Dog was on his feet, too shocked to even curse.
The billowing dust blew away, leaving a heap of stone, concrete, and steel less than half its height, the open rotunda a lower notch of debris.
He closed his eyes and lowered his mental shield in the frequencies he'd always used when he 'talked' to Ice . . . and there he was. Scared and coughing his lungs up, lumpy uneven mentally, shaky shields. Controlling panic as filtered light through a few narrow spots showed . . . no way out.
"Uncle Xen? I have to . . . I have to."
Xen's hand squeezed his shoulder. "Mars . . . Right." He reached out and tapped the screen. The half wall left standing just to the right of the main doors. "There is a strong recognition point just inside. They let me inlay a circle of magnets if I promised to always teleport to that spot, outside the security check point."
Dog lowered his shields and felt the recognition . . . oddly.
"Tighten the focus until you can feel it properly. There will be debris interfering."
Dog nodded. Focused down on that circle . . . on one side of the circle, and it clicked. He stepped over to the spot he'd always come and gone from when Xen came to visit. Light warp. Pulled out the teleportation spell. Pulled power, and stepped into a disaster.
Standing between slabs of . . . concrete? Marble? Hard to tell, all the dust turned the wreckage into a gray nightmare.
:: Ice! ::
A feeling of mental confusion . . . :: Dog? ::
:: Yeah. You still feel drugged. Damn, that's going to make this difficult . . . but you're close. :: Dog pulled power again, pulled out the anti-Methalformaline spell and threw it hard at that spot, just a hundred feet away. :: You damn near made it out didn't you? ::
:: Yeah. Right, that feels better, but we're still stuck and what the hell are you doing here! ::
:: Rescuing you, what else? Now, have you got enough room for me to teleport in? ::
:: No. :: He sounded quite definite.
:: Have you been studying the teleportation spell? :: Dog's breath caught as something in the back fell and more dust billowed.
A spurt of panic from Ice, quickly controlled. A faint sense of pressure.
Dog stomped on his own panic. :: Right. You need four things. A recognition point of where you are, and recognition point of where you want to go. The spell net. Power. ::
:: I sort of remember the spell part. ::
:: Show me :: Dog studied it, over laid his own and corrected it. Could feel Ice fighting fatigue as he fixed his. :: Tuck that away in the corner of your mind and feel the space around you. ::
A faint wisp of humor. :: Oh, I'm feeling it. :: But the mental picture built up, the leaning slab against the wall, the unconscious man laying half across him . . .
:: Leave the man out of your recognition. Feel the stone and concrete. ::
:: No problem, this spot is going to loom large in my nightmares, forever. ::
Dog felt his own recognition of the spot he was standing on, swept a foot across to clear the smaller debris and sent the recognition of a spot a few inches above it, and stepped well back. Reached out mentally. :: Now all three. Your spot, the spell reaching across to my spot. Pull power. I know you're beat, but the power has to come from there to here. ::
And Ice pulled power and dropped to the ground at Dog's feet, his friend across his legs . . .
"Oh shit. Him!"
"Yeah." Ice took a deep breath, started coughing. Spat. "Damn dust. Help me get him out of here, and then you'd better get, yourself." He pulled his legs free and stood up.
Dog looked at the staggering wreck in disbelief.
Then he levitated Afgu and got him across Ice's shoulder. Kept levitating him as he propped up his friend and helped him stagger to the nearest opening, Warped light and dammit, let him go. Kept up the levitation until the Black Horse charged up the steps and took over.
Then he hustled back to the recognition point and popped back to the apartment.
Uncle Xen held out a can of soda. "Good job. They'll never know you were there."
"Ha! Ice'll tell them." He looked at the screen, where Ice was getting hosed down, then staggered off to prop himself on a lamp post. Grinning. The vid swung around to show more familiar faces, Vaul with an armload of books, Lulu grabbing a stool to put them on, and then Urfa waving the rest of the Interim Committee in . . . a grubby priest limping forward to officiate. Five hands on the stack of books.
"I, Urfa Withione Rodos Ottoman . . ."
"I, Insa Withione Kubra Alcairo . . ."
"I, Diego Jesus Blanco Ramos . . ."
"I, Ydza Withione Yorch Berlin . . ."
"I, Ovli Withione Tianjin Peking . . ."
And all together in a ragged chorus . . . "Swear to uphold the laws of the Empire of the One, to faithfully carry out the duties of our appointments as the Interim Committee, to serve the people of the Empire, under the eyes of the One True God."
Dog grinned. "I think they must have raided a library for every religious tract they could find. Well, that makes all their orders legal . . ." He shut up and turned his attention back to the screen as Insa tapped his knuckles on the stack of books.
"I call this first meeting of the Interim Committee to order. And Nominate Urfa as Chairman."
"Seconded!" Ramos jumped in.
"All in favor?" All the hands rose, Ovli's a little slowly. "Passed unanimously. Urfa, all yours."
"Thank you. We can change this later, but we need experienced directors right now. Ajki, Ahxe, and Ajha." Urfa looked around and crooked a finger. "Ajki? Presidential. Do you have anything to say?"
"I accept . . . for one month, and only because I'm running around giving orders right now. None of you actually need my political acumen, and certainly not my political morals. Ox, on the other hand, will keep you honest, and frankly, he's what the Black Horse needs after the last six months of mis-management." Ajki looked over as the other two men stepped up.
Ox nodded. "Wherever you need me."
"Then Interior, for a month."
Izzo looked to Ajha, who nodded. "Yes. Wherever you need me."
"They're all Federalists," Ramos grumbled.
"They're all experienced and can get their directorates working." Ydza grinned. "Neither Ahxe, nor Ajha will run for President in 1425, and Ajki's probably too damned old. So they aren't a threat to any of us."
Ovli snorted. "And Izzo ducked out so he could run. Damn the man, he thinks too much. Insa? Are you running?"
"Hell no." The One Firster tipped his head at the other members of the Interim Council. "You three can have all the fun. And I suspect Ollw will run."
Urfa nodded. "If you three could coordinate schedules, so you're all away, and then all back, we can keep this a five man job. Not that corridors don't make it possible to get back here at need, but with the directorates working, we can concentrate on the economy."
Uncle Xen snickered. "Well, that's right out in the open, isn't it?"
Dog grinned. "Yeah, Oners. They're pretty good when they really need to be. Uh oh, here comes Uqqy. Hates Ice worse the Afgu . . ."
On the screen, the fool glared at the Committee that had just taken his job away, then turned and stomped up to Ice. A newsie ran up with a mic on a long extension.
Uqqy looked Ice up and down. "So why did you save the man who wanted you dead. Anyone with any sense would have left him to die in there."
Ice pushed himself away from the lamp post. Dressed in wet rags tinged pink with blood, he straightened and looked Uqqy up and down. Raised nose and brows.
"I am a Warrior of the One. I do not leave the President of the Empire to die. Not even this one."
Clear, crisp enunciation. Not a hint of drawl. Ice turned a contemptuous shoulder to the man and walked away.
Dog started laughing, flopped down on the sofa. "Iced him."
On screen, Uqqy pulled a gun and was buried under an avalanche of Black Horse Guards.
"That's got to hurt, all the body armor they're wearing." Xen popped a soda and kicked back to watch. "Rael informed me that there is nothing a single Fallen magician can do that an Empire of nine billion citizens cannot do themselves, and that they did not need to be rescued by me. This time."
"Poor Uncle Xen, bruise your ego?"
"Not a bit. And quite apart from actually being your cousin, I think you're finally old enough to stop calling me Uncle. You make me feel old."
"I'll try, old habits, you know."
"And you should go tell that very nice wife of yours that you're all right."
"And then, if you're feeling bored, you can come with me to see if Q's found which world they're attacking from, this time. And help us take down their gates, as well."
Gainfully Employed and Really Busy
Ajki relaxed, watching the committee as they got Dr. Udce's report. He'd talked with Duce yesterday. Such a relief to be back at IR! Not that I don't like and respect the Black Horse Guards, but they aren't mine.
"As they are now finding out, a person, once chipped, is very vulnerable to mental manipulation and especially communication from the Bunny Mentalists. Afgu is not controlled as in the previous sense, but then he never needed to be controlled.
"This was more ego and ambition. Afgu knew what he was doing.
"He managed to conceal his communications with that Mentalist from his princess." Dr. Ydce huffed. "Apparently an incompetent President doesn't rise to the level of needing the One to step in and remove him. The Council's Vote of No Confidence did that.
"And . . . even so . . . I'm afraid Afgu's Princess had a fatal accident the morning of the incident."
Ajki winced. Fuyl mentioned a few "interesting encounters" with some of Ehfa's staff. But when I asked if they'd just wanted information on me, or if they'd had anything else in mind, she just shrugged and said they'd had an unfortunate accident before she could ask them about their plans.
Thank the One her head X-ray found nothing.
Dr. Udce tapped at his comp to put pictures up on the screen behind him. "Where we failed, was in not realizing that the chips were self-repairing. With the dissolving of the chips, contact with the One has been returning sporadically and unreliably. So even when some of the dissolved chips managed to self-repair to the point they could be used to control their victim, there was no clear indication that they'd lost contact with the One. The mentalist probably tested them, but avoided detection by not using them, not interfering with the puppet's connection to the One, not controlling them, until the last minute."
Urfa looked down the table. "Ice, does this agree with your observations?"
The boy was not quite back into High Oner Snob mode. Probably because none of us would believe him, any more. "Yes. They only needed a dozen or so Black Horse Guards to take out the unaffected Guards right there in the rotunda. Then their own soldiers could take over and make sure their goals were met. I think they must have had a gate anchor inside Government House, else just taking out the electronic security system wouldn't have been sufficient to get enough soldiers inside to overcome the rest of the guards on station."
Most of whom died.
Dr. Udce tapped at his computer to cover the walls with head X-rays. "Five of the Guards. Their heads X-rays when the brain chips were discovered almost a year ago, on the left. The next column is three weeks after being dosed with the Wine. The brain chips are irregularly shrunken and dissolved. The center column is last month. The top three men were again, controlled. All five were dosed with the wine until the chips were completely dissolved—as you see in the last column. They will be checked regularly, and we are rechecking everyone and dosing everyone with any remnant material."
Insa swept a look around, mostly down the table at the Directors and the various agents and experts. "Afgu's told us all about his ambitions to take over their empire. Did the Mentalists just lead him around by his ego? What the hell was their goal?"
Ice snorted. "I'm not sure I believe the nonsense about the Destroyer. And if they had Pre-cogs . . . how clear was their identification? Was it really all hinging on one individual? And why think it was me? A dangerous-to-them 'blond with magic' would seem to fit Eldon Kissison better than me."
Ramos snickered. "Indeed. We really ought to invite him to come talk to us about the Cyborg Rebellion. It sound like something we should encourage."
Urfa looked thoughtful. "That Mentalist in IR, Zeeq, may have spotted you and decided you were a perfect focus to convince Afgu they had a reason to help him that had nothing to do with conquering the Empire."
"I sincerely hope so. Destroying a thousand-world-empire sounds a bit much to tackle without an army, and the army's got a lot better tacticians than me."
Urfa grinned. "Indeed, all the high officers are working out how to do it. And no doubt we'll hear from Disco if we try to destroy the whole thing."
Ajki eyed his young protégé. Which all depends on what the Drei Mächte Bündnis does next. I suspect they may have just created their Destroyer.