple of things in the Book.

And get beaten up by Isakson, hauled outside to demonstrate his magical reach and learn a couple of other nasty possible ways to use magic offensively. But he also managed to recruit help in building his present for Paer, and secrecy almost until the Eid.

"Two stalls and a tackroom?" Paer walked in and out, frowned at the props under the timbered floor of the small stable.

"I think your bubble can hold it all." Ebsa shifted nervously. "Then you can put Crystal and Raccio in storage, so to speak."

"Ooooooh! And take them with me. Where'd I leave my bubble?" She dashed off.

Ra'd thumped his shoulder. "Good job."

"Yeah, well, you're going to have to wait till the Eid for your present."

Ebsa admired the T-rex claw book ends. "Right. I remember you collecting some trophies."

Paer was giggling over her toothy necklace.

Ra'd grinned and opened the box Ebsa handed him . . . blinked.

"About time you upped your game."

"Oil paints." Ra'd pulled out the brushes.

Paer pointed to a large flat present. "There might just happen to be some canvases around somewhere."

"I haven't painted since I was . . . thirteen . . . "

Ebsa shrugged. "Well, we can just return it all and . . ."

Ra'd made a rude gesture. "Thank you. I love my presents."

Ebsa grinned and picked up the watch Paer had tried to be casual about giving him. He wasn't about to ask how much it cost. "And it automatically resets to local time, even across?"

"Well, not New Worlds. I couldn't find one for Exploration Teamers."

It went well with his inherited suit. Gorgeous charcoal grey alpaca wool blend . . . he'd had to do a quick tape and iron job on the sleeves and pants, and it was a bit wide in the shoulders . . . three silk ties, handmade shoes, a bit too large.

He looked good, and he only tripped once.

Then back to school for the last semester.

"Oh, One. I'm in the Advanced Martial Arts." Ebsa glared at Ra'd's laugh.

"That's what you get for opening the man's eyes." Ra'd grinned. "But don't think for a minute you're going to beat me again in the sorting."

Ebsa grinned back, and let the silence lengthen.



Chapter Xen Con/// Move this

///Check time of year for Cannibal. This might be a nice peak before the total crash into the last fight. Or it might half to be in the Spring semester.///

"So, now that he's back, I suspect someone has asked Captain Wolfson about reversing the genetic changes. Did he have anything to say about it?"

Rael giggled. "Oh yes. It's reversible, but there are issues. I've sicced some newsies on him. I'm hoping they'll get a good interview and . . . well, I don't know how what he has to say will go over. Their attitude toward genetic engineering is so cavalier, so casual. It's scary."

Urfa nodded. "Apparently he's said he'll address the issue in the Disco forum, and invited all and sundry to come, especially newsies. I haven't heard when, but I suspect he'll move quickly on it. I hope it'll defuse the war talk."

Wednesday, they got word to come early to the seminar.

Xen Wolfson, speaking about the bioattack. The live conference. Well, minus the tiny time delay as the broadcasts were piped through the gate via laser relay.

Paer leaned over to Ebsa as they watched him walk up to the podium. "He looks tired. Or sick. I don't think he's recovered from merging. And I don't see Q at all."

Ebsa eyed the man on the screen. No spring in his step, no flash of a grin. Sick, tired, or bad news?

"First, the One World needs to stop attacking other worlds at a whim."

Wolfson had his hands steepled on the podium and was eying the human audience. But from the way his eyes also frequently looked straight out of the screen, he was well aware of all the video cameras pointed at him, and knew that the important audience was on the One World.

"Second, the genetic engineering is completely reversible."

The audience stirred at that.

"Mind you it isn't simple, or easy. Either laws about genetic engineering in the Empire will need to be altered, or several million Oners will need to troop through to here to be treated. Because of the behavior issues with these specific genes, and their effect on other so-called magic, some considerable thought needs to go into this. Not to mention whether any other genetic engineering should be allowed."

A babble of voices.

"Umm, let me elaborate on that a bit. I understand the incidence of rape has dropped dramatically, over just these few months. Do you Oners, as a whole and individually actually want these genes back, and if you do, are you going to allow everyone—say, people with known anger control issues, or convicted rapists—to add them back in?

"Second, be aware that those three genes are what we call field genes. They are always switched on, using up a steady trickle of energy. Oners who have lost the genes should test their magical abilities and see if they can now do more, if they feel stronger. Then decide if they want them back.

"Third, are you going to allow people who never had the genes to get them? What about other genes? Can they add them as well? And when I say people, I mean everyone. Oners, Halfers, Multitude, and Natives. According to the founding documents of the Empire of the One, everyone is equal under the law. Yes, we can add the One power gene, we can add individual genes, and we can add entire insertions.

"These are all issues the Empire needs to address. I have informed the Kingdom of the West that further aggression will be blocked. They informed me that that was fine with them, until the Oners attacked again, then it was game on."

A man in front yelled, "But you can stop them!"

Xen cleared his throat. "Riiiight. I've probably wedged myself into the top twenty most magically dangerous people on Comet Fall, and eight of them were sitting in the audience, smirking as I told them no more attacks.

"Please. Do not give them cause to lose their civilized restraint."

At that point it was all questions and answers.

"No. I did not know this was what they'd decided to do."

"Yes, I was in on the early planning. I managed to remove a few options from the table."

"What were those?" Another call from the audience.

"Isolate the Empire or remove the One Power gene."

That got quite the uproar.

"Well, if you'd just. Stop. Attacking. Them. It's pretty easy, as they have no territorial ambitions, nor a drive to rule over the Multiverse."

The man looked down, possibly at some note. "Talk about it. Decide what you want done by way of genetic engineering. Then Disco will handle that. I think the less contact between the Kingdom of the West and Oners the better, for just a little bit."

He listened to a few questions from the audience. "No, we won't sit by so the One can attack back. This genetic attack was just such a reprisal. It needs to be the last one, from either direction. And Disco is going to try to stop any we detect, from either direction."

And finally, a question about the cannibal world.

"The Helios? We're monitoring and tracking them. They kept enough infrastructure to keep the lights on, and they have the knowledge of how to force a merge. We first detected what we think might have been gates, or possibly the very start of the merge, which was their fifth merge, so I suspect they've just started crossing our familiar part of the multiverse. They need to be watched. We need to know, before they start, if they are going to try to merge with another populated world . . . and which one."

That got indrawn breaths from both the forum and the lecture hall.

"And while we are trying to figure out what worlds they can physically attack, it . . . would be . . . a hopefully utterly unneeded precaution, to consider how you would evacuate your worlds, at need. " Wolfson sounded a bit breathless as he said that.

Flash back to the world he couldn't save? Or does he know more than he is saying?

"So, please, let's settle the bio-attack peacefully, and concentrate on a much worse threat."

Another question from the audience. An Earther, by the accent. "You put up dozens of gates on that world. Why can't we have more? Why can't all our crowded cities each have a world of their own so they can spread out?"

"Each city . . . " Wolfson looked boggled. "Umm, cross-dimensional suburbs? Umm, we negotiate gates with the highest level of government, not city level. However . . . once a nation or Empire or whatever vets and approves a world, I suppose gates to that world, from various places, cities, would be easy enough. That's . . . just an internal issue. Talk to your own government."

Two more questions about the bioattack.

"The actual replacement of the genes is simple. It's who gets what and the legal issues that are complex." Wolfson shrugged. "It's politics. So far. With luck we can keep diplomacy out of it."

He shut the conference off at that point, and stepped off the podium. Inso—the current Disco Director—stepped up and thanked everyone for coming.

The lecture hall light brightened and the voices rose to a roar.

The Chancellor ding a bell to catch their attention. "Right. So, everyone writes out the gist of what they got from that. And their opinions on each major point. I'm sure any or all of your Information, History, Sociology, and Government classes will want to see how you analyze it. Yes, even those of you who are not aiming for the information track."

Ebsa thought about his doubts about Wolfson's demeanor. Was he just guessing that the man knew where the Helios were headed? Was Paer right, and he was still feeling the physical effects of merging with water and ashes?

And the man who'd asked about the gates in every city . . . a fascinating idea. And a way to build a lot of infrastructure on a nice world, just in case one of the worlds had to be evacuated.

Had Wolfson planted the man in the audience to bring the subject to the fore? The man had had an Earther accent. Was Earth about to be hit?

Ebsa suppressed a smirk and got to work. Part One, genetic attack and remediation. Part Two, Helios. Part Three, merge sick or horrified? Possibly fighting off that healing-sleep-for-a-year thing they did? Part Four, city planning or pre-building for a planet-wide evacuation?

He was going to have trouble keeping this down to a reasonable size. And still study for finals.

And in four days, the Senior Graduation Ranking. We'll see if Ra'd can keep his temper and finally beat me.



Chapter Graduation and assignments

///Paer's Dad, Qayg, Urfa, Rael . . . Ebsa's Mom and Stepmother. Ra'd's Stepmother, half sister, Isakson, the six harpies and all the other kids . . . Hugs, kisses, car keys. "Don't make me regret this!" Raod shook her head. His mom sniffed and handed over a wafer. "Insurance for a year. You'd better not need it!"

Ebsa didn't even try to wipe the grin off his face. Even though I'll probably have to store it somewhere, if I get an across assignment.

///The awarding of certificates, the categories and subcategories they'd qualified for. They all three has Teams cert. Ebsa had both Info and Exploration certs. Paer had Medical, plus Exploration and Info. Ra'd had Action, Exploration, and Info. Extra weapons certs.

Paer to medical

Ra'd to Action Subdirectorate. "Action Team Twenty-nine. Dammit."

"Don't jump to conclusions. They might be reasonable . . . " Ebsa trailed off as his own assignment came up. "Operations. That . . . doesn't sound promising. What exactly is Operations?"

"The subdirectorate that runs the powered gates. Maintenance and repairs, scheduling, vehicles, equipment, fuels and supplies . . ." Paer frowned. "I can believe you didn't make Teams."

"Well, not yet. But surely slots come available and I can go someplace interesting. Soon." Ebsa eyed his contact instructions warily. "So . . . anybody want to ride to Gate City in my new car?"

 
 
matapam
24 November 2016 @ 09:32 am
  "Run."
Ajny jerked out of his frozen stance, turned and bolted.
Chaos in the heap of men on top of Ikku, who kicked out and tripped Ape . . . City was out the door, pulling a gun . . .
Ebsa winced as he heard two shots.
City galloped back in. "He got away!" He snatched a coat and ran back out.
"You and you. Get him."
Wedge and Ape hastily grabbed coats and trotted out.
Ikku heaved, but he was thoroughly bound.
Five men left. And only Blob is an action trainee. Of course the Governor is ex-Action Teams, so I guess I ought not . . .
Ebsa jerked back from a vicious kick, rolling to absorb some of the impact.
"Don't get you hopes up. Your Precious Princess Paer is being a good girl, and doing what she was told to do. Silly girl thinks she can save your life." Blob leered and drew his foot back for a kick.
"So you'll commit murder? For what? Revenge? The influence of a disgraced ex-governor? Blind striking out in anger?" Ebsa rolled back into Blob, tripped him. Ikku kicked his bound feet and got Blob's head.
Not hard enough, but the man was staggering as he crawled back to his feet.
Ex-governor Orcu grabbed him and hauled him to a chair. "Sit. Keep an eye on them."
He gestured to the others. "You two on either side of the doorway. If the wrong person comes in, kill him."
Ebsa tried a stun spell . . . it faded into the fog . . . but the fog was pulling back, a bit.
He considered a one way shield. Letting thoughts in, but keeping his own trapped. He hadn't a clue whether that would resemble someone still drugged, but it was all he could think of.
Just give me a little more time.
He rolled a bit and eyed Ikku.
"I suppose this would be a bad time to mention that when we were the bullies of the multiverse, the Directorate may have needed some brutes and rapists, but these days they're close to being more dangerous to their own side than the enemy, and they have a poor grasp of enemy."
Ikku's lips thinned. "Must I also endure a lecture from a Clostuone Upcomer?"
"Yes. You'll finally have to listen to me when I say that the school needs to stop accepting students who are psychologically unsafe to encourage in the behaviors they already have trouble controlling." Oh, excellent. The ex-governor's irritation was clear in his mind as the man glared over his shoulder at Ebsa. Well, not clear, but getting there. Good enough to try something else.
He curved his fingers carefully away from his body, away from his other hand. A shield, a physical shield, around his right hand, and flowing off his fingers just a few centimeters . . . The strain on his shoulders eased suddenly.
Holy crap! It worked! He kept his left arm behind him, worked his right out from under himself and reached out to the Sensei's legs. Again the very careful slice. Ikku's eyes widened a bit.
Movement drew Ebsa's eyes to the men guarding the door, as they tensed and raised their guns.
Small cross-section. Very small cross-section.
He aimed at the man . . . hesitated . . . Am I insane? My life is in danger, here! I'm fully justified in killing. He looked at the gun.
The Push spell was basic, narrowing it, advanced. He aimed a needle of magic at the pistol.
The little laser gun's power pack exploded.
The guard recoiled, screaming, clutching his hand, falling.
The second guard poked his gun around the corner and started shooting. Flashes of light, a scream. Ebsa's second needle missed, a snap as cracks radiated from the hole in the concrete.
The guard rushed the doorway. His horrified "City? City!" echoed back . . . and a thump.
Ebsa felt nothing from the corridor.
Broadened his push and hit the whole room, tumbling people and sparse furniture. The swinging lights cast moving shadows.
Ra'd was a good as invisible, until silence fell and he reached to stop the light's movement.
Ebsa shoved himself upright and carefully sliced the ropes on his ankles. "Paer? Orcu said . . . "
"She's fine. She was just playing along while they led her all over. I was shadowing her, hoping to find you when I felt Ajny's panic and pain. Cut over a couple of blocks and grabbed him. Idiot thought he was dying—little burn on his shoulder—and gave us the address." His teeth flashed. "And no, I didn't kill a single one of them. City was shot by his own side."
Ebsa finished untying Ikku and helped him to his feet. Then the Presidential guards, weapons out, entered, with Paer on their heels.
Ebsa returned her kiss with interest. Then sighed. "I was really looking forward to sleeping in this morning. I suppose this means we'll be spending the morning in the police station instead."
The guards all nodded. The nearest grinned. "The police are on the way. They're coming to really hate you."
Paer picked up his white parka and handed it to him.
He frowned at it. "How did this get here?"
Ra'd grinned. "I borrowed it. Best snow camouflage around."
Ebsa snickered. "All right. I'll never complain about my Mom's taste in clothes again. So which one of us gets to freeze on the way to the police station?"
"Me. You've spent five hours gassed, drugged, and laying on a cold floor."
Ikku paced across the floor.   Stopped and stared at the cracked wall. "Twelve meters. A half trained Clostuone. With some methelformaline still in his system."
Ebsa shrugged into the nice warm coat. "Upcomer Closey Bastard. Get it right."
He ignored Ikku's muttering as the police charged in and handcuffed everyone except Paer and her guards.


Six hours and two truth matches later he grabbed breakfast then headed for the dorm. Fell into bed. Didn't bother to check if classes were running or not.