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matapam
19 January 2017 @ 09:43 am
  

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

And friends of Paer's who spotted them and walked over. Including, unfortunately, the Lying Moron. Off-something-or-other. Paer's guard, who had been dawdling behind, closed up, her lips moving slightly. Subvocalizing to another guard?

They all stared down their noses at Ebsa as introductions circled.

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

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

Pause—Wpxa—glowered at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ebsa blinked. Bet I know where that one's been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paer was on his heels and tucked her hand into the elbow he offered.

The uniformed guard stepped off behind them; a woman in casual civilian garb stepped off in front of them. Well, at least they're mostly subtle. Poor Paer, even inside the secured gate area she has minders.

Paer trotted up the steps to the surface sidewalk. "I have been so used. They didn't act like this . . . "

"Until I showed up?"

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

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

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

"Even I've heard of her."

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

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

"Hey, you were thirteen too."

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

"She must have hated it."

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

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

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

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

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

"Incredibly good." Paer smiled and turned to the restaurant doors. The Maitre'd blinked when he recognized her. A quick sideways glance toward the uniformed guard, and his eyes widened at the confirmation.

"Table for seven? Ebsa?"

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

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

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

Something resembling a quiet growl from Paer's direction. The guard placed herself where she had a good view and stared steadily at Offe.

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

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

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

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

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

More down the noses looks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sure." Ebsa followed her quickly.

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

"No." Paer smiled, and Ebsa slid into the back seat beside her. Snatched his hand away as the Moron helpfully slammed the door. The uniformed guard elbowed him, loomed and glared. The Moron smirked.

That's what passes for an analyst these days? I always thought they'd be on top of the Game. Or at least minimally intelligent.

Paer sighed and leaned on him, as the guard slipped into the front seat. "I am so tired of that lot. How could it all turn so sour so quickly?"

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

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

"If I can collect some clothes, first."

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

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

Paer snickered. "Sorry, but . . . "

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

"The maiasaurs weigh in at four to five tons each. The mobbing behavior would probably take care of velociraptors, and nesting across mushy ground is the only possible defense against a T-Rex." Ebsa shrugged. "We swung wide of the nesting area, along the shore, then turned into the lake. We anticipated that the Helios would cut the corner, and we figured either the soft ground or the maiasaurs would get them off our trail."

"Right. But that was the second time you crossed the river, right?"

"Yeah. The first time, we needed to get line of sight to the camp, well, arguably fort, for a tight beam warning that hopefully the Helios couldn't tap. But if the Helios spotted the Fort, it was all for naught. So we prepared to boat down stream, if they found us again. They didn't, so we got our warning off, backed back into the lake and then headed downstream. Then we headed east, to draw them off in the wrong direction, if they spotted us again.

The Intel weinies checked the map. Nodded in near unison. "So you tracked them back to their base, where they had their gate beacon."

Ebsa hesitated. "It was more of an accident than deliberately hunting them. In fact, we couldn't really sense them, mentally. Nighthawk was better than we were. We picked up the students, they were a bit foggy, as if drugged, but unmistakably Oners. We thought they must have captured some of the team, or the scientists."

"So you were just driving along, and spotted their base?"

"No, we drove under some trees when we heard equipment—a drone, actually—and thought we'd better try to listen for more. Nighthawk was better at detecting the Helios than we were, but even we could feel the kidnapped students. So we grabbed them and ran for home, with a detour past the swamp to lose the pursuit. The very few survivors of the maiasaurs were in no shape to follow us, and the fort was broadcasting that they were beseiged, so we ducked down into a ravine and Nighhawk opened a gate to Embassy, so we could get the warning out. And drop off the kids before we went back to try to rescue the scientists and the rest of team."

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

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

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

"Where did he get that?"

"I assumed Nighthawk . . . "

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not that kind of lady."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And you never asked?" Browny too.

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



They finally let him go. He checked his comm.

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

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

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



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

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

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

Pause and Amsi stepped up to either shoulder.

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

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

"No . . . but since you're here I thought you might like to spar." The Moron nodded politely to Enni.
 
 
 
matapam
18 January 2017 @ 03:58 am
 

The Empire of the One

Directorate of External Relations

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

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

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

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

At least she gets across regularly, with her medic certification, and no bodyguards allowed.

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

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

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

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

So immaculately timed.

Right out of a stupid movie script.

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

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

Newsies. The obnoxious sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You lying moron. Go. Away."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He grinned and retreated a bit.

Recording the paparazzi recording it all in the park across the street.

He stepped to where he could see her face before he sent it. And watched her eyes widen and her lips turn up and part, spread into a grin as she fairly glowed.

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

The bodyguard charged after her, pulling out a flash.

The three newsies flinched back in the sudden light.

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

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

"You have no right to record me!"

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

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

Ebsa glanced at the minicomp.

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

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

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

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

He rubbed her back and held her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Ajha Withione Black Point hated large projects.

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

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

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

A second cataclysm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you forget to eat lunch again?"

"Yes."

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

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

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

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

Fean snickered. "And no large animals to hunt anyway. I hope you realize how cute it is to see you intimidated and behaving yourself in front of all the bureaucrats."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sat, as Ebko, the Action and Exploration Subdirector rose. "Team Forty-eight was providing security for a science project underway on a dinosaur world." He nodded toward the second table. "As well as personnel from Disco, there to open a permanent gate."

Ajha looked over his shoulder and blinked as he recognized the two young men. Ra'd and Ebsa. Did they actually have competent people in the right place? A very serious young woman in a charcoal grey Disco uniform was sitting beside them

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

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

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

The Intel Subdirector took over. "We knew they had gate travel. Now we know that they've got them working after the disaster two years ago. And unfortunately, they have found us, and apparently can open gates to at least two locations. Caracas and Cairo."

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

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

Ajha took the hint. "This is the first I've heard about it. Is this the same Dinosaur World that was eliminated as the next target—or victim—of the upcoming merge just a few weeks ago?" Nods. "The One World was, barely, within the zone of potential merge targets, but that has been ruled out . . ."

Ajki scowled. "I can see that they might want to scout ahead, but why prisoners? If for information, why college students?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Trampled, mostly. Sir."

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

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

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

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

The Action and Exploration subdirector gave the boys a dubious look. "We evacuated the scientists and placed two Action teams on site. If there's no further activity, I'll think about pulling them back, and just leaving it to the military. The scientists can study dinosaurs on some other world."

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Ra'd snorted and started tapping at his comp. "These old warehouse have living facilities for teams. Beats the hell out of barracks. Even ones this decrepit. But if we're going to have to stick around here for days, we might as well paint the place. I'll order an air compressor, pressure washer, and paint sprayer."

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

Ebsa looked at Nighthawk. "Paer may think I look Artsy, but Ra'd is genuinely artistic."

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

"Gra what?" Nighthawk wrinkled her nose.

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

Ebsa and Paer looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I know he's artistic, but painting buildings? He's ruining the reputation of . . . things I'm too afraid to ask for confirmation of." Ebsa grimaced. "I'm having trouble with the whole idea. But then Ra'd the Good Father blew me away too."

"Ra'd the what!"

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

"Whoa. When did this all happen!"

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

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

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

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

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

Paer giggled. "Oh, I have got to see this!" She sobered then and eyed him. "Have you ever tried to find your child, or children or whatever?"

He shook his head. "I wouldn't know where to even start. It was . . ."

She snickered. "An orgy."

"A wild party that lapped out into the street and went for hours. Any children would be, umm, born real late in the year . . . so they're coming up on seven years old. I . . . really can't run around Low Town—that's a really bad, crime ridden area of Maldonado—touching kids to see if I get any zap."

"Hmm, yeah. That could be misinterpreted."

 
 
matapam
17 January 2017 @ 07:27 am
 

Eldon opened the door of the magic shop, set out the sign and kicked back to watch a really great gory movie while waiting for customers. And actually got some. And more as the week went on

Teenagers mostly. Amazingly naïve and giggling as they read the labels, and frequently bought several.

The dog wandered in—he was getting really good at doors, and since they hadn't gotten any complaints from the apartment manager, he must be good at sneaking as well.

And as word that his charms worked circulated, he got so busy selling charm rings to teenagers he had trouble keeping up with football. Halfway through the season he put his foot down. The shop was only going to be open late on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Monday, Thursday and Friday, until five. Period.

Rings with a spell to prevent ovulation and menses, activating every quarter of the Moon, were amazingly popular. Almost as much as the orgasm intensifier. He resisted all requests for compulsion spells. The amounts offered often left him gawping.

"Old Gods! I don't do love potions. Why don't you just offer her that much? Sheesh."

"She won't talk to me."

"So go find someone else. Women are all pretty much the same."

"But she's special. She's the only one I want."

"Aww, kid . . . "

"My name is Shane."

"Right. Shane. What you need is a plan. Like maneuvers before a war. Start with anonymous notes. Love letters, you know? Poems? Then find out what she likes to do, and start doing it yourself, so you sort of meet now and then. Let's see, then it might be about time for flowers and candy. Then you let one of her friends know that you're the fellow who's been doing it all. And by then she'll probably talk to you."

"That's a awful lot of work."

"Guess she's not that special, eh?"

Shane bristled, and bought some of his anti-acne cream.

By the holiday they called Thanksgiving he was doing a steady business in anti-baldness lotions. And practicing all the other little things he'd been picking up, that he hadn't wanted to let the others know he could do.

If he could do them.

To make a Gate, Falchion had grabbed an oddly shaped bubble. So he sat and looked at the bubbles, and the more he looked, the more irregularities he spotted. Bubbles of different sizes and toughness. Cone shapes, spinning madly. Cylinders, doing nothing much at all, although they occasionally touched and stuck on those crumpled sheets-of-paper looking things.

When Falchion had made that Gate, she'd grabbed a bubble and rammed a cone to slow it down. Eldon spotted a cone and grabbed the nearest bubble. He bumped the cone with it, got knocked back a bit, bumped it again, braced himself mentally and kept bumping it until it slowed. Then he reached out and grabbed the cone pulled it around, shoved it large size up to the nearest sheet of paper. There it sat. Whoop-de-do. Doing nothing. All right. Falchion had pulled the tail into that wild energy, the breach in the Universe. So that wouldn't be what she usually did. So, how about another cone? He tracked one down, bumped it until he could handle it and pulled it over closer. The narrow tails swung past each other, twisted together and the large end turned toward him and pounced. It sucked down right on top of him and he found himself dumped into long grass full of stickers. The dog landed on him. He jumped up, cussing. The whirling white mouth of a Gate was directly above him. He landed hard on the floor of the magic shop.

"Wow, how did you do that?"

He eyed the pack of teenagers. Two packs of kids, light and dark. "Magic. Excuse me, I need to straighten this out a bit. He managed to shove one end of the Gate down, and the other up, then jumped through. This time he stayed hunched down and slithered through the stickers until he was out from under it. He look a long look around. Tall grass, thin woods. Nothing dangerous in sight. He tipped the Gate upright, and the teenagers poured through.

"Hey, don't you lot go getting lost or killed or anything! Just because there's nothing dangerous in sight doesn't mean there isn't anything dangerous out there."

That got him some gestures and suggestions.

"Not physically possible." He eyed the dark pack. "At least you lot are armed. What do you want to bet the pale pack hasn't got a single gun among them all?"

The head of the dark pack eyed him. "What are you, anyway? Mexican? I never heard of a blonde Mexican. You bleach your hair?"

"No. I started out blond. And where I come from, everyone's sorta tannish. I'm darker than average. There aren't many as dark as you, and nobody that horrible fish-belly white like them. I dunno why we keep finding people like that all over the Multiverse."

"Multiverse! Where are you from?" The pale boy, Shane, had walked up behind him.

"Yeah. Multiverse. Lots of parallel universes, except they aren't really parallel. I'm from the one they call Comet Fall."

"What do they call ours?"

"I dunno. I'm not an explorer, I'm a Bad Guy. You know, steal stuff in one Universe, sell it in another. Stuff like that."

The dark leader laughed. "You're one of the Strangers. That's what you are. Lost weight since you were changing into a deer, haven't you, Eldon?"

Shane backed away and eyed him. "Geeze. Take note, for once in the history of our Universe, Coltrain Newhouse is correct. Bleaching your hair and losing weight isn't much of a disguise."

A sudden cacophony of yells and running kids drew their attention. What charged out of the woods behind them looked a bit like the things Rior had called dinosaurs, except this one had more feathers and a huge beak. The dog shot into sight and snapped at its heels. The bird turned and tried to catch the dog, as it leaped and snapped around it. Eldon loped down the hill, as several guns started firing behind him. He toughened up his back shield, and threw a slice as soon as he was in range. The bird's head dropped and the body ran around a bit pumping blood.

"Dang."

"Mo Fo!"

"Wow, must have a lot of actions co-ordinated off the spinal cord."

Eldon and Coltrain stared at Shane. Coltrain shook his head. "There oughta be a law about smart boys like you. Keep 'em ona leash or neuter them so they can't multiply and blow up the World. Again."

Shane straightened indignantly. "We didn't. It's pretty much accepted that the Kamchatka attack was actually a meteorite. Well, okay, everyone over reacted. But that was a hundred years ago."

Coltrain spat, and walked over to where the over sized roadrunner had finally collapsed. The dog was all grin and wagging tail, and garnered much praise. Even from Eldon.

The bird was pretty gamey, roasted over a camp fire.

Once Eldon had found all the kids and wrestled them through the Gate, he tipped it back over and crawled underneath to cross. He didn't want to find that bird thing's friends in the magic shop in the morning.

The kids were back the next day. Armed and dangerous. With sleeping bags. Girlfriends armed with cookware and rifles. Or in Shane's case, quite obviously a sister. She fussed all over the dog.

"Don't you have to go to school tomorrow?" Eldon looked them over carefully. "I'm going to assume you all know to use those weapons, despite my not noticing that birdie getting hit."

Coltrain scowled. "That's why I've got this." He patted something that Eldon tended to associate with military movies.

"We're college students, we can skip classes if we want to." Shane gazed enviously at the weapon.

Eldon blinked at Coltrain's nod. He'd figured they were the notorious inner city gangs they talked about in the papers. Although the shop was a bit outside the really rough areas, and not that far from the University and cheap student housing, now that he thought about it.

Eldon shook his head. "Well, don't get lost." He ducked through the Gate and crawled out from under it. The dog followed him. Vultures and things that looked like over sized weasels scattered from the remains of the bird as the dog charged in. Nothing large in sight, again. He tipped the gate up.

"Have fun scouting around. I'm going to build some sort of building around the Gate."

The kids moved off, the girls both repulsed by the gory, and slightly stinky remains and partly fascinated by the alien animal. The dog rolled in it.

Eldon ran a quick head count. Seven guys, four gals. Then he scowled at the gate. He just wasn't as good at rock stuff as, well, any witch half his age. But he wasn't helpless. In fits and starts he cleared the ground, found rock about six feet down. He eyed it with disfavor. Molding solid rock would deepen the pit as the walls rose. He kicked a rodent that came to investigate. "What I need is a rock outcrop, so I can bring all the rock down here."

The ground rose to the east, past the woods, so he headed that direction.

He spotted the kids up on a bare hill top, and veered aside to leave them to their little adventure. He spotted a more ragged looking hill, and found his outcrop. Slice was such a satisfying spell. Such clear results. He trimmed off the weathered limestone, and started cutting two foot thick slabs.

"Are you teleporting them to the gate?" Shane had walked up behind him again.

"Nah, just scooping them into a bubble. Then I can take them all down to the gate and pull them out one by one, and fuse them together."

"Can we learn how to do that, or do you have to be born magic?" One of the dark pack edged around and studied the scooped out rock.

"Well, see, it's genetic. My ancestors were engineered to be this way. I suppose I could give you some of the magic genes, but since you didn't grow up with them, I dunno if you can ever learn how to use them." Eldon eyed them thoughtfully. "You're all pretty young, I don't suppose it would hurt to try it. I'll make up a potion when I'm done with this." He got back to work, and gradually the kids wandered off. Just as well. Some of them were curvy enough to be interesting, and he really didn't want to find out how Coltrain would react to him stealing his girlfriend. Or Shane his sister, for that matter.

He took the outcrop down to ten feet below ground level, then walked back to the gate. "It would improve the atmosphere if you guys would drag that thing off a couple hundred feet." They'd been so busy poking it, they hadn't heard him coming.

"Wow, you walk pretty quietly." Shane's sister eyed him in a clinical fashion. Definitely too young.

"So do stalking animals. You lot should think about sentries." Eldon turned his bubble around and slid out his first slab. Fused it to the ground. He got a five foot high wall and a temporary roof done, pulling the Gate down to the bedrock so it was safe, before he quit for the day. The kids followed him, after he promised to give them free access to the Gate. He didn't see the dog. Maybe it had gone home already.

He crawled home and collapsed. He hadn't worked that hard in years. In fact gold mining was slower and easier. Maybe he should go back.

After Superbowl.

In the morning, the store stock plus a search of the potions he'd picked up from Rior and Aunt Susto gave him a good starting point for creating wizard potions. He had the potions for the three power genes, but what about the rest? Two hundred and four other engineered genes, no one had any idea which were necessary for magic.

Well. He could start with longevity, and something from Susto that claimed to be "good health". He could reinforce their natural hair, eye and skin colors. Or change them if they wanted. Intelligence. Hmm. He took a sip of that one. Just in case it might work on an adult. Pity I didn't get any when I was a kid. I could be a nice honest wizard today. Probably bored to tears. Married, six brats. Unfortunately that didn't sound too bad.

He pulled out eleven empty bottles, and started mixing.

Heso came along to see his Gate. The kids eyed him carefully, then trooped through as Eldon opened a doorway out of his stone room. The dog had been lying in front of it, and wagged casually over to greet everyone.

"All right. I mixed up some stuff this morning. It won't change your hair, skin or eye color. If you want to change, tell me and I'll work something up. I don't even know what most of your names are. Here. Shane's sister. Miss Goldenhair. Nosey."

After he'd thumped Nosey, he explained that there was nothing wrong with a big nose, and what was his name? Ice? "Right. Now stop being so sensitive, only girls are sensitive. Here's yours. Coltrain. Pimples. What's your name? Right. Jeff."

They all looked scared, and eyed the bottles. Eldon grabbed his bubble and started removing his low ceiling. His next tier of five foot tall slabs completed, he started on a proper floor with ten foot of head room. Heso levitated thinner slabs while he fused them to the walls and then to each other. He left a hole for stairs and started the next row of wall. So. The Gate in the basement. Three floors. Flat topped roof with stairs, for a look out post They all bugged him until he put up a half wall with crenellations. And arrow slit windows on all levels. And decorative do dads. He refused to do gargoyles.

The kids informed him that there was a river fives miles away, and his location was lousy. He huffed a bit, then drilled a hole down through the sediments . . . six feet to solid limestone . . . but another hundred feet down he found a sandstone full of water and with a spell to induce movement, had running water in his kitchen and privy in no time.

The kids spent a week puking sick from the river water. He never heard what their parents thought about it. He just gave them all keys to the shop so they could come and go at will. The dog stopped coming home, improving the atmosphere of the apartment no end.



The Empire of the One

Directorate of External Relations

"So, in summary, our scientists' measurement agree with the Helios' conclusion that their world will miss our world and hit the sparsely inhabited Primitive World 65480." Director of External Relations Ajki Withione Black Point eyed his small audience. Half the people in the room were his experts, here to give their reports. "Questions, sir?"

The audience consisted of the President of the Empire, the Prime Councilor, and the closest advisors of each.

The President was the first to speak. "I am delighted to hear this. None-the-less, as a hostile dimensionally able civilization, it behooves us to keep a close watch on them. I'm funding the completion and expansion of your current spy post, and authorizing another to pre-stage a large army. We'll work with Disco and . . . hopefully not need the army. But one way or another, when it's over I want their dimensional abilities destroyed. They've killed billions without remorse."

The Prime Councilor nodded. "Nine months until it happens. One help all the Natives if Disco can't move them."

Urfa, the head of the Presidential Directorate, nodded. "The Helaos know there are enough humans there to merge with them. The question is, do they have a working gate? If they can move to another world, no problem, so long as it isn't ours. But we need to also consider worse options. That rather than move to a wilderness, they'll pick a world with an existing civilization they can take over."

Ajki sighed, as, of course, his brilliant and talented nephew leaped to field that one.

"Given their small surviving population, a small colony world of ours or Earth's would be ideal. Powered high tech infrastructure, but a small population they can easily dominate. We need to keep an eye out for that."

A nod from the President. "Have you discussed that with Disco?"

Ajki nodded. "Yes. Q says she can see where powered gates go . . . if it happens when she's watching. And she said she'd watch regularly, once they got the Natives off PW65480."

Winces all around. One bloody single woman who can just see the whole multiverse!

The President sighed. "We've always been relieved by the small size of the Comet Fall magical community. But I really wouldn't mind a few dozen more like her. Or her brother. However, our people are out in the field, and one of their priorities is to discover if they have a working gate."



Disco

Primitive World 65480

Xen didn't like playing God. Unfortunately it worked. He could get a whole village to pack their stuff and walk through a Gate to a very similar World in a day or two. Unfortunately, at this stage of civilization, the villages rarely had more than thirty or forty people in them.

His stomach hurt with the knowledge that he wasn't going to save everyone.

He might not even be able to save most of them.

But by God-the-Creator, he was going to try.

"I will not fail again. I will not stand helplessly by while billions die."

He closed the Gate behind the last of the tribe and flopped back on his back. "There's not enough time! God damn those Helaos!"

:: Stop being so pessimistic. We've got six months.::

:: Q! Who's minding the shop?::

:: Inso. I told him to enjoy it while it lasted. ::

Xen snorted and relaxed. :: Right. Now, what bright ideas do you have? ::

:: Many societies at this level of widely disbursed tribes get together once a year or so with all the related tribes in their region. I'm going to look for large bunches of people, and hopscotch around, instead of this neat orderly geographic clearance you're doing. Race ya! ::

:: Fat chance I'll have with your brains, Brat.:: He felt better already. Maybe they could actually pull it off.



 
 
matapam
16 January 2017 @ 07:42 am
 

With a good sized load of gold, he had all four horses hitched to the wagon today. Banana and Muffin leading, and Star and Blazer as his wheel pair. They'd been this way enough times that they hardly needed steering. Which was just as well; he rode the brake down the slope toward the bridge across the Lake.

The bandits showed up at an awkward time, pelting down the hill at him, as they made a rather sharp turn on the steepest segment. They were whooping and yelling, and had crossbows cocked and in hand.

"Halt or die!" The leader had a really great mustache.

"What? Do I look stupid?" Eldon yelled back. He raised a physical shield around the horses and scowled at the idiots. Around the corner, Banana snorted and stopped. Eldon cussed and set the brake. Climbed down to examine the fairly minor fall of rocks that probably blocked the road. Eldon certainly wouldn't want to come up on it at any speed. "Son of a Witch."

The dozen men were pulling up alongside the wagon, grinning.

"Think its funny do you?" Eldon flicked a finger at the mustache, which promptly burst into flame. Half a dozen bolts bounced off his personal shield, and Eldon grabbed the nearest man and dragged him from his saddle. He removed sword and knife from the man's possession and shoved him at the rock pile.

"Start shifting rock. Don't give me any lip!"

Before the frantic leader had gotten his mustache put out in the road dust, Eldon had disarmed two more, bubbled three, and was studiously ignoring the rest of them.

"Who are you?" The man touched his tender face.

"I'm a bigger, badder man that you'll ever be. And you'd best be glad it's me and not any of my partners that you tried to rob. They've got tempers. But, despite my position on the pinnacle of evil, I'm currently trying to be an honest miner. So, you lot are going to take note of these odd colored horses of mine, and you aren't ever going to try to rob me again. Right?" He sidestepped the swipe from behind and above and dragged the man out of the wagon. "Get out there and move rocks." He planted a boot in the man's rear for emphasis.

"You aren't Auchel Ibrahm."

"Old Gods, no. I thought they hung him. Twice."

"Well, yeah . . . not that I knew anything about it, being at the time an honest man, who's umm, just recently gotten desperate and, umm, so incompetently . . . I mean, we was warning you about the rock fall, to not drive your poor horses into it. Why, they could break legs, coming up on something like that sudden-like."

"Yep. Sure could." Eldon eyed the dust cloud to the south, and then the slightly diminished rock pile. "And if you and your helpful fellows were to clear those rocks in a hurry, why, I might let you go soon enough that you won't find out who's raising that cloud of dust."

"Shit." Burned Mustache eyed the dust cloud. "Boys, help the man."

They set to with a will and Eldon sent them off with a good three miles start on the troops. He was just clearing the last rocks when the officer pulled rein beside him.

"You have any trouble with those fellows?" The man was bald, riding a handsome bay stallion. His uniform, such as it was, suggested company security.

"Laufiler?" Eldon guessed. "No, not much, but I didn't have enough control to hold them once they saw you coming."

"Old Gods. What, are you another one of these damned wizards. Who are you, where from?"

"Elk Denison, from Gemstone."

The man looked disgusted. "Another damned Deni welp. I should have known, just looking at you." He shifted in the saddle and his horse headed up the hill on the track of the bandits. Eldon funneled a bit of wind to keep the dust off of himself and his horses, then climbed back into the wagon and let off the brake. He supposed he ought to have held them, but then what sort of Bad Guy would he be? He was still wondering a day later when he rattled into Southern Hell and pulled up at Tivo's Gold Traders.

Tivo Harryson took his security seriously, and his guards stepped out beyond the wagon to make sure no one approached as the handlers, assayers and accountants got to work. Then Eldon took the letters of credit across the street to the Bank of the West and deposited them, distributing the money among their seven accounts. A fair amount of cash went into his pockets, and he sauntered out to see if the quality or quantity of entertainment had changed since his last visit.

The hosteller managed to squeeze his foursome into the stable of the Peacock, and he found a pretty lady with a bit of glow who was delighted to help him spend money. They had a decent show with dinner, and then got down to some serious gambling. He eyed the garish vest of Phillip Michaelson, and gambled recklessly. Jilly was careful, and cheated a few times and lost money. But she perked up when he headed for his room and showed him just how much she'd enjoyed the evening, and left in the predawn with every penny he hadn't stashed in a bubble. Which was enough for breakfast and a bit of grocery shopping, then he headed back to Cliff House.

By late summer they had respectable bank accounts, both corporate and personal, and were keeping a lot of their gold on hand, for cross dimensional trading.

***

Eldon thumped his head on the dining room table. "Stop looking so bored, Heso."

"It's almost football season."

"Assuming we're talking about a world in sync with ours. Geeze." He looked over at the witches, all sitting around with their new babies. "Maybe we could get them to . . . umm. We really, really can't attract attention to here. How about we sneak through Embassy?"

Heso thought it over. "But do they have Gates to Worlds we like? Those year 2100 to 2200 Earths are my favorite."

Rior looked over his, err, her shoulder at them. "There's one to the World we raided that Senator's party. I wonder what Rivolte is doing, these days? Could be dangerous though."

Eldon and Heso nodded.

Falchion snorted. "I'll open one to the place were we had the Baldness cure place. Far away from all your girlfriends, though."

"We'll just rent an apartment and watch football." Heso promised.

"And take that dog with you."

***

Selling the gold was easy enough. Renting the apartment just took a bit of persuasion to skip the tedious credit check parts. And objections to large pets. Buying the SUV and the sports car ditto. The big screen TV they bought new, to be sure it complied with all the fiddly details of the broadcasts, or in this case, cable. The rest of their furniture they'd brought along in a bubble. They were ready for the pre-season a week early, and spent that mostly at the apartment complex's pool, trying, without success, to pick up babes. At least the ladies liked the dog.

Eldon gave up trying to get his computer to understand the gibberish coming over the cable, and bought a new one. It made researching what had happened after their last visit easy.

"Has it really only been a year and a half?" He muttered.

"Yeah. Seems like we were robbing banks for longer than six months, doesn't it?" Heso wandered over and grinned at the pictures he was downloading. "Hey, look! There's Julia! Twins! We had twins. Cool, eh?"

"Yep. Bet they'll be damn fine witches in a few years. We ought to come back every year to check on them, you know?" Eldon found another site with a complete tally of the "Stranger" Babies. "What the heck? Denver? I didn't do anything in Denver."

"That's where Rior pulled the jewelry heists that got us in trouble. I think he had Mag and that lot along."

"Ah. All right. I guess that makes sense. Those guys were hornier than us, hands down." Eldon scowled at the screen. "Eight babies up there have been identified by our genes. Huh. advertisements for genetic screening all over the place. 'Find out if your baby is a Stranger.' What kind of rot . . . Well, I suppose it makes sense from their point of view. They don't know when we came and went."

"Yeah. You're back to blonde, but you've lost weight and changed your face a bit, haven't you? I suppose I ought to too." Heso wandered off. Eldon stared at the computer uneasily. What if it had been the collective subconscious, influencing him? Was he going to start prowling around in animal form, raping women again? He decided to start sleeping in, not going anywhere near early morning joggers.

"Hey! The Highlights show is on! We can see what we missed last year."

***

Houston beat Kansas City in the first exhibition game.

"Probably the last win they'll see for a month. Houston teams always suck." Eldon grabbed another nacho and settled in to watch the after game wrap up.

"It's a hell of a lot more fun to lay around watching football when someone comes by and say you ought to get to work." Heso burped and put his heels up on the dog. The dog farted.

Eldon opened a window. "Yeah. This doesn't even count as goofing off. But we really can't get jobs. I suppose we could open up our own place again. But curing baldness is boring." Eldon crushed his empty beer can and lobbed it at the garbage can.

"Maybe we should open a shop of fun stuff."

"We could make like Susto, and sell magic potions that no one knows what they'll do." Eldon grinned. "Of course, we'd get sued. I told an old lady today I'd make her young for a million dollars. How about if we do everything the old shop did, but we act like it's dangerous and criminal and charge huge amounts for it."

"The problem is getting started. Word of mouth has to start somewhere." Heso looked interested, though.

Eldon grinned. "Well, if this place works like Houston, people will try anything to cure baldness. We just need to be sure to offer other stuff."

"Or get laid." Heso pulled out a bottle of the joy juice. "This is the stuff we ought to sell."

They went through all their stuff. Eldon had some cheap jewelry from Aunt Susto's, so they dissected it into a heap of little trinkets and started putting charms on them. 'Notice me', 'Don't Notice Me', 'Love,' 'Clumsy,' 'Confidence,' all the little things they'd learned as teenagers, just grasping power. Little bottles, and wine, and Eldon going carefully, step by step, through the spells he knew for anti-baldness, and various colors of hair and eyes. Lose weight. That was a good one. He experimented with his abilities, and was able to slightly change the shape of bottles. It wasn't up to what a witch could do, but it turned all sorts of scavenged pickle and jam jars into funny shapes, and he carved sections of wood for plugs. He imagined they looked very magical, and got a gallon of cheap skin lotion, added normal wine and turned it into a cure for baldness and put it in wide mouth jars, to be rubbed on the scalp. Heso got creative with labels on the computers, and by the time they'd rented a tiny room off the side-alley door of a used book store they had plenty of stock for their magical store.

"I dunno if this is going to do the trick." Heso grumbled as Eldon painted the sign for the shop.

"Of course it is. I've filed a DBA, we've got a bank account, all we need are customers."

"I don't believe you and I are doing this. I mean, we're lazy bums, right?"

"Right. That's why we got a big screen TV for here too. We can goof off while we're on the job." The dog woofed. Eldon turned and eyed the young man peeking around the corner.

"What can I do for you, kid?"

"Can you make a girl fall in love?"

"No, but with a confidence charm and a notice me charm, you'll have a lot better luck doing it yourself."

The boy hemmed and hawed, looked askance at the dangly charms. "I can't wear those, everyone will think I'm gay. Don't you have magic rings? Something a guy could wear?"

Eldon and Heso exchanged looks.

"Rings. Right, why didn't I think of rings? Rings are so easy." Heso grabbed a crushed can out of the garbage and flowed aluminum into a smooth shiny ring. They checked it on the boy's hand, shrunk it and widened it a bit, then Eldon put his Notice me and Happy and Confident charms all intertwined around it and sent the kid off twenty dollars lighter in the pocket, but also wide-eyed by what he'd seen.

"We'll have to do a bunch of that." Heso formed more rings dropping them on the desk as the can shrunk. "People will really believe in the magic if they see it performed."

"Yeah. And metal is so easy to form."

That was their only customer for the day, so they pulled the sign in, locked the door and headed home.

 
 
matapam
15 January 2017 @ 06:43 am
 

Eldon

Comet Fall

Eldon hated to admit it, but these damned farmers had gotten powerful. "Tyrone, if you had any training at all, you'd be dangerous."

Tyrone grinned. "Heard from Mortimer you lot got chased out of your fancy mansion."

"Yeah, that was a nice place. Pity about the guys, too."

"Guys? Ha! Mortimer was just sick over the women he killed. That pretty Gauntlet that filled out the set." He pointed over at Falchion and Epee. "And Kessi, Wenda, and Skori, although they were getting a bit long in the tooth. Not that that matters anymore. Everyone's going to live forever and be young and pretty."

"Heh. Well, I'll have to settle for young. I'm not the pretty sort, like Mag."

"Mag? So-so. In prison, anyway."

"Huh. I thought most everyone had gotten away."

"Nah, they even killed Lord Thomu. And Ronnie, wasn't he a buddy of yours?'

"Sort of. He was from Gemstone. They kill anyone else?"

"Some witch from Verona. Dawn? Yeah. And Franc, Bender, and Hat."

Eldon hoped his poker face was hiding how sick he felt. "How do you all about it?"

"Oh, it was all in the papers, about the trials. Ericka read them out loud to all of us, since we knew them. All about how Disco took their magic away before they went to prison in other worlds."

"Took who's magic away?" Eldon popped another beer and handed it to Tyrone to keep him talking.

"Zap and Mag were the guys they caught. Women? Smokey, Teri, Arrow, and Lida. Some kids. Girls. They sent them to their grandmother. All the others, that Disco guy, Xen the Wolf Boy took their magic and they're all in prison on that World you lot robbed. I just about bust a gut laughing about the robbery. All of them waking up fucking each other."

"Yeah, that was a good one." Eldon winced a bit remembering the multiple rapes. It had seemed so funny, at the time. Then he tromped hard on those soft feelings he'd been having lately. It was a bit late to be going soft.

"So, what are you doing next? What are you doing here?"

"Ah, just checking up on home. And maybe we'll head over the mountains and do a bit of honest gold mining."

Tyrone chuckled. "As cover for all the gold you'll steal?"

Eldon flashed a grin, but didn't answer further.

"You haven't got enough men left, for a proper gang. Three men? You're toast. I reckon I could round up enough fellows to fix that problem."

"Well, I'll mention it to Rior, but you know, the witches are pretty damn good bank robbers."

"They didn't help rob that Senator's party."

"Oh yes they did. They put everyone to sleep and then shielded the building while we gathered the goodies."

"Humph." Tyrone subsided grumpily, and Eldon wandered off to shop through 'Aunt Susto's' pawn shop. As usual there was mostly junk, and a few odd things here and there. Some of the cheap jewelry wasn't bad actually. Pretty, and he bought a few of them, and some of her mystery potions. Those would be fun to figure out. And a hex bottle. If Xen ever un-magicked him, the hex had so much stuff in it, it would probably get something right, and once he had magic, he could do or undo the rest himself. He paid too much for them, got seduced by Susto, and fled to town before she got hungry again. He had a bunch of stuff he needed to do, if they were going to become miners, even if just for a short while. The livestock auction was empty, so he hopped through to Karista and asked around. Damn few horses for sale. Quite a few wagons, though. He took the short corridors that just went town to town until he found a little place with a horse auction that night. The horses ranged from old to young, thin to draft. Eldon aimed at the middle, and had to pay a hefty sum for two three-year olds and two two-year olds, all geldings. Younger than he wanted, with pinto spots that were going to get him spat on, but the older well-trained horses were just too expensive. He chatted around and sacked out in the woods with his new acquisitions, then followed directions to a leather worker, who charged him a premium for four harnesses.

"Ah, bought some of those freighter's horses? Don't mind the spots, they're all good horses, well handled and trained. Nice folk, for City."

Eldon paid him, and led the horses to Karista where he picked up a heavy wagon. His unknown young horses took to it in stride, so he drove it back through Corridors to Grantown and parked the wagon near the SUVs and staked the horses out to graze. He chewed a thoughtful fingernail, and looked at the geldings' good confirmation. A brief rummage through bubbles found Rior's recent batch of male-to-female potion. He added that to each of four buckets of oats, and fed the youngsters.

Heso came whistling back from the direction of the farms, looking smug. "Hey, you know what? Those old gals all look young again, plus the second generation has grown up. Good hunting, down there." He circled the horses and nodded approvingly. "Nice, apart from the spots."

"Hey, I wonder if a hair color potion would change that? I should have thought . . . "

Heso laughed. "I don't think so, I think you'd just change the solid colored part."

"Oh. Well, never mind. I'm going to change them into mares and breed them to Beastly before we leave though. We'll be rolling in horses next year."

Heso rolled his eyes. "I'd rather get back to cars, myself. I'd forgotten what a pain in the ass animals are."

"Yeah, well, I kinda missed 'em. I'll get another wagon, hey, maybe I'll get a box wagon and we can all dress like Travelers."

"No. Nobody's going to recognize us anyway; we've all changed about three or four times already."

Eldon nodded reluctantly. "I wish they'd hurry up and get back. This is just too close to where the guards have caught us before." He dug through his bottles and pulled out a bottle of the Joy Juice. It would hurry the horses' changes along, and they could be ready to leave any time.

"I need to think about sneaking home and asking some questions. No?" Heso raised an eyebrow as Eldon shook his head.

"Nope. Tyrone knew all about the raid." He rattled off Tyrone's list. "The rest must have escape through one of the other gates."

"Gauntlet! Old Gods . . . Epee and Falchion are going to be upset. Hell, I'm upset."

"Yeah. Well, we're criminals, so it's not like it's a big surprise, is it?"

"Well, yeah, but . . . "

"Just because we usually hit people that aren't magic and can't hardly hurt us doesn't mean that we're indestructible. You know that, or you ought to. And if we're going to keep on being bad guys, well, we're going to keep on getting killed sometimes."

"What do you mean, if? You quitting?"

"Thinking about it. I'll see what gold mining is like, and maybe I'll just keep on doing that."

Heso stalked away, offended.

Eldon shrugged and dosed his horses. Do I want to quit? I can't go home. Not to Gemstone anyway. The wind whipped up, with a chilly edge to it. They needed to get settled, or at least move south before the first storms of winter found them camping in the woods.

***

"This will be a good spot for our mansion. Absolutely nothing there to recommend it to anyone." Rior tapped the papers. "Then we can Corridor to wherever we're going to mine. Or pretend to mine, or whatever."

Falchion nodded. "It's about two hundred miles from this 'Two Trees' place which looks to be the nearest Corridor. If we go on foot, we should be able to climb down the wall of the Rip, cross the river and hot springs zone and climb back up. From the descriptions we own a mile long stretch of the eastern wall, with about quarter of a mile strip of land down in the canyon and three quarters of a mile up on the lava plains."

Rior nodded, and led the way toward the local Corridor concentration.

They didn't have to walk the whole two hundred miles. Falchion could throw a Corridor a good two or three miles, and she anchored another one in Two Trees, so returning there would be simple. Her other Corridor was stretched from the camping spot, so they could easily retrieve the SUVs. They camped out four nights, then spotted the survey post marking the boundary between Gold Rush Province and Desolation Territory.

So their property was directly across the Rip. Falchion tossed a Corridor down to the bottom of the cliff and they stepped through into the steamy sulfur smelling bottom of the canyon. Rior kept his eyes open for the notorious 'water lizards' as they called them locally. Apparently they were the only species of crocodilian to survive the cosmic bombardment that gave Comet Fall its name. He'd lived in the New Lands for almost three decades, and knew well how dangerous the beasts were. Another Corridor got them across the river, where they sliced up a trio of hungry reptiles and kept walking. The far cliffs were jagged, picturesque, and tall.

"Perfect. Absolutely perfect."

Falchion nodded, and paced, looking them over. She stopped at an angular outjut. "Right about here is the center of our mile, don't you think?"

"Yes. Stairway first?" He stepped back to watch her work, to try and see how she molded the rock like putty. It simply wasn't something he had the talent for, even with his acquired witch genes. He could mold small things, and create microscopic details. A five pound rock was impervious to all his attempts. The wall of the canyon bulged out a couple of feet and Falchion walked up the spiral tunnel as she created it. She stopped every twenty feet up to push the rock out into the side canyon to form an overhanging ledge, before continuing upward. At the top they looked around and chose a site well back from the rim to dump the filling of the rooms they made next. That became Rior's job, floating stone slabs up the stairs as she cut out the rooms they'd need. They worked steadily for a week, finally producing a series of windows hidden amongst the rough walls of the canyon, with spacious and well ventilated common rooms, a kitchen, bare now but ready for their imported appliances, and a wide scattering of bedrooms. Rior had his suite with a library. Heso and Eldon had big rooms separated by the TV room. The four witches had privacy and distance, with the children's rooms located centrally.

And they all had piped in hot spring water from below, and cold water from above. Or they would when they filled the cistern up there, probably over the winter.

"If Eldon's gotten horses, as he was threatening, I'll build stables . . . down there I suppose, where they'll be on the warm rocks." Falchion nodded her satisfaction. "There's a lot of finish work to be done, but this will do very well for now." She pinned the end of the Corridor to the living room wall, and stepped into it.

Rior followed, and found himself back in the bare forest, beside the SUVs. A brown horse with little white spots pricked her ears at them.

"Of course, no one's in camp. One forbid Eldon and Heso not take advantage of the local women."

Falchion looked over a wagon, and nodded satisfaction. "It looks like Eldon's been busy. Four horses, apparently. And here's Heso, sound asleep."

He grunted as Falchion kicked him. "Where's everyone else?"

"Oww! Eldon's taking his mares around to a bunch of different stallions. Well, four different ones. You'd think he was going into business or something. Jade and Betelgeuse are sneaking around Ash, hoping to contact Ultra. Epee is in Karista collecting information." He hesitated, then shut his mouth.

Rior eyed him thoughtfully, then looked around as Eldon rode back into camp. Another pinto, of course, and a mottled gray dog following along.

Heso wrinkled his nose. "That looks like a Hell Hound."

"At least part." Eldon shrugged.

Rior turned back to the immediate task. "Heso, why don't the two of us move the SUVs. The horses will have to wait until we've moved the corridor end down to the base of the canyon."

They drove the first two SUVs right into the living room, and turned them off. It made for easy unloading.

"So, Heso, what didn't you want to say in front of Falchion?"

"We heard Gauntlet's dead."

"Oh. Falchion's not going to take that well. How about Epee?"

"Haven't seen her since we learned. We figured we might need safety in numbers before we told her. I mean, those three were practically triplets."

Rior sighed. "Yes. Let's unload all the bubbles. I don't know where we're going to store the vehicles themselves . . . oh stop smirking. Inside a bubble, where else?"

Heso bubbled the SUVs and they carefully eased out to get the other one. Falchion was red-eyed and clinging to Eldon, so they just grabbed the last vehicle and left.

"At least she didn't kill him."

"Yeah. Never can tell, with a witch."

***

Mining turned out to be easy, with a witch or four around. Jade was the best at it, sensing the gold underground. Their first mining claim on crown property south of Cliff House started a small boom on the east side.

Eldon like the long trips down the east side of the Rip to the northern end of Long Lake. He'd grown up in Gemstone, with this stony wilderness just a few miles away. Of course they'd had a whole world to use and explore on the other side of their Gate. But a more boring World would be hard to find. The desert, on the other hand, had been perfect for his boyhood misbehaviors.

 
 
matapam
14 January 2017 @ 09:33 am
 

Part One—Before the Storm

Embassy World

Disco Headquarters

Xen hid a smile as he watched his sister try to explain what was plain to her to so many people who, however intelligent, were, for the most part, not cross-dimensional experts.

"And this thinner spray of worlds are Earths that had devastating nuclear wars. The One World is one of them." Thin gray lines, thousands of them, forming a stringy fog over a wide wedge of her model.

"What are these oddball colored lines going across?" The President of the Empire of the One was studying the translucent 3-D illusion intently.

"I call them strays. Worlds so different than the worlds they split from that they've gone zinging off in unexpected directions, very far from the clusters of the more common differences that split their worlds." Q sighed. "It's . . . I really wish you lot would develop some machinery that could measure these things. In any case, the red lines, if you follow them back, departed from the main dinosaur line about sixty five million years ago, but internally have only experienced a few hundreds of thousands of years. They're both rare, and scattered. The blue are primitive worlds. A departure from ours at about fifty-thousand years ago, with perhaps ten to twenty-thousand years experienced internally. Also rare, but with a much tighter grouping as they cross the area of interest.

"However, what I want to show is that I've backtracked the Helios' micro-universe across the various membranes." A black line sprung up, wiggling through the cloudy specks of thousands, perhaps millions of other membranes—parallel universes."

"Why isn't the line straight." One of the physicists glared at the model.

"I think that having been ripped away from its home membrane, it—all five stars and however many planets and asteroids—it is no longer orbiting the galactic center. But it passes through other membranes every few years and gravitational attraction jerks it around, closer to the equivalent bodies, even though it doesn't merge."

Xen frowned. "Wouldn't that be a little rough on the other brane? Surely they'd get jerked too?"

"Yep." She stuck her finger in the model. "Note that it wandered across the Hygeia branch. I suspect that has a lot to do with the planetary scale devastation so many of our branch's branes have experienced."

Xen leaned and tracked the black line to its end, deep in the nuclear war branch. "And now?"

"Now." Q reached and flipped a small tab of metal over, turning off the imbued illusions. She flipped a second tab over to the "on" side. A close up, now, with the membranes as a small gray crumples trailing the treads of their past positions.

The black line showed a slight course change where it passed through one crumpled membrane and clipped another.

Q tapped the first crumple. "It's been a year since it merged with—and ripped the Earth out of—that membrane. It appears to have been slightly diverted from a straight path. It has just passed XC 12634. A world so devastated by nuclear war that no humans and damn few animals survived."

"It bent again, we could measure it." The Oner expert, Esna Withione was leaning forward, glaring as if Q was responsible for the looming disatser.

"Good. I placed hundreds of gates between Helios and the X world, in hopes that that would encourage a merge, or add to any divergence.

"If it keeps going straight now . . . " Dr. Esna scowled and poked. "Is that the One World?"

"No, that's EM 11566. It's going to be close. Possibly close enough to at least change its course, but not close enough merge. The course change will be entirely the wrong direction, for us. I am in the process of placing my storm of gates up to this world up here, another X World, in hopes of countering any deflection toward the One World." Q drew a dozen parallel lines to the world she hoped would anchor the Helios miniverse.

"Then the next three encounters. You can see that there's a Dino World, and a Primitive World crossing paths—not over lapping—as they cruise through going different directions. And then the One World."

The growing cone of the Helios miniverse's possible paths went right through the One's crumpled membrane.

"If the first world bends its path . . . " Urfa looked pale, lines of stress marred his usually calm expression.

"It might still miss. There are two more worlds I can try to steer it toward." Q met his gaze. "I need you to monitor the situation, well, I know you will, but I need you to tell me if it's working."

"Of course, we have no way to tell if it's what you're doing or the natural result of a close pass."

"Of course. But if it pulls it even a little, I can repeat with the Dino World, and again with the Primitive World. We will not stop trying."

"Q?" Xen stared at her, horrified. "You're going to try to merge it with an inhabited world?"

"Yes. As an absolute last resort. Because we can evacuate a few million people a lot more easily than a few billion." She looked away from him.

Oh. Bloody. Hell . . . And she looks like she's going to cry, but she's right. No matter how many people we'd miss trying to evacuate a Primitive World, it'll be less than the number who refuse to budge from their homes on the One World. But for us to choose which world to sacrifice . . .

"Right." He swallowed, and sat back, a bit relieved at the appalled expressions on the Oners' faces. "So . . . how are the suburb worlds doing?"

The President finally relaxed, sitting back as his eyes crinkled with humor. "Oh. One. You have changed so many dynamics, I don't know where to start. But we have infrastructure in place and being expanded, on twelve Empty Worlds. So the twelve largest metropolitan areas could be evacuated in days. Which would barely be five percent of the population."

"We'll put up a whole lot of gates, at need. To those worlds, and your other colonies."

"And pray to the One True God we don't need them." Urfa shivered. "We have another year to track them before we go into panic mode . . . maybe."



Helios

Office of the ArcHelios

". . . then we'll shift the captives through a Gate and walk them into the merge zone from the other side. We'll all have one last chance to get younger and healthier. The newly Merged will return to our world, and be transported to the Far Gate and into the Wilderness World where we will be starting over."

Nikostratos nodded. "And other teams will be doing the same with livestock, I presume?"

"No sir. The animals will be driven directly from here to the Wilderness World. There is no need for them to merge. We will also be taking Gate machinery through. We can raid elsewhere for more livestock. Many people, such as yourself, sir, who are currently young and healthy may prefer to not Merge."

Nikostratos nodded thoughtfully. "That is a good point. I am actually fertile now, no reason to risk that." Of course, that's with a slave from another World, not my wife. "Especially any fertile women may wish to not merge again. And the children, of course. Excellent point." Although if Hecuba could be persuaded to Merge with Sissilia . . . No, Hecuba will choose some high class and very young woman for this.

"We've located five possible Worlds to raid, and two Wilderness Worlds. The scouts are comparing the Wildernesses. We may, in the long run, keep both, but we'll start with one, to minimize the Gate switches. Now that we've eliminated the Blasted World as our final merge, we have more time to perfect our plans. The Beast World would certainly be interesting—the merge will kill all those hideous creatures, but the air is thick and humid. I hope we pass it by. The Savage World has a much nicer climate, and humans to merge with. But I prefer a more civilized and technically educated Damos for merges. The Hightech World would be best. But even if we don't merge with them, that technological world will be quite easy to raid for mergees."

Nikostratos nodded and turned to the third man present. "ArcAlexos?"

The Commander of the Armies nodded. "My teams are ready. There's little point in snatching people immediately. When the Merge nears, we'll start harvesting the targets we've picked out. We're going to include Mergees from several Worlds, for genetic variety, but we think the more technically advanced Worlds will yield more evolved intelligence types. We will therefore seek out akademies of higher learning on two or three Worlds, and make our plans to pluck the healthiest looking students. We will begin, on your authorization, the process of picking which two of five possible Worlds we'll raid first."

"You have it. This is the time to start picking specific targets for raids."



***

Ena Duphoros liked this World immediately. The damos spoke a local hodge-podge that was hard to follow, but it contained enough of the Anglish they'd learned from their last merge that they got by.

Trains everywhere, everything automated. The damos were a handsome dark people, with skins from deep tan to nearly purply black. The Helios took electronic identification and money from the first people they met. Good enough to scout with. They took a train to what seemed to be a major transportation hub and found a huge city. Five different akademies in this single city. Universities and colleges, they called them.

The students looked down their pretty noses at them as they scouted the campus.

"The Mulitude doesn't do well here. You should attend City College instead." The girl smirked superiorly. She spoke a patois with a high percentage of Anglish and TesserHelaos Antitios smiled in satisfaction.

"Ah, this akadema caters to the upper classes? I'll take note of that. Thank you."

The girl frowned at the Tes.

Duphoros slipped up behind her. "We like upper classes." He whispered in her ear.

She spun around, and recoiled. Turned and marched away.

"Behave Duph. We don't want to alarm the authorities on this campus prematurely, do we?" The Tes grinned.

"No, sir." Yeah, he'd just bet this World would be one they'd raid for young healthy bodies. They were talking about raiding for slaves as well as Merge candidates, and he'd just love to include some of these supercilious beauties on that list. Perhaps he should stop drinking his pay and save up a bit so he could buy one.

Talon strike team was composed of the most vicious killers around. That they'd previously merged with women and had to have been surgically de feminized only made them meaner. And determined that they were going to merge with males this time.

They picked up a campus map. Placed a coder. Then they moved to the next location. Some of the literature showed other campuses, some out in the countryside, which would simplify a few things. Cities around this whole world with akademies in each. They scoped out some lower class hotels and managed to not have to fingerprint confirm their stolen ID. At the end of the month they had everything they needed, and returned to the gate site for pickup.



 
 
matapam
13 January 2017 @ 02:27 pm

I'll be in Californai for several weeks. My father passed away yesterday. Not unexpected, but . . .

So I'm not in a mental/emotional state where you want me actually writing, even assuming I'll have the time for a while.

As I remember, I'll post bits of _The Last Merge_, most of which will be repeats for some of you. But there's a bit of raw new stuff and reshuffling to get a coherant story together for publishing. If that's possible. This may be a case of "best to scrap it and start over" but that's not something I can judge just now. So don't get too attached to it.

 
 
matapam
13 January 2017 @ 01:49 pm
 

***

Shivering in reaction, Beringar dragged himself through the tram airdoor, keeping a grip on something all the while. Ms. Stick followed and slid it shut behind her.

"I don’t believe that." He said, his voice higher than usual. "There can’t have been more than two dozen marines. There can’t have been, dammit, they’re on the bridge, they’re piloting the pods, there can’t have been that many."

"Oh, shut up!" Stick snapped. "Most of those people we were hiding from were just construction workers looking for the bombs. Which I trust you can still detonate? I would recommend," she added frostily, "that you do so right now."

"Right. I can arm them through the net and start a five minute countdown." He looked around, and gritting his teeth, let go and shoved off toward the el entrance. He flubbed it like a newbie, grabbed a panicked handhold and hauled himself through. "There will be a public access comp in here somewhere."

"Which el is this?" Stick asked frowning, "I thought it was one of the empty ones."

"It’s number four, right under the marines’ el." He looked around, frowning himself. "It looks like someone’s been here," subliminal clues lined up in his brain, "It looks like a teenager crash pad, or a zero G redneck trailer park." He fended off floating debris, and looked in at the few food tubes growing in the lab. "Nothing but meat?" he muttered.

A flicker of movement caught his attention, but he saw nothing when he turned.

"This is spooky," Stick verbalized his thoughts, "But probably a better cover than we could ever manage on our own." She nodded to the right. "There’s a comp in the kitchen."

"Great, this will keep them too busy to bother us for a while." He saw Stick jerk around and looked toward the door himself.

It was small, child sized and child shaped, but feathered and furred bizarrely. It climbed like a monkey, comfortable in zero G. He tried to convince himself that it was a child in a costume, but his hindbrain was in full panic mode and wasn’t listening. He started to scramble to his right, to the door to the freezer. They could bar the door…except that there was another thing there, this one black and white. It smiled, bright white teeth gleaming. Beringar noticed numbly that the black and white one seemed to have a double set of long sharp canines as it closed in.

***

They entered as quickly as they could, as quietly as airlock operation would allow, and fanned out, surrounding the passageway to the el. Chuck smiled hungrily as he heard faint voices. This el should be empty. He took point, ignoring Wolfe’s glare. May brought up the rear, no fool her, with no armor.

"No. Not another bite." The unfamiliar voice was oddly flat and unaccented. Chuck shoved off the wall, aiming for a spot just short of the open kitchen door.

"I told you, do not kill humans!"

Chuck froze a moment, ichimps? Maybe he’d better call Ivan in.

"And NEVER, EVER eat them? Remember?"

He boggled for a moment, then oozed carefully around the corner. There was blood everywhere. The kind of coverage that only happens with major arteries and zero G. Two of the three people within were covered like the walls. The third was almost shocking in his normality, pale skin and brown hair, tee-shirt and sweatpants, one toe magged to the deck while he talked. Chuck’s eyes drifted back to the other two. No mistake, those were neither human nor ichimp. Even covered with blood. From the dismembered bodies floating about. His eyes followed a drifting head.

Beringar.

The movement of the three as they suddenly turned to face him drew his eyes back. They looked poised to attack. But settled back suddenly. He felt the faint draft on his back, and a quick gasp behind him.

He cleared his throat, "Would you happen to be the aliens whose communications we’ve been intercepting from Alpha Centauri and other systems?"

The human one, the human looking one rather, Chuck could see some odd mottled greenish coloration to his complexion, answered. "Yes. My people have a post there, although I am myself out of touch with them."

"Well," Chuck’s eyes once again drifted off toward the feathery looking one. It was holding an arm with what looked like bites taken out of it. Diplomacy. Lots of diplomacy. Couth. Manners. "While we appreciate your assistance in dealing with these saboteurs, I’m surprised to find you here. Are you monitoring our space exploration?" Do you have a Prime Directive? Can you talk to us? Or are we the primitives that are good for nothing but snacks? Which SF movie are we in, here?

"Not at all." The large one said. "We were unaware of your people; in all our years of space travel we had never met an intelligent species." It shrugged, a very human expression, even the green color was fading, "I was unexpectedly stranded, and was unable to summon assistance, so I got myself aboard this ship." His voice was still flat.

"You are out of touch?" Chuck bit his lip, "The communications we picked up stopped a number of years ago. Why? Because something happened to you?"

"They would not care if I died." The alien seemed to hesitate. Thinking? "There are several reasons they might have left this region. It is not noticeably rich in resources. Nor in planets my people can live on."

Damn! That doesn’t sound good. A delicate hand with polished pink nails floated gently past him. But maybe I’d better stop being quite so diplomatic.

"I hope people are not the only thing you like to eat."

"No, we grow meat in food tubes." The alien looked back at the two smaller ones. One stopped chewing abruptly. "The young of my species are not intelligent. They are dangerous hunters. These two are still at a growth stage where their hunting instincts can still overcome their emerging intelligence." He hissed something at them, gesturing, then turned back to Chuck. "They must be avoided by your people for some time. They are learning, their brains are growing, they will be in control of their instincts in perhaps another year." There was something tense about his stance, and his skin was growing green again.

Protecting his young? Green for aggression?

"Why do you look so human? They don’t." Too blunt! Diplomatic. Remember?

"My people have natural camouflage, we look like what we eat." The alien said. "I grow human muscle tissue in tubes, in case I need to go among you. The newts prefer beef and chicken."

Chuck eyed the two small ones. Feathers on one, short hair on the other. Under all the blood. They now had plastic trash bags and were reluctantly gathering body parts. Out of the corner of his eye he saw one sneak a bite. Ulp!

"Perhaps we should leave now, with the, um , remains." What remains of the remains! "and speak tomorrow. I need to finish dealing with another problem, and perhaps you need to . . . speak with your youngsters." God, I can’t just leave! "Would you join me and my staff for," Chuck quickly edited what he was about to say. Not dinner. Bad idea. "A meeting tomorrow at noon? In the el up from this one?"

"Certainly." The Alien turned and hissed at the, had he called them newts? More orders apparently, they approached and tendered the garbage bags.

Chuck took them, and handed them off behind him. "Thank you." He nearly stuttered halfway through the automatic response.

They both glared, "There goes dinner." The hairy one said.

"Chicken’s better anyway." The feathered one muttered as it retreated.

Chuck heard a snort from behind him, but whoever had the sick sense of humor didn’t speak. He backed away, all the way down the passage, and into the airlock, not turning his back on the aliens.

As they sealed their suits again, he finally spoke. "This is not an auspicious way to meet an alien species. You will not speak of it until I’ve had time to think about it." He wished heartily that he could beat his head on something. "Or until I wake up in sick bay after a horrible stunner dream."

Wolfe held a garbage bag at his arm’s full extension. "This is the grossest thing I’ve ever seen. If it were anyone but Beringar and Ms. Stick I'd be very upset."

***

Spider shot back into the room, and took a look under the now soaked sheet Kirby had wrapped around herself, "Oh my GOD! That’s GROSS!" He looked around frantically, "We’ve got to dock. Now!"

"I don’t think the baby’s going to wait that long!" Kirby curled up around her belly.

Spider frantically tried to decide whether just a tiny bit of acceleration might be good. "Could you handle acceleration? I don’t think we want to do this in freefall!" He shot back up to the pilot’s cabin.

1/20th G. Just enough to stick them to the floor.

"I started to read about this, but I didn’t get very far." For the first time since he’d met her, Kirby sounded scared.

"I started reading about babies, not this part," he confessed. "What should we do? In all the Vids, pioneer docs always want to boil water, but damned if I know what for."

"Umm, to sterilize it? I guess we’d better," her voice got strained as another contraction hit, "wash?"

Spider removed his horrified gaze from her laboring body, "Wash, right, I’ll be right back." His said breathlessly. Kirby sounded like she was hyperventilating a bit, herself.

He came right back and took a quick peek under the sheet. "I can see the head!" He reached gingerly in and supported the baby’s head then with a last contraction, suddenly found himself holding the whole baby. He wordlessly held it out to Kirby, who hastily grabbed a corner of sheet and wiped its face, trying to clear the nose and mouth. The baby sucked in a breath and expelled it in an indignant wail, and Spider suddenly found himself cuddling the baby close and protectively. It gazed back with a puzzled frown, as if wondering how it had gotten here.

"It’s a boy." He vaguely heard Kirby’s voice, then helped as she tried to fasten a plastic tie off strip around the umbilical. He carefully maneuvered number four arm around and snipped off the cord.

"Isn’t he kind of, well . . . big headed?" He whispered.

***

The airtight doors that were the usual egress from the tram into the el were now the inner airlock door. Chuck jetted gently in and positioned himself beside the door. "So they wised up and surrendered?" The rest of the troops followed and when they were all in, Wolfe tapped the controls.

"Hysterically." Chuck could picture Ivan’s wide grin through the comm link. "Somehow they got the impression the killer chimps were on the way."

A plate slid across the aft end trapping them in a box.

"Goodness, I wonder how they got that idea?" He felt the changing pressure mainly through the adjusting joints of his armor. Even though still fully loaded with the jet packs, they’d have better flexibility in atmosphere. The doors slid open with an audible hiss, and he eased forward and touched down in the empty room. Almost empty. There was a woman cowering back, hands raised.

"We, we surrender." She squeaked, wild eyed and trembling. There was no one else present.

"So we understand. Where’s everyone else?" Chuck asked, prowling over to look down the empty corridor to the el proper.

"We’re all in our rooms. All of us that are left. Those killer chimps have taken over the tech office." Her voice went higher and faster, "We didn’t know what was going on. It’s not our fault!" She gulped a bit, "Mr. Beringar just said to stay home and then those horrible killer apes came. I always knew those things were dangerous!" she wailed, "Mr. Beringar was right to not trust them, don’t let them kill us, please, we’re people like you, we all need to stick together, you should protect us from them." She barely paused for a breath, "Did you really kill Mr. Beringar? Why?" her voice went wobbly.

Chuck looked at her with disgust. "Because he and his commandos were putting limpets all over the outside of the ichimp els." He shook his head, "when someone attempts cold-blooded murder, someone had better be prepared to receive the consequences." He stalked over to the intercom, and called the central operator to request an el-wide broadcast.

Simon von Monkenstein answered, "Relax, they’re all hiding. It’s like attacking a Clueless and Helpless Club. No wonder Beringar could influence them. They don’t have any brains. Ivan’s prowling, in case they get any bad ideas."

The airdoor cycled again, behind him. May swept the room, then turned and removed the control panel beside the door. "I can reset the tram from here, if you’d like."

"Let’s wait a bit, in case more hostiles are spotted outside." Chuck replied, then, walked down to the tech office to take over the comm. Ivan joined him there as he called for the surrender of all weapons. "Put them outside your door. Stay in your room until we tell you to come out. I don’t give a shit whether you were involved in the attempt to sabotage the ichimp els, and murder over two thousand people, or totally ignorant. You give us any crap, you are dead. Now. Weapons on the floor outside your door. Close the door and keep it closed. You open it, we’ll assume you’re going to shoot us. Eventually we will let you out. One at a time. If you don’t open your door when we ask, we will damage it and come in anyway." He shut off the comm before he started to repeat himself, again. His subconscious apparently didn’t think these people were very bright.

In the end, it was just an exercise in collecting stunners and a surprising number of kitchen knives. Ivan snickered about that.

"Aww, you scared the poor little pansies."

Chuck snorted his comment, then reached over and keyed the comm, having decided this was as good a command post as any. "All right. I understand that four civilian policemen are in the el. I want the policemen, and no one else to come to the tech office, right now. Thank you." He glared as Ivan snickered.

Wolfe, now without his gory garbage bag, stuck his head in. "May has a suggestion for you. Wanna hear it, like, now?"

"Sure, what’s up?"

"She says she’ll run the numbers but she’ll bet one of the shuttles, with a long range tank and a bit of a spin boost from us can make it back to, well, not Earth, but, you know, close enough for the Navy to grab them."

"What a wonderful idea." Chuck thought it over. "Damned wonderful."

Ivan gave him an odd look. "Are you sure you want to dump three fourth’s of the remaining humans?"

"Yes." Chuck nodded decisively. "Bunch of trouble makers, and frankly, have you paid any attention to von Monkenstein’s experiments?" Ivan nodded his comprehension. "God knows you need a planet of your own, but we humans can either join you or return home, or search onward." He stopped suddenly to reorder his thoughts. "There’s one other . . . odd complication, umm, I think you’d better sit in on this meeting I’m having tomorrow. Come over about ten hundred and I’ll give you a brief."

Ivan raised his brows but nodded without comment, stepping back and frowning as the first of the policemen edged nervously in from the corridor.

Chuck turned back to business.



Chapter Fifty Seven

"Vorp."

Chuck shot a glance over his shoulder at May. "What?"

"That flat emotionless speech. That alien spoke just like Vorp."

"Really?" Chuck frowned. "Didn’t Vorp come with Beringar? And Oleg killed him?"

"Yes, he was on the same shuttle I came on." Simon confirmed. "I wonder how these other three got onboard."

"If Vorp was one." Ivan injected.

"He was." Mata twitched her shoulders a bit, "I had an opportunity once to analyze the special food he brought along on a tour of the Chamberlain. Minced dehydrated human."

Chuck gulped a bit, and exchanged glances with Ivan. "If I leave suddenly in the middle of the meeting it’s because I had to puke."

"Right. We can take turns."

"Here he is." Chuck straightened as the tram door opened. He’d elected to meet the alien up here himself.

The Alien floated cautiously out, stopping with one hand on the edge of the door. His eyes swept the group.

"I am Colonel Chuck Woods." He paused to see if the courtesy would be returned.

"I am Vorp."

Chuck frowned, "The Reverend Vorp of the Earth is Eden Church?"

"Yes, while I was on Earth it was a convenient cover." The alien seemed to hesitate a bit, but continued, "That was where my ship crashed, and the role grew with time."

Chuck bit back questions and continued the introductions. "My Senior officers, Captain Freeman and Captain Wolfe. Representing the ichimps aboard, Ivan D. Terrible and Dr. Simon von Monkenstein. May Huang, representing the human civilians aboard." Of whom all the rest are going to get ditched real quick. "I thank you for coming up to talk to us." He eased backwards, "Won’t you join us in my office?" He led the way to his spacious suite, complete with a small conference table. He sat at the head of the table. The alien studied his gesture toward the seat to his left and sat there.

Ivan started the ball rolling with his primary concern. "We’re somewhat distressed to learn that the planets we wanted to colonize are already inhabited."

Vorp’s blank face betrayed nothing. "It is not an important system. Colonel Woods, did you not say that communications from there had ceased? Probably no one wanted it and it was abandoned as unprofitable."

"Damn." Ivan muttered, almost inaudibly. What was worse, planets full of man-eating aliens, or no planets at all?

"Without notifying you?" May asked, "or coming to look for you when you didn’t reply?"

Vorp stared blankly at her. "I did not hold my ship from them. They would not come." He seemed to hesitate again, "Cinnabs are very different than humans. We do not group ourselves as you do. I did not owe money or service to anyone there. I had not beaten them, nor they, me." He seemed to be able to read expressions, lack of understanding apparently, for he tried again, "We cooperate only in small groups with a definite hierarchy, generally the leader is much older than his subordinates. The leader is the best fighter, the one who beat all the rest and is thus obeyed."

"Like a wolf pack." Freeman muttered.

Vorp nodded agreement, "We mostly have one person ships, like the one I crashed on Earth. The few larger ships are crewed by the very dominant adults with very young crew. We don’t teach fighting," Vorp added. "Not to the young, it’s just picked up as you go." He hesitated a moment. "We don’t have a military, as you think of it. Some laser armed ships are for hire, to prevent spreading the contagion."

"But what about manufacturing? How do you build space craft, if you don’t cooperate?" Ivan asked.

"We use newts. Anyone can train newts to do things." Vorp’s flat voice paused, "It is like an apprentice system. Training, room, board and a bit of money." Vorp looked around at them. "It’s not slavery, newts can just walk off anytime, work somewhere else. It’s how we live. Young newts are just dangerous carnivorous animals, not people. Anyone who needs workers waits until they start maturing a bit then rounds up as many as he needs and trains them."

"And the adults fight to see who is boss?" Woods asked, "What form of government do you have?"

"We do not have a government. We do as we wish." Vorp paused again, "Very few things really need the kind of coordination you have on Earth. Some people facilitate large efforts for mutual profit. You might call them a government. A Cinnab named Gerv buys spacecraft, rents them to explorers and sells his interest in the planets they find. He is very rich. "

Chuck caught a sotto voce comment from down the table. "Libertarians run amuck." It sounded like Monkenstein.

"You do have police don’t you?" Chuck boggled as Vorp shook his head. "But what about theft? Murder?"

"Might makes right, I think is your human phrase. There is no such thing as an unlawful killing, and most fights are not to the death. Theft is dishonorable. Those who steal regularly tend to be killed. We have banks so you don’t have to carry all your money all the time." Vorp shrugged. "It works for us."

"And some people have found a way to make money facilitating. And that’s all the government you have?" Chuck came back around to what he considered an impossibility.

"As to Alpha Centauri," Ivan leaned in again, "You say it may have been abandoned? What is there? We don’t have detailed data." He watched the alien narrowly, "Have you been there, yourself?"

"I hopped through. Multiple stars have bad effects on the gravity waves, so I didn’t go into the system, I just bought water from a distant comet core that was being used for that, much as you used the ‘iceberg’. I believe there are three rocky planets in the liquid water zone." Vorp looked at them and apparently found comprehension, "One had a breathable atmosphere, but the chemical and light conditions were not right for us. We would have to stay indoors under lights and use tanks for reproduction. There was nothing special in the way of ores to be worth the effort. If the entire system has not been abandoned, Chuff will probably be glad to sell it to you. If the system is abandoned, the planets will be yours, by right of . . . rediscovery or salvage . . . I suppose either term will do."

Chuck straightened. "I see. Tell me more about your people…"

/// Wedding///

Epilogue

"If," Venturia Anniesdotter put all the exasperation in her tone she was capable of, "we could get this meeting underway?"

The noise level failed to abate. It was Erk and Ax again. If she could believe the rumors she’d heard, Erk had added peacock to his usual diet. Certainly his crest of black feathers had a blue-green iridescent edging. He was ribbing his more subdued brother, who could pass as human at first glance, which the same rumors attributed to a diet of buckskin horse-meat. Hopefully not true. Horses were so romantic, and in just a few years they might actually be able to have some.

She took a deep breath and raised her voice in a piercing shriek. "Will the Class of 2130 Prom planning committee meeting please come to order!"

Erk clapped his hands to his ears, "Stars and comets, Vennie, there’s no need for that."

"Oh, yes there is." Venturia told him. "You are not on the Committee. Go away." She looked around for support and the ever-so-handsome Michael Spider rose to the occasion. Oh, he just had to ask her to the prom, he had to!

He just stood up and flexed his muscles. Erk looked unimpressed, but when Sherlock and King stepped up behind Michael he stuck his nose up in the air with a sniff of disdain and left. Venturia bent her firm gaze on Ax.

"I’m the school reporter, remember?" he said. "You do want the decisions in the Frontier High Times, don’t you?" he was probably trying to look innocent, hard to tell, he didn’t do expressions well. And she did want the meeting in the paper.

"Very well," she said, then glanced at her notes. "This is going to be the first graduating class of all space born students. In fact this is the first graduating class," the door slid open and the cousins-from-heck slid in, followed by The Brat. "The first graduating class in four years. Depending on what the probes find, this may also be the last onboard graduating class." She glared around the room, "so let’s make it special. Heidi, do you have a report for us?"

Heidi Wolfe looked nervous and creased her notes, "We can get either the main floor of el three or the council room and the attached meeting rooms in el one, but the auditorium in the Mall is booked solid for months. The University commons are available after May 18th." She lifted her eyes briefly from the notes, "That’s all."

Venturia brushed her curly blonde hair out of her face, "Excellent, Heidi." Poor thing was one of the few pure humans around, and felt so left out. "Marilyn?"

The petite ichimp bounced athletically to her feet. "I’ve gotten tons of corporate sponsors. Everyone’s been really helpful about donating either credit or supplies." She smiled smugly, "including Treetop Deli promising ten of their full sized hot trays."

"That’s excellent!" Venturia exclaimed, heads nodding around the room. Tree top was the best. "Kimberly? Do we have a final head count?"

Kimberly Woods looked mostly human, but dauntingly tall, strong and not pretty to either human or ichimp, with that slab face. Nobody had ever tried to push her around. She nodded, "It looks like there will be two hundred and thirty four of us graduating. That doesn’t mean that many will buy tickets, though." She added hastily.

The Brat, AKA Philip von Monkenstein, whispered something in the other cousin’s ear. She just raised an eyebrow and said nothing. Thank goodness! Pepper Huang’s know-it-all drawl had to be the most irritating…Venturia had thrown a private party when The Brat had been promoted into their class, putting Pepper in second place academically.

She glanced at her agenda. "Alright, we need to vote on an advertising budget; vote on a final location; and decide how we are going to handle ticket sales. Do we have any volunteers for…"

The ship traveled on, decelerating toward the brilliant triple stars.

 
 
matapam
11 January 2017 @ 09:27 am
 

***

"Hell, they’ve got limpets all over. They must have diagrams of where all the airtight compartments are." Sergeant O’Malley reported from the surface of el eight. "No sign of hostiles."

"Leave the limpets until someone who knows what they’re looking at sees them. We need to find the Piggies and snuff them quick." Lieutenant Conde responded. "Head down to the next el, I’ll skip it and go to fourteen." He was still on the comm, relaying information when Corporal Perez reported a sighting.

"They look like they’re heading sternward. Looks like eight Piggies total, four on el fourteen, four traveling between eight and eleven . . . and there are at least two more on fourteen’s hull." Perez had a bird’s eye view perched on the outside of the pod.

"Clear them off fourteen, priority, before they place more limpets, then take the others if they keep heading this way. O’Malley, take them from the rear." Conde frowned. How many teams did the piggies have? "I’m going to check seventeen."

Wisdom was flying the pod and just nodded, reaccelerating as the last trooper got out of the danger zone around the pod. "There they are, looks like they just started." The figures on the el spotted them and the one with the huge backpack took aim at them.

***

Baker took her pod all the way to engineering where the spaces were larger before ducking into the frame. There was no sign of movement on the bottom el, and she headed for the next. The Mall, they called it.

"There they are." Sergeant Eddings called. "We beat them to it." Baker spotted them, now. Four figures still headed sternward and four that had just turned and were touching down on the el. The backpacked figure closest to them turned, then threw its arms out and kept turning. "Good shot!" Eddings called. The lasers were invisible to Baker. She wished she could have worn her armor, but it was too awkward for piloting. "Look for other bulky ones," Eddings called. "But don’t forget the rest. Quizimo, take your squad down to the el and get them off before they can plant limpets. Gonsalves, get the three flyers then head for the next el forward."

***

Ivan shoved himself out of the tram, trailing pieces of armor, which went flying as he grabbed for his laser rifle and an anchoring point as he spotted the armed man . . . no, ichimp. Friendly. He blew out his breath and tried to slow down his speech. "Don’t scare me like that!"

Simon grinned wryly. "Ditto." He gestured at the small airlock to the side, "I thought I’d better watch that."

Ivan nodded. But could you shoot someone coming through? "Good idea. I’m going out to see if I can stop any more Piggies from getting out. Want to come?" He suppressed a twinge of guilt, this was not the time to get overprotective. At least Simon was holding a weapon.

Simon nodded. "Yes. We need to stop them cold."

Ivan blinked at the icy resolution in Simon’s eyes. So ichimps can’t fight, eh? More Damn Foundation conditioning, no doubt. Let’s see what Mata Hari’s kid can do. "Catch some armor." He had grabbed without sorting, but the armor had been racked in sets, so were complete. Seeing Monkenstein snag a set, he shoved the rest, and all but two of the laser rifles back into the tram and sent it to engineering. He floated over to the comm, and wrestled himself into the minimally flexible torso piece waiting for engineering to answer.

"Yes?" the voice sounded worried.

"George? Is that you?" The environmental systems tech must have headed down, rather than up. Excellent. He could hear, turned down to nearly inaudible, the marines chatter. It sounded like they’d intercepted the piggies before they’d gotten to Engineering.

"Yeah. What’s going on, Ivan? Do I need to get up there? I think I should stay with the main repair crews."

"You are in exactly the right spot. Listen up. The Piggies have soldiers outside placing hole cutters against the walls of the els. The Marines are after them, and I’m going to stop any more of them from getting out of el three. I’m sending armor and weapons down tram one. Don’t let the Piggies take engineering." Ivan gritted his teeth, wondering if any of them could shoot. "Lock the trams in station so they can’t use the stations for airlocks, shoot them if they cut through a wall." Damn, the sides of the armor wouldn’t seal, his chest was too large. He snapped the crotch strap and grabbed his floating leg shields.

He could hear the ichimp gulping uncertainly. "If you really can’t, George, find someone who can, and give them the guns." He fielded the arm pieces Monkenstein threw him.

"Right." George sounded a bit breathless. "We won’t let them get in, Ivan."

"Good. Out." He closed the upper arm pieces and started in on the lower arms.

Monkenstein was already into his and was back at the airlock. "It’s cycling, Ivan!" he clicked down and examined the dials of the laser rifle.

Ivan cursed, shoving himself side ways to get a clear view around Monkenstein, then shoving off the wall and forward at the airlock as the hatch popped and slid. Monkenstein fired two quick bursts. Ivan hit the still opening hatch a moment later, nearly fumbling his landing in shock. Not even any hesitation!

"Oh, my God!" Monkenstein yelped, "Tell me those were piggies, not Marines!"

"Piggies." Ivan diagnosed at a glance. "Complete with cutters. You’re a pretty good shot." He added.

"Mom." Monkenstein explained. "I’m out of practice, though."

They crowded into the airlock and cycled back through. No one on the other side, no one in sight. He could hear consternation on the marines’ channel, the piggies has built some high powered lasers strong enough to damage the pods, let alone the marines . . . actually, the marines could probably take more fire than the lightweight pods.

"Watch out for piggies with bulky backpacks, they’ve got heavy lasers." He passed on to Monkenstein.

"Right." Monkenstein followed him past the anchorage for Spider’s ship and jumped without comment over to the main framework. Without jets, Ivan kept the jumps as small as possible, working quickly around to the el three tram station. The top plate was sealed across it, the bottom open. He growled a bit at his lack of preparedness. Not even a mirror to take a look in. He hissed a bit and grabbing a strut, swung himself down around and in. The first shot flashed across his chest. Unable to bring the rifle around easily, he just let his momentum carry him into the piggie and twisted his helmet hard. He shoved the flopping thing out of the way as Monkenstein joined him.

"I’ll get the controls." Simon turned his back on the dead piggie, "Ready?"

Rifle to the fore, Ivan nodded, then grimaced and made it verbal. "Open it."

The bottom plate slid across and sealed. He could feel the squeeze of the skin suit relaxing as pressure built up.

"Door opening." Monkenstein warned him.

He pounced through, giving himself enough spin to shoot . . . no one. He hit the other side and clenched his toes to hold on. "One guard? They had one stinking guard outside and nothing else?"

"There’s not very many of them, they must not be able to muster many goons. Sabotaging over a dozen habitats is a big job, I’ll bet they sent nearly everyone they could." Monkenstein floated over to stare down the corridor and into the el. "Where to? Their technical controls will all be up top, we can take their comm and order their surrender."

"Yeah." The hair was standing up on his back, "I can’t believe this is all." He shoved off again, touching down at the egress into the sphere proper. Nothing. It was eerily quiet. He floated silently down to the tech office and triggered the door. Rifle to the fore he stepped in. The redhead at the comm station glanced around calmly, then suddenly shrieked as she registered the nature of the intruder. She leaped straight up into the deckhead and bounced off clutching her head and shrieking even louder. Ivan grabbed her arm, yanked her down and into his face. "Shut up or I will kill you." Abrupt silence fell. "I’m Ivan D. Terrible. You’ve heard about me, haven’t you?" She nodded. He could feel her shivering through his grip. "Do as you are told and I won’t kill either you, or anyone else. Understand?" Nod. "How many soldiers does Beringer have?"

"I don’t know." She whispered, "He just came in and made an el-wide announcement. He said for us all to remain home while he rid the ship of abomin . . . " her voice trailed off, her eyes jerking to his right. The lights reddened and dimmed as he spun. Monkenstein got one shot off, clipping the first soldier through the door. As he spun in slow motion, Ivan bounded forward, grabbing a handhold to swing through and down the short corridor. Two more armored figures were ducking into doorways, moving with nightmare slowness. He pulled his rifle up through the thick air and fired twice. Kicking off a body into the room it was headed for, he backhanded an unarmored man rising from the el’s tech panel. Room clear. He bounced back out to find Monkenstein approaching, hugging the wall and sticking to the floor, rifle pointed slightly downward.

"No sightings." Ivan heard it as slow and deep but knew Monkenstein must be deliberately speaking fast and high on purpose for it to have been understandable.

"Let’s scout." Ivan spoke slowly, then broke off suddenly to listen to the Marine channel. "They’ve made contact out there."

***

Keeping close to the hull, Chuck hustled around to where his visor display showed the piggies. Especially the one with the backpack laser. Target One. He took him out almost before he’d cleared the curve of the hull. A single blast of plasma was all it took. Up close, he could see that their hard suits were just separate pieces, mostly overlapping, over their skin suits. No contest against full up armor. Not bad against lasers, but mostly didn’t cut it where plasma was concerned. At close range these guys were toast. "Use your plasma rifles, get close." He called, scanning his visor display as Herring and Wolfe split left and right to take out two more. There were more piggies incoming, three of them lit in red. "Heads up! Incoming!" a red line flashed onto his visor, unneeded as the hull beside him vaporized and peeled. The last piggie icon on the hull disappeared. "OK, lets head up and get them." The piggie icons grouping above them scattered suddenly as the big green icon of the pod sailed through them. In the confusion, Chuck took one out with plasma, then crashed straight into another. He jerked the man’s gun away and found himself face to face with Berringer. He touched helmets, "Have a nice ride!" he spun him around and fired the laser rifle through the compressed fuel tank of the jet pac. At point blank range it made a neat little hole. Berringer shot off, veering wildly. He crashed into one of the other piggies and grabbed, but they both crashed and bounced off the fuel sphere, then spun off through the gap into open space.

"If the other one has enough fuel to get back, you’re going to regret that gesture." May Huang commented.

"Yeah," Chuck admitted, "but the thought of him dying alone out there was irresistible." He broke off and shot another backpacker, as the pod rotated and gigged the engine just enough to roast another.

Deveroux jetted over and grabbed the pod, climbing around it to fire off two laser pulses. Checking his visor, Chuck followed suit. "May, can you spin counter?"

"Sure." The pod turned, pulling him with it. He switched to laser for more distant shots and started hammering at piggies as they appeared over his horizon.

Deveroux joined him, showering the hardsuits with pulses that sooner or later hit a vulnerable spot. The icons started retreating, and not in any sort of order. The last red icon paused long enough to get one more shot off, and Chuck heard Wolfe cursing.

"You hit, Wolfe?"

"John took that straight through the helmet."

Chuck hissed, then, "Grab the pod. May, after them."

Wolfe hit the pod with a double trump and bent immediately to fix Herring’s stiff, unresponsive armor to the hull. "We’ll need the armor, sooner or later." His voice was shaky, but with anger not fear. He grabbed a handhold, and up close Chuck could see bubbled trails of multiple laser hits across his armor. If any had punched through, the armor’s sealant had already done more to stabilize underlying injuries than anything he could do out here.

"Coming up on el ten, looks like the Piggies are just leaving." May voice whispered in his ear. "Christopher Columbus says he’s sending workers out to find and if possible, remove the limpets. All the workers will be in yellow overalls. Ivan reports he’s inside el three, no guards left."

Chuck switched to the all troops channel, "Listen up, troops. Don’t shoot the guys in yellow, they’re the bomb squad."

"If I rotate clockwise, you can start long range," May Huang’s voice broke up in crackles, then resumed, "Long range shooting. Do me a personal favor and take out that backpack laser before he trashes the pod completely."

Chuck turned around, Wolfe and Deveroux copying him. "Rotate."

The four remaining saboteurs never got a shot off.

Chuck switched over to Conde’s command channel and got dead air. Not Good. "May, head around to the number two run." He switched to O’Malley’s channel.

". . . last one." Said a vaguely familiar voice, one of the Eden brothers.

"Head up then, and we’ll meet you at eleven." O’Malley sounded strained.

"Woods here, report."

"El seventeen is clear, eight and fourteen are clear of hostiles, but has been mined, we’re headed for eleven. The pod was struck by one of the heavy lasers. Lieutenant Conde is dead, I’m injured. Wisdom says the pod is still flyable, but I’m not sure that will last, we’re wide open and not much more than a mobile shield. Corporal Perez is dead, three privates injured but still functional."

"We’ll meet you at eleven." He has two uninjured soldiers. Chuck switched to Sergeant Eddings’ channel. "Woods here, report."

"Els eighteen and fifteen are clean. We’ve just polished off twelve, but it’s mined. Enroute to nine. I have two fatalities, one badly injured."

Four still fighting, "We’ll be around to help mop up shortly."

"We may have gotten them all," she replied, "there’s no movement."

"Heads up." Wolfe broke in, "We’re at eleven."

The helmet showed only marine icons, and May cruised the surface, the sensors picking up the limpets, but no piggies. "O’Malley, Eddings, take your injured people back to the docking bay for medical treatment. Healthy ones I’ll take." He frowned, turning in the stiff suit to look at Wolfe and Deveroux.

"I’m fine." Wolfe sounded firm.

"I’ve got a slow leak," Deveroux admitted reluctance in every tone. "Real slow."

"Keep an eye on it." Chuck told him. May was maneuvering slowly and two more marines joined them on the exterior. Chuck could see Conde’s pod, open to space, but still under power. A third green pod icon popped up on his visor as Baker’s pod cleared the central funnel. Three marines swooped over from it before it eased away again. "Let’s go visit the neighbors, shall we? Eight against about a hundred should be about even, considering that we may well have just offed most of their soldiers."

As they slid up toward el three, Chuck switched to Ivan’s channel. "Woods here, what’s happening?"

"Nothing now. We’ve taken care of the few soldiers left in el three. The civvies are hiding under their beds. Engineering reports that no one got that far. They have the repair tram running on rail three. Columbus has his workers suited up and cycling out. Do you have specs on the limpets? How careful do we have to be in removing them?"

Freeman’s voice broke in. "We’ve looked at the cutters the Piggie Monkenstein captured was carrying. Straightforward radio initiated circular cutter, no traps. I’ll send Adamson down to look at the rest before anyone touches anything."

"Spider here, someone or something slid around el four, can’t see shit now."

"Four?" Chuck frowned, "That’s the empty one below our el." He bit his lip uncertainly, "Let’s check it out. Ivan’s got el three secured. May, head over and look at it. Monkenstein, where are you?" The pod shifted gently under him, and drifted around the funnel. There was no sign of movement on the surface, and apparently no limpets.

"I’m in el three, with Ivan."

"Someone’s gone inside el four, the tram station is set up in airlock mode." May said.

Chuck bit his lip, "Deveroux, you get in the pod and take over piloting. May, I may need you inside the el to open doors and so forth."

"Right." she sounded surprised, and perhaps a bit gleeful.

"Ivan," He hesitated. "I’d like to send some troops to el three to join you and search the place."

"Good idea." Ivan sounded very positive. "These idiots need to see that the Marines and the ichimps are allied against them."

"Right. Sergio and May, with me, everyone else, back to three. Eddings, you’re in charge of the troops, but consider what Ivan suggests." Chuck pushed off the pod and landed against the tram rail and peered up into the makeshift airlock.

***

"Oh, SHIT! What do you mean you’re in labor. KIRBY! I CAN’T FUCKING DELIVER A BABY!"

 
 
matapam
10 January 2017 @ 07:57 am
 

***

"OK, the waves are nice and predictable." Simon watched his screen closely. "I wanted to record several of them, see if they are regular and so forth, before I started the experiment."

"You don’t have to lecture, Professor!" Spider yelled from the pilot’s station. "I’m not in any f…hurry."

Simon grinned. The very pregnant Kirby found zero G very comfortable, and was taking navigation lessons from Spider. They’d been out here for nearly two days already while he fine-tuned his gravity wave detector grid. He grimaced at the screen. Fine-tuned! Barely adequate was what it was. It would never do for a shipboard system, and the first test had shown that it mattered where the generator was relative to the wave when it jumped. But that was just an engineering problem. He’d figure it out, hell, he just might write up a paper for publication, and sit back and let the terrestrial engineers fuss over the details. He stretched out and floated, one eye on the screen and most of his mind busy composing a world shaking paper ‘Faster than light travel’ or ‘Gravity Wave translation produces FTL travel’ some thing like that. The screen showed the wave starting to bottom out. Enough.

"OK, lets run the whole series, as planned." Simon called forward.

The murmurs that might have been navigation lessons ceased. "OK, I’m recording up here." Spider called back.

Simon cued his models and sat back to watch. The wave frequency was three hours, so he’d set the ten models to jump every eight minutes, with the first model triggered five minutes after the trough. "First hopper going . . . now." Simon bit back a curse. The active beacon died but the passive reflector sat there.

"So it ain’t just the trough and peak that don’t work?" Spider asked rhetorically.

"Doesn’t look like it." Simon took his fingernails out of his mouth long enough to answer. The minutes slowly crept off the timer. "Second model going . . . now." And this one did go. Simon let out his breath in relief, and spotted the passive reflector return popping up on the far edge of his screen.

"Damn!" Spider reverted to his habitual speech, "That sucker jumped, umm, thirty thousand kilometers." He sounded stunned.

Simon felt a bit stunned himself, as the figures scrolled up on his screen. "In zero point zero two seconds. That’s five times the speed of light." His academic training kicked in. "Roughly speaking, at first look."

Spider snorted, "Roughly speaking, I think you’ve developed a FTL drive. Congratulations. Now untold billions of humans will spread over the galaxy in the future on Monkey Drive ships."

"Did you sit up all night thinking that up?" Simon demanded, suppressing laughter.

"Not all night." Simon demurred, "But I knew I was going to need a smart ass remark sooner or later. Whoops," he yelled, "There goes your third one."

"It won’t go as far," Simon hovered over the screen, "There, yeah, they’re just popping straight through the wave. The closer to the base, the further in three D space they’ve gone. There’s some critical point though, at which it doesn’t work. Is it distance or something to do with the wave form? If it’s distance, it won’t keep working as the waves get larger. Maybe more power?" his voice trailed off as the next model jumped, shorter again. It looked like his first working hypothesis was going to survive the test. Next he needed to run a series of jumps right around the point where fizzling turned into jumping. And alter the models so that he could put a rat on board, or maybe he should start with yeast packets or amoebas or something, to see if animals could survive gravity wave jumping. Next model, even shorter. Oh, yes. And the gravity waves should be so much larger, the further they got from the sun. Damn, would Earth based physicists be able to duplicate his results? They could get micro jumps like the Venus magnetic couplers had experienced, but would that convince them? The sixth model jumped on schedule, shorter. Well, if they didn’t believe him immediately, they’d believe him when he started jumping around the galaxy. Yep, to go where no ichimp has gone before. He grinned helplessly, then started laughing. The seventh model jumped and he reached out and touched the screen where it would reappear, yep. Right where it belonged. "Eight will land there and nine there, and ten will probably fizzle." He fought to get his laughter under control. Very undignified. Eight jumped and reappeared, the clock scrolled down, nine, right where he’d called it, and ten, yep fizzle.

"You called it, Monkey boy." Simon yelled back, glee in his voice. "Let’s go collect your toys and head home. This deserves a celebration."

Between Spider’s precision piloting and Kirby’s growing expertise with the waldos he had very little to do, but he enjoyed the EV time, floating in space. Back inside with his models, he kept watching through the porthole as they closed in on the Chamberlain. By the time they got there, the scoop was fully deployed and the construction workers were slowly cycling back in through the airlocks. Spider grumbled a little about having to dock on the inside of the frame, but not at all about standing off until all the workers were out of the way. There wouldn’t be many more excuses to expend fuel on this journey, and Simon suspected that Spider was going to miss flying.

Spider slid them expertly between two of the huge fuel spheres, and underneath the living sphere nestled between them. What from a distance looked like a tightly packed assembly, up close proved to contain a lot of empty space. The construction crew had built a dock to Spider’s specifications during the fueling stop. The ship hung balanced between LS one and LS three, with the skeleton of an airtight corridor leading to a new airlock installed in the tram vestibule of LS one. Over the next few months they would finish it, but for now they’d have to suit up to get out. Simon, still watching out the port, glanced over at el three, the Piggies home, and was surprised to see workers still out.

"I thought all the workers were back in?" he asked, frowning, "Hey, this batch isn’t wearing overalls, they have hard suits on. What’s up?"

"What the fuck?" Spider frowned, "Have they’ve got the tram station switched over to airlock operations?"

"I don’t know, I don’t see them now." Simon hesitated then shoved back from the porthole. "I think the Colonel ought to know about this."

"Good luck trying to reach them from here," Spider told him. "It will be better to get into the el and call from there."

Simon poked irritably at the ‘Cannot reach the network’ message on his screen, "Yeah. Let’s go."

***

Kirby went first, floating easily through the cage of the skeletal walkway to the airlock, and punched the controls when she felt the faint vibration through her hand where it gripped the rail. She looked back to see who’d bumped it hard enough for her to feel it and saw the men coming in fast with jetpacks. "Spider, look out!" was all she had time for, because one was already behind him, weapon in hand. Spider had been paranoid all his life, and even nine months of knowing her hadn’t mellowed him much. He spun and whipped out the longest and strongest of his arms, and took a laser flash to the cyber housing, which shrugged it off as easily as armor. Kirby’s couldn’t see what was happening, but she for damn sure knew she was trapped in a cage and her first priority was to get out. She kicked herself toward Spider, grabbed a handhold long enough to spin and shoot past him feet first into his opponents face, hook his laser wielding arm and spin: she let go when she felt the bone break, and kicked off to ram the second man as he touched down. When he spun, she grabbed the jetpack, cheap civilian model and yanked the control leads loose. She removed the laser rifle from his hands and shoved him off. His bad luck if he didn’t eventually hit something he could grab. The third man coming in received an irreplaceable FTL model broadside from Simon, and Kirby aimed her purloined rifle at the next, but flinched as sparks from a near miss showered her hood. Simon shot past her, "Get inside Kirby, we need to call out the troops, fast."

She was turning to follow when the pain lanced through her arm. Something hit her from the back, and she was shoved into the ship’s airlock. Spider hit the emergency close and the hatch slammed shut. As the air roared in Kirby bent over in pain. Not her arm, which Spider had a hold of, and which appeared to have taken a shot along the length of the forearm. Had she been hit twice? She ran her free arm down her stomach as another cramp hit. Spider hustled her ruthlessly out of the airlock and ripped his hood back, "Kirby, talk to me!" he demanded frantically.

"What?" she asked, and only then realized that she could only hear him through the hood, she popped the front seam and peeled it back, angling her shoulder to look at the smoking ruins of her comm set inset in her collar.

"That was close." She said, inanely. The front of her skin suit was undamaged, and she realized with a sinking feeling that she knew exactly what the cramps meant. "Oh," she curled up for another, "This is really bad timing." She squeaked, then took a breath as the cramp ended and asked, "Did you get hit? Did I get hit more than this?"

"I’m fine. I just hope to hell Simon got inside." He stripped the skin suit off her arm, and grunted satisfaction, "Mostly hematoma, the laser just barely grazed your skin." He dropped her arm abruptly, "I’m going to get us out of this maze and over to where the antennas can pick us up and then yell bloody murder."

"Good idea." Kirby panted slightly, another contraction? Already? The books she’d read had said labor started with hours of widely spaced contractions. Hours. Plenty of time to get around to another airlock and get to the doctor.



Chapter Fifty Five

"…with jetpacks and hard suits, armed with lasers. We spotted them first coming out of the Piggies’ tram station, so I think Beringar’s trying something." Simon spun down, the adrenaline high dropping almost visibly. "What, I haven’t a clue." He looked at the figure floating nearby. "I have one of them, I think he’s unconscious, not dead." He ended dubiously. He curled up in the air of the tram vestibule, surprised to find himself cold and shivering. He had the man’s laser rifle, more because he didn’t want it floating around loose, than with any intent to use it. The tram door hissed open and the Colonel popped out. He just nodded to Simon and grabbed the floating man.

"Let’s get both of you to sickbay." His voice was fast and clipped, a little high. Simon recognized the same symptoms his mother showed when she was in overdrive. "I really want to talk to this guy." With the els tucked in close, the elevator was sidelined and they just floated down a short corridor and into the el. Cherry met them halfway to the clinic, frowning at the cavalier way her patient was being towed.

"Are you alright, Simon?" by the razor sharp glance she sent him he judged the question rhetorical and just nodded. "Get his clothes off him, gently with the right arm, it appears to be badly broken."

A few other marines trailed in to help, the ranking officer grabbed the man’s pouched belt and whistled as he opened the first section. "Sir, laser limpets." He held it open for inspection. "What were they planning on cutting hole in? Us?"

"And the ichimp els, probably," Simon put in. "There were a lot more of them out there. I think they just came after us because they realized we’d seen them."

The Colonel was already out of the room and on the comm. From what Simon could hear of his growls he was directing troops that were already suited up. He turned back, "All of you up to control, time for the power suits. Move." His eyes fell on Simon, "Monkenstein, stay here and try to warn all the els there could be problems. Those charges were designed to penetrate, so there’s a risk of decompression." Then he was gone.

Simon reached for the comm. Engineering first? No. Construction HQ. A lot of them might still be suited up. "Chris? Simon. The Piggies have saboteurs outside with laser limpet hole cutters. Can you field a search crew? The Marines are headed out to stop them, but there aren’t enough of them to search the outsides of the els for limpets that have already been emplaced."

"We’re on the way."

Simon dialed up engineering, "There are Piggie saboteurs outside with limpets, can you sound decompression warnings for only our els? We don’t want to warn them, although I suspect they know they’re blown." Receiving another affirmative he keyed off the comm and turned to Cherry. She had the unconscious man’s arm in a rigid cast and bound to his chest, and was peering through an instrument at his eyes. "Have you seen mother, lately?"

"I think she was piloting a pod, she should have come in just after the workers were back inside." She looked at him apprehensively, "She wouldn’t have anything to do with this!"

"Except," Simon pointed out, "To fight them." He frowned roughly in the direction of Spider’s airlock, fumbling with the laser rifle. He knew how to use it, but could he? "I think I’d better keep an eye on the airlock here."

***

By the time Chuck got to the bridge, the Piggies were being escorted out by Lieutenant Conde’s troops. "Line them up along the wall." He snapped, glaring at the group. "If any of you know what Beringar is up to, I would appreciate your telling me right now." They all looked indignant, ignorant and out of the loop, except for Sharpe, the one experienced pilot the piggies had. He looked stubborn. "Are they sabotaging the ichimp els, the Marine’s, or both?" Silence. He could hear the blood pounding in his head. "Are they trying to decompress the els, or snap the cables?" Silence. "Lock them up, put a guard on them. If they try anything, kill them." He was nearly whispering with the effort to stay calm. "Then get into the hard suits fast. Baker, Wisdom and," he hesitated, "May, piloting. That will give us one squad for each column. Lieutenant Conde," He turned and headed for the docking bay, "Take Wisdom, and Sergeant O’Malley’s squad. Sergeant Eddings, take Baker’s pod and I’ll take May with Wolfe, Herring and Deveroux."

Ivan shot up to them braking with a bone crunching thud into the wall next to him. "What are they doing? The els are sealed, everyone’s trying to get into skinsuits or airtight compartments in a total panic."

"There are people EVA with limpets." Chuck kept it short. "Want to help us go kill them?"

"Yeah." Ivan cracked his knuckles, "Starting with Beringar." He swung away, but was back in seconds, catching up to Chuck as he reached the docking bay. "His tram is locked in place halfway into the station. We can’t go that way."

Chuck nodded and grabbed his armor. "We’ll have to go in through the tramway airlocks, a dozen at a time." He pointed along the rack, "See if any of the body armor will fit you. I don’t have enough troops to lend you any, do you have anyone who can fight?"

"A few, I’ll keep them in engineering, though. The Piggies must mean to take it intact."

Chuck nodded agreement with his logic. "We’ll clean up the saboteurs that are EVA, and meet you to take el three." He reached over and grabbed one of the spare laser rifles, and extra power packs and handed them over. "Go down to el one and use Spider’s airlock. See if you can keep any more Piggies from leaving el three." He grabbed a helmet and reached inside to manually reset the radio channel. "You’ll be able to hear all of us on one and talk to me on two." He told him, handing it over.

Ivan nodded, and grabbing a motley assortment of armor and weapons clicked off toward the tram.

Chuck finished sealing his armor over his forearms, and turned to the suited soldiers waiting for him. "OK, we’ll ride on the outsides of the pods and see what’s going on before I get too detailed. Let’s go."



Chapter Fifty Six

"OK, Spider, stand off, relay our transmissions and play catch if necessary while we clean these rats out." Chuck worked to keep his voice slow and deep. No need to start the adrenaline overdose yet. "And keep your eyes open, let us know where you spot any of them."

He was perched, along with Wolfe, Herring and Deveroux, on the exterior of the pod. May Huang had expressed a preference for outside work herself, but he’d needed her piloting more. The rest of the pilots he’d left with Freeman. With the Piggies under arrest, she needed them more than he did. Hell, he didn’t have enough troops to need more. If the Piggies had lasers, he didn’t want to split his troops up to less than his undersized squads of six.

"Sir?" Kirby’s voice came over the comm, "Checking on the way out, besides the troops exiting el 3, I spotted movement on els 8 and 11 on the way out. Plus, el 15, the mall, and el 13, the school," her voice got suddenly breathless and painful, "have to be considered prime targets." She wheezed.

The school. All the kids from the Foundation labs. He hissed. "OK, May, take us to el 13. Eddings, el 15, look it over and commit troops if you see anyone, then work your way forward checking each el. Lieutenant Conde, I want you to check out eight and eleven, use your troops and Eddings’ if they aren’t engaged." He could feel the gentle acceleration as his pod shifted away from the others. El thirteen was in the fifth tier, they slid in between the fuel spheres, and May got a spotlight on the el. It was defuse enough to light up the entire side. He saw nothing until they slid underneath. Then the figures in hardsuits were everywhere. He spotted four immediately, on the hull of the el, and then more cruising down the frame, heading for the next el, or Engineering. His helmet gave each figure a faint red cast, echoing the small-scale schematic high to the right.

"OK, let’s clean up this bunch first." He kicked off and the others fell in, Wolfe and Herring expertly flanking him and Deveroux to the rear. On the other channel, the volume low, he could hear May Huang reporting the situation to the other squads. Spider’s relay was working, there was a bit of an echo, in the complex radio shadow of the fuel spheres, but no one was out of communication. May murmured in his ear that Conde was dropping one team at eight and taking the other to eleven. "The Piggies’re operating in teams of four." She said, "There are at least eight teams. They may have enough to mine all the ichimp els at once." He saw the pod drifting through the framework as the first laser fire flicked out. His helmet traced its path in yellow. They were firing at the pod. He snorted a bit. They’d have to be incredibly lucky to hole the pod with that, luckier yet to cripple it. As he thought that a red line flashed from the surface of the el to the pod and he could see the puff of vapor as atmosphere blew out.

"Son of a Bitch!" May Huang sounded startled, but not hurt, "Where did they get those?"

"The energy profile doesn’t match anything off the shelf," Herring reported, "I think they must have made it themselves."

Following the line on his display back, Chuck brought up the magnification and studied the man with the new weapon. Bulky, packed like a mule. "Looks like backpack energy source. Troops, eyes open for backpacks, shoot at will." Then he touched down and twisted to skim the surface.