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matapam
26 August 2016 @ 06:01 am

A corridor that ran the length of the building. Doors on both sides. He opened the first door to his right, toward the back of the building. A neat modern hospital room, unoccupied. To the left, fewer doors, wider spacing. He opened the first one.

Only his recent exposure to high tech Worlds let him recognize the operating room. Central table, vid screens, wires, tubes, gadgets all over the walls and hanging on hinged arms from the ceiling, trays in sterile glass fronted bins. Shelves full of sealed electronic things . . . larger racks of mechanical arms. He eyed the arms, trying to guess the function of several things . . . a laser? Or maybe just a built in light. The hand was complex . . . Can it possibly be as dexterous as a real hand . . . or is that why they stick to the left arm only? Is it stronger? Enough to be worth it?

He eyed the other end. Shoulder ball socket, with extensions that must go well into the back and chest, anchor to the collar bone and shoulder blade.

Did they take prisoners? But how do they enforce obedience? The brief glimpses he'd had of the cyborgs . . . plates here and there on shaven scalps, oculars . . . Yes, they were all here on these shelves.

Mirk looked at the other door, opposite of where he'd entered. Prisoners over there? I think I'll finish checking this corridor first.

Hospital rooms empty. Operating rooms . . . being prepped, but no patients until he reached the last room. Muffled voices warned him, and he barely cracked the door open.

Men—cyborgs—the closest all in white, right down to the gloves. The patient's head was being bandaged by one cyborg. One of the others—the one yelling at the uniformed soldiers at the far door had a bloody instrument in one hand. He threw both normal and cyborg hands up in exasperation and waved his crew out the far door.

Abandoning a patient in mid operation? Is he dead?

Mirk shuddered as he got a good view of what the surgeon has been working on.

What looked like a perfectly normal left arm . . . set off to the side. The raw wound of the shoulder . . . The last cyborg hustled over to hastily cover the area. He taped down gauze, then follow the others out.

Mirk eased in, cracked the other door. A bustle of action to the left. Injured being hauled past to the other operating rooms. An angled view of a sitting area, cyborgs leaning over cyborgs.

What do they call it? Triage? The one who will probably die anyway, leave. The ones with injuries they will survive even if they have to wait a long time, leave. Concentrate on the people whom immediate medical care can save.

There were some moans and whimpers, from stretchers . . . no as much noise as he'd heard, years ago, when he was in the army. Bandits wounded in battle, hauled before a court to be tried and hung. No one wasted much medical care on them, either.

He glanced to his right . . . and there they were. The poor schmucks the Nexus had sent to negotiate, cowering behind bars. Mirk stepped back and looked around. White garments, no doubt sterilized. He pulled the top on over his shirt. The hat thing, to cover his hair.

He peeked again. No one obviously looking this way, or guarding the prisoners.

He stepped out confidently and walked up to the barred door. Electronic lock. Controlling a steel bolt. He thought of his physical shield, the shield on his hand sticking out beyond his fingers . . . right through the bolt.

"Out. Now. All of you. Hurry. Go through the door there. Around the operating room and out the far side."

They stared at him. Bloody frigging pacifists . . .

"The Nexus sent me to free you from this illegal restraint. Please exit now and follow my directions."

That actually got them moving.

The body on the table stopped them. It was moaning, twitching . . .

"Go! Keep moving!" Mirk glanced over his shoulder, nerves screaming. What the hell am I doing here? I'm no hero!

"But, but, that's Felix! We can't leave him here . . ."

Mirk jerked around and stared. That is him!

One woman took a deep breath. "You and you." Pointing at the two nearest men. "Help him up and see if he can stand. Felix? Open your eyes . . . eye. We need to go."

Mirk eased around them and out to the first corridor. There was a door at this end as well. He opened it. The street was deserted. Fighting fires, I hope.

He looked back at the people following him. "Turn right and start walking. When you get far enough out into the grasslands that you can't see this place, turn left. The city is not too far, and the Nexus ought to be able to send aircars for you."

He watched a semi-conscious Felix creep by and looked back down the hall.

Rooms full of cyber parts. Are they going to turn all captives into cyborgs? Can they really impose their controls on men? I can't leave this . . . But what can I do?

He stepped back into the operating room and looked around. "Must be something flammable in here." A bottle of clear liquid. He couldn't read the label, but a sniff . . . alcohol of some sort. He reached high and poured it over the shelves of cyber parts. Stepped back patting pockets. No matches? Oh! He refrained from slapping his forehead and gathered power. It was cold enough to be difficult, he only needed a little fireball.

He stepped out of the room and tossed the glowing speck at the shelves.

Turned . . . at looked up at the cyborg reaching for him.

 
 
 
matapam
25 August 2016 @ 08:50 pm
I'll be uploading the edited version of _Exiles and Gods_ soon. I've added _Art Theft_ to the end of it if anyone wants to take a quick look at it. I've already out all the edits into my master copy for the rest of it. And the updated Authors' bio and links.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1B-pxaryTWU_K6QlPEpi3-55gL6zozSRReC6BHLPYTE0/edit
 
 
matapam
25 August 2016 @ 12:05 am
 

Mirk grinned and put his hand on the circle and turned east. "Time to see what we can do about that gate."

He frowned and remembered the "unnoticeable" spell.

It's been what, two years? A bit less? since I let Jade change my Negue family power gene to a regular mage gene. And add a wizard gene. Like the rest of the royal family, I could exude charisma and form a mental shield to keep my thoughts in and others out. But that's all it was good for. I've picked up a few things since . . . now I wish I'd been less of a snotty noble and more of a good magic student.

He shoved jitters aside. Pulled power from the sun and applied it to the unnoticeable spell. Envisioned it ballooning out and covering the whole aircar.

Lumps on the horizon. Enemy camp in sight. Last he'd seen the gate building had been roughly central, the vehicles exiting to the north.

So he needed to get into the encampment north of the middle, so he could turn south for the gate.

In a few minutes he was close enough to see the starts of the streets, some with construction of buildings as they extended their camp. He steered for one with no construction . . . just gravel, not a real street. He swerved to miss a wheeled vehicle that apparently couldn't see him . . .

Excellent!

He veered away from another, around a third . . .

This would be a lot easier if I could control my speed . . .

He slewed around a corner onto a broad street . . . small building dead ahead, across the road . . . Empty. Nothing but the back of the building showing. A short line of trucks waiting on the right side of the street.

Crap! The gate isn't turned on.

A quick turn down a side street. Large tents, small plywood buildings looking not much sturdier. Another car to dodge and those pedestrians . . .

Damn it all to hell. What do I do now? Drive in circles, pop back through and see if it's on? There was trucks waiting, so it can't be days until it opens.

He caught a glimpse of something . . . circled the block and cruised by.

Cyborgs unloading bodies. Carrying them into a building.

Dead or stunned? Must be alive . . . unless they use dead bodies to create the cyborgs.

What controls the cyborgs? A computer like the Nexus?

He cut south, then east . . . swerved and skidded to miss a truck coming up the gate road, turned onto a side road, cut further south and then back . . . Turned early to squeeze the left side of the road.

"Timing, timing, god damn these remote controlled vehicles . . . "

A trucked was pulling away from the building and he swerved straight for the back of it, must not hit the door frame, nor the truck . . .

He stood up, stooped over to steer. One foot on the side of the aircar.

The truck kept going. He steered right then left. The aircar's nose entered the doorway.

He jumped.



Chapter Six

Staggered, ran.

Was thrown through the air, hit a tent that folded, was hit by a large sheet of plywood. He could feel things hitting the panel, so he stayed under it . . . assessing . . .

I can't hear anything. Got all my body parts. Bruised, but I don't think broken.

The patter of falling debris stopped and he crawled out to look. The flimsy camp was flattened for a hundred feet all around, a dozen fires starting. The battered sheet of plywood he dropped was charred, with flames starting to flicker.

Unnoticeable! I'm unnoticeable.

The gate building was gone, no sign of a gate. The vehicles that had been waiting on the street was battered and charred.

Glad I jumped to the side! He limped off, away from the destruction.

His head was aching—too much magic or a blow, hard to say. But he clung to the spell and dodged cyborgs running for the gate site. The smoke behind him turned to steam as they extinguished the flames . . . and that was the building they'd been taking the bodies into . . .

He walked casually up to it, trying not to limp.

If it's a hospital, they'll be bringing patients in . . .

Even as he thought it, the first arrived, on a battered, scorched, flatbed truck.

Mirk circled the building and tried a side door.

 
 
matapam
24 August 2016 @ 07:13 am
  

"I . . . think you are incorrect in assuming they are acting out of fear." Crap. That hunk of rust is an idiot!

And my most valuable asset.

"I am reconsidering the wisdom of your mission."

Mirk nodded slowly. "Yes. I suppose need to approach cautiously, peacefully, I should not have assumed that they were brutal killers. My first impulse was hasty." He held his breath. The aircar continued south.

Thank Gods! The Nexus is equally naïve about me, and these soldiers.

He heaved a sigh of relief, and kept lying. "I will try to contract them, and explain that we are not threating them. However, talking to the people in control, back here at their headquarters is probably a better idea than approaching the underlings doing the intimidating."

Bloody fucking hell. Those people had better jam the Nexus's control of this car or nothing is going to stop the invaders from moving in so many soldiers they outnumber the population of the World! And this city is . . . probably already a lost cause.

"I am sending a peace delegation, now. So your mission may not be necessary."

Fat bloody chance. "Oh, I hope so."

I'm talking to it like it's an utter moron . . . not far off the truth. "May I see vid of the meeting? Perhaps it should be public."

"Yes. The delegation is approaching the strangers now. Vid is on channel 56."

Mirk eyed the control panel. Nothing to steer with, but of course there's a small screen.

He winced as he spotted the long shot of the aircars approaching the fires. The figures in black and bronze setting up a line of large guns . . . The aircars grounded and people emerged. Men and women in business suits. An even dozen . . . Old Gods! Is that Felix? Why did the Nexus send a finance manager into a battle zone . . . Because it has no diplomats and Felix Pierce gets along well with everyone . . .

The soldiers stepped out from behind their line of weapons and walked forward to meet them. And from a close range, suddenly sprinting forward, drawing hand weapons and firing.

Men fell. Women ran . . . were pursued and dragged back . . . thrown to the ground . . . Mirk was glad that the crowd of soldiers blocked the view.

"They are not responding to my informing them that non-voluntary sexual intercourse is forbidden by law."

"Nexus." Mirk tried hard to keep the horror and fury out of his voice. "Do you have protocols for dealing with dangerous animals and defective, dangerous machinery? Because that appears to be what we are faced with."



Chapter Five

"They are not animals."

Mirk grit his teeth. This is not the time to antagonize the moronic . . . "They appear to be human, but their behavior is in line with the worst of the disrecommended games. Is my vision mistaken, or did they have considerable bionic . . . replacement parts?"

"They did. The left arm has been replaced with a electromechanical prosthesis. Very versatile and strong. It demonstrates impressive medical engineering abilities."

Mirk boggled. "I doubt this is a club for accidental left arm amputees. I suspect their doctors are removing perfectly heathy left arms, possibly something with the eye, and the plates on the skull may indicate brain implants. You might analyze their actions, looking for programmed behavior that might indicate the level of control from a single source."

"Mirk Negue, you current actions are unsafe."

Switch tactics, Prince Mirk. This calls for diplomatic double-speak. "I know. But we need to try to talk to these people. I will observe and determine if the leaders are also mechanically augmented."

"This knowledge would be useful. No doubt there was insufficient communications between the leaders of these people and the people at the forefront of their encroachment."

Encroachment. Lovely. A synonym of invasion, but not actually saying we're being invaded.

"Yes. It would be a nightmare to think the leaders ordered that appalling behavior." Gods! The diplomatic pabulum just rolls off my tongue. Old training dies hard.

"It is time to turn the aircar toward the encampment. I am having to fight my own protocols, now that I know how dangerous it is to approach these people."

"But I am a single person, much less threatening. And I am more able to take precautions, being suspicious of these . . . is the term cyborg? I think I read a story . . . Umm, I am suspicious of the cyborgs, and will approach with caution. Keeping near objects I can duck behind." While I find out if my magic shields are hard enough to stop bullets, how far I can stun and slice when fighting for my life, and whether an unnoticeable spell works on cyborgs.

"I compute that . . ."

Silence.

The panel with the screen swung down. A five inch circle clearly labeled "To steer: rotate the circle right to turn right" with a arrow pointing right and curving down. "To turn left rotate the circle left" with the left arrow curving . . .

Mirk grinned and put his hand on the circle and turned east. "Time to see what we can do about that gate."

 
 
matapam
23 August 2016 @ 09:11 pm
 . . . a pair of german shepherds, a great dane and a boxer.

Yeah, I know, capitalize countries. But these are dog breeds. It's not German shepards, a great Dane and a boxer.

But if it's . . .  German Shephards, a Great Dane . . . shouldn't Boxer also be capitalized? Is there some rule about "only caplitalize dog breeds when there's a country name in there?"

I'm digging through the Exiles google doc before updating, and, OK, I know I can't complain about _other_ people missing things, when I obviously missed them all more than once. But the capitolize dog and horse breeds thing has stymied me more than once.
 
 
matapam
23 August 2016 @ 06:33 am
 

Chapter Four

Black clouds of smoke rising in the south. Another explosion rattled the city. Mirk could feel it though his boots.

"Nexus, what is causing the emergency?"

"Unknown."

Mirk shivered. Hopefully this is an industrial accident. But does this computer understand anything about war? Heh. Finally something I'm an expert at.

"Nexus, do aircars have exteriors cameras? I recommend sending one—no passengers—to view the area of those explosions."

"An excellent suggestion, Mirk Negue. Complying."

Mirk turned and trotted back inside. "Display the pictures on my screen. I recommend you start at about a three hundred foot altitude."

"Aircars require proximity to the ground to operate."

Mirk sighed. And stood and watched the street level view of burning buildings, people running.

Soldiers in dull black armor, brass . . . not helmets, more like oculars, over one eye and other brassy bits here and there, glued onto the shaven scalps.

He squinted. The nearest soldier's left arm almost looked . . . robotic. The soldier raised his weapon, pointed it at the aircar . . . a flash and the screen blanked.

"Nexus, that looked like an invasion. Do you have protocols for dealing with war?"

"War is not permitted . . . "

"And a very good idea that is. Unfortunately those people don't seem to care about your laws." Mirk bit his lip. A high tech war. I've only read about them. Swords and cavalry charges aren't going to work here . . . except I ought to be able to scale up the tech, the speed and range of weapons . . . "Do you have any weapons? Defensive weaponry?"

"No. Weapons are forbidden."

"Surveillance. You spotted us in the middle of the savannah. Satellites? Can you get me an aerial view of the area of destruction?"

The picture sprung up. Half obscured by smoke. "Five houses and two shopping centers have been damaged or destroyed. Fire suppression is not working very well. I diagnose a break in the water main supplying the area."

"Zoom out . . . pan south slowly. I need to see where they are coming from."

The view shrunk . . . drifted south. Miles of road full of ground vehicles. And a large encampment. Then nothing.

Mirk bit his lip. "They must be coming through a dimensional gate. Zoom in and look for vehicles appearing from nowhere."

A road. Vehicles rolling out of small building that couldn't hold more than one or two of them.

"Right. The gate is in there. We need to close it, first, then deal with the forces that are already here. Zoom out a little, I'll need a path . . . plenty of cross streets to their camp."

"They are not responding to my requests to cease their destructive actions."

Mirk closed his eyes. Requests! "We need to evacuate the southern part of the city . . . Frost, can you coordinate that? Nexus, I need a large aircar, and I'm going to have to break a lot of safety rules."

"Breaking safety . . . "

"Nexus, shut up. Dig into your memory archives about the history of the Earth we left behind. Read what happens to people who can't fight back." He got up and headed for the door. "Aircar now. I'll need manual controls. And disengage the door locks, I'll be getting out while it's moving."

"Vehicular mayhem is not a good idea, but . . . I calculate that it may be needed to close the 'gate' as you call it. I will guide it in."

"They may . . . I have no idea why it is called 'jamming' but radio frequency interference may be in use."

"I see. I am searching old archived programs . . . this is very alarming!"

"Aircar. Quickly." Mirk, spotted the movement and ran out to the road.

A sporty convertible model sighed to a halt. He jumped in. It . . . moved away. At as moderate speed.

"Nexus . . . manual controls?"

"There are no aircars with those features. I have disabled the safety belt programming, and if my signal is jammed, emergency controls will pop out from a drop down panel so you can steer to a stop."

"I need to keep going. I ought to go faster now, as . . . Nexus, I need to go wide around the invaders and approach at a high velocity from the side. Can you override the power controls and speed this thing up?"

"I am . . . overwriting the control algorithms . . . and if jammed . . . the vehicle will stay at this velocity."

The car sped up until it was at a horse's sprint speed.

Thirty miles an hour! Mirk unclenched his fists. "Thank you. Now please get me out of town on the west or southwest as quickly as possible, then south."

Information. I need more information. "We need to figure out who those people are, why they are attacking us, and what they want, and expect to get . . . There are no defenses, which they will figure out soon enough . . . Nexus . . . if they have any idea about how this world works, they will be trying to capture you."

"I am a very widespread electromagnetic phenomenon . . . but half of my computing power is physically based here."

Mirk sat up. "Is this the only point of attack? Are the other cities . . . "

"All other cities are peaceful, the satellites show no other concentrations of unknown people."

"Good. I suggest that anyone evacuating head for the nearest city . . . San Francisco, right?"

The aircar passed the last houses and cruised on until the road ended. Then it turned south

I've been spoiled by the high tech worlds I've lived on the last two years. A horse would be exhausted and stumbling by now. But sixty miles an hour would be nice! And a hundred, much more useful.

"Based on old programs, I approve what you are doing. I will continue to attempt to negotiate."

Mirk hunched his shoulders. "May I suggest that you do not reveal that you are a machine. Keep them looking for a man and his high tech broadcast equipment, not just hunting down a computer."

"I have already informed them that I am the Nexus . . . "

"Stop it! Stop giving them Information they can use against us." Mirk looked around the aircar and found nothing useful to hit with his head. "And make sure any critical information you have stored here is duplicated somewhere outside of the city. In fact start manufacturing replacement parts for yourself in other cities. If we can defeat these invaders . . ."

"We cannot fight them! That will just escalate the amount of damage they will do. I have run a gaming simulation. They should stop the attack soon, now that they have demonstrated their aggression. They will parley now and demand our surrender."

"We cannot surrender. They will use our resources to attack the next city." Mirk craned his neck. Was it time to angle in toward their camp?

"Once they see that we are no threat to them, they will no longer fear us, and will cease hostilities."

 
 
matapam
22 August 2016 @ 05:11 am
 

Chapter 3

Two students, a financial analyst with a job promised in the government, and a hobby gardener. Frost was a bit miffed by the lack of career opportunities for a witch, but the computer was quite clear on the non-existence of witch as a job title or description.

Halberd felt very odd, the first time she walked into Dr. Beecher's lecture hall. Rick and Colleen mobbed her, and even Dr. Beecher unbent enough to beam at her before calling the class to order.

"You are so lucky!" Lori's hologram settled down in her usual seat.

Marco nodded, and then sat up and watched Dr. Beecher, as he brought up his first holo.

Real people. Real friends. Even the ones she hadn't touched yet.

***

Napalm frowned at the . . . interesting mechanism. "A by sickle? What does it do? I mean obviously it will tip over by itself . . . Do those wires on the wheels cut the crops?"

"It's all one word. Bicycle." Annie smirked and straightened the contraption, kicked to fold up the brace that kept it from falling over. Then she hopped up on the seat and just cruised off down the walkway. No sign of tipping over.

No waiting for the tram. No seat belts. Stupid helmet, but . . .

Annie turned in a wide circle and peddled back past her the other direction.

Napalm galloped after her, sprinting to catch up. "So, how do I get one of these?"

"At the store. C'mon!"

***

". . . and this will be your office."

Mirk gave Felix Pierce a firm handshake, and watched him walk away. My immediate supervisor. I'm the low man on a brand new ladder of advancement.

He looked around the tidy little office, a quarter the size of his office in Karista. He could feel his muscles relaxing, all the worry and anger fading away. He tapped to bring up the computer display.

"Welcome to the Office of World Economics, Mirk Negue. May I take you on a virtual tour to start your first day familiarization?"

"Please do."

This feels fantastic. I didn't realize I missed being part of the government.

One of the forces for order, rather than the agents of chaos the gang was.

I missed having a job.

***

"So . . . if gardens are just occasional hobbies . . . where does the food come from? What, exactly do you mean by vat meat?" Frost let the dry sandy soil trickle through her fingers and turned away from the sight of the weedy backyard of her new home. Going to take some work to get it going well.

"Vat meat is derived from genetically engineered yeast. The yeast grows in a vat, hence the name."

"Is it genetically engineered to . . . be muscle cells?"

"Not entire cells. But the proteins and fiber of muscles are accumulated in the yeast cells until they mass ten times the usual mass of a yeast cell. Then they are harvested, drained and pressed into the desired form."

"That's . . . amazing." And explains the soft, gooey texture. "What about vegetables? Fruit? I saw the wild animals and plants in Africa . . . have you maintained domestic animals at all?"

"Unfortunately, the first colonists allowed some domesticated varieties to stray, and breed in the wild. As the citizens voted against eradication of the invasive species, feral cattle, horses, sheep, and goats have established themselves in North America, Europe and Asia."

"No doubt interbreeding with the wild relatives . . . have you kept pure domestic strains? What about grains, vegetables, fruit trees?"

"They are no longer necessary. The plants have also escaped cultivation and gone feral."

"I see." Frost frowned around the rather barren house. "Now let's talk about furniture and decoration, before I get a shovel and start hunting for fruit tree seedlings for the yard."

"Growing your own food is not necessary, Frost Witch."

"Hobby gardener. Remember? No reason a garden can't be both beautiful and productive." She nodded. "It's late in the year, if I can identify the trees, I'll mark them and transplant them this winter."

***

By mid winter they were settled in. Comfortable and happy. Even Frost was enjoying her garden, adding plants whenever the weather cleared. Mirk suspected it was going to be spectacular, come spring.

Mirk schmoozed regularly with his coworkers. Business lunches, after work barely alcoholic drinks. Worked his ass off and loved it. They had people over for dinner. Business associates of both genders, with . . . partners. Like witches they apparently didn't marry, just formed civil unions to raise children. Unlike witches, having children had nothing to do with sex.

Not that there wasn't sex. Humans couldn't be trained out of hormonal impulses. But an awful lot of them seemed unclear on the concept and stuck to some sort of "Virtual Reality" stimulation. Mirk was afraid to try it.

The kids had friends in and out, they had their parents over for dinner and card games several times.

Nice people without any deep challenges, certainly not physical. Their exercise regimes were calculated for maximum health benefits, not hard labor. Sports competitions were as close to hostilities as was allowed. And their version of hostile bore a strong resemblance to grumpy irritation.

Friends. I have . . . friends. How very unexpected.

It's a stress free, relaxing life. Exactly what we all need right now. But eventually . . . I wonder who will break first, me or Frost? I'll get bored, or too ambitious. Frost will start missing her children, wondering what happened to them . . . And the girls. When will they tire of a few magic exercises in the back yard and start showing off to their friends?

Worry later. Enjoy everything we have, right now.

"The only thing I really miss is a fireplace." Mirk looked at the vid screen, which was showing a montage of flames. "They don't even have proper vids of fires, let alone the sensual impact of . . . glowing coals, the radiant heat, the occasional snap, the faint smoky smell, no matter how well designed and built . . . "

"Hot cocoa." Halberd sighed. "Egg nog. They didn't even have a Solstice celebration."

Napalm sniffed. "Annie thought we were weird, giving presents. 'If you want it, why didn't you go buy it?' Like she'd never been surprised by something she'd never thought of."

She plunked down in front of the screen and scowled. "Can we watch a movie?"

"Might as well." Mirk got up and headed for his room. He couldn't stand the insipid entertainment, even with the three witches' sarcastic commentary.

The windows rattled, a faint shake, a deep distant boom . . . "Thunder? That sounded almost more like an explosion."



 
 
matapam
21 August 2016 @ 12:13 am
The next thing I'll be working on is a collection of four stories. Castle of Air, The Sun Never Set on the British Empire, Utopia, and The Lodge in the Mountains. All the stories about what happened to the fleeing Bad Guys at the end of _Embassy_. the other three you've already seen. Utopia is under contruction. I have a mental image of what itneeds to encompass, now I just need to get writing.


Utopia

Pam Uphoff

Prince Mirk Negue frowned around at the endless rolling miles of tall grasslands, and contemplated his companions. Frost was meditating, trying to figure out which direction would be best to travel. A witch of moderate power, and some training. Halberd appeared to be perhaps thirteen or fourteen. Napalm looked about ten and had precociously grasped power the month before. The girls were holding hands and looking around, relieved and curious, not traumatized. Frost was the only one he knew well. But all things considered, three witches weren't a bad trio to be lost with.

"There's something that way." Frost pointed. "Mechanical, powered, electrical I think. It's coming this way."

"If it's a vehicle, maybe we can get a ride." Prince Mirk stretched his back and tried to not look weary. Ten years ago, in a fit of insanity he'd hired an assassin to kill his nephew and half brother. He'd been running or in prison since. No matter how many weird elixirs and magic wines he drank, he was tired. When the air cushion vehicle whined to a halt in front of them he was delighted.

The top hissed upward. The vehicle was empty.

"You are trespassing on the East African Savannah Preserve."

Mirk eyed the speaker at the front of the three rows of seats.

"You are required to board this vehicle for transportation to the headquarters in Mombassa."

Napalm climbed into the rear seat. "Might as well get someplace first, then start disobeying."

Mirk took the front seat. Frost joined him and Halberd slipped into the rear. The clear dome closed over them. "Please fasten your seat belts. The air cushion vehicle cannot move until all passengers . . . "

What odd land had he come to? He strapped in. This could be really interesting.



Chapter 1

The hover car cruised smoothly a few feet above the tops of the tall grasses. Silent. Even the cool air blew with no sound of fans.

Mirk switched his glance from the horizon to the near vegetation. He tried to judge how fast they were traveling . . . finally gave up and just settled back. Closed his eyes . . . jerked awake . . . still grasslands with scattered trees.

Movement. Ungainly animals he'd never seen in the flesh. Elephants. And to think I'd wondered if they weren't a joke by the Old Gods.

Frost was curled up in her seat, looking out the far side of the hover car. Tears on the cheek silhouetted against the bright landscape.

He craned his neck. Both girls were asleep.

Just hours ago we were fleeing for our lives. Fleeing an attack . . . fleeing from arrest, trial, execution or imprisonment again. He rubbed his temples. I am tired of being a criminal. A traitor. Old Gods know Rebo deserved to . . . no. Not to die. I was stupid.

Why didn't I just divorce the bitch?

Six months after the assassin I hired killed him, when Staven told me they'd summoned the Council President to remove Rebo from the succession the day before he was killed, I laughed. Then I went away and cried in private for my stupidity.

He peered forward. Sharp lines. Wherever we're going, we're nearly there.

"We're not going to be criminals." He made his voice firm.

Frost lifted her head and peered ahead. "Yes." Her voice was soft. "For once in my life, perhaps I can be . . . just a normal person. Honest."

The girls stirred and sat up, as the hover car swung around a grove of trees and onto a paved street.

No buildings, no people. Just a paved road. Winding into . . . landscaping?

Around a corner and finally, buildings. They looked more like businesses than homes . . . glass paned windows

Blank and empty.

The taller vegetation fell back as the road turned into a broad boulevard. Taller buildings ahead, and the sparkle of light on water in the breaks between.

The voice that had spoken from the hover car's speakers spoke again. "Welcome to Mombasa. Would you like to stay at the Mombasa Inn or the Mombasa Family Suites?"

They looked around the empty streets.

"Who are you? Where are you?"

"I am the Mombasa Nexus of the World Net. I am a disbursed computer assemblage, present in all buildings in Mombasa. And also all over the world."

Halberd leaned forward and addressed the speaker. "How many people live here in Mombassa?"

"With the addition of you four to the population roll . . . four."



Chapter 2

1400 post exile/3520AD

Mirk ground his teeth and tried to summon patience.

"Gritting your teeth causes undue tooth wear and may be an early indicator of Mandibular disfunction."

Mirk took a deep breath and tried again. "Where are all the people?"

"Abercrombe, Terrance. 11234 B Prairieview Drive, Malibu. Abrams, Abigail. 6529 Brookside Terrace, Paris. Addams . . . "

"Stop." I hate computers. "Please display a world map with population centers highlighted."

The illusionary globe suddenly rotating in front of him had, as usual, a rough approximation of the continents he was used to. And damn few population centers.

He heaved a relieved breath. For just a second, I thought Mombasa might be the sole "population center."

Close enough, there are damn few cities. All far away.

"So, not only is there no one else in Mombasa, there's no one else on the whole continent?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"The prevalence of tropical diseases was deemed sufficiently high to disrecommend continued inhabitation. The control of insect vectors was difficult, even in the small enclaves that would minimize impact on the environment. Therefor the Mombassa center was closed."

This sounds like Earth at the height of its environmental craze. Several Earths. Mirk had read a lot of histories, from a lot of almost parallel Earths. "What is the population of the World? Show me a graph with demographics."

Four million people. A large city on any of the advanced Worlds. Other advanced Worlds. The age spread was flat, dipping only after eighty, and disappearing altogether at one hundred and ten.

Typical of non-magical populations.

"Display a historical graph of the population for the last 2000 years."

The first six hundred were zero. Leaping suddenly to a quarter million.

"So this is an Exile World."

"I am unfamiliar with the term. Utopia is the fourth colony of Earth Prime, settled in the year 2116 ce."

The population had apparently peaked a thousand years ago, at about twenty million, and been in decline ever since.

"Are there imposed restrictions on reproduction? Who has the babies?"

"Every individual is a valuable contributor to the next generation."

Frost walk in, toweling her hair dry but otherwise undressed. "That sounds like a hell of an orgy." She frowned at the globe and the graph.

"Orgies are restricted to virtual venues. Physical sexual contact is highly disrecommended."

"Explain common reproductive procedures." Mirk bit his lip and kept Frost in the corner of his eye. This could be good.

"A registered couple must complete child care classes before registering to become parents. When registration is approved, a phenotypical zygote is brought to term, and if normal and healthy, is delivered to their care."

"Fee no what?" Frost sounded like she was getting angry.

"Phenotypical. A suite of physical attributes commonly found in a given sub-population."

"So, someone wants a baby and someone just walks up and hands them a baby that looks about right for them?" She sounded appalled.

"Yes."

Mirk rubbed his face, trying to remember. Did Frost have two children? Three? Old Gods knows where they are now. No doubt they're in a bubble somewhere. With someone else. "If I understand the genetics correctly, Halberd should be able to open Gates when she's older. We're not trapped here forever." Unless we like it here and decide to stay.

Thanks to a room with a large time differential in it, the girls were multiples of their calendar ages. Due to good genetics and a constant near random application of magical changes, Frost looked half her thirty-four years of age.

Mirk bit his lip. I look younger too, the effect of several magic potions. But who knows what that implies as to life expectancy.

"Computer, explain the financial system here. What money is used, and how is it earned?"

"We have kept the Classical Dollar System. Every citizen receives a minimum stipend, to which are added their hourly earnings."

Mirk frowned. "How does one become a citizen?"

"Everyone is a citizen."

"What about us four?"

"I regret to say that a computer error seems to have erased all records of your existence. You will need to submit form 2234 to the nearest Node, to reregister."

"I thought you were a node?"

"I am."

Mirk closed his eyes. "So, please give us form 2234 so we can reregister."

A form and keyboard appeared in midair. Virtual forms, along with virtual sex, apparently. Mirk sat down and proceeded to fill in all the blanks, inventing the vast majority of the data. The Node computer seemed perfectly happy with the nonsense, credited him with a weeks' stipend and then took half of it away as a fine for his trespass on the nature reserve.

The witches filled in their forms, and started nattering with the computer about shopping and travel.

Mirk walked out to the balcony and stared down the coastline. It was spectacularly beautiful, but they were going to need to live where there were other people, if they were going to take over and run this place.

Research first, move base second. Or even third. It is beautiful, a good place to stay for now.

***

Halberd dropped out of the conversation with the computer and wandered off to explore. The building was huge, by her standards. Bigger than the Mansion, in any case, and with four instead of forty adults, and no children it seemed even bigger. She liked the long clean straight lines. Mombasa Regional government offices. Next door to the Mombasa Inn.

"I need to know how things work here. I need to go to school." She listened for echoes, but all the sound was absorbed. A light blinked in a corner, and she investigated.

"Welcome to the Mombasa Virtual School, Halberd Arrowdaut. Due to your lost records, I need to test you for class placement."

She quickly lost herself in a whirl of questions, all set up like a game, with points and class standing, and canned crowd noises. It was quite funny. Fun too, and she was really reaching with her last few math equations.

"Congratulations, Halberd! In order to continue to challenge your math and science abilities, I am enrolling you in the University of Mombasa. I'm afraid though, that you will have to take remedial classes in history and social studies. When do you wish to start?"

"How about an introductory history class, now?" She wrinkled her nose. There were so many conflicting histories.

"Certainly. Let's start with the basics, the formation of the Universe. In the beginning, everything was dark matter, and dark matter was all. We have no evidence for a triggering event, but assume there was one, as the effects were so strong and immediate. With the formation of the Universe, everything came into being. Not just the physical particles, but the physical laws themselves. But not simply a single universe with a single set of laws, but rather a multitude of universes, with all possible laws. As the various universes cooled, the range of possibilities opened up more possibilities. But not new Universes, rather what we call membranes, or branes. Within each Universe, as defined by the physical laws, there are infinite possibilities, but the branes are all one and all interact, and so are drawn together even as they split apart, conserving mass and energy within each Universe.

"Introductory History will cover what is known about the formation of two branes. The one from which our ancestors came, one thousand four hundred and twenty three years ago, and this new home of ours."

It was utterly fascinating.

At some point she realized that Napalm had joined her and was whining about her classes, and wanting to be with other kids. Her mom had kept her out of the Fast House as much as she dared, so Napalm was only nine years old. The Node computer brought up what it called holograms—illusions of other kids—and a teacher, who welcomed her to the class and introduced her to the other students. It was weird, but Napalm was happier.

Halberd was much more adult, easily thirteen years old. But when she started her science classes, Halberd gained a teacher as well, a hologram named Dr. Beecher, and occasionally some other students – Rick who was Dr. Beecher's assistant, and Marco, Colleen and Lori who were supposed to be advanced students taking the class with her. It was quite fun pretending they were real people that she could share her thoughts and speculations with, but she always felt let down when the lesson ended and they disappeared.

Napalm felt much the same, finally whining at dinner. "Annie invited me to come over and play with her. When can we go there?"

Frost frowned. "Where does Annie live?"

"In Saint Louis. It's the Capital of the World. I learned that in school." She looked smug.

Halberd added. "North America. A bit east of dead center."

Mirk frowned. "Computer? Are the holograms of real people? Are they two way?"

Halberd choked on vat grown hippopotamus steak.

"Yes, they are all real people. The holographic transmissions are sent to all student locations."

"Where is Dr Beecher located? And the other students I interact with?" Halberd held her breath.

"Dr. Beecher teaches at the University of North America in St. Louis. Rick and Colleen attend in person, Marco remotely from San Francisco and Lori remotely from Samarkand."

Mirk looked thoughtful. "And St Louis is the Capital of the World. Obviously I should have gone to school with you two, instead of playing twenty questions with the machine every damn day. Computer, we need to move to St Louis. What is involved?"

"Setting a date, reserving a long distance skimmer, packing, and embarking."

"We will need money, a place to live, work to do." Mirk tapped a finger nail on the table.

"There are thirty-eight domiciles adequate to the size of this extended family available in the St Louis area."

"Display map of St Louis, highlighting the School Napalm has been attending remotely, and the University, and these thirty-eight domiciles."

Napalm's school was near the University, and both were not far from the government buildings. They examined four hologramed homes and picked one. The rent was easily within the reach of their four minimum stipends, but when their accounts were shown, they all gawped at one of them.

"Where did you get all that money?"

Halberd blinked at her balance—which was triple Frost or Mirk's.

"Good students receive bonus credits. Halberd is an excellent student in a difficult and valuable learning track."

Mirk sighed. "How do we find out what jobs we are qualified for?"

"Employment qualification testing is available."

"After dinner, I think Frost and I should be tested."

A week later they moved to St. Louis.



 
 
matapam

She dressed with care, applied her makeup carefully, and walked down to shine.

They made good time driving to Breesdon. Drew's dignified old valet managed all the arrangements. Their big coach was comfortable and they stopped at an Inn every night. Tras was delighted to take most of the work of tending the babies. A boy had been sent ahead, a week before they left, with Drew's six horses, taking his time to the half way point in Bern, so they would have a fresh change of horses. They took an extra day off in Bern, before sending the boy home with Lord Menchuro's tired team.

However comfortable the trip, they were still confined to the coach for the better part of every day. Juabe, perforce, spent a lot of time with her son, and was surprised to find it not as difficult as the early days. The two little boys looked opposite of each other, Warric pale and long and Trace chubby and dark, but Tras was adamant that they were both very well behaved babies.

"They even sleep through the night." She braided Juabe's hair and coiled it for the day. "When you grow up in a household like my father's you see a lot of babies. You are so lucky." Her voice dropped to a whisper.

Juabe rather thought that Drew could hear her anyway, and sent a smile his direction. He blew her a kiss. "Yes, they're a nice pair of little boys. I'll go see if the horses are harnessed."

Tras giggled. "I meant that you didn't have to share your Drew with a bunch of other women. My father didn't love his wife – nor any of the concubines. They were just beautiful women, interchangeable, as far as he could see. Lord Gressum fell in love with my sister, my half sister, The Lady, but my parents didn't approve of him. They convinced his parents to buy me, because they thought that would break the infatuation. I looked like her, you see?"

"Oh. Dear."

"Yes. He didn't much like being fobbed off with a bastard slave girl. He was always rough, and beat me whenever he had an excuse. I'm glad he released me." She caught Juabe's gaze in the mirror. "I won't ever flirt with your Lord. I promise. Now Hurald on the other hand . . . "

"Hurald is, well, probably not quite old enough to be your grandfather." Juabe smiled at the thought of Hurald the tacturn driver. She'd known him for her fifteen years of marriage, and probably never gotten anything but an opinion about horse, road or weather from him. And briefly stated opinions at that.

"But he's not my grandfather." Five minutes later Tras winked at him as Drew handed them up into the coach.

The fresh team made good speed over one of the longer stretches of their journey, and they pulled into the misnamed White Buffalo Inn before sunset. The dark buildings were as poorly lit as she remembered from all their other trips. Drew sent Bathford in to handle the arrangements and strolled with them up and down the street.

There weren't enough houses to even count as a village, let alone a town.

"They make their money off travelers." Drew said. "And there are a some sheep farmers about. The ground is too rocky for most crops, but halfway between Bern and Marsalis, they can earn a tidy living."

Juabe noted the raised gardens behind the three houses. "It looks like they manage to grow their own vegetables. I suppose they buy flour in Marsalis."

"Yes. People who travel through all the time, like Hurald and Bathford, generally pick up things there or in Bern and barter for lodgings. Unless I miss my guess, Bathford is just now swapping chocolate for beds and hot baths. Hurald will probably spend the night at cards, using horseshoe nails as his stake."

Juabe chuckled. "I remember him winning a few times, and some of the odd things he's carried off. A cow bell, and a whole sheep skin, and knitted things. He must have a dozen knitted caps by now."

"Not to mention scarves." Drew chuckled. "And I seem to remember some puppies once. I think that was the year before I married you. Bathford had to point out to him that puppies weren't actually assets."

"Is that where that odd hound pack of yours came from?"

"Well, it certainly added character to it. The pack started out as purebred fox hounds. I was glad for those big mixed breeds when they tackled that bear. Remember that?"

"All too well." They turned and strolled back to the Inn, where the proprietor was all smiles and laid out a good dinner for them.

Another week found them driving up to the gates of the Principality's ruling family. Drew was one of the Principal's direct liege lords, and they were welcomed warmly.

Juabe and Tras and the babies were escorted off to the women's quarters. Hot baths, and gossip over dinner, admiration of the babies. Just like always.

"The men always want to sit around and talk about killing things." Princess Segundus Listle cooded at Warric. "A prince primus. I am so jealous. All I had to show for my Service to the Gods was stretch marks. A still-borne daughter. You know, I always thought you were so lucky, barren and not called to Serve."

"Well, I don't recommend my method. " Juabe smiled ruefully. She'd be expected to pay for dinner and lodging with the whole lurid tale. "Your children are getting so big. Karl must be . . . goodness twelve?" She caught the boy's eye and winked at him. "He'll be shaving in no time. I'll bet he's growing so fast your seamstresses can't keep up."

Listle nodded. "Those trousers were too long for him a month ago. Now you must tell all about what happened up north. Really, the stories we get don't make any sense at all."

So it was all hashed out again, the whole confusing mess. "They never found out what caused it. Drew thinks perhaps one of the gods had a breakthrough and was suddenly able to reduce inhibitions and discipline or increase lust or perhaps both, over a much larger than expected range. But of course it was all blamed on the officers and soldiers, and the Priests never had to explain why their Gods, major and minor, were running loose through the camp and woods."

"Of course not, dear. My service was not nearly so colorful. I had already produced two sons for my husband, so he felt honor bound to take me back. And it's worked out well, finally. Two more children and he lost interest in the concubines years ago. They couldn't carry on an intelligent conversation with him." She smiled over at the two women who were chatting with Tras. "I kept them on, for appearances, and to help with all the children – they have one each. Is your Drew interested in the girl?"

"He doesn't appear to be. Now that he's out of the army, he may increase his household. No doubt I'll find out."

"Hmm, well, dear, I shall hope for the best for you."

A week later they reached the Menchuro's country estate. The old stone building was a welcome refuge, and Juabe settled Tras and the babies far enough away for quiet nights, but close enough to not seem to be rejecting Warric.

Bathford took firm control of his master's wing of the house. All the rooms were cleaned and opened, aired out, whether needed or not.

Lord Menchuro had a suite, mostly unused, in the center section of the house, that also contained a grand entry, three parlors, a ballroom, three sizes of dining rooms and a covered passage to the kitchen, kept separate as a fire hazard.

Drew's sister Gorgette and her husband Lord Fredarik managed the estate and occupied the long south wing of the manor house with their four children, their governesses, school masters, valets, maids, boot boys and concubine.

That last was a surprise.

"Little Fredarik is seventeen now, and we don't want him to marry early. He's applied to attend the University in Lundun and the girl will do to keep his rooms in good order, see that he eats and so forth." Gorgette bustled over to peek at Warric. "A prince primus, after all these years. Quite the surprise."

Juabe eyed her askance. "What is Little Freddie going to study? Business like his father?"

"We thought politics might be better." She frowned at Warric. "Since it appeared that he'd be inheriting from his uncle. What are Drew's intensions? I see you have the child here close to you, instead of up in the attic with the servants' children."

"It's too early to be making plans. Drew's barely forty, with plenty of time to be having a son of his own if that is his desire. You know he's always thought with Freddie and Phippe there was no reason for him to scramble frantically about for an heir of his body."

"But is he not going to deal with you as he wishes? "

Juabe raised her eyebrows. "He already is." So, Gorgette thought he should abandon her? Thought her child should be up in the attic?

"Oh, is the whore's child his? I thought her a bit old and a bit plain for Drew, but perhaps she's clever in bed. I always thought that you must be quite acrobatic."

"My dear! Are you afraid that Drew will cast you out? Heavens, he's never mentioned a thing of that nature. He speaks of joining the local militia in chasing bandits, not taking over management, here. There is no need for this ferocious attack."

Gorgette straightened. "I never thought any such thing. And I certainly wouldn't attack anyone, dear."

"I'm so very happy to hear that, dear." When 'dear' had descended to such an insult, there was little hope for reconciliation.

They ate in the medium sized dining room, with space for double their numbers, Drew at the head of the table, with Fredarick to his left and Gorgette to his right. Juabe sat between the two Fredaricks, across from four year old Phippe, with the two girls, Angliea and Sofiea at the foot of the table.

Tras and Fredarik the younger's concubine were not invited.

Juabe kept up a cheerful chatter with the girls, catching up on the news in the little village that was a part of the estates, as well as the five neighboring noble families. Lesser lords with smaller properties, they lived on various military and family pensions and investment of their wives' dowries. Juabe laughed with the girls at their penny pinching, hiding her understanding of their pride in overcoming their financial problems. Although how Lord Enderby expected to marry off his five daughters with the small dowries he could afford was anyone's guess.

"He should have stopped having children after two." Gorgette said. "The man was insane to want a son so badly. Wiser to chose a son-in-law of proven ability."

Both Fredariks agreed and Drew raised his eyebrows. "Thinking you don't need a dowry, Fredie? I confess I haven't looked at Enerby's girls, been away too much."

Gorgette looked panicked at that hint having fallen so far afield. "Oh, no, not for us. But really, Enderby'd be so much better off with, say, young Lord Marcus for his eldest and leaving the estate to them, rather than having yet another child himself."

Drew raised his brows. "Well, children do tend to happen in marriages. Or not, without regard to the wishes of the people involved. I should hardly think Enderby would give up the marital bed at his young age."

Juabe winced and leaned in to divert the conversation. "What of the Galloways? I haven't heard a thing about them in ages."

The two boys squirmed. Gorgette shook her head sadly. "Lady Bernsday was Called several months ago."

"Oh, well, hopefully she'll be back, after." That was a much as Juabe could manage. She hoped Magda could stay in business. She'd have to ask Drew about that.

"Hard to say. Galloway has gotten in a girl to raise their pair of children, and I've heard she's looking pretty smug." Young Freddie smirked.

Gorgette nodded. "Lady Bernsday probably won't have a place when she returns."

"I don't know how Galloway managed a Princess Segundus anyway." The elder Freddie reached for more beef.

Drew met her eyes warmly. "Just lucky, I expect. Or the long military career. I'll have to step around and cheer him up."

The verbal fencing continued through every meal, until Drew took both Fredariks off for a tour of their wide flung properties. Thereafter their dinners were as often game as domestic fowl or beast. Juabe made sure that fresh produce was bought locally and rarely supplemented with expensive preserves brought from town.

Gorgette complained that she was being parsimonious and pouted to no effect. Juabe, in the village laughed at her growing reputation as a skinflint. "Although I expect Mr. Bereson is feeling a pinch, all the wild game Drew brings home. But I should hope the local farmers are doing well off us."

Mrs. Bereson laughed at that. "Now don't you believe that, there are plenty others that buy our meat, and they've saying lately how nice it is that we've the better cuts available more often. And anyway, you're still buying often enough, and with a larger household, so really our business has been good."

Gorgette's family had twelve staff dedicated to them, making Juabe feel positively parsimonious with their mere three, especially with Hurald living over the stables with the other four grooms and stable boys, the two gardeners and the kennel boy. The 'household staff' consisted of a butler, a house keeper with three maids, and a cook with two assistants. Thirty people to keep six nobles in style seemed positively luxurious to her after the last year, and all the years in Army camps. Seven nobles. She really did need to start acting like Prince Primus Warric was to be counted as one of the Lords, not an up and coming bootboy like Trace.

She walked into the nursery and Warric rolled and squirmed toward her. He recognizes me. His mother. She looked at Tras and Trace, mother and son, and the boy becoming as dear to her as the mother.

The boys ought to be raised together. If Warric took after Drew's military career, he'd need a loyal man with him. Drew spoke occasionally of his man, killed before she ever met him, and replaced only with short term privates, frequently replaced. But Trace should have lessons with Warric. Book and sword. She scooped up Warric and studied him. A handsome child, fair and bright. "So, my son, I see you are getting quite good at squirming. Am I to assume the crawling is not far behind?"

Trac nodded. "They'll be going everywhere inside of a few months. Juabe, do you think, umm, I mean, m'lady, should we . . . sorry."

Juabe relented and stopped glowering. "You let those snotty maids of Gorgette's scold you too often. What ought we to do?"

"The Housekeeper's the worst. A small fenced yard for them to play out doors would be handy. I think little Fancy's taken, and, well, m'lady, if I may be so bold, you appear to be putting on a bit of weight, just there, as well."

Juabe froze. "Do you think . . . " she looked down at her belly. "I was thinking I needed to diet. I . . . my periods weren't very regular even before I was nursing a baby."

Tras opened her hands. "It could just be weight, I expect you'll know for sure in a few more months. A play yard will be handy, with more babies about the place."

"I suppose so." She agreed faintly. "Gorgette will be truly poisonous if Drew has a son."

"Hard to imagine how much worse she could get." Tras snorted. "She's pretty funny the way she keep finding ways to suggest how smart of the neighbors it would be to do just what she wants Lord Drew to do."

They walked down to the garden and wandered about, planning a bit of fencing to keep the childrens' playground away from Gorgette's favorite parts of the not terribly extensive gardens. They finally settled on a patch around the corner of the north wing, mostly lawn with a young oak in the middle of it. Juabe hired a pair of young men to put up the fence as Gorgette glowered anyway, and the nursery was moved to another room to give ready access to it.

And she was getting bigger, in a very characteristic way. Drew treated her like glass, and walked around grinning. Gorgette called him fatuous and he agreed.

All told, with Freddie the younger being given a concubine and misbehaving with the maids, and Tras misbehaving with Hurald, there were nine young children in the house. At the ages of seven to eight, they all attended the local school with Juabe sponsoring another teacher and another addition to the already inadequate structure.

She retained Phippe's school master to augment the children's educations, but no amount of horror from Gorgette could keep her from raising her two sons as members of the community. They played with the village children, got into trouble with the village children and grew into individuals she adored and respected.

 
 
 
matapam

There was a chain around her neck. When had that happened?

Someone recognized her. General Menchuro's wife. Doesn't matter, she's church property for nine months. Laughter. Someone thought it was funny.

A man walked down a little path and unlocked the tree end of the chain. A priest, damn him. What were his gods doing running around loose? She threatened him with her husband's wrath. Then cursed, and then resorted to bribery.

"Walk or I'll chain you with the god again."

"My husband will geld you for this."

He looked her up and down. "Why would he want you? He'll have a new young wife before you've done your duty to the church."

"My husband loves me."

He laughed, and chained her to a tree out of reach of the horrors there.

She clung desperately to that thought through the next days. Drew loved her.

She was chained with a lot of other women. _Twenty-one of us._ Given the general ungainliness of the gods, they'd had quite a spree. The other women were concubines and prostitutes, possessions of men, before they became possessions of the church.

There were a couple of compulsive talkers, who told all about their multiple rapes by guards and gods. One girl had apparently been passed around a trio of little gods still chained to the trailer, and they had used their own virgin experience to break the magical chains on themselves. _Then_ they had escaped into the woods, tossing the girl to more gods as they left.

The God of Storms, a twin, two dwarves . . . three priests . . .

As the wagon left camp, headed for the temple in Paree, she caught a glimpse of her husband. Staring at her. She ducked her head in shame.

It was a three month long trip.

Rough on the women. They weren't mistreated. Were well fed. They were required to get out and walk for an hour every day. But they were still chained to a wagon, in ragged torn clothing.

Juabe was sunburned by the second day, and a canvas was purchased to shade them. The women were shifted around to minimize the amount of time each spent on the sunny side.

Tras had finally stopped crying. "They don't even want to know our names. We're nothing to them."

Juabe nodded. As a Princess Segundus she'd always known she could be called to Serve the Gods at any time. At thirty, and apparently barren, she'd never been called. She could only hope that she would remain barren, and that this horror would be over quickly. But the weeks rolled by. Eating, sleeping, washing and trying to wash her clothing, what was left of it. Walking for an hour. In public, as the towns increased along the Road. Practically undressed.

The two women who had menstrual periods were simply removed from the wagon and left at the side of the road with the clothes on their backs. Such as it was. Juabe looked back once, at the frightened women staring at the local men closing in on them and shuddered.

Her period didn't come. Abuse, shock . . . pregnancy?

It didn't happen the next month, nor the next as they finally rolled into Paree.

She had only been this far south once, when her father had brought her to be examined by the Priests, and engaged to the man they had chosen for her.

She had believed in the power of the gods, then. Drew was marvelous.

The temple was a huge complex on a the hill at the center of the city. Their wagon passed around to an obscure gate on one side of the temple's outer defensive wall.

Now she believed in the power of the Church. The gate closed behind them.

***

Finally a bath. Thank . . . nothing. Just soak as long as was permitted.

Then an exam by a physician. They congratulated her on her pregnancy. And asked about which gods she had allowed to rape her.

Allowed.

She kept her temper, and discretion, and admitted to both the God of Storms and the Twin. She gave her full name and status as Princes Segundus, and demanded that this be counted as her owed Service to the Gods.

It was good enough to get her a tiny private cubicle, rather than a mat along the wall of the women's common room.

Most of the women there were obviously pregnant.

Magda, a hugely swollen one nodded. "The priests try to have one baby born a day. But in the end, they have about half that in actual live births. They raise most of the babies here, and train them for the battle."

Juabe sniffed. "All they are is power sources for the priests."

Tras shook her head. "Not the big gods. I saw the God of Death - he killed everyone who came even slightly close to him, and the way people were running around, they didn't even realize the danger until they were too close."

Magda shuddered. "I can imagine how awful that must have been. They drug us, so we sleep through it all. I don't know _what_ fathered this child." she looked down at her belly.

"Probably a giant?" Tras shivered. "A dwarf got me. At least I'll have a small baby. Unless it was the guards, or the priest that had me later."

The women regulated themselves, the old Princess Segunduses who were nominally in charge left them to their own devices for most of the day. Their jobs were to assign rooms, maintain peace and monitor the women's pregnancies.

One of their group had started cramping their second day there. She'd been hustled to a doctor, and never seen again.

"Turned out." Magda said. "Released at the gate, and how she'll get home, and whether she'll be welcome there . . . no one cares. It will be the same for us, after our babies are born, if they don't have a touch of the divine, or die. And if the baby is divine, it just means it will be put off two years for nursing the baby."

Juabe shivered. "How many of the babies are touched? How can they tell?"

"By looks, mainly. About half. And most of them have something bad wrong and die quick. Some are declared Prince and Princess Primus or Segundus, some rite they do with the normal looking babies. But most are just normal and evicted penniless with their mothers. The Princes and Princesses get kicked out with their mothers, and have pretty high status, if their mothers manage to raise them. Coming from so far away, you didn't receive the daily prayers for the first six weeks of pregnancy that we had to go through. That's supposed to be an ill omen."

Juabe grimaced. "It's hard to think of anything more ill-omened than our current situation. My husband. I'm thirty years old, most likely he'll have found a younger woman by the time I'm thrown out. He may take me in out of a sense of duty. At least for a while." Drew.

Tras turned her face to the wall, breathing slowly and deeply. "I was a concubine. Like my mother. My father's wife sold me when I was old enough. No one will want me after this."

"Did you have a husband, Magda?"

"Me? No. My father owed taxes, and paid with my services." She grimaced. "He said he'd take me back. And I was starting to learn to read, until Leesa went into labor."

"Read?" Juabe perked up. "Is there something to read? It would make the time go so much faster."

"The Princesses will bring books from the library, if you ask." Magda looked at her hopefully. "Will you show me how? I know the letters, and some of the words."

"Of course. Can you read, Tras? Do you want to learn?"

She wound up with a dozen students, and not much time to read on her own, but it made the time pass.

They weren't allowed paper or pen, but she composed, and Magda memorized a brief message for her husband. And directions. First to her Father-in-laws house here, and then to her . . . to Drew's house a thousand miles to the north west.

If Magda's father accepted her, she promised to write it down and mail it. If her father had turned away from her, she would have to try to get Juabe's father-in-law to help her either write it and mail it, or send Magda to Drew herself. It sounded a pretty bleak future.

Magda assured her, doubled over in pain, that she would remember. Juabe and Tras supported her to the door and passed her to the physicians.

They worried all night, and in the morning received the news. Still born twins. Magda had already been released.

That was the only news they would receive, and they returned to their routine. Teaching and reading, eating, sleeping, an hour of walking in the garden every day.

Several more of their ill fated riot victims miscarried and disappeared. Women came and went, and the months passed. It was a chilly day, the first storm of winter when the first contraction hit Juabe. She was walking in the garden, pacing the outer perimeter under the over hanging balcony and she kept walking. She might was well enjoy the cold whipping wind and icy rain for a few minutes more. Another contraction hit before her hour was up, and she walked in to talk to the Princess Segunduses.

They took her silently to the physicians, who treated her like a slab of meat, talking over her head about the likelihood of needing to remove the baby surgically. She stifled all complaints and acted like she was feeling no pain. They put her to walking and she worked to stay out of their way as another woman was brought in. Poor little Bridgett, who'd been raped by multiple little gods and when she escaped, by multiple guards. She was frightened, and crying, and even more frightened by the physicians. But she gave birth to an albino boy, and half an hour later to a tiny boy. The physicians preened as if the birth of twin little gods was their own accomplishment, and Bridgett was whisked away to the family quarters as Juabe caught their attention barely in time to deliver on their preferred table.

The physicians shrugged and lost interest quickly. "Normal. Pfaw." They handed her the wailing baby boy while they tied and cut the cord. Left her alone to deal with the afterbirth, hustled her out of the room as another woman was ushered in. All of us will be delivering soon. She snatched her clothes in passing, trying to dress as she was escorted though several more doors and suddenly found herself before a small altar. An irritated looking priest hustled in. "I don't know why you can't let the women stay for a few hours, let me get a good night's sleep . . . " He raised his voice. "Put the child on the alter."

She gulped and did so. Poor baby, not even a blanket to wrap him in. She finished pulling on her baggy shift. Stained and dirty, it was all she had. She raised her chin regally and refused to be intimidated.

The priest eyed her. "You are a Princess Segundus?"

"I am."

"Humph." But the man shook himself awake and started making gestures over the altar.

The baby peed on the priest, getting only a resigned mutter. The priest laid his hands on the baby's chest. He frowned. "Humph. God of Storms. Prince Primus. Haven't had one of those for awhile."

Juabe swallowed. What have I just done?

"Damn it. More paperwork. Sit over there, and get that baby something . . . " He turned and stuck his head through the door he'd entered. "You! Go fetch a diaper and blanket for a Prince Primus before he poops in my sanctuary."

Half an hour later she was outside. Blinking in the sunlight. At the street.

Released immediately.

Indeed.

Now all she had to do was find her father-in-law's home . . .

"Juabe." Drew. It was Drew, getting out of a coach across the street. Putting his arms around her.

She managed to not cry until the servants in her Father-in-law's home had finished bathing and dressing her and left her alone with Drew.

"Your Magda came here. I was here, trying to get news of you from the Temple. I was in a terror that you might have been dumped along the road somewhere. She seemed a sensible sort so I hired her. She and I have been trading off sitting outside that door for the last five months. My father's grooms think I'm insane. So does my father, for that matter. And she's back there waiting and hoping for someone named Tras."

She could only cling to him, a rock she'd nearly forgotten, hadn't dared hope for.

"I've sort of endowed a service, for the women shoved through that door. Half of them had less clothing than you did. And yours was the first baby with a blanket I've seen. The weather, I suppose. No?"

She swallowed. "He's a Prince Primus. The priest that declared him got the diaper and blanket. I had some papers . . . "

"Primus. Little gods. Well, that'll settle my father a bit. He thinks I should have just forgotten you." His arms tightened around her. "As soon as your Tras shows up, we'll go home."

"I love you."

"And I love you. I always knew they could call you into service. This brutal . . . I don't care. You are an indispensable part of my life."

They snuggled for a bit, Drew obviously aware she was in no shape for anything else, and broke off only at the approaching wail of a baby. The Prince Primus was hungry.

Drew hovered while she clumsily tried to nurse him.

"What did you name him?"

She blinked at him in surprise. "I didn't even think of a name. I didn't expect . . . well, I suppose I just wasn't looking past delivery."

"He's a cute little guy. Lot's of hair. How about something from your side of the family?"

"Warric, like my mother's father?"

"Yes, very good." Drew turned as the door thumped open.

"Did you see this!" Her father-in-law waved papers at Drew. "A _Prince Primus_ Primus, boy! This will be your doorway into the government and erase that disgraceful episode up north."

Juabe inhaled sharply. How bad had it been? Lord Menchuro walked out, still talking. Drew came back a few minutes later.

"I _think _ I persuaded him that little Warric couldn't push my career until he was at least twelve and presented at court."

"That mess up North – how bad was it?"

"The Emperor sacked all the officers who survived. Little gods, I don't know what happened. At least it was soldiers, not gods who rampaged through Tarrington. So half the town's maidens didn't get sent to the temple." He cupped a gentle hand around her chin. "So the good news is, you are spared being dragged along on those long campaigns."

She winced. "But you did so love the life. I'm sorry, love."

"Oh, bah. We'll go back to Breesdon, and I can go off and chase border bandits when I feel the martial ardor rising. Your Magda is going to stay here. I've bought her a horrible old hotel, and she's helping all the women who leave the Temple. I don't know if your Tras will want to help her, or stay with you. If she wants to stay here, we'll hire one of the others to be your maid and Warric's nanny, eh?"

She swallowed another lump and nodded.

He pulled her close and breathed into her hair. "Don't look so woebegone. You are alive, and I want to run through the streets shouting the good news to the rooftops."

Magda brought Tras the next day. Weak and nearly naked, an equally naked baby boy in her arms.

"I was the last of our group to deliver." She shivered as Juabe hustled around with clothing and diapers. "I could hear the physicians talking. Less than ten percent of us were touched, and we actually had fewer miscarries and still births than usual. They were calling us all 'the normal group.' Like it was an insult. This priest waved his hand over Trace while he was yawning and kicked us out." She wound down with a quivery sob, and let herself be put to bed.

She was delighted to be hired, actually _paid_, to be Juabe's maid and Warric's nanny. Drew wrote to her owner, who sent back a release. Lord Gressum wanted nothing to do with her now.

They waited for six weeks before leaving, Drew fussing over her, and cuddling her close at night. She panicked the first time he tried more, then had to woo him back as she regained her nerve. She lay awake a long time just listening to him breathe. Why had she ever doubted him?

He caught her crying, the day before they left, and held her gently. "Can you talk to me about it? I can see you're unhappy, and . . . I can see that you don't love the baby."

"I never wanted a baby. I wanted _your_ baby. Someone else's won't do. Even without the rape and church and, and . . . that baby looks like _him_."

"Oh love, it's not your fault. You are obviously not barren. I've failed you, that way. My relationship with my own father was marvelous, as a child. I've disappointed him several times as an adult. Not producing a grandson for him being only one of a series of disappointments. I always wanted a son. I wanted to be that shining figure my father was. I wanted a son to be proud of, as my father was so proud of me. But apparently I can't. So my wife, a Princess Segundus, producing a Prince Primus is as close to pleasing him that I can come, these days." He held her and rocked her. "It's as close to pleasing myself as I can come. Warric is _not_ the god that abused you, he's just a little baby. Try, please, for me, to remember that. I want to be his father, and I want all of us to love each other. I can't close you out of that circle."

"I love you, Drew. I'll try."

"All that really matters is that you survived. Be as good a mother as you can, and if you want we can hire any number of nannies and send the boy away to boarding school when he's seven. For now come to dinner and shine."

She dressed with care, applied her makeup carefully, and walked down to shine.