_War Party_ infill 3

***

“Why are you inflicting that accent on me?”

Ice grinned. A random encounter in the elevator, or was she looking for me? “Because you’re investigating me. But I suppose I ought to stop being deliberately obnoxious, since you do seem to be intelligent and only a little biased.”

Glare. “It is my duty to protect the Empire from . . . intel leaks.”

Ice resisted an impulse to drawl, and stomped on the accent. “Oh, and you never had an opportunity to answer my question about what was being edited out, and what was going on to the Earth’s embassy.”

“Indeed, what other reason could I possibly have to not give you that information.”

“Exactly. Now . . . two years ago? Sorry, ought to have remembered this earlier . . . Ajki, who had been trying to track down the leak, asked me why I was erasing any and all classified disinformation he was using to try and track down the leak.”

“He what!”

“And I said everyone knew there was a leak in the section, so I was making sure I didn’t have anything that looked like something the Earth or Comet Fall ought not have, was not on my computer, since so many leaks traced to me.”

Her fingers drummed on her leg.

“So he told me to leave them there so they had something to trace.”

She slapped her forehead. “Arg! Date when you started keeping the disinformation?”

“Hija . . . 1417. So almost three years.”

She muttered something under her breath that couldn’t possibly be an obscene opinion of the Boss’s twisty, scheming paranoia.

Professional paranoia.” Ice smirked at her glare. “Psychologically, he’s remarkably sane for a man who’s been in politics for over a century.”

She crossed her arms and glared.

“So . . . innocuous, or inflammatory?”

“Anything that might heighten the Earth’s paranoia, and alarm their leaders went through. Anything that might settle them down was missing. All the innocuous information went through.”

Ice thought that over. “Because a lot of the innocuous info could be checked for accuracy, lending weight to the inflammatory also being accurate.”

She eyed him thoughtfully.

“So who wants a war with Earth? Comet Fall? All they’d need to do is open permanent gates all over. The War Party? Would they commit treason for the sake of . . . what? Honor? Could it be an old Helios plot, still running?”

She growled. “We’ve thought of all that!”

"At least you can be reasonably sure it isn’t Earth, doctoring their own intel.” Ice frowned. “Of course there’s always Whirlpool Earth and One.”

Glare.

The elevator door opened and she stomped away.

***

_War Party_ infill 2

***

Ice obeyed a summoning wave from Rip.

“So . . . who threw that spell?”

“I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t one of the people right around us, but if it was one of the group standing by on the right side, they were very well trained, and naturally strong. Whoever it was didn’t try again.”

“That Major Yjlu noticed what you did. I wondered if he was the source.”

Ice shook his head. “I don’t think so, and I not sure he even felt that first spell. It was . . . sneaky.”

Rip nodded. “I was wondering who was leaking a bit too much glow when you cut it off. It didn’t ring any alarm bells.”

“Yeah. Sneaky . . . subtle.”

“Well, I’m glad you caught it. Can I give you two a ride back to IR?”

“Sure. Keiq?”

“Oh, definitely.” She glowered at him. “Where did you learn magic like that? I know they don’t teach it at the School.”

Ice grinned and slid into the car. She joined him, and Rip followed them in.

“I’m going to admit to being curious about that myself.” He eyed Ice. “Rael, right?”

“Right.” He glanced at Keiq. “The Boss got a bit itchy about Urfa and Rael operating on his turf, and sent me and Dog off to see what the top Presidential Agent was doing while pretending to be a professor.”

Keiq nodded. “Everyone wondered what was going on. And then she nabbed three spies.” Frown. “Were you there for that?”

“Yep, got stunned right alongside the Wrecking Crew. Ajki’s been sending me back regularly, and Rael just puts me to work with the younger students, and trains me with the advanced groups. It’s . . . terrifying, what she teaches some of those kids to do.”

“But . . . why is she still there?”

“Well . . . first, she really doesn’t work well with her brother-in-law. And second, she’s trying to give the kid as normal a childhood as possible, and that’s tough when Xen is excluded from so many secure areas, and shouldn’t see anything she brings home from work and so forth."

"The . . . kid? I thought her kids were grown?”

“Two of them. Number three is about four? I think?”

“She had a baby?” Keiq sounded boggled.

“Yep.” Ice looked over at Rip. “Has Exzy charmed the Black Horse yet?”

“Oh yeah. Madam Raod and Madam Kyol borrow him regularly and bring him over.” Rip grinned. “Be careful, if Eppa finds out Rael lets you teach magic, you’re going to get drafted.”

“Nope. Ajki is very territorial about his Warrior Trainees. You can’t have me.”

“We’ll see.”

“After the election.” Ice grinned. Oh shit. No way can I be in close proximity to the President. I . . . am going to have to fess up . . . go to Makkah . . . or something.

The car swerved over to the curb and Rip hopped out and held the door.

“Pleasure to have met you, Miss Keiq.”

“Likewise. I’ve never been around the Guards.”

“See yah!” Rip ducked back into the car and it pulled away.

“They specialize in quick deliveries and not blocking traffic.” Ice headed for the steps.

“I . . . see. You are turning out to be not at all what I was expecting.”

Ice grinned at her. “That’s because the real me hides behind an over-priced suit and a really annoying accent.”

“Which has just reappeared after disappearing for most of the day.”

“So . . . what was it you wanted to ask me this morning?” Ice eyed her thoughtful expression. Damn, get that scowl off her face and she’s really . . .

“I . . . am going to go revaluate that . . .” She scowled and marched off for the elevators.

Ice hung back a bit. Internal Security. Absolutely the wrong woman to be the least bit interested in.


_War Party_ infill

Before the Primaries:

Chapter Ten

20 Jumada 1420yp

Just in case

And of course, inevitably, the various candidates would be in the same place at the same time.

Ice got wind of Afgu heading for a tour of the Degalle Military Base at the same time Dog had mentioned going along with Rumacova for a tour and slammed out of the office and jittered in front of the elevator . . . stepped aside to let Keiq out and jumped in. Hit the button for the bottom floor.

“Hey!” Keiq threw herself through the doors. “I was coming to talk to you!”

“Later. I have a collision between candidates about to happen, and I need to be there in case things need to be defused.”

She crossed her arms and glared. “Oh? Right this second?”

“Yes. Hang on, let me check with Dog.” Ice pulled out his comm . . . “Dog? Are you guys enroute for Degalle? I just got word that Afgu is headed out there for a tour as well. I’m on my way, in case there’re any . . . problems.”

He could hear Dog talking, probably to Rip, and beeps in the background as he clicked off.

The elevator hit the ground floor, and he strode out heading for the Metro. The military base was the last stop on the northeast line.

“I fail to see a problem. They aren’t even in the same race.”

Ice glanced at her. “It’s not your job to see this sort of problem in advance. It’s mine.” Down three levels . . . the signs showed an ETA of five minutes for the next outbound train. “So ask me whatever. If it takes more than five minutes, you’ll have to come along.”

“They’ve both got Black Horse Guards, who will no doubt do any ‘defusing’ that’s needed.”

“Right. You have no idea how many false leads I follow. Beats sitting at the desk telling myself I’m just having a girlish fit of vapors.”

That got a growl. “Do you realize how long you have been leaking classified information?”

“Just slightly longer than Ajki and I have been trying to find out how it’s happening and where the hell the intel is going.”

“It’s going to the Earth Embassy . . . but not all of it.”

“Not all of it? So someone is editing it before they pass it along?”

“And we can’t trace the intermediate cutouts. Nor figure out why the Earth doesn’t get everything.”

Ice eyed her. “Have you been tracing it, or are you just trying to prove that I’m the problem?”

Tight lipped glare. “We do not know how it is leaving the building. We are trying to back trace it from the Earth Embassy.”

He raised his brows, but was saved from mentioning illegal surveillance of a foreign embassy, by the arrival of the train. He stepped aboard, and she followed him.

The train car was lightly populated by men in uniform, with a scattering of civilians.

“So . . . what is getting passed on? Innocuous info, or the more important stuff?”

Ice’s comm beeped.

Rip, this time. “Ice, they’re going to show both candidates around together. We’re going to get there first. Where are you?”

“On the Metro northeast. Should reach the end station in eighteen minutes.”

“Good. We’ll pick you up there.”

Keiq, who’d been standing close and leaning in to eavesdrop, backed away. Frowned at him. “Why do they want you?”

“Because they’ve worked enough with me to consider me an asset. How about you?” He repressed an urge to comm someone, anyone, to get her to come back.

She glowered.

“Do you know any of them? No? Well, they may turn you away as an unwanted distraction.” Ice shrugged at her glare. “Sorry I can’t drop everything for your next round of questions.”

“Oo la la! ‘Ave you been a bad boy?”

Ice looked behind himself. A petite beauty, with an amused smirk had come up behind him. Grabbing the pole just below his own grip as the train slowed and came to a stop.

She winked and as the doors whisked open, swayed off and away.

Keiq had that nice jaw shoved out and was looking . . . like she couldn’t decide between laughing and hitting someone. Possibly the other woman, possibly Ice.

The doors shut and the train slid back into motion.

Ice cleared his throat. “Just as well she didn’t understand the basis for our . . . discussion.”

“Right.” Her cheeks were a bit flushed.

Angry or embarrassed to be mistaken for my girlfriend?

He tried to moderate his tone. “I do realize it’s awkward to investigate someone who has a job that occasionally requires . . . moving around.”

Actually, I thought analysts had desk jobs.”

“Most of the time. Election years tend to be a bit crazy.” The train slowed and Ice turned around, stepped out as soon as the doors slid open.

Keiq stuck to him as he took the stairs two at a time and spotted the trio of black limos.

Dog stepped out of the middle car and waved them in, eyebrows rising over Keiq. Keiq slid onto the rear facing bench seat. Ice sat beside her and Dog sat across from him, next to Zizi.

The cars moved off immediately.

Rumacova, on the far side of the front facing seat, eyed Keiq.

“This is Senior investigator Keiq, also of Interior Relations.” Ice leaned forward and looked at the other woman. And ageless auburn beauty . . .

“Princess Four.” Rumacova waved dismissively. “She is just temporary, and will no doubt be delighted to see that last of me as soon as possible.”

The Princess pinched the bridge of her nose. “Nothing in Princess School prepared me for this.”

Ice suppressed a smile. “All your hopes of a handsome gentleman crushed?”

She lowered her hand and eyed him balefully. “One spare me idiots.” She in turn looked at Keiq. “It must be terrible, having to deal with an arrogant pretty boy all the time.”

Keiq nodded. “Especially when one realizes it all a façade, put on to annoy people.”

Dog snickered.

Zizi elbowed him and frowned from Four to Keiq. “Ice is my Mitzumo . . . Ice? How is that in Oner?”

“It’s sort of a children’s tale thing, like a Djinn or a Fairy Godmother, only more of a ‘Spirit of the Forest’ and can be either good or bad.”

“Ice was a very good Mitzumo.” Zizi closed her mouth as the cars turned through the gates of the military base, and pulled up beside another three car convoy.

Ice let the Black Horse Guards deploy, then hopped out, jittery and worried. Stop being an idiot! We’re surrounded by people sworn to uphold the laws and fight for the Empire. Nothing is going to happen to a presidential candidate here.

A colonel in dress uniform and lots of ribbons and medals strode up. “Madam Rumacova, an honor to meet you.”

‘Va shook his hand and was ushered over to Afgu and the three officers he was shaking hands with.

Ice stayed close behind as Rumacova smiled politely to Afgu and turned to meet General Ucxe.

A soft creeping spell, barely noticeable . . . Ice extended his mental shield to cover Rumacova. She started slightly, then retrieved her hand from the General’s grasp and turned to meet the other two. Major Yjlu was frowning at Ice, but got his social face back on and shook Rumacova’s hand without any sign of reluctance. Lt. Colonel Osko looked like he wanted to wash his hands after he’d touched her hand.

Afgu, nodded politely. No introductions needed there, and no effort to make contact, or be pleasant. Actually, he looked pissed.

So who was that spell coming from?

He pulled his shield back closer and followed the tour. Nerves still edgy, but nothing else happened as they viewed some impressively large armaments.

Rumacova frowned at the 728 tank. “I hadn’t realized how large they are. Do you disassemble them to get them through gates?”

The tank crew looked appalled.

Major Yjlu grinned. “Oh no. They are strictly for home defense.”

“I see. Very impressive.” Rumacova tossed a smile up at the crew. “Is it fun to drive?”

They all grinned back. “And even more fun to fire the guns,” the man in the top machine gun turret called down.

Rumacova laughed. “Of course!” then they were hauled off to one of the antiaircraft batteries, then the sleek aircraft in hangars beside the airstrip, and topped it off with a precision drill on the parade grounds.

Then back to the cars and they rolled away, and Ice’s nerves finally settled down.

Princess Four had gone out of her way to sit beside Ice, and turned a frown on him as soon as they were off the base. “What was that spell.”

Rumacova stiffened. “Yes. I was going to ask you what happened. I felt very . . . odd, and suddenly it went away and I could feel you . . . somehow.”

“I’m not sure, it was very subtle. Shield piercing, trust and relaxation, I think. I extended my mental shield around you and cut it off.”

Four scowled. “I’m an Assigned Princess. Not a magical body guard.” The glare swapped back to Rumacova. “Especially not of an insane woman like you, but I suppose I’d better start. Will you please stop ditching me?”

Rumacova sniffed. Grinned. “Perhaps I should keep you around.”

Ice nodded. “And as soon as we’re back to your headquarters, I’m going to give you some lessons in shielding.”

She nodded. “My shields are good enough to be around polite Oners. But not an attack, right?”

“Right. I’ll show you how to strengthen them, but you still ought to keep your powerful and well-trained Princess around.”

Four sighed. “Thank you.”

Keiq bit her lip, then looked at Zizi. “So . . . tell me more about your own personal Forest Spirit, here.”

Zizi lit up. “It was just like in the stories! He walked out of the forest with nothing but a beautiful bow and three arrows and . . .”

“And a backpack full of my entire worldly goods . . .”

“And Muby—grandmother—was kind and let him sleep inside the walls as our guest, and he shared the last of his food with us.”

“Trail food, like cross between salt crackers and granola bars.”

“Well, I was eight years old, and I was hungry. I thought it was wonderful! And the next morning he went out in the field to help with the plowing, and shared his workers’ dinner with us.”

“Nice big bowl of stew, and biscuit.” Ice sighed.

“The next day was Rest Day, and he got permission to hunt and came back with a deer. Then we had a real feast, and grandmother traded some of it for a pot, so we could cook properly.”

Keiq eyed her. “So you were poor?”

“My mother was not wise about money, and when a tree fell on her and she died, all her debts . . . we lost Muby’s house . . .”

“Your grandmother had to cover her daughter’s debts?”

Ice shook his head. “When a woman hits menopause, she is expected to hand over all the family property to her oldest daughter, help with the grandchildren, and be supported in her old age. So it would have been Zizi’s mother’s house by then.”

Zizi nodded. “Muby still owned a little lot. The elders couldn’t take that from her, she’d bought it so it wasn’t family property. But they took everything but our clothes. We didn’t even have a tent.”

“But . . .” Four was appalled.

“A tree killed my mother. We were Bad Luck, and they wanted us to go away. But we didn’t have anywhere to go to, so we scraped by. Then Fusa Weni came and everything got better. Every day he did something extra. By the end of summer he’d built us a house, little by little.”

“A very little house.” Ice suspected he was blushing. “It was a very small lot.”

Zizi sniffed. “And it’s still standing. Muby says it’s the best house in the village because it never floods and never leaks.”

“That’s because of all the rocks and sand we hauled up from the stream, remember? We built up the foundation.”

“My mitzumo doesn’t believe in mitsumo.” Zizi sniffed.

Dog and Keiq snickered.

Rumacova sniffed. “It’s a bachelor house now. When my mother lost her fertility and handed the house to me, I kicked my brothers out and invited Zizi and her mother to join us. The two old ladies had become good friends and helped each other, so Zizi and I could travel to the city and go to college.”

“We went together and got registered and found out about everything.” Zizi squirmed. “My Oner wasn’t very good.”

“We stayed in town all winter learning to speak better and take classes.” Rumacova shrugged. “Zizi went back every winter. After two marriages, I went back to the town, too, and then we went to college.”

“We go back all the time and check on them.” Zizi put in.

“My brothers’ wives have straightened them out and keep an eye on Mother.”

Zizi snickered. “I think all three of them are hoping to inherit. But . . . only sons, so far.”

Keiq frowned, “But . . .”

Rumacova shrugged. “I have no children. I am forty-two years old. A niece would inherit, but between the three of them my brothers have only produced four sons.”

“It’s going to destroy the last of our culture, if we don’t get a treatment for the Oner Infertility . . .” Zizi grinned suddenly, “disease.”

All the Oners were offended, even Dog.

Keiq shrugged it off. “So it’s personal, for you?”

Rumacova’s mouth turned down a bit. “Most likely it is too late for me. For all women more than a few years older than me, it is too late.”

That wine . . . if nothing else, I’ll send her home with a sample.

Then they were pulling up in front of Rumacova’s office and home.

Ice looked at the afternoon sun, and a bench. “’Va? Do you have a moment for a very quick magic lesson?”

She bit her lip, nodded. And sat on the bench. Zizi looked hopeful and his grinned and nodded.

“Put your hands on your lap, palms up. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Relax as you exhale. Now just breath normally and feel the sun on your face, on your hands. Imagine the heat sinking through your skin nd into your blood, and rushing all through your body.”

Nice bright glows, both of them. Nothing huge, but steady.

“Now bring up your mental shield, but picture it like a double-sided mirror keeping your thoughts in and everyone else’s thoughts out.

Their thoughts dimmed a bit.

“Good. Now imaging a tiny thread of energy from your forehead to that mirror, the heat from the sun flowing down that thread. Think of it as fiery water soaking the length of the thread.

“Very nice. Now relax and let it all go. Just a few minutes practice every day, and you’ll start doing it automatically.”


_War Party_ the end

***

Two weeks later a rather cautious Keiq invited him back. “The family does a big week-long family reunion every summer. They all want to meet you. And you don’t have to stay the whole time, or anything. It’s just . . . this is the first time there was anyone I even might have invited. I mean . . .”

“IQ? Do you mean to say I’m the first serious boyfriend you’ve ever had?”

“Not really . . . well . . . since I was thirteen . . .”

Ice grinned. “I would be delighted to come. When is the best time for an unknown person to show up?”

“Umm, look? Did I ever mention the other three brothers having wives and a total of ten children—teenagers? An Aunt? An Uncle and his current wife, with one grown son from a previous marriage and his three kids? And Wacky’s aunt and uncle with three kids who are all married and have a bunch of small kids?” She sounded a little desperate.

“So . . . I’ll need a score card?”

“Probably.”

“Brace yourself. Wacky’s parents have arrived early. I’m sure checking you out had nothing to do with it.”

A snort from the study. An old man stepped to the doorway, thin white hair, wrinkled, but he stood straight, and his brown eyes were sharp as he looked Ice up and down.

“Hmm. Think you’re good enough for our Keiq?”

Our? Not that I’m surprised that they like their son-in-law’s sister . . .

“I think we’re both pondering the possibility.”

“Arci. Arc.” The old man offered his hand. A strong grip. “Good job, last winter.”

“Thank you . . .” Ice blinked as his brain added clues. “Yveslin? Former Presidential Director? Under President Uzmo?”

“Yes.” Frown. “Do I know you? You look familiar.”

“Err . . .” Former Directors keep their security clearances, mainly to make it clear they’re still held to the same standards.

“When I mentioned I wanted to meet you, Ajki seemed to think it was quite funny. All us old directors get together, now and then.”

“That’s . . .” Ice took a quick look both directions. “There are security concerns . . . I was just getting up the nerve to talk to Keiq about it . . .”

Keiq glowered. “Security? What security concerns?”

“Indeed. Come into the study. I don’t like mysteries around the family.” Another frown. “I have met you, haven’t I?”

Ice closed the door behind him. “No, but I look a lot like my mother Princess Kaat Withi . . .”

“Killer!” The old man turned and those sharp eyes scanned him. “Damned if you don’t look like her. Yeah, you’ve got her eyes. Dammit, XR would never tell me what happened to her.” Another frown. “How old are you?”

“Forty-three. Mother successfully infiltrated Earth in 1375. Two years later she was caught up in that clandestine attempt to invade Earth. One more victim of our three day rape, pillage, and burn spree before they all gated away.”

The sharp old eyes narrowed in anger.

“The Earth is even more prejudiced against Natives than we are, and utterly phobic about mutations and genetic engineering. I . . . didn’t fit in, and was legally limited in my . . . life. Mother had worked her way up and was in a position to get me into the program training Purps and the Oner Rape babies to infiltrate the Empire. I was sent across to Tall Trees in 1399 and have, at my mother’s recommendation, done no spying, and deliberately disappeared from Earth’s view.”

Keiq sat down. “I’ve been kicking myself for months for ever thinking you could possibly be a spy.”

“Hey, you’re good at your job. Anyhow, I went to Makkah and they said welcome home.”

Keiq’s frown was back. “You went to Makkah?”

“Yeah, as an ordinary analyst, no problem, but I was getting too high up to leave any ambiguity. So I went to Makkah, well, I needed to ask about other stuff, and it was time that I . . . well, I didn’t confess because they already knew it all. But I had to clear that up before . . . I mean it wouldn’t be fair to . . .”

Arc poked him. “Lovey dovey stuff later. Where. Is. Killer.”

Ice sighed, and looked back at the old man. “I have not spoken to her for twenty-one years. I have caught a few glimpses of her in the background of some surveillance vids. As far as I can tell, she’s well up the UECIA hierarchy, possibly working for General Black’s Embassy Surveillance Unit.”

Arc sat down abruptly. “We have an agent, Killer, by the One! Inside their main Intelligence Agency. One!”

“Sort of. And that name must not be spoken. That we have an agent anywhere on Earth, not even thought.”

“Sort of? Explain.”

“She was gang raped by her own side. And has been out of communication for forty-four years. Twenty-one years ago, I was never sure just where her loyalties lay.”

“Oh.” A deep sigh. “Oh, my dear old friend.”

Ice looked back at Keiq. “And so I have to stay a Native Upcomer, not . . . anything else. Because the truth could very easily get my mother killed.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “But you’re really, possibly part Comet Fall, not part Tall Trees. And you’ve got a pretty high count and the priest gene? I, umm . . . I’m a two-fifteen.”

“That’s very improper, young lady.” Arc sounded amused.

Ice grinned. “Two-sixteen. But . . .”

“Disgraceful!” Definitely amused.

Keiq bit her lip. “Yeah, the priest gene.”

“You might as well pop the question, boy.”

Ice huffed and looked around at the old man. “I’ve only managed one kiss, so far. I may need another year before . . .”

Keiq grabbed his arm and pulled him back around, other hand around his neck and pulling him in for a kiss.

He returned it with interest. Let her go reluctantly. “That’s two.”

A snort from the old man. “That was an extra credit kiss. You two get out of here, I’m too old to deal with that level of pheromones in the air I breathe.”

_War Party_ part 31

  

Or terrifying.

Ice got his mouth closed and swallowed. “Umm . . . uh . . .” Cleared his throat. Kicked his brain. Didn’t work. “Uh, sorry, my brain just stopped working. Uh.”

She didn’t seem to be wearing much makeup. The short professional haircut was fluffed out a bit, the eyes seemed bigger. Okay, darker lips.

Keiq bit one side of that luscious lower lip, a smile creeping out.

Ice took a deep breath and tried to stop staring. “You know? I didn’t realize that someone looking stunning wasn’t a stupid metaphor.”

“A bit of a change?” Wacky was grinning.

Ice couldn’t take his eyes off Keiq. “A little. I guess it didn’t take much to tip you over the edge from ‘damn good looking if she’d stop scowling at me,’ to, to . . . stunning.”

Wacky started snickering. “Keiq, he actually does sound stunned. I told you, you could do it, anytime you tried.” She reached out each direction and poked both of them. “Let’s go find something to eat.”

Ice nodded and got his feet moving. Down the stairs and across to the house.

Keiq looked just as spectacular dimly and dramatically lit.

“Just . . . don’t expect me to do this all the time.” Keiq sounded a bit uncertain, as they walked through the door and into light.

“Definitely not safe for work. None of the men on your floor would be able to concentrate on work and the women would hate your guts.”

She reached out an thumped his arm. “It’s not that bad!”

Another snicker from Wacky. And one from the doorway ahead.

“You look good, Aunt Keiq.” Elk grinned. “I’ll take notes all through dinner, so I can be suave and debonair on my next date.”

Ice’s turn to snicker. “Good thing you missed the sight of me looking like a complete imbecile when hit by the effect of your aunt in man-hunting gear.”

Keiq sputtered, Wacky grinned, and Elk frowned, suddenly looking even more like his aunt.

“Let me get some snacks out, Azik will be home in fifteen minutes.” She trotted off.

Ice eyed Keiq cautiously. “The shock appears to be wearing off. I think I can think around you. Is Azik the Big Bad Brother?”

Oldest Brother . . . I think he’s actually the shortest of the four.”

Ice looked over at Elk, who was already as tall as his aunt, who was only eight centimeters shorter than Ice. Well, probably much too civilized to physically discourage an unsuitable suitor.

Keiq led him to a huge sitting room, with a wall of windows currently reflecting the room.

Two girls, somewhere in the ten-to-fourteen range galloped through, giving the eye to the stranger as they passed.

“My nieces. Zwyk and Qwik.” Keiq pointed him to one end of a sofa, and sat safely far away at the other end.

Wacky walked in with a tray of nibbly things and slid it on to the low table in front of them. “So, Ice, do you go home to Tall Trees very often?”

“No. I don’t have any family anymore, so I’ve only been back once since I left for the Directorate School sixteen years ago.”

“Oh. I thought the Tribes were big closely related clans, sort of.”

“Traditionally yes, but they’re . . . sort of a mess right now.”

“That’s what Rumacova’s talking about, isn’t it?”

“Yes, she sees the problem of that many men with no investment in the future, and the situation just getting worse. Women so desperate for children that they cease to care about marrying.” Ice reached for a carrot stick. “I’ve been a bit surprised that the Multitude here have the same problem. I thought it would be much less difficult to find a suitable spouse in such a huge population.”

Wacky nodded. “We’ve got the same problem at the highest level.” She glanced at the kids. “I got lucky on the first try. I . . . didn’t like the idea of being a Game Wife, but since I’ve got a really high count, I didn’t see any other options.”

A snicker from Keiq. “Good thing you married for love, first off.”

“Heh, no kidding. Mother was furious I didn’t look for some old political crony of Dad’s. Ugh! But my school buddy had this gorgeous big hunk of a brother . . .” She cocked her head toward the sound of a door closing. “Who just got home.”

Keiq’s shortest big brother topped Ice by a few cems and added broad, and smooth confident movement to it.

“Azki Withione Goldport Colorado. Azik, please.”

Ice subdued a thought about grasping the paw of a big black bear. “Icka Withione Sycamore Tall Trees. Ice.”

“Pleased to meet you, even though you have just destroyed my inner vision of a Tree . . . Person? Tribesman?”

“We just say Tree. A literal translation that sounds perfectly sensible to us.”

“I see. And four years with XR, ten with IR, then three months in the Presidential Directorate before the new President fired you by proxy.”

Ice grinned. “I suspect they all arm-wrestled to decide who got the pleasure of firing me.”

The big bear laughed. “So who are you working for, right now?”

Ice glanced back at Keiq, “Sounds like a job interview, doesn’t it?” A grin back at Azik. “Oops, forgot to bring my transcript.”

She snickered.

“At the moment, I feel like a ping-pong ball. I’m regularly helping Governor Rumatova with her reorganization of the Colonial government. All the while keeping in touch with the politics here and writing about it. Then teaching Tree Upcomers magic lessons, and practical uses for it on their World. Taking fencing lessons, and pursuing your sister.”

“Ass.” Keiq looked like she wished she was close enough to kick him.

Azik grinned. “All right Keiq, maybe you can keep him.”

“I haven’t got him. He’s just a friend!”

Ice grinned at Azik. “That is a vast improvement on ‘suspect.’ There’s hope yet. Anyway, I’ve got almost fifteen years’ worth of separation pay to invest cautiously while waiting to see if this vote of no confidence comes to anything. I suspect I’ll be working on a political campaign soon enough.”

“And if not?” Azik was definitely studying him. “They’ve been arguing for months.”

“Yes. The War Party knows they’ll lose a special election. But if Agfu can hang on for four more years, the public might forgive him, or at least not blame the Party.”

“He’s not being very cany about it.”

“No, he isn’t, and it’s losing him supporters. One more bad economic quarter . . . I mean, trying to close the gates between colonies and that ‘import’ tax? At least the Council ignored him on those two recommendations.” Ice shrugged. “The War Party Councilors may want to dump him well before they’re up for reelection.”

“So you’re still analyzing?” Azik’s eyes narrowed. “That political column . . . Ace on the Inside. Is that you?”

“It’s several writers, I’m one of them. Keeping my hand in, just in case.

“But if everything else falls through, I’ve got enough money to buy into one of the new colonies. Ditch the rat race forever.”

A surprised glance from Keiq. “Really? I have a hard time thinking of you as a farmer.”

“Yeah. I’m more the rugged pioneer and hunter type.” He snickered at her expression. Looked back at her brother. “Your sister thinks I’m just a pretty face in an over-priced suit.”

“I didn’t say ‘just’ and why not Tall Trees?”

“The prejudice runs strong, both ways. I’m already tired of dealing with it. Lucky Thirteen is really tempting. I could go and just be one of the mutts.”

It was a pleasant dinner, batting politics around, talking about magic education, and the eccentricities of the various colonies. The advantages of an established colony versus being a founding member of a new one.

Nice kids, nice sister-in-law, nice brother, even if he had turned out to be a bear instead of a wolf.

_War Party_ part 30

Chapter Twenty-three

8 Emre 1421yp

The President of the Empire

“I am the legally elected President of the Empire.” Afgu’s angry voice had just a hint of a shake to it.

Ice stayed back against the wall. Just one more flunky . . . Ignore me, please.

“Yes, you are.” Izzo looked his successor over. “Are you, yourself, confident that the Drei Mächte Bündnis cannot control you?”

“Yes. I. Am. And my physician agrees. Without the wires, the chip was impotent, and now has been dissolved by that damned potion of Wolfson’s.” Afgu eyed the Committee.

Ydza growled faintly, then waved a hand and was recognized by Izzo.

“First: In that the invasion has been repulsed and the invader’s ability to open dimensional gates has been destroyed. And second: In that we have received and read the physicians’ reports and spoken to Afgu ourselves, the Ad Hoc Emergency Council’s purpose has been fulfilled.

“I therefore move that the Ad Hoc Emergency Council be disbanded and control returned to President Afgu Withione Iztapalapa Azteca.”

A long silence. Then Ovli nodded. “I second the motion.”

Izzo looked around the table. “All in favor?” And raised his own hand.

Hands slowly rose around the table.

“Those opposed?”

A few more hands.

“Nine in favor, four opposed. The motion is passed, and this committee is disbanded. Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen, for your service to the Empire.” Izzo stood, turned and extended his hand to Agfu. “Mr. President, welcome back.”



Epilogue

A new salle halfway across town. A new membership card. Hair darkened, because he really didn’t want to be recognized. The neutral accent he used to cover any remaining shreads of an Earther’s European slant.

A room the size of an airplane hanger . . . which is what it had been before dimensional corridors reduced air travel to a shadow of its former self. There was an office area in one corner, lots of people hanging around.

Ice looked over the signup charts. “What I really need is lessons, to up my game.”

Nods from several others and soon enough he was in a group lesson, then sparring. Then leaning on the wall waiting for an open lane.

Joking with several other guys, and critiquing their fellow fencers.

“Man, that guy’s as bad as the magic duelist.” A young guy with swagger.

A chubby guy snorted. “I wonder if that guy could even fence? Native Halfer, no matter what he looked like.”

Which is half the reason for the dark hair.

“Well, he’s supposed to be a hot shot in IR. An analyst.” An even younger guy shrunk back under a barrage of glares. A tall lanky teenager with a square jaw.

“He’s a Tall Trees Native!” An old man walked over to loom at the teenager.

“It’s the selection effect. Every Halfer woman has to . . .”

“Look kid, a hundred and thirty years, four generations isn’t long enough. I’m older than that Colony. There are no ‘pure Oners’ born over there.”

“Mathematically, and with shorter generation times . . .”

The old guy stalked away, and a few other wall props followed.

The boy scowled, and with the square jaw suddenly reminded Ice of Keiq.

She never mentions family. Hell, a Security Goon. She may have also never mentioned a husband, and children. She never makes any romantic comments. I don’t even know how old she is. I need to . . . just casually pop down there, once or twice a week.

A lunch a month isn’t getting me anywhere. Maybe I should call and see if she’s free for dinner.

Ice spotted a lane opening the other direction, and caught the boy’s eye. “C’mon, let’s grab it.”

For a wonder he’d actually found someone worse than he was. He gave the boy a few pointers, then a couple of other men, waiting for a lane, drifted over and turned it into an impromptu lesson, before the other guys took over the lane for a bit of sparring themselves.

Ice checked the time. The salle was emptying out, so he started stowing his own gear.

The boy followed him. “Hey, umm, thanks. I’m Elka. Elk. Thanks for the pointers.”

“Ice. My pleasure. I’m . . . I need a lot more lessons, myself.”

“This is only my third time here. My aunt joined and got a free add-a-friend thing.” He glanced across the big room to the side that was majority female. With people leaving, Ice had a clear view, and spotted Keiq. Pulling on her mask and stepping out to face another woman.

“Huh, she’s not bad.” Elk threaded between occupied lanes.

Ice lagged a bit and admired Keiq’s figure, well, in the bulky jacket and mask it was more a matter of really nice legs . . .

Good form, huge lunge and reach . . . not enough to not get trounced by the other fencer. Three-zip. They took off their masks and shook hands.

“More practice, Keiq. You’d be so good, dammit, if you’d make the time to get out here.”

Keiq sighed. “Yeah. Not impressive.”

“Well, you’ve advanced to the point of finding someone you want to impress, so we have hope for you yet.”

“Ha!” Keiq stepped away and, yep, guessed right, spotted the young man. “Hey Elk, you have fun?”

“It had its ups and downs, but I got some good pointers.”

Ice looked innocently away, trying to not catch her eye.

“Oh . . . I do not believe this.”

Ice looked back. “So much for not being recognizable.”

“Aunt Keiq? You know Ice?” The boy’s eyes widened. “He’s not the guy who kissed you, is he?”

The other woman, stopped and turned around.

“Actually, she kissed me.”

“You kissed me back.” Keiq yelped.

“It was self-defense.”

The other women snickered. “Oh, this is good! C’mon, Keiq, Introduce me.”

“No. He’s walking around in a stupid disguise. I think I’m going to refuse to have anything further to do with him.”

“Can we not discuss this in public, really?” But a glance around showed few people close, and no one paying them obvious attention. “Because it’s too soon for me to get into another public brawl.”

“Are you that magic duelist guy?” Elk was grinning and bouncing on his toes.

“Can we please go to some moderately private . . .”

“All sweaty like this?” Keiq looked horrified. “No way am I getting near a restaurant.”

Her friend grinned. “There’s only one thing to do, Keiq. Let’s take him home.”

Keiq pinched the bridge of her nose. “Ice, this is my good friend from college, Cwyk Withione Yveslin. Who was wacky enough to fall for my oldest brother, and marry him, thus gaining a new nickname. I see that you have already met her son and my nephew, Elk. Wacky, Elk, this is my former fellow Interior Relations wage slave, Icka Withione Sycamore Tall Trees.”

Ice grinned and offered his hand to Wacky. “A pleasure to meet Eye Que’s family.”

Wacky choked faintly but stuck her hand out to be shaken. “Eye Que? As in smart? Well, that’s right.”

“Ooo! I like it.” Elk hefted his bag. “Let’s go. I can’t wait to see what Dad says.”

***

Wacky and Oldest Brother had a mansion in the southwest . . . too old to call the area a suburb of Paris, more of an area of old chateaus that had slowly sold off land for more modern extravagances, as it was inexorably swallowed by the growth of the metropolis.

“It actually belongs to my parents.” Wacky glanced over the seat at Ice then got her eyes back on the driveway. Long, gracefully curved, driveway. “We’re in the Yveslin Enclave, which is handy for the kids. And since I’m their only child, when my parents decided to move to Hawaii they said I might as well move in, since I’d inherit it, eventually.”

Keiq snickered. “They closed off the parents’ side, and rented the servants’ quarters to me. The commute is hell, but . . . One! The gardens!”

“And thank the One my dad keeps paying the landscape company! If it was up to us, we’d let it go wild and the neighbors would complain.”

Old Money, and Raised By Wolves. Ice managed to keep his face straight. Or is it one of the Wolves I should think about impressing?

The house at the end of the driveway probably wasn’t more than four thousand square meters. Not counting the servants’ quarters over the six car garage. Probably a modern replica, not one of the few buildings that had survived the nuclear war and fifteen centuries of time and weather.

Keiq led him up the staircase at the back of the garage, grabbed a towel from a closet and aimed him at a bare bathroom. “Everything ought to work . . . Oh, soap, hang on, and I’m making the crass assumptions that you have a change of clothes?” Back to the closet to return with a little wrapped circle of soap. “Sorry, it’s all I’ve got.”

“Thank you. Yes. I have clothes.” He subdued a desire to ask her to scrub his back, and closed himself in the bathroom before he said something that would get him kicked down the stairs.

And tried to not think about her naked and soapy in a frilly pink bathroom . . . Nah, not IQ. And anyway, servants’ quarters, it was probably stark white, or institutional green and perhaps she’d be showering in a jungle-like motif, dancing to drums.

He cut the hot water way down and shivered while he soaped his hair until the water ran clear.

And hovered in the hallway, afraid to penetrate deeper into IQs home.

Footsteps on the stairs on his left. Wacky with her hands full. “What’s this? She made you use the old bathroom?” Her grin widened. “And you really are a blond. Oh, this is going to be so fun to watch.”

“Be warned. It’s a pretty slow spectator sport.”

“How slow?” Her eyes were crinkling.

“Over a year since the kiss. Haven’t managed another one.”

“Oh. Dear. No wonder Keiq’s been so snappy lately.”

“Really? I thought she was like that all the time.” Ice eyed Wacky warily as she started snickering.

“Wait here.”

He closed his eyes and listen carefully to “No, no, no! Have you forgotten everything we taught you about makeup? Wash your face.”

Oh. Am I about to get the glamour version of Keiq? This could be scary.


_War Party_ part 29

Ajki shook his head, checked his watch. “I have to go. Dave, get Ice some helpers and haul him everywhere, and find as many of these Cyborg Puppeteers as possible.”

As they shifted toward the door, Ux shook his head. “Born and raised on Earth! Damn. Nobody bet on that.”

***

They had to recruit a hundred cops raid the Rialto Suites. Twenty-nine people who gave him the creeps. They took ten of them alive, and two cops were injured.

“They aren’t fighters. They really are just puppeteers, relying on their slaves to do the dirty work.” Scar hunched his shoulders and hauled the dead to the DNA lab in the HQ building, and the live, off to a small prison, emptied for their use.

“Scar . . . how come the military isn’t all over this?”

“Because the Minister of War told them the invasion was a lie, to enable Izzo’s coup, and to stand down.”

“Oh . . .” Ice suddenly wondered if a couple hundred Action Team traitors were all they had, across on the Bunnies’ world.

“Yeah. . . and we haven’t found him yet.” Scar shrugged. “And thanks to Ajki and you, it was over so fast we got it straightened out before the Military not showing up didn’t matter. That is going to be an interesting complication.”

Ice nodded. “Downsize them because they aren’t needed, or beef them up because we just got invaded? If the Bunnies had established a good solid foot-hold here, we would have needed them.”

He followed Scar back into the armored troop carrier they were using. The Black Horse is a military unit, after all. I just hadn’t realized how much military equipment they had on hand.

Government House was clean. A dozen people had suddenly left, an hour before.

In the Internal Relations Tower, Querry was still sedated, and Zeeq, who barely made him nervous, looked baffled, and went with them unresisting, until she palmed a ceramic knife and tried to stab Ice. Then it took three guards to hold her down and get the cuffs on her, while she cussed in four or five languages.

No control chip.

“So we’ve had a Drei Mächte Bündnis Mentalist here for . . . twelve years? One! And I thought she was such an efficient secretary, a real gem.” Ice shook his head. “We’re going to be rooting out Puppets and Bunnies for years.”

Driving a grid of streets . . . raiding a house in the Red Zone and finding a lot of radio-type equipment. And six more Bunnies.

“So is this how they reinforce their control?” Ice kept his hands to himself and took a lot of pictures. “Some sort of physical . . . monitoring? Punishing?”

Then through a corridor to Gate City where Director Ugpw was under arrest, and only one Bunny was found.

Back to Paris, where it was approaching midnight. A brief stop at his apartment to pack half his wardrobe, and then drive across town to Versalle, where they assigned him a room and let him collapse.

He pulled out his phone . . . tapped for text only and then Keiq’s code.

Still alive. ((Hugs))

No reply. Hope she’s asleep.

The alarm rang at an obscene hour. Ice had been here often enough to know it was the call out for the morning run. He groaned and decided he’d better hold up the IR reputation, or at least not confirm it. Shirt, shorts, running shoes.

The brisk air got him moving, and he almost kept pace with the guards.

He cooled down and walked back inside. Caught a glance from Scar and walked over.

“Back to the streets today.” He held out a bundle of cloth. “We’re going to allow you the incredible privilege of wearing a uniform, so you don’t ruin another suit. Shower, dress, and breakfast, we’re heading out in an hour.”

At least he’d gotten a message back from Keiq.

Yeah, I’m alive too. X-rayed and trying to find anything diagnostic, any indication of where the information they’ve been grabbing has gone, anything that might indicate where they were coming and going from, so we can destroy that beacon . . . Arg! Might get home in a week.

No return hug, but . . .

///Write a scene where they track the Min. of War w/Mentalists to the gate location, that never opens///

/// And where’s the Ax? He knows there was vote counting shenanegans in China. Izzo and him in face-to-face about negative repercussions of anything resembling _Izzo_ cheating? ///

This time they scouted out the area of the four gates, and found two Cyborgs hiding, who quickly surrendered, and even told them how to remove the laser on their cyber arms.

“Beats me what we’ll do with them.” Scar frowned at the subdued pair.

“Maybe we can hand them over to Rael’s Free Cyborg Rebellion.” Ice grinned at the Guards’ expression, but it was the sudden lift of the Cyborgs’ heads that he watched.

“A rebellion?” The one on the right sounded wishful, shook his head. “They’ll all be killed.”

Ice eyed the pair. “We have some medicine that will dissolve the wires in your head. Not sure what we can do beyond that, but we’ll see.”

And suddenly the one on the right lost all expression. Ice’s nerves jolted him into action . . . Think! Which direction . . . there!

He popped them both with a stun spell. “I think a Mentalist was trying to take them over. Coming from that direction.”

They slung the Cyborgs in to the ATC and caught the Mentalist, this one also cyborged, as he tried to steal a car.

He searched for three more days, as work crews cleared roads, buildings were inspected and his apartment was not condemned, thank the One, because stuck in the barracks with a bedroom and bathroom to call his own was just not going to work, full time.

The city was returning to normal, people sliding back into their routines . . . sort of. There was still a background alertness, awareness.

And horrible commutes, with the west-side Metro still being inspected and repaired. Only one tunnel collapse.

He finally managed a lunch with Keiq.

Keiq complained about parking availability. “I’m still driving. Carpooling with three other people crammed into my little car. Poor fellows. At least I’ve gotten a tag for the IR parking garage. A bunch of us gang up and cram into a dead end, and then we all leave together, or move out of the way and repark if we have to stay late.”

Ice nodded. “They were damn good at hiding. Rael says my mixed up genetics made me more sensitive to mental glow at unusual . . . frequencies. So I could sort of feel them, but my mental shields were also high enough that they couldn’t get around them.”

“So that’s why they were trying to kill you?”

“Yeah. It’s not very reliable. Zeeq? I mean, other than not finding her sexually attractive, I never felt much of anything around her. I guess she had good shields.”

“And Enqy?”

“I think those control chips really did keep them from . . . breaking free. I think I felt them most strongly when the Bunnies were in direct control. Or something. It seems a very wobbly and unreliable way to detect them.”

She eyed him, but didn’t actually glower. “So . . . are you one of these New Warriors? And you legally could carry and dispense the Comet Fall Wine of the Gods?”

“Yes, Warrior . . . No, I did not have explicit permission to carry the Joy Juice.” Ice shrugged. “Ajki just shrugged and said good thing I did have it, because the hospitals just could not cope.”

That got the glower. “Last year Ajki told me I was investigating his top analyst, and that I’d have to really work to prove you untrustworthy. I had no idea you knew all these famous . . . You were trained by Rael! And you know Ra’d and Ebsa, and Paer . . . I ought to have dug into your past, not your computer.”

Ice grinned. “So you instantly decided I was bad?”

She thunked her forehead with the heel of her hand. “I . . . had to get mad to keep myself from drooling. And you were smart, and snarky. Thank the One you used the accent I hate above all others. And now that I realize it was fake, I . . . umm . . . I . . . have to get back to the office.”

And she was up and gone.

Ice grinned and headed for his tailor to pick up two new suits. Appallingly expensive; Dog had always called them Ice’s number one costume. Which was absolutely true.

The return of normal.

For as long as it lasts. The Joy Juice does dissolve the wires, so the docs kept dosing the puppets, and it looks like even the chips might dissolve. If not totally, at least enough to ruin them.

Which means it’s going to get interesting real soon.




_War Party_ new start

Prologue

1418 Year of the Prophets

Icka Withione Sycamore Tall Trees leaned casually on the wall. A quick brush-through with a dye to darken his hair and eyebrows, a change of posture. The fencing jacket made him look pudgy rather than muscular. The name etched down the outside of the right leg read “Acce W. Kriti.”

Unlikely that his target would recognize him. The only advantage of being a blond was that people rarely recognized him with a simple change of hair color. Slump and lumber along, speak with a different accent . . . It hardly even counted as a disguise.

He’d gotten here early, taken a lesson, sparred with a couple of other mid-level fencers. Just normal stuff. The guy he was investigating, Councilman Ehfa Withione Azteca, had come in during the lesson, and chatted with friends, sparred a bit himself . . . expertly . . . People had come and gone. One man set his gear down beside Ehfa’s bag. He did a few stretches, walked over to watch a few bouts.

Ice shoved away from the wall and strolled past the man, nerves jangling a bit. A polite nod as he passed, getting a good look at the man. He stepped into the men’s lav.

No one I remember seeing before.

Leaving a bribe? Picking up instructions? Let’s start by finding out who he is.

He stepped back out. The man had moved, walked back and picked up his bag and now it looked like he was heading for the front entrance.

Ice strolled, trying to not look obvious about hurrying. He scooped up his gear bag and stepped out the side door. He hustled down the alley and got hit halfway to the street.

The attack was purely magical, gnawing at his mental shield, seeking entry. A multifaceted net. Ice tried to analyze it, reached to feel it. Some essence of fear, of being hunted. Of a threat from some looming thing that was hungry . . . elements of a control spell.

Ice tried to throw a spell of his own, a hastily cobbled together reverse of the control elements. The attack spell collapsed. Ice raced down the alley . . . no one in sight. He opened his mental shields and reached. Something furious, nearly beyond his ability to feel. Twisted, ugly and furious. Moving away. Gone. The sound of a motor starting, fading.

Ice shook off the creepy feeling and walked back to his gear. Slung the bag and headed for the metro. Whoever that was, was gone.

And I have no idea if he even had anything to do with Ehfa. Who he was, and really, even if that magic attack was the guy who put his bag down by Ehfa’s.

I wonder if I could get that damn much fear and creepy nuance into a spell? I’ll have to try it. It didn’t seem all that dangerous. Although it did stop me in the middle of the alley, not chasing him, but it really didn’t get through to me, just the scary hunted feeling. Meh, probably not that useful.

And Ehfa? Well, no surprise a councilman playing games. Hopefully nothing deadly. Ugh.

A year and a half till the presidential election, and Ehfa’s name gets mentioned often enough whenever anyone starts speculating about it.

I guess we’ll see.



Chapter One

10 Ramadan 1419yp

Black Horse Guards Barracks, Paris, One World

Ice answered the summons and walked out onto the mat. Reached for his center, for peace. Shed what he thought of as normality, as if it was heavy, invisible cloak.

He felt light as a feather as he faced the Warrior Isakson, and bowed. Forcing himself to move very slowly. Not that it fooled the old man, but it was good practice to not signal Speed.

The low pitched bong of the bell at Speed.

For the longest three minutes imaginable, trying to survive a fight with a man who’d fought all his long life. In a war that must have seemed unending.

He didn’t coddle his students.

And Ice, or better or worse, had advanced to the “nothing’s off the board” level. He hit Isakson three times and the ground four.

Bowed to the old man as the weight of the real world flowed back over him. He managed to not limp off, back to the wall, to watch the rest of the sparring.

“Looked good. Bet you get a lecture.” Captain Wsca, Scar, had already had his exercise. An ice pack to his elbow.

“On wasting time fencing, no doubt.” Dog snickered.

“But I really need that, too.” Ice rubbed his ribs, and watched another of the Black Horse Guards get trounced. “And you won’t be laughing after your round.”

“Most likely not.” Dog, Arfy on paper, still grinned, and he looked at Scar. “Is Isakson’s working over your whole squad today?”

“Yeah. As soon as the election fires up, we’ll be working our asses off, with no time for training.” Scar winced and shifted his ice pack to his shoulder. “Well, we will do some, but it may well focus on firearm quals. So Isakson’s making sure we at least start out at the top of our game.”

Ux and Ick both snickered. “Or bruised.”

Scar’s “Speed Squad.” The New Warriors.

Ux looked over at him, an innocent expression belied by the twinkle in his eyes. “Rumor has it that one of Ajki’s goons is a disguise artist.”

Ick grinned. “Not that we suspect you, you’re pretty recognizable.”

They both looked thoughtfully at Dog.

Ice snickered. “See? When we’re doing a bit of field investigation, sometime we change clothes to fit in. You should try it sometime. I mean, without the uniform, no one but your mother would recognize you.”

“Cute.” Ux shook his head. “No wigs, no makeup?”

“Dresses?” Ick grinned.

“Me? Never. I cannot speak as to anyone else’s perversions.” He wrinkled his nose. “And I’m way too tall to ever pass as a woman.”

Two shaken heads. “You are destroying the best rumors.”

“Sorry.”

Ux shrugged. “That just proves they’re true.”

Ice snorted and changed the subject. Before they ask about hair dye or illusions. “So Major Eppa’s splitting you guys up and scattering you among the candidates?”

Scar nodded. “Yep. A Warrior in every campaign, if he can.”

One help me, Isakson calls me a Warrior Trainee. But I’m just a political analyst. With so much baggage in my past that this is about as high as I ought to even think of going.



Chapter Two

12 Ramadan 1419yp

Directorate of Interior Relations Headquarters, Paris, One World

Ajki stretched muscles stiffened by sitting too long.

I don’t feel a day over a hundred and fifty-four.

If I’d work out more . . . And the Empire would stop having elections every five years . . . I’d still be, a glance at his watch, on time for my hundred and fifty-fifth birthday party if I leave right now.

He shut his computer firmly.

I can read the report on the Al Iadrah’s latest bad idea tomorrow. “Destroy the Fresco’s Gang once and for all!” Why the hell did they have to choose an election year to have a gang war in the middle of Paris?

He got an approving nod from his old friend and assigned princess, Fuyl. Who looked like a sweet little old lady until she allowed the steel underneath to show.

“Poor Poppy, she knows what election years are like, but that’s not going to stop her from making a little fuss over your birthday.” She gave him an approving nod. “And nag you to take care of yourself.”

Ajki gave her an innocent look. “I seem to recall her fussing at you, just a little. How’s the walking going?”

“Four kilometers a day. Regular as clockwork. As you well know, since it’s mostly on a treadmill. Humph! I never dreamed that you’d have such good tastes in a wife.”

He walked out the entrance of the building and down the steps to the street just as his car pulled up. He opened the door himself, and slid in. Fuyl right behind him. The car pulled away from the curb as the door closed.

A quick practiced maneuver that barely disturbed traffic. A nice side effect for a maneuver designed to minimize the time an assassin had to target him.

And it’s never happened. But it saves me unwanted ceremony, and the commuters are happy.

“I’ve been thinking.”

Ajki eyed her cautiously. It was a term she only used after doing a great deal of thinking, and had made a decision.

“I think you should introduce that pretty Ice boy to that fierce Keiq.”

“Matchmaking again? You know it doesn’t work.”

She looked innocent. “But they were both raised outside of high society. And they react to it in such different ways. It could be interesting, watching them try to figure each other out.”

“Stirring up a pot of trouble.” Ajki shook his head, trying hard to not show how amusing the idea was . . .

“Tsk! I just like to observe human nature. The Native upcomer who does such an excellent job of imitating High Oners. The country girl, who hides cluelessness behind a mask of dominance and aggression.”

“The woman who refuses to fit in meets the man who can fit in anywhere?”

“Exactly. It should be fun.”

“You are a Bad Woman, Fuyl. I’ll have her try to track down that irritating leak in Political Analysis.” Ajki scowled. “Maybe she can even figure out where it is leaking to.”

“It’ll be nearly as much fun as poor Arfy—what was his mother thinking, to give him a name like that—and his Native Girlfriend.”

“She’s a Neartuone.”

“Born and raised in the Great Forest. She’s a Tree, deep in her soul.”

Ajki eyed her. “I hate it when you get bored.”

She patted his arm. “Now, now. I’m just a hopeless romantic, and I’d love to see that girl stop chasing men away. And it would do that handsome young rascal some good to have to do the chasing for a change.”

He sighed. “In three weeks the Presidential Campaign begins. One help me, I’ll be so busy I won’t even notice an office romance or lack thereof unless you rub my nose in it.”

“Then I’ll just have to enjoy it on my own.”

And no doubt she will.

They, as usual, made good time to the enclave and home.

Where his kids mobbed him.

One! Can Joak really be twelve years old! And Ajjo just turned seven. How time flies when you’re too damned busy.

And Jay, Poppy’s boy that he’d help raise from time he was ten had managed to get time off, no doubt due to his boss—and Ajki’s nephew—Subdirector Ajha, who raised a glass from across the room in greeting.

A kiss from Poppy, and a glass of wine.

Enjoy the family time. Next year’s going to be busy.




_War Party_ part 28

Room 322. Work first, then apply for a job.

Crossing the back end of the big, open central hallway on his way to the stairs . . . a chill. He slowed looking around carefully . . . a man who had been walking toward Ajki and Ox, glanced his way, turned away abruptly and sped up, heading for the front doors.

Lucky Dave noticed too. Black and purple uniforms started moving . . .

The man pulled a gun and spun . . . aiming at Ice. He shielded and dived, spinning as the bullet hit his shield, scrambled to his feet and dashed to the guards standing around the . . . mentalist.

That’s why they haven’t grabbed him.

Ice formed a mental shield and wrapped it around the man.

The guards jumped, shook themselves.

“He’s been X-rayed.” Lucky Dave frowned. “And how the hell did he get a gun in here?”

Ice lowered his shield just enough to feel the man frantically probing for a weakness. “I think we have found a representative of the Drei Mächte Bündnis. Keep your mental shields up hard, and beware of anyone around he could grab and take control of.”

He eased the shield, but the guards were ready, now, and grabbed him, and searched him.

A girl, young woman, trotting past with an armful of folders slowed, blinking. Dropping everything and reaching for a guard’s gun . . . Ice threw a mental screen around her, and she jerked back, looking shocked.

“In fact, a dose of methalformalin would be a good idea.” Ice looked at the man, so ordinary . . . “And a DNA analysis.”

“Oh. Good idea. Ask a Dr. Ysse at IR about how it compares to Jaejong Chou’s DNA.” Rael, bounced up, sounding cheerful.

“They’re pulling in everyone, aren’t they?”

“Oh yeah. Urfa’s over on that Cyborg World with Xen and Agni. Explaining to their government that they’ve been naughty, and they aren’t going to be allowed to play in the multiverse anymore. Every time they get snippy, they blow up another building. I think Agni and his crew are enjoying themselves.”

Agni? One! Did they just sic a couple hundred Action Team Traitors on something they were allowed to blow up?

The man they were holding wrenched and snarled. “The Drei Mächte Bündnis bows to no one! How dare you cattle try to limit us!”

Lucky Dave nodded. “Snippy. Ice, how come they set you off?”

Rael’s brows rose. She looked from Ice to the captive. “It must be something to do with how you shield . . . If I lowered mine . . . yow!” She rubbed her arms. “That’s . . . really interesting.”

She turned to eye Ice. “Can you feel this?”

A hard poke at his mental shield . . . sort of at the edge, somehow. “Yes?”

“Stiffen it up, right there. Good. Now here.”

Ice stretched his shield further that way and strengthened it. “Oh. It’s gone. Whatever I was feeling.”

“Right. Now lower it again, but remember that, if you need it.” Rael looked down at the girl scrambling to pick up her files. “Twit? Next semester sign up for one of the Magic Practicum sessions. You need some shield work.”

The poor girl managed to get even redder.

Oh, pulled in Directorate students for emergency internships? How the hell many people have turned up with chips?

Lucky Dave glanced from Rael to Ice. Shrugged. “In the meantime, I think that horrible Chain is just what we need here. ” He circled his left index finger and the man’s glow disappeared.

Ice eyed the silvery chain around the man’s neck. That wasn’t there, a second ago . . . was it?

“What I want to know, is what the One Hell do we call these people?” Ice eyed the man, but he was sagging, sobbing—in fury, since he was still glaring. “Drei? I mean that’s just German for three, right?”

Rael giggled. “The Free Cyborg Rebellion calls them Bunnies.”

Ice blinked. “The Free . . .” He thought back . . . Mom said . . . “Right, they take young men from their conquered worlds and turn them into Cyborgs. So they’re rebelling? How did they manage that.”

That got him several hard stares. But Rael nodded. “It’s these control chips. I’ve met a bunch of the rebels, by and large not magical at all, they say that three days of the Joy Juice dissolves the wires in their brains, then they’ve got these medallions, with shield glyphs on them to shield them mentally.”

She looked back at the temporary committee room. “I’ll be talking to them about it. Maybe we can dissolve the puppets’ wires and . . . see if we’ve got a competent President or not.”

She bounced away toward the committee room, and two of the Black Horse grabbed the . . . Bunny’s arms and hauled him down the west corridor.

The remaining guards frowned at Ice. Lucky Dave loomed. “How did you learn this much about them?”

“Ah . . . there are some XR security issues involved, and I can’t talk about it,” He looked at Ajki, approaching from the side, with Major Eppa. “Unless the Boss says so.”

“The Boss has five free minutes, come in here, all of you. This will not be further discussed, even among yourselves, and sure as hell not with anyone else.” Ajki led them to a small room and closed the door. “Ice? Now I need the details.”

“My mother is Kaat Withione Kriti. She was with the Presidential Directorate under Uzmo, then transferred to XR, was infiltrated into Earth via Comet Fall.

“Two years later, working in their version of the SGA, she was caught up in that stupid attack through the Earth’s gate to Comet Fall. Which in case you didn’t know, involved a three day rape, pillage, burn, and blow up rampage before they all fled back through a gate to some world One knows where.

“What with serious head injuries, and so forth, Kaat only remembered her cover identity.”

“Amnesia doesn’t work like that.” Ajki’s voice was mild.

Ice snorted. “Yes, there’s usually a strong psychological element. Maybe, say, a two hour gang rape by her own side?”

“Uh . . . or the Auralian troops?”

“Mostly Halfers, not that that makes it any better. They were still trained by us and putatively under our command.” Ice took a deep breath. “The raiders probably thought it was a great joke to force Joy Juice on all the women so they’d get pregnant. In any case Kaat was evacced to the Hague, and instead of returning to Nowhereistan, found a job there. She was one of only seven women out of several hundred, who did not abort their pregnancies. In any case, fifteen years later, she regained her memory and the beacon she’d brought across.”

“It was still where she’d left it?”

“No . . . well, sort of. She’d attached it inside a large sofa, which had been lost in all the mess. It was coming across the sofa that triggered the return of her memory. She shifted the beacon to a house—with the return of her memory, she had access to a lot of things she’d set up including more identities and bank accounts—so she could buy a house. She ran standard marooning protocols for several years, then finally left it on, full time.

“XR never found it, but apparently the Cyborgs did. That house and five others were where they attacked from.”

“Mother had spent years working their traffic control system. Which enabled her to assist in locating their gates and getting them closed.”

Ice paused to look for questions. Or for bravery.

Dammit. Just keep going.

“Now, we never really talked about it. But . . . well, when she regained her memory, there she was. Married, with a son, a stepdaughter, friends, neighbors, a job she liked . . . and since they’d checked all the rape children’s DNA, the near certainty that they knew she was a Oner.

“After the Cyborg raid, they stopped pretending, and she helped them question their Cyborg prisoners. And she told me about them.”

Lucky Dave eyed Ice. “Do you know where her loyalties fall.”

“Not then. I’m not sure she knew. And since then she’s either been marooned for another twenty plus years, or XR is really good at keeping secrets. I thought at least Ajki would have some idea of her existence, if they’d ever contacted her.”

“Not a clue.” Ajki shook his head. “Damn. And what about you?”

“Earthers are even worse than Oners when it comes to Natives, and phobic about genetic engineered mutants. I was not considered human. Mother got me into the training program aimed at getting spies into the One World. A couple dozen Purps, and the seven of us. One of the training programs, they must have had at least one more.

“I crossed over in 1399 to Tall Trees, under orders, and with no intension of following them. Spent five years there until I was accepted at the Directorate School. I have not been contacted, nor attempted to contact anyone from Earth. I have been to Makkah and got a ‘Welcome Home.’ End of story.”

“Fuck me.” Ajki shook his head, checked his watch. “I have to go. Dave, get Ice some helpers and haul him everywhere, and find as many of these Cyborg Puppeteers as possible.”

_War Party_ part 27

Chapter Twenty-one

1 Ramadan 1420yp

Not quite over . . .

Ice woke up hurting everywhere.

Especially his head. He rolled cautiously off the bed and gimped to the lav, and down the hall. Keiq was still asleep on the couch. He chugged water, and then orange juice. Back to find clean clothes. By the time he’d showered and dressed the head ache was subsiding and his stomach growling. He grabbed a t-shirt and drawstring pants that wouldn’t be ludicrously big on Keiq, a clean towel and left those in the bathroom.

Then breakfast. Coffee, bacon, eggs, and toast were pretty much the limit of his culinary skills, as far as traditional breakfasts were concerned. The smell of bacon, or more likely, the noise, woke Keiq.

“I left some clothes in the bathroom that might fit, if you want a shower. And are you a devout Muslim?”

“No. I will gladly eat bacon.” She groaned to her feet. “I think I broke my shoulder yesterday. And everything else too.”

He poured her a glass of orange juice. “I’d offer a healing spell, but I don’t think I’m actually up to it yet.”

She drank half the juice and staggered off toward the lav. He kept an ear open for the water turning off and started the eggs and toast . . . close to the right time. Barely even burned the toast.

Turned on the screen and found a channel monitoring the proceedings of what was labeled the Ad Hoc Emergency Committee.

They dug in, watching the screen.

A news scroll about some rocket damage to Government House, a few other buildings in the downtown area had lost glass, the Government, such as it was, was currently operating out of Versalle.

“They’ve drafted people from all the parties.” Ice leaned back in his chair. “Did we actually have a cross-dimensional invasion yesterday?”

Habit kicked in and he automatically sorted out the people at the table. Former President Izzo and Myoc Withione India, for the Modern Federalists. Prime Councilor Isgu and Ydza Withione Berlin for the War Party. Toag Withione Brisbane and Ovli Withione Tianjin Peking for the Isolationists.

Keiq snickered. “They hauled Insa the Insane to represent the One Firsters?”

“Yep. And Edte Withione Copenhagen is keeping his distance.”

Guur “Beautiful Flower” Neartuone Lana’I and Akky Withione La Paz. Not that either of them looked especially Pacific at the moment. Multitude Supreme candidate Diego Jesus Blanco Ramos, Rawz “Rumakova” Servaone Sycamore Tall Trees and Ynbu Clostuone Homestead rounded out the table.

“I wonder if thirteen people can work together well enough to get anything done?” Ice bit his lip. “I don’t see Ajki.”

He shut up and started paying attention as Izzo was elected to head the committee.

“First order of business is to appoint temporary Directors to all three Directorates, and get them working smoothly. Yes, Rumacova?”

“I move we appoint Ajki to Presidential—we need his twisty mind. Axse would be good at Interior, with his police background, and the Former Philosopher Ajha at External Relations.”

“Seconded!” from down the table.

“Is there any motion to discuss these three appointments?”

Silence.

“Very well, all in favor . . . passed unanimously.”

One! It looks like they’ll all pull together, at least for now.

Ice got up and dug in his bag for his foil-wrapped comm. Caught a glare from Keiq. “Ajki told me to disappear.”

She huffed a bit. “So that’s why I couldn’t track you. Oh!” She leaped up and hunted through her shed armor and produced a comm of her own. “My brother’s going to kill me for not calling before I . . . Elk? Yeah, it’s me, tell everyone I’m fine and I’ll be home as soon as I finish breakfast and find out which roads are open. Oh, hi, Wacky, did you get that? Right, I’ll call his office.”

Ice hauled his attention back to his own comm. Dog or Ajki? Might as well start at the top. He tapped in the number.

A strange voice answered. “Ajki Withione’s comm, may I ask who is calling?”

“Iska Withione . . .”

“Ice?” Major Eppa’s voice took over. “Can you come to Versalle?”

“Yes, but depending on what’s running, it might not be very fast.”

“Make it as soon as you can, sorry, I haven’t got the free personnel to pick you up.”

“Right. On my way.”

“I’m fine Azik. Now stop worrying.” Keiq clicked off herself.

Ice started unwrapping his minicomp. “I think it’s time to check out the transport sites and see what’s running and what roads are open.”

The whole west side Metro was down. Twenty-First street, where the first gate he’d closed had been, was open from that sandwich shop to the east.

Keiq ran a finger down it, and then south, and south-west. “Looks like I can get home. I suppose I should check the office and see if I need to come in . . .” She looked down at herself in dismay.

“Not professional enough?” Ice grinned. “You could go home, and call from there.”

She glared and tapped at her comm. Ice dived into his closet and pulled out his last suit.

He came back out, tying his tie. “Office or home?”

“Home first, thank the One. They’re replacing glass on that side of the building. My boss said to come prepared to stay very late. I think I’ll take a sleeping bag. And a change of clothes.”

“And food. Can you drop me off down here where you turn south? That’ll turn ten kilometer hike into a two block stroll for me.”

“No problem.” She grinned. “Glad to hear your stuck-up nasty accent didn’t return with the suit.”

“It will, by the time I get to Versalle. But for you I’ll turn it off.” He pocketed comm and minicomp and hefted half her body armor and carried it down to her car.

And made her weapon-up for the drive.

“We cannot possibly have gotten every single Cyborg, not to mentions the infiltrators, the puppet masters who were controlling all the people that got chips in their brains.”

She glowered at him and grabbed a pistol, extra magazines, a rifle and clips . . .

Traffic was light, but slow, with many lights out and the autodrive system completely unavailable.

“Not that I’d use it, but yeesh. They made a pretty good mess of a bunch of systems in six hours.”

Ice hopped out when she stopped at a working light. “See you . . . sometime.”

She eyed him.

“Soon.” He stepped back as the light changed.

At Versalle he was strip searched, X-rayed, and injected with something they were using to mark people who’d been X-rayed.

He was half dressed when Ajki rushed in, Ux escorting him.

“Good. Listen, I’ve got about thirty seconds to spare. I need to know how you knew so much about these Cyborgs.”

Ice swallowed. “Quick version, my mother is an XR infiltration agent, and was in the middle of the Cyborgs’ attack on Earth in 1397. She told me all about it—multiple gates in an arc around the Hague, mentalists, tanks, a squad targeting the president, and so forth.”

“Your . . . mother. Huh. Right. Room 322. Get to work.”

Ice opened his mouth to mention that he’d been fired . . . but Ajki was already rushing off.

Room 322. Work first, then apply for a job.