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21 January 2017 @ 07:21 am
_The Last Merge_ part 7  

Enni shook his head slightly as he stepped close. "Don't. Class three Speed." He lowered his voice. "But showy, egotistical, and pushy."

The Moron grinned. "Yeah, listen to him. Level three. I'd cream you."

Figures he'd misunderstand. With level three Speed he knows he's in the top five percent or so. And he must have been aggressively recruited by the Action Teams. Wonder why he went for analyst instead? I wonder how he managed to not get reassigned to Teams, whether he wanted it or not? He certainly seems aggressive enough to fit in. "Grudge matches are a bad idea, guys. And I'm out of practice, having been across for a while. Maybe next time." Ebsa turned his back, listening to the approaching steps. "Off, just apply some common sense and go away. Or observe the lesson."

Snort. "Hardly any need for that. Your Sensei doesn't even teach at our level."

Enni ran his fingers along his black obi, fingered the rank bands. Sighed. "Very well. I will judge this friendly sparring. No blows to head or neck. You will both be careful, and pull your blows elsewhere. Three minutes." He set the timer.

Ebsa settled into his center and bowed to the Moron. Who was breathing deeply and starting to sweat, a gleeful smile on his face. Ha! Ebsa stepped into his top Speed and let Off move first. Side step, leg sweep, controlling the impact, stepping back to let the poor fool hit the ground. Then leap to his feet and charge in with a flurry of strikes and kicks. All easily blocked.

Ebsa maneuvered around the pad, hitting the man at will, blocking and dodging, careful to barely tap him. Backed him around the pad and generally made sure the Moron knew he was bested. Off started to tire, got wild and furious, striking and kicking, with poor control. Ebsa stayed alert, until Offs's Speed dropped with his exhaustion, slowing the blows, robbing them of momentum. Then Ebsa went back to hitting him at will. Up one side, down the other, spin back and kick his butt. Gotta give the guy credit for perseverance. Another leg sweep and dump him. Still managing to get up, but Offe wasn't even close to level two any more.

The timer binged. Ebsa stepped back, relaxing, throwing up an arm to block a late punch . . .

"Enough!" Enni stalked forward. "Have you no sense at all? No manners, no respect?"

They'd gathered a bit of a crowd, and another black belt stepped forward. "Offe, your spite and that late blow are noted. I'd haul you off for a lesson, but your bruises ought to be quite enough lesson. Go away. Think."

The Moron glared, hands on knees, gulping for air. He forced himself erect and gave a minimal bow and staggered off.

The two teachers exchanged weary glances. "Why must we always have grudge matches?"

Ebsa snorted. "Testosterone."

Enni laughed. "Indeed. So. Since you've had your exercise, let's work on technique . . . "

Ebsa still needed to kill a bit of time, so he grabbed coffee and checked the news. The society sheets had pictures of the group at the restaurant, and one had a pic of him handing Paer into the car, a scowling Offe advancing . . . according to the blurb, "Princess Paer's Closey buddy" was a pretentious social climber, taking advantage of Paer's sheltered innocence to push his way into high society.

Ebsa winced and decided to research Paer's friends. They all had official biographies, and some of their school records were public.

All Withiones, a spread of clans. Two Alcairos, one Paris, one Hong Kong, one Madrid. City snobs, all five of them. When I was a child I hated living on Grandmother's little farm, while mother commuted to work at horrible hours. And as a teenager, curse Montevideo Clan for having the enclave so far out of the city, but all things considered, maybe I was lucky I had a slow introduction to civilization in the form of city attitude.

Or maybe I'm lucky I'm not a Withione.

Ebsa contemplated the potential he had for being a snotty High Oner and shook his head. "Somehow I don't think Paer would like me as well."

Back to data mining. Interesting. Off and Tayc weren't Directorate school grads. Daiki U. Pricy. And records not public. That explains why a level three isn't in an action team. Probably little weapons training, nothing but basic magic. I wonder why he wanted to work for the Directorate? Political ambitions, down the road? He must have wanted Interior, and a Paris assignment. Or maybe he's canny enough to know that it'll take him fifty years to hit the first step into that sort of power.

The other three were from the Directorate School. Honor roll, all. Class rankings high, but not high enough to capture the summa stuff. Average rankings in martial arts, only one of them even close to Team requirements. Of course he couldn't access their actual grades, or the classes they'd taken, for perspective. They'd been on various sports teams, gotten a few awards, nothing special or noteworthy. Then they'd graduated and started with the Intel section, and were still there, between two and five years later. Current assignment had a date and a code number. Classified. Eight months ago? Helios, of course.

Curious, he checked Paer's file. Ooo! Very scrubbed and brief.

Checked his own. Heh, nothing to brag about, other than, as a Teams trainee his standings in martial arts were in there, first, first, fourth, first for the start of the semester scores. First in the final, pre-graduation sorting. Sensei Ikku had replaced Sensei Arvi their last year, and the new trainer of the top students had been quite determined that an upcomer clostuone was not going to beat his newly acquired Action Trainees. By the end of the first semester he'd at least gotten over it enough to score contests honestly. Ebsa sighed. His weapons score was tepid. Internship scores very high. Work history . . . Well, less than year since graduation, and already been shuffled off to a different subdirectorate . . . oh wait, what was that? He was listed as of this morning being assigned to the same code as The Moron.

Worth the hassle, so long as Paer is there, too.

He checked in on his comm and there it was. An update on the scheduler, report tomorrow morning to report to . . . Facilities?

"What the heck?" He glanced to the side at movement. Paer.

She set her coffee beside his and sat beside him. "What?"

"I have a new assignment. This code." He tipped the screen so she could read it. Watched the grin spread across her face. "So . . . why am I reporting in to Facilities, eh?"

Her forehead crinkled. "I have no idea."

They walked back to warehouse forty-two, chatting. Civilian-clad bodyguard trailing. I must be on the trusted list. They keep their distance. I wonder if there are guards I don't see, a car always minutes, if not seconds away? I thought they'd lighten up once Paer graduated. Once she was a directorate agent. But I guess she'll always be considered at risk, as long as her father's in office, maybe longer. I . . . really am playing out of my league.

"I guess I hadn't realized you already had Crystal before your dad was elected president." Ebsa inhaled and wished he knew the name of her perfume. "You were already a celebrity weren't you?"

"Umm, in a small way, just among the horsey types. I got a lot more widespread notice once he announced he was running for President, not that anyone thought he had a chance, but I did get interviewed. And then that wild election! I don't know who was more shocked at his success, Dad, Qayg, or Urfa. It was . . . quite an adjustment, going from making a statement to winning."

"I'll bet. But you and all the guards seem to get along well."

"Oh yeah, they're all great. I think they were so relieved I wasn't a spoiled darling that I could get away with anything. Xiat took me under her wing and showed me the ropes. She was a regional champion, before she went to Princess school, so she knew the horse show scene. And Rael, well, it was like suddenly acquiring a goofy big sister, you know?"

"Umm, goofy . . . but then I didn't meet her at her best." Ebsa hunched his shoulders. "The next time I saw the vids of the assassination attempt . . . it made it suddenly very real."

She huddled into his side. "I thought she was dead. Then Dad told me she'd be crippled for life. I'd visit her in the hospital, and she'd try to cheer me up. Then Xen came and fixed most of the damage. He's . . . umm . . . probably the main reason I keep thinking about medical school."

Ebsa hugged her. "Sorry. I didn't mean to bring up bad memories. Goofy sister, huh?"

"Yeah, and . . . So, like, within a week of moving in to Versalle, I felt like I'd come home."

Ebsa frowned down the street. "Speaking of coming home . . . " They cleared the last warehouse, and Warehouse Forty-two was revealed in all its glory. "Ra'd's in trouble, again."

Paer snickered. "It almost matches the standard color scheme. Except for the big Dinosaur Headquarters logo."

Ebsa eyed it, compared it to the warehouse across the street. The tan was a few shades too dark, the brick red trim definitely non-regulation. The four meter high logo . . . Concentric circles of red and olive green, the blocky stylized T-Rex stepping through . . . "Either that or it'll really catch on."

Paer giggled. The big vehicle doors were all raised, so they walked in. Sparkling white overhead. Geometric shapes at odd angles all over the walls. The lights flicked on. Not the random surviving tubes, but rather two neat rows, across the front and back, and a strip down the side by the living quarters. Which now had three tables and lots of chairs. And a grinning Ra'd standing at the door of the last room.

"Something tells me you didn't ask anyone's permission for this." Ebsa eyed the weird angled forms . . . Oh. Letters, words, duh. Exploration Team Forty Eight. We eat dinos for lunch. T-Rex Was Here. "This is your graph thing?"

Weirdly angled, blocky, outlined, 3D perspective . . .

"Graffiti. And the point of it is vandalism. You never ask permission."

Paer shook her head. "You are so logical even when you are being weird. I think I like it. It's . . . a really different style of art."

***

The man in Facilities had a list of equipment for him to approve.

A kitchen squishy. "Umm, am I the chef?" Ebsa ran an eye down the list.

The facilities man shrugged.

"Right . . . I think I need a bit more supervision, here." He hauled out his comm and tapped the contact number on his orders. Introduced himself.

"Ah, the cook, good. Maybe everyone will stop grumbling, finally."

"Umm, yes sir. May I know roughly how many people I'll be cooking for, what is already on site and what budget I have for more equipment and consumables? Or, excuse me, perhaps I should talk to the current chef?"

"There isn't one. There's a couple of vendomats, a fab, and an autovat."

Ebsa blinked. "Tables and chairs? A building?"

"Right, a roof, concrete floor. The weather's nice. What more do you need?"

"Buffet tables, one hot, one cold. How many people?"

"Oh, call it a hundred, hundred and fifty, I can't be more exact on an open line."

"Dishwasher. Plates and utensils. Actual food to cook." Ebsa looked at the list the Facilities man was making as Ebsa spoke. Ebsa reached and typed in 200 for the plates and utensils. The screen flipped to comestibles, and he started highlighting the basics. All frozen.

"Chest freezer." He added, and winced a bit at the total. "About four thousand rials. Does that include delivery and set up?"

A sigh from the other end. "If it'll shut them up . . . relay the list . . . "

Ebsa synced with the Facilities guy, and the approval number flashed. "When will it be ready to be picked up, and will it all fit on a single flat?"

"Two hours. One flat. I see your project has a pick up later today, I'll add all this. Loading bay seventeen. At sixteen hundred."

Ebsa thanked both Facilities and whoever the hell it was on the comm. Clicked off.

"I guess I'd better get packed." And load up on spices.

***

The driver of the flat looked him over and shrugged. "Can't be worse than the vendomat."

Ebsa grinned. "I hope to do much better than that. Err, Ebsa Clostuone."

"Avro Neartuone. I looked you up. Nothing about cooking. We figured you were just a warm body with a high enough security rating."

"My mother's a professional chef. I grew up cooking, and I've done quite a bit when I was across on explorer teams."

"All one of them? For what, three weeks?"

"Two. I did, oh, a total of eight weeks of an internship across." Cooked twice. Oh, well.

"Huh." Skeptical grunt.

Ebsa shut up and watched as they headed way out across the Permanent Gate Area. To pretty much the last gate. The other side looked like a graveled road across a flat plain of sparse vegetation. Avro drove straight through. The flat bounced and shimmied. Make that, potholed gravel road.

One large building, white metal roof, open on three sides. Looks like a horse show arena. Across the road from it, a long row of crawlers, out in front of construction. On the far side of the arena, err, pavilion, large tents in army green.

"I've got the boys taking down the last four panels of the wall—there's nothing on the other side, so we figured the kitchen squishy would be go there. Tomorrow, hopefully, our camp hygiene facilities will be ready for pick up. We'll put them to the side."

"Err, far enough away to avoid odor problems in the mess hall?"

Avro shot a grin his way. "You know, that's probably a good idea."

Ebsa stayed out of the way while they unloaded and expanded his kitchen, hooked up the water and drains, added his dishwasher, refrigerator and chest freezer to the system. It left him a good work space and a strong desire for a sturdy work table. The two buffet tables, when he found the time to unpack and assembled them, could sit just over the edge, on the concrete pad of the pavilion. Good enough. He checked all the equipment, ran a short cycle on the dishwasher, heated the oven to see if it smelled of plastics or anything else . . . "

"So where do you want all the frozen food? They like the freezer containers back."

Ebsa gulped. Maybe I ought not have ordered so much . . . "Let's see how much will go in the chest freezer. I need to start defrosting . . . what time is it here?"

"Ten hundred hours. Going to be ready for lunch?"

"I'll give it a try. Umm, what about the stuff in the other box? And what do I do with all the packing material?"

"Eh, those boxes are practically disposable. I'll stick it around the back and you can throw all the trash in there as you use the food, for now."

"Excellent." Ebsa intercepted the boxes of meat patties and the chicken quarters. Lunch and dinner. And the bags and bags of frozen cut potatoes. Have to use them all today!

Most of the rest fit into the freezer, the remainder into the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. Ebsa sighed with relief. First near disaster averted. He fetched the box of wheat buns from the ordinary shipping box. And tackled the fabricator and the vendomats for a few common items. The auto vat was not operating. Ebsa cringed and opened it up. Clean and cold. At least they'd had sense enough to plug it in. The yeast cultures all showed green lights. He double checked the instructions and got it started.

He looked at the two crated buffet tables. Not enough time to get them working, but the stacked boxes were a good height for serving. "Just this once," he muttered.

He walked back to the old machines. They were, with great reluctance, producing mustard and ketchup. Good.

"Dishes. Erg!"

Back to the storage box. The dishes were, of course, on the bottom. He stuffed the dishwasher and hit the quick cycle. Checked the time. Turned on the fryer, poured in the oil. Heated the whole grill and started throwing meat patties on it. At least the potatoes came already cut. Into the fryer with the first batch . . .

"One! It smells like food in here!" A man in uniform, a colonel by the insignia.

The man with him sniffed appreciatively. He was in directorate field khakis, grey haired with a commanding body language. "I think it is food. I heard a rumor we were finally getting a cook, but I hadn't realized it had happened."

Ebsa nodded politely their direction, but turned away to flip burgers, then the fryer dinged and . . .

By the time he turned back he had an audience. Drooling. He threw in more fries, dodged down to the fab to collect the condiments and spread them out on the nearest table.

"First batch of burgers coming up, gentlemen!"

He started loading plates, and . . . ran his butt off for three hours before everyone finally went away. Had enough of a break to throw plates in the washer before the next wave came through.

There's easily twice as many people here as they said!

"Holy One, when was the last time anyone fed these people!"

Laugher from the side. "Never!" in a chorus of voices.

He leaned out. A batch of the younger set was clustered around the vendomat.

"Do you do deserts?" A familiar face, a dark haired beauty. "Hi Ebsa. Thank you for rescuing us. Poor Ajha's run off his feet and hasn't managed a single bonfire yet."

"Fean, long time and all that. I didn't even notice you come through the line. I knew Ajha was here."

"Yep. You were too busy at the time for me to interrupt. You need a helper."

"Yeah, well . . . I got the impression that the home office just sent me here to shut up the whiners. How the One Hell did this many people survive on two vendos and a fab?"

"The Army's got four vendos, The construction crew's got two, the Earthers have one—and they all ate here today."

"Yeah, I spotted all the uniforms." Ebsa looked around. The "new" was definitely off the kitchen. "I washed a load of plates halfway through and still used all but three plates. I'll have to try to get more." He rolled up his sleeves and got to work. And in between dishwasher loads, unpacked the two buffet tables and set them up.

Just in time to start dinner.

And clean up again.

He looked around the dark quiet pavilion. The crawlers, with their lights going off, one by one. "So . . . where the heck am I supposed to sleep? I don't even know who my boss is."

Not even crickets to answer him. He found a latrine by smell, and surveyed the crawlers. No sign of which one was the boss's. He rearranged everything in "his" box, and sacked out on packing material.

Breakfast . . . He got up early, set the big bin under the fab spout and set it for dough number five. Twenty kilos. A little flour, yeast, and butter to improve the flavor . . . let it rise. Then brown sugar and cinnamon, fruit filling, throw it into the oven . . . start over . . .

The fresh hot pastries brought in a crowd. The soldiers before they headed out to sentry duty, followed shortly by the sentries they'd relieved. Then as the sun rose, business really picked up.

Avro laughed. "And here I thought you'd be a nuisance. Damn, these are good. How can a fab that produces crap for bread do this?"

"They don't cook the bread dough, they try to fabricate cooked bread. And fail. But they make a passable dough, for cooking."

"Huh."

"By tomorrow I should be fully geared up. And by the way do you know who I ought to be reporting to and where to find him?"

He laughed even harder. "Ho, a self starter, are you?" He pointed at the grey haired man from yesterday. "Camp Administrator Wxxo Withione. If he escapes, the crawler directly across." He pointed again.

"Ah. Excellent." Especially since the man was eating with Ajha.

Ebsa refilled the platters under the warming lights and walked over to their table

Ajha looked up and grinned. "Ebsa. Fean told me yesterday you were here, as she handed me a plate of real food. How'd you get stuck cooking?"

"Beats me. Good thing I know how." Ebsa eyed the other man. "Err, you're Camp Administrator Wxxo? Sorry, I ought to have checked in with you yesterday but I was trying to get the kitchen working by lunch time . . . and I wound up really busy until it was too late to go door-to-door looking for my new boss."

Wxxo grinned. "Feeding me was an excellent way to get off on the right foot with this boss."

Ebsa cleared his throat. "So . . . who do I see about finding a place to bunk?"

"Bunk. Oh, now that's a bit of a problem . . . where did you sleep last night?"

"In a storage box."

Wxxo pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm down to a single open bed—in the Ladies Room. I've a few more empty tonight, but that whole batch on home leave will be back tomorrow. And I've been informed that I'm getting a renegade Action Teamer, One only knows why. Or where I can put him."

Ebsa grinned. "Wqlw Withione Makkah, by any chance?"

Ajha laughed. "Oh, they wised up to what you two are capable of, together?"

Ebsa squirmed. "I suspect they think they're putting all their bad eggs in one basket."

Wxxo looked from Ebsa to Ajha. "This bad egg doesn't seem to be a problem. Is the other one just as bad?"

"Yep. I hope he's assigned to me. I suspect he'll be perfect for sneaky stuff. And Ebsa, if your box doesn't work, you can try the seats in my crawler. Ra'd as well."

Wxxo blinked at Ajha in surprise. "You must like them. You don't hardly let me set foot in your sacred demesnes."

"You've seen those dinosaur vids from two years ago? Ebsa here is the lad who stuck his arm in the T-Rex's mouth."

"No shit."

"And Wqlw, better known as Ra'd, did the field aid you saw then, which was one of the least impressive things he did the whole trip. Once they check his range numbers, I'll be fighting the Army to keep him."

"Really?"

"Really. Utterly uncanny shot. He's a bit touchy, pride-and honor-wise. Just be square with him, and he'll do fine."

Ebsa nodded. "He has issues with Action Teamers . . . he considers rape a serious crime and critical moral failure. And . . . fails to see the humor in jokes about it." Ebsa shrugged. "I don't either, but then I've never even been considered for Action Teams."

Wxxo winced. "So hot bunking in the Team Crawler isn't going to work. Maybe I'll have someone scrounge up another storage box."

"Yes, sir." Ebsa hesitated. "Showers . . . "

Ajha nodded. "Use mine. I'm in the end crawler, closest to the Bad Guys. Hob's on home leave at the moment, so I'm the only one you'll disturb. And Ra'd's welcome as well, of course."