_Fall of Empire_ part 39

Axel glanced at his watch. “I’ll probably be seeing him soon.

The campaign started out slowly, with magic lessons every morning. Weapons familiarization.

They took the missile system to the first Empty World to fire one missile, just to be sure it really did have an explosive warhead.

It really did.

And Cyborg repairs, since they weren’t just waiting for them to fall off. Not that even Igor could get them fully functional, but they only had to look good . . . and the new mil spec lasers, fifty-fifty on getting them functioning, and Lucky Seven, with an illusion of a proper uniform, helped the Rebels raid a barely guarded warehouse for uniforms for all of them.

And in uniform they drove their captured troop carrier right through the gates of the Germans main base and fought their way out with a huge load of weapons and ammunition. The lone Cyborg wandering through the Cyborgs’ mess never received a single glance. Slept in the barracks, dosed the Cyborgs twice more and started a whisper campaign before slipping out again.

Sam Ursa had really liked those magic lessons.

The Japanese were harder to fool, and Axel took them on himself. A light warp, an illusion, two short term memory wipes, and most of the Japanese Cyborgs were all dosed once, with their refrigerator contents thoroughly treated.

The German Cyborgs were a mix of halfbreed natives from other Worlds and captured Texans. The Occupation was only thirty-five years old, so the number of adult halfbreed Texans was low. And mostly sold on other Worlds to get them away from old loyalties. But the ones still here appeared to have infected their fellow Cyborgs with bad attitudes . . .

They got news of the riot at two in the morning. Siberia Max time.



Chapter Thirty-four

New Texas

April 22, 3740

Axel kissed his sleepy bride goodbye and headed for the construction camp. Murphy met him there with an armored up ATV and both their armor sets.

“Is that a good idea?” Axel hesitated, then started stripping. “I sort of wanted to avoid it looking like Siberia Max was involved, just us two insane idiots.”

“The two insane idiots can feel guilty about it when they get back alive.”

“Point.” Axel straightened and glowered at the approaching vehicle.

Four grins from the Rangers. The ATV appeared to be heavily loaded, and the kids had civilian armor on, and helmets handy.

“Oh God. Forgive me for what I have done.”

They laughed. And drove through the corridor.

Axel cursed and pulled on the ballistic layer, stomped into the boots, clipped on the leg armor, got joined chest and back plates on and clamped the sides, both arms . . . abandoned the car and climbed into the AATV.

Murphy grinned and gunned it through the corridor, the gate, across the valley. Through another gate out onto the rocky desolation of New Texas. And a corridor to their capital city.

Big Jake was there, yelling. “Dammit I should be out there fighting! The Japs are on their way to help, which mean they will wipe out the Cyborgs.”

Axel jumped out and hustled after Murphy, who was shaking his head. “No they won’t, they’ll turn around as soon as we hit their portals.”

They turned and gawped at him . . . then started grinning.

Hondo nodded. “Half our boys are out there at the riot. The other half is here, and you . . . two look a bit dangerous.”

Murph grinned. “Yep. We are. Where are the missiles?”

“Still in the warehouse. We taking them?”

“Yeah.”

Axel pulled out his city map. “The Japanese portals are the red stars, the beacons the red dots. Germans, green. We should hit the Portal closest to the riot first. Just a hit-and-run, then off to the next.”

Murph nodded. “Which is when the Japs will forget about seizing the opportunity to wipe out the Germans.”

“Mean time,” Axel pointed. “Dimitri needs to be on a vantage where he can see one of the beacons. And try to shoot and shred anything coming though a portal from Nagoya. Do you have any snipers? Right then, Var, for the other. He’ll need a closer vantage than Dimitri.”

“Now, we need to get into the communications and the grid. Got any friendly police stations? Excellent. Get Pauli in there.”

“Natsha, get with the Rebels communications, see where reinforcements or ammunition needs to go, and medical evacuation. What sort of setup do you have for that?” Uneasy looks from the head guys. “Natasha, find . . .” He shut up at her grin.

“Suitable vehicles to sub for ambulances? And people who can pass for medics, get them set up with phones that can’t be blocked and will mesh with the two comm setups one of which Pauli is unloading here as we speak? Guards and enough muscle types that they can get people into those ambulances? We set that up two weeks ago, and they’re already at work.” She flashed a grin and trotted off . . . to side room where half a dozen of the high school gang were hauling in furniture . . .

“I . . . hadn’t realized they were so involved . . .”

Twenty-five snickered as he walked past. “They’re proper Texas Rangers by now.”

Dimitri and Var with their rifles were climbing into ordinary looking cars . . .

“I see.” Axel swallowed. “So, Murph. Shall we go party?”

“Yep.”

The missile crew crews load into the big black trucks, Lucky Seven took the wheel of the Armored ATV, Murph riding shotgun. Axel joined the other riflemen in the back, he window down and pulling power to shield or strike at need.


_Fall of Empire_ part 38

Dr. Heath was very disturbed by what little information he had about the pinning.

“Heal? Certainly. Without scar tissue that will permanently impact the victim? No guarantee. And anything involving the memory areas will mean permanently lost memories, even if the brain heals perfectly. This is very disturbing!”

“Yes. And . . . I am not sure but that my restoring some people’s power isn’t involved. Do you have a potion to remove this mage gene?”

A snort from behind him. Wolfson had walked silently in. “But will we give something so dangerous to us, to you?”

“Oh. Well . . .”

“I have a version that is not a von Neumanns.” Dr. Heath sniffed. “How many do you need?”

“Unfortunately I found that a third of your sort of dosage was quite sufficient for a bunch of little old men.” Xen glanced at Wolfson. Possibly an inch taller than Murphy, broad shouldered, muscular. “Not to my surprise, but I dosed a lot more than two dozen people.”

“Hmph. Just a moment.” She disappeared without even a puff of displaced air.

Axel eyed Wolfson. “And you didn’t forbid it?”

The man grinned. “And get her mad at me? No. But you’d better not use it on anyone I know.”

“Only on my own leaders. If this permission to pin is from their level. If it’s anyone else . . . then my leaders ought to be able to stop them.” He sighed. “I thought they could stop the flood of invasions, if they had power again.”

“The problem with this potion is that it’ll remove the power genes on the X and Y chromosomes.” Gisele popped out of nowhere. “So you are in danger.”

“Oh, that . . . wizard gene?” Axel shrugged. “So far, their search for someone with the ability to make zivvy has turned up a single individual . . . me. So me losing power might be a good thing. Or dying. There’s always that option.” He took the stacked cartons from her. “Thank you. I really hope I don’t need to use them.”

***

The construction camp was full of kids, outrage, and food.

Murphy hugged him.

“Yeah. I think I’ve fan-danced along that line in the sand long enough. Time to hoist the Jolly Roger and kick some ass.” Axel looked over the crowd, most of whom were looking his direction, and raised his voice.

“There is a Concord of Worlds, outside of the Alliance. With a Department of Interdimensional Security and Cooperation. Disco, the Dimension Cops. Where people go with their gripes. They don’t much like the Alliance, and New Texas has come to their attention.

“I went to them to see if they knew what was going on, on New Texas, and found the Texas Rebels and the Germans yelling at each other in the forum. I talked to President Lobo. He was in the Germans’ faces over this, and once I hauled him off and got him calmed down he agreed to having Wolfson open a chain of permanent Portals to here. So you can get home, or your parents can come here, or you can meet in the middle . . . and,” he pointed, “I think they’re here.”

He pulled power as he walked over to the odd distortion . . . that opened up to Xen Wolfson stepping out into the tall grasses just outside their mowed and trampled area.

Behind him a blindingly bright desert, and Big Jake, with company. Axel relaxed and waved them all through. “So how many gates did it take to get here?”

“Three, with two nice worlds in between.” Wolfson looked around. “Road building . . . your Cyborgs look a bit beyond battered.”

Eleven rolled up. “Yep, anyone with any sense would be stickin’ closer to the Docs, but we’re Texans by-and-large. No common sense at all.” He looked past Wolfson to the people coming through and rushing to meet children. “And I’ve got to say, for a culture that produces so many horrible people, the few good ones are damn good.”

Wolfson nodded. “I’m beginning to realize that. And . . . I think I’ll leave before I hear anything I ought to stop.”

Axel grinned. “I think it’s going to be party central for awhile, here. We’ll start plotting later.”

He watched the man leave, then turned back to where Murphy was kidding “Skippy” about having a kid . . . “Four of them you big ass.” And Big Jake was hugging a little brown-haired girl and . . . there was a whole lot of hugging and crying going on. He walked clear of the party, and over to the graded road, pulling the metal tab out of his pocket.

Pauli trotted up, grinning. “Suddenly I think I see your nefarious plot. Going to send them off with everyone?”

“Well, I’d recommend some more Mentalist training, some more healing, and some sneaky stuff first.” He looked over his shoulder at . . . “Are you Honcho, or something like that?”

“Hondo. And . . . we still don’t trust you.”

“Smart man.” He handed the tab to Pauli. “Back them out and we’ll see if these gentlemen want them.”

They scowled at the opening bag, the bubble edges hooked a round the corners of the slab and frame. Brows rose as they spotted the rack of missiles . . . people drifted over . . .

“It was a hell of a shopping trip. I didn’t even have to show ID to buy these babies. Unfortunately they only had the dozen missiles on hand.”

Pauli backed them out and then the missile launcher.

Murphy walked up and whistled. “You weren’t kidding about hoisting the Jolly Roger, were you?”

Big Jake eyed him. “Going to be a pirate?”

“There’s this line in the sand called treason. I’ve stuck a toe over the line a time or two, and jerked it back in time to either escape notice or be forgiven. I thought, without zivvy, I’dnever need to think about it again . . . But this pinning simply can’t be allowed.

“And New Texas where I’m going to start trimming back the cancers.”

“Huh, your idea of trimming looks interesting. Good job, Igor.” Murphy thumped his shoulder and walked up to examine the equipment.

Hondo snorted. “So, you said sneaky stuff first?”

“Yes. We need to get the zivvy remover into as many Cyborg troops over there as possible.”

A cackle from Eleven. “Yeah! That stuff just cleaned out my brains. Their whole army . . . hehehehe. Yes!”

“And more mentalist lessons.” Axel looked Big Jake in the eye. “About half of you are completely untrained Powers. We trained Murphy and he’s mind-bogglingly strong. One week, and I’ll bet you guys can hold at least mental shields, with energy, or physical a possibility. Beginners’ class starts in five minutes.”

***

“So, what’s the schedule look like today?” Axel strolled over to Ivan Agapov’s desk.

“It’s pretty empty, which I suspect means you’ll be wanting it for something.”

“Eh, I just want to see what sort of detection and surveillance we can do. Wasn’t planning on opening any Portals.”

Ivan waved at his screen. “Well, nothing for three hours, so please do go and keep them from goofing off on the job.”

Axel grinned and headed for the basement.

“So. I’ve got some of those permanent stubby gates set up. Let’s see if you can find them, in case the next one is from someone we don’t like. So find the one attached to Siberia Max, and see if you can trace them back to where they’re coming from. And then see if you can spy on the supposed enemy’s activity.”

“Supposed Enemy?”

“Well, I happen to know what’s going on there, having recently talked to their President. Now let’s find out if you can detect this test problem, and figure it out. You’ve got three hours, until the next scheduled Portal run.” He grinned and settled in a corner. “Nope. No more clues. Go get ‘em!”

It took them ten minutes to find the gate, and decide it was attached to the south a hundred to two hundred miles away. Tracing it through two worlds to “It ends at the third World, and that World has four power portal facilities of its own, one of which shows no activity, plus three working beacons. Two had attachments from the same world, which is over in the Japanese division. The other portal had one attachment from German World.”

“Very nice!” Axel grinned. “And can you see exactly where these portal facilities and beacons are on that World?”

They had them roughly located as “Middle of North America, which is still attached to Europe,” before they had to get to work.

Axel wandered off, and dug up a map of New Texas. No doubt at all that interesting continental configuration was the right one. And a map of Mauve, their capital city, which was in the middle of “North America.”

A quick consult with Eleven. “Everyone’s off admiring the two in-between Worlds. What can I do for you?”

“Map work. I need the Portal facility locations, and I’m afraid my maps are probably out of date.”

“I’ll send a messenger.” A smile in his voice. “Lots of people are coming and going, with Murphy grousing about having to get back for his shift.”


_Fall of Empire_ part 37

Chapter Thirty-three

Shindig

May 30, 3740

Axel was heartily tired of the utterly pointless state dinner before the halfway point. Smiling and conversing with the merchants from other Worlds seated down the table around him.

“. . . too new to have sufficient data and there’s no way they’ll do that to my little girl before I’ve seen some good results with solid statistics.” The stout fellow across the table looked worried.

The other were a mixed bag, and Axel easily classified them as wanting a return of the old steady state life.

But they finally finished up with an indifferent cake, and Axel excused himself as soon as the head of the table rose. Smiled politely as he headed for the door, and managed to make the last portal to Orion for the day. Waited for the Regulus portal, stopped to talk to Shura Krupin then, around to the Siberia Max Beacons, where they’d quit for the day, but the Research Center quad picked up his mag pulse and opened a portal for him.

A quick check with Pauli—who was trying to hide how much fun he was having—and Murphy, who was pissed.

“Dammit, those . . . opportunistic assholes! ‘Get in the bus, we’ll get you out of here!’ Fortunately it only happened once, at a school in danger of being over run by the Japs.” Murphy growled. “Let me send you the list. Maybe Wolfson will pass it on. The kids don’t know of anyone else having been captured this way, but you might ask him to ask over there.”

“Will do. I’ll call you when I get back.”

Wash the dye out of his hair, kiss his wife, don casual clothes, and pick up the ATV at the warehouse.

He drove through the last gate and into Embassy before midnight his time, and mid-afternoon Pacific time.

The threat of the big black Disco building was nearly overwhelmed by the angry glows emanating from inside.

Axel parked the ATV on the grass and walked the rest of the way into town. Braced himself, and his mental shield, and walked up the steps and into the Disco Building. Inside, the building’s threat aura disappeared. The anger was augmented with raised voices in a mishmash of languages, mostly German and English.

Axel nodded to the alarmed woman at the reception desk and stepped to the door of the Assembly Room.

The seated spectators had apparently shifted to give the argument plenty of clear space. Two knots of angry men, their spokespersons face to face, were yelling at each other, rather than facing the podium and the two older men there.

“. . . that Quisling never ought to have signed a treaty with you, but now you’ve broken it and the war is on!”

Uncle Jake. Excellent, so long as he doesn’t get himself killed.

“Big Jake” Lobo, the very unofficially elected president of a World conquered by the German Tier Four Merzig, towered over the red faced German representative.

Who was yelling back. “. . . don’t care what you Livestock think. There shouldn’t be any free areas at all, let alone one that close to OUR City!”

And Big Jake baring his teeth. “Oh? If you believe in right of conquest, shouldn’t you admit that it’s now a Japanese city?”

“Not for long! Then we’ll punish you Natives for not supporting us!”

“If you wanted support, you ought to have helped us evacuate, not used the Japs as an excuse for one last slave raid of underage children. Give us back our children, then we’ll talk about cooperation!”

Axel braced his shoulders and strolled down the aisle. One of the rebels spotted him, recognized him, and nudged Big Jake.

Who narrowed his eyes. “And here’s a Russian Asshole to join in. Whose side are you on, this time, Rooskie?”

“I just thought I should mention that I rescued some kidnapped children—a hundred and twenty-three of them—and came to find out if this was all of them, or if there were more people who needed to be rescued?”

A momentary pause while both sides readjusted their aim . . .

“Whoever the hell you are, you’d better not interfere on Crailsheim!”

“It’s New Texas, you German Mutant.” Big Jake turned to loom a Axel. In as much as he was as tall and broad as his nephew Little Johnny Lobo AKA Murphy, it was quite easy.

“They are safe, they are well. No rape, no chipping. Is one hundred twenty-three all of them?”

“Yes.” Eyes narrowed, thinking.

“We need to talk, quietly, somewhere else, about how to get them safely home.”

“So we can grab them again.”

A heavy hand on his shoulder. Axel eyed it. “Remove your hand or lose it. I don’t like slavery and I don’t like you.”

The hand left his shoulder and returned to point a finger at him, inches from his nose. “I recognize you! You broke into Folsom Prison and released a condemned criminal!” A nasty smile. “Orders are out in both Jap and German areas to kill you on sight.”

“Go away. The Free People around here need to talk, and scum like you have no say in our councils.”

“You! And him!” The finger swung to point at Big Jake. “You are both going to die!”

“Everyone dies. The point of living is to be proud of what you have done with your life when it comes to an end.” Axel turned his back on them. “President Lobo, let’s talk privately. And perhaps with Captain Wolfson.”

“Good idea.” Wolfson’s deep voice.

A slight jolt and they were in another room. A table and chairs crammed to the side. Axel, and all the Texans.

Wolfson waved at the table, “I had to shove it all out of the way so I could grab the whole group. Pull up chairs and let’s talk.”

Axel swapped to English. “Are my hundred and twenty-three the immediate issue?” He shifted chairs and grabbed one end of the table to drag it out centrally. Wolfson took the other end, and they all sat.

Axel pulled out his computer and brought up the list of the missing kids. “This is who we’ve got.” He slid it down the table.

Big Jake flicked a glance at it, passed it to the next guy. “Yes. The immediate problem. There’s always a few damn fool kids to venture into the wrong part of town and never come back. And old fools who send kids out on spy missions . . . who come back decades later to save his sorry ass.”

“Murphy now is probably going to be the one who kicks these people off your world.” Axel swapped looks from Wolfson and back to Big Jake. “I just heard about a new control procedure called ‘pinning.’ Do you know anything about it?”

Big Jake nodded. “The Japs have been doing it for some time, and now the Germans are talking about doing it.”

Axel nodded. “Do you have any details about it? I just first heard about it a few hours ago.”

“No Hari, they call it.” One of the Texans glared down the table at him. “Did they . . .”

Axel shook his head. “No. I was one of a group being given a guided tour of a marketplace and wandered off to see what they weren’t showing us, and found your kids. The salesman said they had a medic coming the next day to ‘pin’ them. New procedure, good as zivvy, he said.”

A universal growl, a lot of aural flares.

A bunch of these Cowboys are Powers. I’ll bet they have nothing but subconscious shields.

“So I bought them, and got them out of there. Now let’s talk about how to get them home safely.” Axel eyed the Texans. “Are there places on New Texas where they will be safe?”

“Yeah. Anyplace not fit to live in. Deserts, and the arctic.”

“Hmm,” Axel looked over at Wolfson. “Do you know where Siberia Max is?”

“Not exactly. We’ve caught conversations mentioning it, usually in conjunction with ‘and you wouldn’t believe what Axel Vinogradov did!’ type comments, except half the time it’s ‘Igor’ instead.”

“The Fast Reaction Teams use call signs. Especially with the Cyborgs having numbers for names, it make clear communication easier. So Thirty-four is Murphy and I’m Igor.” Axel leaned back. “I get the impression that we can’t detect your sort of portal?”

“Most of your worlds can’t, unless they catch the attachment magnetic spike.”

“I see. So you know where New Texas is, and roughly where Siberia Max is. If you could link them . . . better put at least one world in between, because even I am not so trusting . . . but put your gates in uninhabitable areas, and then corridors to a hopefully safe, livable area. If the far end of the corridor had handles, the Texans could move it away to a new safe place if there was a threat.”

Big Jake narrowed his eyes. “And bring the kids home.”

Axel eyed Wolfson. “If the between World was a nice Empty World, they could evacuate threatened areas, whenever they needed to.”

Wolfson eyed him, nodded. “All you have to do is trust me enough to tell me where your world is.”

“If you have been looking at the area, you may have noticed a lot of Portal activity from an extreme Ice Age World.”

Wolfson blinked. “The one with a single city down in the Mediterranean Basin? Half wrapped around Malta? That single city has been causing that much grief and fury?”

“What can I say? We are very, very good.” Axel spread an illusion. “A gate up here in the Sahara Desert, a corridor down to here . . . There is a construction camp a few miles south of the highway. That is where I sent the kids.”

The Texans glared. “To a construction camp! Are you insane?”

“Run by badly battered Cyborgs, more than half from New Texas. Kids are safe there. Murphy is there.”

Wolfson was eyeing Axel thoughtfully. “Sounds like the best way . . . to get the kids home.”

“As representative of my World, I authorize Disco to open a single permanent gate style portal from an Empty World to Siberia Max at roughly this location,” tapping the illusionary map, “and install a corridor from there to here.”

Wolfson waved his hand and another map formed down the table.

Big Jake nodded. “As the elected President of a people under attack, Ah authorize, fer what that’s worth, Disco to stick a gate out here coming from an Empty World . . . and a corridor to this little town, where Ah’ll take possession of the corridor handles.”

Wolfson nodded. “Agreed. Please wait here a moment, while I escort the German’s off. Then I’ll I’ll get President Lobo and his people home.” He eyed Axel.

“I’m going to talk to Dr. Heath about this No Hari, then I’ll get myself back home.”

Wolfgang got up and walked out. Shut the door behind him.

Axel looked at Big Jake. “Did I mention that the battered construction workers were soldiers? And that Murphy may have been collecting some weaponry? No? Well, we’ll talk further, later, about just what’s going to be passing through those gates.”

Big Jake grinned. “Yah know, yer not too bad fer a Russian asshole.”

“Oh . . . I’m about to become a very bad Russian asshole.”

_Fall of Empire_ part 36

Chapter Thirty-two

The Straw that Broke . . .

May 30, 3740

Murphy answered the other phone . . . saw who was calling. “Pauli? Igor in trouble?”

“Define trouble. He sent me back with a hundred and twenty-three high school kids from some place call New Texas . . . Murph? You all right?”

“I’m. Fine.”

“Yeah . . . Well, he said to take them to the road construction camp, but the bus is electric so it’s going to have to drop us well short of the cut off. So I’m going to call Natasha for transport and an extra large food delivery.”

“I’ll help with both. Go as far as the bus dares, and unload. We’ll find you. With food. Where’s Igor?”

“Left him on Trotsky. He said he’d go to Embassy and see if they knew what was going on. I suppose he’ll have to come through here, to get there.”

“Yeah. I’ll talk to him then.” Murphy hung up with carefully controlled motions. Look around. People were eyeing him. His glow must have spiked or something.

“Murph?” The Inquisitor hustled in from the front.

“Damn, sorry, I must have really over-reacted. Pauli called about Igor’s newest surprise project. I think I should go see how . . . interesting this one is going to be.”

“I can’t see how he could top your Cyborgs, but Igor . . .”

“A hundred-plus high school students?” Hideous thought. “I hope it has nothing to do with this pin abomination.”

The Inquisitor paled. “Go find out. I’ll finish the portal watch.”

Murph nodded and headed for the locker room. Called the vehicle department and checked out a personnel carrier. Called Eleven and told him to send vehicles. Then into civvies, and he still scared the other shoppers at the bulk Food Mart.

By the time he got out the South Lake Road, the bus was parked at the side of the road, a crowd spread around the grassy slope uphill of it. Kids. Some with the mature, muscular look of the school jocks. Most of them still in the scrawny growth spurt stage. Hell, half looked like puberty hadn’t struck yet. All of them eyeing the big black armored vehicle with alarm, a few looking like they were about to take off over the hills.

Good thing I changed out of the armor!

He climbed down and spotted Pauli, and walked that direction. Definitely Texans, they looked like all the kids he’d grown up with . . . “So the Krauts are raiding the schools now? What happened?” He noticed he’d slipped into English as the kids sort of relaxed.

One of the jocks swallowed. “The Japs were taking the area. They got the younger kids out first . . . then this German lord came in a bus and said he’d take the rest of us, we all crammed in . . . only he drove around to the German held area around their Portal and placed a legal claim on us, and then drove us straight to this damned . . . meat market, and they were all speaking Russian, so we didn’t actually know what they were saying but it was pretty damned clear what was going on.”

The little brown haired girl nodded. “Then Pauli and his Boss came and bought us all. Got us on another bus . . . and here we are.” She looked up at him and sort of eased back and behind Pauli.

“And other than home with your families, the best possible place to wind up.” He looked up the road where a truck and low boy were cresting the nearest hill. “But the ride to the camp may be a bit interesting on that. The crew’s about three-quarters Texan, and all beaten up Cyborgs. They’re building a road, at the moment, and have a big camp about twenty miles from here. I suspect we’ll keep you kids there until we figure out if it’s safe to send you home.”

Murphy looked around the field, then back at the bus. “You all fit into one bus?”

“We squeezed.” The little brown haired girl shrugged. “Some of us are pretty skinny.”

The truck pulled up and Twenty-five climbed out. “Hey, Murph, where the hell’d you get the kids?” his left arm was battered to near uselessness, the right arm healed now, a drunken spider web of scars, missing three and half fingers. But he could drive.

“Igor’s catch this time.”

“Huh. Anything to do with that new pinning crap we heard about on the news?” The battered Cyborg was eyeing a girl elbowing through the crowd . . . “Annabel Lee?”

“Denny! I thought that sounded like you!” She rushed up closer, stopped dead and burst into tears.

“Oh, c’mon Sis, Ah don’t look that bad, do Ah?” The broad drawl and wide smile faded suddenly. “Are you all right? What happened?”

So the story circled again. And down on the road, Natasha with the box truck and a kid with an extended van parked. Pauli walked down and talked to them, to the bus driver, and then the bus was turning carefully and heading back toward town. Natasha trotted up the slope and started organizing the kids, told Twenty-five to turn his rig around . . .

Pauli grinned over at Murphy. “Don’t ever tell Tash that I said her bossy ways are useful.”

They managed half the kids at a time, only bounced a couple of kids off the low boy on the rough bulldozed road, and got the kids settled south of the construction camp. Lucky Seven took over the low boy for the return trip, as Annabel Lee wasn’t going to let her big brother out of sight. And a couple other Cyborgs were known to the other kids . . .

The little brown haired girl was Lobo clan and Murphy knew her dad. And Cal turned out to be Calhoun Badger the third, which had Murphy gawping “Skippy’s got a kid? Holly Cow.”

And the big jock-type boy’s eyes widened. “You’re him aren’t you! You rescued Big Jake, broke him out of Folsom Prison!”

“Yeah, well, Igor did the breaking out part, we supplied the diversion, and the ride outta there. Didn’t you wonder about the redhead that rescued you?”

Pauli looked over. “He dyed his hair brown. He didn’t want to be recognized.”

“Ooo! That was the Red Rooskie? We’ve all heard the story.” This boy, Billy Equis, looked up. “Thought they were exaggeratin’ how big the Cyborg was.”

They all looked up at Murphy and grinned.




_Fall of Empire_ part 35

Chapter Thirty-one

Road Trip

May 31, 3740

The kids filled the bus, cramming into the seats and hanging out into the aisle and Pauli grinned at the expressions on the faces of the kids who were finding no seats in the rear and didn’t want to sit near him.

“Oh Kay. My English is not as good as boss’s, but we get by. Everyone sit. somewhere, on floor is okay. We go through three Portals. Depending on s-schedules, could be safe in two hours. Shouldn’t be much longer.” He looked over at the driver and switched back to Russian. “How does the p-portal schedule look?”

“Hour and a half wait for the next Portal to Orion. At least they’ve added a couple a day. For a while it was once a week.” The driver put the bus in gear and pulled out into light traffic.

Pauli looked back at the kids. “Just as w-well, stop at the facilities so the k-kids can hit the head. Who kn-nows what they’ve been eating and drinking for the l-last few days.”

“Sheesh. I hate this damned World. And your boss, buying children wholesale.”

Ah. He spotted my plate, so I’m officially one of the oppressed masses.

“Eh, not his u-usual thing, but wh-when the salesman t-told him about this ‘pinning’ . . . Never heard about it, myself, s-sounds horrible.”

The driver nodded. “They announced it last week, like it was a great new breakthrough. The Inquisitors approved it as a replacement for chipping, until the zivvy is back in production.”

“The guy at the m-market back there? He m-made it sound like the medic was g-going to come around and do it r-right there. No st-sterile hospital? They are g-going to kill half the p-people they ‘pin’ with brain f-fever.”

“God! I hadn’t heard that. Surely . . .”

Pauli nodded. “I h-hope was just the salesman r-running off at the m-mouth. Otherwise, as s-soon as Lords’ little d-darlings, getting r-ready for their w-weddings start dying . . . those m-medics and any politicians that p-pushed this horror are g-going to get strung up.”

“Da. And the damned Inquisitors, too.”

Pauli nodded. The ones I’ve been meeting across are snobby in the worst way. Our Inquisitor and his staff are good people.

The bus turned again and passed through the gates of a portal facility. The driver pointed. “Public restrooms along that side. I’d recommend the girls stick together and make sure none of them stray.”

“Right.” Pauli swapped languages, “Restroom stop. Girls please, stay in groups. Men here can be . . . odd. Guys, if you wish to escape, I recommend you wait until out to far end of branch where we are out of zivvy and kids are not getting chipped at all. Better yet, stick with us, and get home as soon as safe.”

“What if it doesn’t get safe?” They started following him off the bus.

Pauli grinned. “I am Super Computer Guy. I get you all into system as local kids. No problem.” He spotted some big guy drifting their direction. “Except what is good term? Men who crawl?”

A girl snickered. “Creep? Yeah they look like creeps.”

Pauli walked over and stood between them and the restrooms while the kids hustled.

“Hey kid, you think you can stand up to real men.”

“Yes.” Pauli just stood and looked at the trio. Put up a physical shield to the side and behind himself to block another fellow. The guys were in and out quickly, the girls took more time . . .

A couple of the guys walked up and stood beside him, glaring at the men, most of who were shrugging and walking away.

“You don’t look all that much older than we are.” One of the kids loomed, and had the height and muscles to carry it off.

Pauli shrugged. “I’m almost twenty.”

“We could get away from you.”

Pauli nodded. “And then d-do what? Hide in the alleys and eat out of garbage cans until the police f-find you? You don’t even speak the language here—this is Russian World. Better you find out if we can be trusted, get further away from place expecting runaways, learn Russian—not that I think you will be there very long.”

The kids—he had a pretty good crowd now—looked skeptical.

“Boss has good face for not showing anger. But I know he was very mad. You do not realize how dangerous that is, to have that man angry at you. And he is absolute . . . I do not know the word . . . he wants no slaves, no chipping, no zivvy ever. This thing they had planned for you . . . he was very mad. Good thing no one try to stop him.” He craned his neck. “Let’s go . . .”

He only had to fetch two girls hiding in the women’s lav and tipped the two Portal cops who returned the sullen and bruised boy they’d caught trying to sneak out the gate.

A quick head count showed he had them all aboard and the driver lined up for the Portal.

Pauli eyed the men going vehicle-to-vehicle. Stood up and looked down the aisle. “They are checking everything. Our paperwork is good, but they may be a bit . . .”

He paused, trying to think how to word it. “You g-girls, right here in front especially? If you can look sick, like they did the p-pin thing, maybe . . .” He bent his head to the side, mouth sagged open. “Maybe the water?” a swipe at the corner of his mouth.

“Drool?” The little brunette crushed into the middle of the front seat looked disbelieving.

“Da. Drool. Boys, too, so th-they think all of you . . .”

Then the driver opened the door for the inspectors.

Pauli extended the pad with the “paperwork,” turned his head so they could put the chip reader against his head. Stepped back into the aisle so they could check the driver.

The lead guy turned to the kids, a nasty grin . . . slipping into perplexity. “What’s wrong with them?”

Pauli glanced back. “It’s that n-new procedure. ‘Pinning’ they call it. I’m s-surprised they even s-survived it, and who knows if they’ll ever be useful? For anything. I’d as soon f-fuck a corpse.”

“Yeesh, what a waste!” The man backed out and headed for the truck that was pulling up behind them. The doors swung shut and the bus driver heaved a relieved breath.

Pauli grinned. “Very good drool. Scared him away.”

The little brunette snickered. “Not that I understood what he was saying, but he was creepy. Umm, I’m Rita Valentine Lobo, this is Suzy Mariah Badger.”

“I am Pauli . . . Igorov. Pleased the meet all of you.” He grabbed a pole as the bus shifted forward, “And now we will hopefully be on my home world quickly and get you settled while the Boss finds out what is happening on New Texas.”

A twist of the Portal crossing, and they were on Orion, where apparently they’d given Regulus permission to Open Portals, and their timing was right. They drove two miles and straight through to Regulus. Then a half hour wait for Siberia Max.

On the other side, armored Cyborgs were checking the incoming vehicles, and the driver muttered uneasily.

“No problem,” Pauli grinned over at Rita. “No drool needed.”

The driver opened the door, and recoiled from the armored Cyborg.

“Hi, Pike. Meet Igor’s new project.” Pauli frowned at the new logo across the armor. A green bar, a brown square sticking up from it?

“Hey, Pauli . . . Good grief, school kids?”

“Yeah he’s steamed, you wouldn’t believe what they had planned.”

“That pinning? The news came through this morning and everyone’s upset about it. So Igor’s rescuing kids.” Pauli could hear the grin in the Cyborg’s voice. “No surprise. Have a nice trip.”

“Thanks! Oh, I get it.” He pointed the armor. “Grasslands and Malta, right?”

“Exactly.”

The driver shut the door. “You know them?”

“Yeah. My boss? That’s the guy they based those ‘Igor’ movies on. He can do pretty much anything he wants here. Three blocks then take a right.” Pauli pulled out his phone and started tapping. Time to warn people about a hundred and twenty-three incoming high school kids . . .




_Fall of Empire_ part 34

“Hey, I was a weedy little seventeen-year-old. But I had high hopes.” Axel grinned and tossed his case and the long formal jacket into the back. “In case they get extra formal, but the suit ought to be good enough. And I have all the dimensional bags along since I’m a corporate buyer. Rumor has it they sell everything there, and I have a list . . .

“So, let’s just see what Tier Two Trotsky has to say.”

They followed Governor Berezin’s Limo through Portal Two to Regulus with the ordinary traffic, and met up with the Regulans  at their Portal three that was now working around the clock, and travelled as a group to Orion and had a pre-meeting, meeting with them and all the reps from Orion’s other vassel Worlds.

Standing around on the concrete, waiting for their portal connection.

Just a rah-rah ‘We’re all in this together,’ and ‘We need to all be friendly with our root World’ and  . . . finally they all got back into their cars and lined up to cross  when Tier Two Trotsky opened their Portal to them.

Where they got wined and dined and told how important their branch was to Trotsky . . .

Evgeny Chernov sighed and rolled his eyes. “Today I’m one of my governor’s aides. How about you?”

“Trade delegation rep, with purchasing power.” Axel shrugged. “And frankly relieved that the meeting is all feel-good and trying to pretend they haven’t been ignoring the branch so hard they some how have missed four incursions, the next-to-last a very serious and damaging all-out invasion.”

Then a guided tour of the “Market Place of the Trotsky Branch.” An annual convention with wares of all sorts both on display for ordering, and off in the back blocks, the actual merchandise on offer.

“Upscale village market day.” Evgeny snickered as he followed Axel as he slipped away from the tour group.

Axel nodded and grinned at Pauli’s wide-eyed gawp at the heavy weaponry on sale.

He stopped to eye the two big trucks. One pulling a missile launcher, the other with a trailer with a rack of a dozen missiles. “A bit smaller than our Teams used on Regulus . . . Let me see the specks? What explosives are you . . .”

Evgeny blinked. “Are you actually considering . . . What are you going to do with them?”

“We used up about three-fourths of our inventory on Regulus, and while we’ve got orders for the missiles, fact is we had to drag out and dust off the specs for the factories, which will be getting around to starting production any day now . . . So, yes, I am paranoid enough to be considering actually buying this setup.” He looked around at the smiling sells rep. “So long as I can take it with me today.”

The man patted the nearest truck. “She’s gassed up and ready to go, and those warheads are the real deal, not display dummies!”

 “Good God.” Evgeny sounded shocked. “I had no idea you could just walk up and buy . . .”

Axel thumb printed the sales panel and they drove off to an alley where he had to stretch the concrete pad and over head supports in a bag designed to hold two limos, to accommodate the trailers, and bubbled both rigs. He and the grinning Pauli walked back to the market . . . and found an even less savory part of the market. The part selling live merchandise. Cyborg guards and soldiers. Techs and mechanics.

A crowd of teenagers, looking frightened and exhausted. But not dull.

Axel eyed the seller. “They don’t look chipped.”

The seller shrugged. “The supply of zivvy’s too irregular, and too expensive when it can be found. We’re getting a medic in to pin them tomorrow.”

“Pin? What do you mean?”

“Well . . . It’s new, a mini lobotomy, so to speak. Just two quick drills and jabs, in the right places to kill Mentalist abilities and soften up agency.”

Axel froze. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“No, really, it been approved by the Office of the Inquisition. Includes a subdermal ID chip and these nice young healthy specimens will be just the workers you need. Fresh high School graduates. My company acquired a whole graduating class . . . Sixty-three young men, and sixty women.”

Axel snorted. “Half of them with brain fever by next week. But my company has access to zivvy.” He forced his hands to relax. No shaking allowed! He raised his voice, watching the kids. “Do you lot speak Russian?”

Blank looks, but the boys were standing between the girls and the . . . customers.

Switch languages. “So you’re German?”

A few frowns coming his direction.

He caught a few whispers. Shit. “English, then.” Yeah all the eyes focused on him. He snorted and looked back at the seller. “So they don’t speak either German or Russian? What good are they?”

“They’re young and healthy. The potential is huge. A bargain at five thousand a head.”

Axel snorted. “A risky proposition at three. Good grief. Five thousand is a good price for already chipped servants and factory workers and we both know it.” He turned and started scanning. Definitely in the cheap area back here. “I need to check out the Cyborgs. That’s where the profit’s going to be.”

“I could go four thousand. That’s at cost, just because I need to shift inventory.”

If he says he’s cutting his throat, I’ll be tempted to do it for him . . . “A hundred and twenty-three of them? I’ll go three hundred thousand for the lot.”

“Sold!”

The breathless relief had Axel eyeing him. “Not so sure of the safety of this pinning, are you?”

“Well, I’ve never seen it myself. They say it’s good.” But his head was down over his sales pad, not meeting anyone’s eyes.

Axel read it—standard contract—thumb printed it, and was not nauseous at the thought of owning a herd of children. Not.

“Pauli, find a bus we can charter for a trip to Siberia Max.” He stepped up to the enclosure. “So, you speak English? Where are you from?”

Hostile glares. One boy scowled at him, edged out and raised his chin. “If you think you can tame us, you’re wrong.” Faint edge of terror and exhaustion at the end.

“Not interested in ‘taming’ or anything else. Consider yourselves rescued. We’ll get out of here in a few minutes. My assistant is arranging transportation.”

A mutter through the group.

“We don’t trust you.”

He nodded. “I know. But I’m your best way out of here, and hopefully getting you home will not be too complicated. Actually, a lot of the problem will be insuring that it’s safe for you on your old home.”

A lot of uneasy glances.

“So that’ll be a problem? What World, which branch?”

“New Texas, and fuck your damned branch.”

 “Holy crap.” Axel started grinning. “Well, this is going to work out very well on so many levels.”

Pauli looked up from his computer. “Chartered bus is arranged, and they will pick everyone up at a spot three blocks that way, in half an hour. There’s an exit over there, and a store for water and a snack in between.”

The salesman was looking back and forth, alarmed. “What are you doing?” in German.

Axel looked over. If he’s from New Texas he probably understands some English. Axel answered in German. “None of your business what I say to my property to get them to obey.” Switch to English, “Kids? Let’s march. Four columns, boys on the outside, okay?”

More suspicious glares but they shifted and when the barriers dropped, followed Pauli.

Only a minor hassle at the exit, as the guards double checked that the merchandise was paid for and properly registered. Axel got on his phone to the snack shop and got the order started. they stalled out there, the kids gulping water and tearing into the meat rolls.

“All right. Listen up. Do you guys know about Embassy? Disco? Well, it’s a place where I can go to find out what’s going on, on New Texas. In the mean time, you’re going to be camping out in the wilderness, good climate, and so forth, so no problem. I just don’t want to bring you to the attention of the local authorities.”

They looked relieved, and maybe even desperate enough to trust him far enough to get safe.

They dawdled along and the bus was prompt.

Axel handed more cash cards to Pauli and sent them off.

Heaved a breath of relief.

Although God only knows what I’ll do with them if it’s not safe to send them home.  



 

_Fall of Empire_ part 33

Their gaze fell on Mikhail, drifted to Grigory. “These Quads of yours are working very well, keep it up.”

To Axel. “We are unsure if this rehab of yours is wise. Think. Now go away, we haven’t even had breakfast yet.”

***

Henrik was on his toes and the Portal opened seconds after they lined up.

They all parked their cars and looked at each other.

“Well . . .” Walther looked around. “The main take away is no pre-emptive strike at the Japanese Worlds. And they approve of the Quads.”

The Grand Inquisitor sighed. “Stop being an ass. I . . . will send someone to observe the training of these Quads of yours.”

He shook his head and got back in his car. The other Inquisitor hustled to join him and their Cyborg chauffeur took them away.

Grigory clear his throat. “For that alone, the trip was worth it. Well, seeing them with Power, however unsteady, was a relief.”

Axel nodded. “I asked . . . they said that none of the survivors had the ability to make zivvy. So I personally am very pleased. Although they may yet add new people who can. But perhaps we ought to start manufacturing lots of the quad sets. And sell them only to Worlds that haven’t been aggressive. It might take centuries before all the horded zivvy is either used or degraded, but eventually there will be no Portalmakers.”

Walther nodded. “And if portal travel is controlled by the non-aggressive, the aggressive will gradually lose the ability to raid.”

The military types eyed Axel. “But will you sell the quad set to us?”

Axel looked back. “Are you going to go raiding? Or protect whatever trading cluster forms up around here? Who do you answer to? From my perspective, you look only loosely obedient to the Council here . . . almost like a Mercenary Company.”

The officers sputtered . . . but there was a bit of unease in their expressions.

“Perhaps you need to reach out to the Council? And the Council Guards? Get together regularly with the Bureaus and the Inquisition?”

Axel looked at Walther. “I know that Revenue and Distribution have effectively removed themselves from your control, but you need to really talk to the rest, and if you can do so with the Military, the Inquisition, and the Council all with you can settle down and wait out the two Bureaus that are now obsolete or close to it. Just two power centers trying to protect themselves.”

Grigory nodded. “May I suggest that Home need to take a good hard look at imports and exports and the actual producers, and switch to trading directly with them through this portal.”

Walther nodded. “Cut the Rev and Distro Portals out of the stream of trade. I do believe that would be useful in more than one way.”

Mikhail watched Axel ease away and disappear into the control room. He returned quickly, touched his pocket with a grin. “Do not want to lose this! And I sent the kids home. Henrik said he’d stay and train all the new ones for another week.”

A working lunch with various advisers coming and going, the military officer finally thanked them and departed. Then Walther took the rest of them home with him for dinner. Var and Dimitri watched in fascination as Axel cheerfully deflected questions from the lady of the house. Snickering as he denied having anything to do with “those movies” and steered her into telling them all about Mikhail’s younger years.

His turn to blush. Especially the story about how he’d met Lilia . . . which didn’t need any exaggeration at all to be howlingly funny.

At midnight Walther walked them out to the Battle Limo and eyed Axel. “I never actually believed there was such a thing as an Agent of the 300.”

“Stupid movies. I don’t have a Doomsday cube.”

“Liar.”

Axel grinned and they loaded up and drove home through the Research Center Portal that appeared at what Axel called a “magnetic knot.”

A Mentalist impression of a dimensional beacon. God help me, only Axel . . .



Chapter Thirty

Shopping Trip

May 30, 3740

Axel woke in the late morning to the smell of bacon and headed down stairs.

“You’re not going to make your four weeks at this rate.”

“Ha! Watch me.” Dina leaned into his embrace. “I took Mom for her check up, grocery shopped, and I’m about to feed you. Then I’ll tuck myself away until needed again.”

He sighed. “And I have some vague memory of Grigory saying something about a message from Orion . . . I hope that didn’t mean I need to go there today.”

Dina shook her head. “Do you ever take vacations?” She stepped back to the stove and cracked eggs into a pan.

“I have a vague memory . . .” He opened his computer to check for messages. “A meeting on Trotsky? This is probably progress, so long as they haven’t kidnapped the quad I left on Orion.”

Dina added eggs and toast to the plate of bacon and set it on the table. “At least start with a good breakfast.”

Axel sat. “It’s only temporary. Things will settle down, and we’ll have an actual normal life.”

“With a baby, a horse, a road building company, rehab center, . . .”

“Well, what could be more normal than a baby? And don’t forget the country estate. What sort of horses are you going to breed? Race horses, maybe? Not that Siberia max has horse races.” Axel dug in as she laughed at him.

“That’ll all depend on what Korichnevvy wants to do. Well, he can certainly jump, I don’t know about fast. But there’s dressage, endurance, or just long rides over the hills and into the forest.” She grinned. “Or maybe he’ll be a wild horse, like the Ghost. I do wish Walther Faukner was still alive to write more Adventures of Red and Brown. There are so many possibilities.”

Axel grinned. “Well . . . maybe you should give writing a try. Invent your own heroes.”

She blinked. “I . . . did try, a long time ago. Did you ever write a story?”

Axel grinned. “Yeah, I even sent it off to a distribution site in a fit of insanity. Some day I’ll check and see if,” he nodded at the painting on the wall, “Max Ignatov is a better writer than he is a painter.”

Dina sputtered and trotted over to her pile of current-and-soon-to-be-read paper books. Pulled one out and set it beside his plate.

“Oh. I didn’t think they put out a paper copy . . .” He flipped it open to check. Yep, there was the Moronic Hero and the Idiot Girlfriend.

“Er, I wrote it to divert some distressing emotion away from murdering my uncle . . . I don’t think I could do it again.”

Dina grinned. “You’d have to decide who your main character is. I mean Patya Chugunov and Ziska Bychkov were pretty funny, but you had to have Inspector Rodolf Smirnov or they have been killed by . . . ooo! That was your uncle, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, and I really enjoyed writing what I did at the end.”

“I think you should keep all three, but you’re going to have to give Dolf a background. A family.”

“I can’t drop the pair of idiots?”

“Nope. They’re funny. Mind you, detectives usually have either an old wino or a plucky kid as sidekicks, but the idiots are more fun.” She was stifling snickers.

He tried to glower, but it just didn’t work. “Fine. When I have the time . . . and I’ll race you.”

Her eyes widened.

“Just start writing. I’ve done so many reports that I had a hard time not slipping into passive voice. I’m not at all sure I can find the emotional state I was in with out an exterior . . . irritant.”

Dina grinned. “And hopefully your trip will go quietly and peacefully. Or if not, it’ll get you another nasty villain.”

***

Axel took Pauli with him this time.

He was grinning. “Can’t be w-worse than what Barf and Dim had to f-face. Remembering what it w-was like when the Old L-lord was terrorizing the family and the servants. Dimitri just sort of happened to find himself remembering what had been done to his mother, what his mother said, after you removed all the compulsions.”

“And Barf said he remembered the chipping in detail.”

Pauli hunched his shoulders. “That ride to the Cybernetics Center. I still have nightmares.”

Axel reached and gripped his shoulder. “I had that wine. I would have broken and given it to you. All of you.”

“And the 300 warned you off the Rehab Center.”

“Well, they told me to think. I may need to slow down my desire to free everyone instantly, to keep them from shutting me down altogether. Especially the decyborging, since that’s so visible.”

Pauli eyed him. “Murphy’s seventy-four?”

“One, once done, because they aren’t known here as Cyborgs, they’ll be fine. Two, a lot of them may want to move to a Resource World. Three, no more field trips full of inquisitive children.”

Pauli snickered. “Well, you can always hide under one of your secret identities. How many do you have that even I don’t know about?”

“Ahhh . . . I think you know all of them . . . except the one I made when I was seventeen. Huh. I kept up with Bruno for a few years, in case I really did need to disappear, but the problems worked out and I sort of let him drift off.”

“Bruno?”

“Hey, I was a weedy little seventeen-year-old. But I had high hopes.” Axel grinned and tossed his case and the long formal jacket into the back. “So, let’s just see what Trotsky has to say.”


_Fall of Empire_ part 32

An hour later, all three of them in their full formal suits, Grigory with a red robe over his, and both Mr. Var and Mr. Dimitri in attendance, drove through the Research Portal to Home.

Mitchel kept his face bland as he introduced Axel to Walther, and the two Army officers. The usual observers, Alexeyev, Gusev, Mauer, and Hurst openly boggled at Axel, eyeing the red lines of barely healed cuts across the right side of his face.

Axel grinned. “Looks much better now that the stitches are out.” He shifted a bit and eyed two Inquisitors striding toward the group. Looked back toward Walther. “So, how many people are going to the Citadel?”

“None!” The Inquisitor in the lead glared down at Axel. Tall and narrow. A narrow strip of short gray hair around the back of his head. “I am Grand Inquisitioner Demyan Popov. We will not open a Portal to the Citadel.”

Axel shrugged. “Must be fun working for the 300 these days. And pretending you speak for them. But don’t worry, I’ll take the people who need to speak to them, to them.”

“If you do something so illegal, in front of so many people . . . nothing will save you.”

Axel pulled the folder paper out of his breast pocket and unfolded it. Held it out, not to hand it over, but to display it between his two hands. Shifted so everyone had a chance to see it. Jerked it away from Popov’s snatch. Folded it and returned it to his pocket.

“That cannot, that cannot . . .” Popov was turning red.

“Are you actually surprised that Ivan the Founder owned the World he built the Citadel on?” Axel shook his head. “We’re going to go and knock on the door. Whether they’ll actually speak to us is out of our hands. If you would like to come along . . . Sorry, Director, I should have asked. May we use this portal?”

“Yes.” Walter had his poker-face on hard.

Axel looked back at the Grand Inquisitor. “Then everyone going, please get in your vehicles. It shouldn’t take long for the Portal to attach.” He turned and walked away, into the control room.

Mikhail followed, stopping in the doorway where he . . . wasn’t to obvious about blocking the door.

Axel was focused on the wide-eyed controller. “These are the ownership certificate and the Owner’s key. Do not copy the information on the key, do not release the key to anyone but myself or Mikhail Rasputin, who has been working with you these past weeks.”

He handed the portal key to the poor man, and turned to Henrik. “I suspect the new kids may need a bit of guidance, working from a key.”
Henrik was grinning. “Not a problem, Igor. Do you want us to keep it open?”

“Umm . . . I think not. If you don’t see a blip from me, start checking in two hours for cars lining up like they’d really like a Portal.”

“Got it.” Henrik turned to the kids. “Right. This time we’re going to watch the portal form and not guide it until we’re sure which world it’s going to.”
 
 Then they were loading up, with Walther joining them in the battle limo and everyone else scrambling for their rides. For better or worse, enough of them had been parking around the Portal bay that they formed a four car, seventeen person parade. Axel stood beside the open car door for a long moment.

Mikhail lowered his shields . . .

:: Yes. Ridiculous building, isn’t it? Attach the portal right . . . there. ::

Then he slipped into the limo and closed the door. “As soon as you get a green flag, Mr. Var. Then I suspect we’ll be using the east door, to the right as we drive up to the building”

Then the green flag waved and they drove through the Portal into a seer landscape that changed abruptly into a city of steel buildings. Long dark shadows, the sun just above the horizon on the right. A couple dozen tall buildings to the left, half a dozen to the right, like a downtown missing the rest of the city. All standing back so as to not obstruct the view of the Citadel.

A huge building, all steel and glass. Asymetrical, the huge stairs up to the grand entrance lined up with the dome on top, a blocky wing to the left, the long sweep of the wing to the right to its rounded end, eight floors tall.

It’s not really all that big.

Mikhail took his eyes off the building, and glanced at Axel . . . gaze unfocused.

He’s telepathing someone. Up there? Inside? And what the hell is a nice little agent-turned-bureaucrat like me doing, trying to swim in these exalted waters?

Axel’s eyes focused and he turned in the seat. “Turn right at the end. About three-fourths of the way along that wing there’s a large door that’s been welded shut. Park by it.”

The “door” was a huge square. Fifteen feet wide, bringing a bank vault to mind. Perfectly blank, apart from the thick uneven bead of weld around the perimeter and the steel plate welded across the middle.

Right. If every floor is this tall, I’ll revise my size estimate back upward.

Axel popped out the door, getting a reproving look from Dimitri. He just grinned and walked up to the door pointing at the steel plate and stepping back as it fell, then taking aim at the weld bead that peeled off as he ailed his finger around the huge thing.

“Terribly déclassé, having to point, instead of looking off into space as if one had nothing to do with any of it.” Axel raised his brows and if he was trying to not look smug and amused, he was doing a very poor job of it. “Some one should be along shortly, to unlock it from the inside.”

Everyone was sort of clustering as if they couldn’t quite believe they’d come here and what to do next . . . Mikhail was pleased to see the two Home Inquisitioners looking a little pale.

And Grigory looking thoughtful. He caught Mikhail’s gaze and smiled a little. “I served in here for fifteen years, until they kicked me out and told me to go keep an eye on those mad men out on Siberia Max.”

“Exiled?”

“What? Oh no. I was born there and my whole family still lived there, until Grandfather decided to try politics.” His smile widened. “I got back in time to see my sister, who was actually a cousin, marry her old mentor and use every fertility impression she knew on herself. She said she could have a healthy baby with the highest possible Mentalist potential she and Mitchel had. Can’t argue with the results . . .” A sudden frown, “but I do wonder about the 300 poking at my mind to see who’s at their door.”

Walther looked over. “I was sort of wondering about how I got mixed up with these portal quads and watching battles from afar, when I ought to be frantically running about trying to keep things together.”

Mikhail turned suddenly at a scrape. The big door pulled in and swung ponderously open.

A dark-haired man on the other side. Middle-aged, alert. Wearing a bathrobe and slippers. “We will hear you.”

Axel bowed. “Jaeger.”

Oh. The member of the 300 from the Jaeger Family.

“Axel? Lock the door, after everyone is in.”

He turned and walked away. Axel stepped in and to the side. Everyone followed Jaeger down the long hall. Dimmly lit, and dimming further as the door shut behind them. Axel and his Rangers were the last ones into the elevator, and Mikhail blinked to realize that even the other two chauffeurs had joined them.

“Please do make yourselves comfortable, we’ll all be out in a moment. Axel, come with me for a moment.”

Mikhail looked around a room sized for three hundred people. A giant half-circle of windows with chairs and couches, tables of various sizes . . . A few TVs spotted around.

They spread out a bit, a few comments about it reminding them of this or that . . .

As I wondered what I was doing here, thinking of my past. They’re trolling through our minds and taking our measure.

The flat wall of the half circle held a kitchen, cooking orders, glasses of juice, cups of coffee disappearing through the back doors.

That’s dawn, not sunset out there. We’ve gotten them up.

“It’s nice to have something interesting to get up for, through.” An old man eyed them. “I am Yezov.” All dressed up, purple robes of office over a suit.

A Japanese gentleman behind him, his purple robe overlapped, an obi around it. "Tokugawa. So the Japanese section has not just separated, but is now raiding.”

Mikhail bowed and answered with all honesty. “We have had trouble with both German and Russian Worlds. But the Japanese appear more systematically conquering, rather than taking opportunities when they see them.”

More and more purple robes, and the visitors drew together as the old Mentalists’ bright glows sparked and joined, separated . . .

“Very well, this is quite a mess that the Plague attack has left us. The idea of trading combines is good, and mutual defense. Gang up on raiders, whichever branch or sector they come from.”

More sparks and brief merges. “Do not pre-emptively attack the Japanese Tier Two Worlds. We will give them the time to reconsider. If they do attack, destroy their portals and isolate them.”

Fifty-two gazes fell on the Grand Inquisitor. “Stop being an ass with dreams of power. Keep the laws, and try to get the squabbling factions to stop.”

Their gaze fell on Mikhail, drifted to Grigory. “These Quads of yours are working very well, keep it up. Now go away, we haven’t even had breakfast yet.”
 

_Fall of Empire_ part 31

Chapter Twenty-nine

Power

May 29, 3740

“You going to lay there all morning?”

Mikhail grinned. “Yes. Do you know how good it feels to wake up in my own bed all snuggled up with the most beautiful woman in the world?”

“I suppose it might be even better than waking up all snuggled up to the best man in the multiverse.”

He snuggled a little harder. “Umm, raising the stakes? How about ‘the most brilliant and sexy woman in the Both the known and unknown reaches of the multiverse, past present and future?’ Hmm?”

She snickered. “Can’t top that so I’ll just have to offer you breakfast, made with my own hands, because we’ve totally missed the scheduled time?”

“Now that you mention it, breakfast does sound pretty good, but I suspect you’ll be thwarted in your efforts to display your kitchen wizardry.”

“I usually am.” She sighed. “Such a hard life.”

He got in a last grope then rolled out of bed an headed for the shower.

And found his children in the breakfast room all togged out in Japanese fashions.

“They are all three getting lessons in Japanese culture and language. Ariadna, actually Grigory found her, then Ariadna hired her for a six week intensive class. Minako’s half Japanese, and grew up on Edo, and they’re doing so well I’m tempted to grab her for another six weeks.”

“We have either a formal Tea Ceremony or a formal dinner every day.” Tatyana grinned. “Sitting on the floor with low tables.”

Mikhail blinked. “That sounds quite useful.”

Anzhelina . . . Good God, is she actually thirteen . . . next week! . . . scowled. “But even the wives act like servants when there are guests! I don’t think I’d like being Japanese.”

Nikita snickered. “Being a superior male, I do the ordering people around part.”

Mikhail nodded. “Worse than Russians, eh?”

The girls both snickered and Nikita grinned.

And Tatyana’s seventeen and thank god for the lack of zivvy!

He hugged both girls, shook hands with Nikita, and they were off.

He sighed. “So. I hate to tell you this, but I’m going to be talking to everyone . . . informally, so to speak, while we figure out what Pavlovsky—and that isn’t his real name—is up to. And there are problems brewing with the Japanese so perhaps this isn’t a good time to have one living in our house . . .”

Lilia pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Sorry, but they’re arming up and about to cause serious trouble. And in fact the tier threes are already raiding the outer tiers.” Mikhail smiled wryly. “The Tier Two’s are massing armies, and no one knows whether they’ll attack Home, or the Russian and German Tier Two worlds.”

“And so you're heading back again? I’d love to see Simone . . . and you’re shaking your head.”

“I’ll invite her to visit, but I doubt she’ll come. But no, please don’t even think about it. There’s much too strong of a possibility that Home could turn into a battle zone.”

She smiled wryly. “Well, after the last two years, I know just how dangerous it can get. And we’re such a tasty little tidbit.”

Mikhail nodded. “Yes, but Home is likely to be the focus of a major military assault.”

“And you’ll be in the middle of it.”

He sighed. “Probably. Right now, however, I really ought to return that nice little car of Axel’s, and take one of ours.” he grinned. “Or buy a sporty little thing. That car’s fun to drive.”

She tried to glower, but a smile crept out. “Talk to Fifty-fifty about what car would be best, under the circumstances, and you may buy something sporty and fun when this is all over!”

Then Grigory called. “No luck with the Inquisitors. I’m going to, God Help my ulcers, go ask Axel if he can get us in to talk to the 300.”

“Us?"
"Yes, Your nice Joint Director wants to go, and is going to try to get the Army to send someone very high up. And I’m assuming you’ll want to come as well.”

“Yes . . . but the last time Axel talked to the . . . 52 . . . he was hauled out of here by the scruff of his neck, buck naked.”

“Yeah. And from everything I’ve heard, he expected that and used it to find me. He was back here, what four days later? Needing a shower and change of clothing?” Grigory sighed. “Well, I called him and said we needed to talk, and he suggested I grab you and come to his place.”

“Hmm, and I’ve never gotten around to seeing it.” Mikhail grinned. “All right. I’ll meet you there—I have a car to return.”

8673 Upper Cliff Drive was one of the older houses that really were built into and onto the cliffs. Mitchel admired the primitive red-mud look of the exterior, noted the big ledge on the rocks to the left and well above the garage level, and further up to the left of the fourth floor a shadowed niche like another small ledge. He spotted a familiar vehicle behind him and pulled into the driveway. The battle limo parked beside him and Grigory hopped out, getting a reproving look from Dimitri, driving it.

They both looked over the house and Grigory shook his head. “I had no idea he even had a house, let alone where it was, until his Uncle died.”

Mikhail nodded. “I knew he disliked his uncle, and kept his professional life completely away from his personal . . . That he had a place he could change and dye or undie his hair. I didn’t realize it was as bad as I’ve heard since.”

Dimiri shook his head. “The whole was poisonous. All of us servants’ kids knew Lord Axel was a safe place to hide behind, and the Old Lord someone to avoid by any means possible. Only surprise is who murdered him, not that he was murdered.”

Mikhail snorted and took the broad stone steps up and around to the front door, that opened as he reached for the button.

“Welcome back, and come in.” Axel swung the door wide. “So you don’t even get a day off?”

“Not even. I really ought to have checked out the fishing before I let you drag me back in. Pavlovsky’s records are so clean because he was a perfectly adequate minor Bureau Rat until his accidental death three years ago. But that’s not even close to why we’re here today.” Mikhail blinked around a color saturated room, living, dining and kitchen flowing together.

“Umm, so does this nice quiet casual meeting require coffee or whiskey?”

“Coffee, I think.”

“I’ll put a pot on while you satisfy your curiosity with a look around. My main lair is the top floor.”

Mikhail grinned and headed up. Four bedrooms, one minimally furnished, one room in bright colors and a crib that had him grinning. laundry, bathroom, door to the stone ledge, a lawn fighting to survive on a thin layer of dirt.

And the top floor . . . was an open bedroom-sitting room-office wrapped around two sides of an over sized fancy bathroom. Big windows that gave a towering the southwestern part of the city and Long Lake, the low grassy hills in the distance. Angled westward just enough that he bet there was a good sunset.

“Best view in the City.” Grigory grinned. “It’s enough to make me want a nice small house.”

“You? I doubt it?” Mikhail prowled around, a short hallway between the Bath room and a closet ended with a door to a small patio, this one looking straight south and just starting to catch the late morning sun.

He eyed the stone of the back wall. It wasn’t obvious, but for someone of Igor’s athletic ability, easily climbable.

A laugh behind him. “Five and half miles to the Research Center. I’ve owned the house now for . . . twenty-five years? It was a wreck, I really didn’t do much with it early on. Fixed the plumbing and a few structural problems, so I had a place to change going to and from work. Kept the front looking minimally cared for.” Axel shrugged. “Haven’t needed to run for the Center, yet.”

Grigory poked his head out and shook it. “And then when you did fix it up, the Stutties came and wrecked it?”

“Oh, I started poshing it up bit by bit. And oh, ten years ago? Something like that. I noticed the neighborhood had started looking pretty nice, and I was almost the shabbiest place on the street. So I went in whole hog, and really like the results.

“Dina—her parents are my next door neighbors, in case you wondered how I ever met such a nice young lady—redecorated after the Stutties were gone. Only a little deeper colors than I’d dared. I like it.” Axel retreated and waved them down to the couch facing the windows, steaming coffee on a tray. “So . . . we have a problem with the Japanese?”

“Yes.” Grigory sat and reached for a cup. “We think their wide-spread attacks and the military build up around in all of their tier two worlds warrants a preemptive strike. But that requires both cooperation with the various factions on Home, and the approval of what’s left of the 300.”

“Have you asked? Or are they still in isolation?”

“The Inquisition on Home won’t let us through to even try to talk to them.” Mikhail grinned at the young man. “In fact, as far as anyone can tell, you’re the only person who’s talked to them since they were attacked, almost two years ago.”

Grigory nodded. “So. What are the chances you can get us to the Citadel? How many laws will we be breaking? And how dangerous to you, personally, will it be to even try?”

Axel pulled his desk chair over to the coffee table and anointed it with sugar and cream. Sitrred it and finally sipped. Nodded and got up.

Axel pulled his desk chair over to the coffee table, sat and anointed coffee with sugar and cream. Stirred and finally sipped. Nodded, set the mug down and got up.

Fetched a safe box and then a carton of small glass bottles from somewhere on the far side of the desk and set them on the desk. The safe box took a full hand print to open . . . He walked back and put a portal key and folded paper on the coffee table. Picked up his coffee and sat back. Watching them.

Mikhail eyed the key. Picked up the paper and unfolded it. “World 25399 Desert (Resource).”

Grigory was just frozen, staring at the key.

The label “#1 Owner 25399”

Mikhail looked back at the paper in his hand. It was shaking a little. “So you and Ivan the Founder owned this world, with right of survivorship—meaning you own it all, and not that half ownership was inherited by his descendants. Axel . . . Grigory?” Yes, hand definitely shaking. “This isn’t the World where the Founder built the Citadel . . . it is, isn’t it?”

Grigory gave a shaky nod.

Axel nodded. “So legally I can go there. Whether they’ll open the door is unknown.”

Mikhail finally managed to grin. “I always did wonder if you owned Siberia Max. I never thought beyond that.”

Axel grinned. “I just got the box out of a vault I had to track down . . . less than two months ago.” He glanced at the desk. “There’s twenty portal keys in there. And two more boxes I haven’t even opened. God help me. So. When shall we go?”