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24 January 2017 @ 07:50 am
_The Last Merge_ part 10  

Disco

"What the hell are they up to?" Xen walked invisibly around the large barn-like building. "Does this match something crucial on their World?"

Q shook her dimly seen head. "They've got gates to an Empty World. They've moved close to half their population already, all their livestock, portable buildings. I thought they'd avoid this merge altogether." She walked out and looked around carefully. Stared at the tiny shadow zone. There were a few half asleep guards on each side. A paved area in the middle, lacking any buildings of any sort. "All these buildings must line up with identical buildings over there. It bothers me mainly because this is roughly the equivalent of Pittsburg, Isn't it?"

Xen nodded. "Where they first overlapped in the previous Merge. Well, whatever they have planned, they haven't started yet. But the Worlds are in contact now, and will start sliding together more all the time. I don't know if they have to increase the shadow zone, or if they can keep it small. Let's head home and see if anyone one else has any ideas." Xen walked back to the corridor opening to their semi-permanent camp. He finished packing and cooked the last of a small deer while Q opened a temporary Gate. They ate, then put out the fire and walked through the Gate to Embassy.

"Maybe I can con either Earth or One into launching a satellite. Pinpoint those buildings on Helios and see if the builds her that are still outside the shadow zone are duplicates of buildings on Helios. And maybe find the extent of the built up area there, so we can judge how much the shadow zone is going to be on the next jump." Q turned her head and eyed the people headed their way.

"Looks like there's been a problem." Xen glanced from frowning Oners to his colleagues.

The whole staff was coming and Jiol shook her head. "You are going to have your hands full starting right now. The Oner Ambassador walked into the Comet Fall embassy about half an hour ago, and served a warrant for your arrest. Two-hundred and fifty counts of kidnapping."

"Two. Hundred?" Xen boggled a bit.

"And fifty. They must have grabbed every missing person report in . . . " Inso winced and his shields tightened. "I think he's coming this way."

"So is everyone else." Hanger was looking the other direction.

The Earth Ambassador was the first one to arrive, but he kept quiet, watching the choleric Oner stalking into the crowd.

"Playing tit-for-tat, Xen? It won't work. Those University students haven't done anything even remotely associated with Comet Fall."

"What University students?"

"The ones you kidnapped two days ago."

Ambassador Question stepped in. "What little sense I can make of his accusations, it appears that someone has kidnapped, possibly gated away, several hundred young men and women from a small Oner college campus, and gated themselves away as well. They decided it must have been you."

Quicksilver snorted. "Counter-terror and Counter-hostage taking are not common tactics of our society. I will come and look for signs of Cross-dimensional movement associated with this mass kidnapping."

"You are going nowhere until your brother returns our people unharmed." The Ambassador waved peremptorily and a dozen people flung themselves at Xen and Q. They disappeared.

"I hope they hit the ground hard." Q commented as she headed for her own front door. "I'll start looking for powered gates. You go find out what is going on with these missing children. Go fully loaded. I'll call you if you I find anything. Yell for help if you need it, and don't forget to shield."

"Yes Boss." Xen grabbed his sneak suit, Oner style clothing, an old counterfeit ID card and money cards. Most of what he needed was boxed up, and he just pitched the box into his bubbled traveling quarters. He decided against taking a horse, but brought all the dogs. Grabbed a couple of bubbles of food. Then he warped light and walked out. Pyrite caught up to him halfway to the Maze Gate. Saddled, no hackamore.

"Hey Horsie. I don't know about you and The One World."

:: You need to get there fast. Then you can put me in the Black so I don't fall off the window ledge.::

He swung aboard, and warped the light around the horse as well. With Pyrite, he was through the Maze in less than an hour and with Pyrite bubbled in the Room, he stepped conservatively through the last Gate. He teetered on the twelve inch window ledge, and quickly threw a corridor to the dark empty ally below.

The first thing he needed was information. No. First a disguise.

A warrant for my arrest? Why the hell they think I'd kidnap a couple hundred . . . well all right, they kidnapped my daughter, and think tit-for-tat is how everyone plays diplomacy . . .

Oner hair styles tended toward short, and he ran his hands and a small slice though his hair. He darkened it to almost black. His nose was good, locally, his eyes were dark. He rubbed his lower face and silently ran through the rhyme for hair. When he walked into the eastside diner, his beard was an inch long and rendered him unrecognizable. The all hours eatery supplied him with a very early breakfast, a newssheet, and lots of coffee. He was very nearly the only customer.

He scrolled through the newssheet while he ate.

The waitress asked if he'd mind if she turned on the video screen.

"Go ahead. Any news on at this hour?"

"That's what I'm looking for. Do you believe the nerve of those Fallen? Kidnapping children."

"Well, I heard they denied they had anything to do with it. And it'd be awfully stupid of Earth to try to stir up trouble, but those two are the only candidates, aren't they?" He fell silent as the vid recapped the previous week's occurrence.

It was quite a tangle, with the students disappearing irregularly over a three day period. "Now that is very odd. What the hell would anyone want with those kids? Mostly boys, too." Surely not . . .

The broadcast was quickly interrupted with fresh news from Karachi.

The vid showed a hysterical man pointing at a building. "See? They took over that building with all the big lecture halls in it. Do you believe they packed two hundred kids into a theatre-like room and expect them to learn anything?"

The newsman looked a bit taken aback. "Well, it certainly made everything easy for the kidnappers. It has to have been either a gate or a corridor. At this point all we know is that six hundred young men and women are missing, and the police say a military type force has control of most of the campus and is backing away as they clear areas of the students."

Oh crap.

An unidentified voice interrupted. "Ugde, they are leaving most of the women behind, and the doctors at Central City Hospital say they have detected halogen gas traces." "Hypnotic gasses? That sounds like Earth. The Fallen would have used magic."

The Reporter on the scene nodded, and his cameraman focused on stretchers carrying limp bodies out of another building. They weren't shrouded, as if dead, and as they zoomed in, were clearly female.

Another man came in for an early breakfast and the waitress hustled to get him seated. He wanted to see the coverage too, so they wound up in a three sided discussion over extra pastries. The raiders were nothing if not efficient. With good timing as well. The police, with military reinforcements, pounced and found themselves holding nothing.

Commentary on the screen, and among the customers at the diner swung from one pole to the other.

The video coverage shifted suddenly to a sunny scene a quarter of the way around the World. Police vehicles everywhere, and the commentator talking about a repeat of yesterday's Karachi attack right here in Auckland.

Xen watched carefully, as a remote backup memory of a security camera was shown. He recognized the phenotype and uniforms immediately. "Helios. God. Damn. It is them."

"What?" Half the diner looked at him suspiciously.

:: Urfa! :: Xen could feel the man's wince and toned his mental voice down. :: Those are Helios in Auckland. ::

:: I know. Unfortunately we kept very quiet about our earlier problem with them. Can you help? ::

He started tapping at his phone. He needed Q to find and trace their gate . . .



Ajha

A faint shiver, less than the mildest corridor transit he'd ever felt.

Ajha heaved himself to his feet and peeked out the back of the truck. No sign of a gate or corridor behind them, but the ground had changed. Wilted grass and plowed soil. Or stirred, they weren't furrows, just . . .

Ajha looked upward in sudden dread. Dimish light, clouds flowing in . . .

"I think they've opened a shadow zone, and we're in it."

Fean hissed. "So . . . we touch nothing, especially if it came in from the Target world? We're not actually from here, maybe . . . "

"Neither was Q. Mind, she was in the Target world for weeks before she was trapped and merged." Ajha bit his lip. "We need to get out of here and get back through a gate. I think once we're away from the overlapping worlds we'll be fine."

Fean swallowed. "Right. So we need to get back into the Helios world, and back to our gates and warn them."

"Yes . . . it's people—or things—from the Target world that will merge with us." Ajha loosened the canvas and peered around just a few meters away, what looked like trampled grasslands. A hundred meters further, a swampy looking lake. Water.

"Water. Our bodies are 95% water. It worked for Xen. If we can get to that lake without getting too friendly with the grass, we might be able to scout around . . . I'll try that. You get back to Helios and . . . "

"No. Disco's watching them. You can bet they already know about this. Whatever you're up to, you're going to need help." Fean slipped out from under the canvas and jumped.

Ajha tossed their backpacks, jumped, cursing as he tumbled onto the rough ground. It's rocks and stuff, I won't merge with it, here in the shadow zone.

Fean stared out at the lake as she hefted her pack. "Run for it?"

"No, from the Disco reports, here in the shadow zone active merging is taking place, but slowly. Like to like, mostly, so we won't merge with rocks, but living things . . . That haven't already merged. I think we need to try to not touch them. Any grass that is still standing up, slice it low down, so we don't brush against anything." Ajha bent and waved his hand, just above the ground. Walked carefully forward. But not slowly. He didn't like the ripping sounds his feet were making, nor the way the cut grass was sticking to his shoes. What happens when all the sole has completely merged? Will it be my feet next? He hurried.

"Holy One. I just want to roll in the grass."

Ajha nodded. "It wouldn't feel very good for very long!"

Near the lake the ground softened and he pulled the heat from it. Froze it deep enough to walk on. Far enough out into the water that it was more ice and little mud. He stopped where he could cut off the stems of reeds below water level and carefully scoop and splash water. A lot of it seemed to be sinking into his hands, his bare skin was drying remarkably fast.

Fean knelt beside him, eyeing the water.

"Yes, it's muddy. Think of it as valuable minerals." He dropped his pack, pulled out a small pan and scooped more, drank it. Splashed face, scalp, drank more. Lots more. Stopped to look at Fean, studying him. Grinned. "Good plan, Make sure the boss survives before jumping off the cliff." He kept scooping, splashing water down his back, drinking . . .

"Guess it's going to work." Fean scooped up a dainty handful. And watched it sink into her hands. "Holy One." She pulled out her own pan and started splashing, drinking. Ajha baled water onto her back, and she reciprocated. He was too damned scared to even laugh at their dead serious parody of a water fight. And drank more. Am I insane? We should have run for home.

"I guess we need to drink our body weight in water, more or less." Ajha stuck his leg out carefully to brush a reed. It leaped and squirmed into the fabric of his pants. Stung. "More water. Ouch, lots more water on my legs before we dare touch anything."

And when he finally thought he'd had enough, he waded into the lake and submerged himself. The reeds he touched mostly ignored him. A few burning stings, and green patches on his skin . . .

Fean slid carefully into the water. "It's just a mud pack, good for the skin, right?"

"Right. And we only have to stay alive until the Disco people show up . . . "

They swapped glances and Ajha waded back to his pack, sinking into the thawing mud. He pulled out the flask, took a sip. Handed it to Fean, scooped up more water and drank again.

And looked back at the buildings in the shadow zone.

"Well. Shall we go see what those people are doing?"

"Yep. I'm as ready as I'll every be." Fean waded back to the semi-firm path they'd made and grabbed her pack. Ripped off the reeds that had merged with it, and headed for higher ground.

Three kilometers down the road they found an intact, working facility.

A three floor building and a broad flat one floor facility. The unnoticeable spell got them through the front door.

The aroma drew them through the lobby and into a cafeteria.

Not that the food looked very appetizing, but Ajha found himself reaching for a thick white mess in a glass and chugging it down. Gritty, chalky . . . Calcium from the target world, to merge with our bones.

Fean was right there with him, and they drew some odd looks. But most of the people looked confused, sleepy or both. Or amorous.

Ajha looked at them and his skin crawled. Merged. Q talked about three days of sleep, sex, stumbling around disoriented until the merge settled down and her spells helped her become the dominate personality, and the other spells changed all the DNA into hers . . .

"There are close to a hundred people in here. A hundred people they've essentially murdered to make themselves younger." He kept his voice down. Hunched his shoulders, grabbed a red drink—don't think about it!—slugged it down, grabbed another white one and hustled though the far door to get away from everyone here.

And walked into an abattoir.

Bodies on rolling gurneys. Stripped. Breathing. A spot of blood at the temple. A doctor turning away from one. The gurney was rolled away. The doctor walked to the next body. A line of old men, naked, eyeing the bodies on the gurneys. The man first in line reached for the body on the first gurney. Got a knee on the mattress, rolled over on top of the unconscious man . . . sank into him.

Ajha unslung his pack, pulled out his gun and shot the doctor.

Then the men standing in line to merge with the unconscious victims.

His gun jammed on the third shot.

Guards rushed in, looking right past them.

Ajha's pistol knocked the first one flat. He kicked the second, took his rifle . . . Fean shot three in quick sequence . . .

Ajha turned and started shooting the naked men rushing him. The orderlies. Other people pulling unconscious bodies out of trucks, off of trailers . . .

"Look at the clothes! Those are Oners!" Fean paused to examine and young man. "Drugged. They must be gassing them, loading them like firewood and hauling them to the target world. Bastards!"

"We need to . . . to keep them safe until it wears off . . ." Ajha fired a burst at two Helios who charged around a corner. "Then get them out of here."

"Right." Fean looked around. "How the hell do we do that?"