July 27th, 2021

She's back . . .

And even got a little work done.

Some of _Who Counts_, and, since of course I don't have nearly enough unfinished manuscripts laying around . . .

Fall of Empire

Pam Uphoff

Chapter One

Local Issues

Lord Axel Ivan Vinogradov stuck to a pleasant open expression for the turnout. Armored up, helmet under his right arm. The Squads—all Cyborgs—had the red with black lightening tabards. As a Team Mentalist, he didn’t have a tabard. So the red lightning on black armor . . . was getting a frown from the newly appointed Director of Alliance Affairs.

The outgoing Director was talking as they walked up. “. . . because we're both small offices, the cooperation between Bureaus and Inquisition is most strongly obvious in the Fast Reaction Teams.

“The twenty Mentalists are mostly Bureau employees, and the seventeen squads of Cyborgs, are owned by the Office of the Inquisition. They team up for their various duty assignments.”

A snort from the in-coming fellow.

Outgoing Director Mikhail Rasputin forced a smile. “In order to give the squads some experience with real mayhem, and maintain peak readiness, and also because it’s needed, we cooperate with the City Police when there’s need for a heavy squad. Then to keep them out of trouble, they also assist security at the Portal facilities.

“Today, they are all here, for your inspection. Team Two is currently hot and out in the Ready Room.”

Another snort, then the man turned away from the Boss and looked them over. “Humph. I don’t like the mixed authority. Two bosses can seriously confuse things in the field.”

“I’m sure you and Inquisitor Gorbachev will sort things out.”

“Better that the Red Robes hand the Cyborgs over to the Security Bureau.”

A pause before Rasputin answered. “That decision will have to be handled higher up. Now the site security is all Bureau personnel, here to protect the Research Center, which owns the entirety of the Massif and leases space to both the Bureaus and the Inquisition.”

“And that is ridiculous!”

The Boss blinked at the incoming Director. “Well . . . you can, of course, move. It is entirely in your hands.”

Nikandr Pavlovsky. Axel ground his teeth. I researched this guy, but I need to dig deeper and find out which office appointed him. Home is so chaotic, I’m surprised they obeyed a directive out of the Citadel.

Or perhaps they didn't. They may have decided this fellow would dance to their tune, where Mikhail stayed out of Alliance level politics.

I wonder what they want?

“Excuse me? The Research Center would be better moved, so that the Bureaus can beef up their personnel and field an actual Army, rather then relying on a few portal guards, the next time you are invaded.” Pavlovsky showed his teeth. “We will need this defensible site.”

The Boss sort of tilted his head and smiled. “Good luck persuading them to cede an inch.”

Yet another snort. “They’re scientists. What can they do?”

“Things you wouldn’t believe.” Rasputin waved to the side. “Would you like to see the ready room?”

Pavlovsky eyed the waiting Cyborgs. “Cyborgs. We’ll set up a training schedule tomorrow. Dismissed.” Then he eyed the Mentalists. “Nineteen of you? And I presume one more in the Ready Room? I’ll check your records and see what additional mentalist training you need.”

His eyes narrowed and he pointed at Feliks Molotov. “You look like you think you don’t need more training.”

Axel bit his lip and hoped for something glorious.

But “Cat” opted to kiss butt. “I hate the idea, but . . . yes, you’re right.”

Just as well. We’ve all got to live with the . . . new director.

“And you! You look pretty young. How long have you been a Team Mentalist?”

Axel blinked as the idi . . . new director got in his face. “Twenty-five years, more of less.”

“Really?” Tones of disbelief, and the man stalked around him in a circle. “Nony? How cute.”

He stalked over to Sergey. “And are you also a young-looking veteran?”

“No, sir. Two years in the office, one and a half in the field.”

“So, lots of Portal sitting?”

“Yes, sir. Only two battles.”

“Oh, two battles. Did you kill anyone?”

“Two. Wounded three. When Tier Four Budapest Reborn invaded in force.”

“Indeed?” He prowled on. “Anyone else there?”

Edik shifted. “I was there. We lost two experienced Mentalists that day. But the fight was over before additional Teams arrived.”

Sure nodded. “By the time we got there, the survivors had all surrendered. The newsies were on the scene—their recordings are a bit wild. If you need to see where we need more training, we’ve got copies of everything, not just what they broadcast.”

“Indeed. If you lost two Mentalists, there’s definitely a problem.”

The Boss had faded back and left the new Director to . . . get acquainted. Now he glared daggers at the man’s back.

Because an arrogant Lord didn’t drill enough with the Squads, didn’t follow protocol . . . well, Pavlovsky will find out soon enough that there just aren’t enough strong Mentalists willing to risk their hides . . . no. Be honest. They won’t work with Cyborgs every day and bitch like mad when they wind up with portal duty. And they are certain they know better than the experienced Cyborgs.

So we stopped a full-out invasion with one raw undersized team, two full teams with five total fatalities. On our side.

Axel eyed the man. Dare I hope that he can shape up the Mentalists?

He dismissed them all, and Axel lagged a bit on the way to the gym, then shook himself. I’ll talk to the Boss later.

He racked his armor and peeled out of the ballistic skin layer and handed it to one of the staff to give it a quick rinse while he hit the shower. Even though I didn’t sweat much.

Then into civvies and head out, except the guys were sort of hanging around.

He sighed. “Yeah, not the warm and cozy type. But. If his drive to train the mentalists better will keep us from another Whiz, well, I can handle an obnoxious boss. So we’ll see.”

A few more thoughtful nods, but still a majority of dubious expressions.

“Pity the Mentalists who really do work for him.”

Piggy snorted. “But not you?”

“Technically, I work for the Research Center. But he can definitely kick me out of Teams, even if he can’t actually fire me.” Axel grimaced. “I’m going to worry like hell about you guys now.”

Ape snickered. “Oh, Mom! We’re all grown up now!”

Axel made a rude gesture, and they all headed out laughing.

He lowered his shields enough to locate the Boss, then swung around to where his chauffeur was waiting, with Mr. Matveev.

The Exec eyed him. “What did you think of Director Pavlovsky?”

Oh, Dear. If Mr. Matveev is getting blunt . . .

Axel sighed. “He did not make a good first impression. I hope for the best. He might be a big enough ass to get some Mentalists to change, but . . . well. I hope.”

And to change the subject a bit, “I didn’t realize you weren’t a Bureau Rat.”

A supercilious sniff, and then a grin. “Thirteen years ago, the old Director’s Executive Bureau Rat retired not long after Lord Mikhail was appointed. He knew my father, back on Trotsky, knew I just wasn’t up to the Challenge, and made an offer that I jumped for. And have never regretted.”

Axel nodded. “I don’t think I could have stayed so long with the teams, if not for Grigory and later Mikhail. And all my Cyborg friends. The old Director was more into Research Center Security, Portal Security, Exploration, and Intel, and was pretty hands off as far as the Fast Response Teams were concerned. Poor Grigory had to sort us out and make us do it right.”

“Inquisitor Gorbachev is a very talented Mentalist!”

Axel grinned. “Yes, but he didn’t have much experience with the rough stuff. No Military Education, let alone experience.”

A snicker from the Boss as he walked up. “Gossiping about your superiors, Axel? Grigory and I have a bet on about how soon someone with let the New Boss know about Igor.”

Axel shook his head. “Tomorrow. Probably Cat, kissing up. And I don’t know enough about this fellow to gossip. Yet.” He frowned. “That Grigory didn’t escort him around, or at least show up for the viewing is a bit . . . worrisome.”

“He’s been sent from the Security Bureau headquarters on Home, where apparently the rivalry is just as bad as you two reported. And he launched right in on how this was his job and Grigory had better keep his people out of the Bureau Territory.”

Axel snorted. “I’ll talk to people tomorrow, and try to keep the antagonism to the highest level.” He glanced at his watch, “And I’d best let you go, because my bride does keep expecting me to show up.”

He let them get a two minute head start, then followed, to join the surprise party.

Dina seemed to be getting on with everyone, so he stayed late.

“So. I’ve given Fifty-fifty the map to all the good camping spots, and the fishing on the coast, should you make it that far, and with any luck at all, by the time you’ve had your fill of camping, we’ll have either straightened the new Director out, or run him off and be looking for a new fellow to fill the spot.”

Grigory nodded. “And desperate enough to hire you back. Axel? What were you thinking? What will happen when Mikhail realizes that retirement means all the camping and fishing he ever wanted?”

Axel sniffed. “I’m just trying to keep him from running off into the dystopic ruins of the Alliance, or worse, getting into local politics.”

“Never that!” Mikhail grinned. “I’ve had too much exposure to the Council to ever want to have anything to do with them.”

Grigory snickered. “Good. Rots the brain. Or morals. Or both.”

“Besides, I’ve been told to stay away from any position of power.”

Axel sniffed. “Duerr was sent by the Grand Executioner, not the 300.”

They all eyed him for a long silent moment.

Axel looked mildly curious and waited to see if they’d ask.

Mikhail eyed the whisky in his glass, and sighed. “We’ll see. I ought to have researched him yesterday, as soon as I got the notification.”

Grigory shrugged. “I sent a query, heaven knows when or if I’ll get a reply.”

Axel shrugged. “I hunted around and found some old archives.”

That got him some glowers.

“Born on Tier Two Stalin. Went through University there. Masters in Political Science. Twenty-five years in the Security Bureau on Home, then he transferred to the Security Bureau on Tier Two Lenin. I’ll try to find out what he’s been doing there,and any more trasnferrs since the last update on that site.”

He grinned at their dyspeptic expressions, and rose. “And now I’m going to collect my bride and force her to drive me home, since I’ve enjoyed too much of this possibly irreplaceable elixir.”

“Dear God, the hardship!” Mikhail grinned. “Get out of here. Poor woman, married two weeks and already dragged out to parties where she knows no one.”

In fact Deena’d met Lady Lilia and Lady Ariadna at their wedding . . . And now was surrounded by the younger female set. Most of whom knew Akel well enough to call him "Uncle Axel."

“. . . so horribly confused the first day, he dumped me and bolted, thinking I was having a bad grow-in and he’d be stuck with an idiot for a wife.” Dina ducked her head. “To be honest it was almost a relief to have him go away, once I found out what a jerk he was. And I went back being a book worm, and spying on the Mystery Neighbor.”

They all looked around at Axel.

“Hey, I was an orphan, under fifty and under my Evil Uncle’s thumb. I sort of came and went surreptitiously, because I never told him about the house, and I didn’t want him tracing me to or from it.”

They looked at him, baffled. “But you’re old.” Anzhelina protested.

“Yep, but I was thirty-eight when my parents died, and by law . . . I was stuck.

Tatyana grinned. “So this is where we don’t ask any questions about anything, right?”

“Well, I’ll certainly be happier if I don’t have to lie to you.”

A snicker from Anzhelina. “Because that certainly couldn’t have been our nice Uncle Axel naked on TV!”

“Of course not!” Axel sniffed, nose in the air. “Dina, perhaps we should leave before I have lie to these sweet innocent children.”

Dina chortled. “Oh yes, before you start lying. And I, of course, would never buy a poster of a naked man.”

Axel had a nasty suspicion he was quite red as Dina hauled him out to the car. And blinked to see Six-twelve leaning on the fender.

“Catch a glimpse of your girlfriend?”

“Talked briefly. About what Dr. Solovsky and you talked about. She agrees that I should try it. I mean, I want to. I just . . . had to know what she thought about me committing a serious crime.”

“Right. Well, why don’t you drive my drunk ass home and tomorrow Tasha will be heading out to bring some patients back to their homes, and you can get started.”