The back door opened, "Arkhip Ingolf Gorbechev." Ark rose and followed the man down a curved hallway to a broad tunnel, open to the outside to the right, and to a small arena to the left. Both ends gated, but open at the moment. The pale boy, looking even shakier, walked past with his father.
As his eyes followed them he noticed the two other men standing and waiting. They loomed at Uncle Axel.
"Think you're pretty smart, do you? You seem to be having trouble following the rules, Agent Vinogradov."
Uncle Axel looked them up and down. "Hasn't anyone told you the game's changed? Backstabbing, hostages . . . blacklists and hacking . . . Maybe you should ask for the new manual."
He turned away, then bowed politely . . . Ark turned, and for a moment hoped . . . but the men in the red Inquisitor robes were strangers, neither of them his father. Ark bowed. They stepped aside and waved him on, their attention on the goons.
Uncle Axel prodded him on with a faint chuckle. And in a very quiet voice, "One of my covers for being here is turning out to be quite interesting. I'll tell you later. Right now, remember when Six tried to beat the crap out of you? You're going to be facing a man trying to kill you. Brace yourself, beat him up. Three, three three."
Then they were out of the tunnel walking across a firm concrete floor. Circular, fifty feet across. Vertical walls about ten feet high, and opposite of them, above the wall, three old men watching them.
Shoulders back, stand straight. Bow.
Uncle Axel bowed with him. "May I present my second cousin Arkhip Ingolf Gorbechev."
One of the old men leaned forward. "Where is the boy's father?"
"He has been summonded by the 300."
The old guy leaned back. "Then the Challenge procedes."
Axel bowed, turned and walked away.
The gate closed behind him, and a side door opened.
A Cyborg. Dressed in black. Young, holding his head at a faint angle, eye narrowing as he focused on Ark. And charged, screaming.
Ark sidestepped to the left, grabbed the Cyborg's reaching arm and hauled it down and up. Didn't quite manage to throw him, but he jumped in with three quick punches while the Cyborg was off balance and knocked him down. The Cyborg rolled and scrambled to his feet. they traded blocks and blows, then Ark threw the Spin Impression. Stepped back to take a couple of deep breaths, then as the Cyborg fought it off, got ready to . . .
The Cyborg grabbed a handfull of power and threw it. Ark barely had time to raise shields, and power spread across the energy field and was gone.
Ark gave him the top push, low pull combination and dropped him flat on his back.
I've lost count. Maybe a couple more of each just in case.
A snap kick dropped the Cyborg again. He blocked a punch as the Cyborg rolled to his feet and came back fighting.
Then a push, a leg sweep and he was down again, pushing up . . .
Grab the wrist, forearm comes up behind and above the mechanical elbow, pivot and down he goes . . .
Slash and end it fast? He cringed inside and reached out with the numbing impression. Right there. At the base of the skull.
The cyborg collapsed.
Ark shuddered . . . and held the impression as he stood up. Stepped around the Cyborg to face the Judges.
Get your mind off it! Think of anything else!
He looked at the old men, bowed his head. "I, err, I did wonder a bit about the legal . . . I mean, did I own that Cyborg, for the last few minutes?"
Shut up. Stop babbling.
"I mean, they're so expensive, umm, bragging rights, you know. 'I owned a Cyborg, once' you know."
A snort from the man on the right. "What? You want to parade it around your friends, before you kill it?"
"Oh, umm, no. I mean, it would be dangerous, although I have to admit it would be fun for a few hours."
Shut up, shut up, shut up!
The man on the left laughed. Pushed something in front of him. So did the other two. They stood and bowed. "Lord Arkhip Ingolf Gobachev. You have passed your Challenge. Now get your brain sick Cyborg out of here and kill it before it kills you."
Ark jerked the numb impression away, and heard the deep desperate breath.
Bowed deeply to the three judges.
I hope Uncle Axel's healing potion can heal this guy. Otherwise I'm going to have to really kill him.
He turned . . . and there were the Inquisitors. One brought out a flat box and opened it. The other removed the red ribbon and medallion. Stepped forward and placed it around Ark's neck.
"Congratulations, 3 Gobachev."
". . . Three! What happened to Dad!"
"He was unable to energize the Zhivyye provoda. He has been removed from the line. Because of your extreme youth, you will not be summoned for some years, should it become necessary."
". . . removed . . . Granddad . . ." Now he was the one who couldn't breathe.
Uncle Axel stepped around the Inquisitors. "Good fight, Lord Arkhip!" His hand closed on Ark's shoulder like a vice. He bowed to the Inquisitors, his grip indicating that Ark had better do likewise.
The Inquisitors seemed to be watching Uncle Axel . . .
Ark bowed, and they turned and walked away.
"Uncle Axel . . ."
"They didn't say dead."
"But it was you they were actually looking at."
"We had . . . a somewhat uncomfortable conversation while you were doing a very good job down here. Now it's time to talk to your mother, and make some plans." He glanced over his shoulder. "And take your very own personal Cyborg home."
Ark spun. The Cyborg had made it to his knees.
"Are you insane," he hissed. "I'm dying! My head . . . Dammit, it was all supposed to be over!"
"Well, uh, uh . . . C'mon, let's get out of here. Before I babble myself into even worse trouble." Ark grabbed the Cyborg's mechanical arm, and heaved.
"Don't do that! Those judges will think you're soft! Order me around and stick your nose in the air!"
Ark let go, brushed his hands off. "Come!" He turned and headed for the tunnel. Uncle Axel walked beside him, silent.
Have I blown it? Is there a period between them saying that and it being legal? He glanced back. The Cyborg was not-quite-limping. Injury or the brain fever? Oh dammit, he was such a good fighter, and he's young!
And as they walked out the far gate, those two men were there, waiting.
"That's going to be so easy to challenge." The first loomer was showing a whole lot of teeth.
Uncle Axel eyed him. "Oh, are you why that almost unprecidented decision to recend the death requirement? Dear me, mentally influencing not one, but three judges? That's horribly illegal. You should be ashamed of yourself."
"They'll think you did it."
"Really? With two Inquisitors in the observation room with me?" Uncle Axel shook his head. "Crawl back to Medvedev and tell him it didn't work--and it doesn't matter. Grigory Gorbechev's failed, and is now just one more unimportant man trying to keep from being trampled by the Bureaus."
He eyed the pair, thoughtfully. "Who does Medvedev back? Revenue or Distro? Or is he thinking about getting cozy with one of the Tier Twos that grabbed zivvy?"
"We serve the Troystvennyy Soyuz. Who do you serve?"
"I am an Agent of the 300."