Forty-one frowned. "I didn't think there were many cows here."
Lord Axel raised his brows. "I didn't know there were any. So . . . I have acquired some."
Forty-one looked baffled. "Why?"
"Because of the plague. If portal travel is shut down . . . well, there's those big hares, field mice . . . there's fish in the oceans, not that hardly anyone every goes fishing. And we raise some of our fresh vegetables. But right now? If they closed the portals tomorrow, we'd be in deep trouble."
Forty-one nodded slowly. "I guess, I never quite realized . . . I grew up on a farm on Novaya Moskva, and my parents operate a farm west of the city proper . . . Where are you putting your cows?"
"Two hundred miles southeast. I'd like to have feral herds before we find ourselves cut off, but I suspect I'm ten years too late for that." The Lord eyed the Cyborg. "Can I persuade you to come take a look at my cows and give me an opinion? And you to Senior Detective. Think of all the questions you two can ask me, over several hours travel."
Vlad looked at Forty-one who grinned. "I have a police car. They have pretty good suspension, even though they aren't really off-road vehicles."
"Right. First stop, my place, for a change of clothes."
Vlad looked down at his own suit. "Good plan."
By the time he'd changed, convinced Dina that she couldn't come, and walked next door, Axel was cursing and hauling a large red duffle bag down the stairs.
Vlad raised a brow at the white cross of a medical kit.
"My cows are not healthy." He thumped the bag down and galloped down the stairs to the garage and returned with a . . . bottle of wine?
Forty-one eyed the wine dubiously. "Symptoms?"
"They're limping, laying down, and drooling, some bloody drool."
"Hoof and Mouth." Forty-one shook his head. "So much for your cows."
"It's fatal? Is it human contagious?"
"Not human contagious, yes very contagious for most hooved animals--not horses, but goats and sheep and so forth. Around ten percent fatality rate, but it is very debilitating, and highly contagious. So slaughtering everything that has it is the best option to prevent . . . well, there aren't other cattle here, but . . ."
"But we'll find out. And in case of us being cut off, eating a debilitated cow beats starving. So let's go see how bad it is and whether," he shoved the wine bottle into the medical kit, "I'm going to dose them with a hodgepodge of healing spells or not."
"Yeah. In a wine base. And . . . a couple hundred miles from nowhere . . . let's stop before we're out of town and I'll load up on cheap wine. Just in case."
"And bleach. You'll need to disinfect everything."
"God alone knows what I'll do with that horrible stuff if I don't use it on the cows." Axel put the last box of wine in the trunk and Forty-one shut it.
Then they settled back for a long drive through featureless hills, and Axel told them all about life with the Vinogradovs. It did not sound pleasant. And his own routine. "Which has gone to hell these last few days. Run four laps around the gardens, then down to the basement to lift weights. I'd run into Andre or Nikoli occasionally and we'd do a bit of courtball, or fencing. Then shower, breakfast, and having in one meal had all I could stand of the family, I'd pop off, ahem, somewhere. If I was lucky, for days. And miss lunch and dinner as often as possible.
"So you're . . . usually not chasing women. But you stay at your house?"
"Usually just over night. Settle my reflexes back down to . . . civilian normal."
"I thought the Mentalists who worked with the Military Cyborg teams . . . stuck to mentalist . . . actions."
"It varies a lot. Very . . . it takes individual talents into account. And I'm not actually supposed to talk about it."
"Of course." Vlad frowned. "Wait a bit . . . if you're fifty . . . so you're older than your team?"
"That's pretty standard, you know wise old mentalist and all that. I started out a lot younger than most Team agents. And the Team is actually getting pretty old for the stuff we very rarely need to do."
Forty-one stopped at the top of a hill. "Found your cows."
There were a lot of cows. Not the black-and-white he'd thought was standard . . . well, there were some. But solid brown, ranging from light to dark reddish, was most common. Some solid black, some white with black speckles . . . The more he looked, the more colors he spotted. Thousands of them, at least half laying down.
"Well." Axel surveyed his herd. "First, a couple of samples for the lab, then I'll test my stuff on some . . . not that I expect instant results or anything . . ."
Forty-one drove down closer before parking. "How many cows were you expecting?"
"Three thousand. Twenty-five hundred cows, five hundred bulls."
Vlad started laughing. "And you know nothing about cows?"
"Not a damn thing. Now. Forty-one. For reasons I am not going to discuss, you are not going to have any contact with this medicine I am using. Let's go get some swabs."
The swabs were easy, as the cows were not feeling like getting up.
"These two have been getting handled regularly." Forty-one looked over the broad swath of sick cows. "I hope a significant number of the rest have, because they aren't hurting badly enough to not demonstrate how much they out weigh you by, if they don't like people."
Axel just laughed. "No one, absolutely no one who knows me is going to believe what I'm going to spend the day or three actually doing."
They spent the day with Axel squirting a teaspoon or so into the mouths of cows that Forty-one frequently had to wrestle with, while Vlad doped up and carried boxes of wine.
After the first bull, Axel stunned them, then dosed them.
No idea how many they missed. Or double dosed. But the first ones dosed were standing up and grazing before they were half through.
They ran out of wine about the time they were pretty sure they'd gotten most of the critters. Stopped long enough to incinerate everything and disinfect their shoes and give up and ride home to washed everything with lots of bleach. And shower.
"I've been thinking."
Axel paused as the Inquisitor pinched the bridge of his nose.
"That's always a bad sign."
"Ah . . . about that zivvy dissolver. What effect would it have on people with bad grow-ins?"
"So cows aren't enough of a hobby, you have to get into research like your mother?" He glowered at Axel, but his eyes were getting thoughtful.
Which could be good, or bad.
The man finally picked up the phone and tapped at it. "Do you still have any of that sample of the zivvy dissolver? . . . Oh? Right. I'm authorizing an experiment using it. How does salt brine affect it? We may need containment measures . . . In that case send a sample to my office."
He eyed Axel. "Like the Plague, it breaks down quickly in salt water, so any experiments you run need to be away from the City water shed, and preferably close to one of the lakes. Especially since it's a von Neumann's nano factory."
Axel sat back and thought about it.
"Salt water. Definitely." He nodded and checked a map. Dropped down from his cows to the salt lake they called the Eastern Mediterranean. "And with plenty of space from future neighbors . . . This spot is above the spring floods and a steep slope down to salt water. Any contamination," he held up a finger, "not that I won't be trying to avoid spills, but I'll be working with not-very-bright subjects. The location, a hundred miles from anywhere and sloped to the salt water as secondary precautions."
He bit his lip. "I was thinking I'd start with no more than four to six subjects . . . Did the lab do any experiments to determine how long it takes for the dissolver to clear their system? No? Right. Then my first batch I'll use to test the effects of the dissolver, the detection of the dissolver in blood and bodily excretions and find out how long I need to isolate . . . patients."
He looked back at his application, "Umm, is there an official designation for this stuff?"
Axel tapped that into the appropriate spots and hit the submit button.
Pulled up the "parking lot" where previously used vehicles, equipment and . . . Yes! Portable field offices and housing.
What sort of staff will I need? Cook, Janitor, Handyman . . . Medic?
By the time he'd made it home, he had a hundred-year lease on four sections, work orders out for moving the field housing, field kitchen and mess, a field lab, offices, a water well, class four sewage treatment, remote power plant . . . He outright bought a moderately large all-terrain vehicle and drove it home.
Lists of things to do, that didn't have anything to do with Dear Uncle's mess. He could leave that all to the experts going through everything.
And then I'll find out if there's anything more we need to do about the mercenaries, Budapast Reborn, the poisoning that is destroying the Empire . . .
The Empire is dead. Only the 300's monopoly on zivvy manufacture held us together in a squabbling whole.
The fatal blow has fallen, and all we can do is prepare as best we can for when there are a thousand or more Worlds in a panic, and a quarter of them probably still with Portals.
Will they trade or attack? Or just become self sufficient and learn to live without chipping ninety percent of the population and destroying their intelligence.
Heh. And maybe stop treating them like slaves. Treating? They are slaves. But maybe without zivvy . . .
He snorted. "Well, a man can dream."
He parked in the driveway. Note to self, go find the remote for the garage door opener.
Spotted Dina and waved, then headed for the door. Heard the locks click. Good. The new watch works.
He glanced back at Dina, trotting up, her parents behind her. All three looking upset.
Uh Oh. He stepped inside waffling over which security code to use . . . "Home Again. What fun."
This may be something I don't want recorded.
"C'mon in. What's wrong?"
He closed the door behind them. Eyed Dina. Pale and teary.
"I can feel it creeping into my brain again."
"Oh . . . it's been four days? Five?" Three days, they said, to dissolve the zivvy. But they didn't say what happened after that.