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18 January 2017 @ 03:58 am
_The Last Merge_ part 5  
 

The Empire of the One

Directorate of External Relations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So immaculately timed.

Right out of a stupid movie script.

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

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

Newsies. The obnoxious sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You lying moron. Go. Away."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He grinned and retreated a bit.

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

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

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

The bodyguard charged after her, pulling out a flash.

The three newsies flinched back in the sudden light.

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

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

"You have no right to record me!"

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

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

Ebsa glanced at the minicomp.

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

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

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

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

He rubbed her back and held her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Ajha Withione Black Point hated large projects.

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

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

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

A second cataclysm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you forget to eat lunch again?"

"Yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Trampled, mostly. Sir."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Gra what?" Nighthawk wrinkled her nose.

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

Ebsa and Paer looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ra'd the what!"

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

"Whoa. When did this all happen!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She snickered. "An orgy."

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

"Hmm, yeah. That could be misinterpreted."

 
 
 
matapampamuphoff on January 18th, 2017 10:01 am (UTC)
Y'all have already seen most of the XD's parts of the story, this is where I'll fit them in. Probably.
(Anonymous) on June 20th, 2017 09:23 pm (UTC)
Ajha is a Withione????
You have Ajha as a Withione here, but in Black Point he is a Closetuone which he needs to be for the
matapampamuphoff on June 21st, 2017 01:48 am (UTC)
Re: Ajha is a Withione????
Good catch. Thanks!