Lord Axel Ivan Vinogradov walked quietly away from the downtown area and turned on to a street of small shops, half of them closed.
A turn down a driveway between buildings. The key he pulled from his pocket opened the side door of the vacant shop he'd just passed.
He'd lost time, avoiding a street patrol, but still took a quick look around, before he pulled an odd triangular bar off the top shelf. He set it down a foot from the wall and flipped a simple switch. He shook out the bundle of cloth from another corner, white coveralls that he pulled on over his clothing.
An odd wavering light over the bar, and he stepped up to loop cords from the bar around his ankles. The light effect solidified into a circular view of a large room, a shallow ramp leading up to the edge of the portal. The man on the far side whipped his flag down, and Axel dived through to somersault and jerk the beacon though after his feet. He tumbled to a halt, freed his ankles and shed the overalls.
He dropped them and walked down to his boss. The Head of Intel for Siberia Max was accompanied by a red robed Inquisitor. Not the usual solo report today?
"This report needs to be private." He glanced at all the techs scurrying about.
The Inquisitor eyed him narrowly, then nodded. "Come."
The room was small. Bare. The door swung shut with a heavy thud.
Axel spotted a microscopic nod from his boss. "There is no Plague. There is deliberate poisoning."
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the triply bagged poisons.
"This capsule, diluted in water contains enough agent to remove the ability to gather power from hundreds of Mentalists. The liquid in the jar, diluted in wine will dissolve the Zivvy in the brains of anyone who drinks it for three days. In two months the chip is also dissolved."
"And Neu Frankfort?"
"It is lost. The rebels doped the water of the officers in every major and most of the minor bases. At the same time they doped the food of the Cyborged soldiers. In three days . . . the armies we built, were the rebel's army."
Then he pulled the tiny AV recorder out of his pocket. "I did not have time to review what I recorded, but I may have caught the Enemy in action."
The Inquisitor's hands clinched. "Neither of you will speak of this again." He held out a device, aimed it at the AV for a moment.
The door swung open and a servant in red entered, with tongs and a metal box.
The tongs plucked the bag from Axel hand and dropped it in the box.
Axel followed his boss out. They eyed each other.
His boss finally shrugged. "Go home. I'll contact you . . . when I have something for you to do."
Axel nodded, and turned for a side exit. It wouldn't do for my family to know what I do in my spare time.
A quick stop at his locker for a change into the local styles—the Russian/German that would have gotten him killed on Neu Frankfort. And especially the watch. It was dark out, here northern Africa. Always an adjustment when coming in from across, although Neu Frankfort's capital city in the center of the North American Continent wasn't quite the worst. A automated cab to the grocery closest to his house. A few things for breakfast . . . but mainly because he never used anything traceable—like a cab--to his little house. He carried the sack and walked the last few blocks.
It was an odd house, one of a long row built into the cliffs a century ago, when the 300 decided this uninhabited Ice Age World was usefully remote for some minor experimentation. Nothing radical, but cross-breeding a lot of people sampled from worlds that they rejected for conquest, in search of useful genes to add to the Families. Smarter, stronger, healthier, longer life span, higher Mentalist powers, but what they really wanted was more reliable gatemakers. Something that was less random, more stable and reliable.
They'd been marginally successful at that last; one gate maker out of a thousand clones. Which only sounded good if you realized the expected success rate was one in five thousand.
In the course of testing and training those potential gatemakers they also discovered quite a few target worlds, and soon enough the support staff for the research was augmented by a business staff, and then a minor bureaucracy . . . a bustling city had grown up and spread across the Mediterranean Valley.
A city of two million people, all imported from elsewhere within the last few generations. I've got, through my mother's line, longer residency right than almost anyone out there.
Not that anyone is going to consider my weird mixture of ancestors worth counting. Certainly not my late father's family. "His Mother's an Experimental! I can't believe my brother presented him! And that he passed!"
Heh. And you think you keep me on a tight leash, with the smallest stipend you could get away with, administering Father's Trust. But I was already working for the Alliance's Intel Bureau. And bought this house completely outside the Trust. It was just under the amount a young Mentalist was allowed to own personally. All of which I somehow failed altogether to inform you of, Dear Uncle Vladimir, when my father died. And you took control of my Trust, and became my official mentor.
Which is why this place feels like home, even though, on record, I'm living in Lord Vladimir Vinogradov's over grown mansion, pretending to be a leach and a gigolo.
He carried his groceries up the steps beside the garage doors to the front door. The security system recognized the signal from his watch, then double-checked through the security cams and their facial recognition program, and the locks clicked and he nudged the door open with his hip stepped through and shoved it closed with a kick.
"Home again. What fun." Also a coded message to the security system, telling that there was no known problems.
This level held a moderate sized living room, a dining room and kitchen.
He unloaded his groceries and popped down the stairs to the garage. The two little rooms to the side were probably meant for servants. He had an assortment of rarely used tools in one and climate controlled wine racks in the other. He selected two bottles and headed back up stairs. The second level held four smallish bedrooms, two bathrooms and a door out to a small yard. House on one side, rock cliff on two and a fence blocking a drop off twenty feet or so the last side. Axel had always considered it the "Kids' Level" and never furnished it. Up one more level and the bedroom, sitting area, office, and fancy bathroom let onto a small patio against the cliffs, one way and gave a sweeping view over the city and into the dusty distance the other.
He emptied his pockets at the desk and opened the wine. Let it breathe while he shed his generic business suit and stepped into the shower. Used the "special" shampoo that stripped the dye from his hair. Then he wrapped up in a robe and took a glass of wine to the couch and settled down to stare out at the city lights and unwind.
Tomorrow I go back to the Mansion and play useless nephew. I wonder what misery those poor idiots will try to share with me? And what I should manipulate them into doing next?
And how long will it be until I get a new assignment?
What if they never call again?
What job would keep me from just killing all those pathetic relatives of mine?
He snorted and walked back to his desk. Sat and pulled a pad of paper out of the desk.
"So what would an Axel do if he had to start acting like an honest man?" He stared at the blank paper. "Politics?"
He gabbed a pen and . . . failed to write. He unscrewed the tip and pulled out the ink tube. Opened desk drawers and found the box of replacements.
Got back to planning.
"Politics. Business. Layabout worthless nephew." He took a sip of wine, thinking that over.
"I wonder if Dear Uncle even realizes I'm going to be fifty in three months? Hmm, I did let him think I was a year younger than the Terrible Twins. I was a slow grower, and it seemed like he'd sneer at my scrawny self less if he thought I was almost a year younger than his own utterly marvelous sons."
"Not that it softened him toward me." He drew a line through the layabout.
"Politics? Really? I cannot picture myself starting out slow and working up. Neighborhood rep? Oh God, no. Especially since I've never met my neighbors and don't give a damn about them."
He eyed his list and shuddered, poured himself another half glass of wine. He stood up, palming the old ink tube as he picked up the cork. Turned and dropped the tube into the bottle, corked it and set it on the credenza. Turned back to the desk and dropped into the chair.
"That leaves business. Well, I'm not going to open a shop, that's for sure. And I suppose I could play the Stock Market, but the Trusts' Mutuals have done very nicely for the last twenty years."
And Dad set it up so Dear Uncle Vladimir couldn't touch it.
"Or I could become an eccentric artist. That might be amusing, if I had the faintest hint of artistic talent. Write the Next Great Novel, except that while my reports are quite good, they . . . how should I put this? They abound in passive voice, eschew dialog and plot. Not to mention a lack of Happily Ever After."
He finished the wine and set the glass down. "Well . . . I could always say I was writing a novel. Or better yet, the New, Definitive History of the Families! Darling! With my nose in the air. Dear god. I'm going to bed before I think of anything worse."
The Red Headed Step Child
The butler closed the heavy doors behind him.
"Anybody miss me? Dramatic Pause! No, didn't think so." Axel strolled down the main hall, glancing in rooms as he passed.
All empty at this time of day. Breakfast was done, every thing cleared away, and Ladies didn't receive callers so early, so the small dining room and both large and small parlors were empty.
Every thing on the right side of the great hall was Dear Uncle Vladimir's territory. Everything on the left, was the demesne of the next generation, so Axel took the left cross corridor. Two pretty little offices where the Twin's wives could write letters and invitation and deal with their household accounts. Three businesslike offices, for Young Mentalists Lord Andre Vladimir Vinogradov and Nikoli Vladimir Vinogradov. The third office, of course, was his own. Smaller, and very . . . austere.
Andre looked up as he passed. "Oh, there you are. Out making a fool of yourself again?"
"Now, now, no need to be jealous of my reputation with the ladies, after all, you're a married man, and no longer need to pursue . . . Ladies."
Nikoli stomped out of his office. "What excellent timing! Take these to Father! They need his signiature."
"And he's in a bad mood?"
"Damn straight. Probably your fault."
"Oh, I doubt that." Axel grinned. "After all, I've been out having fun where he can't see it."
That got him two glares, but he took the files and retraced his steps. Ducked out of sight long enough to see what business required the out-moded paper documents . . . Oh. Chip orders. It looked like four of the servant kids were almost eighteen. So by law, they had to be chipped.
He flipped though them quickly. Winced. It would be the smartest of the kid flock. Dammit. None of my business, mind you. Nothing I can do to stop it . . . although I'll bet I can manipulate Dear Uncle . . .
He smothered his grin as he walked into Mr. Sovolovski's office. The stiff old man's expression soured as he eyed Axel. Dear Uncle's Executive secretary.
His hair was cut to show the executive plate, a quarter the size of the "Real Cyborg" plate.
"Last thing he needs today, is to see you!"
"What's the problem this time?"
"He's complaining about the cost of a proper fiftieth birthday gift for his sons."
"Well, he's got six months to figure of how many servants to give . . . them . . ." Axel paused and looked down at the folders. "Actually . . . the appropriate gift would be an executive secretary each."
"At a hundred thousand ruples each? And no telling what loyalty or spy training they've had?"
Axel nodded. And waved the files. "But the sets are only thirty thousand, if one does the training himself. And here I have four almost eighteen year olds . . . let's see. Pauli? Oh dear, no. Either the stutter or the accents would eliminate him, and both?"
Axel dropped that folder on the desk. "Oh, Varfalomey. Now he's got the math and language skills . . . Dimitri is also good."
Mr. Solovosky leaned back. "And we'd train them ourselves. His Lordship knows what he wants, and I can assist in giving them some coaching on accessing the data bank and calculator functions. Not to mention adding a little polish." He eyed Axel. "I hope you don't expect such a gift on your Fiftieth!"
Axel snorted. "Not unless my uncle wants to inflict Pauli on me. However. What I thought I'd point out to Uncle Vladimir is this girl. Nastasya. Very bright, very canny. I suspect he could sell her to the government as a potential spy. She's . . . got a knack for collecting information."
He tapped his pocket and his phone obliged with a ring. He pulled it out and tapped at is "Lord Axel Vino . . . oh. Right now? Right." He clicked off and pocketed the phone. Reached for the folders. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."
"Just leave them here." Mr. Solovosky whipped them over to the other side of his desk.
Axel glowered. Solovosky smirked. Axel stomped out. Caught a flick of motion out of the corner of his eye and followed it into the rear of the large dining hall.
Nastasya froze, then tried to look around casually.
"You ought to carry a feather duster. Makes it easy to look like you ought be where you can overhear things."
Nastasya swallowed. "You want to send me to the government?"
"Yes. You're a natural, and the spies get either a no show chip very like an executive chip, or if you're really good, no chip at all, so that if they send you to new worlds, the Natives can't detect you with a head X-ray."
Her eye widened, and she stared at the wall between them and Mr. Solovosky's office. "But you are trying to get the guys, executive chips, like his? Why?"
"There are always random effects, but the executive chips are designed to not lower your intelligence, and not block your mentalist talent. That's the best I can do for them."
She scowled. "You were mean to Pauli."
"Dear Uncle may think gifting me with a secretary with an accent and a stutter is funny enough to pay for Pauli to get one too."
She blinked. "Because he wouldn't do it otherwise. And you know Mr. Slobosnov will talk to His Lordship, and take the credit. You're trying to trick his Lordship? Because if you suggested it, he wouldn’t do it."
Axel nodded. "One: never say that highly appropriate nickname out loud ever. Two: realize that winning is getting what you want to happen, to happen. It has nothing to do with who everyone else thinks won."
"You always make my head hurt."
"That's because you're young and innocent." He grinned and walked away. I hope it works . . . My Empire isn't perfect, but it's mine and I'll fight for it. Especially against the destroyer of magic. No matter if there are occasional servants who would better serve the 300 without chips. These among them. And with the executive plates they'd be amazing. But if Uncle Vladimir doesn't jump at the bait . . . there are always more children down the line.
And it doesn't hurt to say that.
He walked back to his office and stared at his computer. It doesn't hurt.
In three months I can legally go off on my own. Never have to watch this utter waste of talent be destroyed. It's not like I'll ever marry, have a household and servants.
What the hell. Maybe I'll write an utterly trashy novel, just to see if I can.
. . . Maybe I'd better read a few first.
He fired up his computer and searched for the top ten selling novels.