Nastasya was clenching the arms of her chair to stop them from shaking. Or throwing somthing through the screen of the TV.
Barf, Dimitri, and Pauli were all exuding waves of anger.
"We need more information." Nastasya cleared her throat to get the snarl out of it. "Pauli? Can you find out where the Stutts are headquartered, and hack them? And a line into the police wouldn't hurt."
She bit her lip. I will neither scream, nor cry. "And we don't phone anyone."
Barf looked over, nodding. "Because the Stutties have probably got your cute cop tapped and will trace any suspicious calls."
Pauli got out a pad of paper and started making a list. "F-first, we're g-going to assume he has a v-very good g-grow-in, and can function. We'll n-need to stay near and g-give him a m-mental shield, so no one can control h-him. N-now, wh-what tools, weapons, equipment, c-clothes and even more disguises can we g-get for h-him. We've got our wigs, and a selection of his clothes. What m-more do we n-need?"
"But we don't know where he is!" She took a deep breath, and stopped.
"He knows where we are." Dimitri turned his back on the TV and walked back to the work table. His big wicked looking Christmas rifle. "I wish I'd had more range time."
Nastasya looked around at the vehicles. The box truck was no surprise. Lord Axel had obviously driven it here after he'd moved the trees. The car . . . a big all terrain vehicle was a surprise. It had been here when she arrived.
"They're both registered to AIV Enterprises." Pauli shrugged. "The ATV was registered the day after AIV was incorporated. The box truck, ///last week. The day after we moved everything."
"I wish one of them was less conspicuous. I'd drive around looking for Axel, trying to get here." Nastaya eyed the old truck, and shook her head. "We need a popular make in a common color. One or two years old. Utterly unremarkable."
A rattle, a tapping at the front door. They grabbed weapons . . . "Let me get it, I look less threatening . . ."
A tall man, blond hair, the rest obscured by the frosty patterned appliques they'd stuck on the keep anyone from seeing in . . .
Vlad doesn't know where we are . . . A faint voice through the glass. "Have you heard the word of our Lord Jesus . . ."
She flipped the locks off, tore the door open, grabbed and hauled Axel in.
And sort of got half squashed as they gang hugged him.
Not the way we should be treating our Owner!
A muffled voice. "I'm glad to see you guys too! But I do need to breathe!"
And I hadn't realized that Barf and Dimitri were both taller than he is.
She let him go and elbowed Pauli back a bit to get out of his all-inclusive hug. Shut the door and locked it.
Lord Axel grinned. "So, you guys got any food? I skipped breakfast."
"What happened to you?" Nastsya shooed the boys out of the way, "Dimitri, move your gun! Pauli, zap something. Barf, keep your eye on him and don't let him get away without us to guard him."
"Oh, now. I suspect I can find much more interesting things for you four to do than baby sit me!"
The boys all grinned, of course.
Nastasya growled. And grabbed a soda from the fridge and plunked it down in front of him. "And that's a horrible wig!"
"It was all Dina had."
"Dina? All right. Can we have the story from the start? The news says you've been chipped!"
"Well . . . they moved faster than I'd expected. And may I say I am delighted that you four got out of Vinogradov House? I was ambushed in a grocery store, double stunned, and woke up in the recovery room . . ."
And he perfectly calmly told them all about escaping during that horribly disoriented first day that she remembered so well. About Dina in disguise just walking out of the snow and chattering him past the Stutts waiting in ambush at his house and taking him to hers.
He pulled a wine bottle and four-pack of splits out of his gymbag and set them on the table. And between bites talked casually about spying on the Rebels on "Someotherworld," and acquiring sample of the Plague and a substance that removed zivvy wires from the brain.
They all swapped their boggled gazes from him, to the wine and back.
"This is the zivvy dissolver. You four need to be very careful and handle it with gloves. If you wish to get rid of your executive plates, you probably can. But please wait until this invasion has been dealt with."
Pauli eyed the Lord. "Wh-what if any of us had g-gotten servant chips? You n-never undid anyone else."
"I only got this late last summer. Before that I had no options. I . . . had indigestion arguing with myself about dosing you four, if my ploy to get you executive chips failed.
"Now I've got an experimental permit, and was going to start with the bad grow-ins at Vinogradov House, but barely got started before all this came up." He finished the hot wrap and chased a few crumbs around the plate.
Pauli snatched it, and headed for the freezer.
"So, I had a little at the cliff house, and the next door neighbor's daughter, who had a horrible grow-in, and a fixation on a fictional hero with red hair, managed to get into the house and drank some. Dina's been improving ever since. And . . . planned out how to get me past the guards, and carried it out flawlessly."
"I spent the night at their house. The Stutts stormed the neighborhood and searched everywhere, totally missing me, hiding behind the pink shoes and a long skirt. So I spent yesterday and most of last night sleeping, eating, and drinking this stuff." He started in on the second hot wrap.
Nastasya squirmed, not wanting to ask.
Lord Axel's eyes gleamed and the corners of his mouth turned up. "I talked to Senior Detective Gargaran last night, they'll all be laying low. And perhaps I can get more information out of the police than the news reports. This morning I talked to my boss, and learned a few things and will be arranging a few things, before I head to Stuttgart to sabotage their gates."
His grin widened. "What? Was I supposed to hide until the boogie men went away? We have to take away their ability to import as many troops as they want, and we need to do it before we start giving them reasons to want a lot of troops."
Nastasya thumped down in a chair, and stared at him in horror. "But . . . you said seven days to get rid of the wires?"
"Yes. I'll take the stuff with me, and keep drinking it. I simply can't wait much longer. These people have no restraints on their actions."
Pauli reached and peeled his blond wig off. "W-we'll get you fixed up with b-better wigs, disguises, IDs, and b-backstories. H-how would you like to be the unfamous artist M-max Ignatov."
"Artist . . . Well . . . I did have painting lessions, but it's been . . . thirty years since I've weilded a paintbrush of that sort."
They all grinned.
"We've got all the supplies you'll need," Dimitri grinned.
Barf nodded. "We thought about trying to paint something, so you had something to show, but none of us had a clue."
"Good God. An artist." Axel started grinning. "That is going to work really well, now that I think about it."
"Now, Pauli, I'm going to need some special equipment installed in the ATV . . ."
Five in the freezing morning, and she was sitting on a bench, bundled up in her heaviest coat, armed to the teeth and pretending to read.
Lord Max Ignatov had his easel set up, and was swiping away at it, palette in hand. Black turtle-neck shirt, baggy tan pants, black wig topped off with a beret.
He is a walking stereotype. And he ought to be freezing.
She startled as two Cyborgs ran into the little plaza by the boardwalk. Utterly silent apart from their wheezing.
"Oh Gawd, don't tell me the boardwalk has become trendy!"
"Max" turned, brush and eyebrows raised. "Out of shape and rude. No wonder they don't let you out without me."
They both pounced, grabbing him, and dropping him suddenly as they heard the click of the safeties coming off of her pistols.
"Friends! Friends! No shooting friends allowed. Nastasya, the next time you draw on a Cyborg, you'd better have your shields up already!"
The biggest Cyborg started laughing. "How the hell did you . . . and with a pretty bodyguard?"
"Do you have a private Army?" The second Cyborg was still eyeing her.
She set the safeties and holstered the guns. Picked up the book, opened it to a random page and delicately turned to the next.
"No, just a few talented people. And yes, she can shoot with both guns at once and hit two different targets."
"Tasha, the big one is Ape, the bigger one is Murphy. You sort of met in Vinogradov House. You may trust them completely."
Murphy looked down at Lord Axel. "And now we see why this punishment run."
"Yes. Sorry about that. So, you may admire my brilliant painting while we talk about a substance I just happened to pick up late last summer . . . elsewhere . . . which dissolves zivvy wires, and if taken long enough will even dissolve chips. How it affects Cyborgs long term is unknown, but the way the Enemy and Rebels on wherever-that-was kicked our asses was simple. They'd get the Plague--more of a poison, it's not peson to person contageous--into the officers' water supply, and the zivvy dissolver into the cyborged native soldiers mess . . . and three days later, our army was suddenly their army."
"Under our current circumstances, the zivvy dissolver is going to be real handy for keeping the Stutts from just taking our guys. The problem is that I have no idea how this stuff will affect a kill switch."
They glanced at each other.
"There's a possibility that it could even trigger it. So while, being the curious sort, I have previously investigated disarming or removing the poison capsule, I have no idea if I could actually do it."
Another glance between them. And a chorus. "Volunteering!"
"Guys . . . I wouldn't even suggest this if Colonel Lehr hadn't asked the Boss for the controls."
Murph nodded. "I was there. He was really steamed that the Inquisitor's family escaped."
Ape elbowed him. "He means, 'took a vacation to Regulous.' Really Murph, you know better than to malign those vicious assholes."
Murph sighed, shook his head. "That's me, always saying the wrong thing. So get to work, Dr. Igor."
Fron Tasha's Point of view, the Cyborg just sat on the bench while Axel put his hand on his skull plate for a moment, then handed Murph one of the wine bottles. "Small sip."
"Yeah, there's going to be a huge black market in this stuff. Now hold still."
She could see the power, but not what he was doing with the little tools he pulled out of a pocket. Prying something? Unscrewing something, definitelty, and pulling something out after the screw that was wrapped up in a tiny physical shield.
The three of them examined it. "Yep. That looks like a binary poison to me." The Cyborg hunched his shoulders. "Now If I just don't die of brain fever . . ."
Axel tsked. "I've got a sterializing field up. So let me plug the hole before your brain leaks out . . ."
Then he did the same to Ape, and made them both drink more wine. Sent them off with two of the little bottles. "Half tomorrow, half the next day. Find out if there are any more guys with the kill switches. I'll be here tomorrow."
She watched them, and watched Axel watching them stagger out of sight around a curve of the road.
"They're good friends, aren't they?"
"The best. We've saved each other's lives so many times . . . celebrated victories, and mourned fallen comrades." He huffed out a long breath. "At least I didn't kill them on the spot. I think it'll work. But there's only one way to find out. And I hope it doesn't come to that."
"How many others have a kill switch?"
"I don't know. We lost people in the two battles, so we're really short on people, both Mentalists and Cyborgs. We lost two mentalists and two Cyborgs, one a leader type in the Invasion. Then two more Cyborgs in that battle in Vinogradov. I think Flap was a leader, and Juicy was a trainee."
"That was all Budapest Reborn, right?"
"Yep. And now we get to find out how to deal with a small army that's already through the portal." he turned to the canvas. "Ze light! Ze beautiful morning light has faded. We vill return tomorrow to finish my masterpiece!"
Nastasya raised an eyebrow and eyed the canvas. The deep blue of twilight lightened down ward, the rolling hills were layered in light to dark.
"It's not actually bad."
He gave her a wide eyed hurt look, while trying to not laugh.
They bought lots of camping gear and canned food.
The Artist worked over three Cyborgs the next moring. Declared his masterpiece done and they drove away.