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matapam
22 February 2017 @ 06:21 pm
 
 
matapam
21 February 2017 @ 03:45 pm
So, anyone got any ideas about covers for _No Confidence_, _First Assignment_, _Surveilance Camp_ or _Fort Dinosaur_?
 
 
matapam
21 February 2017 @ 02:35 pm
Has gone live.

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

Spread it around!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

:: I was going to kill him. ::

A mental laugh, then nothing more directed her direction.

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


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

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

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

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

"Wagering, you mean."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, now . . . "

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

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

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


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

"What day is this, anyway?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qayg nodded.

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

Appalled silence.

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

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

The Committee's interactions . . .

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


Then it was time to face him.

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

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

The amused voice from nowhere.

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

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

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

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

"No. What do you want?"

"You."


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

What am I going to say?

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

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

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

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

"Do you want to stop?"

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

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

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

"I was going to kill you!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Xen . . . "

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

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

Urfa gave her a startled glance as she joined him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Chapter Four
2 Safar 1404 yp


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

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

/// And later///

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

/// And later still ///

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

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

 
 
matapam
18 February 2017 @ 02:11 pm
 

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

Agni always thumps and crashes when he moves.

"Send them in, Jacky."

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"To our children!" Amfw glared.

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

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

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

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

Dammit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
matapam
17 February 2017 @ 08:51 pm
 

Chapter Eight

24 Emre 1404 yp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could hear Agni's teeth gritting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Director! Director! What about Princess Rael?"

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

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

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

Of course it is!

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

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

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

***

Embassy was in an uproar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"President Orde, do you have any comments?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he's standing in the shadows watching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Chapter Nine

25 Jumada 1404 yp

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

A hard pinch on her left arm.

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

Her strike hit nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Interns?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The halo of Newsies aimed their vidcams.

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

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

Opnu straightened to attention. "No sir."

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

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

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

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

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

Redhead led the rest of the kids after her.

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

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

Raven? They named that flaming redhead Raven?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She must have looked blank.

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

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

and edging up to Xen's door.

She leaned her forehead against the door.

What am I going to say?

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

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

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

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

"Do you want to stop?"

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

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

"I was going to kill you!"

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

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

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

"No. What do you want?"

"You."

 
 
matapam
17 February 2017 @ 08:22 am

Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truck crossed the ridge and disappeared.

The ridge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tree?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both nodded.

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

***

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

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

Two zombies lurched out from a house to the left.

Michaels hit the brakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michaels was on the radio.

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

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

"Two kinds?" Michaels asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two zombie criminals.

Damn.

Chapter

Sunday 13 January 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nope. Civilians not allowed. Idiots."

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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


***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Good thing you moved them out, then."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh stared blankly at the wall. A baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Werewolves."

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
matapam
16 February 2017 @ 03:31 am
 

Hugh climbed over the hanging edge of a broken culvert and surveyed the other sides. Not rat proof, but it limited the directions the swarm could attack from. Michaels joined him.

"We’re in trouble. I don’t think your sword can deal with rats by the hundreds."

"Depends on how smart they are. Keep an eye out for the zombie master." Hugh waved a hand at the first wave. "Zaromuot." He fired the shotgun, taking out a few to the side.

Michaels turned back, "Sorry, didn’t catch that."

"Magic spell to kill rats. Zaromuot." His shotgun picked off a clump to the other side.

The deputy snorted. "Right, well, if you need help give a yell. The big guy is on the move." He raised his shotgun, sighed. "And out of sight. Damn it. Now I wish I had a sniper rifle. Or my hunting rifle, come to that. Or even deer shot, not this damned . . ." He dropped the muzzle and fired into the rats trying to stack themselves up and climb the overhang. The pile blew apart in a stinking explosion.

Hugh fired three more times into the mob of rats, murmuring the killing word. The rats flinched back and ran past them, staying behind concrete. The men stayed on their high point and picked off occasional groups that neglected their cover. More rats were leaving the back of the house and crossing to the construction yard. A zombie shambled out. Michaels shot twice and cursed as the creature, man, ignored the pellets hitting him at long range.

Ron and Able galloped after him.

The zombie stepped behind an almost intact culvert, climbing up on the rubble beside it. He reached down and grabbed Ron by the neck as the Fed trotted into range. Hugh threw himself off their prominence and scrambled across the rubble.

Able was pulling on Ron, Ron had his arms braced on the zombie’s shoulders, keeping rotted jaws a few inches from his face. The rats reversed their direction and converged on the tableau.

Hugh gestured well to the side. "Zaromuot." He drew his sword and flipped up the point. Ran it up between man and zombie, in under the jaw and into the zombie’s brain.

Able fell backwards with Ron sandwiched between him and the dead zombie at the apex of their pile. Hugh brought the shotgun around and fired three times into the rats. The fourth trigger pull resulted in a hollow click.

He spun and ripped the sword out of the zombie. Ron was just pulling the dead hands off his neck and hauling in deep breaths of air. Able pulled a box of shells out of his pocket and Hugh dropped the shotgun in his lap.

He turned back to the rats, but they were fleeing again.

They heard gunfire to the north, but could see nothing.

Les drove his car over the fence, and cussed them as the last rats disappeared. Hugh helped Ron up while Able finished loading the shotgun. They kept their eyes open and retreated into the car. Michaels galloped in from the side. Les threw it into reverse. "We’re hot on Manny’s trail, about three blocks north of here. Any places we really don’t want him to get into?"

"The stores four streets up? We’re probably too late to stop him. If he gets across Coyote Bar Road there’s the junk yard. I wonder why they all stay in this area, though? Does the thin spot have a hold on them? Is it strong enough to keep them from being chased out? Because they’ll be out of the region of overlap just north of the junkyard."

"Junked cars? If we get them in there, can we burn it?" Les turned on to Jefferson, hit the brakes, changed his mind and ran over rats, zigging his headlights around.

Michaels flapped his mouth a few times, then shrugged. "I always wanted to be an arsonist. But I suppose if we ask permission it doesn’t count."

"Sorry, your life of crime will have to be postponed." Les grinned.

"Not much wood to speak of, but no doubt plenty of oil and gas. And a good fence, no near neighbors. Bishop, I think you may have a plan." Hugh scratched his chin. "They’ve been towing thousands of cars, the last week. They’ve got them stacked all over the place, waiting for the crusher."

"If it won’t burn, we could try a flame thrower. That’d get all the rats under and in between cars. Any one know how to make a flame thrower?"

Les reached for the radio. "Let’s see what the Boss has to say."

When they reached Coyote Bar Road, they found that it had been cleared, and the dead cars filled the empty lot south of the junkyard proper.

All the hunters were there, with the addition of Schulenburg.

"The situation in SoCal has settled down. We killed the zombie masters, and the rest were easy to track down. The rats were the worst problem, but they are all dying now, naturally." He frowned at Les. "You look awful. But your idea about flamethrowers is sound." He nodded to the north. "In that mess. I’ve got the National Guard moving up to San Francisco. If this doesn’t resolve inside of another few days, I’ll shift some of them over here."

Mata nodded. "We’ve got more sheriff’s deputies north of the junkyard, and they’re reporting no sign of rats. So we’ll tool up, eat and rest before we go in."

"The feed store has insecticide sprayers." Hugh grinned. "And they were outside the overlap area, so they’re reliable." A zombie hunt with flame throwers!

"Sprayers sounds good. Where will we find this place?" Les looked like he was trying hard to not grin.

"Turn right at the next corner, left into the parking lot. Gasoline, or should we see if we can rig something up to spray propane?"

"Kerosene, for god’s sake. Do you really want to die? Would one of those pressurized hand pump ones work?" Ron asked.

Les parked in front of the building.

Hugh jumped out. "Maybe, but there’s a gas engine powered sprayer, on a backpack frame I spotted a few months ago. If they still have it, all you need to do is add a lighter to it."

"Spray . . . You’re going to need one of those long BBQ lighters."

Ron looked around. "The buildings are okay, no overlaps?"

"Yep, we’re just beyond the northwest edge. So everything ought to work." Hugh sauntered up to the doors and used the unlocking word on them. They opened easily.

"Trusting country folk," Ron muttered. "Good. I’m going to hunt down some fire extinguishers. Someone has to show some sense around here."

There was almost no wind. The sun was shining beneath the cloud layer as it sank toward the horizon.

Schulenburg nodded and they started pressurizing their pumps. "Ready?"

They were down to five teams of four people each. With one flame thrower, two shotgunners and someone with a club of some sort in each group. Or sword, in Hugh’s case. Each group had one or two fire extinguishers in backpacks.

John Michaels had won the toss and carried their flamethrower.

Les hefted his shotgun and flanked him to the right.

They walked up on the automobile maze and the rats came out to meet them. The sudden clicking of lighters, the whoosh, the bright light as liquid fire sprayed across the last of the open ground and found the rats. They squeaked and thrashed and burned.

Les swallowed his gorge. He forced himself to remember Jerry. So damned young. Johnson, butchered like a steer.

Flaming rats broke out between groups, little fireballs staggering through the damp grass.

Hugh started cussing, as two headed east, for the ridge. "If they burn down my girlfriend’s house I am dead."

A car drove up to block the rats headed into town. Schulenburg hopped out himself to club the creatures. The two to the east faltered and died before they reached the crest, leaving glowing spots on the slope.

Mata whistled. The groups advanced, spraying fire under cars and lighting the way as they moved toward the fence. This was the easy part. No doubt they were missing rats, inside the engine or passenger compartments. But by the time they reached the fence, there weren’t enough left to be a threat at their backs.

They walked around and approached the gates of the junkyard.

The fence was composed of rusting metal sheets on end. Intended for the sides or roofs of barns, they shielded the eyesore of the piles of crushed cars from the public view. It was often debated whether the wall itself was a greater or lesser eyesore.

Like everything metal, it had suffered in the overlap. But it appeared to be sufficiently intact to give minimal escape routes to any human sized zombies inside. The gates had been open when the first overlap hit, and they’d remained that way since. Looking through them, everything was still. The silence was broken by a wet, gluey cough. A dozen zombies shuffled out of the stacks and faced them. coughs, or perhaps sickly laughter.

One reached out his oozing hands and grinned. "Brainzzzz….."

They all shuffled forward, gaining speed.

"Light ‘er up Michaels."

The zombies were met by a virtual wall of flame. And shuffle-ran right through it. Flaming and burning, they closed on the hunters.

Les threw his shotgun to his shoulder and started firing. "Damn small game cartridges!" He backed away with the others as the loads staggered but failed to stop the zombies.

Hugh stepped in and swung his sword with a will, a flaming head flew, and the body collapsed. Three zombies converged on him and he bolted between two, dodged and cropped another head.

Les put five shells into a zombie’s head before it finally dropped. He’d been backpedaling the whole time, and looking around he saw a chaotic mixture of zombies chasing men and men chasing zombies.

A thud behind him, he spun and dodged a flaming zombie as it sprawled, head caved in. Baker grinned and raised his fire extinguisher in triumph.

Michaels stumped up to join them. "That wasn’t quite how I’d envisioned this going down." He had his sprayer turned off.

Baker reversed his extinguisher and started putting out the fallen zombies. "Yeah. The Charge of the Light Brigade. So to speak."

Michaels shook his head. "Baaad. I’m telling your wife you maligned a brave bunch of idiots that got themselves killed . . . Umm. Never mind."

Les cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should reserve the flamethrowers for the rats, and checking under cars. Let’s load half the shotguns with slugs and go take a look."

They all turned and scrutinized a figure approaching in the twilight. One of the sheriff’s deputies. He sank down and blew out a breath. "Dudes. I didn’t think I could still run that fast. It was, like, real spooky, you know, like they could still see, even when they were burning up."

Another deputy laughed. "And how many of us have sword envy, and want to run out and buy one just like Hugh’s got."

Hugh limped up and laughed. "The baseball bats work just as good, if you have to get that close."

"Radical, but effective." The surfer dude looked over at the junk yard. "Should someone tell Harrison his flame’s out?"

Hugh straightened. "Is that the micro-fine sprayer? If that lights off now it’s going to do a pretty good imitation of a fuel-air bomb."

"Crap!" Les bolted for the sprayer. "Stop it! Which way is the wind blowing? Is there anyone inside the junkyard?" The faint breeze was toward the junkyard, and he hauled the deputy away.

"I just figured we could coat everything, and then light it off." Harrison explained, while trotting to keep up with Les.

They all turned at shouts from behind them. A last zombie, still flickering faintly staggered around from the nearest storage unit. Panting men were loosing ground, but at least they were chasing it, instead of the other way around..

Ron wheezed to a halt beside Les. "Just can’t . . . keep running . . . like those things . . . can."

"Thought you had a superior physique?"

Hugh jumped up, and yelled at the other pursuers. "Let it go. Leave it alone and take cover!"

"Dude, it’s headed right for the junkyard." Deputy Brandon started backing away. "I gotta bad feeling about this."

"Yeah. C’mon, I think it’s time to leave." Les nudged Ron back, away from the junkyard.

"Too late." Hugh threw himself flat in the ditch on the far side of the road and Les hauled Ron over and shoved him down.

There was a tremendous whoosh. Felt more than heard, it sucked the air out of his lungs and then blasted fire over his head.

Silence fell.

Les raised his head. Beautiful symmetric glowing arcs crossed the sky. It started raining car parts. Large car parts. Sheets of metal. They picked themselves up and retreated hastily another quarter mile. Not in silence, judging by the moving mouths, but Les couldn’t hear a thing. Damn. Well. That cleared the junk yard. He waved to get everyone’s attention, and started obviously counting on his fingers.

They got the message, and split up for a head count.

To his relief, his hearing started to return about the time Ron reported that everyone was accounted for.

They dragged their asses around putting out fires. They left a smaller crew on duty, to watch for flareups and zombies, and the exhausted hunters piled into the cars.

***

Dr. Zealand looked pissed. "You released the subjects?"

"Patients." Tasman frowned right back at him. "I think you were starting to forget that they were people. I kept one, the boy with the abdominal injuries. He may be charged with a crime. None of the others were suspects of any sort."

"And what if they have a relapse?"

"Then I’m sure you will treat them as needed. As patients who came to you, not lab rats locked up in those cages." Tasman jabbed a finger down the hall, at the windowed rooms with the locking doors.

"This is a matter of national security. Those people are dangerous."

"This is a matter of Civil Rights, of the Rule of Law. The Constitution." She refused to give an inch. Not on this.

"We are operating under emergency powers, and . . ." he paused when the phone at the nurses station rang.

Nikki picked it up and her eyes grew round. She looked over at them, raising her voice. "The Agents, and police and deputies are all coming in to get a bunch of cuts and burns cleaned up, no major injuries. They want to know if they should come up or just use the ER."

Zealand glared at Tasman. "Since we don’t have any . . . patients, they might as well come up here, so we can justify our exorbitant salaries. Not to mention renting the space."

The scorched zombie hunters piled out of the elevators a few minutes later. She managed to sic Nikki on Les, and debrided the Surfer Dude’s burns herself.

"Like wow, those zombies can really haul ass when they’re burning." His cheerful face fell. "Poor sods. Even zombies, like, deserve better."

"Unfortunately they don’t seem to be giving us an alternatives. Turn around and let me see your back." Nicely muscled.

"I don’t think I burned anything, back there."

"No, you look good."

He blinked at her, and blushed a bit. "Really? I mean . . ."

They kept four men, not that badly injured, but just to be able to treat the worst of their burns in the morning. Tasman suspected a lot of painkillers were going to be needed tonight.

She saw Les looking her way, and ignored him. Set herself to keep watch tonight, and dispense drugs, water, and TLC where needed. Especially if Deputy Surfer Dude Mike Brandon was the man in need.

Chapter

30 August 2020

They all still looked a bit the worse for wear the next morning. The reddened skin, the little blisters where the burns were worse . . .

Schulenburg finished his breakfast, ditched his tray and stood at the head of the dining room to catch their attention.

"Well. Yesterday we destroyed sixteen zombie humans and infected rats by the hundreds. Thousands." He scowled around at them all. "We managed, barely, to lose no more people. Now the local director in So Cal says the zombies are dying at an increased rate. The ones still on the street look very bad, are barely ambulatory without a master zombie to drive them. Our hospitalized zombies did surprisingly well. Two died, and the rest have been released as cured. A few other hospitals are reporting the same. Despite this, I want to emphasize that zombies are very dangerous and the majority should be killed on sight. We don’t know if our zombie master died in the junk yard or not. Now that we’ve got some light, we’ll search." He cleared his throat. "And clean up some of the mess we made last night."

Ron leaned over and whispered. "They heard the explosion all the way to Sacramento." He clamped his lips shut as the director’s gaze headed his direction.

"On other fronts, some of the other problems we were anticipating have shown up, and faded again. Several people who merged with so-called demons, both during the overlap and since, all over the world, grew small horns, but they regressed and disappeared. We’re releasing those types from the hospitals or custody, as they didn’t seem to become violent. So we aren’t worried about reoccurrences.

"Locally, we had a boy, a teenager, with some canine characteristics who escaped our custody, but he may have been handicapped, not a merge victim. The mother and daughter with metabolic problems have been released, they don’t need hospitalization any longer, and aren’t any sort of threat. The healing zombies will remain under observation for some time, both in and out of the hospital."

He pulled out a card. "In the mean time, we’re going to rotate some people home. If the zombie problem is resolved, we’ll probably release you back to your regular assignments." He rattled off a string of names, including Ron but excluding Les. "As you’ve probably worked out, we’re sending the family men back home first."

He pocketed his card. "I’ll get the tickets printed, and you’ll be out of here about noon to catch a two o’clock flight to DC."

Ron sighed. "I feel like I’m running out on you."

"Think of it as leaving me in a position to continue my pursuit of Dr. Lee." Les smiled wryly. "Although I’m not sure my progress hasn’t been negative."

"Heh. I mentioned to Hugh that you two had gone up to the hot spot and he about had a cow. ‘On the night of the full moon? Are they insane?’ Les, they need to bring in a psychologist to help all the locals. Maybe a battalion of psychologists. They are really, really messed up."

"Yeah. Hugh believes in magic. Or maybe he’s just playing along with his girlfriend."

"I like that idea better. Unfortunately I don’t believe it." Ron glanced past him.

Les turned.

Tasman was walking toward him, towing a suitcase. "I’d like to speak to you. Alone, please."

He followed her to a nook in the lounge.

"I . . . wanted to thank you for not taking advantage of my . . . drugged or hypnotized state . . . when we . . . examined the hot spot."

Les froze. "Well . . . I really don’t know what happened, up there. It could have been a merge. Maybe, when we get our hands on some reports we’ll find out if that sort of . . . hallucination is common around the hot spots. Or if this one is unique."

"That’s a good thought." She fiddled with a pen on the table beside her chair. Pushed the little pad of paper around. "I’m a doctor. I ought to have recognized the symptoms. I ought to have been mature and responsible enough to get myself tested. Then we’d know if it was drugs or something strange that ought to be reported."

Les swallowed. "I didn’t report it."

"I didn’t either. There may have been LSD on . . . something I ate." Tasman tapped the pen nervously on the pad, then started doodling. "Except, I saw . . . or maybe it was just another . . . a flashback. Nobody can heal with a word of power."

Les squeezed his temples. "But I saw the Dance too. And I was dead certain I had horns. Maybe it was a late Overlap effect. Makes me wish I’d studied Physics instead of Law, you know?"

"We were right there on the hot spot." Tasman blushed.

"So close, even a small overlap that wasn’t noticed in town was strong enough for us to overlap with the dancers?" Les leaned back and considered that option. "I know the Research and Response Division keeps people away from the hot spots they know about. I hadn’t thought about small scale events being common, but it makes sense."

Tasman nodded. "Everything is like that. Lots of little storms, fewer large, and even fewer huge storms. Well. I apologize . . . for my attitude."

Les shrugged. "I . . . understand all too well. I’m not the most tolerant person around. Although this has been a real learning experience. I’m almost to the point of admitting that a pale skinned, small town, speed trap operator can be a damn good officer of the law. Even Deputy Surfer Dude was a good one. However jealous I am of the smiles you sent his direction."

She snickered at that. "Oh my, that is going out on a limb, for you. And I’ll have you know the smiles were amusement at his accent, not attraction. Heavens, if my Grandmother ever thinks I’m attracted to a, umm, what was that term? Speed Trap Operator, I’ll never hear the end of it. She is of Chinese ethnicity, and extremely prejudiced. And, well, had a bad marriage to a black man as well. She’s done an excellent job of passing her problems to my mother, and me."

"Ah. Well, I’m beginning to think we’re just going to have to outlive the worse of the old . . . problems. Yeah, well, and we’ve a whole new batch of things to be prejudiced about now. I wonder what your Grandmother would think about you dating a part-bull? Or a werewolf?"

She snickered.

"What I have to do now is ask about things other than zombies. God knows what I’ll be fighting for the next couple of years."

Tasman nodded. "I’ve been boning up on the reports. It seems the longer a merge lasts the closer and closer the match. That is, first the major structures align, then the smaller, down to cells, inter cellular structures, the DNA units start swapping around, atoms match up, or failing that, subatomic particles. Possibly even quarks. At some point though, probably the subatomic, you start getting energy releases."

"Yow! Something akin to cold fusion, or fission?"

"Yes. We don’t have a good handle on that though, since merges long enough to do something like break up or make up things like pigment molecules are rare enough. Any better data we got from this major overlap hasn’t been analyzed yet."

"Heh. I wonder how many surprises there will be?"

She dimpled slightly. "Like shape changing dancers? I want to be as far from any hot spots as possible by the next Full Moon."

Les ran his hands through his hair. No bumps. "They should be able to find all the hot spots. The patches of warped and dead trees should be detectable in satellite images."

"In Atlanta, I barely felt anything."

"In DC I felt the long overlap . . . distantly. Nothing like these overlaps here."

"I don’t know if I’ll have access to any of that information, though. I’m being recalled to Atlanta, probably because one patient escaped, and I released the rest. I . . . thought about it, and the government becoming an instrument of repression and murder is a much larger threat than . . . a few stray genes swapping around among different species."

Les hesitated. Nodded. "A lot of the odd effects are fading fast. Although I’m going to plan on locking myself in on the next full moon."

She paled, her warm cocoa skin looking dry and gray for a moment. "That is an excellent idea. I shall have to think how to implement it." Then the corners of her eyes crinkled a bit. "Do you have any idea who those other . . . dancers were? I mean, were they from our world, or a different one? Someone said something about a Zanadu and dancing . . ."

Les swallowed suddenly. "Uh. I heard something about women who go up there and dance every full moon. I, uh."

"Sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up."

"Well, it’s something I ought to check, in case . . . Well, anyway, good luck in Atlanta. Personally I’d guess there was at least a fifty-fifty chance they want you because of your success in curing the zombies."

Tasman smiled wryly. "If that’s the case, I’ll probably see you at conferences about this, now and again."

"And if not, well." He held out a hand and shook hers. Very professional, lacking all emotion. The emotions were all mine. Better luck next time, Bachelor.

"Yes. Well. I’m going home, and bracing myself for whatever comes next."

Les caught sight of the other Agents walking down the hall, their luggage in tow. "Me too. Soon, I hope."

She picked up her luggage and walked out, hailing a taxi.

Just as well. I’ve always like the bachelor lifestyle. And it’ll be less fraught, if there’s no one missing me when I’m out hunting werewolves.

Or dancing under the full moon.