Frost looked around at the crowd in exasperation. "All the long distance aircars are in use already, moving people whose homes have been damaged or capture by these cyborgs. The aircars will return, and San Francisco, New York and Malibu are sending theirs here to assist."
A lot of faint grumbling from the crowd.
For a pack of sweeties who've never had a crisis in their lives, they're not doing badly.
"Now . . . it's highly unlikely, but just in case there are power outages, it might be a good idea to have some food on hand, something that will keep well, incase the kitchens fabs don't work. And water. You should go home and fab up a weeks supply of your favorite drinks, and some food. Nexus will contact you hen the aircar from the other cities arrive, and the people closest to the incursion can get out of the danger zone until things settle down."
Until we beat the bastards. Damn it all, I like it here, despite the silly . . . How will we run a war in Utopia? Well, not in a standup fight, that's for sure. It looks like Mirk closed the gate, for now. But if they come back . . . the city will be lost. Even the soldiers here can take an unarmed city . . . so do we fight openly, or subversively, hidden in a conquered population?
Why are they here? Is this just a conquest? For land? Living space? Or to steal wealth, refined metals and minerals? Food? Tech? If they've got gate tech, they don't need anything here. And the population is so small, the portable wealth is also small.
It must be land. So they'll occupy the city and take over all functions . . . They'll take over, or destroy the Nexus.
If they have the Nexus, we're toast. It sees everything.
Frost smiled out at the crowd, made shooing gestures. "Go on, go home. Stock up, pack for a trip."
She walked away, kept her voice low. "Nexus, are you located where you can be easily found? Or are you hidden?"
"My various components require regular servicing. Of course I can be found. Why would I want to hide?"
"To avoid destruction. I think I'd better take a look at you, and see if we can hide you, just in case. How long can you go without servicing? If you absolutely need to stay hidden?"
A corridor that ran the length of the building. Doors on both sides. He opened the first door to his right, toward the back of the building. A neat modern hospital room, unoccupied. To the left, fewer doors, wider spacing. He opened the first one.
Only his recent exposure to high tech Worlds let him recognize the operating room. Central table, vid screens, wires, tubes, gadgets all over the walls and hanging on hinged arms from the ceiling, trays in sterile glass fronted bins. Shelves full of sealed electronic things . . . larger racks of mechanical arms. He eyed the arms, trying to guess the function of several things . . . a laser? Or maybe just a built in light. The hand was complex . . . Can it possibly be as dexterous as a real hand . . . or is that why they stick to the left arm only? Is it stronger? Enough to be worth it?
He eyed the other end. Shoulder ball socket, with extensions that must go well into the back and chest, anchor to the collar bone and shoulder blade.
Did they take prisoners? But how do they enforce obedience? The brief glimpses he'd had of the cyborgs . . . plates here and there on shaven scalps, oculars . . . Yes, they were all here on these shelves.
Mirk looked at the other door, opposite of where he'd entered. Prisoners over there? I think I'll finish checking this corridor first.
Hospital rooms empty. Operating rooms . . . being prepped, but no patients until he reached the last room. Muffled voices warned him, and he barely cracked the door open.
Men—cyborgs—the closest all in white, right down to the gloves. The patient's head was being bandaged by one cyborg. One of the others—the one yelling at the uniformed soldiers at the far door had a bloody instrument in one hand. He threw both normal and cyborg hands up in exasperation and waved his crew out the far door.
Abandoning a patient in mid operation? Is he dead?
Mirk shuddered as he got a good view of what the surgeon has been working on.
What looked like a perfectly normal left arm . . . set off to the side. The raw wound of the shoulder . . . The last cyborg hustled over to hastily cover the area. He taped down gauze, then follow the others out.
Mirk eased in, cracked the other door. A bustle of action to the left. Injured being hauled past to the other operating rooms. An angled view of a sitting area, cyborgs leaning over cyborgs.
What do they call it? Triage? The one who will probably die anyway, leave. The ones with injuries they will survive even if they have to wait a long time, leave. Concentrate on the people whom immediate medical care can save.
There were some moans and whimpers, from stretchers . . . no as much noise as he'd heard, years ago, when he was in the army. Bandits wounded in battle, hauled before a court to be tried and hung. No one wasted much medical care on them, either.
He glanced to his right . . . and there they were. The poor schmucks the Nexus had sent to negotiate, cowering behind bars. Mirk stepped back and looked around. White garments, no doubt sterilized. He pulled the top on over his shirt. The hat thing, to cover his hair.
He peeked again. No one obviously looking this way, or guarding the prisoners.
He stepped out confidently and walked up to the barred door. Electronic lock. Controlling a steel bolt. He thought of his physical shield, the shield on his hand sticking out beyond his fingers . . . right through the bolt.
"Out. Now. All of you. Hurry. Go through the door there. Around the operating room and out the far side."
They stared at him. Bloody frigging pacifists . . .
"The Nexus sent me to free you from this illegal restraint. Please exit now and follow my directions."
That actually got them moving.
The body on the table stopped them. It was moaning, twitching . . .
"Go! Keep moving!" Mirk glanced over his shoulder, nerves screaming. What the hell am I doing here? I'm no hero!
"But, but, that's Felix! We can't leave him here . . ."
Mirk jerked around and stared. That is him!
One woman took a deep breath. "You and you." Pointing at the two nearest men. "Help him up and see if he can stand. Felix? Open your eyes . . . eye. We need to go."
Mirk eased around them and out to the first corridor. There was a door at this end as well. He opened it. The street was deserted. Fighting fires, I hope.
He looked back at the people following him. "Turn right and start walking. When you get far enough out into the grasslands that you can't see this place, turn left. The city is not too far, and the Nexus ought to be able to send aircars for you."
He watched a semi-conscious Felix creep by and looked back down the hall.
Rooms full of cyber parts. Are they going to turn all captives into cyborgs? Can they really impose their controls on men? I can't leave this . . . But what can I do?
He stepped back into the operating room and looked around. "Must be something flammable in here." A bottle of clear liquid. He couldn't read the label, but a sniff . . . alcohol of some sort. He reached high and poured it over the shelves of cyber parts. Stepped back patting pockets. No matches? Oh! He refrained from slapping his forehead and gathered power. It was cold enough to be difficult, he only needed a little fireball.
He stepped out of the room and tossed the glowing speck at the shelves.
Turned . . . at looked up at the cyborg reaching for him.
Mirk grinned and put his hand on the circle and turned east. "Time to see what we can do about that gate."
He frowned and remembered the "unnoticeable" spell.
It's been what, two years? A bit less? since I let Jade change my Negue family power gene to a regular mage gene. And add a wizard gene. Like the rest of the royal family, I could exude charisma and form a mental shield to keep my thoughts in and others out. But that's all it was good for. I've picked up a few things since . . . now I wish I'd been less of a snotty noble and more of a good magic student.
He shoved jitters aside. Pulled power from the sun and applied it to the unnoticeable spell. Envisioned it ballooning out and covering the whole aircar.
Lumps on the horizon. Enemy camp in sight. Last he'd seen the gate building had been roughly central, the vehicles exiting to the north.
So he needed to get into the encampment north of the middle, so he could turn south for the gate.
In a few minutes he was close enough to see the starts of the streets, some with construction of buildings as they extended their camp. He steered for one with no construction . . . just gravel, not a real street. He swerved to miss a wheeled vehicle that apparently couldn't see him . . .
He veered away from another, around a third . . .
This would be a lot easier if I could control my speed . . .
He slewed around a corner onto a broad street . . . small building dead ahead, across the road . . . Empty. Nothing but the back of the building showing. A short line of trucks waiting on the right side of the street.
Crap! The gate isn't turned on.
A quick turn down a side street. Large tents, small plywood buildings looking not much sturdier. Another car to dodge and those pedestrians . . .
Damn it all to hell. What do I do now? Drive in circles, pop back through and see if it's on? There was trucks waiting, so it can't be days until it opens.
He caught a glimpse of something . . . circled the block and cruised by.
Cyborgs unloading bodies. Carrying them into a building.
Dead or stunned? Must be alive . . . unless they use dead bodies to create the cyborgs.
What controls the cyborgs? A computer like the Nexus?
He cut south, then east . . . swerved and skidded to miss a truck coming up the gate road, turned onto a side road, cut further south and then back . . . Turned early to squeeze the left side of the road.
"Timing, timing, god damn these remote controlled vehicles . . . "
A trucked was pulling away from the building and he swerved straight for the back of it, must not hit the door frame, nor the truck . . .
He stood up, stooped over to steer. One foot on the side of the aircar.
The truck kept going. He steered right then left. The aircar's nose entered the doorway.
Was thrown through the air, hit a tent that folded, was hit by a large sheet of plywood. He could feel things hitting the panel, so he stayed under it . . . assessing . . .
I can't hear anything. Got all my body parts. Bruised, but I don't think broken.
The patter of falling debris stopped and he crawled out to look. The flimsy camp was flattened for a hundred feet all around, a dozen fires starting. The battered sheet of plywood he dropped was charred, with flames starting to flicker.
Unnoticeable! I'm unnoticeable.
The gate building was gone, no sign of a gate. The vehicles that had been waiting on the street was battered and charred.
Glad I jumped to the side! He limped off, away from the destruction.
His head was aching—too much magic or a blow, hard to say. But he clung to the spell and dodged cyborgs running for the gate site. The smoke behind him turned to steam as they extinguished the flames . . . and that was the building they'd been taking the bodies into . . .
He walked casually up to it, trying not to limp.
If it's a hospital, they'll be bringing patients in . . .
Even as he thought it, the first arrived, on a battered, scorched, flatbed truck.
Mirk circled the building and tried a side door.
"I . . . think you are incorrect in assuming they are acting out of fear." Crap. That hunk of rust is an idiot!
And my most valuable asset.
"I am reconsidering the wisdom of your mission."
Mirk nodded slowly. "Yes. I suppose need to approach cautiously, peacefully, I should not have assumed that they were brutal killers. My first impulse was hasty." He held his breath. The aircar continued south.
Thank Gods! The Nexus is equally naïve about me, and these soldiers.
He heaved a sigh of relief, and kept lying. "I will try to contract them, and explain that we are not threating them. However, talking to the people in control, back here at their headquarters is probably a better idea than approaching the underlings doing the intimidating."
Bloody fucking hell. Those people had better jam the Nexus's control of this car or nothing is going to stop the invaders from moving in so many soldiers they outnumber the population of the World! And this city is . . . probably already a lost cause.
"I am sending a peace delegation, now. So your mission may not be necessary."
Fat bloody chance. "Oh, I hope so."
I'm talking to it like it's an utter moron . . . not far off the truth. "May I see vid of the meeting? Perhaps it should be public."
"Yes. The delegation is approaching the strangers now. Vid is on channel 56."
Mirk eyed the control panel. Nothing to steer with, but of course there's a small screen.
He winced as he spotted the long shot of the aircars approaching the fires. The figures in black and bronze setting up a line of large guns . . . The aircars grounded and people emerged. Men and women in business suits. An even dozen . . . Old Gods! Is that Felix? Why did the Nexus send a finance manager into a battle zone . . . Because it has no diplomats and Felix Pierce gets along well with everyone . . .
The soldiers stepped out from behind their line of weapons and walked forward to meet them. And from a close range, suddenly sprinting forward, drawing hand weapons and firing.
Men fell. Women ran . . . were pursued and dragged back . . . thrown to the ground . . . Mirk was glad that the crowd of soldiers blocked the view.
"They are not responding to my informing them that non-voluntary sexual intercourse is forbidden by law."
"Nexus." Mirk tried hard to keep the horror and fury out of his voice. "Do you have protocols for dealing with dangerous animals and defective, dangerous machinery? Because that appears to be what we are faced with."
"They are not animals."
Mirk grit his teeth. This is not the time to antagonize the moronic . . . "They appear to be human, but their behavior is in line with the worst of the disrecommended games. Is my vision mistaken, or did they have considerable bionic . . . replacement parts?"
"They did. The left arm has been replaced with a electromechanical prosthesis. Very versatile and strong. It demonstrates impressive medical engineering abilities."
Mirk boggled. "I doubt this is a club for accidental left arm amputees. I suspect their doctors are removing perfectly heathy left arms, possibly something with the eye, and the plates on the skull may indicate brain implants. You might analyze their actions, looking for programmed behavior that might indicate the level of control from a single source."
"Mirk Negue, you current actions are unsafe."
Switch tactics, Prince Mirk. This calls for diplomatic double-speak. "I know. But we need to try to talk to these people. I will observe and determine if the leaders are also mechanically augmented."
"This knowledge would be useful. No doubt there was insufficient communications between the leaders of these people and the people at the forefront of their encroachment."
Encroachment. Lovely. A synonym of invasion, but not actually saying we're being invaded.
"Yes. It would be a nightmare to think the leaders ordered that appalling behavior." Gods! The diplomatic pabulum just rolls off my tongue. Old training dies hard.
"It is time to turn the aircar toward the encampment. I am having to fight my own protocols, now that I know how dangerous it is to approach these people."
"But I am a single person, much less threatening. And I am more able to take precautions, being suspicious of these . . . is the term cyborg? I think I read a story . . . Umm, I am suspicious of the cyborgs, and will approach with caution. Keeping near objects I can duck behind." While I find out if my magic shields are hard enough to stop bullets, how far I can stun and slice when fighting for my life, and whether an unnoticeable spell works on cyborgs.
"I compute that . . ."
The panel with the screen swung down. A five inch circle clearly labeled "To steer: rotate the circle right to turn right" with a arrow pointing right and curving down. "To turn left rotate the circle left" with the left arrow curving . . .
Mirk grinned and put his hand on the circle and turned east. "Time to see what we can do about that gate."
Yeah, I know, capitalize countries. But these are dog breeds. It's not German shepards, a great Dane and a boxer.
But if it's . . . German Shephards, a Great Dane . . . shouldn't Boxer also be capitalized? Is there some rule about "only caplitalize dog breeds when there's a country name in there?"
I'm digging through the Exiles google doc before updating, and, OK, I know I can't complain about _other_ people missing things, when I obviously missed them all more than once. But the capitolize dog and horse breeds thing has stymied me more than once.
Black clouds of smoke rising in the south. Another explosion rattled the city. Mirk could feel it though his boots.
"Nexus, what is causing the emergency?"
Mirk shivered. Hopefully this is an industrial accident. But does this computer understand anything about war? Heh. Finally something I'm an expert at.
"Nexus, do aircars have exteriors cameras? I recommend sending one—no passengers—to view the area of those explosions."
"An excellent suggestion, Mirk Negue. Complying."
Mirk turned and trotted back inside. "Display the pictures on my screen. I recommend you start at about a three hundred foot altitude."
"Aircars require proximity to the ground to operate."
Mirk sighed. And stood and watched the street level view of burning buildings, people running.
Soldiers in dull black armor, brass . . . not helmets, more like oculars, over one eye and other brassy bits here and there, glued onto the shaven scalps.
He squinted. The nearest soldier's left arm almost looked . . . robotic. The soldier raised his weapon, pointed it at the aircar . . . a flash and the screen blanked.
"Nexus, that looked like an invasion. Do you have protocols for dealing with war?"
"War is not permitted . . . "
"And a very good idea that is. Unfortunately those people don't seem to care about your laws." Mirk bit his lip. A high tech war. I've only read about them. Swords and cavalry charges aren't going to work here . . . except I ought to be able to scale up the tech, the speed and range of weapons . . . "Do you have any weapons? Defensive weaponry?"
"No. Weapons are forbidden."
"Surveillance. You spotted us in the middle of the savannah. Satellites? Can you get me an aerial view of the area of destruction?"
The picture sprung up. Half obscured by smoke. "Five houses and two shopping centers have been damaged or destroyed. Fire suppression is not working very well. I diagnose a break in the water main supplying the area."
"Zoom out . . . pan south slowly. I need to see where they are coming from."
The view shrunk . . . drifted south. Miles of road full of ground vehicles. And a large encampment. Then nothing.
Mirk bit his lip. "They must be coming through a dimensional gate. Zoom in and look for vehicles appearing from nowhere."
A road. Vehicles rolling out of small building that couldn't hold more than one or two of them.
"Right. The gate is in there. We need to close it, first, then deal with the forces that are already here. Zoom out a little, I'll need a path . . . plenty of cross streets to their camp."
"They are not responding to my requests to cease their destructive actions."
Mirk closed his eyes. Requests! "We need to evacuate the southern part of the city . . . Frost, can you coordinate that? Nexus, I need a large aircar, and I'm going to have to break a lot of safety rules."
"Breaking safety . . . "
"Nexus, shut up. Dig into your memory archives about the history of the Earth we left behind. Read what happens to people who can't fight back." He got up and headed for the door. "Aircar now. I'll need manual controls. And disengage the door locks, I'll be getting out while it's moving."
"Vehicular mayhem is not a good idea, but . . . I calculate that it may be needed to close the 'gate' as you call it. I will guide it in."
"They may . . . I have no idea why it is called 'jamming' but radio frequency interference may be in use."
"I see. I am searching old archived programs . . . this is very alarming!"
"Aircar. Quickly." Mirk, spotted the movement and ran out to the road.
A sporty convertible model sighed to a halt. He jumped in. It . . . moved away. At as moderate speed.
"Nexus . . . manual controls?"
"There are no aircars with those features. I have disabled the safety belt programming, and if my signal is jammed, emergency controls will pop out from a drop down panel so you can steer to a stop."
"I need to keep going. I ought to go faster now, as . . . Nexus, I need to go wide around the invaders and approach at a high velocity from the side. Can you override the power controls and speed this thing up?"
"I am . . . overwriting the control algorithms . . . and if jammed . . . the vehicle will stay at this velocity."
The car sped up until it was at a horse's sprint speed.
Thirty miles an hour! Mirk unclenched his fists. "Thank you. Now please get me out of town on the west or southwest as quickly as possible, then south."
Information. I need more information. "We need to figure out who those people are, why they are attacking us, and what they want, and expect to get . . . There are no defenses, which they will figure out soon enough . . . Nexus . . . if they have any idea about how this world works, they will be trying to capture you."
"I am a very widespread electromagnetic phenomenon . . . but half of my computing power is physically based here."
Mirk sat up. "Is this the only point of attack? Are the other cities . . . "
"All other cities are peaceful, the satellites show no other concentrations of unknown people."
"Good. I suggest that anyone evacuating head for the nearest city . . . San Francisco, right?"
The aircar passed the last houses and cruised on until the road ended. Then it turned south
I've been spoiled by the high tech worlds I've lived on the last two years. A horse would be exhausted and stumbling by now. But sixty miles an hour would be nice! And a hundred, much more useful.
"Based on old programs, I approve what you are doing. I will continue to attempt to negotiate."
Mirk hunched his shoulders. "May I suggest that you do not reveal that you are a machine. Keep them looking for a man and his high tech broadcast equipment, not just hunting down a computer."
"I have already informed them that I am the Nexus . . . "
"Stop it! Stop giving them Information they can use against us." Mirk looked around the aircar and found nothing useful to hit with his head. "And make sure any critical information you have stored here is duplicated somewhere outside of the city. In fact start manufacturing replacement parts for yourself in other cities. If we can defeat these invaders . . ."
"We cannot fight them! That will just escalate the amount of damage they will do. I have run a gaming simulation. They should stop the attack soon, now that they have demonstrated their aggression. They will parley now and demand our surrender."
"We cannot surrender. They will use our resources to attack the next city." Mirk craned his neck. Was it time to angle in toward their camp?
"Once they see that we are no threat to them, they will no longer fear us, and will cease hostilities."
Two students, a financial analyst with a job promised in the government, and a hobby gardener. Frost was a bit miffed by the lack of career opportunities for a witch, but the computer was quite clear on the non-existence of witch as a job title or description.
Halberd felt very odd, the first time she walked into Dr. Beecher's lecture hall. Rick and Colleen mobbed her, and even Dr. Beecher unbent enough to beam at her before calling the class to order.
"You are so lucky!" Lori's hologram settled down in her usual seat.
Marco nodded, and then sat up and watched Dr. Beecher, as he brought up his first holo.
Real people. Real friends. Even the ones she hadn't touched yet.
Napalm frowned at the . . . interesting mechanism. "A by sickle? What does it do? I mean obviously it will tip over by itself . . . Do those wires on the wheels cut the crops?"
"It's all one word. Bicycle." Annie smirked and straightened the contraption, kicked to fold up the brace that kept it from falling over. Then she hopped up on the seat and just cruised off down the walkway. No sign of tipping over.
No waiting for the tram. No seat belts. Stupid helmet, but . . .
Annie turned in a wide circle and peddled back past her the other direction.
Napalm galloped after her, sprinting to catch up. "So, how do I get one of these?"
"At the store. C'mon!"
". . . and this will be your office."
Mirk gave Felix Pierce a firm handshake, and watched him walk away. My immediate supervisor. I'm the low man on a brand new ladder of advancement.
He looked around the tidy little office, a quarter the size of his office in Karista. He could feel his muscles relaxing, all the worry and anger fading away. He tapped to bring up the computer display.
"Welcome to the Office of World Economics, Mirk Negue. May I take you on a virtual tour to start your first day familiarization?"
This feels fantastic. I didn't realize I missed being part of the government.
One of the forces for order, rather than the agents of chaos the gang was.
I missed having a job.
"So . . . if gardens are just occasional hobbies . . . where does the food come from? What, exactly do you mean by vat meat?" Frost let the dry sandy soil trickle through her fingers and turned away from the sight of the weedy backyard of her new home. Going to take some work to get it going well.
"Vat meat is derived from genetically engineered yeast. The yeast grows in a vat, hence the name."
"Is it genetically engineered to . . . be muscle cells?"
"Not entire cells. But the proteins and fiber of muscles are accumulated in the yeast cells until they mass ten times the usual mass of a yeast cell. Then they are harvested, drained and pressed into the desired form."
"That's . . . amazing." And explains the soft, gooey texture. "What about vegetables? Fruit? I saw the wild animals and plants in Africa . . . have you maintained domestic animals at all?"
"Unfortunately, the first colonists allowed some domesticated varieties to stray, and breed in the wild. As the citizens voted against eradication of the invasive species, feral cattle, horses, sheep, and goats have established themselves in North America, Europe and Asia."
"No doubt interbreeding with the wild relatives . . . have you kept pure domestic strains? What about grains, vegetables, fruit trees?"
"They are no longer necessary. The plants have also escaped cultivation and gone feral."
"I see." Frost frowned around the rather barren house. "Now let's talk about furniture and decoration, before I get a shovel and start hunting for fruit tree seedlings for the yard."
"Growing your own food is not necessary, Frost Witch."
"Hobby gardener. Remember? No reason a garden can't be both beautiful and productive." She nodded. "It's late in the year, if I can identify the trees, I'll mark them and transplant them this winter."
By mid winter they were settled in. Comfortable and happy. Even Frost was enjoying her garden, adding plants whenever the weather cleared. Mirk suspected it was going to be spectacular, come spring.
Mirk schmoozed regularly with his coworkers. Business lunches, after work barely alcoholic drinks. Worked his ass off and loved it. They had people over for dinner. Business associates of both genders, with . . . partners. Like witches they apparently didn't marry, just formed civil unions to raise children. Unlike witches, having children had nothing to do with sex.
Not that there wasn't sex. Humans couldn't be trained out of hormonal impulses. But an awful lot of them seemed unclear on the concept and stuck to some sort of "Virtual Reality" stimulation. Mirk was afraid to try it.
The kids had friends in and out, they had their parents over for dinner and card games several times.
Nice people without any deep challenges, certainly not physical. Their exercise regimes were calculated for maximum health benefits, not hard labor. Sports competitions were as close to hostilities as was allowed. And their version of hostile bore a strong resemblance to grumpy irritation.
Friends. I have . . . friends. How very unexpected.
It's a stress free, relaxing life. Exactly what we all need right now. But eventually . . . I wonder who will break first, me or Frost? I'll get bored, or too ambitious. Frost will start missing her children, wondering what happened to them . . . And the girls. When will they tire of a few magic exercises in the back yard and start showing off to their friends?
Worry later. Enjoy everything we have, right now.
"The only thing I really miss is a fireplace." Mirk looked at the vid screen, which was showing a montage of flames. "They don't even have proper vids of fires, let alone the sensual impact of . . . glowing coals, the radiant heat, the occasional snap, the faint smoky smell, no matter how well designed and built . . . "
"Hot cocoa." Halberd sighed. "Egg nog. They didn't even have a Solstice celebration."
Napalm sniffed. "Annie thought we were weird, giving presents. 'If you want it, why didn't you go buy it?' Like she'd never been surprised by something she'd never thought of."
She plunked down in front of the screen and scowled. "Can we watch a movie?"
"Might as well." Mirk got up and headed for his room. He couldn't stand the insipid entertainment, even with the three witches' sarcastic commentary.
The windows rattled, a faint shake, a deep distant boom . . . "Thunder? That sounded almost more like an explosion."
Prince Mirk Negue frowned around at the endless rolling miles of tall grasslands, and contemplated his companions. Frost was meditating, trying to figure out which direction would be best to travel. A witch of moderate power, and some training. Halberd appeared to be perhaps thirteen or fourteen. Napalm looked about ten and had precociously grasped power the month before. The girls were holding hands and looking around, relieved and curious, not traumatized. Frost was the only one he knew well. But all things considered, three witches weren't a bad trio to be lost with.
"There's something that way." Frost pointed. "Mechanical, powered, electrical I think. It's coming this way."
"If it's a vehicle, maybe we can get a ride." Prince Mirk stretched his back and tried to not look weary. Ten years ago, in a fit of insanity he'd hired an assassin to kill his nephew and half brother. He'd been running or in prison since. No matter how many weird elixirs and magic wines he drank, he was tired. When the air cushion vehicle whined to a halt in front of them he was delighted.
The top hissed upward. The vehicle was empty.
"You are trespassing on the East African Savannah Preserve."
Mirk eyed the speaker at the front of the three rows of seats.
"You are required to board this vehicle for transportation to the headquarters in Mombassa."
Napalm climbed into the rear seat. "Might as well get someplace first, then start disobeying."
Mirk took the front seat. Frost joined him and Halberd slipped into the rear. The clear dome closed over them. "Please fasten your seat belts. The air cushion vehicle cannot move until all passengers . . . "
What odd land had he come to? He strapped in. This could be really interesting.
The hover car cruised smoothly a few feet above the tops of the tall grasses. Silent. Even the cool air blew with no sound of fans.
Mirk switched his glance from the horizon to the near vegetation. He tried to judge how fast they were traveling . . . finally gave up and just settled back. Closed his eyes . . . jerked awake . . . still grasslands with scattered trees.
Movement. Ungainly animals he'd never seen in the flesh. Elephants. And to think I'd wondered if they weren't a joke by the Old Gods.
Frost was curled up in her seat, looking out the far side of the hover car. Tears on the cheek silhouetted against the bright landscape.
He craned his neck. Both girls were asleep.
Just hours ago we were fleeing for our lives. Fleeing an attack . . . fleeing from arrest, trial, execution or imprisonment again. He rubbed his temples. I am tired of being a criminal. A traitor. Old Gods know Rebo deserved to . . . no. Not to die. I was stupid.
Why didn't I just divorce the bitch?
Six months after the assassin I hired killed him, when Staven told me they'd summoned the Council President to remove Rebo from the succession the day before he was killed, I laughed. Then I went away and cried in private for my stupidity.
He peered forward. Sharp lines. Wherever we're going, we're nearly there.
"We're not going to be criminals." He made his voice firm.
Frost lifted her head and peered ahead. "Yes." Her voice was soft. "For once in my life, perhaps I can be . . . just a normal person. Honest."
The girls stirred and sat up, as the hover car swung around a grove of trees and onto a paved street.
No buildings, no people. Just a paved road. Winding into . . . landscaping?
Around a corner and finally, buildings. They looked more like businesses than homes . . . glass paned windows
Blank and empty.
The taller vegetation fell back as the road turned into a broad boulevard. Taller buildings ahead, and the sparkle of light on water in the breaks between.
The voice that had spoken from the hover car's speakers spoke again. "Welcome to Mombasa. Would you like to stay at the Mombasa Inn or the Mombasa Family Suites?"
They looked around the empty streets.
"Who are you? Where are you?"
"I am the Mombasa Nexus of the World Net. I am a disbursed computer assemblage, present in all buildings in Mombasa. And also all over the world."
Halberd leaned forward and addressed the speaker. "How many people live here in Mombassa?"
"With the addition of you four to the population roll . . . four."
1400 post exile/3520AD
Mirk ground his teeth and tried to summon patience.
"Gritting your teeth causes undue tooth wear and may be an early indicator of Mandibular disfunction."
Mirk took a deep breath and tried again. "Where are all the people?"
"Abercrombe, Terrance. 11234 B Prairieview Drive, Malibu. Abrams, Abigail. 6529 Brookside Terrace, Paris. Addams . . . "
"Stop." I hate computers. "Please display a world map with population centers highlighted."
The illusionary globe suddenly rotating in front of him had, as usual, a rough approximation of the continents he was used to. And damn few population centers.
He heaved a relieved breath. For just a second, I thought Mombasa might be the sole "population center."
Close enough, there are damn few cities. All far away.
"So, not only is there no one else in Mombasa, there's no one else on the whole continent?"
"The prevalence of tropical diseases was deemed sufficiently high to disrecommend continued inhabitation. The control of insect vectors was difficult, even in the small enclaves that would minimize impact on the environment. Therefor the Mombassa center was closed."
This sounds like Earth at the height of its environmental craze. Several Earths. Mirk had read a lot of histories, from a lot of almost parallel Earths. "What is the population of the World? Show me a graph with demographics."
Four million people. A large city on any of the advanced Worlds. Other advanced Worlds. The age spread was flat, dipping only after eighty, and disappearing altogether at one hundred and ten.
Typical of non-magical populations.
"Display a historical graph of the population for the last 2000 years."
The first six hundred were zero. Leaping suddenly to a quarter million.
"So this is an Exile World."
"I am unfamiliar with the term. Utopia is the fourth colony of Earth Prime, settled in the year 2116 ce."
The population had apparently peaked a thousand years ago, at about twenty million, and been in decline ever since.
"Are there imposed restrictions on reproduction? Who has the babies?"
"Every individual is a valuable contributor to the next generation."
Frost walk in, toweling her hair dry but otherwise undressed. "That sounds like a hell of an orgy." She frowned at the globe and the graph.
"Orgies are restricted to virtual venues. Physical sexual contact is highly disrecommended."
"Explain common reproductive procedures." Mirk bit his lip and kept Frost in the corner of his eye. This could be good.
"A registered couple must complete child care classes before registering to become parents. When registration is approved, a phenotypical zygote is brought to term, and if normal and healthy, is delivered to their care."
"Fee no what?" Frost sounded like she was getting angry.
"Phenotypical. A suite of physical attributes commonly found in a given sub-population."
"So, someone wants a baby and someone just walks up and hands them a baby that looks about right for them?" She sounded appalled.
Mirk rubbed his face, trying to remember. Did Frost have two children? Three? Old Gods knows where they are now. No doubt they're in a bubble somewhere. With someone else. "If I understand the genetics correctly, Halberd should be able to open Gates when she's older. We're not trapped here forever." Unless we like it here and decide to stay.
Thanks to a room with a large time differential in it, the girls were multiples of their calendar ages. Due to good genetics and a constant near random application of magical changes, Frost looked half her thirty-four years of age.
Mirk bit his lip. I look younger too, the effect of several magic potions. But who knows what that implies as to life expectancy.
"Computer, explain the financial system here. What money is used, and how is it earned?"
"We have kept the Classical Dollar System. Every citizen receives a minimum stipend, to which are added their hourly earnings."
Mirk frowned. "How does one become a citizen?"
"Everyone is a citizen."
"What about us four?"
"I regret to say that a computer error seems to have erased all records of your existence. You will need to submit form 2234 to the nearest Node, to reregister."
"I thought you were a node?"
Mirk closed his eyes. "So, please give us form 2234 so we can reregister."
A form and keyboard appeared in midair. Virtual forms, along with virtual sex, apparently. Mirk sat down and proceeded to fill in all the blanks, inventing the vast majority of the data. The Node computer seemed perfectly happy with the nonsense, credited him with a weeks' stipend and then took half of it away as a fine for his trespass on the nature reserve.
The witches filled in their forms, and started nattering with the computer about shopping and travel.
Mirk walked out to the balcony and stared down the coastline. It was spectacularly beautiful, but they were going to need to live where there were other people, if they were going to take over and run this place.
Research first, move base second. Or even third. It is beautiful, a good place to stay for now.
Halberd dropped out of the conversation with the computer and wandered off to explore. The building was huge, by her standards. Bigger than the Mansion, in any case, and with four instead of forty adults, and no children it seemed even bigger. She liked the long clean straight lines. Mombasa Regional government offices. Next door to the Mombasa Inn.
"I need to know how things work here. I need to go to school." She listened for echoes, but all the sound was absorbed. A light blinked in a corner, and she investigated.
"Welcome to the Mombasa Virtual School, Halberd Arrowdaut. Due to your lost records, I need to test you for class placement."
She quickly lost herself in a whirl of questions, all set up like a game, with points and class standing, and canned crowd noises. It was quite funny. Fun too, and she was really reaching with her last few math equations.
"Congratulations, Halberd! In order to continue to challenge your math and science abilities, I am enrolling you in the University of Mombasa. I'm afraid though, that you will have to take remedial classes in history and social studies. When do you wish to start?"
"How about an introductory history class, now?" She wrinkled her nose. There were so many conflicting histories.
"Certainly. Let's start with the basics, the formation of the Universe. In the beginning, everything was dark matter, and dark matter was all. We have no evidence for a triggering event, but assume there was one, as the effects were so strong and immediate. With the formation of the Universe, everything came into being. Not just the physical particles, but the physical laws themselves. But not simply a single universe with a single set of laws, but rather a multitude of universes, with all possible laws. As the various universes cooled, the range of possibilities opened up more possibilities. But not new Universes, rather what we call membranes, or branes. Within each Universe, as defined by the physical laws, there are infinite possibilities, but the branes are all one and all interact, and so are drawn together even as they split apart, conserving mass and energy within each Universe.
"Introductory History will cover what is known about the formation of two branes. The one from which our ancestors came, one thousand four hundred and twenty three years ago, and this new home of ours."
It was utterly fascinating.
At some point she realized that Napalm had joined her and was whining about her classes, and wanting to be with other kids. Her mom had kept her out of the Fast House as much as she dared, so Napalm was only nine years old. The Node computer brought up what it called holograms—illusions of other kids—and a teacher, who welcomed her to the class and introduced her to the other students. It was weird, but Napalm was happier.
Halberd was much more adult, easily thirteen years old. But when she started her science classes, Halberd gained a teacher as well, a hologram named Dr. Beecher, and occasionally some other students – Rick who was Dr. Beecher's assistant, and Marco, Colleen and Lori who were supposed to be advanced students taking the class with her. It was quite fun pretending they were real people that she could share her thoughts and speculations with, but she always felt let down when the lesson ended and they disappeared.
Napalm felt much the same, finally whining at dinner. "Annie invited me to come over and play with her. When can we go there?"
Frost frowned. "Where does Annie live?"
"In Saint Louis. It's the Capital of the World. I learned that in school." She looked smug.
Halberd added. "North America. A bit east of dead center."
Mirk frowned. "Computer? Are the holograms of real people? Are they two way?"
Halberd choked on vat grown hippopotamus steak.
"Yes, they are all real people. The holographic transmissions are sent to all student locations."
"Where is Dr Beecher located? And the other students I interact with?" Halberd held her breath.
"Dr. Beecher teaches at the University of North America in St. Louis. Rick and Colleen attend in person, Marco remotely from San Francisco and Lori remotely from Samarkand."
Mirk looked thoughtful. "And St Louis is the Capital of the World. Obviously I should have gone to school with you two, instead of playing twenty questions with the machine every damn day. Computer, we need to move to St Louis. What is involved?"
"Setting a date, reserving a long distance skimmer, packing, and embarking."
"We will need money, a place to live, work to do." Mirk tapped a finger nail on the table.
"There are thirty-eight domiciles adequate to the size of this extended family available in the St Louis area."
"Display map of St Louis, highlighting the School Napalm has been attending remotely, and the University, and these thirty-eight domiciles."
Napalm's school was near the University, and both were not far from the government buildings. They examined four hologramed homes and picked one. The rent was easily within the reach of their four minimum stipends, but when their accounts were shown, they all gawped at one of them.
"Where did you get all that money?"
Halberd blinked at her balance—which was triple Frost or Mirk's.
"Good students receive bonus credits. Halberd is an excellent student in a difficult and valuable learning track."
Mirk sighed. "How do we find out what jobs we are qualified for?"
"Employment qualification testing is available."
"After dinner, I think Frost and I should be tested."
A week later they moved to St. Louis.