"It pretty much started with my failure as the mission leader." Ice sighed. Where do I start on the cascade of events? "I was unable to get the Action Teamers to behave politely around Gior. I should have replaced them after the second world, when Gior complained. I . . . should have seen that my attempts had failed and switched them out for others.
"Then, when the alarm went up at the tower I was attempting to treat, I should have teleported directly to the gate and had Gior close it. Instead I tried to be clever and avoid pursuit long enough to dose the water. This exhausted my ability to teleport.
"Unfortunately, at this same time, Gior got tired of the verbal . . . talk, the flashing, the not quite touching . . . and stepped through the gate for a few minutes peace and quiet. She walked to the end of the alley, spotted the Cyborg troops coming at her, and ran for the gate while yelling for me to get back fast.
"I attempted and failed to teleport, again. I caught flashes of a fight.
"Before I go on, let me point out that Gior walked into an assault on the gate--it had been detected sufficiently ahead of time to organize troops and get to within a block of the gate, minutes after Gior crossed over. We will have to address that issue, find a way to conceal the gates.
"However, at that point I realized that Gior had been captured, and most probably the gate taken and that hub captured. And all I could do was hope like hell those idiots had gotten a warning out.
"So my personal priority was to retrieve Gior. I headed immediately for the Cybernetics Center. I was fortunate to get to the center shortly after she'd been taken there, while they were trying to prep her for surgery.
"Specifically, she was trying to fight off medical personnel who had hypodermics in hand, while two Cyborgs attempted to restrain her. A third Cyborg was standing by. I started stunning people whenever Gior was out of the line of fire, at which point the third Cyborg knocked out one of the other Cyborgs saying that if there was a chance she could escape, he wanted to go to.
"So he came along . . . this was on the third floor . . ."
Ice kept up the recital all through the whole six months . . . all the DMB worlds he'd dosed offhand as they tried to find their way home, finally discovered and this time Gior closing the gate from the far side, even though it meant Ice and Bob-the-Cyborg were marooned . . . double marooned?
They were well boggled before he got to the part about Gior finding him, and him meeting the 375 Oners she made contact with. Forming compasses with them. The . . . visit to Steel City. And finally finding the world on the Wolf World Road.
Ox pinched the bridge of his nose. "Well, that explains why Ebsa and Ra'd have been finding so many DMB Worlds in a complete panic. A lot of them are closing their gates and attacking anyone who comes through a gate from elsewhere.
Ajha nodded. "We combined their teams after we lost you two. And we did look for you, but that World, Novaya Moskva, had dozens of gate scars. Even Q couldn't feel the difference between old faded powered gate scars and newer permanent gate scars. And the wreckage of the Cybernetics Center . . ."
"I didn't want to leave any cell samples behind, that they could clone." Ice put in.
"Good idea. But we couldn't get near the wreckage. To study a gate scar that was somewhere in there."
Ice thought about Keiq . . . "I appreciate your not declaring us dead."
Ajki looked at his comp. Cleared his throat. "One question that has been brought up . . . Gior appears to be pregnant?"
"Yes. She and the Prophet Furkan quite took to each other. To the best of my knowledge, she's turned down multiple marriage proposals from him."
"Turn him down? Mainly because she's our Oner. Likes her job--did I mention how she stepped up and took over while I was excessively marooned? And he's currently got one wife already. Elderly, but still . . ."
Someone down the table muttered something about a Prophet's baby . . .
Ice glanced that way. "Twins."
A sound from Ox's direction might have been stifled laughter.
Ajha shook his head. "At this point, losing one of my dimensionals to maternity leave seems like a fair trade for all the mind boggling work you two managed while marooned . . . if we can call it that."
Ice grinned. "She matured, leveled up, gained a ton of experience, developed leadership skills . . . you're going to like the new, improved, Gior. Heck, even I like her."
Ahja raised his eyebrows. "Indeed? I sicced Paer and Ryol on her after that emotional goodbye on the plaza. May I assume that wine bottle was the joy juice . . . No?"
"The Elixir of Long Life. For his wife."
"Huh. Self sacrifice. You're right, she has matured. I think I'll go talk to her. Why don't you find your rescued . . . I really don't want to call them Bunnies, or even Drei."
"Yeah, they're the descendants of the original people of the conquered Worlds. Halfers, as they call them. Although several are quite strong mentally, and several have a tinge of their version of dimensional ability, but luckily for them, not enough to get them wired into their gate mech."
Several concerned glances were exchanged around the table.
Ice braced himself. "I think we need to get into a good relationship with these kids, they're a fount of knowledge about the DMB . . . and I'd hate for them to get homesick enough to go back to the Drei. I'm tempted to adopt the two minors."
That got him a few frowns.
"And then there's the two mentalists, and the four Cyborgs."
"How are you using the term 'Mentalist' now that you've passed yourself off as one?"
"All the men who have passed their presentation on their eighteenth birthday." Ice plunged right in. "At eighteen, all children get chipped, except for a few boys whose fathers present them to a committee to be challenged and judged. I understand that the challenges are hard enough that any boy who loses is likely to not survive. As I was trying to fit in, I did not inquire as to the nature of the challenges, as the young man I was imitating would know all about it, having passed his. I'll have to ask about that." He tapped out a note to himself.
"And if they survive failure?"
"Chipped. Possible completely Cyborged. Having a son fail the challenge is a blow to the status of the father who presented such a weakling, so Mentalists . . . are picky about which sons they present."
"And that's why they have so many Cyborgs?"
"Umm, the majority of the Cyborg troopers are Halfers. Literally, and also higher percentages. Neu Berlin has been in DMB control for thirty-five years now, so they're getting third generation youngsters now. Less than half? Regular chips to turn them into factory workers. Really. Once I'd been around them, I had zero qualms over zapping their magic."
That got a table full of nods.
Ajha sighed. "So, as I was about to say, go find your new friends. I'll call you as I think up new questions. And start writing."
It was easy enough to find them. He just followed Keiq's glow all the way to "Stone Inn Five."
Bob was just helping Rafail out of the jeep.
The young Mentalist was grinning. "You weren't kidding about 'the scariest doctor in the Multiverse!' But I didn't faint, and got used as practice for a dozen cute witches interesting in regrowing limbs. I was apparently the example of 'doing very well for having nothing but the wine' and then she showed them how to nudge everything from 'good enough' to 'perfect.' It was . . . interesting."
Ice held the door for him, and spotted Keiq, braiding hair and talking.
". . . add as many insertions as you want. You can change your hair color, even your eye color. But keep in mind that when they register you, you've got to use those letters for your official name."
A small girl with a long black braid skipped up to him. "I want to be just like thou!" Her voice got quiet, and he leaned down to hear her. "I like Keiq. We can keep her."