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22 January 2017 @ 07:58 am
_The Last Merge_ part 8  

Ebsa tapped out a message for Ra'd. Bunk space here limited. Think about bringing a tent.

He cleaned the kitchen, programmed the fab for soup base, and the vendos for ersatz salami. Then he headed down the road to take Ajha up on his offer of a shower. Beyond the end of the row of crawlers, there were five rock arches, a hundred meters apart, with odd lumpy, melted looking ruins visible through them. On their side two army tanks stood with their main guns aimed at gate two and four.

Ebsa eyed the ruins. Is the melty look from the merging? It's . . . creepy.

The fifth gate, to the far right, was different. Tall thick green grass, rolling hills with plains and winding river in the distance.

"That's the world they're apparently going to merge with. Damn shame, all the plants and animals. And even Q and Xen will have missed some of the natives."

Ebsa looked over his shoulder at Ajha. "Then why do they want to merge?"

"As far as we can tell, they think their world has slowed to the point that they cannot avoid merging. This time they have no choice, and this will be the last merge."

"Umm . . . are you . . . exploring?"

"Heh. No, I'm head of electronic intel. I've got bugs all over, over there. Laser relays through the gate here, a batch of translators both here and back home. Hob's running the electronics for me." He grimaced. "There's a pack of Action subdivision's people here. Half and half support and field ops. They're out looking at military posts. Inventories of weapons, and reporting troop movements. To my surprise they haven't lost anyone yet."

Ebsa eyed the gates. "Nor been tracked back here, I hope."

"Not so far. The Army's got a single company guarding the gates, and mostly rotate their officers through to give them a look at the enemy. It's a wonder we're still undiscovered. I'd prefer to close half the gates."

Ebsa looked from these gates back up the road to the gate to the One World. "They're within two kilometers of all our gate assets?"

"Once we've finish the permanent facilities, they'll take down that gate and open one a hundred kilometers away. Or that's what they say. I think they're insane, and should do it now, no matter how inconvenient for the builders. Senior Admin Wxxo and Colonel Ypxe agree with me. But three weeks ought to relieve our nerves." Ajha eyed him. "I hope. You left the meeting yesterday before I could talk to you. I gather you were part of the group that freed the students and captured those Helios officers. Tell me about it."

"Ra'd and I were across on a dinosaur world—guess which one—with a science team. We, umm, well, with the help of Nighthawk—a Disco rep there to open a gate—well, we captured them."

"I briefly joined the interrogators. They were pretty beat up." Ajha headed for the end crawler.

"Survivors of a Triceratops stampede. Mostly."

"Ah." A little smile tugged at the side of the older man's mouth. "And the gate beacon?"

"Nighthawk has some dimensional skills and can utilize bubbles. She scooped the whole thing up, and we did likewise with the prisoners."

"Surely not just you three?" Ajha snickered at his nod. "The subdirector wouldn't tell us how they'd been captured. We've all been speculating about whether it was the Army or the Directorate that had the small army across. Oh my. Just you three young punks."

"Umm, yeah. The exploration team was a thrown together group of desk jockeys who'd never been across, two delivery drivers, that icky clostuone, and the guy in jail for assaulting his own team members. Needless to say, they didn't expect us to encounter Helios. I don't . . . Ajha? Why did they have those students there? I mean, I understand about the merging, but why were they on that world?"

"It was the second most likely world that Helios might merge with. Q said they were probably keeping the students to use in the early stages of the merge, a shadow zone, if they can get their magnetics stations working. Toss them in to merge with other Helios, so they have some soldiers who can come and go without instantly merging with whatever is on the other world." Ajha hunched his shoulders. "The One World was the third most likely target. Yeah, that got our attention. Once that had been ruled out, the stress levels plummeted."

"I'll bet . . . umm . . . do they also have Oners captive on the other world?" Ebsa nodded at the fifth gate.

"Not that we know of. Fean and I, and Xen and Q have been over there regularly, and we haven't seen any prisoners, nor facilities for holding them. They're building facilities over there. Very finicky about the placement. We think they're replicating the infrastructure that they want to survive the merge. But . . . most of the population is emigrating to an empty world. Pity they didn't do that a hundred years ago."

"Ah, but what's killing three worlds full of strangers, when it can rejuvenate you?" Ebsa shook his head. "Glad we grabbed those kids. Once the Dino World was eliminated, they may have decided to cut their losses. Or moved them to the next target. Good thing we happened by."  

Ajha laughed. "And then they rewarded you by making you the sole cook for too many people. I swear there must be a requirement to have a lobotomy once you hit a certain grade level."

"Meh. This actually puts me in about the right place to be useful, if there's a problem, another problem, with the Helios."

"And where Paer is posted." Ajha's forehead wrinkled suddenly.

"That too. And yes, I've met that batch of analyst friends of hers. Had the pleasure of beating up Offe in the dojo, all friendly-like, with a judge and all."

Ajha winced. "Hopefully they'll get over it."

"They're your staff, aren't they?"

"Yep. Well . . . They theoretically answer to the actual head of Project Intel. But he thinks he's above boots-on-ground-sleeping-in-the-wilderness duty. So they answer to me first."

Ebsa shrugged. "No doubt they'll be rude about the cook. Don't worry, I'll feed them anyway. Obvious rudeness has a tendency to backfire."

Ajha sighed. "Yeah. If any of them get too bad, I'll have a reason to send some of them home. They're all reasonably good data handlers, but hardly anything special—other than in their own minds."

"We're in the field. Hopefully they'll all realize that messing up out here has repercussions." Ebsa followed Ajha into the crawler, and looked around at all the screens and computers. "Damn. Hob must be in techie heaven."

"Yep."

When he emerged from the shower, all the analysts were grouped around the recorders.

Off straightened. Stiff backed and appalled. "You? You can't be an analyst!"

Ebsa nodded. "Nice to see all of you again. No, I'm usually X Team, but right now I'm the camp cook, here to rescue you from the vendos. See you at lunch." He nodded politely and stepped down out of the crawler. Looking up the road past all the crawlers to the gate home, he spotted another crawler headed toward them. Battered and dented . . . flakes of darkish paint, or maybe those were singed leaves. Surely not. It backed into the space at the northern end of the row, and settled in. Ebsa strode down to it. Yep, the old reliable Junkyard.

Ra'd grinned as he opened the hatch. "Couldn't find a tent. Acty sent the old Junkyard back to the spare parts yard. Maintenance took one horrified look and said it was barely fit for spare parts. So when I got this assignment and your message, I asked our new supervisor and he authorized me to take it. Cheapest sleeping accommodations available, he said."

"Excellent." Ebsa stepped in and thunked his armful of clothes into the washer. Eyed the gun safe. "I don't suppose . . . "

"Oh, well, I unloaded the safe before it was turned back in. Acty kept what he needed. And then I totally forgot to take the rest back to the armory. And I didn't want to leave them in an empty warehouse." Razor sharp smile.

Ebsa laughed with him. "So we're an order of magnitude more dangerous now. So . . . I'm the camp cook, what are you?"

"Intel Agent. At first it didn't say, then 'the camp manager' sent that I was to report to the Head of Electronic Intel. Do you know who that is? They don't give names out, back home. 'Opsec' they say . . . Why the grin?"

"Ajha. Opposite end of the camp. Brace yourself, though. He's afflicted with five baby analysts, and they're just ever so important."

"Ugh." Ra'd looked him up and down. "You're walking around unarmed again, aren't you?"

"I'm the cook, not a guard." Ebsa looked at Ra'd's stubborn body language, sighed and turned to the safe. "I could stick that short 10mm under the buffet table." And of course Ra'd managed to keep his 20mm.

"And a pistol."

"Stunner."

Ra'd sighed. Loudly.

"Oh kay. To copy your archaic term, which probably actually means something obscene." Ebsa picked up a 9mm, belt and holster. "Most heavily armed chef on the world."

Ra'd snorted. And handed him extra magazines for both. "I'll go check in with Ajha." His gaze lingered on the weapons, but he only took a pistol. And three full magazines.

Ebsa got busy adding good stuff to the soup base, slicing the hard rolls and stuffing them with three different combinations of ersatz meat and cheese . . . taped the long gun underneath the cold buffet table.

Technically, there's no reason the Helios couldn't pop through the gates and attack us. Just because they're unlikely to detect them magnetically, and we've got illusions over the far side, so they can't see them, doesn't mean they couldn't discover them. Follow an Action Team, or Military squad to them. But somehow I think it would be the soldiers defending us, not the cook.

And the cook needs to attend to business.

He got out his comp and pulled up a requisition form. I'll need regular deliveries of various types of bread. Fab bread just won't do. At. All. Both fresh and frozen vegetables and fruit. . . I wonder if I can get away with real steaks? Only one way to find out.

***

Ajha looked around at the knock at the doorway. "Ra'd, excellent. This is Tayc, Hioz, Amsi. Wpxa, and Offe. Ra'd is officially Wqlw Withione Makkah, right?"

"Yes. I prefer Ra'd." The young man nodded to the others as his eyes swept the room. "So, you're head of Intel? What do you need me to do?"

"Heh. No, I'm head of electronic intel. I've got bugs all over, over there. Laser relays through the gate here, a batch of translators both here and back home. Hob's running the electronics for me." He grimaced. "Both the military and action subdivisions are over there physically spying."

"I . . . am not impressed with the amount of security, for so many gates, so close to home."

"The colonel says he's trying to get more troops, but high command is massing them elsewhere, at a different gate 'where they think they be more likely to be needed.' Heh. So we're half the Intel effort against Helios."

Ra'd shrugged. "At least they didn't quit altogether when they became confident the One wasn't in the path."

"Indeed. At the moment, I want you to do a bit of catching up on what's going on, in Cannibal HQ." Ajha looked around . . . Fean pointed and he stepped over to pick up his mini comp. "Here are the files with the maps, synopses of what our ears are picking up, links to the full translations, and analysis. Feel free to share with Ebsa." Ajha noted Ra'd's flick of glance toward Offe. No doubt Offe had reacted to the mere mention of Ebsa's name. Jealousy plus political ambitions thwarted. One save me, this is why I hate large field encampments. Worse than home, where there's enough space and other people to get away from the bickering.

Ajha drummed his fingers. "Even with translation difficulties, it seems that they have started alluding to something, but never actually saying anything they wouldn't want overheard. The question is, are they going behind their superior's backs for some reason, or do they suspect we have them bugged?"

The kids stirred. Five of them. So young, so arrogant, so clueless about how little they have to be arrogant about.

"So Fean and I are going to take quick look across. Hob, you'll be in charge here." He bit his lip, eyeing Ra'd. "Hopefully you won't have to come rescue us." The young man nodded, looking reluctant, but not arguing. One! I'd nearly forgotten what it's like to work with someone who will follow orders. "Once you're familiar with the situation, I'll take you across to see it all in person. We'll leave after lunch and be back for dinner, tomorrow." He hesitated. "I have a spell, from Q, that stabilizes the chromosomes in your body, and reinforces your personality, in case of merges. I've pretty-well covered everyone in camp, may I put it on you?"

Ra'd nodded. "A wise precaution, under the circumstances."

He wafted the spell that direction. "Since I'll be taking you through, the next time Q is here I'll ask her to personalize one for you. For now, the gates to Helios are numbered one through four, left to right. Or east to west, if you prefer. The fifth, most western gate is the one to their target world. We'll be heading out gate four, which is the one nearest the line of their old magnetics stations."

At the pavilion, Ajha was surprised to see Ebsa chatting away with the Earthers. Six "observers" who spent more time observing the Oners and the Fallen than they did the Helios. Of course the Fallen, well, the Disco personnel from Comet Fall usually just popped in to drop off reports, and left again. Not a single one stationed here.

Wonderfully aromatic soup in serve-yourself tureens. Plates with sandwiches, sitting on beds of ice.

Ebsa was replacing the sandwiches as quickly as they were disappearing.

". . . just snob stuff. The office workers try to pretend they're better than field agents, and usually get in the minimum amount of field work that'll get them onto the promotion track back home. Me? I love being out in the field."

His analysts were sitting close enough to overhear, tossing the occasional scowl toward Ebsa and the Earthers. Surely they knew how real field agents felt about the dilatants collecting their minimum required points?

". . . Love the dinosaur worlds. You wouldn't believe the trouble we had getting tracking tags on some of those critters. Oops, excuse me." Ebsa stepped to the oven and opened the door. The mixed aromas of baking pastry and hot fruit wafted across the drafty building.

Pies? The boy is baking fresh pies? Oh Dear One! Wxxo's never going to let him go.

The large oven disgorged eight pies, and Ebsa reloaded it with pies from the fridge. It looked like the fridge was stuffed with them. Then he was back production-lining sandwiches. I don't recall anything about professional cooking on his records, this must be home grown. All this and brains . . . he'd be a massive intel asset. No one would think he was anything but a really good cook. Not that it matters to me, I'm getting back to X Teams as fast as possible. Ajha winced, and refused to admit he was transitioning into management.

Back at the buffet tables Ebsa was shaking his head. "Nope those are for after dinner. It'll take me that long to get them all cooked."

Ajha exchanged glances with Fean. "We could wait until after dinner . . . "

***

They walked across, with backpacks, guns, and unnoticeable spells. On their first trip, they'd had a hideous time keeping anyone from noticing their very different vehicle. Since then, if they needed one, they'd simply stolen one.

Today lines of trucks were streaming to the west.

Ajha bit his lip. "Let's go see what they're up to." The Helios had no magic, so unnoticeable spells were all they needed to walked down the hill to the road, with no one seeing them. Not that there were ever many people out here in the bleak wastelands. He waited at the edge of the road until the inevitable traffic slow down. They swung aboard a truck, peeked under the canvas and climbed in. It was stacked with crates . . .

"Ammunition. Looks like they're planning for war."

Fean nodded. "But who are they planning to attack?"

***

A grinning Paer came by early. "Oh, this smells heavenly! Mind, you, I think you're underutilized as a chef, but after weeks of vendo food I'm not going to complain. Meals were worse than being treated like a barely trained nurse by the doctors."

"What? You’re a fully qualified field medic, with Comet Fall medgician training!"

Paer's smile was wry. "They don't consider that a plus."

Ebsa sniffed. "I knew there was a reason I preferred docboxes to live doctors."

"Oh? I have a suspicion it involved not having to explain how it happened."

"Well . . . yeah."

"Oh, I'm actually here to get meals for our two hospitalized patients." Paer flashed up the orders on her comp. "Heat stroke."

"Hmm, let me show you how to get customized stuff out of the fab." He opened the control panel and tapped in for special products. It requested his administrator password. He typed in ADMIN. "That's the factory password. I have yet to find a single incident of anyone changing it." After which it was easy to get specialized meals. Fortified soups, in this case.

He sighed as she walked away. I can see why they'd under-appreciate me. But Paer? What a pack of idiots.

Of course the analyst puppies couldn't leave him alone.

Offe in the lead, they came and scowled as he fried meatballs. Equal parts fabbed goo, vat meat, and thawed beef. With mostly real spices. Passable, but not great. The sauce was simmering in three huge pots, and the fab was mass producing spaghetti.

"You are so far below that girl, you are barely qualified to drive her car, let alone be seen getting private with her. Don't you care about her reputation?"

Ebsa turned down the heat. Turned around. "Offe. Paer is a grown woman who can choose for herself who she wants to associate with. You should have respected that. Instead, you manipulated her."

"I did not . . . I was doing it for her own good."

"You demonstrated brutal indifference to her feelings. And then you topped it off by showing her how essentially weak you are."

"She'd have gotten over her pique quickly enough . . . wait. Did you call me weak? You stupid little Closey, what do you mean weak?"

"You allowed yourself to be used by a second rate society reporter to create a juicy scene that would improve her ratings. Were you insane? You compromised the security of the president's daughter and are probably marked down as a security risk. You looked stupid and easily influenced to your superiors. One, Offe. At least have the sense to keep your head down and work your ass off for a while. The recordings were all confiscated and the reporters all warned. It didn't go public. So unless you keep stirring the pot, everyone will forget about all this in a couple of years."

They all stared at him, appalled. The other four sort of eased away from Offe, and he stepped back, a bit pale.

"You guys are supposed to be hotshot young analysts. Ambitious. Open your eyes and take a good hard look when someone dangles something you want. There's always a cost. Always. Analyze it. You're swimming in the shallow end of a big pool full of sharks. Learn fast. Before you find yourself in the deep end, and trying to look good while you dog paddle about."

They meandered off, looking . . . well, hopefully that was thoughtful, not stubborn.

Ebsa shook his head and went back to finish the meatballs, and start the garlic bread . . .

Ra'd snorted, behind him. "Sounds like I missed something interesting."

"Well, if I'd reacted like they expected, they'd probably have had a nice little high society news item." Ebsa took out the first trays of garlic bread, put two more in the oven. "So, you get to apprentice under Spy Master Ajha? Now that I'm jealous of."

Ra'd snorted. "Reading reports."

Ebsa walked down to the fab and grabbed the first load of raw pasta. Boiled it for three minutes. Sprinkled parsley, spritzed with olive oil, tossed a bit, and started loading the hot buffet. "Yeah. Actually this is more fun than reading reports, so I'll just shut up. Until you get to do something really interesting." He swapped the garlic bread again, started the next, shoveled the bread into the tubs under the warming lights. Eyed the casual loungers who were drifting in and almost lined up. "Oh, c'mon ahead, you might as well get started."

He shifted the first two pots of sauce—traditional tomato based, and an alfredo sauce—out to the hot buffet, then the meatballs, and started preparing refills of everything.

He grinned at Ra'd. "The scary thing is, I'm enjoying this."

Ra'd laughed. "We'll see if you say that next month."




Some Earth, Somewhere

Eldon

Eldon walked down to his usual ice cream shop.

"You keep eating like that you're going to get fat again."

"I've got a potion for that. And I got fat while I was stuck in a goat spell. It wasn't my fault, all that grass and beer around." He eyed Shane's sister. "I suppose you lot are off to try and get yourselves killed again?"

She sniffed. "It's finals. Even on Sunday! We're all here today. Shane's last test is six in the afternoon!"

Eldon grinned and walked back to the shop. The Cinncy game ought to be a good one.

Half time he used for a stretch break, nipping into the ice cream shop to use the privy and then buying a triple decker and chat with Milly. He strolled back for the second half kick off and there was a damned van parked outside the magic shop, so close to the wall he obviously wasn't going to be able to get in. Sounded like they were screwing inside. He thumped on the back door. "Hey, no parking here!"

The door flew open and someone flew out and tackled him. He danced back out of the way, getting his triple decker high and out of danger. The . . . bloody naked woman collapsed. The back door of the van slammed and the sounds of movement . . . He flipped a bubble over the van and turned back to the woman. She looked pretty bad. He grabbed his flask and dripped wine into her. Pocketed the flask and dug into his pocket for his cell phone. Dialed 911.

He looked at the lady whimpering weakly on the ground and then looked around for the bubble. He'd forgotten to anchor it and it had drifted off. "Damn. Well, that's just going to be a real bitch, isn't it?" He shrugged out of his leather jacket, carefully, one arm at a time, and wrapped the woman up without dropping his triple scooper. He hadn't hardly gotten started on his ice cream when the first squad car arrived.

***

Phil shook his head in disbelief at the big blond man.

". . . and after all that they expect me to drop my ice cream? Heh."

Brenard walked away from him in sheer disbelief. "I've talked to psychos before, and that's not his problem. I mean he's self centered, but he did wrap the victim up and call for help and stay there with her. He's more like, well, a big Mafioso I arrested once. I was just a minor inconvenience to him. Barely registered. His lawyer had half the department bowing and scraping and holding the door for him when he left. I just wasn't a threat. Eldon here isn't threatened, either. He rescued the lady without dropping his ice cream and he figured he could answer questions while eating it. Around all that blood. He's either a Vet with a hell of a history, or he's worked in ER."

"I dunno. I say he was more of a gang type. Used to violence, no fear of the police."

Eldon looked over. "Well, not your sort of cop. Trust me, you guys are so sweet. The tazer was interesting, though. I gotta get one of those."

The over excited patrollers had gotten a bit too enthusiastic with the "stun gun." They all knew that large men weren't always stopped by them, but this was the first time Phil'd heard about the recipient giggling about it while eating ice cream.

Sergeant Michaels waved him out into the hallway and handed him a series of pictures.

He knew the pictures immediately. The Strangers. Michaels tapped two of the pics. "I think that's him, and Donahue says this one is definitely the room mate."

"I'll be . . . Now that's a twist I didn't expect. Lost a lot of weight, and bleached his hair."

"Right, you want to call? I hate calling the Feds."

Phil nodded and walked down to his desk and picked up his phone. The hotline number for the Strangers rolled to an answering machine. "This is Lieutenant Phil Farley, St. Louis PD. We're currently holding someone who may be your Eldon as a material witness, and have a reliable positive on Heso. The number here is." He quit talking as the connection clicked.

"Lieutenant, I'm Frank Meyers with the NSA. Can you send us pictures?"

Phil got the fax number, and while the stills were being sent he casually walked back into the interrogation room with his cell phone open and the camera function active.

"Word from the hospital is that Miss Granadi will live." Brenard had his own phone to his ear.

Eldon nodded. "Told you there wasn't that much blood. It always looks like more than it really is." He stretched his arms out, cracked his knuckles and placed his elbows comfortably on the table. A pair of handcuffs dangled from one wrist.

Phil stepped back out. "That do you any good?"

"Yes we're sending it on to a policeman in Houston who talked to the Strangers."

The Fed and the Houston cop arrived on military jets, two hours later. The cop looked a bit bilious. "Detective Jerry Lanton, Houston Homicide. What did you pull Eldon in for?"

"Heroism. We had a problem with a serial killer. His victims were borderline Pros, blonde, wearing red dresses, on the full moon, the whole psychosis. Eldon interrupted him, woman's fine, well, alive. She was quite aware of everything that happened, didn't loose consciousness, quite, until the EMT's showed up and she knew she was safe. She corroborates everything he said happened. We ought to have let him go hours ago."

"Well, let's see if this is him—he's lost weight and, well, anyone who can turn himself into a deer or a unicorn can probably disguise himself."

Phil looked askance at the man, but led him into the interrogation room. The handcuffs were gone, and someone had gotten him another ice cream cone.

Eldon raised an eyebrow. "Hey Lanton, I thought you worked in Houston."

"Hey Eldon, I understand you're a hero."

Eldon shrugged. "Eh. This sort of thing will ruin my reputation. I'm a Bad Guy. All it was, was this ass parked right up against the door of the shop, and I was missing the second half kick off."

Lanton rubbed his face. "What are you doing here? Running a 'Magic Potions' shop? Why are you here?"

"I missed football. Got bored sitting around between games, and hey, people will pay incredible amounts for a baldness cure, or something to restore their youth." He shrugged and popped the end of the ice cream cone into his mouth. Licked his fingers. "Think we've got better ice cream than you do. No hang-ups about fat."  

 
 
 
Michawl DolbearMichawl Dolbear on January 22nd, 2017 09:33 pm (UTC)
There isn't any reference to the Eldon-created loose end, the missing (bubbled) serial killer. If the vehicle is his the cops will probably have a tentative identification and are vainly searching.

Also the "someone flew out and tackled him" paragraph could do with clarification.


Mike D
Little Egret in Walton-on-Thames