Pauli laughed and walked up. “Yeah. You can drop me off on the way. And explain just what you did to that sweet ride of yours.”
“I loaned it to a friend. There’s a very good chance I’ll get it back. C’mon, let’s go.”
And took to the surface streets early. “Pauli? Something’s bothering you?”
“W-well . . . yeah. See? Dr. Heath didn’t understand how t-trapped we used to be. Well, we s-still are. But while Old Lord Vladimir still h-held your chain, there were l-limits to wh-what you c-could legally do, and how m-much it would c-cost you to break the l-law. I c-couldn’t get her to see th-that you manipulating the Old Lord into Exec Plates was the b-best outcome.”
Axel sighed. “I keep gnawing at it too. In hindsight . . . if I’d finagled the paperwork so you guys didn’t turn eighteen until December, or even the next year . . . I’d have been independent and could have maneuvered Dear Uncle into selling you to me. All four of you, really.
“But . . . then I could have adopted you and presented you. Which . . . see? Every man with a ‘Lord’ in front of his name has to walk out into an arena and beat the crap out of a complete stranger, and kill him. And remember killing another human being every time someone calls him ‘Lord So-and-so’ for the next few years. So that’s not ideal, either.”
“Y-you w-would h-have ad-d-dopted . . .”
“Yes.” Axel drove on a block. “Of course, if I’d hacked into the system and altered your birthdays by a year, you’d never have been chipped at all.”
“Y-yeah. I g-guess th-that’s one r-reason I’m in a f-funk. The last people to ever get chipped. Dammit.”
“You can get rid of the zivvy, and the chip, if you want, anytime you want. We can get into the system and make it all disappear.” Axel pulled up to the warehouse. Took a good look at the boy. Nineteen years old, still a little gangly, still a little . . . very . . . young emotionally.
“I’m, what? Your first cousin once removed? And glad to be some sort of father figure. So, some fatherly advice . . . figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life . . . and how to get there. If you want to be the explorer scout you guys were talking about . . . you’ll need to add some sciences to your knowledge base. So have you been taking any college classes? I ought to have been paying more attention.”
“I took some, but . . .” He reddened. “Things keep happening.”
“Indeed.” Axel thumped the boy’s shoulder. “You are free in every way except legally, and unless the Alliance picks up and fixes everything, we can amend that real soon. I need to sit down with all four of you, real soon, and make sure . . . you guys are paying yourselves, aren’t you?”
Pauli finally laughed at that. “Y-yes. We’re all em-mployees of AIV Enterprises. No w-worries there!”
“Good. And if you need a better education than the colleges here can provide, well. Lord Pauli Axel Vinogradov—or name of your choice—could probably get into Aslan University on Regulus. And that’ll be a legal adoption, not a hacked one.”
The boy bobbed his head and scrambled out of the ATV. “Right.” A little high toned with emotion, and clumsy getting inside.
Oh for foresight! If I’d know the Alliance was going to implode, I’d have said to hell with legalities and done a whole lot more for all the Rangers. Kept them from ever being chipped at all.
Does Dina ever feel like that? Still trapped by a system that won’t educate her? That suppressed her very impressive Mentalist abilities?
Axel pondered that while he drove up to the cliff house, and parked. Spotted a wave from the patio atop the neighbor’s garage, and walked over.
Mitty opened the front door and grinned. “You look a lot better than I expected.”
“Utterly incredible doctor, where I was.” Then that brilliant glow as Dina stepped out of the walking sticks. “Actually, she’s one of the people who made that wine . . .”
Dina giggled, I was just focusing on my watch to see how long it would be, and here you are! Almost as pretty as usual.”
“Pretty!” He pulled her in for a kiss. “I am not, and never have been pretty! Cute perhaps, when I was a young child. Otherwise I’m a nicely unnoticeable average fellow.”
“Except for the hair.” Dina snickered. “That why you dyed it, and why you were always coming and going from your house with different colored hair.”
“Exactly. Brown-haired Igor Up Top, and redhead Axel around the family. My secret discovered by the girl next door. Now I’m going to have to keep my hair dyed to be able to walk around town unmolested.”
They all thought that was amusing.
“Anyway. I had a thought about your plan to give birth in November. Since your Mom’s ahead in the race to procreate, should you do the next four weeks or so all in a lump, so you’re out and able to help her for her last month and with the twin after they arrive?”
“Oh!” Dina eyed her mother. “But you’d open the sticks anytime you needed help, or just company, right?”
Ky and Mitty swapped glances.
“That would work rather well, actually.” Mitty grinned. “Spread out the panic, actually.”
Dina snorted. “I’ll think about it while I show this almost-daddy what I’ve done with the baby’s room. And he can tell me what he’s up to.”
“Diplomacy. Orion next, and then Orion’s other Vassal Worlds. No one has heard much from Trotsky, but that may just be news not getting out this far, not a problem on Trotsky, which has a total of six Tier Three Vassals.”
Mitty grunted. “After Orion had that Plague attack, Trotsky reduced traffic to Orion drastically. I hope they haven’t dropped it altogether, else we’re not a ‘lost’ World, we’re a whole lost branch.”
Axel winced. “That’s a horrible thought. Maybe that’s why Regulus was attacked, not Orion. Regulus has enough sideways traffic and trading that they’d be known to be Plague free.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Probably tomorrow. I’ll see what other new information has come in over the last two days—obviously nothing too exciting else they’d have briefed me, instead of sending me home.” He looked down at Dina grinning. Put on a fake Ukranian accent. “And how is our little ballerina doing?”
She grinned back, “Nyet, darling. That is our little football star is making himself felt a bit more everyday. Now come and see the baby’s room.”
All bright happy colors.
“For a bright future.”
Old Mentalist Lord Gennadiy Nikolaev was Orion’s official representative on Regulus. He eyed Axel suspiciously.
“I would prefer to be open and friendly. To set up a privately owned zivvy free Portal Quad at one of Tier Three Orion’s facilities. To make Orion look less vulnerable, which makes Siberia Max look less like a tasty morsel. And Regulus needs stabilization as well. If we can keep our branch safe from attackers . . .”
“Your branch, don’t you mean?”
“No. Siberia Max has a population of two million. It has no army. It’s economy is too small to . . .”
“No Army? And what was that, that closed four attacking portals in less than two hours?”
“That was the best Special Forces Unit you’ll ever see. Eighty-five Cyborgs and twenty seven Mentalists. Total. Apart form that we’ve got a police force of two thousand, which I believe includes the office staff and support for the active officers.”
Axel looked at the man’s stubborn expression and sighed. “We really aren’t that sort of threat.”