Xaero marched into Imperial Guard Central trying to look alert and optimistic, rather than dirt tired and worried sick about four different things.
General S'ank was standing in the center of the room, talking with one of his officers, and waved her over.
"No news yet. Vee has arrived at the surface over Ice Cap South and is looking for ways in."
"Sir!" A call from the side, where a panel of electronics held the attention of four lizards. "H'nkel's on."
"Speaker." S'ank leaned over the display as if to intimidate it.
"…reporting success in retrieving object." Vee's deep voice rattled the speaker.
S'ank pushed the send button. "Don't play word games. Is he all right?"
"I thought you liked obscure verbage." This voice had a cool Imperial accent, with amusement showing around the edges. Briefly. Then it got a bit tight and stressed. "I'm fine, now how about a report on Xaero?"
S'ank snorted, all his muscles relaxing. "For that, I should give you the formal report of the emergency landing and medical prognoses, but since I would never play such games . . . " he waved Xaero forward.
"He'll make me do it." Xaero said. "It took me forever to realize that wasn't you. I feel like an idiot. He had a heavy stunner, S'jen and Doc Riu are still down with neural function problems, and L'on took a laser to the upper left chest and is in critical condition. L'azlod got away, but in a . . . um, way that won't cause a problem and we can go back and pick him up at our leisure."
The reply was a long slow exhalation. "Well, considering the worst case, that's a small amount of damage. The next question I have, is, should we turn the tables and do something here?"
Xaero stepped back and let S'ank deal with this.
"I hate to ask what you're thinking about." His voice was a low growl, despite the faint smile lurking.
"Taking L'azlod's place. Our friend Blozolli was talking about the Union Congress holding special elections, and since the news of the Big Blue Mission, they'll be hammering out some positions. Do we want to try and influence them?"
"Oh. Sandy. Hell." S'ank closed his eyes as if in pain.
"And L'azlod has a chick here who I hate to leave, at this point. Three of L'azlod's associates, not connected with the kidnapping have shown up. REM's, mostly."
S'ank rubbed his temples. Headache? Probably. This S'ank wasn't used to a competent, enthusiastic Trev. "Let me talk to my people and see if that might be useful. Will you please stay out of there for one day?"
"Why, of course." Trev sounded amused. "Look up the files on these names; these are the lizards we'd need to replace and or fool. I'm not sure which will fall in which category."
Trev started listing names, some of which were vaguely or partially familiar to Xaero. The two S & M pseudofems that had guarded L'azlod at Sun Town. Blozolli. Ick, him again.
"Some, like Blozolli, will have to be grabbed and taken away. Others, Redle H'athan for instance, if I can fool him into thinking I'm L'azlod, would be immensely helpful. He's a political analyst."
"I need to know which of them saw me in this, er, in the past. I didn't penetrate the organization as thoroughly . . . as I might have . . . umm."
"I understand," S'ank replied, "We'll double check your reports, and of course none of them have seen Vee except L'azlod and Blozolli at the Double Moons."
"Ah. I'd forgotten that." Trev's voice smiled, "Naturally L'azlod would travel with a guard or two." His volume dropped as if he'd turned away from the mike. "Patroller? How'd you like to dress up in whips and chains?"
Shaking its head, Philey wandered back to where it'd left the three lizards. They weren't there, and after a minute to settle its nerves, Philey headed for the front of the house. They were in the library. Philey could hear them as it walked in.
"Dinner will be ready in a few minutes." It assured them. "Emmo and I won't let on that anything has changed. Just stay away from the windows and it'll be fine."
They glanced at the brightly lit windows. The glass roof of The Cut let the natural sunlight into the street during the day and the artificial lights lit it by night. They were ten strides higher than the street, with only the windows across the broad street to worry about. Philey looked out and saw no one interested in this window, or any others. It pulled the sheer fabric of the under drape across the window anyway.
"If you'll excuse my poor manners, I ate early, and need to work on a school project."
"No problem," the male smiled, probably as relieved to be relieved of juvenile company as Philey was of the reverse.
"Ask Emmo for anything you need." Philey looked behind itself and spotted Emmo approaching. "Good night." It retreated as Emmo told them dinner was served.
It trotted through the back passages to get Father, but found him already gone. Philey reluctantly retreated to its room. Time to bow out and let Father take over.
With Vee growling faintly under his breath, Trev headed back to the cave.
Everything was quiet. Guests, hopefully, in bed. And I have no idea where Philey sleeps.
Vee and R'sah stayed back, out of sight in the storage areas. Glaring. The patroller had been especially incensed. "S'ank ordered you to stay away!"
"He said 'please' so it was a request, not an order. And I always lie to my bosses. They'd all have died of heart attacks, long before now, otherwise."
She'd muttered something about believing it, but she was staying quietly behind.
Trev put on his best L'azlod body language and walked confidently down the corridor to the kitchen. Eyed the hallway beyond. Movement. The very odd housekeeper slid into sight.
"How may I help the Master?"
"I am going to recruit some backup I can trust. Will you and Philey be all right for a day or two, if I'm not here?"
"We'll be fine, Master."
Two mornings later "Metini L'azlod" returned home, ready for trouble. The two big lizards all in black preceded Trev and he had what looked like one of his standard pseudofems bringing up the rear. His lawyer walked beside him.
An armored cart that had been built for a mixture of speed and non-standard maneuvering in case of Imperials in strange places had gotten Xaero, Leri some armored troops and some special clothing to Ice Cap South in a day and a half.
Xaero had been very impressed with the driver. She had told Trev she was certain she never wanted to ride with him again.
Her crest spines were dyed black so she didn't look much like the fem all the tabloids thought was the Crown Prince's mistress, nor much like the Space Explorer. Trev had recognized her, of course, but strangers wouldn't. At least she was better off than the young patroller. Little Hoty's reaction to the gear she was expected to wear had been, umm, verbally educational. Vee had looked entirely too blank to have not been enjoying himself. Pity the fem was so obviously pseudo. Well, she was young, so maybe there'd be romance in Vee's future.
Trev led the way down the stairs, and finding the house still and quiet, had led the way to the front door without anyone noticing discovering them. Showtime. Trev opened and shut the door with a suggestive bang and walked back through the group to wait for the reaction.
Running footsteps rounded the corner, clattering to a brief halt when they were spotted. "Sir, oh sir!" Namro V'arm, one of the Imperium's Most Wanted Criminals shoved between Vee and Leri and grabbed him by both shoulders. "We were starting to worry that Blozolli had gotten you again."
Vee's twitch was no doubt a smothered urge to grab Trev and throw him out of harms way. Quick footsteps, and the other of the matched set appeared. Ynno B'thom was the eldest of the B'thom siblings, and by far the worst, she was a former soldier, one of the elite Cave Rangers. Trained in subversion and sabotage, she was the third most wanted Lizard on the DMS's list. And in this time line, there was a fourth sibling, equally criminally inclined and also associated with L'azlod. No doubt he'd show up eventually.
Namro hustled them away from the front door. She frowned at Vee and Leri, and narrowed her eyes thoughtfully at the rival pseudo. Xaero kept a straight face as she was ignored.
Namro's enthusiasm disappeared behind perplexity. "Sir. Who are these lizards, and what are they doing here?" Her eyes followed Leri with a frown.
In this timeline Leri had been Traveler's bodyguard. Sand, he should have realized the big lizard would be recognized by some of the opposition. "Uncontaminated guards and a lawyer," he answered. "Although if I'd really had any doubts about you two, I'd have stayed away."
Namro jerked her muzzle at Leri. "He belongs to Traveler."
"He came and warned me about Traveler, who's sold out to the Dims."
Another round of footsteps preceded Philey, who stared wide eyed at the collection of dangerous lizards in its home. Trev nodded reassuringly to it. He had a distinct impression of Emmo in the shadows behind it.
"We've heard about Blozolli." Ynno stepped up to stand shoulder to shoulder with her counterpart. "What do you want us to do to him?"
"I need to get the criminal organization back under control, so I can concentrate on politics. I know I can count on you."
"Of course." Ynno scowled. "It's whether we can trust Redle that is in question." She broke off as another lizard walked into the parlour.
"Ah, I wondered where you'd gotten to." Redle H'athan blinked mild eyes at them. "How are you, oh Supreme One, going to deal with all this new Cavern building in the North? If the Great Plateau is unstable, the Imperium is doomed and it isn't ecologically sound to keep building and propping it up artificially."
Grateful for the interruption by the absentmindedly fanatic REM, Trev nodded. Redle was a mostly harmless, if mentally ruthless, environmentalist. Ynno and Namro were L'azlod's political arm twisters. In fact half his political influence was thought to involve the possession of pictures of these two in indelicate situations with various government figures. But Redle was Red Ever Mars to the core.
"I gathered a lot of information while I was in the North. I will be consulting with you, once I have caught up with the situation here." Trev hesitated. "The Collective is going to have to take a stand on the Imperium's space program quickly. How does it look?"
"Oh," Redle brightened, "The political situation is going to be so challenging. I can't believe both F'roh and T'oot lost their seats in the Collection. Space. No one quite knows how to handle this Big Blue news. It should be easy to influence."
Trev nodded. "We'll have a very interesting time ahead. No doubt about it." He introduced Xaero as Ms. X'avar, "I'd appreciate your getting her up to speed on all my political actions. Have you written a report on the situation? Especially the new members of the Collection we'll need to persuade to a REM position?"
"Not yet." Redle frowned, "I didn't realize it would be needed so soon. I should have been told!"
Trev nodded sympathetically, "It was a surprise to me as well. Perhaps I should let you get on with briefing Ms. X'avar."
"Yes, indeed." He scurried into the next room, followed by Xaero.
Trev turned back to the fems with a questioning rise of his crest.
"I need to see the warehouse, see what those idiots have done. Why don't we take a look right now?"
"Certainly. Let me scout." Ynno strode off down the corridor to the stairs, obviously headed for the concealed passageway.
Trev stopped briefly by Philey. "You two keep an eye on Redle —I trust the fem. We'll be right back." He headed down the back corridor, but since he had no idea how to open the door from this side, he lagged, letting Namro and Vee get ahead of him. Leri joined the scowling Patroller R'sah in shadowing him.