With no Oner spies in town they only checked the recordings twice a week. So the burst transmission was two days old before Damien spotted it. He stuck his head out of the trap door to the cellar and suggested that Andrai might want to step down.
Closing the hatch sealed the marconi cage of the basement, rendering their electronics invisible to their opponents. He sent the burst through the decoding process. Uncompacted and decyphered, it was brief.
"Captain Andrai Andrews, Sergeant Damien Malder, Corporal Maxwell Lovett. The Earth is in the process of establishing an embassy in Karista, and reconnecting with marooned personnel. Report your status."
Their eyes met.
"They're going to recall us."
"Maybe . . . they know how old we are." Andrai rubbed her face. "I ought to have retired two decades ago."
"Well, the children are almost grown. No reason we can't go home." Damien heard the doubts all over his voice.
"Other than Jeinah." Captain Andrews smiled wryly. Forty years previously she'd been wholly opposed to one of the moles marrying a Native. Thirty-five years of trading recipes and child care had changed that.
Damien might have never married, but he'd adopted and raised any number of orphans. And then there's Nicole . . .
Had he really only been twenty-six when he'd volunteered to infiltrate this world? He was . . . seventy-one years old. Andrai was eighty-three, with an illegitimate daughter aged twenty-six. Max and Jeinah's youngest was twenty-seven. Damien's youngest orphans were fifteen, off now at wizard school. I can’t take them home. I can’t even tell them why I’m leaving. I shouldn't even tell Nicole, even though she knows what I am.
"No reason at all, other than this being home now." Andrai pulled the headset into place. "Captain Andrews reporting. All personnel are in place. I'd judge a 50% chance we've been recognized and are being watched." She sent it through the reverse encoding and compression process and handed the wafer to Damien. "And some things will never be spoken of."
Right. We never, ever, mention that little talk we had with Rufi. It didn't hppen.
"Tomorrow, when you're out of this district."
They shut all the electronics down and climbed back into the kitchen.
"We'll start checking twice a day, now. You might consider what you are going to do about all those pinto horses."
Damien nodded. And paused. How many horses did he have now? Max's youngest kids, Tony and Carl both drove four horse hitches to and from the Gold Country. He and Code and Hess, Code's daughter Dori's husband, each had a team here in town. Four brood mares and two stallions at the farm. An equal numbers of foals, yearlings, two-year olds and three-year olds. The three year olds would be trained, and if not needed, sold. Thirty-eight? Give or take the sale of youngsters.
He wrote a quick note for Max and his daughter Marquette and her husband Ross, out at the farm. Max—come to town, we need to talk. Marquette, Ross—time to break in the two year olds, sell them and the three years olds. D.
He'd get it in the mail tomorrow. By the time Max got here, they'd probably have more information from Command. He paced, giving his reflection in the mirror sideways glances as he passed. He stopped and frowned at himself. A very young and healthy seventy-one stared back.
"You look fifty, maybe." Andrai spoke from the dark staircase as she walked quietly down. She joined him in front of the mirror. "And I do too. Perhaps if this is our recall . . . I have no family beyond Cordelia and little Andrai. Cordelia was talking about having another child, the last time she was here. I should hate to never see my granddaughter."
"Pepi, Nels and Ivan carry on like they're completely grown up and independent. In fact they're undersized and weedy fifteen year olds. They'll survive my recall, but I'll never see them again. Never see Code and Vani. Or a damned pinto horse."
"We don't know that it's a recall. They could want undercover moles here, still." Andrai didn't meet his eyes in the mirror.
"In which case they'll send some young ones. They aren't going to believe how good a shape we're in. Probably slice and dice us in a lab." Damien sighed. "I'll get an early start tomorrow."
Since he couldn't sleep, it was very early when he turned out. First to the postal office on Commerce street, where he parked long enough to radio the reply and mail the letter. All the Corridors everywhere had speeded mail service unbelievably, Max might well have this by afternoon. He rubbed his team’s foreheads. “Damn, I’m going to miss you guys.” Then he headed for the docks, and caught a ship just in and started hauling crates up to the merchant district. He stopped twice at home, then threw caution to the winds and had lunch with Nicole. He didn't say anything.
Another crate up the hill, and Andrai waved him in when he drove by.
She handed him a slip of paper.
"You are recalled, and due to age will be retired. Well, that's short and sweet."
"They sent directions to the embassy. They said it would be easiest to slide us out of here while they are bringing building materials in regularly. Max just got in a few moments ago. He said he needed to think."
In the end duty held all of them.
Damien had long since incorporated, with various family members owning shares of the business. He wrote out and signed transfers for the portion he still owned, and left them on the dining room table with Andrai's and Max's. Letters to the Trips. Code, shooting them worried looks and getting no answers for their combined glum mood, dropped them off a block from the embassy site, and they walked on in to find their newly appointed superior. Major Robinson sat up and looked them over, took their palm prints.
"You look to be in very good health."
Captain Andrai nodded. "It's their so-called magic, some sort of herbal medicine. It is actually quite effective. However, over forty years on station is quite enough."
The next truck headed back – the embassy was apparently trying to wow the Natives with horseless transportation – took them with it, in crisp new uniforms. The Gate to the Embassy World was on a military base at this end, but the Fallen were just waving the Earth trucks through. Embassy was a brief flash of green hills, a large fountain and perhaps half a dozen buildings. Then they drove through another Gate and . . . home.
The old equipment for the Gate they remembered had all been removed. Now there was just a killing ground in front of ranks of permanent Gates. They passed inspection, and another palm print, and got directions to their temporary quarters. Very hotel-like. Andrai across the hall from Damien, and Max two doors down. Damien snorted to see his old stored kit had been delivered. An envelope on the table held all new ID cards. He poked through his old belongings, considered his very few new ones, and finally stayed in the uniform the embassy had supplied while he hunted down some chow. And a cash machine to check his balance.
Andrai and Max beat him to it, and were looking definitely impressed.
"Depends on the cost of living." He scanned his own card. "Old Gods!"
Max snickered. "Somehow I think our slang and cussing is going to be out of date."
"No kidding. Well, why don't we go find out how much a dinner out costs."
Lots. For over cooked vat grown meat devoid of all spices but salt and pepper. The wine was decent, the bread awful. The key lime pie tasted of artificial flavors vaguely resembling lime.
They got together and wrangled over what movie to watch. Cringed over the imbecilic portrayal of Natives, remembered what a laugh track was. They were quiet as they sought their separate rooms.
Damien took a brief look through some job sites . . . for someone his age, nothing. For someone who could pass for fifty . . . He stared at the wall comp. Do people carry computers around now? I didn't have any trouble figuring this one out . . . I need to buy all new electronics . . . Get up to date, maybe a few classes. Surely they still do online classes . . .
In the morning they reported to Intel . . .
"Forty-five years of reports . . . Well, only twenty-six years since your last contact . . . " The Colonel looked at the file sizes and winced. "If we have any questions . . . after my staff has analyzed these records . . . We'll call you. Unless you have anything to add right now?"
Damien shrugged. "Since the Embassy World was established, the interesting stuff has mostly shifted there. Our most recent additions have our observations of activity in the Oner Embassy during their brief Rule by Committee and . . . prep for an invasion that never happened."
That got a disdainful sniff. "Did they get even a single tank through before Comet Fall shut them down?"
"No, sir. And our observations of their new ambassador is the last file we've added."
"Right. I'm impressed that you've kept on task, all this time. My analysts will call, if they need clarification or details. And now I believe they need you downstairs."
The retirement ceremony was brief, the lists of achievements long enough, but spoken in a bored tones by several officers who clearly didn't remember serving with them. Salutes were exchanged, hands were shaken, papers were signed. Doors were shown.
"So much for ending up in a lab being dissected." Damien followed directions and found an exit and a taxi. "I'm flying to Texas, you guys?"
"Well . . . Fuck it all." Andrai gazed around. "I'm going to find a tropical island and . . . adjust."
Max deflated. "The nearest bar."
Andrai eyed him. "I suspect we'll be contacted by the Government for an actual debriefing, and possibly a civilian assignment. Possibly on Comet Fall, so don't do anything silly."
Max nodded. "I checked directories and found someone with my brother's name. I'll call, at a decent hour in New York."
Damien nodded. "I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. Yet. But my sister's still in business in Amarillo, so I'm going to turn up on her doorstep and try to surprise her."
Fourteen hours later he succeeded.
The old woman who answered the door whooped, dropped her cane and threw her arms around his neck. "Damien. Good god you look good! Terrific in fact. Heavens, and you're only three years younger than I am."
"I can't believe it's been so long. It just whipped by, over there. How about you? How many worlds worth of equines, canines, felines, bovines and all the other ines have you got on file now?"
"All of them. Or I would if everyone would just stop discovering new worlds. We added humans, and humanoids as well. Actually I'm semi-retired, have a staff of twenty doing all the work now. I send them out with exploration parties to collect samples. Hmm, you looking for a job? Perhaps we should talk about it over dinner."
Apart from the cane and thin white hair, it was like old times. She asked all about Comet Fall, and all the different horse breeds he'd encountered. Got his hand slapped when he admitted that not only had he never terminated her experiment, the stallion had had foals. "The genes were all from there, Hellie, so it didn't matter. How much have you heard, about all the things those people can do?"
"Humph. I've heard everything from a magic cure-all to the elixir of eternal youth." Her eyes narrowed suddenly, looking him over.
He reached into a pocket and pulled out one of eighteen hideaways he'd prepared. They hadn't even searched his luggage. He unscrewed the pen's ink cartridge and tipped it suggestively over Helen's wine glass. She raised her eyebrows and nodded. He poured it in, a mix of the Havwee temple water and the elixir of long life.
"Well, I don't know about eternal youth, but they have some great medicines that we ought to import. I wonder if that might not be a good business opportunity? I'll have to look into what import restrictions they're going to put in place."
"Turning down my job offer already?"
"Not really, just speculating. I've been trading and hauling goods for the last forty years, so it comes natural to me now."
"Really, tell me all about it." She sipped her wine and blinked.
He grinned and chattered on as she gasped and fanned herself and eyed him and gripped the edge of the table. "So, Sis, you ever marry? Got a boy friend you can call over in your moment of extreme need?"
"No and no, and that . . . stuff . . . ought to be illegal."
"Probably is, here." He tapped a few last drops into the bottle. "Von Neumanns, well controlled. Use at your discretion. It heals wounds, even ones that ought to be fatal."
After she'd gotten a grip on the unexpected urges, she led him out to her lab. "Almost all computerized now. The younger generation is just spoiled rotten." She swung her cane, pointing at things and absent mindedly forgot to use it for walking. "We've got over a hundred thousand species on file. Millions of gene maps from hundred, and sometimes thousands, of Worlds. From a sample of any five species, from any world we've explored, I can tell you which one they came from. From a single individual, I have an eighty percent chance of pinpointing origin."
"How about with a newly discovered world? Can you identify what band of the Multi-verse the world is in?"
"Sometimes. What they've started calling the Hygiea Split is just chaotic – very much a matter of chance which few members of which few species survived. Of course the six with exiled genetically engineered people on them are obvious, they all took pets and livestock common to the twenty-second century, and now the animals show that genetic bottleneck. For the Earth Split – that is, stuff close to us, the horse and cattle archives are the most useful. The most fun project is the dino world sampling."
"Fun? Collecting DNA swabs from T Rex?"
She chuckled. "There have been some wild tales told."
Damien thought it over. "I'm not going there without Solstice."
"Your experiment. I'll go back to Comet Fall and wrestle him loose from Code. He might be able to keep me alive in dino land."
Helen snorted her disbelief. "No horse can do that. And why is he still alive?"
Damien nodded at her wine glass. "And probably the genes, too. Now, you said something about six Worlds with genetically engineered people? I've been out of touch, tell me all about them."
"Eh, they argue about exiled versus marooned. The One World is usually included in the count of the exile worlds just because the engineered genes have spread so widely. But the true exile worlds, besides Comet Fall . . . "
It made for a long and lurid tale, ending with ". . . and one of the Elf Worlds shows a low incidence of some of the genes. All of us in the industry argue like mad about it. In my opinion, the most likely scenario supported by actual data is the marooning of four or more early explorers. They intermarried with the Elves, and fourteen centuries later a few genes are still hanging about. Some of my colleagues scoff at the notion of interbreeding."
"Ah, the attraction of the exotic. The genetics apparently work. What do the Elves think about it?"
"Oh, we haven't contacted them. The first scouts through stunned some Elves that spotted them . . . and had the good sense to swab them before they withdrew. Damn Disco. Apparently we wrote off the whole branch after the third Elf World, and looked elsewhere for prospects."
He set himself up as an independent company specializing in the collection of biological samples on newly discovered worlds. And caught up on the news—history, rather—of their relationships with Comet Fall, and the founding of the Embassy Planet. And all the lurid stories about Disco. Complete with pix of people he knew.
He got a brief message from Andrai.
"I'm bored to tears. And no one will hire an eighty-three year old woman."
From Max , nothing.
I hope he's busy, not drunk.
Three weeks later he had a permit to import genetic samples in sealed containers, a pass to the Embassy World, and a very expensive hotel room in the Earth Embassy Complex on the World of Embassy. Speaking with a number of the other people from other Embassies, he realized he had a never ending job on his hands. Then he talked to the other company representatives, cramped into the Earth compound.
After three days, he gave up.
He still approached the Disco Building with some trepidation. Bloody silly. I know these people. But there was just something about the hulking black basalt building . . . Inside, it was all wavy striped sandstone and polished wood. Much less intimidating.
The girl minding the front lobby had black hair with a dramatic white streak through it. "Can I help you?"
"Umm, maybe? I work for a private company on Earth, and I'm going to be doing a lot of biological sampling through gates."
"Sound like exploration division's kind of thing." A brief unfocusing of her gaze . . . "Go up those stairs, Q is expecting you."
He climbed the stairs to the right, and blinked at the tall brown haired woman. "Ah, Q as in Quicksilver."
"Mr. Malder, what a pleasure to see you again. Everyone's horribly upset by your disappearance, and our explaining it didn't help a bit. Are you coming back to Comet Fall?"
He'd seen her so often in Comet Fall peasant dress, it was disorienting to see her in a tailored pants suit and Earth-style haircut. "Explaining . . . Ouch. We always knew we'd been busted. May I go back . . . I'd like to visit my adopted family. I retired from the military, and I'm working for my sister. She maintains a genetic data base of species from as many worlds as she can, for comparative studies. She thought that if I based myself here I might have the best access to new worlds as they are discovered."
"Well, as Disco discovers them. Both Earth and One World keep their Worlds a bit segregated from us. But I suspect you'll still have plenty of work. Are you going to work out of the Earth Embassy?"
"They are trying to be business friendly, but they don't quite carry it off. I was wondering if any of the sections might be designated for commercial development. Sort of like the shops up the Market Diagonal, but not for shoppers."
"Oh, good idea. Let's check with Inso and Xen." She led him across the building and into the front corner room. Xen he knew, the other was Lon Hackathorn, the current Acting Director.
"I think we met, a long time ago. You're looking good." He shook hands with the man.
"So are you. Funny thing, how healthy time spent on Comet Fall or around the Fallen seems to be." Lon looked mildly amused.
"Are you ever going to get a permanent director?" He couldn't help but ask.
They both shook their heads.
"Nobody wants it, once they realize that none of us take orders worth beans, so it's an empty title involving lots of paperwork. And irate diplomats yelling at him because of what we've done, and generally haven't gotten around to writing up and telling him about." Xen shrugged. "Just as well. This way no one worries about us getting too strong and trying to throw our weight around. What's up, other than all your relatives dander?"
"I need a place to site a business. And live, I suppose."
Q waved at the outdoors, "I thought perhaps we could subdivide some sections. Perhaps south of the Earth Embassy. The Oner Businesses can go over between the hospital and their embassy, and the Earthers over here. We could split them into ten acre plots and sell them. Any objections?"
"None. It works. Except for the additional paperwork. I need a damned secretary to crack the whip and keep track of all this crap."
Damien blinked at him. "Manager, not secretary, else he or she'll be bothering you all the time. Do you need nice or pretty or young? Aunt Andrai . . ."
Xen choked. "Oh, no. Inso, do you dare hire a battle axe? She was a mole in Karista for what, forty years? Fifty?"
Damien nodded. "I'll probably hire Max, the third mole. Do you think his wife could come here?"
"Oh sure. And how many wagons and horses?" The laugh lines around the wizard's eyes deepened.
"Uh . . . a riding horse might be handy . . . "
Xen offered paper and pen. "I am absolutely certain a large number of people want to hear from you guys. And ask your Captain Andrews to come by and talk to us. For bringing in a formidable organizer, we could probably throw in a ten acre plot."
"And Vani, Mihaela, and Cordelia can come and practice building on your lot. They're about ready for that." Q put in from behind them all.
He laid claim to a ten acre parcel back a couple of miles, so as to not get crowded by the bigger businesses that were instantly leaping at the offering of land. Why none of them had ever asked was beyond Damien's grasp. But then he knew the Fallen well enough to not be intimidated. Much.
Back on Earth, he bailed Max out of the drunk tank, paid all the fines, and got him dried out by the time he got a gate pass for him. Andrai he finally tracked down in a tropical resort.
"Disco needs someone to manage their paperwork."
"Where do I apply?"
Andrai was formidably dressed for the office, and Max was almost respectable looking when they drove down the diagonal, and found most of the extended family and company camped out and waiting for them.
Jeinah cried all over Max, then marched him off almost out of hearing range before she started scolding him. "Bad enough I've been crying for weeks! Drinking? How could that possibly help?"
Code glared at Damien. "A spy? I've idolized you for forty something years and now I learn you're an Earth spy?"
"Well, that's not the sort of thing us nasty old spies tell anyone."
"Jeff knew." Vani crossed her arms and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her husband, glaring.
"Jeff's a member of the King's Own. And he's a wizard. He probably found out on his own."
"He says you and Max have dropped the occasional note, and may have saved General Rufi's life once."
"Mostly I just hauled freight. There was a bad patch when we were having a running fight with the One Worlders, but after the dragons ate the Action Team, that died down considerably."
"Ate . . . was that when Joe and Mig were killed? And Richie, something happened . . . And they stole Solstice?"
"Huh." Vani looked over at Max and Jeinah. "Is that why you never married?"
"Yeah, well, that and I don't seem to be the marrying type."
Vani huffed at him. "Honestly, Damien Malder! Well, we've brought just about everything you need for your house except the house. And I brought Solstice. Xen said you might need something special, if you were playing around on the dino worlds. And the horse has been miserable, too, and not behaving very well for Code."
"I told him we didn't really need another stallion, so he'd better behave. I sounded so much like you, it hurt. Then Xen brought the letter, and everyone wanted to come."
Damien glanced around, and Code sighed. "Except the Trips. They are furious that you'd just let duty pull you away without even saying goodbye."
"I figured I'd probably wind up back on Comet Fall."
"Well, you ought to have said something. Not just left a note. Bad as Vani."
"Worse. At least I took my kids along, when I ran away. Damien abandoned his."
"They are fifteen years old, and away at school."
"You are still in big trouble."
"I know. So, are you three a triad? Going to build me an office and home?"
"Q said she'd give us some pointers, help us learn." Cordelia looked a bit intimidated as she looked at the flat grassy expanse.
"This is a plan for the sort of thing I want, the main difference being that I want a small apartment up over the open bay where we'll deal with the samples. And I only want one, not a row. And a fence for Solstice. And maybe one of the geldings, to keep him company and in case I can get Max on top of a horse."
"Right. We'll practice with this, and then build Max and Jeinah a house. Disco's got houses for their people, Andrai will probably stay over there."
Damien left them to it, and saddled up Solstice for a bit of exploring. At forty-three years of age, the horse was just as athletic as ever. Genetic engineering, potions.
A middle-aged looking Helen came to survey his set up, meet the parts of the family still around and bring an index to Q. She and Andrai hit it off immediately. Pair of perfectionists, both with an eye for detail.
And with Xen as an escort, he returned to Karista, corridored to Ash, and visited the triplets. At fifteen the boys were just staring their growth spurts. Skinny arms crossed truculently, the two boys flanked their sister. Her lip stuck out stubbornly as she glared at him. He grinned like an idiot and managed to hug all three of them. Pepi wiggled free and resumed glaring.
"I didn't have time to come say goodbye, or explain. But I was sure I'd be back. It's only been six weeks, you three wouldn't even have been home yet."
"But we knew you'd just gone. That you'd been a spy and been ordered home. What if they decided you had secret information and couldn't ever leave your little village?" Nels on the right.
"What if they decided to mind wipe you?" Ivan on the left.
"Or just kill you?" Back to Nels.
"Or, what if all your caring had just been a cover, and you didn't love us? Never had?" Pepi finished up the quadruple hit with a bit of a chin quiver and a single tear.
"You shouldn't be legal." It took more hugs and talk and lots of time for them to lose that last bit of insecurity. He hadn't meant to do that to them.
"I need to figure out a way to get back more often . . . maybe I could go back to hauling freight? Buying and sell stuff through the gates, importing fresh food for the restaurants here?"
Three hopeful looks.
"We could come live on Embassy!" Pepi grinned, then remembered she was mad at him and glowered. "And make sure you don't run away again."