Ice swung around for the Paris-San Francisco corridor. "And there's food in the white bags, as I suspected you guys might be skipping dinner."
It was well after midnight, Paris time, and the kids asleep before he pulled up into the driveway of the sleek modern house on the hill. He whistled a bit at the sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean's rocky coast in the twilight evening.
And was answered with a laugh. "Oh, if only the new people hadn't canned all the betting! Don't you just look like a tough guy."
Ice opened doors. "Hey Ux . . . I'm a bit surprised to see you here."
Ajki got out and stretched. "The new guards didn't trusted the old crew, so the best Black Horse Guards ever got sent off to guard us old untrusted geezers. Ick is next door minding Izzo, and Scar's in Montevideo. And they sent Major Eppa back to the Army and retired him. At least they promoted him to colonel first."
Ice shook his head. "I'm afraid to ask about Isakson."
"Ordered to train the new guys and make them Warriors. Isakson didn't say a thing. And that's when Lucky Dave started looking alarmed. Then they sent Dave off to the School to keep an eye on Urfa and Rael. Qamar went with him."
Ajki reached in and picked up Ajjo. "Well, at least Rael will be happy to have people around to block her student's flares."
Poppy woke Joak and they all followed Ux inside.
"Ux . . . you aren't the only one here, are you?" Ice closed his eyes and caught the little pinpricks of micro electronic devices. Walked around picking them up, stepped into a restroom and flushed them.
"Yep. Of course there are sixty-four retired guards, goons, and brutes around here. Icks and I've touched bases with them." A sudden grin. "I got five calls from various people about the old beat-up ute heading this way."
"I think Icks got even more." Izzo tapped at the open front door and walked in. "So, left without telling anyone, eh?"
"Yeah. I didn't like the solicitous way Agfu asked about the kids and their schools."
Izzo's eyes narrowed. "Indeed? That's a nasty turn, now, isn't it."
"Hopefully I am misinterpreting his intent. But I'm going to get a good night's sleep before we take the electronics out of the wrappers." Ajki looked around. "I'd like to call this home for another three and a half years."
"Oh, One!" Poppy rolled her eyes. "Why I ever thought you'd actually retire . . ."
"I may not have a choice. Ux? Is there someplace Ice can sleep?" Ajki looked around at him. "Unless you have other plans?"
"I thought I'd work on Tall Trees for a while. It's easy to be unfindable, there."
"Good idea. But why don't you stick around here for a few days, and we'll see what sort of reaction we get from Afgu. And search both houses for more bugs." Ajki grinned over at the irate Ux.
"And show us, again, how you do that!"
But the next few days were quiet.
Ice worked over his new vehicle, somewhat to the bemusement of everyone. "Honestly, that drawling snob is a complete fabrication. I hunt, I fish, I do routine maintenance on cars, and now that Rael and Xen have trained me, I can do major structural repairs as well. And detect them." He closed the hood, and patted it. "Despite the dings, it was mechanically sound when I bought it. And now running like new."
Izzo snickered. "I never associated bow hunting with Earth."
"Oh, it's a bit of a . . . macho status thing. Involving, for the most part, ridiculously expensive, latest materials tech, compound bows and fancy hunting lodges. My mother, no doubt thinking ahead, made me use a rather ordinary bow, and hike in and out. I loved it."
Izzo and Ajki exchanged glances.
"We really need you sit down and write up reports, all about Earth culture."
"Did that while I was in school. Especially all those dreary opinions and facts about politicians Mom always talked about at dinner. Snuck the reports into the XR library when I interned there one summer." Ice grinned at their expressions. "Hunt for author Akta Withione Sideris Kriti."
Ajki slapped his forehead. "They're bloody embargoed, because they . . . shouldn't have been there. No provenance."
"Mom also made sure I memorized some strings of letters and numbers. Worked like a charm. I never used them again."
Izzo frowned. "Sideris. Like . . . Damn. I'm not even going to say it."
"Yeah." Ice sighed. "I spot her occasionally in vids. Usually in the back of a news conference or some such."
Ajki looked like he was plotting something.
How to catch an Earth spy? Maybe I'm prejudiced, but I don't think Mom even told Mandy. But what do I know? I was only the fifth spy sent across.
I wonder what happened to the first four? And all the younger kids I trained with? The Purple powers?
15 Jumada 2021yp
The dimensional gate to Tall Trees had been placed at the edge of the Great Forest. So he drove through shady streets into Center City proper, out on the plains.
When he'd first come here, a spy from Earth at the age of twenty-two, he'd had no grasp of the geology of this parallel world. Now he knew that this world had had a rather different tectonic history.
That the Northern Atlantic Ocean had failed to open completely, leaving Europe and North America connected. That a mid-continental rift had opened a long thin extension of the Gulf of Mexico into the southern Great Plains. That in the rifting between Africa and South America, the northwest corner of Africa had split off and become stranded, a smallish continent sitting astride the equator in the middle of the southern Atlantic.
All of which had produced a different mix, a different evolution of mammals and mankind. That the people here were so completely Human had led to much speculation about "Unique occurrences" that could finally be, sort of, explained.
The geneticists and the linguists had leaped on Disco's reports about random brief connections between parallel worlds formed by a multidimensional phenomenon they call "cylinders" as an explanation for a modern human population related to the East African Bantu and using languages related to their language group.
Ten thousand years ago, apparently. From a founder population of four or five thousand people. And humans weren't the only immigrants from a more modern world. African antelopes and zebras had joined the native herds out on the plains which were mostly a bovine sort of an extra-large cattle/bison type, and a small camel/llama that the new people had semi-domesticated.
The predators had been size extra large as well, which might have explained the small human population scattered across the eastern North America and western Europe when the Empire discovered this world.
It had been the nicest world found, in the early random exploration of the Multiverse. And for an over populated Empire, a way to relieve a border-line and worsening famine.
The well-being of the thin population of the natives had been a minor issue, quickly settled by a hungry army.
A hundred and thirty years later, officially citizens of the Empire and equal in legal standing, the Tree Tribes were still dwindling, the Grass Tribes gone altogether.