_Hostile Takeover_ Part 18

Easiest escape ever. Desk Man programmed the outside cams to record and loop. The Ladies followed directions. So they walked out through the museum, and all they had to do was wait until a patrol vehicle was past, and fiddle the back gate locks and alarms. A short hike to the car.

He drove off down side streets before he turned his headlights back on.

"I've got to say I'm really impressed that you ladies really did stay quiet. I'm Igor, and I'll be leaving the city in six days. You are welcome to come along, or if you have a safe place to go to, I'll drive you there."

Uncertain glances and head shakes among them.

"Or stay for a few days and think about it. I'm a fan of planning, myself." He paused. "Umm, if you aren't comfortable giving me your names . . . just think up something you'd like to answer to."

A turn and a short block to the highway. He got off one exit late, and back tracked to the warehouse.

He was frowning as he pulled into the warehouse.

"Ladies? Can you speak?"

Silence.

He got out of the car, and they did the same, looking around at the uninformative space.

"Nod if you understand me." Four nods. "Mentalist compulsion? No? Phyisical?" Uncertain nods. The oldest mimed drinking.

"Chemical."

Nods.

"Right . . . well, this will be interesting." He walked over to the work table. "Each of you take a small sip of this. Sorry, but I wasn't really expecting to have company and I've only got four glasses and this is the last clean one . . ."

"This stuff has a terrifying number of healing impressions, and I hope it's just a side effect, not something anyone put in on purpose . . . but it's got an aphrodisiac impression that'll knock your socks off."

The older woman snorted.

"Yeah. So, just exert some control, and don't be offended if I reject you, but I have a young woman I'd like to go home to with a clear conscious. Well, clear of that particular misdeed."

He poured half a glass and handed it to the oldest.

She took a mouthful and passed it on, as her eyes widened and her breathe caught. She eyed him hungrily, blushed and stepped back. "Holy . . . I can talk!"

In minutes there were four of them jabbering away, one of them crying, all of them watching him and variously blushing, licking their lips, reaching and then snatching their hands back.

"It's just an effect of the potion. Just take a deep breath and keep telling youself it's just chemistry. Right?"

They seemed to be getting a grip, so he relaxed.

"Well, let's try this again. Hi, I'm Igor, which isn't actually my name. How about some nicknames for your four?"

The oldest nodded. "Blondie."

"Schüchtern."

"Zwerg."

"Hallo Du?"

Hey you? Axel grinned, and they all leaned toward him. He got his face under control.

"Well. The magic potion strikes again. If it works like it has so far, you're going to have horrible hangover in the morning. So I suggest a light dinner." He looked dubiously over at the stuff on the sink counter. "Did I mention I wasn't expecting guests for a day or two?"

Over crackers and cheese they told him all about it.

"They thought that the wife chips would have used the least ammount of the zivvy." Blondie frowned at him. "The zivvy comes in small pods. One per chip. Cyborg and Exec plates have two chips, but very good control of where the wires go. Everything else gets one chip. They thought the lower number of wires getting zivvy the second day would mean there was a larger reseve in wife chips than servant chips."

Axel boggled. "Were they going to remove your chips for that left over Zivvy?"

"Yes." A casual wave of her hand. "Carefully, to not spill any."

Zwerg, Dwarf, the short one nodded. "They didn't think we were likely to survive . . . and since we'd be unchipped, they'd be sure of it."

"We're all widows, you see." Hallo Du grimaced. "My husband owned a store. I managed it for him, he was very old, and after he died, it all became the property of the state, as did I. But the details take time and I continued to run the shop without him for some time."

Nods around the table.

"My husband was a doctor. I took over the billing, the supplies, the staff. I kept doing it for the junior partners while they tried to figure out how to buy the clinic back from the state. They could not afford me, as well." Blondie shrugged, looked away.

Shy nodded. "Herni had no relatives within three degrees, so the state took the restaurant and me."

"So we were to be their first experiment." Hallo Du shivered. "They thought perhaps with four used wife chips they could get enough zivvy to wire up a portalmaker."

"So is their Cybernetics Center in that same old building?"

"One of the eighteen, at least one each on every continent, in the megaplexes."

"Ah. Of course." Axel eyed them. "You know, with your business acumen, I'd really like all of you to come with me."

They eyed him thoughtfully . . . or maybe suspiciously.

"I'm an abolitionist. Legally I can't free you. In practice, I can let you go your own way, and with financial backing. I hadn't thought about stores and restaurants, but someone who knows the business side of a medical clinic? Blondie, I will try to presuade you to work for me. And I suspect you others as well."

"But right now, I need to sleep, because I've got to go out again tomorrow night for my last survey." He looked around. "Hmm. Maybe I'll sleep in the car. There are two matresses in one of the front offices . . . a couple of chairs . . . hmm. I'll go shopping pretty soon."

They were looking exhausted, and thankful he'd brought up the subject.

He washed all the glasses, slugged his dose of the wine, then cranked back the front passenger seat of the car and slept like a log. Woke around Noon to the sound of retching.

Right on schedule.

He walked around dispensing anti-nausea, and anti-hangover impressions and made them drink water.

"I'm going to go shopping. Relax, stay inside." He bit his lip then got out his computer and hunted for TV broadcasts . . . yeah, standard here too.

"Channel Five, for the news." Blondie slumped down in one of the reception area chairs. "I hope they aren't looking for your pretty car."

"Umm, good thought. I'll take the truck." He paused as the iconic picture of Siberia Max--the massif silhouetted against the sunset, with the lights of the city around its base--popped up on the screen.

"Negotiations of the terms of annexing Siberia Max are proceeding, and we expect access to their zivvy supplies by next week. In other news, contact with Tier Two Bismark has cut off, with a report of their third Plague victim."

Axel shook his head. "Damn."

I wonder if the Enemy is still spreading the Plague, or if this is something left over, something, a canned drink perhaps, imported from somewhere else. I swear I need to be paranoid about everything.

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 17

and get the last one out before the first one's rest period is over and they raise the alarm.

Dammit.

It's not going to be possible.

The constant rumble of the trucks died away. He pulled his mimcam back out and shifted to see . . . Ah. They're done with out-going and now the in-coming traffic starts.

He slipped back out the big truck door and walked around the building . . . not liking the door placement. Don't they have fire marshals to insist on emergency exits all over the place?

He slid quietly off the grounds and around to where he'd left the car.

Then home to argue with himself.

I'd rather kidnap them . . . but killing them may be the only option.

He headed back to the warehouse., and slept for a few hours until the rattle of the back door being raised alerted him to a problem.


Men in dark clothing ducking under the door as it rose, flashlights . . .

Axel reached and hit the light switch.

The men froze, then clustered defensively, a few pistols coming up as they focused on him.

"Oh good. I was afraid it was the police. Who are you . . . very young men?"

Ah, under eighteen so they aren't chipped. Six of them.

The one in front, one of the three with a pistol, was looking wary. "Gib me alle your cash Karten, and du won't get hurt." Some sort of pidgin German-English mash up.

Axel nodded. "You know, I don't believe in passing up opportunities that just fall into my lap. Let's talk business. You guys don't look terribly healthy, especially the one with the bandage around his hand."

"Was? You denken sei waste medicine on Livestock? It don't matter who our Vater are, not that we know, but we got," He squeezed his hand closed on a glow of power, "das Talent, even so. Und they don't like that."

"I see." Axel kept up a shield, even though the kids didn't look all that dangerous. He walked to the table and grabbed a glass and a bottle of wine. Twisted off the top and poured a half a glass. Pulled his med kit out of the truck and walked back to the table.

"All right bandage boy, let's see your hand."

The boy swallowed and edged out. The others followed. Currious, supportive, wary. They were eyeing the glass of wine suspiciously.

And him even more suspiciously.

He pulled out a pair of scissors. "I'm going to take the bandage off, so you can see what happens."

The boy managed to pale even further. "Der doctor said they might as well konnten it off, I wasn't good for anthing but a Cyborg anyway."

This scrawney little thing?

At least it was a professional wrap, and didn't stick, but the jagged cut in his palm was oozing puss, and the red streaks had almost made it to his wrist.

"Right. Now drink this."

The kid took the glass cautiously and took a sip. Huffed a surprised breath, and took a deep swallow. A couple of breaths. "Gut painkiller." he startled and held out his hand. "Was ist los?" His voice rising in panic, as blood tinged puss gushed out of the cut.

Axel wiped his hand, then led him over to the sink and washed it thoroughly with soap the kids crowded around and watched in fascination as the cut closed up on healthy looking flesh, the red streaks already gone . . .

"What this stuff is, is a couple hundred healing impressions and . . . some other stuff." Axel waited until the kids all looked back at the partly drunk glass of wine.

Bandage boy looked up from his hand. "What stuff?"

"Pain killer, you'll feel pretty lusty for a few days. And . . . It dissolves zivvy wires."

They froze. Staring at him.

"You have to do it right though. This is what you do for a servant chip. Half a cup a day for seven days. Then absolutely no alcohol for three weeks. The seven days dissolves the wires. but it runs on alcohol. You keep feeding it, and it'll attack the chip, and then you're in trouble. Seven days, then stop, and the chip still reads normal. You'll have your talent back, your smarts."

"Now Cyborgs . . . three days, maximum, else they may lose use of the arm. But they'll be harder to control. I don't know about wife chips. I suspect they're the same as the servant chips. They can get back their magic."

The leader took a deep breath. "How much do you have?"

Axel shook his head. "It's a von neumann's potion. Do you know what that is? Good. Take this," he handed over a cash card, "and the rest of this bottle. Dope up a bunch of wine. Give it to those who need it, charge those who can pay. And keep it quiet, because when the authorities find out about it, it will become illegal."

He shooed them out, and locked up. Turned out the lights and slept again.


The second portal was just begging to be raided. And the portalmaker young and in pain.

:: One more week. Help will come. ::

Axel drove back to the warehouse and fiddled with the car ID so he could get into the car park across the street, and for good measures, two other false IDs as well.

He slept fitfully through the nightmares.


The third portal was manned by another elderly portalmaker, hardly worth the risk killing, let alone kidnapping. But the architecture was "interesting."

The steel cube and panel architecture that he was much too familiar with, with the portal facilities at one end . . . and museum at the other? He walked cautiously over to read the sign . .


Drei Mächte Bündniss World Headquarters

Construction started the first year that Stuttgart had been

discovered, built on the ruins of the native buildings flattened

during the first stages of the invasion

The World was named Stuttgart after the beloved home of

the Great Leader


I think I'll barf. This is where it all started, attacking late industrial, early electronic age Worlds and taking . . . instead of colonizing Worlds with no people and building. Creating.


The security system and locks on the side door were no doubt adequate for the local hoodlums, but yielded quickly to Axel. He slipped quietly deep into the "preserved in pristine historical condition" . . . crap he had to deal with at home. He trotted past displays and beyond the offices staffed with appropriately dressed manikins and into the Great Leader's private chambers, where he found the door to the working part of the complex.

So to speak. He had to shift boxes and a metal shelf unit that were blocking the doorway on the other side. One direction, the quiet dark offices of the bureaucrats . . . oh. the payroll department?

Axel supressed a desire to give everyone a giant pay raise and went the other direction . . . to the security offices. Peeking around a corner and hearing people through the first door down the hall . . . He eased up to take a look.

Two bored officers. ". . . call themselves the Black Widows. Makes you wonder what their husbands really died of."

A snort from the man behind the desk. "Hardly matters, they'll be dead as soon as the doctor gets here in the morning."

"Ach! Experimenting! Times have changed--forever." He shrugged and started toward the door. "Not that much will change for us."

Heh. A wise man. Assuming he survives the rest of this year.

Axel backpedaled hastily, and ducked around the corner, the sound of boots on the hard floor, fading.

Axel let the man get well out of sight before he reached out and gently fogged the deskman's mind.

And bingo! The other side of the desk was full of lights and controls, a clear plas door behind him opened to the tap of the Desk Man's ID, and Axel took a quick look down the row of cells. The first big cell was the only one occupied.

The four women were slumped. Tired. Hopeless. One had gray threaded through her hair, and the lines of experience on her face. The other three were younger, late twenties or thirties, perhaps. One of them spotted him, despite the camosuit and nudged the woman next to her.

Axel glanced back at Desk Man and had him open the women's cell.

"Would you ladies like to get out of here?"



_Hostile Takeover_ Part 16

Chapter Fifteen

Baby Sitting

"So, you guys just kick back and take a few days off until the Stutties realize that they aren't going to be allowed to have our gates." Nastasya eyed the twenty-four young men. The portalmakers. I think Axel has kidnapped our portalmakers!

"Ten days." The fellow in charge grinned. "Not that I can tell you why then."

They didn't come close to filling all the bedrooms on third floor west. By using the old furniture shoved into rooms, they'd managed to furnish them, only having to move a few beds from guest rooms in the east wing. And Nastasya had raided Axel's Parents' apartment for the big screen tv and set it up in the only big room they could find over there. And bathroom space was a bit tight, but as the only people living in the whole wing, they didn't even have to worry about being quiet.

There wouldn't be a problem feeding them, Axel'd had the Burser load up on food two weeks ago.

No, the main problem was a house full of servant women and teenagers suddenly confronted with young men they weren't related to. Suddenly they were wearing their best dresses and using makeup and she had lots of volunteers to bring food to the mystery guests they were hiding from the Evil Stuttgartians . . .

I really hope this isn't one of those long drawn out wars!


Chapter Sixteen

Agent in Action


The Stutties were hiring every truck they could.

"Ghost. Belong ta Lord Max Ignatov. Don' care what I do, so long's he get mos' of the money." Axel held out a card. "Pay to this accoun'."

The Stuttie grunted and ran the card through his machine, and handed back the card, and sent him off to get loaded.

Loot. State of the art electronics. You'd think a Tier Two World wouldn't have a problem buying any of this. But they sure are happy to swap for meat and veggies. At their exchange rate.

The loaders finished, slapped a big "5" on his windshield. "After you leave the gate, follow the five signs," and waved him off to wait in the line for the portal. The Stuttgart portal.

I just hope Henrik can open a portal in ten days. And that's cutting it close. Even if what he said about the Stuttgart Portal makers is true. Two very old and wobbly. Two strong.

If I can take at least two of them . . . preferrably the strong ones, they may find us very low priority, and go pick on someone else.

I'd say a world like that must have a bunch of clones ready . . . but if they are already out of zivvy and can't wire up a new one . . . that's going to have major ramification for these would-be Empire builders.

And that's why they wanted us. They assumed we had three portalmakers.

I wish I'd been able to see their faces when they popped the coffins and found them empty.

He had a gym bag on the floor. Clothes and toiletries. Two bottles of wine, professionally recorked and rewrapped after being dosed. In two fancy gift bags.

Two teams of Cyborgs in Stut uniforms working their way down the line of trucks. Checking papers . . . spotting the gift bags and reaching for them.

"Hey! Tryin' ta get laid, y'know!"

"We'll let you know if it works. Get moving."

He growled and put the truck in gear.

Winced through the portal twist and followed the rest of the trucks out of the portal security area, turned to follow the number five signs to where they were unloading electronic goodies and waited his turn to get unloaded. And drove off into the city.

He parked at a casual looking restaurant, pulled his (new) computer out of it's hiding place and ate while he searched for those warehouse type places he'd scouted for the Diplomats . . . yeah. That one was not in a very good area. It would work perfectly.

The Unfamous Artiste Max Ignatov rented and paid for it, got the code for the door, paid the waitress with a big tip and headed for his new home.

All it needed was some furniture for the visible reception area, a couple of matresses for the side office, because even Igor couldn't steal four Portal makers in a single day. Here.

And some work tables.

Groceries. Wine. Funnels. Because opportunities should never be missed.

And studied maps, aerial photographs, and the "So you want to be a Portal Driver" handbook that showed him right where he needed to go in all four facilities. If all he wanted to do was drive through the portal.

"It'll be easy to get in . . . but once I've taken the portal down . . . it's going to be interesting getting out with a handicapped guy over my shoulder."

He frowned over at the truck. So perfect for some things, but . . .

What the hell. He bought a dark grey sporty sedan. With a lot of zip. Held the road well. Excellent getaway vehicle, once he gotten into the electronics and set some switches so he could turn off the location beacon, and the "anti-theft" remote turn off.

And then there's the other thing . . . He drummed his fingers in irritation. This isn't the diplomats fault.

He drove to a busy parking lot and pulled out the big clunky phone the techs had built for his first visit.

No. They're politicians, heart and soul. Maybe later.


He cruised the loop highway that passed all four portal centers. Made note of the times the portals were active. It took multiple passes, all day and all night.

The first portal started at noon and stopped at midnight--the third portal ran opposite it.

The second portal ran from six in the evening straight through to ten the next morning.

The fourth portal ran from two in the afternoon overnight until six in the morning.

To let the portalmakers sleep. And no doubt have nightmares, poor sods. I suspect two and four are the young portalmakers who can handle sixteen hour shifts. And the old ones can only handle ten hours, and get fourteen to recupperate.


Had an early dinner on the way back to the warehouse for his gear.

The active camoflage suit got him in easily enough. And once in, he backtracked workers and grabbed generic overalls, and stuffed them in his backpack for future use. He ghosted along with the camo pretending to be plastered wall, and followed workers up to but not through the security gate.

He slid into the shadows, and climbed the door trim of the tall truck entrance. A hard illusion to swing around inside, above most people's gaze. and reach up for a girder and he was above all the lights, and could prowl at will. A peek through the portal . . . no place recognizable. Not much security on the far side.

Must be one of their conquests.

He prowled to one side . . . no, not the portalmaker room. The other side . . . Yeah, that thin stream of pain and effort. Exhausted, weak. No surface thoughts.

One of the older portalmakers.

No doors out to the portal room and truck entrance.

The room had a solid ceiling, pierced only by wires and airducts. He stretched out on a girder. Cut a little hole in the duct and ran a minicam down to the vent and far enough out to get a good look. Not quite the standard setup, the coffin half built into the control panel. Just a slanted bin lid to access the portalmaker.

Awkward, but not too difficult.

One door, out of the wall away from the portal . . .

Great, I can just see me staggering through hallways, a slimy, naked man over my shoulder, hunting for a door to the outside . . . Guess I'd better get back outside see where the doors are. Unless the others are worse, this will be the last one I raid I'll need to hit them fast, and get the last one out before the first one's rest period is over and they raise the alarm.

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 15

Chapter Fourteen

Among the Enemy


"We have to get the domestic situation under control, so we can open the portals to Regulous soon. You are horribly dependant on imported food. Stuttgart is, of course, helping, but we weren't ready to take the entire load!"

Vlad supposed that if he were a proper intel agent, he'd be delight to be dragged along . . . included in . . . this vert important meeting.

Started right off with a not very subtle threat of starvation if we don't . . . what? Is this still about the zivvy?

And are the portals down because they ordered it, or did we do something?

I'm betting on Axel, because there's a lot of rage being concealed. And not just Colonel Lehr's. I don't think anyone here has a clue what happened to the portals.

Chief of Police Nestor Naoumov was hiding anger behind a facade of mild interest.

Governor Berezin was doing all the talking on their side. Failing to subdue the anger in his voice. ". . . invited you in to help us secure the City from attacks from outside. Not to mess up our portals, which were working fine until last night. Not to investigate crimes, not to make illegal arrests, not to perform warantless searches of citizen's homes.

"And very definitely not kidnap and illegally chip Imperial Agents."

Colonel Lehr eyed him impatiently. "He was a traitor to your World. And a very powerful mentalist. He had to be eliminated, immediately."

"We do not eliminate people, Colonel." Berezin stiffened his shoulders. "As the representative of the Council of Siberia Max, at the order of the Council, I order you to leave this World."

That got a snort. "My troops outnumber yours, and more than equal your pathetic police force. I ordered you to come with these people to let them know that the City Police are now under my command, and those we keep will be intergrated into my police force."

He stepped up to the Chief of Police. "Do you understand that, Chief Naoumov?"

"Unfortunately."

Lehr eyed him, then turned to Vlad. "So, you know the fugitive. Tell me about him."

"I met him three months ago, as a suspect in the alledged murder of his uncle, Lord Vladimir Vinogradov. He . . . was considered a useless Layabout. But he seemed very self-controlled, thinking ahead. Aware of all the legal and financial impacts of Lord Vladimir's death. Cold blooded and calculating.

"Researching him, I found that he had degrees in statistics, accounting, history, and Mentalist studies, with a Doctorate in Power Applications."

The Colonel straightened at that.

"So he was not just naturally highly talented, but also educated, and most likely very well trained."

"When, in the course of searching Vinogradov House, I found what looked like a dimensional beacon, Lord Axel made a single phone call, identified himself with a number and sent a recording of the beacon and the room it was in. A Fast Response Team arrived very quickly, and recognized him."

Vlad shrugged. "So I realized that the 'job' he'd casually dismissed, and allowed me to assume was financial in nature, was that of a Mentalist with the Teams. I was not in a position to know if he was the agent said to have accompanied Inquistor Gorbachev, however he was exhibiting all the symptoms of an unprotected portal crossing. I accompanied him and the servant who'd been showing me around, to the house he owned on Upper Cliff. I was boggled to find out it was next to my father's house, which we had always thought vacant and held as an investment. Inside I got the full lecture about it didn't happen until I had expresss permission for it have happened."

"After that, the Imperials took over the investigation . . . are you interested in the results?"

"Only in as much as Lord Axel being proven guilty."

"Actually Lord Vladimir's Executive Secretary killed him, as the only path he could find to stopping his master, when he discovered the beacon. Inquisitor Gorbachev removed the controls and whatever inhibitions Lord Vladimir implanted, and got the whole confession out of him."

"Where is he now?"

"I have not seen him since. I did, two days later, receive an official decree from the Imperial Inquisitor's Office that the killing was justified defense of the World."

A snort from the Colonel. "A nice cover for murder. So an Inquisitor is in on it!"

Vlad eyed him. "Do you still have communication to Home? You might want to get an Executioner out here to look into the matter."

The colonel blinked, thinking.

Go on. Do it! Dare you!

"I spoke hastily. I would never doubt an Inquisitor. Yesss . . . brave man, that Exec, a crucial moment when the invasion could be stopped while it was small. Now whether Lord Axel was in on the Treason is still not resolved."

He glanced at his computer. "Agent Schweiger is of the opinion that neither Lord Andre nor Lord Nikoli are powerful enough, ambitious enough, or intelligent enough to have been in on the Treason. What do you think?"

"I agree with that assessment, but will add that they are spoiled, arrogant, and dissolute, but only in small ways." Vlad shrugged.

The Governor nodded. "I knew them all, of course. Rather . . . typical third generation down from a great man, those two. Lord Axel was different. I knew he was one of Rasputin's Agents. I would never have thought . . ." He shook his head sadly, and turned to the Chief of Police, looked him straight in the eyes . . . and winked. "Integrate your people into a unified force, I'll make sure that you do all right out out of it."

The Chief scowled, nodded.

Vlad glowered, muttered "damn politicians." Shrugged. "How? There's not much room. We can put up barracks for more Cyborgs pretty quick, but not offices."

"We'll talk about it." The chief herded him out, glancing at the Governor. "And our budget."

"Now look, we've got money problems already . . ."

They argued all the way back to the squad cars.

Then the Chief eyed him. "What do you think, Gargaran, you're being pretty quiet."

"Well . . . I'll look over the Stutt Cyborgs. Separate them from their current controllers and then we'll see what we're dealing with. Long term? My money's on Igor."

The Chief glowered. The Governor sagged. Vlad got right in his face. "Don't write that man off. You know he's not cowering in a hole, so don't you give up either."

The Governor straightened, offended.

The Chief frowned. "Well . . . Gargaran, you are temporarily assigned to Cyborg duty . . . and try to make them into good cops, not occupying soldiers."

"Yes, sir."

***

So he started with a gang of Cyborgs he knew were good people and good cops. "So, did you all get three days worth of the zivvy dissolver," he grinned at their expressions.

Forty-one shook his finger at him. "Are you supposed to tell anyone about that?"

Two-four swallowed. "You're kidding?"

"No. This is how the conquered worlds are successfully rebelling. Three days of the officers getting dosed with the Plague--which is a poison, not a disease--and three days of the troops getting the zivvy destroyer, and suddenly our army is the rebels' army."

He certainly had their attention. "If you didn't get three days worth . . . any of you? Good. Now you need to go tee total for three weeks to make sure it turns off before it affects your control of the arm. I don't know any more than that about how it affects Cyborgs.

"Servant chips? A week of the wine, three weeks off removes the wires without damaging the chip, so it read as functioning. Twenty day of the wine and even the chip is dissolved."

He bit his lip. "Have any of you been around the Stutt Cyborgs?"

They all nodded, and they all looked angry.

Three-twelve growled. "They're acting like conquering warriors. Not quite to the rape, loot, pillage, burn stage . . . But they look like they really want to get to it."

Vlad nodded. "I'm supposed to integrate them into the police force."

"Oh shit." Forty-one hunched his shoulders.

"So what I need you guys to do is meet them, talk to them when they're off duty and relaxed. Find out if the behavior is an overlay from their controllers, or if they really are bad. Try and find good ones, and get the wine into them. If they're being actively controlled on duty . . . we'll have to figure out how to deal with that. Because I don't think anyone has any of the Plague poison."

"Day yam." Forty-one nodded. "Right, we'll see if we can lure any of them over to the side of law and order."

"Or to the side of Siberia Max." Two-four nodded. "I think they're just in tents on the west side, kind of surrounding their portal, well, their arrival spot with the beacon. They've taken over management and security of our commercial portals. Don't know about the one Up Top."

"I'll look into getting some portable buildings for barracks, bring them over in small batches, so you can look them over. And friendly or not, try and get them to act like police, not as you say, conquerors."

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 10 addition

Right after the House Search, still Vlad's POV (Because tomorrow's post will be pretty late)

***

Nothing else happened so he checked the weather forecast, then grabbed a rain coat and headed for the office.

Where the Chief of Police was trying to calm down a three sided yelling match in the elevator lobby.

Two sided. The third man, Axel's "Boss" had his arms crossed and was staring daggers at the unknown man in the suit.

". . . give me the zivvy!"

The man in the uniform snarled. "We need it to maintain civilization!"

The Boss's stare was getting colder.

"If you would all please calm down . . .

All three had flunkies hovering, not quite ready to grab their respective superiors and haul them away.

Vlad detoured way around the confrontation, and found some other detectives. "So . . . they're fighting over the last scraps of zivvy?"

Detective Devin nodded. "Or at least the last scraps the Cybernetic Center had. The fat guy's the Director of the Cybernetics Center, Dr. Jenner. The Fast Reaction Teams raided the Center this morning and removed every crumb of zivvy they had. They claim they have the right. That's the Director of Imperial Intelligence, Rasputin, keeping his mouth shut. Colonel Lehr, there, wants all of it that the Research Center has Up Top. Nobody's saying quite what triggered the raid in the first place."

Vlad bit his lip. "According to the Stuttgart Agent I spent much too much time with yesterday, they snatched a top Imperial agent off the street and sent him straight to surgery and got him chipped. He has escaped the Center, killing the Chief Surgeon on the way out."

That got a low whistle from Devine, and uneasy looks from the rest.

"Exactly. No arrangment, no trial. And if that's the way they're going to procede, I'd just as soon there was no zivvy available at all."

"Do you know who they chipped?"

Vlad was opening his mouth when the Doctor threw himself bodily at the Director of Intel. Whose rather thin Exec stepped forward to block a man who was probably triple his weight and was flattened. But did serve to trip the Doc, as Rasputin sidestepped, turned and twisted the Colonel's arm upward.

Lehr had a pistol in his hand and half the cops in the room leapt . . . the gun flew across the room as the Colonel was flattened as the top layer of the cake with a frosting of cops.

Director Rasputin stood back as the cops stood up, then grabbed the Colonel, hauled him up and slammed him into the wall.

"I realize, as a soldier, that you cannot simply pick up and leave against orders. So I suspect that means we're going to have to kill every single one of you. I'm tempted to start right now, but I'm going to leave you one chance to talk to your superiors and presuade them that this is a really bad World to try to take."

He gave the officer a really nasty looking smile. "You personally? You're a dead man walking. Because. You. Chipped. Igor."

Two of the Doctor's following helped him up and Rasputin stooped to help his Exec up. "Thank you, Mr. Mateev. You've got good reflexes. Let's go find a real doctor to take a look at that wrist. And perhaps your ribs."

He turned his back on the room and walked out, shooing the Exec out ahead of him.

A young Stuttgart officer had retrieved the gun and looked like he was contemplating using it.

"Don't." the colonel snarled. "He's got shields up."

The Chief of Police cleared his throat noisily. "Quite apart from it being illegal. All of you go away. Colonel . . . you're getting a warning this time. Do not ever draw a gun in my building again."

He turned to the fat man. "Dr. Jenner. We will be investigating two serious crimes in your Center. Since you are here, why don't we go talk to the Chief Detective?"

"What's to talk about? How can you not find an addled murderer? The first twenty-four hours are past, the wires are getting into his brain now, you should be able to find and him and control him."

"Indeed. If he weren't a trained soldier and agent. Who's trial and conviction totally escaped my notice. In fact, judging by the security recordings at the store where he was ambushed, he must have been taken straight from the store to the Cybernetics Center, stunned. They didn't even bother with a show trial.

"So let's just go have a little chat about this." The Chief's head turned at a movement of the Colonel's. "You, why are you still here?"

The colonel glowered, but turned and stalked out, junior officers at his heels.

Vlad exchanged glances with the other detectives. "Surely there's something we can investigate away from here."

Devin looked after the departing soldiers. "They chipped Igor?"

"Yeah . . . why?"

Vlad chewed that over. "If they want to either keep the status quo, or even start a small empire of their own, we must have been an irresistable temptation, once brought to their attention."

"How'd they know we still have zivvy?"

"Those two Stutties we rescued, they were here long enough to have heard the Governor's address, ordering a stop to chipping, until june, when we'd really find out if shipments were dependable. So they know we have a six month supply on hand. Just for our small population . . . but are they actually out of zivvy? I wonder if Stuttgart has enough zivvy to replace portalmakers as they age and die."

Devin nodded. "And if the old Empire's really gone, there's a chance they can figure out how to manufacture their own.

Zhabin winced. "And to tide them over, here's a world with a supply of zivvy, three portals, and a research center. And no army. Just some fast response teams, cops . . . and Igor."

"And they took him out immediately."

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 14

Chapter Thirteen

Camping


In a plain brown wig, and casual exercise gear--winter variety--no one looked twice at him as he marched up the street. Weights in hand, arms pumping as he kept up a brisk pace. Reached out mentally to the Cyborg on the corner and sent him into a foggy state of memory loop that would last for hours. Marched past and did the same with the two at the gate.

Around the block, up the alley, and found the fourth Stutt Cyborg intimidating a maid at the back door. Axel made him back away and sit down and sent him off to dream land for a few hours.

The maid hovered, ready to run.

"Sissy, isn't it?" Axel grinned as she suddenly recognized him. "Please tell Lady Lilia that the camping vehicle will be here in the alley in a few minutes."

"Yes, sir!" She scampered off, and Axel double-timed it back to the ATV.

They had the back loaded in minutes, mainly because the lady's car was ready to go. One cook, one maid, one tutor, three cyborg guards. The lady rode in her car with most of the staff. The head of the guard detachment and all three kids rode in the ATV with the well known "Uncle Axel."

Who was actually not a relative at all, but a frequent visitor . . . they hung over the front seat taking it all in as Axel explained the comm gear Pauli had installed.

Frequency shifting burst transmissions if they had to call out. Passive pickup of TV and radio so they could stay abreast of the situation in the city.

"And watch our favorite shows!"

"Yay! That's the only thing about camping I hate!"

"There are several places I used to camp when I was a kid. All the researcher's families have been doing it for centuries. And we planted trees every time we went." Axel shrugged. "Well, we stuck seeds in the ground. Pecans, walnuts, apple and cherry seeds . . . even some acorns and pine nuts that people brought back when they went across on vacation. Mind you, there's still a whole lots of nothing but grass out here, because there aren't any bees to pollenate the trees."

He turned off the road to a power plant and watched carefully to make sure the limo was following. "This is the road that goes all the way to the Atlantic . . . Michail's never mentioned fishing . . ."

"Dad loves to fish, when we go back to Regulous on vacation." Tatyana was the oldest, at sixteen.

"I thought it was gross." Anzhelina was twelve.

Ten year old Nikita grinned. "I caught the biggest one, last year."

"Ugg! Boys!" Anzhelina wrinkled her nose.

"And no cute ones where we're going?" Tatyana sighed. "Momma barely lets me talk to boys any more."

"Huh. Only one boy and I'm probably going to take him away with me. Unless Fifty-fifty wants a sniper. I take some talented kids up here, or to one of the other spots, for shooting practice, rather frequently.

"Any how, tell your Dad that a mere one thousand five hundred miles of washed out, poorly maintained roads will get him to the finest fishing in the Alliance." Axel grinned. "We're only going about two hundred and fifty miles, then we turn off and drive another fifty to a place where few people have ever been."

"But there are trees?" Nikita peered around the endless grasslands.

"Yep. The pine trees are wind pollenated, so they're spreading out nicely. Might even have an actual forest in another century or two." Axel glanced at Fifty-fifty. "There are a couple hundred tree clusters. No reason for anyone to pay any particular attention to this one, but it does have a nice steep tall hill between it and the road and the city, that gives a good view of trouble coming your way."

The Cyborg grinned. "The Boss has mentioned that you're a planning fanatic."

"There's a time for winging it and inspiration, but prep and planning, not to mention training, are much to be preferred. Hence the electronics. I'll be leaving the ATV with you. I can take back the limo if you want, or leave it. One of my guys is delivering a bunch of stuff, and setting up camp, so I can also ride back with him."

"Will they spot us on satellite?" Nikita was rather adicted to spy movies.

"Doubtful. However, one of my crew is an outstanding hacker and he's into the satellite feeds. he's got some good loops, so no one's going to see us driving and he'll let me know if the vehicles and tents are insufficiently hidden before I leave. You'll need to be a little careful about lights and fires at night. But I've got a baffle, as well as Pauli on the sat feeds."

Fifty-five nodded approval. "Redundency. I like it."

"So long as Pauli doesn't get too busy."

***

The campsight was hit. Probably a hundred acres of mixed woods. A small meadow surrounded by tall trees that didn't quite meet in the middle. Tents in among the trees, a rock ring for a fire, with a metal hood. A water well, with a solar powered pump, a freezer box, a cold box . . .

"And best of all a really cute guy."

Dimitri glanced back in alarm. Lady Lilia with resignation.

Dimitri, for the first time ever, lifted his hair. "See exec plate. Not even close to being in your class, so, so, flirt all you want if you need the practice, but that's all it going to be."

"Oh dear."

Axel glanced over at Lady Lilia.

"What can be more irresistable than a man who's determined to be indifferent? Where ever did you find him?"

"He's one of my cousin's bastards. And dammit, if I'd turned fifty before he and couple of others turned eighteen, I'd have tried to buy them from my uncle and I'd have damn well Presented them."

"Really?" She eyed the boy. "But with an executive chip he's still got power and brains, eh? Very useful."

"Yes. I just wish he was free."

"Axel, dear, with you he is."

"Not legally and I hate that. So . . . Do you like the camp? What did I miss? We were a bit more used to roughing it than I assume you are, but I don't actually know."

Nikita snickered. "Momma stayed home after the first time we went backpacking."

Lady Lilia grinned. "I like hiking, and I love camping. Combining the two, which involves packs of horrendous weight? No. This, on the other hand, is quite good, and with the things I've brought along, will be excellent."

Fifty-fifty, who'd taken off to check the hill top, trotted back into camp. "I want your sniper."

"Oh dear." Lady Lilia glanced over to where Dimitri was setting up a picnic table in the shade, Tatyana supervising.

"Indeed." Axel looked around. "I'll be taking the truck back, I need it for my next plan. If you need to return to town, just leave everything here."

***

At the sound of the loud voices, Axel paused. Held up a hand to stop Henrik and company, then walked the rest of the way up the stairs to listen carefully, from almost out of sight.

The Boss was yelling, a man in a Stuttgart military uniform was yelling, the Inquisitor strode into view from the direction of the main building, his entourage behind him . . .

"Both gates are down and I want to know what you've done to them!" The Boss was definitely pissed, and the Miltary guy looked pissed. They passed out of sight, heading for the control room.

The Boss's voice trailed from out of sight. "Have you finished the upgrade? When can you test . . . What do you mean you can't!"

The next several minutes were filled with incomprehsible multiple voices, at full volume, the anger and shock was clear.

". . . fucking thieves!" The Boss was back striding angrily across the portal room toward the exit. "I told the Council not to let you lot in, and I swear once I get rid of you lot I'll personally shoot every single one of them who voted for it! Stealing our best portalmaker!"

"We did not . . ."

The Boss spun and poked him with a finger. "I'm going to check the other two portals, and our portalmakers had better be right where they belong!"

The officer stalked after him punching at his phone.

The Inquisitor stepped out and watched them walk away. Threw out his hands. "Bring my car around to the front entrance. Two in the Morning? Why can't we have a crisis at a decent time of the day?"

Axel stepped back and grinned. "You heard the man, we'll use the back entrance."

Henrik looked around. "I would have sworn he said front."

"Yep, and the others are at the Portal door, so we'll go the third way. Where, as it happens, my minions will be moving the cars and meeting us there."




Tier Names

I need to regularize my naming conventions, just as a reminder of status and priviledge.

Tier One--Home and 300

Tier Two--so far I have Stalin (that got trashed by the One) and Stuttgart

Tier Three--

Tier Four--Regulous and Budapest Reborn

Tier Five--Siberia Max and Novaya Moskva

Tier Six--Neu Frankfurt


I think I'll change this to Tier Two being named after people, Tier Three-Cities, Tier Four-Regions, and outward modified cities or regions. So Budapest drops the reborn and becomes a tier three, and I need to rename Stuttgart which is in any case is awkward to make a decent nickname for the citizens there of.

Marx? Marxies? Luther Looties? Kant? Hess? I hate to use Einstein and Mozart, as this culture was built on the Early or even pre-WWII Germany with magic added.

Opinions and suggestions?

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 13

Chapter Twelve

Discipline Problems


"What do you mean all the Cyborgs are sick?"

Vlad looked over at the Chief Detective. "Sick! What the hell? Bad food?"

CD Bychkov clicked his phone off and glared. "You get along with them, go find out! It started three days ago, and it's spreading."

Vlad hustled across the big parking lot to the mess hall. The four Cyborg barracks on the right, the five servant's barracks to the left. Cooks, maids, cleaning crew, and the mechanics who kept the fleet running.

The mess was a mess. Dirty plates everywhere, and only a few women even trying to reduce the chaos. Lots of groaning bodies, some limp. Vlad bent over one . . . retreated hastily and call the station physician.

"I know, bring them in." the irritated voice on the other end sounded put out.

"There's too many of them. Load up your crew with anti-alcohol and get down here." Vlad snapped right back.

"They're Cyborgs, who gives a damn."

Vlad stomped on a desire to go kick him.

"They are very valuable . . . property . . . of the police force. Worth a quarter million apiece. Do you know how pissed the people in charge are going to be if they have to replace millions of rubles worth of . . . equipment . . . because you didn't do your job?"

A snarl.

"Grab all your anti-alcohol and get down here. With all of your staff."

A fast hunt found everyone alive, however a lot of them seemed to not be appreciating that. He finally found Forty-one in the woman's barracks, snoring in the arms of one of the cooks and . . . decided to leave him there.


A couple of hours later they managed to get a half shift out on the streets, and enough of the servants functional to get everything cleaned up.

Fortunately very little cooking was needed. Toast and tea were the special of the day.

And every bit of alcohol in the barracks was confiscated. A minor amount compared to how much had been drunk, judging by the trash bags full of empty bottles hauled away.

***

Vlad spend the rest of the day peacefully writing reports and actually caught up on them, on his mail, and even got in a bit of reading before Agent Schweiger turned up.

"Axel Vinogradov did, as you said, grow up, up there. All the elderly scientists remember him learning everything, always underfoot, but usually helping. On the other hand, the Fast Response people just look blank when I ask about him."

"Ah, it's these nicknames. Call signs, whatever. Most of them probably don't know his actual name. Ask about Igor . . . umm . . ."

"What!"

"They aren't going to happy when they learn he was illegally chipped."

"Why the hell would anyone think that it was illegal?"

"Because not enough time passed for even an arraingment, let alone a trial. Did you bring in an Executioner to judge 29 Vinogradov?" Vlad shook his head. "Your people chose their showcase victim very poorly."

Glare. "What the hell do you mean by that?"

"Socially prominent. The highest will look at that as a threat. If the oldest descendant of Ivan the Founder isn't safe from you lot, no one is safe. Popular with the scientific staff, as you noticed. Well respected and liked by the Teams. He's who they look up to. The Mentalists all want to grow up to be as powerful as Igor. The Cyborgs love working with him."

Vlad leaned back. "And 'Igor' is a local ledgend, with the lower classes. It's like you chipped the Three Bogatirs.

"And so blatently illegal. My recommendation is you shut up and slink away before everyone finds out."

A disdainful snort. "We no longer care about the 300. And what happened to all your Cyborgs?"

"Well, either someone wanted them all sick for who knows what reason." Vlad sat back and eyed the Stuttgartian Agent. "Or they all pooled all their funds with all the maids and kitchen staff for booze and they were all so drunk they got careless with keeping the food refrigerated and are now suffering from hangovers and food poisoning.

"But since nothing horrible happened while they were mostly . . . out sick . . . I tend to believe that's what it actually was."

Schweiger glared. "We're here to help you."

"No. You're here to help yourself, and showed your cards much, much to soon."

"Did you hide Vinogradov?"

"No. But then I'm an honest cop." He snorted. "Plus I suspect I have a dozen people who know where I was at what was probably the critical time. That is to say, you and you gang of . . . searchers at Vinogradov House. When was Lord Axel last seen, at the Cybernetic's Center, and when was he discovered to be missing?"

"At nine in the evening, Dr. Petukhou escorted Lord Michail Rasputin to view the patient."

"The Director in Imperial Intel here?"

"Fortunately for Lord Michail, they were yelling loud enough to bring the guards in closer, so we know that Dr. Petukhov was alive after Lord Michail left."

"Oh . . . Please, please, do not be stupid enough to threaten him."

Schweirger snorted. "The Colonel is speaking to the Governor about reining him in."

"You should cultivate him. He's one of the few non-founding family descendants that the scientists Up Top will take advice from." Vlad pinched the bridge of his nose. "Please. Go read the charter. You're making my head hurt."

If there was another glare he didn't look up to see it.

I wonder how it works on Stuttgart? Do they think their Council, or whatever they call it, and their president, can order an Imperial Official around? And obviously they have nothing like the Research Center, whose rather fluid leadership outranks the civilian authority. If they get pushy with the scientists up here, they're going to find out in an unpleasant fashion what sorts of things get researched Up Top.

Do they not realize that this is an Authorized Research World? That everything. Everything! Is subordinate to that?

Not in their eyes, apparently.

The Director of Research, who may or may not be Rasputin, or might be Inquisitor Gorbachev . . . or someone not named publicly . . . one of the scientists, perhaps?

It couldn't possibly be the great grandson of both Ivan the Founder and Dr. von Ricter.

Right?

He signed a plain car out and drove home first--where his mother and sister appeared to be washing everything in the house-- and found his father out on the patio staying out of the way.

"It's practically a ritual cleansing, getting the aura of those Stutts out of the house."

Vlad grinned. "Probably needed. All right, I just thought I'd check on everyone. I'll hit the streets, now, tracking down some gangs. You'd think with chips we wouldn't have them, wouldn't you?"

His dad nodded. "I guess there's always someone that no one wants. They're mostly ferals. Either minimal grow-ins who can avoid being controlled, and minimally functional bad grow-ins whose . . . owners can't care for them, and can't afford a good care company."

"Yep. I ought to be home for dinner."

"Unless the ferals eat you."

"There is that." He grabbed a sample of Dina's medicine, and headed out. Hit six stores for wine splits, so he didn't look too much like a wino, and doped them all, sloshing a bit of wine back into his "starter set."

Demonstrated the effects at two charity hospitals that cared for Cyborgs with brain fever.

And spent the rest of the afternoon handing little bottles out to the homeless people living on the streets.

"I got it from Igor" was all he told any of them.

Don't know that it'll do a bit of good, but it's the only good I can do right now.

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 12

Chapter Eleven

Danger Rangers


Nastasya was clenching the arms of her chair to stop them from shaking. Or throwing somthing through the screen of the TV.

Barf, Dimitri, and Pauli were all exuding waves of anger.

"We need more information." Nastasya cleared her throat to get the snarl out of it. "Pauli? Can you find out where the Stutts are headquartered, and hack them? And a line into the police wouldn't hurt."

She bit her lip. I will neither scream, nor cry. "And we don't phone anyone."

Barf looked over, nodding. "Because the Stutties have probably got your cute cop tapped and will trace any suspicious calls."

Pauli got out a pad of paper and started making a list. "F-first, we're g-going to assume he has a v-very good g-grow-in, and can function. We'll n-need to stay near and g-give him a m-mental shield, so no one can control h-him. N-now, wh-what tools, weapons, equipment, c-clothes and even more disguises can we g-get for h-him. We've got our wigs, and a selection of his clothes. What m-more do we n-need?"

"But we don't know where he is!" She took a deep breath, and stopped.

"He knows where we are." Dimitri turned his back on the TV and walked back to the work table. His big wicked looking Christmas rifle. "I wish I'd had more range time."

Nastasya looked around at the vehicles. The box truck was no surprise. Lord Axel had obviously driven it here after he'd moved the trees. The car . . . a big all terrain vehicle was a surprise. It had been here when she arrived.

"They're both registered to AIV Enterprises." Pauli shrugged. "The ATV was registered the day after AIV was incorporated. The box truck, ///last week. The day after we moved everything."

"I wish one of them was less conspicuous. I'd drive around looking for Axel, trying to get here." Nastaya eyed the old truck, and shook her head. "We need a popular make in a common color. One or two years old. Utterly unremarkable."

A rattle, a tapping at the front door. They grabbed weapons . . . "Let me get it, I look less threatening . . ."

A tall man, blond hair, the rest obscured by the frosty patterned appliques they'd stuck on the keep anyone from seeing in . . .

Vlad doesn't know where we are . . . A faint voice through the glass. "Have you heard the word of our Lord Jesus . . ."

She flipped the locks off, tore the door open, grabbed and hauled Axel in.

And sort of got half squashed as they gang hugged him.

Not the way we should be treating our Owner!

A muffled voice. "I'm glad to see you guys too! But I do need to breathe!"

And I hadn't realized that Barf and Dimitri were both taller than he is.

She let him go and elbowed Pauli back a bit to get out of his all-inclusive hug. Shut the door and locked it.

Lord Axel grinned. "So, you guys got any food? I skipped breakfast."

"What happened to you?" Nastsya shooed the boys out of the way, "Dimitri, move your gun! Pauli, zap something. Barf, keep your eye on him and don't let him get away without us to guard him."

"Oh, now. I suspect I can find much more interesting things for you four to do than baby sit me!"

The boys all grinned, of course.

Nastasya growled. And grabbed a soda from the fridge and plunked it down in front of him. "And that's a horrible wig!"

"It was all Dina had."

"Dina? All right. Can we have the story from the start? The news says you've been chipped!"

"Well . . . they moved faster than I'd expected. And may I say I am delighted that you four got out of Vinogradov House? I was ambushed in a grocery store, double stunned, and woke up in the recovery room . . ."

And he perfectly calmly told them all about escaping during that horribly disoriented first day that she remembered so well. About Dina in disguise just walking out of the snow and chattering him past the Stutts waiting in ambush at his house and taking him to hers.

He pulled a wine bottle and four-pack of splits out of his gymbag and set them on the table. And between bites talked casually about spying on the Rebels on "Someotherworld," and acquiring sample of the Plague and a substance that removed zivvy wires from the brain.

They all swapped their boggled gazes from him, to the wine and back.

"This is the zivvy dissolver. You four need to be very careful and handle it with gloves. If you wish to get rid of your executive plates, you probably can. But please wait until this invasion has been dealt with."

Pauli eyed the Lord. "Wh-what if any of us had g-gotten servant chips? You n-never undid anyone else."

"I only got this late last summer. Before that I had no options. I . . . had indigestion arguing with myself about dosing you four, if my ploy to get you executive chips failed.

"Now I've got an experimental permit, and was going to start with the bad grow-ins at Vinogradov House, but barely got started before all this came up." He finished the hot wrap and chased a few crumbs around the plate.

Pauli snatched it, and headed for the freezer.

"So, I had a little at the cliff house, and the next door neighbor's daughter, who had a horrible grow-in, and a fixation on a fictional hero with red hair, managed to get into the house and drank some. Dina's been improving ever since. And . . . planned out how to get me past the guards, and carried it out flawlessly."

"I spent the night at their house. The Stutts stormed the neighborhood and searched everywhere, totally missing me, hiding behind the pink shoes and a long skirt. So I spent yesterday and most of last night sleeping, eating, and drinking this stuff." He started in on the second hot wrap.

Nastasya squirmed, not wanting to ask.

Lord Axel's eyes gleamed and the corners of his mouth turned up. "I talked to Senior Detective Gargaran last night, they'll all be laying low. And perhaps I can get more information out of the police than the news reports. This morning I talked to my boss, and learned a few things and will be arranging a few things, before I head to Stuttgart to sabotage their gates."

His grin widened. "What? Was I supposed to hide until the boogie men went away? We have to take away their ability to import as many troops as they want, and we need to do it before we start giving them reasons to want a lot of troops."

Nastasya thumped down in a chair, and stared at him in horror. "But . . . you said seven days to get rid of the wires?"

"Yes. I'll take the stuff with me, and keep drinking it. I simply can't wait much longer. These people have no restraints on their actions."

Pauli reached and peeled his blond wig off. "W-we'll get you fixed up with b-better wigs, disguises, IDs, and b-backstories. H-how would you like to be the unfamous artist M-max Ignatov."

"Artist . . . Well . . . I did have painting lessions, but it's been . . . thirty years since I've weilded a paintbrush of that sort."

They all grinned.

"We've got all the supplies you'll need," Dimitri grinned.

Barf nodded. "We thought about trying to paint something, so you had something to show, but none of us had a clue."

"Good God. An artist." Axel started grinning. "That is going to work really well, now that I think about it."

"Now, Pauli, I'm going to need some special equipment installed in the ATV . . ."

***

Five in the freezing morning, and she was sitting on a bench, bundled up in her heaviest coat, armed to the teeth and pretending to read.

Lord Max Ignatov had his easel set up, and was swiping away at it, palette in hand. Black turtle-neck shirt, baggy tan pants, black wig topped off with a beret.

He is a walking stereotype. And he ought to be freezing.

She startled as two Cyborgs ran into the little plaza by the boardwalk. Utterly silent apart from their wheezing.

"Oh Gawd, don't tell me the boardwalk has become trendy!"

"Max" turned, brush and eyebrows raised. "Out of shape and rude. No wonder they don't let you out without me."

They both pounced, grabbing him, and dropping him suddenly as they heard the click of the safeties coming off of her pistols.

"Friends! Friends! No shooting friends allowed. Nastasya, the next time you draw on a Cyborg, you'd better have your shields up already!"

The biggest Cyborg started laughing. "How the hell did you . . . and with a pretty bodyguard?"

"Do you have a private Army?" The second Cyborg was still eyeing her.

She set the safeties and holstered the guns. Picked up the book, opened it to a random page and delicately turned to the next.

"No, just a few talented people. And yes, she can shoot with both guns at once and hit two different targets."

"Tasha, the big one is Ape, the bigger one is Murphy. You sort of met in Vinogradov House. You may trust them completely."

Murphy looked down at Lord Axel. "And now we see why this punishment run."

"Yes. Sorry about that. So, you may admire my brilliant painting while we talk about a substance I just happened to pick up late last summer . . . elsewhere . . . which dissolves zivvy wires, and if taken long enough will even dissolve chips. How it affects Cyborgs long term is unknown, but the way the Enemy and Rebels on wherever-that-was kicked our asses was simple. They'd get the Plague--more of a poison, it's not peson to person contageous--into the officers' water supply, and the zivvy dissolver into the cyborged native soldiers mess . . . and three days later, our army was suddenly their army."

"Under our current circumstances, the zivvy dissolver is going to be real handy for keeping the Stutts from just taking our guys. The problem is that I have no idea how this stuff will affect a kill switch."

They glanced at each other.

"There's a possibility that it could even trigger it. So while, being the curious sort, I have previously investigated disarming or removing the poison capsule, I have no idea if I could actually do it."

Another glance between them. And a chorus. "Volunteering!"

"Guys . . . I wouldn't even suggest this if Colonel Lehr hadn't asked the Boss for the controls."

Murph nodded. "I was there. He was really steamed that the Inquisitor's family escaped."

Ape elbowed him. "He means, 'took a vacation to Regulous.' Really Murph, you know better than to malign those vicious assholes."

Murph sighed, shook his head. "That's me, always saying the wrong thing. So get to work, Dr. Igor."

Fron Tasha's Point of view, the Cyborg just sat on the bench while Axel put his hand on his skull plate for a moment, then handed Murph one of the wine bottles. "Small sip."

"Whoo!"

"Yeah, there's going to be a huge black market in this stuff. Now hold still."

She could see the power, but not what he was doing with the little tools he pulled out of a pocket. Prying something? Unscrewing something, definitelty, and pulling something out after the screw that was wrapped up in a tiny physical shield.

The three of them examined it. "Yep. That looks like a binary poison to me." The Cyborg hunched his shoulders. "Now If I just don't die of brain fever . . ."

Axel tsked. "I've got a sterializing field up. So let me plug the hole before your brain leaks out . . ."

Then he did the same to Ape, and made them both drink more wine. Sent them off with two of the little bottles. "Half tomorrow, half the next day. Find out if there are any more guys with the kill switches. I'll be here tomorrow."

She watched them, and watched Axel watching them stagger out of sight around a curve of the road.

"They're good friends, aren't they?"

"The best. We've saved each other's lives so many times . . . celebrated victories, and mourned fallen comrades." He huffed out a long breath. "At least I didn't kill them on the spot. I think it'll work. But there's only one way to find out. And I hope it doesn't come to that."

"How many others have a kill switch?"

"I don't know. We lost people in the two battles, so we're really short on people, both Mentalists and Cyborgs. We lost two mentalists and two Cyborgs, one a leader type in the Invasion. Then two more Cyborgs in that battle in Vinogradov. I think Flap was a leader, and Juicy was a trainee."

"That was all Budapest Reborn, right?"

"Yep. And now we get to find out how to deal with a small army that's already through the portal." he turned to the canvas. "Ze light! Ze beautiful morning light has faded. We vill return tomorrow to finish my masterpiece!"

Nastasya raised an eyebrow and eyed the canvas. The deep blue of twilight lightened down ward, the rolling hills were layered in light to dark.

"It's not actually bad."

He gave her a wide eyed hurt look, while trying to not laugh.


They bought lots of camping gear and canned food.


The Artist worked over three Cyborgs the next moring. Declared his masterpiece done and they drove away.

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 11

Chapter Ten

Up and At 'em


Axel slept off and on all day. Eating, staggering in to the bathroom, back to bed to watch Dina in foggy amazment as she took scissors to the wavy blonde wig she'd worn to get him past the watchers, and turned him into a . . . well, after the last two days he looked his age. A handsome middle-aged blond fellow. A better tan than most True Men, but not all that noticeable.

She's not missing a thing! Damn this culture that steals the mentalist power and intelligence from so many women.

He stretched carefully, but everything appeared to be finally back to normal. He looked up as Vlad walked in. "I'll leave early tomorrow morning. I need all of you to just go on as if nothing happened. I'll take everything with me. Lose it where it probably won't ever be found."

"Probably?" Vlad looked skeptical.

"I doubt a feral will relinquish a nice warm coat. Might pawn it, though."

"Pretty untraceble at that point. I can drop you off somewhere."

Axel shook his head. "No. I've risked you enough, already. I've left as small a footprint as possible. And I'll try very hard to leave no trail."

"What are you going to do? Or try?"

He grinned. "You'll see."

As usual, he ate in Dina's room. Collected everything that needed to disappear. The suitcase had to stay--the Stuttgart goons had seen it. But he'd accepted a gym bag from Vlad and stuffed his boots with everthing he could, and got them into the bag with his fancy suit and an extra pair of pants. A few things for his pockets--Dina had even snatched his little tool kit.

And tonight he stretched out on the floor and told Dina it was her turn for the bed.

Dina looked indignant but he refused to budge. He could hear a TV upstairs, faint as she closed the door and locked it.

"You almost died, and I realized that I'd have had to live the rest of my life without ever having had you." She folded up on the floor beside him. "And now you're going back out alone . . . where I can't help you. But if you don't come back, you're going to at least leave me with one less regret."

***

He left at two in the morning. Silently retracing his path out the side door. Easing the latch down. Reaching high into the mental frequencies, he spotted the two watchers. Doubtful they'd see him, but he waited until a car drove past and darted further around the curve as it was passing. The big brown coat was good against the bushes favored by the cliff house dwellers. But three blocks on he cut across the road a down a side street, with newer stone and stucco houses. So he shed the coat the let the mixed gray sweater camoflage him

He kept moving steadily, zigzagging toward his goal, south of the west end of the Malta Massif, a old run down area. Dropping strands of artifical blonde hair where the breeze would blow them further. A woman and child shivering in a corner, out of the wind . . . he tossed them the coat and kept moving. The pants tossed in a shadow. The shirt hung on a fence. The tie down a drain, and various items from the doctor's wallet down other drains, and finally the wallet itself, keeping nothing but the cashcards.

Then he turned back to the east, found a vendo for a snack and a cheap watch.

Five o'clock. Traffic will start building up soon, and I won't be so conspicuous if I hire a cab.

Speaking of conspicuous . . . that other man, staring out over the drop to a concrete floor control channel. Quite dangerously deep . . .

As the stranger stepped on the rail, Axel grabbed his arm and hauled him back.

"Enought peoiple are going to die in the few weeks. Don't help the damned Stutts." Axel eyed the man. Limp, hopeless, had all he can deal with. "Do you have a car? Good. Let's go for a drive."


Lord Afanasiy Dryagin's son had insisted on being Presented. "He said he'd rather be dead than chipped. And then, and then, this fevered Cyborg beat the hell out of him, but didn't kill him. So they chipped him. Things have been awful since. Then I got fired."

Tears. "And yesterday Anya got the diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer."

Axel nodded. "I remember that horrible day my father told me he had cancer. Already metastacised. He said he had a few months and got his affairs in order. He only had weeks."

They drove on down Canal Street for a few blocks. "Turn left here." They were headed now toward the big old houses. A neighborhood he was familiar with. "Turn right, and right into the parking lot."

He turned and looked at the man. "Wait for me. I'm going to get some wine and put some . . . well, call them granny spells if you wish. But they will help. Wait for me."

Two bottles of cheap screw-top wine, two four packs, ditto. Paid for it with one of the doctor's cash cards. Raised his brows at the balance. The Doc didn't believe in carrying much cash.

He slid the seat of the car as far back as it would go, and started opening bottles

"Head right. Now listen to me. The specific things I'm going to add to this wine aren't illegal. But there's hundereds of them. There's things for cancer, flu, meningitus, malaria . . . an aphrodisiac . . . but somehow, the whole combined effect attacks the zivvy wires."

Axel's head hit the dash board as Afanasiy hit the breaks too hard. He lifted his head for a quick look. Good, just startled him.

"Now this is important! Half a glass for seven days. Then teetotal for three weeks. That dissolves the wires but leave the chip in working order, so it reads as working. Any longer, and it starts dissolving the chip, and it'll read as defective and raise all sorts of questions. Twenty days, and the chip is gone. And that is very, very, definitely illegal." He finished annointing the last bottle and started screwing on caps.

"I don't know about your wife. But if you aren't afraid of her mentalist abilities, do the same. Hell, take some yourself. Then for money? This is a von Neumann's. Drip a little into another bottle and it'll take it over. Go black market. Or sell it on the grid and see how long you can survive." Axle pointed. "Drop me at the corner and go home."

The man pulled over. "Who are you?"

"Igor." Axel grinned and got out. Took the four packs with him.

He circled a few blocks, ducked into a public park and wound back into a quiet grotto, where a man sat cross-legged on the cold ground.

"Not even a pad? What do you do when it's raining?"

"Sleep in and go straight to the offfice." The Boss, otherwise High Mentalist Michail Rasputin, Director of Imperial Intel on Siberia Max, looked around. "Grigory told me you'd be fine. Did you also keep a sample of the . . . other item?"

"No. That stuff's scary."

A snort. "Should I ask what you're planning to do?"

"Well, we'll never get rid of the Stutts until we destroy their gates, so I'll handle that. But before I go, is there anything I need to do here? Are they moving on anyone else?"

"Igor the Kidnapper of Portalmakers strikes again." A sigh. "Grigory sent his family off to Regulous. The 'Emergency Council' troops tried to stop them, and Murphy blocked them . . . I am concerned what they may do. Colonel Lehr, the head of that council has asked for my kill switch controls."

"And your family, any problems with your guards?"

"They've been augmented. 'To be sure of their safety in these danerous times.' Stuttgart Cyborgs. Four per shift, coming in from the east barracks that they've taken over."

"Hmm, and you guys like to camp. A bit chilly for that, yet. But they might like to be ready to leave soon." He set down one four pack. "It's a von Neumann. A few drips in wine and it will take it over in seconds. For a Cyborg, half a cup a day for three days, and they'll gain a lot of volition, get hard to control. Servant chips, seven days to remove the wires, twenty to completely dissolve the chip. I suspect wives are the same, but haven't experimented."

The Boss eyed him thoughtfully.

"Don't know about the Military Leader types. I doubt it'll protect them from the kill switch. But Murph, that bad boy, why don't you punish him . . . it's too late today . . . tomorrow, by making him run the west trail all the way down to the boardwalk and back. And anyone else you think needs a bit of extra discipline."

"Indeed, that sounds like a good reminder of the importance of following orders." He paused. "And Lilia did say she was looking forward to camping this Spring. Day after tomorrow would be good."

"Should work." Axel glanced at his new watch. "You need to keep to your schedule."

"Yes. Be careful dammit . . . No. Be successful."

"Aren't I always?"

"No. You know my number, if there's an emergency." The Boss stood up, as flexible as when he'd been a Team Mentalist. Scooped up the four pack and walked away.

Axel tucked his remaining four pack into his gymbag and headed the other direction. Half a mile away, with traffic building up, he flagged down a taxi and took it to a store in the southeast, and walked from there.