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matapam
23 February 2017 @ 07:50 pm
I don't think I've ever posted this story. An old Archetype, from before the Comet. He was in _Thieves and Horses_ at the end, and had a brief appearence in Comet Fall, which I've never added to this story.

The Wild Boy


The God of the Wild, who haunted the empty places, and loved the desolation and the unpopulated lands watched the people with interest. Not  many people came this way, and they tended to be desperate.

He really couldn't understand why more people didn't come to the beauty of the lava lands, but he was glad they didn't. Once people lived here, he would have to leave.

These people had a brightly colored wagon that looked like a birthday present on wheels. It had been so long since he'd had a birthday, he was actually drawn toward the people, rather than repulsed, as he always had been before.

They went strange places, and did very strange things, although he could sort of remember someone doing things sort of like that.



"They are going to build a road completely across the continent! Isn't that exciting, Dace?"

The wild boy shook his head, trying to dislodge the horrible memory. He'd cried for days, and of course his mother had no idea why.

They had used machines, and picks and piled rocks on top. Then Father had walked out to the road and the rocks on top had flowed like water and coated the top of the road.

He had cried even more, and been left with Nanny when Mother and Father left town. Nanny had been an ugly old maid in the Old Country, but here all the men thought she was pretty, and Dace had had all the time he needed to run through the wild woods. He'd always come home though, eventually. And he'd had to do lessons and things. But bit by bit he'd been spending more time out, getting further and further away. He'd had a few magic lessons too, when the comet came.


When things were dark and ugly.

But the mage only had books on tame animals and plants, so he ran from him as well.

Some times a dog or a horse would come with him, but they always turned back, even the big horse.

For a while he'd felt an attraction for girls, but they didn't like him and he had drifted further and further into the wilds until one day he realized it had been days since he'd been home. And he'd shrugged and kept going. He'd stayed away from the road, and during bad storms he'd do a magic shield.

He had a vague memory of several long stretches when he nearly starved, when there were earthquakes and it was dark and cold. But the bad times always ended. Right now was a good time. In the summer he'd live up here on the lava strips and the grasslands, and in the winter he'd live down at the hot river. Either place had lots to eat for a hunter.

Some times he'd run with the wolves, or the wild horses. Real wild horses, their ancestors never tamed. He'd turn himself into a foal and run and play, and graze, and occasionally one of the mares would let him suckle. But that brought memories of placid tame cows, giving their milk and their calves for men to eat.

It was as a foal that he saw men again after such a very long time. He'd run away immediately, and the herd had followed him. He had stayed away, but they, creatures of habit, had returned to their old water holes, their hills and prairies. But he moved on and on, always free and wild.


And now these people were building a road. He worried about it. The old road had been destroyed by the quakes, and he been able to be alone for so long . . . but they drove their horses and their birthday present wagon into the crack in the ice, where he never went because there was nothing to hunt.

And he settled back content in his wild wilderness.

Strange things came and went from the ice, People moved into the Circle Valley, and later some people came and lived by the Hot River. But they mostly went away in a very strange fashion.

Then people started digging up the wild places, but in a strange way that was all right, because the people were so close to wild.

It was a little like a horse herd, dominance through fighting, and a new mare meant more fights. Some times he even walked into their flimsy little towns that sat so lightly on the World. They generally chased him out again, but that was the way packs and herds were. Strange males were not welcome.

And the way they tried to keep strange females was normal too.

He watched in delight as one female, the _girl_, and her horse bolted. That was a really fast mare. They left their pursuers in the dust and kept going so long that the mare's superior endurance was obvious as well. He followed, wanting to talk to that fast mare. He didn't talk very often to tame horses, but _that_ one.

When he caught up to them, he found a sadness. They had tried to cross the ashlands, and the side of a gully had collapsed and taken them down with it.

The pretty mare was standing in pain, her left hind foot raised completely off the ground. Even on three feet she was looking part way up the collapsed wall, the slumped rock. He followed her gaze and something moved. The girl was trapped under rocks. She was slowly and methodically trying to free herself, using one hand to move the rocks that had her pinned.

He shrugged. That was life in the wild places. The wolves would find them tonight or tomorrow.

The mare raised her head and looked at him. Nickered. A faint picture of him moving the rocks. It had been a long time since a horse had so clearly communicated with him. He looked at the rocks. The Wild Boy knew about moving rocks that big, and he trotted off to the next gully, and used a quick spell to cut a willow trunk, a pole as wide around as his arm and twice his height. He ran his hands down it as he walked back, and water squeezed from it, leaving it tough and stiff.

He slid down the pile well to the side of the girl, and carefully climbed over to her. She blinked at him and nodded. She didn't speak, too dry, but she understood the lever, and shifted a rock herself, to use as a fulcrum, and when he put his weight to it, she shoved a rock chip in to hold the bigger rock and slowly pulled herself out from under. He carried her down to the horse, although he could see she wouldn't recover. Her leg was broken in at least four places, the foot crushed. He laid her in a bit of shade, and when she gestured he brought her the canteen. It was nearly empty, but she still saved some for the mare. Then she wanted him to unsaddle her, and bring her the saddle.

Her lips moved, but nothing but a faint rasp came out. She pulled the saddle bags to her and pulled out a bottle and pulled the cork. It was half empty, and she drank nearly half of that. Then she gestured for him to give it to the horse. He pored most of it into the little canvas bucket he'd given her the water in, and the mare drank it, curling her lip back, and sighed and relaxed, obviously feeling a lot less pain.

He sniffed it, took a tiny taste and shivered. _Magic wine_. He put the bottle back beside the girl and took both the canteen and the canvas bucket to get water.

She was asleep when he got back. The mare drank the whole bucket. The girl blinked sleepily and drank half the canteen then slumped down and slept.

The Wild Boy gave the rest of the water to the mare, and walked back to the little spring to fill them again.

The sun set, and the wolves came. He sent them away. They couldn't have these two yet. When it got cold, he covered the girl with the saddle blanket, and when she started shivering, he curled up around her. Warmer than he was used to, he even dozed off and on.

He awoke when she did, feeling her start and pull away from him. He rolled away himself, and looked around for the mare. She was browsing the thin brush, barely limping. The girl sat up and carefully moved her leg. The Wild Boy poked at it carefully. Yesterday it had looked to be broken in several places, crushed. He hadn't even tried to do anything with it.

But she wasn't going to die.

Or at least not of her injuries. He fetched more water, and then he picked her up and carried her to the spring. The mare limped after them, and grazed on the grass where the water soaked into the thin soil.

He walked back and brought the saddle and blanket, the saddle bags, the tiny bit of wine left.

Then he climbed out of the gorge and went hunting.

The wolves kept their distance wary of him after yesterday's commands. He slipped up on a small herd of bison, and slashed one. The others ran away, then circled a bit, uncertain. He sliced out a big chunk from the rump, and the liver, and left the rest for the wolves, sending a contrite, head down, faint whine and tentative wag of tail.

The girl looked up when he returned, and eyed the meat he had in each hand. She had collected a bunch of little sticks, and she looked at it and it burst into flame.

He jumped, startled. He hadn't been near a fire, a tamed fire, for a very long time. She held her hands out for the meat, and he circled the fire to give them to her before retreating.

She didn't feel wild, but she didn't feel very tame either. He didn't feel itchy, like he needed to go away, so he just prowled around a bit, then came back and ate the meat she handed him, small chunks skewered on sticks.

He hadn't eaten cooked meat in a long time, and salt and pepper . . . he'd nearly forgotten about salt and pepper.

She had a knife, and after she'd eaten, she started sawing on her boot. He realized that she didn't want to injure herself further by pulling on it, and edged forward to slice it mentally, carefully. She lifted it off and very carefully examined her foot. He jumped again when she rebroke two bones, and tried to pull them out where they belonged. He took over, and pulled and manipulated the bones carefully. They were already healing, as he put her foot down. He felt her leg carefully, but those bones were fairly straight, and pretty well healed.

Curious, he walked over to the mare, picked up her foot and felt it. He could see where the little bones of the ankle had failed, and now were being reassembled. He pulled her hoof a bit, and poked the pieces in where they belonged. The same unnatural healing leapt into action as the pieces returned to where they should be.

A desire to know the wizard who could make such magical wine blossomed in his mind. A strange and wonderful thought, to dare to seek out a person.

The girl was drawing in the dirt. Not pictures, but a map. A clever model of the wild lands she showed the mountains and the Round Valley and the Hot River.

He broke up some sticks into almost squares, and put some in the Round Valley, some south of it and some north, where the road crossed the Hot River.

She smiled as she approved of his additions. Then she pointed to herself, and uncertainly at the model. The Wild Boy put his finger down where they actually were. She drew a finger from there to the Round Valley, and then uncertainly up to the Hot River crossing.

The Round Valley was closer, except they'd have to go round about to find water. If they followed this lava strip to the Road, there were springs along the edge all the way. And no so much climbing for the mare. He tried to think how to tell her that. It had been so long . . . "Hooter." He reached and scooped a handful. "Hooter." he traced a line up to the Road.

She understood. "Water." her voice was a harsh croak. "Go that way so we have water."

He smiled in relief. He understood enough of that to know she understood.

He went up on the Ash lands then and sliced off a large armful of grass and carried it back to the mare. The girl was hobbling and picking berries. To his surprise, what she was doing with the berries was squeezing them into the wine bottle. Had she made the magic wine herself? Was she making more?

He slipped away, and up on the ash lands found some brambles and picked berries for her. She squeezed them all into the wine, and then filled it with water. He sort of remembered an old wizard who had made wine. It hadn't involved water at all. But the girl poured almost half for the horse, and drank almost half herself. She eyed him sidelong and offered it to him.

Magic. Powerful magic. He took a small sip, and handed it back. It was very good, it tasted more like wine than berries and water. It made him feel good and want to do things, starting with kissing the girl. He got up and ran away. He would hunt, and _not_ kiss the girl.

He got two rabbits, and gathered some crab apples from a gnarled old tree.

The girl cut up the apples and put them in the wine bottle too. With water. The rabbits she wrapped in grass and buried with coals. She slept most of the day, and when she dug up the rabbit it was tender and wonderful. When the sun dropped below the horizon the temperature dropped. The girl shivered, and gave a bit of apple water to the mare, drank a bit herself, and again offered it to him. This sip tasted like wine with apples and berries in it, and he ran away from the feelings that were doing things to his mind and his pisser.

When he'd cooled down he circled back and laid down a bit away from her. It was cold, but he'd been cold before and dozed off and on, until the shivering girl came and cuddled up to him. He kissed her and she kissed him back and rubbed up against him, and they found all sorts of interesting ways to keep warm, and he discovered that people didn't mate much like horses or wolves.

In the morning the girl put her injured foot in the old boot and wrapped strips of rabbit skin around it to hold it together. He realized that she was leaving. Leaving him. Were people like the deer, with the males and females living apart except when the breeding season came? She took her saddle bags and blanket, but left the saddle, when she started walking. The mare followed, barely favoring the injured leg. The wild boy hesitated, then he picked up the saddle and followed as well.

By noon he'd abandoned the saddle and was carrying the saddle bags and blanket, and was taking half the weight of the girl. He steered her up an arroyo to another spring and sat her down a bit firmly, then he went in search of fruit. More berries, and more berry water for both mare and girl. The Wild Boy avoided it, and they only mated twice that night.

He hunted the next day, and they walked the day after that. It was a slow trip, but the mare wasn't limping at all, and the girl only limped at the end of a long day's walk by the time they reached the road. He didn't like the feel of the road. It bothered his feet. But he walked with her until they got to the bridge. He knew what a bridge was, and this one soared and swooped like a tree branch or a vine. He left then. Backing away from the girl and running back to the wilds. He returned several times, and finally, in the dark of night he crossed the bridge. It was an easy way to cross the Hot River, however bad it felt to his feet. He hid and watched, as the people came and went so oddly, walking into glowing spots, and sometimes days later, coming back. Sometimes. Some people never returned.

He didn't see the girl, and he wondered if perhaps she had gone into a glowing spot and would never escape.

One night, he decided he should follow. It mostly had to do with his pisser, and wanting more mating, but worry, and bravery and even curiosity had a part in it.

He stepped bravely into the glowing spot, and found himself in a village. He scuttled into the bushes, and then surveyed the area very carefully. There was a big building. Barn. It had glowing spots all over it. There was dew on the short grass, gleaming faintly in the moonlight. He could see his footprints coming from one of the spots. Could he go back? A scent caught his attention. Food, delicious food, the kind of food he'd forgotten about. He slipped from bush to tree shadow to hedge and stalked the scent.

The smell was coming from houses. Homes. Places where people lived. There were people there now and he stayed back, breathing in the smell, listening. He didn't hear the girl, so he backed away, circled around. More homes. More good smells.

He explored further. Plowed fields. Pastures with sheep and cattle. Tame ones that moved uneasily, knowing him for a predator despite his humanness. He found a place where wine was made. Could this be where the wizard was? The one that made _that_ wine?

A horse walked up to him, curious and unafraid. Sniffed and snorted. A pretty chestnut gelding.

::What are you?::

The Wild Boy blinked at the horse. "Ummah bouy."

The horse looked down the hill. ::Wake up! Come and see the funny boy!::

The Wild Boy jumped up and ran. The horse cut him off and pushed him, making him circle. He hadn't done such a thing in a long time. Gathered a handful of power. He used to be able to . . . no, he was too young, he'd just been training to . . .

"Hey, who are you?"

He threw the fire ball, but the boy batted it down like it was nothing.

::Isn't he funny?::

"Yeah, I think he's wild." The boy looked at him. "Are you wild?"

He jerked his chin up, and shifted under the boy's gaze.

"You hungry?"

"Yiss."

"Come on then." The boy turned and walked away, and the horse followed him.

The Wild Boy shifted uncertainly, then finally trailed after them. Where the grass ended and the grape vines started, he balked. It was bad. It was warped and wrong. It wasn't wild, or anything close.

But the boy came back and he had food. Bread. The Wild boy had nearly forgotten about bread. There was meat and _cheese_ stuck in it, and he wolfed it down.

The boy offered something else. A cookie. He took it hesitantly and nibbled slowly. Cookies. "I furgot bout cookies."

"I'm Xen. I'm thirteen, how old are you?"

"Umm, Dace." How old was he? How long ago had he wandered off into the wilderness and never returned? He squirmed uncomfortably. The boy was clean and civilized. The horse's mane was trimmed, and his hooves had iron shoes nailed on them. The grass wasn't really wild, it was a pasture. He suddenly couldn't stand it and ran away. He ran uphill into the forest, and found a place too steep for wood gathering, where it was completely wild. It wasn't cold, but he curled up and shivered for a bit. He slowly relaxed in the little wild canyon. and thought about going back to the lava lands.

The wine, a wizard that powerful. Spells. Magic. Wild magic pouring through his hands. The boy, Xen. He was a magician. Dace slipped back through the forest and hesitated at the edge of the pasture.

The horse was grazing a little ways away, and the boy was there too.

He edged out cautiously, staying closer to the forest. He could ask about magic, he could even ask about the girl.

"Are you the Wild Boy who rescued Topaz?" Xen sat up and concentrated, and Dace saw a picture of the girl and the mare.

And then he thought Xen was talking to someone else, and shifted uncertainly.

"It's all right. I just told Topaz that you were here." Xen frowned down the slope. "My Dad is really really old. You feel sort of like that." He concentrated again and Dace saw a face.

"Wolf." He jumped up. The man would take him back, would make him stay in the city.

"There's no city any more. It was a very long time ago. Only the old gods are still alive. And you."

Dace was suddenly overwhelmed again, and ran. But this time it was down hill. Back to the barn, and through the glowing circle. Then he was back in the canyon by the hot river. He couldn't stand the feel of the pavement under his feet and jumped down and ran off into the rough lands around the geysers. He kept going long after the road and buildings were out of sight. he finally found himself a nice safe spot for the night. Up above the crocodiles, where a stream of cold, unmineralized water tumbled down the cliff. He curled up and slept, safe in the wilds, and in the morning he climbed the cliffs and ran off over the lava lands. In time these memories would fade as well, and he would be able to live with the horses and wolves and never see mankind again.
 
 
matapam
22 February 2017 @ 06:21 pm
 
 
matapam
21 February 2017 @ 03:45 pm
So, anyone got any ideas about covers for _No Confidence_, _First Assignment_, _Surveilance Camp_ or _Fort Dinosaur_?
 
 
matapam
21 February 2017 @ 02:35 pm
Has gone live.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06X41KL3F/

Spread it around!

I'll publish _No Confidence_ in a couple of weeks, then _First Assignment_, _Surveilance Camp_, and _Fort Dinosaur_.

Ugg. More covers.
 
 
matapam
21 February 2017 @ 10:57 am

Mind you this is raw noodling around with how to best end the story. Some of it'll be cut, some will remain, some will be expanded . . .

:: Dancer. An interesting test of Wolfson. But mostly it demonstrated publicly the danger of head-on war with Those Left Behind and their descendants. ::

She huffed out an irritated breath. :: So you don't want Xen killed? ::

:: Tested. He stopped the attack, killing no one. More, other magic users from Comet Fall damaged, without harming anyone, the gates. We must think on this. Strength or softness? ::

:: Strength. And knowledge of his own strength. I have seen him put aside compassion and fight without restraint. They don't see us as dangerous enough to require giving up their . . . civilized restraint. ::

:: An interesting possibility. We will think on this. You will not kill him. Yet. ::

And a more separate voice, old Ytry.  :: We kicked the ant mound. Now we shall analyze the results. ::

:: I am not an ant, and yes you were as cruel as any thoughtless boy, gleefully causing trouble. :: Rael stood as the train slowed and pulled into the station . . . then sat down again. She'd already accomplished all she needed to do here.

Ytry, again. :: We have to know these things. Agni is showing himself to be more dangerous to us than to the enemy. His aggressiveness was useful . . . before Disco. Now . . . I think he is the wrong man to be in control. And the others were not impressive, either. ::

:: I could have told you that, before we—again—antagonized the people we ought to be trying to get on our side. ::

A mental sigh from Ytry :: Go home Dancer. I told them you were not a killer. ::

The train slid out of the station, heading back to Damasq.

:: I was going to kill him. ::

A mental laugh, then nothing more directed her direction.

Probably testing me too. And now . . . it's time to go . . . talk to Xen.


But not immediately. A car was waiting for her at the Paris end of the Damasq corridor.

"The president would like to talk to you." Maek grinned and held the door for her.

Rael groaned. "Is there enough time for a shower? Do I still have a room in the barracks, with, you know, clean clothes in it?"

"We totally didn't think to evict you, probably because you were working for the Committee, through the Presidential Director. I guess we were too busy speculating about how long you'd be playing statue in the park."

"Wagering, you mean."

"Well, there might have been money exchanging hands, but not much as the three days following the election were odds on favorites."

"What? No pessimists betting on years?" Rael flopped in the seat. It's over, right? I can go home. Go back to work . . . find the nerve to talk to Xen.

"A few. I could name names, but we have to work with these people."

"True. So . . . what did you do to get demoted to chauffeur? Lose a bet?"

Maek snorted. "Listen Giggles, you seem to intimidate people. Not sure how you pull it off, but they wanted someone wouldn't just drive you back to Embassy."

"They thought I'd ignore a summons from the President?"

"Would you like to hear about the betting that you'd run away and hide where you'd never have to face us again?"

"Oh, now . . . "

"I mean, the best known most incompetent assassin in the Multiverse?"

"Oh . . . I'm never going to hear the end of this, am I?"

"Nope. They're selling posters of Rael-the-Statue in stores. There are rumors about adventure vids."


At least she got the shower and change of clothes before being grilled over  . . . lunch?

"What day is this, anyway?"

"The twenty sixth of Jumada." The president grinned. "Fourteen oh four."

"I . . . thank you." Eep! I didn't think years! Honest!

Urfa eyed her, also looking amused. "So, did the One admit to anything?"

Rael sighed. "The One is difficult to pin down. They have apparently tested all sorts of things and now they're going to think it over. They found Agni's aggressive actions, however useful in the past, to be a hindrance now. I certainly agreed with that. But I think that was more of a 'must try a different approach next time' than a serious change of heart."

She stuffed another bite in her mouth and gave them time to think it over . . . and took the time to organize her own thoughts.

"They found Xen and Comet Fall to be very powerful, but possibly crippled by their restraint. I suggested that their restraint was due to being strong enough to be minimally threatened by us."

She eyed her fellow Director's agents. And Izzo from Interior. Bull sessions over meals were common enough, but they didn't usually involve recorders. and note pads . . . "Oh. You're analyzing the One."

Izzo nodded. "We'd like to know what they want or expect or . . . are going to test and analyze."

"One of the priests who is less submerged than most . . . " Rael glanced over at Qayg. "Ytry."

Qayg nodded.

"Ytry called it kicking the ant mound to see what would happen."

Appalled silence.

"Yeah. That close to getting us into a shooting war. So . . . let me see if I can adequately vocalize everything I picked up in Makkah . . . "

And then they wanted to analyze the army's planning and tactics . . .

The Committee's interactions . . .

It made for a long lunch. Orde and Urfa slipped out when the questions got repetitious.


Then it was time to face him.

Except  . . . the Newsies from at least five polities had his house staked out.

"The mountains are nice, this time of year."

The amused voice from nowhere.

"So much for my illusions. I've always liked mountains." Her ears popped as she wobbled on a stone patio with a view out over a forested slope. A faint sparkle on the horizon might have been the sea.

She turned . . . the stone floor continued into . . . not so much a house as a covered patio with a bed, table small kitchen, a closed door that she'd bet was a bathroom.

"You'll never be able to trust me again."

Deep laugher, a ripple of distortion and he was standing close. Nearly touching her. "Did you doubt for a second that if King Leano recalled me and ordered me to attack the Empire, that I would do it? We are both patriots, loyal citizens of our own polities, and agents of our governments. We always will be. I trust you to be Rael Withione. Do you want me out of your life?"

"No. What do you want?"

"You."


 
 
matapam
20 February 2017 @ 11:58 am
She leaned her forehead against the door.

What am I going to say?

"Not going to try to get through the shield?" Deep soft tones.

"No. Believe it or not, I'm not suicidal."

"If you want a normal life, this is the time to grab it. Tell Urfa I sent you away and you'll be free. Never sent off to seduce me again."

"They don't send me to seduce you. They send me to ask questions. Hauling you off to bed is my idea, not theirs."

"Do you want to stop?"

No! I want you to grab me and hold me! "Xen, I tried to kill you."

She turned her head. Not even a distortion to be seen.

"Umm, I don't think you got close enough to qualify for that."

"I was going to kill you!"

"Probably. Well, you were about to try."

"The One told me . . . The One ordered me . . . to obey the Committee to the letter." She thumped her head on the door. "What were they up to? Why that wording . . . "

She choked. "The Committee ordered me to kill you. That order has not been rescinded. I . . . I have to go talk to the One. Right. Now!"
She turned around . . . still nothing visible. She started walking.

"Come back when you're feeling less murderous."

"It's not funny, dammit." She blinked tears out of her eyes and tried to not smile. "What if the One directly orders me to kill you?"

"I'll whisk you away to my dark castle on a deserted world and deprogram you by making mad passionate love to you for three weeks straight."

"Xen . . . "

"Be careful, Dancer." His voice fell behind as she walked. "A lot of people are treating you as a disposable playing piece."

There were people everywhere, still, chattering and laughing. She put more power into the unnoticeible spell, and spotted the director's car in line for the gate.

Urfa gave her a startled glance as she joined him.

"I need to go to Makkah right now and find out what damned orders I am still expected to carry out."

He froze . . . nodded. "Dare I ask?"

"Obey the Committee to the letter. Which was why I didn't mention that just sending me to Embassy all by myself, completely unarmed, would be more likely to succeed than eight sharpshooters with deadly intensions spread around outside Xen's self-reported limit of detection."

"Ah. That's . . . interesting. Did they order you to assist or to kill him yourself?"

"Both. So I need a bit of clarification as to . . . before I . . . I mean . . . "

"Very wise, given the utter failure of the Committee's plan. Clarification is good."

Urfa had his driver drop her at the corridor to Damasq.

She cat-napped through the train ride and woke to the whispering voices of the individuals who were joined in the One.

:: Dancer. An interesting test of Wolfson. But mostly it demonstrated publicly the danger of head-on war with Those Left Behind and their descendants. ::

She huffed out an irritated breath. :: So you don't want Xen killed? ::

:: Tested. He stopped the attack, killing no one. More, other magic users from Comet Fall damaged, without harming anyone, the gates. We must think on this. Strength or softness? ::

:: Strength. And knowledge of his own strength. I have seen him put aside compassion and fight without restraint. ::

:: We will think on this. You will not kill him. Yet. ::

Rael stood as the train slowed and pulled into the station . . . then sat down again. She'd already accomplished all she needed to do here.
Time to go . . . talk to Xen.
 
 
 
matapam
19 February 2017 @ 10:06 am
Scattered all over. I'll put up a google doc once I stop adding bits.


But there was little the three of them didn't already agree on.
Ajki wolfed down dinner and left quickly. "I guess I'd better find out if I still have a job. Bloody over confident morons."

And after dinner a late night summons to Urfa's briefly inhabited office.
Uxli looked her over, shrugged. "I am assigning you to train a special ops team. We may need to kill Wolfson. Are you going to do it, or are you going to walk? Keep in mind that the military can draft you under emergency orders."
Rael raised her eyebrows. "That would be an interesting precedent to test in court, however, since the One ordered me to stay, we'll have to give it a pass."
The man paused. "The One. As in, you actually are a Dancer. Why are you here now?"
"Well, it gets boring sitting around Makkah eating bonbons between assignments. This is a useful place for me."
He glowered, and passed over a chip. "So go be useful in Fort Diego, report to Captain Opnu Special Task Force 173. Teach them what they need to know to kill Wolfson. And possibly this 'God of Just Deserts' One help me."
Rael took the chip and stood, looking down on the man. "Those Old Gods aren't a joke. And neither are the new ones. Especially Captain Wolfson."

Chapter Four
2 Safar 1404 yp


"You need to raise your shields into the higher frequencies. And you'll need snipers." Rael eyed the soldiers. I'd really prefer grim and determined to this gleeful eagerness. And another bottle of antiacids. "Close in—and for him that means thirty meters—you won't get near him with deadly intent."
Seven of the men nodded toward the eighth.
"We're all sniper qualified, but Echo's the best."
And Captain Opnu is a complete unknown. Military instead of Directorate. He's never had any contact with Xen.
"You should familiarize yourselves with the ground. Mid morning, durning working hours, you could probably safely check out the area. If you're especially concerned with being seen, I could distract him." Oh dear One. And how to keep those thoughts away from him?
"No. we won't give him any chance at an advance warning." Opnu drummed fingers on the map strewn table. "Nor this . . . Lord Hell. The XD reports on him are certainly interesting."
The number of maps was alarming.
Do they realize how much intel we have on their Magic community?
A map of a village. Inn, bank, school, grocery, mill. A dozen houses.
A map of Karista, with red lines of corridors overlain on it. An island in the bay had its own satellite photo. Huge house. Barn, small wharf. Patios and paths.

And lots of pictures of people. "I've seen most of these pictures. You might want to get Exploration Leader Ajha in to brief you."
"He's assigned across . . . and the Exterior Director admitted he'd practically gone native on Ash, and was best kept ignorant and away."
Ajki's protecting his favorite nephew. By telling the truth, none-the-less . . .
"Well, you've got the names and relationships . . . " Are they planning on killing all these people? "What about the Baby Gods? Xen has mentioned, at one time or another, a God of Music, a God of Orgies, a God of . . . yes. I said orgies. Let's see. Justice, Gambling, Thieves, Fertility . . . they're archetypes, some are called gods and some aren't. I don't think it matters. I think it was whatever rolls off the tongue the easiest. The Dirty Old Man, the Midwife, the Tall Dark Stranger,  the Midwife, The Ladies' Man, the Wild Boy. They are all very powerful, on their own, very in touch with the Comet Fall Collective Subconscious.
"I've met a couple of them, when they dropped in on Xen." Rael looked at their skeptical faces and shrugged. If you don't believe me now you will later, when you face them.
Opnu eyed her. "Can you get him out of his house without him suspecting an attack?"
Oh Xen! Oh One, is killing him necessary? "I've gotten Wolfson used to a game where I try to figure out how to get through the shields on his house without him noticing, and he works on improving his shields." She watched their reactions. They all disapprove, half are contemptuous, a couple amused, some thoughtful. "What I need to know is do you want me to succeed, or flub it and see if he'll step out? Dark or daylight?"
The squad leader's eyes narrowed in thought.
"He not often home in the daylight." Rael added. "You might have a better chance when he's out with the horses, or in the morning when he runs, and then teaches various things to all comers."
One damn the entirety of the Interim Ruling Committee, starting with Agni.
Opnu nodded. "We'll do this at night. I'll put four men out wide—thirty meters back—while you try the shields."
The sniper tapped the satellite photo. "If the second house is his . . ." He paused for her nod. "The two best overlooks are the roof of the Disco building or the roof of the Earth Embassy."
He measured out the distance from the point of the diagonally placed Disco building. "From the north corner, I can, barely, get thirty meters from Wolfson's front door. Not a good angle on the south side of his house."
"The Earth Embassy, no problem. If I can get up there."
Rael produced all the reports the External Directorate had amassed. Vids of the buildings construction.  Architectural renderings. They bent over drawings, muttering about staircases and probable alarms.
A doctor hustled in pad in hand, he checked them all administered two shots to a grumbling youngster. He scowled at whatever Rael's ID showed. "And one for you."
Huge friggin' injector. Rael made herself look indifferent and not react at the zing of pain behind her upper arm.
Rael, again, diverted her thoughts. This is a war. Whether I approve or not, I will be fighting for the Empire. It all starts here. Emotions will not make me do something that will increase our casualties . . . or make it more likely that we'd lose the war.
If there was just some way to stop the war . . . delay it until Orde is back in control. If Orde wins the election before a shot is fired . . .
Rael looked at the soldiers busily calculating the downward angles from the Earth's towering embassy building . . . the Committee won't wait.
"What phase of the moon do you prefer?" She brought up a program. "We have three months . . . how soon after we get Wolfson do they want to start the invasion? How long will it take to assemble forces in Gate City?"
Fort Diego's only four hundred kilometers from Gate City.
"The timing is tight. They'll know we're coming as soon as Wolfson's taken out. We're doing as much prep away from Gate City as possible. We'll move the heavy equipment in close at the last moment, and roll the troops within hours of the shoot."
With an anchor in the Oner embassy in Karista, they'll take out the government in hours. Possibly minutes.
Rael nodded. Controlled her gorge. "Do they have a tentative date? Full Moons are . . . "
"No. We'll hit a few days before the new moon. Late Safar or late Emre. If the Army isn't ready by then we can go in very early Jumada or anytime after mid Jumada and still have time to get in place, do it, and exfiltrate between moonset and dawn." Opmu shrugged. "I suspect Safar will be too soon. But that's not our call. So . . . how about we work on coordinating in the obstacle course?"
Oh yes, some good healthy exercise with eight overgrown men. She circled her sore shoulder. "Sure. For opsec, perhaps I should hide my hair and wear camos? I should not be seen coordinating with the army."
But maybe if it leaks . . . Xen will be more careful.

/// And later///

Ajki, the Exterior Director was standing well back . . . not quite smiling. His Princess was standing benignly at his side, looking like a sweet little old lady. Who was trying to not show how funny she found the situation.
Plenty of other spectators . . . a man with white blonde hair leaning casually on the wall at the corner of the Comet Fall Embassy . . . familiar from pictures . . . Please tell me that isn't the God of Just Deserts!
Orde looked back at the screaming, fist waving spectacle.
I didn't believe the reports of his effect. I think I do now.
Newsies and vid cams everywhere. Orde recognized both Oner and Earth reporters, and was recognized in turn.
"President Orde, do you have any comments?"

/// And later still ///

"Good. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to speak to that One damned Committee in private."
***
The Guards had managed to chivvy the Committee back onto the Embassy grounds where they could keep the newsies away. They were down to hisses and gestures now.
Orde stalked up and glanced at the appalled Ambassador. "A conference room?"
"Right this way." He looked relieved and headed for the main entrance of the formal embassy building.
"Gentlemen! Inside. NOW!" Orde advanced on the Committee, and the guards, bless them actually bumped them into motion and herded them up the steps.
Orde left the door open and stalked over to take the chair at the head of the table. "Agni. Shut up. I have had enough of your total lack of self control. I believe that when a covert action goes tits up IN PUBLIC that the proper response is to look shocked and leap into action swearing to find out who has exceeded his authority and remove him from government service, possible arrest him and throw him in jail.
"Oh, my. Guess what the second thing I'm going to do when the polls close. The first thing, of course, is going to be to can Uxli and reappoint Urfa."
"Oh? you think you're going to win?" Agni spun around and stalked toward him.
Major Eppa stepped in between them. "Sir? I believe it's time to sit down and calm down. Because you are very close to being obviously not fit for office, and one of my duties . . . "
Agni shut up with a narrow-eyed glare.
"Thank you, Major. Agni . . . let's try a little damage control here." Orde leaned forward, elbows on the table. "First, is there anything else in motion that needs to be stopped?"
Instant silence. The other committee members swapped glances. Jaws hardened.
Oh. Damn.
"Well, the only thing I can think of that would top this and shut you lot up would be an actual invasion of Comet Fall." Orde looked around at footfalls.
Ajki poked his head in. "The powered gates are both down. I'm headed back to see what happened."
Agni was tapping at his comm. "Status?" He listened for a moment. "Go home." He slapped the comm off.
Glared at Orde. "Your pets shut us down before we got a single man through."
"Through to where? Comet Fall? Where on Comet Fall?"
"The Karista Embassy. We smuggled in the anchor with our furniture."
Orde pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm quite certain that was explicitly forbidden in the treaty we signed five years ago."
More hasty footsteps. Ambassador??? knocked as he entered. "The Disco Director and Captain Wolfson would like to speak to you and the committee."
"Send them in, please. No search, good manners."
The ambassador nodded.

Orde nodded politely to them as they followed the Ambassador in.
Agni led the Committee in standing and looming.
Director Hackathorn nodded politely to the President, then more-or-less nodded to the Committee. "I've just had a report that Comet Fall has sabotaged the power cables to your gates. I am at a loss to understand why, unless perhaps it has to do with the column of military equipment that seems to have . . . gone nowhere. Do you feel that there is a connection? Where might a company of heavy infantry and a dozen tanks have been headed, within hours of an attack on Disco here?"
Agni leaned toward him. "We. Do. Not. Give. A. Shit. About. Disco. Get out of here before I have you shot, Earther."
Xen shook his head. "Agni, would you like to be turned into a big purple bunny rabbit?"
"Fuck you, you little fag. I don't believe your fairy tales, and your hallucinations won't work on me."
Expo stood up next to Agni. "Just try it."
Yno, Amfw and Edte joined them. A solid wall of the strongest Oners alive.
Major Eppa was open-mouthed in disbelief. Hovering on the brink of definitely laying hands on Agni.
"All five of you?" Xen stepped aside suddenly.
Uxli stalked through the door and circled to join the idiots.
Orde shrugged, and looked at Xen. "They appear to be volunteering. But is it reversible?"
Agni sneered. "Gullible fool!"
"Yes, but the spell has to complete and settle in. Twenty minutes to half an hour. Then I can reverse it."
Orde nodded. "Good enough. Please do demonstrate this technique for us."
A huge spell net flashed out. Followed by more.
Agni yelled and grabbed his foot, cursed and sat to grab the other.
"Take your shoes off. Your feet bones have to elongate to form the lower leg." Xen sauntered up to the table and pulled two chairs away. Placed them against the wall and offered one to Orde. The other to Lon. Grabbed a chair for himself and settled back with every sign of ease.
Orde tried to copy him as he watched six powerful Oners failing to stop spells that had them growing purple hair, their ears melting and elongating . . .
"It's not really a very good sort of rabbit." Xen scratched his cheek. "The ears especially, are too short and flop, because the human ear just doesn't have enough cartilage in it."
"Ah." Orde eyed the Committeemen dispassionately. "Yes, I see what you mean."
Hackathorn shook his head. "Even after seeing the goats, I've got to say this is . . . "
Xen grinned. "Something you really really hope is a hallucination? Sorry. But really all mammals have the same bones. It's just a matter of changing the sizes and the angles of the joints. And I left the teeth alone, barely changed the shape of the jaw, and left the digestive system untouched. It's not nearly as complex as the goat transformation."
Orde caught Major Eppa's eye. "Why don't you have your men help them out of their clothes? The less tearing now, the less embarrassment later."
"Yes, sir." The major's gaze went past him.
Orde looked around. "Ah Ajki. What happened?"
"A hemisphere of pavement and dirt appears to have been picked up and rotated  ninety degrees and set back in the ground. Contained in that hemisphere is the main conduit carrying the power cables to both powered gates. And water and sewer lines.
"There is no damage to the gate mechanisms, the emergency power is keeping the mag lev bearing up while we slow the rings. The powerplant has dropped back to standby power only, with the main cables off. As soon as we excavate both ends of the conduit, drain any . . . liquids that leaked, we can splice in a section of cable and have the gates working. Three days is the current estimate."
"The permanent gates?"
"All open. So far." He glanced at Xen, who shrugged.
"I had a report of a military convoy?"
"Some really pissed off generals showed up and ordered them back to Fort Diego."
Lon grinned. "Pissed by the failure or pissed by the vids that are probably all over."
"Yes."
Ajki looked at the lanky sort of rabbit-like creatures flailing about and trying to hop around the room. "I suppose I should suggest getting the newsies in here."
Orde shook his head. "No. I think the Committee has made enough of a spectacle of themselves for one day."
Xen grinned. "It was quite a scene. Umm, the God of Just Deserts . . . "
Orde snickered. "Yes. I spotted him. I will never disbelieve any tall tales out of Comet Fall again. Purple bunnies. Were you really ten years old when you came up wih this?"
"About a week shy of twelve. The amazing thing is that I managed to not kill anyone. Really, it was just bits of other things all stuck together." Xen looked at the lean mean bunnies who appeared to be conspiring, and glaring—as well as large rabbits could—their direction.
"Well, they look pretty done." More spells flashed. The rabbits lost their coordination and they flopped and squirmed on the floor. "If you'll excuse me, I think I'll step out. Agni in the buff is something I'd rather not see."
"Indeed." Orde led the Disco agents out. "I think another press conference is in order."

 
 
matapam
18 February 2017 @ 02:11 pm
 

"Don't go far. I want you back in three months. Rael . . . I think you . . . " The President paused at the sound of footsteps.

Agni always thumps and crashes when he moves.

"Send them in, Jacky."

Lip service in support of his poor receptionist. Agni stalked in. Smiled nastily at Orde and turned to Urfa. "You are fired." His grin broadened as he looked Rael up and down. "And I know just where Uxli is going to assign you."

***

First dinner at Government House was small and intimate. For the seat of the Imperial government. Just the President, all five Committeemen, all three Directors, six wives (one of whom had rather abruptly stopped divorce proceedings) and fourteen teenagers, equally divided between male and female.

Orde looked down the table . . . and rather wished Amfu had brought his seven year old and two year old along. Fussing children would definitely be an improvement, and out-and-out screaming might spare him the conversations that were going to happen, like it or not.

He knew all the adults, but not a single one was a friend. Not one political ally.

"Welcome to Government House. May the One True God bless this meal." Orde sat back and the staff swept into motion with the first course.

Agni, at his right hand, glowered down the table. "I'd rather have had the princesses than the children here."

Orde smiled. "Qayg thought they should all have a little meeting. Just to . . . emphasize that they are the assigned watchers of their own principals, not assassins or spies."

"His" new Presidential Director winced. "No need to be so blunt, sir. I'm sure the Committee and their families will get along famously."

The woman sitting next to him was actually Efge's wife, a drop dead gorgeous women who looked about sixteen. She glanced down the table at the teenagers. "Oh, they'll learn so much, and it's so nice to have matched numbers. My goodness Ynbu's boy is handsome!"

And he was. And knew it. Just enough of a red tone to hair and complexion to make him really stand out and get noticed.

Efge eyed her with exasperation. "He's an Upcomer."

She giggled, reminding him of Rael. Except Rael uses it as a mask for her brains. This one . . .

Rael, in servant white, a white cloth folded over one arm was standing quietly against the wall, hair darkened a bit, weapons out of sight. And hopefully not needed tonight.

Agni growled. "My exes thought this would be such a good opportunity. I ought to have told them to . . . keep them."

Ha! Watching Agni trying to be diplomatic, and watching his cursing, for three months could be entertaining.

"Well, no doubt you'll make your own arraignments. I'll be campaigning and out of Paris more often than not. Leaving tomorrow, in fact." Orde looked back to Uxli. "Don't worry, I'll be taking a very small number of guards with me. You'll have plenty of people to bring you up to speed both on Security and issues that need close monitoring or to brought to the Committee's attention."

Orde looked back to Agni, down the table toward the others. "The Helios situation has been my top priority, so far. Internally, the economic impact of the corridors on other modes of transportation needs further attention. And negotiating the genetic . . . "

"Negotiating?" Five Councilmen leaned and glared, their voices a chorus.

"We should flatten them and then make them repair the damage they've done to us." Edte bent the soup spoon in his hands.

"To our children!" Amfw glared.

The only one known to have a child on the way. Most Withiones and Neartuones have put off having children until this matter is settled.

"What we wish to do, in our fully justified anger, does not always result in the best long term outcome." Orde took a taste of his soup. Not just for effect. He was hungry, and taking a bit of time to think never hurt. I've had eight years practice at not letting politics keep me from refueling. I wonder how long it takes to actually enjoy the meal while verbally battling people you despise?

Down the table, a chorus of giggles. The older girls had their heads together. Old school chums or instant friends and allies?

Paer missed out on a lot, not attending high school with other kids her own age. But she's doing well . . . and the boy she's dating is intelligent, resourceful and nice. I like him . . . but . . . an upcomer Closutuone? Well it hardly matters, because as a 216 Paer won't ever have children anyway.

Dammit.

At least if I lose this election the pressure will be off her.

But are these idiots so focused on the affront to all Oners that they dismiss the danger of the Helios?

"Long term can be dealt with when it arrives." Agni hunched his shoulders. "Right now I want to wring that damned Wolfson's neck."

"Except, he's Disco, and didn't have anything to do with the genetic attack. And being a geneticist, a genetic engineer, and a medgician, he's the one we need to repair the damages done to us."

"Ha!" Expo, three people down the table bared his teeth. "He says he didn't have anything to do with it. Only an idiot would believe him."

Orde raised his eyebrows. "Really? He was pissed about his daughter being used as she was, followed up with an attempted kidnapping. But his ire was narrowly focused on the individuals responsible."

"As we, perhaps ought to focus on this so-called God of Just Deserts?" Ynbu flashed his teeth. "I don't believe that with the reputation the man has they allow him to live in Karista. I think he'd be a good target for reprisals."

A faint choke from Rael's direction. Has she met him? Or only heard stories?

Orde sighed. "I really do hope you try diplomacy first."

I don't think they can field in army in three months . . . have I dropped the ball, and missed something? Have they been arming up and getting ready for months already? I'll ask . . . no one. I think I have royally screwed up and missed some warning signs.

***

Rael managed to keep an impassive expression on her face while she watched Uxli. My new boss. And from the way he's nodding at what the Committeemen are saying, he agrees with them. Damn. I'd quit, except that as soon as I thought about it, I got a comm call from Makkah. One of the priests I know, so there was no doubt as to the source. I was ordered to stay. So . . . here I am, without the faintest idea about what the One will want me to do.

"Of course." Agni bared teeth and looked down the table. "Both of them would be possible."

"Agni . . . we need to cease these little ego boosting pricks. Do you really want a war? With their dimensional abilities it will be fought here, not there. It a really bad idea to pick a fight with someone both powerful and neutral."

"Neutral! You little coward! You . . . " As Agni rose to his feet, the Blackhorse guard closed in. Agni glared at them then looked back at Orde. "You disgust me. We are the One. We are the strongest, the best."

Orde leaned back and crossed his arms. "And under the command of an out-of-control egotist who's got his panties in a twist because the new kid on the block alternates between ignoring him and knocking him flat. You have no concept of restraint in the strong, and don't recognize it when you see it. I fear that a great many soldiers will pay for your bruised ego with their lives."

"You despicable little worm. One Damn you for the situation we're in now. Once you're out of office I'll have you arrested for treason." Agni threw down his napkin turned on his heel and walked out. The other four Councilors followed.

Efge jumped up and hustled after them. Uxli rose slowly and walked out without looking at Orde.

The worried wives reluctantly rose and started shooing their children out.

"But I'm still hungry!" Ynbu's youngest daughter snatched a roll on the way out.

"Only sensible one of the bunch." Ajki leaned his chair back. "I've been talking Helios at them for hours—and they keep interrupting to ask about the best way to start a war with Comet Fall."

"Figures." Orde waved the staff in. "Haul their dinners up to their apartments. Clear the head of the table and bring in three entrees. Rael, join us."

 
 
matapam
17 February 2017 @ 08:51 pm
 

Chapter Eight

24 Emre 1404 yp

President Orde was just finishing dinner with his daughter and his Princess at a fancy restaurant in New York when Agni stalked up.

Qayg rose and blocked his path. He settled back as guards hovered, trying to make up their minds how they were going to guard both of them from each other. Uzmo was standing where he ought to be to guard Agni, but he was leaning as if to move on Agni and the glint in his eye as he watched the man . . . was almost hopeful.

"Did you know about it? Did Rael tell you?"

Orde froze . . . slowly put his fork down and patted his lips. Rose and faced Agni. "What have you done? Or should I ask what you were trying to do? Did you actually send her to kill Xen?"

Agni hissed. "Did you give her any orders?"

"No. I trust her to use her brains and experience. Now. What. Happened." He didn't make it a question. He could feel Paer's fear behind him. "Damn you."

"The soldiers and Rael are all pretty bronze statues spotted around Disco . . . "

He could hear Agni's teeth gritting.

"Including the three-man sniper team on the roof of the Earth Embassy Tower."

He reached out mentally for his daughter. :: Statue. She's alive. ::

"Well. Isn't that going to be a fun bit of diplomacy to face in the morning. Why don't you go away, and send me copies of everything. Because if you're telling me so quickly, that means it'll be front page news in . . . about four hours. Thank you for informing me so promptly. Good evening." He turned and sat. Ignored a growl from Agni. Didn't look around as the man stomped away.

He reached across the table to hold Paer's hand. "I'll check on Rael immediately . . . " He paused.

Qayg had produced a small comp and was tapping away. "XD live streams news flashes from Embassy. Oh. My. One." She turned the screen around and the sound came up.

". . . of Disco Lon Hackathorn of Earth claims to be as surprised as the rest of us."

A flick to a recorded interview. "All hell broke out at oh one hundred locally. Multiple shots fired, as in possibly hundreds. For about ten minutes. It was all over by the time I got down here. Captain Wolfson informed me that there had been an attack apparently aimed just at himself and that he'd taken care of it." The man's voice slid into exasperation. "Then he went back to bed. If anyone wants to admit these fellows belong to them, they can see me in the morning." He walked away shaking his head.

"Director! Director! What about Princess Rael?"

"Oh, we know who she belongs to. And since she was armed, is armed, well, draw your own conclusions."

The newsies panned their vids back to a figure on a bridge.

"Ohhhh! They really did order her to kill Xen, didn't they?" Paer bit her lip as she eyed the statue on screen. Qayg tapped a button and froze it. Definitely Rael. In mid-spin, left hand snapping out, right hand with a pistol just clearing the small of the back holster . . . Eyes narrowed and surely that wasn't a tear on her cheek.

Of course it is!

Qayg sighed. "Amazing detail those in-side-out bubbles give. Poor Rael. She's . . . in trouble from so many directions."

Paer hunched her shoulders. "Xen's going to be . . . mad that she really would try to kill him, isn't he?"

Orde sighed. "Probably. Well. Dessert, ladies? Then I need to go take a look and give an interview. I think Agni's just handed me the election."

***

Embassy was in an uproar.

Three hours past midnight. Lights on everywhere, electrical and magical. The roof of the Earth Embassy Tower was ablaze, movement visible even from down here.

Agni and Amfw were in the middle of the street. Yelling at each other, in public. Being recorded. Their Princesses were in a stare down, a faint fog around them as they pulled heat from the air.

The other three committee members were trying to calm them. With no luck, so far as Orde could see.

Amfw waved an arm wildly toward Disco and screamed. "That's the most dangerous man in the Multiverse. We had to get him out of the way and you bungled it! You idiot!"

Ajki, the Exterior Director was standing well back . . . not quite smiling. His Princess was standing benignly at his side, looking like a sweet little old lady. Who was trying to not show how funny she found the situation.

Newsies and vid cams everywhere. Orde recognized both Oner and Earth reporters, and was recognized in turn.

"President Orde, do you have any comments?"

"Not yet. I haven't seen anything. Yet." He caught Ajki's eye and jerked his head. "Show me."

Ajki's grin snuck out and was quickly suppressed. "If you'll step this way . . . I have requested the army come and identify these . . . statues, and while they're at it, explain their actions and why I shouldn't arrest the lot of them when, if, Wolfson releases them."

About a third of the newsies abandoned Agni and company to follow Orde.

The first statue was on the sidewalk. Hugging the inside edge. A man running down the street, headed for Disco, frozen in mid-stride, weapon up and ready.

Odre shook his head. "Never saw Xen coming, did he?"

"Only Rael had a clue. Well, the Earthers wouldn't let me see what's up there." Ajki glanced up at the tower. "Anyhow, one soldier here and another over there. Rael's down here."

Rael had a fan club. The "statue" was lit up, vid cams going . . . and now turning to Orde.

Rael made an interesting statue, all deadly movement in high heels, short skirt, gun. She'd obviously sensed something behind her, striking out as she turned. And yes. A tear.

Orde reached out and touched the tear. A hard cold bump. "Rael is, always has been an exemplary agent. Loyal to the Empire, no matter what."

He stepped back then, and faced the vid cams. "I'm sure you all know that I've been stripped of most of my authority pending a special election, just one month from now. The Interim Ruling Committee is unfortunately composed of men who want a war. But the people of the Empire, by-and-large do not. We recognize that Comet Fall had reason enough to retaliate for our many trespasses.

"Xen Wolfson has always been the voice of moderation, the peace maker. One knows he's dangerous, and with his special talents would by himself constitute a large percentage of Comet Fall's total war-making ability. He is not, however, a current part of the Army of the West."

And he's standing in the shadows watching.

"He is a Disco Agent, tasked with preventing war across the dimensions. As such he was a neutral party, not a legitimate target. Even if we had a declaration of war out of the Council. Which. We. Do. Not.

"Fortunately I am not having to say that to his next of kin." Orde sighed. "In a month I hope to be in a position to ensure this incident doesn't escalate into a war with Comet Fall. Tonight . . . I am just glad that this ill-conceived assassination attempt failed."

An odd shadow on the Rael statue, no, a golf ball sized chunk missing from the back of her left arm.

Orde looked back to the shadows. "What happened to her arm?"

Xen stepped out into the light, walked through the crowd of newsies and spectators who hastily made a path for him. "She had a new implant. After seeing your army officers kill half their own men when your invasion failed ten years ago . . . I was worried there might be a remote controlled poison capsule or . . . "

Orde hissed. "They would not dare. They . . ." He broke off and took a deep breath. "I will make inquiries."

Xen produced a plastic bag with a bloody scoop in it. "Find out. I won't release any of the soldiers until I am assured that they will not be murdered."

"Good. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to speak to that One damned committee in private."



Chapter Nine

25 Jumada 1404 yp

If I have to pull a gun on Xen I'm already toast.

A hard pinch on her left arm.

Rael spun . . . into unrelieved black then blinding light.

Her strike hit nothing.

She squinted, trying to see as she brought the gun up to . . . very much not point it at Urfa.

He wasn't smiling, but the corners of his eyes were crinkled like he was. "It's been a month. Orde was reelected in an overwhelming landslide yesterday. Diplomacy is happening. War is not, and will not."

She deflated, sagging onto the bridge rail as her legs went wobbly. Holstered the gun.

A quick scan. People all over. Vidcams pointed and running. Oh. Shit.

A familiar face. Dr. Ysky stepped up, in full Blackhorse Guard uniform. "May I see your arm?"

Rael blinked as pain suddenly registered . . . "Oww! What?"

"Xen removed a remote kill switch before he bubbled you." Urfa's voice dropped to a near growl.

"Kill . . . " That injection . . . "What about the squad?"

"Still bubbled.' Urfa glanced to the side. "We'll get them out next."

A surreptitious scan of the crowd had revealed no sign of Xen. She swallowed. "Xen?"

"Untouched, of course." Urfa snorted. "A dancer and a squad of eight trained infiltrators. Took him half an hour, if that. I suspect he never broke a sweat."

Rael swallowed. He'll never speak to me again. I really did try to kill him. The ultimate betrayal.

"Probably not." She craned her head and tried to see where all the blood was coming from. "I didn't realize he was anywhere around until I felt a pinch."

Sutures? C'mon, it was just an injected micro . . . They were going to make it look like I killed Xen then committed suicide. One. Damn. Agni. I really ought to have killed him.

The doc finished up with a pressure wrap. "No stretching, minimize forward, cross-body movement and reaching upward. See you back home in a week." He wiped her arm with a towel and stepped away.

Urfa stirred "Shall we watch them unbubble the soldiers? Xen's staying out of sight. A batch of interns from Comet Fall are going to free them."

"Interns?"

"Teenagers. Three witches, two mages. All five double sourced and dimensionally able. I think Xen may be making a point about the depth of the Comet Fall Magic community. And that they consider things like this so easy a child could do, or undo, it."

Rael got herself up on her shoes and refused to wobble. Dammit, I've trained to fight in these stupid shoes. I'm not going to fall off them now.

Urfa walked past one statue. "We're starting with the squad leader."

Up on the sidewalk just past the entrance to the Comet Fall embassy, Captain Opnu all in bronze, frozen in dynamic balance on the ball of one foot, the other reaching out toward . . . Two scrawny boys bouncing around making faces in front of him.

A colonel in dress uniform was scowling at the boys, and then back at three girls.

Behind the statue, a gorgeous little blonde girl was laughing. "Five crowns says he face-plants!"

A slightly taller blonde shook her head. "I never bet against a sure thing."

A girl who might be eighteen, with a gorgeous head of rippling red curls cleared her throat. "It's time. Ollie, Chet, stop being idiots. Get out from in front of him and get the soft shields up."

The kids scampered into positions around the statue and the colonel stepped over to be in the man's clear sight.

The halo of Newsies aimed their vidcams.

Redhead stepped up and scratched at the captain's back. His front foot hit the ground, he jerked as the bright daylight hit his night adjusted eyes, stumbled, hit the shield Rael could barely see glittering in her mind's eye, and sort of bounced back to his feet. Spotted the colonel and wavered.

"Stand down, Captain. The operation is aborted. I rescind the no-capture order. Have you activated the system?"

Opnu straightened to attention. "No sir."

"Good. Don't. Come with me." The colonel looked around. "Well, next?"

A man in Disco's grey uniform led them back to the soldier she'd seen . . .

The redhead handled the shields this time and the littlest blonde snuck up on him to scratch away the bronze bubble. He got off three shot before he got his finger off the trigger. The bullets zinged out several meters, slowing and falling to drop into the flower beds.

"There. See how that worked?" Redhead was apparently in charge. "Aurora, you want to do the next one?"

A grin, and the taller blonde bounced off up a branching path.

Redhead led the rest of the kids after her.

"Don't be so bossy Raven!" One of the boys—they had to be twins.

Complaints from the others faded as they moved off to the north.

Raven? They named that flaming redhead Raven?

"Please wait for the colonel!" Disco Director Hackathorn hustled after the kids.

A dry chuckle from former Disco Director Inso. "Fallen magic users. Like herding cats . . . if you could find cats with all the enthusiasm and energy of a hyper active lap dog. At least this batch isn't as powerful as Xen or Q."

"Yet." Ambassador Never brushed past them, following the kids.

Arqe had the perfect position, clear sight down the path in front of the houses, and the whole grotto, including the bridge. He tripped backwards at the light flash, finger tightening on the trigger.

The frowning Aurora stayed with him, the bullets fountaining upwards and falling back in slow motion like a cartoon birdbath.

The fourth man was flat in the long grass up on the hill beyond Disco. He was nearly buried in horse manure. The two boy mages snickered and freed him, without a shot fired.

Pyrite was scratching his rear on the fifth man. He'd found a tree to use as a rifle stand, and been bubbled standing up. Pyrite sauntered away. He pointed an ear her direction, then laid it back as he walked away. She hung her head and didn't even look up at the shot.

The Earth's Ambassador escorted them up the roof of the tower. Mr. Montgomery was hiding glee behind a superior smirk and gracious manners. Amusement dripping behind faux sympathy at being so easily bested by the Magic Barbarians.

Urfa just replied blandly. "So fortunate when political rivals do something both stupid and criminal, don't you think? A bit tough on the neighbors, though."

The kids put up their soft shields all around the trio and Raven walked around scratching and freeing them.

The colonel herded all the soldiers away to the Oner embassy compound. Rael walked beside Urfa.

Stiff. Cold. If I don't talk to him now . . . will I ever have the nerve to come back? Ever? She stalled.

Urfa eyed her. Nodded. "Go talk to him. See you in New York in four days."

She must have looked blank.

"Paer's graduation. Orde's throwing a party." His smile softened. "Xen understands duty. Go talk to him."

Rael wrapped an unnoticeable spell around herself and gradually drifted away from all the fuss. Out of the crowd. Back to Disco, back to the grotto and the pretty little bridge. Up the steps

and edging up to Xen's door.

She leaned her forehead against the door.

What am I going to say?

"Not going to try to get through the shield?" Deep soft tones.

"No. Believe it or not, I'm not suicidal."

"If you want a normal life, this is the time to grab it. Tell Urfa I sent you away and you'll be free. Never sent off to seduce me again."

"They don't send me to seduce you. They send me to ask questions. Hauling you off to bed is my idea, not theirs."

"Do you want to stop?"

No! I want you to grab me and hold me! "Xen, I tried to kill you."

"Umm, I don't think you got close enough to qualify for that."

"I was going to kill you!"

"Probably. Well, you were about to try."

She turned her head. Not even a distortion to be seen. "You'll never be able to trust me again."

Soft laugher. "Did you doubt for a second that if King Leano recalled me and ordered me to attack the Empire, that I would do it? We are both patriots, loyal citizens of our own polities, and agents of our governments. We always will be. I trust you to be Rael Withione. Do you want me out of your life?"

"No. What do you want?"

"You."

 
 
matapam
17 February 2017 @ 08:22 am

Chapter

The search of the junkyard was dangerous, among the teetering piles of crushed cars. And dirty, and unrewarding. And searching the area around the junkyard for car parts, and zombie carcasses. There was no sign of rats, zombie or otherwise. There were no human zombie sightings.

"I really don’t like assuming Manny is dead." Les glared at the scorched junk yard. It was quite visible, the metal sheets of the fence had been blown all over half the surrounding fields.

"And if he’s not, what is he going to do?" Hugh dragged a car door through the trampled weeds, and Les helped him heave it up into the flatbed truck.

"And do we really think no one will notice we blew up the junkyard?"

Hugh grinned. "With luck everyone will think it was the earthquake. Poor Otis, everyone wanted him to go away before the high school was built. Now, it may be more economic to relocate than to rebuild."

Hugh stopped and watched a white pickup drive west on Coyote Bar Road.

Les suppressed envy. At least his girlfriend hasn’t fled across the country. Not that Tasman ever qualified, but . . .

The truck crossed the ridge and disappeared.

The ridge.

"You know how the zombies seemed to be able to follow us, even without eyesight? Could Manny have been steering them magically? Like, from where he could see them?"

Hugh followed his gaze to the ridge and paled. "And where did he go, after?" His voice was husky and he turned and ran for his truck.

Les followed, grabbing a shotgun in passing. He threw himself through the door of the pickup as Hugh gunned it forward. They skidded onto Coyote Bar Road and accelerated up the slope. Hugh barely slowed at the top, but they failed to become airborn and even had a reasonable amount of control as Hugh slid around the corner and landed in the front yard of the first house.

The front door was more than locked, it didn’t even move in its frame.

"Wooden. Nothing’s going to budge." He bolted to the left.

Les ran to the right. He swung wide around the corner and collided with Delphi.

She staggered back and sat down. "Hi. Is this about the zombie in the tree?"

"Tree?"

"Yeah." She took his hand to get up off the ground and led the way toward the back of the house.

Hugh was crabbing halfsideways, his eyes on the pasture until he spotted Del. He grabbed her in a bear hug.

Out in the pasture the ragged remains of what had recently been a magnificent oak was surrounded by animals. Four restless reddish cows stared at the tree from uphill. On the right the black and white bull pawed, and tossed his horns, clearly threatening the figure clinging to the main trunk about ten feet up.

Closer to them a big black dog turned his attention from the tree to the approaching people. His ears flattened, and he slunk off and disappeared behind the barn. To the left a big black draft horse perked her ears at them, before turning back to snort at the man up in the tree. She struck out with a front foot in a clear threat.

Les thought about his brief college boxing, and the potential of an arm that long, thrown by that much shoulder muscle, with a big horny hoof at the end of it. He hesitated, then approached the tree carefully, staying equidistant from horse and bull. It would be so embarrassing to get treed with the zombie. He pulled out his phone and called for a live zombie pickup.

"So, Manny, you got enough brains left to be worth curing?" Hugh circled the tree, studying the zombie.

"You! You and your damned spells! Well I know a few as well." Manny voice was thick and gluey with mucus, or perhaps pus. He pointed a finger, not at Hugh, but out at Delphi. "Eyah pash kune!"

"Aee or ko gee." Delphi’s word made no more sense than Manny’s. She looked faintly interested, and not at all worried.

Hugh spoke the word he’d used on the rats. "Zaromuot." He had his hands up, as if indicating a direction. And stepped smartly to the side as Manny sagged and collapsed, fell from the tree. And lay without twitching.

The bull and horse snorted, the cows wheeled away and departed.

Hugh nodded to the Bull. "Excellent job." He looked over at the horse. "Missy, you must have picked up some warhorse merges or something."

Lee shook himself. Looked at his phone. "Derrick, you still there? Forget the net, the zombie fell out of the tree and finished himself off." He clicked off.

Looked at the horse and the bull. "You’re kidding, right?"

Delphi shrugged. "If a person who merges with an animal keeps a few animal traits, does the animal keep a few traits of humanity? Missy and Maverick aren’t the same as they were before the merge. Maybe they’ll lose that extra awareness. Maybe they won’t. In the mean time, I think I’ll be eating a bunch of fish and chicken. Or just give up and go vegetarian."

Les nodded. And looked over at Hugh. For a moment he could see inside the man, see a soul that had layers of arrogance, selfishness, and dominance, recently added, not welcomed, not allowed inside. Caution underneath. But he could see down through that as well, to the underlying foundation of solid, stubborn dependable rock. The worst stains on the top were already fading. I wonder what my soul looks like? And then the inner sight, or perhaps imagination, was gone.

"Well, I wasn’t planning on mentioning killing Manny with a magic word. But I also am not planning on a magic murder spree." Hugh looked down at the crumpled zombie. "But if we’d cured him . . . what do you do with a criminally inclined wizard? That was a word to compel obedience."

Les felt faint. "He could have ordered anyone to do any thing. Including letting him out of jail?"

"I think so. Look at how the zombies acted. Even the rats."

But we can’t just kill them . . . Les crossed his arms and spoke firmly. "Those words are not something that should be spread around. Especially not the killing ones. Let’s not even start down that road – if we can help it."

They both nodded.

Delphi looked away from the body. "I’ll just continue to give out healing and pull, along with specific instructions about treating zombies. And any other healing methods I come up with."

***

A last zip through town. Because it was impossible to know if they’d really gotten all of them. Les and Michaels both had new shotguns. They were among the last of the Feds. Even Dr. Zealand, reduced to outpatient visits, was sending staff home.

"We’re just going to note anyplace that we even think has zombies. We are not getting out of the . . ."

Two zombies lurched out from a house to the left.

Michaels hit the brakes.

The zombies looked like they were wrestling. No. Fighting. The big one got the little one down on the ground and restrained in a professional manner.

Les stepped out of the car, cautiously. Eyed the bigger zombie in disbelief. "Henry?"

"I got her, Les. I got her. And I killed the other two." His head sagged for a moment, then his shoulders straightened and he looked Les in the eyes. "But there were a couple of merges, and there were dead things . . . Now be honest with me. Is there a cure? Or is it better that you kill me now, cleanly?"

Les gulped. "You don’t look too far gone. They can save you. Don’t know about your girl friend there."

A ghost of a smile. "Yeah, man. I’ll never again give you grief about the women you fall for."

"Ha! Your brain is still working, that’s a good sign."

Michaels was on the radio.

Everyone showed up. The woman’s house and everything around it was searched. They were just a block south of the first search sweep.

But no more zombies were found, and Dr. Zealand was pleased to have one each of the two kinds of zombies locked up for study.

"Two kinds?" Michaels asked.

The nurse, Nikki Something, answered. "A secondary is someone who merged with something dead. A primary is someone who was killed and revived by merging with someone alive. They both run from really awful to barely dead. Red was about as bad as a secondary type can get. Manny – the autopsy is interesting, we’re doing thousands of DNA tests, he must have merged with live persons a dozen times after he was killed. We think maybe he retained an unusually large amount of foreign tissues."

Les nodded. Pretty smart lady. Pretty good looking, too. "That’s going to be very interesting. I just hope we’re out of overlaps. I haven’t heard of one being reported today."

"Oh yes." Fervent tones in her voice. "I hope these are the last two zombies I ever see."

And I will just happen to drop a mention of the new zombie patients to Miss Williams. But God knows what we’ll do with a cured zombie criminal. Secret trials and incarceration are just one step less objectionable than lynchings.

"Have you still got . . . was his name really Skippy?"

"Mark Hastin III. Skippy. Apparently he's the local football star. Yes, we've got him. He’s all healed of his zombie infection, now we’re fighting periotentius. Nasty injury to his abdomen."

Two zombie criminals.

Damn.

Chapter

Sunday 13 January 2013

"I saw that the last two zombies are cured." Hugh wandered the house, looking up at the exposed beam ceiling. Squiggly marks like branches, green shapes like leaves, impressed on ceiling and walls. Even patches of bark.

"Yes. I wasn’t sure I ought to cure Dusty . . . but that wasn’t my call." Del joined him in looking up. "I think the whole house has grown together. I had to saw the wooden furniture loose from the floor, and sand the floor and put little castor plates on the chairs and table legs. And my poor bookshelves! Twigs growing from one end to another, right through the books. I had to toss them, books and all. Once I sawed them loose from the wall and floor."

"Ouch. You’re incredibly lucky, with the location of this house so close to the thin spot."

"I know. So, the plumbing is fixed, and the electrician is coming tomorrow. We’re having to completely rewire the house, even the breaker box and the meter are useless. The dairy, the concrete foundation didn't deal with the shifting land underneath at all well. We're going to have to knock down the part that is still standing as a safety hazard. The house is pier and beam, so it did better, but it apparently pulled in and merged with trees for the most part, but for the exotic chemicals, it used any dust and smoke in the air. It smells a bit smoky. How about your apartment building?"

Hugh admired Delphi’s eyes as she talked about the state of the house. "At least the structure is sound. And the electrical system passed a check. Makes me glad I never built on the land I kept from my parent’s ranch. Except I’d have been up north and out of the strongly overlapped area. Some people are having to choose between razing and rebuilding, and extensive repairs to a structure they don’t trust anymore. The Chief for one. He hates the idea of losing all the memories in the house."

"Yeah, I can see that. At least for the school district it isn’t an emotional decision. The old elementary school is iffy. At the high school the gymnasium collapsed altogether. Nothing to dither over. They’re searching for mobile classrooms, and hope to have school back in session by mid January." Del shrugged ruefully. "Half the students may be living out of the district and attending school elsewhere, by then. I’ve heard some people whose houses were totaled are not going to rebuild."

Hugh nodded. "The zombie hunts didn’t help. Policemen running around shooting people on sight. I keep wondering if the police department as a whole isn’t going to get blamed and dissolved. We’ve got to look like a really handy sacrificial goat to the Feds."

She looked at him in alarm. "And trash everyone’s future employment potential as well."

"Yeah. It won’t be pretty if it goes that way. But for now we’ll muddle on through. I didn’t see you at the meeting yesterday."

"Nope. Civilians not allowed. Idiots."

"They said the Federal office here will have a complete library of every report and analysis from everywhere. It will be available to everyone who has been cleared to see it." Hugh paced. "I made sure your name was on the list. Right now they're trying to get us to not talk about the merges with people who weren't here. They want to limit the spread, they think that if it trickles out a bit at a time it'll just be written off as crackpots and drugs. Not a good idea, in my opinion. It'll make dealing with the problems much harder."

"It won't work. It sounds like one merge went world-wide. Deep down, everyone knows something very strange happened that day. Something that hasn’t stopped. Yet."

"Yeah. Harry and I are heading for LA tomorrow, for a big pony and dog show from DC. They’ll have information from around the world. I wish you could come, I could use your analyses of all the big fancy medical and science terms."

She grinned at him. "I’d love to come. But I’m forced by circumstances to resort to under handed methods of information gathering. Do you know anyone who could be bribed to spill the beans with, say, grilled chicken."

"I happen to know a lowlife who could be tempted into loose lipped chatter. What time would you like me to send myself by?"

***

"Of course I accept, Mr. President. I am both deeply honored by your trust, and deeply excited to be able to direct the research into the genetics and biology of these merged and changed people." Tasman stopped to take a breath.

"Excellent. Now let me turn you over to the Surgeon General, and the Director of Homeland Security. For now we are keeping quiet about the state of our understanding, and especially the number of our people affected. Other countries are doing the same."

The surgeon general was a cheerful old man, and looked bright-eyes and excited. "It didn’t take us long to go from horror to curiosity to delight. And then we started thinking about the potential involved here."

"The potential." She took a deep breath. "Indeed." Oh yes. There is an upside. And . . . there is a New World, no matter how few of us have recognized it.


***

" . . . setting up field offices in San Francisco, Concord, Visalia, Monterey, Mendocino and Reilly Creek. The people involved in the Yosemite outbreak came from all over, and will use whatever office is nearest their homes. Likewise the other people in remote areas." The speaker glanced at his watch. "We're running short on time. We'll break now for the workshops on specific problems. We'll be answering a lot of your questions in those workshops, or you can ask us later."

Hugh didn't like the idea of being constantly under the government's microscope. Even if they did seem to be reacting rationally. Apart from the continued secrecy. He checked his schedule for the workshops he needed. "At least we don't have inner city gangs added to the mess." The Southern California police would be spending a lot of time dealing with gangs whose members had overlapped with people of the Spanish settlements of the Other World's Southern California. And then there was San Francisco. The Reilly Creek field station might wind up being a one man operation. With luck. He frowned at the list of "workshops" in his hand. A traveling carnie show of supposed experts. The voice in his head sounded rather alarmingly like Demorte's. Why is it that the evil wizard is the one stuck in my head? It's just my subconscious fumbling about trying to integrate the odd memories, right? He tapped a title on the third page. "Belief in Magic should be interesting."

The Chief sniffed. "I think I'll hit the mass hallucinations one first. I swear three quarters of the people want to write it all off to an earthquake that started some fires, and the jail breakers looted and raped."

"Hell. I'd love to be able to do that." Hugh shivered. "If there was ever a mind I'd not want to share head space with, those Russian Nobles are top of the list.". And I haven't heard a thing about dinosaurs from anyone.

"I only merged three times." The Sheriff looked around the full room. "The first time it was with that Gregoryi fellow. What a hideous way to look at other people. The man wasn't normal. I think he was a large part of the reason the weirdness turned so violent. The last two times I merged it was with peasants, and looking at their society from the bottom up wasn't much of an improvement."

The Chief nodded. "I know what you mean." Harry had been honest about his merges on his questionnaire. Hugh supposed he had to be – too many witnesses to his merger with the sheep in the police station. But he wasn't spreading the information around in public. My weather cock as to how the government is going to react to the people with animal merges.

Because when they get around to the more recent reports, my merge with a dinosaur is going to attract all sorts of attention.

The Sheriff tapped his schedule. "I’m going to this one. How many other worlds are there and what are they like?"

Hugh chewed a finger nail. I want to go to about half of them, damn it. Maybe I can pick out the ones I can’t read up on? "How about, ‘If the Mayans knew about it, what else do they predict?’ "

"Lord, do I want to know?" Harry scowled.

Hugh looked over at him. "So, are you going to any of the medical conferences?"

"Ugg. No. Apparently we drank enough water at the PD that we didn't absorb too much inorganic shit from the other worlds. Overlapping on the molecular level, they called it. The people who merged with dead things, well, I know too much about that first hand. Of the survivors, it's the people in the middle, that merged with live plants that are the worse off. Pity the people that hid, never merging and not drinking enough."

Hugh nodded. "There seemed to be a bias toward something as close to your type of living thing as possible. The few times I resisted, I started craving . . . anything. I wanted to touch something from the other world. I was actually wondering if they’d have much information yet on, oh, injured people merging and being healed."

The Chief flexed his right hand. It carried scars and pits, but was fully functional. He had exercises with a squishy ball, to regain strength. He did them whenever reminded.

"Yeah, bad enough animals about the right size could merge with people. Merging with trees and grass . . . Insects." The Chief hunched unhappily. "The people we had locked up got less water. They're showing some medical problems. Joint pain, fevers, whole body infections. Dementia. Death. Probably merged with soil and rock and grass."

"Good thing you moved them out, then."

"Yeah. Better late than too late. Anyway, most of the force is healthy enough."

The Sheriff nodded. "We're back up to strength. The local CHP wasn't affected to mention. Frank says they've had to loan officers to the Bay Area, because of sick troopers."

"I'd hoped those were just rumors. Although if we'd gone outside much we'd have merged with more people. I dunno which possibility is worse."

"Ah ha. Here we go ‘Prosecuting Criminal Actions During and After the Merges.’ " Hugh looked over at the two older men. "Has the DA decided what to do about Dusty MacKinnock and Skippy Hastin?"

The Chief shook his head. "We all got together with the DA, the Judge and the Federal prosecutor they brought in. Basically . . . no. They were sick, they merged with other people, they didn’t even look like themselves. Skippy? It was the dinosaur not Skippy attacking the Feds."

Hugh rubbed his nose, and reluctantly agreed. "And he was under the influence of the zombie master. But Dusty was one of the zombie masters. She instituted the attack on the Agent, and is probably responsible for George Wassermann’s death."

The Chief snorted. "But she was sick, wasn’t looking like herself, had merged with horrible people, was only seventeen, and God help us, is now pregnant."

The Sheriff winced. "That’s bad. I mean, all the merges . . . especially if she had any animal merges . . . can the child possibly be normal? And George . . . Damn it, he was a fine man and a good Deputy, and . . . Damn it! We’ll be keeping an eye on that girl, and I expect the Feds will as well. And now she’ll have a baby. Maybe we can take it away from her, can’t possibly be safe."

Hugh stared blankly at the wall. A baby.

Magic is highly heritable, you and your witch will have powerful babies. She could be pregnant already, although in the multiple merges there were probably too many changes to allow a pregnancy. But since then, she may have recovered enough.

Hugh thought about knocking his head on the wall, but it would probably hurt him worse that it would hurt the wizard. The wizard wasn’t real, anyway.

Del would have an abortion. She’s analytical and smart. Hugh fumbled with his schedule, blinking something suspiciously like tears away. Of course she would. And after all, it wouldn't be my baby. Or, merging with those women in that scrambling tag team orgy in the woods . . . was that really us? Our desires? . . . but we kept merging with other people. I don't really know about female stuff. Did they swap hormones? If they were in different parts of their cycle, what happened? And did sperm go back where it belonged? She could have gotten sperm from the evil wizard who was plaguing me, or the shepherd or the Imperial guard.

"I wonder how many babies will be born about nine months from now?" The Chief flipped through his list of topics. "Ah. Pregnancies from sex during merge. Yuck."

Magic. A generation of magical children. Or a cohort at any rate. If we lose the alien cells over a couple of years, there’s a chance for several years worth of magically inclined babies. Hugh tried to shut up his mental discussion before he started babbling out loud about bring magic back to the world. Because they might just as well be bringing back dinosaurs or giant leeches, for all I know.

"And whether any of the babies will be really strange. I don’t like the idea at all, but there are going to be at least six. The biker chicks, about half of them are preggers and refusing to abort. They keep going on and on about the babies being wizards and witches." The Sheriff scowled around the hallway. "But I’m going to start with this talk about animal merges. Seems like we’re already starting to see problems with that sort of thing." He sniffed. "I wonder if they’ll cover dancing naked in the moonlight?"

The Chief chuckled. "And will they have pictures?"

"Listen, you dirty old man, I’ve been hearing about this for months . . . It isn’t just the weirdness . . . "

Hugh grinned at the old friends’ arguments, browsing further through subjects. Rape counseling, child molestation counseling, morphological changes counseling. "Morphological Changes. Good God."

The Sheriff looked over. "Keep going, they’ve got one on werewolves."

Hugh contemplated the odd actions of the local coyote pack during the Overlap, and decided he’d better catch that one.

Oh. Vampires. Now there was something to have nightmares about.

Mythology. He shrugged. doubtful he’d get anything more out of a two hour lecture than he’d gotten in that one course in college. And he could always buy a book.

"Werewolves."

***

"In Europe, a new rage is emerging, like a drug, driving people to lose their grasp on reality and carry on like they were living in a video game."

The picture of the handsome American reporter was replaced with street scene, a dozen men, waving anti-vampire and anti-werewolf posters on sticks. The pictures on the posters looked like they’d been swiped from Hollywood films.

"The police all over Europe are warning people that murder is murder, no matter how certain they are that their victim was a Real Monster."

Les clicked off the TV with a convulsive motion. He shuddered, and forced himself to his feet to pace. I do not believe a person would suck blood. I do not believe people can . . . turn . . . into . . . animals.

His hands lifted to the sides of his skull. Small bumps.

Les sat down abruptly. "Oh. My. God. It’s starting all over again, with all new monsters. And I may be one of them."