_Hostile Takeover_ Part 23

He reached diagonally ahead and to the right and there it was. Just fifteen feet away. Steel frame and concrete. All he needed was to find a door . . .

:: Too bad you can't make a tunnel into the basement. ::

:: No one loves a smart ass. Especially when he's right! ::

He searched for people and found no one in that part of the basement. So a nice big oval slash and step back smartly . . . And pull . . . and brace oneself before doing that again . . . The oval sucked reluctantly away from the dirt behind and fell.

He danced (flailing to keep his balance) out of the splash zone, then stepped up to start pulling out cubes of dirt and compacting the sides and overhead. Water running everywhere as it squished out . . . it was a relief to get to the gravel around the concrete. That was at least usful to spread out over the muddy floor of his tunnel. Then blocks of concrete . . . to reveal the backs of plastic crates.

He pulled three out into the tunnel, and slithered through onto the shelf where they'd rested and thumped down onto the floor. No alarms, no glows of people. He reached further, felt the portalmaker and headed that direction.

Nine-thirty. Half an hour till break time, and then I hope to hell I can find my way back here.

In fact it shouldn't be difficult. The Stutties were very organized, with clearly labled hallways north-south by numbers and east-west by letters and closed and locked rooms with numbered doors . . . Concealment on the other hand was going to be difficult, what with his rather well slimed camos . . .

I probably smell like a swamp. And I'm leaving a trail of mud . . . He backtracked, scraping the floor, and once back in his starting room, scraped down his boots and wiped the camos a bit.

He was still a pretty grungy workman as he walked off.

He headed south until he found that wall, east until he found the doors blocking egress to the "Stem" of the T-shaped building and the portal maker.

Lots of people on the other side, ten feet away.

The locks opened easily enough, the alarm box was on his side and was easily disabled. He eased the door open a crack, ran his minicam probe through to scan . . . a hall, the opposite wall with glass windows from halfway up, people facing away from him, intent on their screens. One man walking down the hall . . . walking past without noticing the door was ajar . . . opening a door giving him a glimpse of something that might be a stairstep.

Axel closed his eyes . . . Portalmaker that way . . . right up those steps and maybe twenty feet further. A glance at his watch. Ten fifteen.

They should have closed the portal . . . looks like they're trying to get a few last vehicles through . . . He felt a slight change in the mental undercurrents, mostly from above and over a bit. There, now it's shutting down. The portalmaker just let go and they stopped the pain prods.

I'll give then ten minutes . . .

He started as the alarms blared.


He pulled power and walked out. Across the hall, evryone was heads down at their computer screens, so he ignored them and hit the stairs. Opened the door on the first floor carefully.

". . . don't see how that was possible! Portalmakers can't just disappear."

A second voice cutting over, loudly. "They say there was a hole in the floor, they got him out through the basement."

Much thumping of feet.

"There's no hole and the little creep is right where he belongs."

"So search the basement. First, then we'll search the rest of the building."

Oh Hell. Security guards will be all over the building . . . But a whole lot of them are right here . . .

He stepped through the door and threw a hard stun spell over a wide angle . . . two more narrow stuns across the room to hit two men who'd been out of range . . .

He stepped over limp bodies, jumped over the last into the control room. Everyone was down here, including the portalmaker in his open coffin.

A few seconds to cut wires and tubes and haul him out, a slimy, awkward, hundred and twenty pounds. Axel stripped a white lab coat off the nearest man the wrapped it around the portalmaker for a better grip, and got him over his shoulder . . . down the stairs.

Another hard stun down the hallway, then out the still-unlocked door and into the gray hallways. Fast march down one block, over one block, down one block . . .

Echoing voices behind him, and he tried to pick up the pace. Get all the way over, then turn for the back, and he set a light effect of foggy gray behind him as he panted down the last stretch. The sound of a shot. Yells to not shoot.

Yeah, don't kill your portalmaker!

He staggered up to the last door and half fell through. Locked it behind himself, and staggered to the gap in the shelves. Slid through and hauled his limp victim through after him.

Grabbed the plastic containers and replaced them.

Dragged the portalmaker through his tunnel to the stormdrain, then got him across his other shoulder and started down the slippery channel.

:: Anything I can do to help? :: Leon, trying to be quiet.

:: Do you see the button to pop the trunk. Pop it. ::

Was that only three manhole covers? Damn. Should have tried to park closer . . .

Heard echoing voices behind him and put up an illusion behind him of the empty pipe in front of him. Every time he passed under a manhole cover, he could hear the sirens. Various sorts and loudness, and as he came up on the right manhole, the deep throb of a diesel engine.

Please don't be parked on my manhole . . .

:: No, but I gigged them foreward a bit so you have cover. ::

He levitated the cover and gave it a push. The boy moaned a bit as he sent him after it and jumped to pull himself out. Boy into the car trunk, slide the manhole cover . . . stagger into the driver's seat and get the hell out!

He drove as fast as he dared, out of the parking lot onto the street and turn away from the portal facility and hit the gas.

For a block, then slow and get into the flow of the traffic and try to look invisible. He reached under the dash and turned on the second false ID, turned off the first. Glanced at Leon. Grinning. Bald head, four metal studs with dangling wires . . .

"You smell like a swamp."

Axel snorted. "I know. And you look a little too noticeable." He grabbed edge of his wig and peeled it off, cussing a little. "This was less painful before my hair started growing in. It's just sticky stuff so it doesn't slip, not actual glue."

A traffic light gave him the opportunity to get the wig over Leon's head.

Leon found the mirror and pressed down the sticky edges, sneaking looks toward Axel.

"You were chipped!"

"Yeah . . . eleven days ago? Or twelve. Anyway, as soon as we back to my safe house I'll dose you up with zivvy dissolver."

"Zivvy . . . dissolver?" His voice got a bit high. He swallowed. "I mean, I've just spent a couple hours spinning out scenarios about what happens next. I figured I'd be back in a coffin soon enough."

"Nah. We team up Portalmakers in quads with helmets. Eight hour shift then they walk off like any other employee."

"How many portalmakers do you have? And who are you and where are you from?"

"With quads we don't even need full portalmakers. I'm from Siberia Max, we're a sanctioned Research World. Pity the Empire's crashing. I'd love for this particular breakthrough to spread."

"Yeah . . . Hei . . . What are you looking at?"

"Aircar, coming up behind us." :: Different car, innocent, different car . . . ::

"So what did you study in school?"

The boy blinked. "What? The usual, well, I like the sciences, chemistry was fascinating . . ."

He broke off as the aircar swept overhead. "Oh, you were distracting me from . . . thoughts that might identify me, weren't you?"

"Yeah. You may get your car chase yet, but in this traffic it's going to be more cat-and-mouse."

"I thought Siberia Max didn't have any animals?" He sighed. "That was the one of the last things I remember before surgery."

Four months ago . . . were they after us even before we rescued their people? I suppose all the strongest worlds were hunting around for zivvy and we looked easy.

"No large animals. But no doubt the mice and rats came with the people, and cats and dogs as well." He watched the aircar out of sight and kept driving. following it until it lifted and turned right over the low buildings.

"Circling around?" Leon sounded worried.

"Or checking the next block. What I need, right now is a drive through vendo."

"There's one on the left, next block."

"Excellent. So this is your home town?"

"Yeah, umm, Igor?"

"I see them." He formed a restricted frequency energy shield and laid it over the car. Turned left into the vendo. The police cars drove past giving the car a glance without pausing.

Leon craned his neck. "How did you turn the car red?"

"An energy shield that absorbs visible light everywhere except in the red frequencies." Axel fished out a cash card and loaded up on drinks and sweet snacks. "You may need to relearn swallowing. Think hard about it and practice with nothing in your mouth for a bit."

"Nah, they give us this glop once a week to keep our guts in working order."

Axel turned right, took the next left . . . skipped a block and turned left again.

Grabbed a drink and sighed with relief at the flood of sugar . . .

Leon snorted. "And here I was thinking you were superhuman or something."

Axel grinned. "Even Igor runs out of energy. Although as a way to avoid the police, a vendo worked quite well . . . or perhaps not . . ." A police car screaming up behind them . . . and around them and onward. Then crossing lanes and blocking the cross street before the intersection . . . Axel drove across, showing an appropriate amount of hesitency crossing the interesction.

Leon looked back. "They're pulling two people out of a gray car . . . oh, a kid with a shaved head, and a man with brown hair . . ."

"They'll be back out looking for us soon enough. But every miles we go expands the area they have to search enormously. I'm surprised they haven't cordoned off this quarter of the city."

"You sound worried . . ."

"I hate killing honest cops, just doing their jobs. This Government, this culture isn't their fault. We're all trapped in it, like it or not. And yes, for me, that's a big fat not."

Leon glanced at Axel's head. A long stubble of red hair, the scar from the chip insertion still showing. "You aren't the Enemy, are you?"

"No, I really am from Siberia Max."

"And . . . we were talking about annexing you? Four months ago?"

"From our point of view, we rescued a couple of your important citizens from Tier Four Budapest Reborn, returned them to you, and asked if you were interested in a bit of mutually beneficial trade and defense. You guys talked all nicy, nicy until you had troops across, then it all went to hell. Just a few weeks ago."

"Oh . . ." Leon eyed Axel's stubble again.

"Yeah, they decided to start with that dangerous Imperial Agent. Stunned me in a grocery store, hauled me straight into surgery. If the 300 ever reform the Alliance, your government is going to have to answer some stiff questions about it. Not just the lack of a trial, but I'm under fifty in the Family sucession, so there ought to have been an Executioner brought in."


"But circling back to the start . . . I'm perfectly willing to utterly trash your government. But I don't want to have to kill a perfectly honest policeman. Or dozens." He slowed the car as the blockade ahead registered.

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 22

"I'm certain of that, sir." Barf bit his lip. "And while one of our portals might happen to be working . . . is there anything else critical that ought to be moved?"

"No . . . we'll be short on food sooner than I'd like, but right now the Stutts need to depend on their own portals . . . if for no other reason than we might be able to figure out if Igor's damaged any of them."

Chapter Eighteen


Night of the sixth day, and I have this last facility to scout. Then I'll think about how much I can realistically do.

Just driving by on the highway, a glimpse showed a whole lot more lights on at Number Three. Mostly at the Museum end.

I hope they think that was a daring raid to rescue the Black Widows. Not a scouting trip to check out how to liberate a portalmaker . . . because what idiot scout would care about four women in a holding cell?

Portal Facility Four looked like business as usual. Not much cover on the south side where the trucks were departing, but on the west side, a narrow side street, with a not-really-a-park, just a roughly maintained bank of a concrete lined drainage with some trees sticking up out of the brush where they'd stopped mowing.

A quick slash and levitate, then he backed the car down the slope into the cleared spot and dropped the cut brush on the car

Probably just scratched my paint. He trotted up the slope to the road and walked to the road that paralleled the security fence, and along it to the point closest to the building. Closed his eyes so he could see the density points of pressureplates, the wire loops of circuit detectors . . . half of them not working.

Overconfident, lazy. Not keeping up the maintenance

He mapped a path through through all the sensors, backed off to let a car drive past, stayed back to watch two patrol vehicles inside drive by, one each way. Used the time to set his camo to "medium mown grass."

Then he ran and jumped. Levitated. Rolled the landing and held still. No alarm, no under the surface detectors on this side. He trotted for the building spotting doors . . . a blank one over there . . . no outside handles. Well, finally an emergency exit! He leaned to feel for alarms . . . reached a hand up and rested it near the alarm on the other side of the wall . . . reached mentally and bent a few wires. Checked, no one near . . . he pulled out the worker's overalls he'd snagged from the first Portal, and climbed into them. Switched his camo to solid tan, and walked down the hall, heading toward the portal machinery.

Stepped into an empty office and opened his shields to feel for the portalmaker . . . close, good he was on this side of the big bay where the portal actually formed. And as the portal clased, he could feel the effort and mental reach for the next destination, the . . . challenge, the interest in seeing the multiverse . . . the pop of pain to remind the youngster to go to this specific place . . .

This kid's going to get along with Henrik just fine.

:: Who is Henrik? ::

Axel swallowed. :: A free portalist. Finish your shift. We'll talk then. ::

Axel closed his shield tight, and moved away. Found stairs and climbed a level, peeked out, too many people. He dropped down to the basement and a found the computers, a chemistry lab . . . A lavatory right under the control room. It looked unused.

Who wants to feel the mental screams of a portalmaker when they're sitting on the toilet?

A glance at his watch. Four hours and they should shut down.

Only two other people in the basement. Axel scouted out what he needed, then tucked himself out of sight and relaxed. Because the kidnapping of portal makers starts this morning.

Fifteen minutes to six he sent an impression of sleep to the pair of people down here, and moved boxes into the lavatory until he had a nice stable pyramid under an empty spot on the floor above. The people above shut down the stations, and wished their coworkers a good moring and left.

Axel started to cut an angled hole . . . paused as people entered above . . .

:: The cleaning crew. I go to sleep to the sound of the vacuum every "night." They don't take long. ::

Axel chewed his fingernails until they'd rattled away.

:: Wait a sec . . . Gut, security has locked up. But you may have trouble getting in. ::

Axel slashed carefully, angled up and outward of the concrete circle partly so he could put it back, mostly so it didn't fall on his head.

He heaved it up and slid it aside, boosted himself up.

:: Now let's see how they monitor you . . . right basic vital signs. Let me see if I can record a loop and play it back to them . . . no problem. ::

He stepped over to the coffin and lifted the lid. "Hi, I'm Igor."

"Pleased to," the kid coughed, and spat, "Meet you. I'm Leon, with a number that probably doesn't matter any more."

He got the kid wiped down and into the overalls, dropped him through the hole and only had to half carry him up the stairs.

Easiest escape ever. Even the part that involved throwing the kid over the fence.

They drove off into the quiet morning, merged with traffic and . . .

"Not even a car chase? Not that I'm complaining, mind you. That was quite . . . slick."

Axel grinned. "What I would like to do is also rescue at least one more of your collegues. If I'm quick, I can get in and out before anyone discovers that you are misssing and they beef up security everywhere."

"Can I help?"

"Only by staying still and quiet in the car, so I don't have to detour to leave you someplace safe."

"Rats. I mean, yes, of course. There's four of us, I guess, I've been out of touch for . . . years? What's the date?"

"March 18, 3740."

"What? That was only four months! Damn. Umm, seventeen. I'm still seventeen."

Axel craned his neck as he passed the third Portal facilities. In the morning light any extra security was much less obvious, but the parking lot at the far end by the museum was empty.

"Not that one?"

"The portalmaker's very old. I'd most likely kill him, trying to save him. We'll try the next one."


"Yeah . . . there's just not enough time to do this three more times. So I'm starting with you two young ones." He pointed at the second portal campus from the highway. A T shaped building, the cross bar the offices, the stem the working parts of the portal, with the vehicle access at the end. He took the next exit.

"The problem here is that there's no place to hide the car except in plain sight in the parking lot of this big manufacturing plant." He turned and reached under the dash to turn off the legal ID and turn on the first fake ID. The gate opened and let him in. He turned left and circled the plant. "I scouted it out three days ago. See the stormdrain covers?"

"All in a line, aimed straight at the Portal Building?"

"Yep. It'll be a bit tough getting from the stormdrains into the building, but it'll get me past all the outer perimiter defenses." He turned into a parking spot by a manhole cover. "So . . . just lean back and relax, sleep. It's two hours before they shut down this portal, so the portalmaker can sleep, which is probably how long it'll take me to get in."

A little bit of Levatation and push-pull effects and the minor dust cloud concealed a fast levitation of the nearest cover. He dropped in, clinging to the lip long enough to pull the cover almost into place. A quick light to look down and drop a couple of feet into six inches of slime . . . Levitation and pull to get the cover into place then he headed down the pipe.

And pretending he didn't hear a mental laugh from Leon :: Splat! Secret Agent skidding around in the mud! ::

A small rill of water running down the center of the eight-foot diameter concrete pipe. Slime halfway up both sides, dry at the top and hazardously slippery where he had to walk. He counted manhole covers. Half a mile to the street, and on to the grounds of the portal facility. Where their parking lot also needed drainage. And a final junction where the drain turned to the left. He let the light fade and reched out mentally People over there. The density chunks of cars above, unmoving.

Ahead . . . dirt. To the right . . . dirt.

How far am I going to have to go to find a door? And where the Hell is the bloody building?

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 21

He could see the shield reaching across the room from Rasputin to the far wall, protecting the Governor and Chief.

He took two steps to the other side, and raised his voice. "Police! Nobody better lift any weapons. Colonel Lehr, after that death threat, you had better warn your people to make no threatening moves. There is not a single cause for you to initiate violence."

The Colonel snorted. "I see we're going to have to completely replace the police force." He glared after the fast retreating Governor and Chief of Police. "We'll drag him out of his hole later, and start with you, if you interfere again, Gargarin."

Lehr switched his gaze back to the Imperials. "So . . . are you going to come quietly, Rasputin?"

"Hell no. Get off my World, Lehr, and take every one of your special rape robots with you."

Robot. Worst insult you can give a Cyborg . . . and most of the soldier Cyborgs deserve it.

Mr. Var eased behind Vlad and past. Barely a breath, "I'll take the one on this side, if you can keep the next guy distracted."

Uniformed soldiers, no armor . . . probably shields.

Vlad opened his mouth to agree, but the colonel spoke first.

"Kill him."

Three shots spanged off Rasputin's shield before Vlad got his first shot off. Assuming a shield, he shot off center and the force of the bullet twisted the officer and staggered him . . . a flick of movement out of the corner of his eye, Barf throwing something that struck the nearest officer in the neck and dropped him in a flood of red.

Flashes of light bounced off Lehr's shield.

Vlad switched his attention to the Cyborg soldiers with three more shots, staggering him.

Barf ran foreward and scooped up the fallen man's carbine and fired three shots, probing Lehr's shield, and finding it solid.

Outside the front doors, a shriek of brakes, thuds of impact. Gunfire. Shattering glass.

Colonel Lehr just stood there, and even with the gunfire, Vlad could hear the troops coming from the corridor on the right. Barf trotted out and looked, "Whole bunch of armored Cyborgs incoming!" He turned and retreated, stooping to pull his knife out of the officer's throat in passing.

More running footsteps from the left. The Governor and Chief Naoumov, the soldiers behind them closing fast. Vlad aimed at legs and the first two men down tripped other. An empty click. He dropped his mag, slapped his reserve in.

And Rasputin's voice. "Time to leave!"

Vlad backed away, shot the soldier getting too close to the Governor, then turned to take a look out the front entrance. All the glass was gone, gritting underfoot, a police squad car was sidways, tight up against the steps, Forty-one with shotgun. Watching a confused melee of Stuttgart Cyborg soldiers and Fast Response Teams.

There was a shield across the far side of the squad car . . . From Forty-one?

Vlad galloped down the stairs, itch between he shoulderblades . . . He turned and raised his gun, a soldier on the roof twenty feet up . . . Not much showing . . . He aimed at the hand. A scream. The soldier fell back, the gun dropped . . . Vlad grabbed to cushion its fall, holstered his pistol and aimed the rifle up at the roof as Rasputin, Mateev, and Barf joined them.

Barf veering to the far side to shoot a trio of soldiers charging in . . .

Vlad spotted a soldier on his side and started shooting. His fourth shot found a chink in the body armor and he curled up screaming.

Beyond him more soldiers rounded the far end of the building. "Lehr's out of the building." Vlad fired off three shots with no effect. Cussed when an soldier trotted up to him with a red box.

Rasputin hissed and stepped up beside him. "Kill switch!" The air temperature dropped and Vlad backed hastily away from the glowing man.

Who sagged suddenly, the glow gone. "Couldn't reach him. Dammit Igor, where are you when I need you?"

Across the plaza, Lehr flipped up a cover and jabbed.

Vlad turned to eye the fight . . . where nothing much had changed.

"Hot Damn." Rasputin staggered over to lean on the squad car. "It didn't work!"

Vlad jerked back into motion. Popped the trunk of the car and brought out the heavy weaponry. Handed one the Rasputin and the other to Forty-one.

Pulled out the air cannon and contemplated the array. "Tear gas, smoke, or flashs?"

A gleeful Barf pointed, "Can you hit those AGC's up there? I know they won't do much damage, but there they are, sitting, waiting for orders, with their top hatches open . . ."

"Not that accurate, but if you want to try . . ."

He took it with a grin. "Let's try a flash. Not that I suppose it could set off the ammo inside . . . Eight second fuse? Awesome."

He started glowing with power. Primed the chamber took the genade and dropped it down the muzzle, counting as he aimed. Pulled the trigger at three.

Set the gun down and held his hands out in a cone,. and stared at the tank, air cooling around him . . . "Six, seven . . . and in she goes."

There might have been a flash of light out the hatch before the AGC leaped into the air, the top shell spinning off while the rest went sideway in pieces that took out the infantry all around it.

After the final thump of falling debris, Rasputin raised his voice. "Lehr! You may send in medical assistance for your people as soon as you and any soldiers who are still on their feet depart. Do not import any replacements."

The colonel relpied with a rude gesture, but the soldiers were retreating, taking their wounded, leaving their dead.

The Fast Response teams had drawn back and now made a line between the soldiers and the squad car.

Vlad stepped over to Forty-one. "Relax, now, I'll keep a shield up." The old Cyborg nodded, and leaned on the car for a moment. Fumbled with the door and collapsed on the seat.

Vlad opened the back door and waved an invitation to the governor. The Chief just stayed sitting on the steps,

Director Rasputin's Executive secretary stood up shakily, and nodded at Barf. "Sir? Can we keep him? He seems like a really useful secretary."

Rasputin snorted. "Mr. Var, I think a more detailed introduction is in order. Who the hell are you?"

Barf straightened and brushed at his sleeve. "I am Mr. Varfolomey House Vinogradov, owner Lord Axel Ivan Vinogradov. Who trained me from a rather young age."

Mister meaning servant, and House meaning a bastard fathered by and born to a servant owned by that lord.

"That explains a lot. Do you actually have an Exec plate and how old are you?"

"I do sir." He brushed at his hair to show it. "I received it seven months ago, shortly before I turned eighteen."

Rasputin looked over at the debris of the AGC. "Well, that explains rather a lot. And would you happen to know where Lord Axel is at the moment?"

And Barf damned well raised his nose and drawled in a high class accent. "My Lord is on a business trip to Stuttgart. He should return in three more days."

"I see. And knowing him, he has planned for difficulties in returning."

"I'm certain of that, sir."

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 19 & 20 revised

"On Siberia Max, rather than being wanted criminals, you will . . . well, I suppose by right of theft, be mine. While I do not approve of anyone being property, I'm as trapped by the laws as you are. But I will find you a place to live and you can work as you like."

He eyed the women. "It beats being a wanted criminal here. I think. Go or stay. It really is entirely up to you."

And I need to get back to disabling Portals, and get home before everything goes hot back home.

I hope it's not too late already.

Chapter Seventeen

Extenuating Circumstances

The Cyborgs were quite thoroughly dead.

"They grabbed the cashier, when she said they had to pay, and just, just, hit her, and then they ripped her panties and were going to rape her right there . . . well, something just snapped and . . . then everyone . . ."

Vlad looked around the sporting goods store. Bad place to demonstrate that you can do anything you feel like. Looks like everything from bats, several golf clubs, an oar, and that weight bar with hundred and fifty pounds on it . . . has persuaded you that you were wrong. Or might have, had either of you survived.

Forty-one was standing back, eyeing the unrepetant crowd uneasily.

Vlad looked around and spotted an empty crate. Turned it upside down and stepped up on it. "It has always been a tenant of our society that we had a right, and a duty, to protect ourseves, and to come to the assistence of anyone being vicitmized. Unfortunately our . . . invaders from Stuttgart come from a society with different rights. And priviledges.

"Which we will not allow them to import.

"I suggest though, that you only 'defend yourself' when there is an actual crime in progress, in case you wind up in court. But we, the City Poilice, do realize that due to extenuating circumstances it may not be possible for you to stick around until the police arrive to get your report." He glanced back at Forty-one. "And do not attack City Police Cyborgs. Now move along, please, it's unseemly to stand and gawk."

He stepped off the crate and pulled out his phone. Called the people who were were dealing with "the special cases" that were cropping up all over the city.

Forty-one shook his head. "I really thought the Stuttgard guys were just being controlled. But I swear they must be Cyborging all the violent criminal they can find--and sending them out to terrorize their conquests. They brag about the women they rape."

'Well, this makes eleven men they've lost, and we managed to cover up all but one, once we realized that everyone is going to fight back and we needed to dispose of evidence." Vlad walked back to the manager.

"At least this time they didn't write 'Igor' on the wall in blood."

The store manager's eyes widened.

Vlad nodded. "If anyone . . . threatens you, tell them a redheaded guy dressed all in black, told the Cyborgs he was Igor, and then he beat them to death."

They stuck around until the cleanup crew was done, and then headed back toward headquarters. Vlad stared up at the Malta massif. Almost thirty miles long, running northwest to southeast, the city wrapped around the southeastern end, and spread westward for about a third of the chunk of stone, and out over the valley floor for another five miles, to Long Lake.

"Only two vehicular entries. I wonder how long the seige will last."

Forty-one snorted. "They don't want to risk damaging the zivvy, otherwise they'd have brought in tanks already."

"Much safer to starve them out, I suppose. I wish Axel would contact us."

"Dina still thinks he's Across?"

"Yep. So . . . are there any decent men among the Stutties?"

"Three out of the first twenty. One out of the second. The bad ones are starting to clump and not mix in. We don't want them, and they don't want us. They grab every convicted rapists and violent criminal and have them Cyborged for their invasion units."

"Ouch. So ten percent might be reliable." Vlad shook his head. "And . . . how are you feeling after that three day bender?"

"Fantastic." Forty-one gave him a quick glance. Held out his hand and squeezed down a bright handful of power.

"Hot Damn!"

His phone chimed with a message. Orders to attend a conference between Governor Berezin, Chief of Police Naoumov, a representative from the Research Center, and Colonel Lehr.

The plaza in front of City Hall was not quite surrounded by the Stuttgart army, but their presence was thick on the ground.

"Park facing in, between posts. I'll slice most of the way through a link as I step over. You stay with the car and . . . hopefully there will be no need for you to come fetch me."

Forty-one scowled, nodded.

The graceful drape of the thick chain between the stone posts looked reasonably decorative. Every year or so, someone learned they were hardened steel and very well anchored.

As Vlad stepped across the chain, he steadied himself with a hand on the last link of the chain at the ring bolt set in the post, and sliced through it. He strode across the plaza, and a Stut Cyborg moved to intercept him.

"I'm Senior Detective Gargaran."

"You are on the list." He looked disappointed as he turned away.

Shit. Those things really worry me. What the hell is Stuttgart doing to the men they Cyborg?

Vlad reached the steps , but turned to look upward.

A high pitched whistle and a military aircar braked and dropped. A hatch lowered and Director Rasputin stalked down the ramp, eyed Vlad.

"Senior Detective Gargaran, sir."

A nod, and the man strode up the steps, his Exec following, his right arm showing a wrap under the classy cuffs of a high priced suit.

The ramp rose and the aircar lifted off.

Vlad followed them into a high energy environment.

Definitely a meeting of mentalists.

Rasputin stopped to survey the playing field. The Governor and Chief of Police were shoulder to shoulder, a raft of flunkies behind them. The Colonel was flanked by a quartet of men with lots of metals and ribbons, tough looking Cyborgs behind them.

Rasputin with a single Exec was a bit thin on entourage, even if Vlad probably looked like he was part of it, having arrived on his heels.

A dignified young man in an expensive suit stepped out of the shadows to the right. "Do you need another assistent today, sir?"

Good . . . is that Barf?

Vlad breathed. "Take him."

"Come along then . . ."

"Mr. Var, sir."

So Director Rasputin had a three man backup crew as he stepped up to form the third point in an equilateral triangle.

Colonel Lehr took a step forward. "Gentlemen. At the moment we stand on the brink of a war that will destroy this city. You need to admit that you lost the war before it started."

"Colonel," Rasputin sounded pretty chilly. "You have already loosed upon this city a horde of violent soldiers with zero respect for the law, or even decent behavior. We assisted you when you were attacked--important citizens kidnapped and replaced--by Budapest Reborn. You have repaid this with a--so far--minimally damaging invasion. Go away before we demonstrate what sort of research we carry out Up Top."

"You have such a nice family." The Colonel smiled nastily.

"Did I say something about zero respect for the law, or even decent behavior?"Rasputin looked toward the Governor. "I agree with you, that a war would be horrible, the death toll high. But what will the toll be if we hand power over to a monster like this?"

The Colonel shook his head. "Rasputin, you are a trouble maker. You see, the problem we have here is a matter of numbers. If I were to kill you, I would destroy half the command structure of 'Up Top.' In the unlikely event you could kill me?"

A casualy wave over his shoulder. "And all three of them. You would have destroyed less than ten percent my little command's officers, and we're all easily replaced. How quickly can you be replaced, Rasputin?"

"Instantly. Like you, I have a chain of command, and . . . Up Top is a bit more complex than you seem to envision. Now why don't stop with the personal threats and discuss your withdrawl. If at any time you wish to leave, we can call a ceasefire if you start waving large white flags and cease hostilities. Then you can withdraw to your beacon and wait for a gate."

Rasputin shook his head. "Don't look amused. I'm giving you an out, for when you realize you need it."

"I'm not giving you an out. I think you'll be the next example. Since I've got you out of your aerie. Pity I don't have any zivvy, I'll just have to kill you. Or maybe just cripple you."

Rasputin flicked his galnce toward the Governor and Chief. "You two need to retreat, right now."

Vlad felt the air cooling and stepped far enough away to collect some power himself. Shit this could get nasty because everyone here is stronger than me. Except maybe Mr. Mateev.

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 19

He glanced at the time. The days are getting longer, but it's still dark until . . . I'll need to park to the west of Number Four Portal when I snatch their portalmaker. They quit at six in the morning, about right for making the guards look into the rising sun by the time I'm trying to get him across the grounds in the long shadows of the tall buildings.

The other young one turns off at ten . . . I wonder if I can get him out before the alarm goes out?

He shook his head at the screen. "I should be back in a couple of hours."

Since he had the truck, he started with four matresses. A table with six chairs, some assembly required.

A medium sized TV, to keep the ladies happy for the next five days.

Clothes. No effing idea what sizes to buy. He got stretchy stuff, t-shirts, packets of undies and socks, and hoped for the best. Loaded up on groceries.

Unloaded everything but two of the matresses.

The ladies were delighted, and tactfully suggested more glasses, plates, and flatware.

"A small refrigerator and an electric skillet would be nice." Shy gave him the big eyed treatment.

Blondie sighed. "Towels and wash clothes? I'd kill for a shower, but any application of hot water would be nice."

Dear God! Am I going to wind up with them staying here? They don't have any money, can't work with the police no doubt looking for them.

"Right. I'll be back."

The megastore had everything. And when he got back he found the garage door wide open and the boys he'd given the wine to, and two other young men, busily assembling the table and chairs.

He winced, but backed halfway in so they could unload without exposing four wanted women to too much of the great outdoors.

"Das ist m'bruder." The boy with the cut hand waved at a young man standing up.

"I insisted he bring me. I spent the last year and a half sitting in a corner drooling. If there is anything you need, anything, I am at your disposal."

"Well, I'll be leaving in a week. I don't know when--or if--I'll be back." He eyed the group of young men. "I need this warehouse kept emptyish, but if you could come and go often enough that it doesn't look abandoned I'd appreciate it."

He eyed the younger brother. "And if Scar here, and his friends, need a place to manufacture that medicial wine, this'll work."

The other man stood up. Alarms went off in Axel's head. Police.

"We wanted to help you, but it sounds like you're helping us."

"Sounds like. That wine? It's going to change the whole Empire . . . whatever's left of it. And in my opinion, for the good."

The cop nodded. "Yeah." He touched his head. "I had a serious head injury. Medically retired, with a pension that barely covered my Mom feeding me. Now? Damn. Everything has changed again."

"What are you going to do about it?"

"That kind of depends on who you are. What you are."

Axel straightened and lowered his shield enough that the cop could see he was telling the truth. Might have overdone it, the man took a step back, paleing. "I am an Imperial Agent, investigating a complaint from Siberia Max that Stuttgart has invaded them.

"In five days I'll be shifting over to Siberia Max and observing this so-called invasion, and the local response to it." He shrugged. "While I'm here, I'm dispensing a healing potion, which admittedly has a few unwanted side effects. The advantages far outweight the negatives in this very difficult time. And may amelerorate the harm from being cut off from other medical assistance." He closed up his shield. "Sorry, I'm a bit pissed to find medical care rationed already. A tier two world should do better than this for its people."

The cop nodded toward the women.

Axel let his voice chill. "Your government gives the strong appearance of experimenting with zivvy."

The cop took another step back. "Yeah, they told me . . . Christus . . ."

"Indeed. Hopefully your government will back away from this mis-step. I'll be monitoring them for the next few days. And, as I say, leaving in a few days. I would like you gentlemen to stay away for two weeks, then you can use the warehouse however you wish. Once I have reported in I may return. Or my superiors will. And they won't be covert. At. All."

He led them to his computer, signed the two men onto the lease, and tapped the terms. "I've paid a year in advance and deposit. If I don't return, feel free to extend the lease, or not. It's of no matter to me or mine."

Shy had taken over the short counter beside the industrial sink and shortly fed everyone. Then Axel kicked out the male contingent. "Come back in two weeks."

He looked at the women who were back to eyeing him warily.

"On Siberia Max, rather than being wanted criminals, you will . . . well, I suppose by right of theft, be mine. While I do not approve of anyone being property, I'm as trapped by the laws as you are. But I will find you a place to live and you can work as you like."

He eyed the women. "It beats being a wanted criminal here. I think. Go or stay. It really is entirely up to you."


Just driving by on the highway, a glimpse showed a whole lot more lights on at Number Three. Mostly at the Museum end.

I hope they think that was a daring raid to rescue the Black Widows. Not a scouting trip to check out how to liberate a portalmaker . . . because what idiot scout would care about four women in a holding cell?

Portal Facility Four looked like business as usual. Not much cover on the south side where the trucks were departing, but on the west side, a narrow side street, with a not-really-a-park, just a roughly maintained bank of a concrete lined drainage with some trees sticking up out of the brush where they'd stopped mowing.

A quick slash and levitate, then he backed the car down the slope into the cleared spot and dropped the cut brush on the car

Probably just scratched my paint. He trotted up the slope to the road and walked to the road that paralleled the security fence, and along it to the point closest to the building. Closed his eyes so he could see the density points of pressureplates, the wire loops of circuit detectors . . . half of them not working.

Overconfident, lazy. Not keeping up the maintenance

He mapped a path through them, backed off to let a car drive past, stayed back to watch two patrol vehicles inside drive by, one each way. Used the time to set his camo to "medium mown grass."

Then he ran and jumped. Levitated. Rolled the landing and held still. No alarm, no under the surface detectors on this side. He trotted for the building spotting doors . . . a blank one over there . . . no outside handles. Well, finally an emergency exit! He leaned to feel for alarms . . . reached a hand up and rested it near the alarm on the other side of the wall . . . reached mentally and bent a few wires. Checked, no one near . . . he pulled out the worker's overalls he'd snagged from the first Portal, and climbed into them. Switched his camo to solid tan, and walked down the hall, heading toward the portal machinery.

Stepped into an empty office and opened his shields to feel for the portalmaker . . . close, good he was on this side of the big bay where the portal actually formed. And as the portal clased, he could feel the effort and mental reach for the next destination, the . . . challenge, the interest in seeing the multiverse . . . the pop of pain to remind the youngster to go to this specific place . . .

This kid's going to get along with Henrik just fine.

:: Who is Henrik? ::

Axel swallowed. :: A free portalist. Finish your shift. We'll talk then. ::

Axel closed his shield tight, and moved away. Found stairs and climbed a level, peeked out, too many people. He dropped down to the basement and a found the computers, a chemistry lab . . . A lavatory right under the control room. It looked unused.

Who wants to feel the mental screams of a portalmaker when they're sitting on the toilet?

A glance at his watch. Four hours and they should shut down.

Only two other people in the basement. Axel scouted out what he needed, then tucked himself out of sight and relaxed. Because the kidnapping of portal makers starts this morning.

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 18

Easiest escape ever. Desk Man programmed the outside cams to record and loop. The Ladies followed directions. So they walked out through the museum, and all they had to do was wait until a patrol vehicle was past, and fiddle the back gate locks and alarms. A short hike to the car.

He drove off down side streets before he turned his headlights back on.

"I've got to say I'm really impressed that you ladies really did stay quiet. I'm Igor, and I'll be leaving the city in six days. You are welcome to come along, or if you have a safe place to go to, I'll drive you there."

Uncertain glances and head shakes among them.

"Or stay for a few days and think about it. I'm a fan of planning, myself." He paused. "Umm, if you aren't comfortable giving me your names . . . just think up something you'd like to answer to."

A turn and a short block to the highway. He got off one exit late, and back tracked to the warehouse.

He was frowning as he pulled into the warehouse.

"Ladies? Can you speak?"


He got out of the car, and they did the same, looking around at the uninformative space.

"Nod if you understand me." Four nods. "Mentalist compulsion? No? Phyisical?" Uncertain nods. The oldest mimed drinking.



"Right . . . well, this will be interesting." He walked over to the work table. "Each of you take a small sip of this. Sorry, but I wasn't really expecting to have company and I've only got four glasses and this is the last clean one . . ."

"This stuff has a terrifying number of healing impressions, and I hope it's just a side effect, not something anyone put in on purpose . . . but it's got an aphrodisiac impression that'll knock your socks off."

The older woman snorted.

"Yeah. So, just exert some control, and don't be offended if I reject you, but I have a young woman I'd like to go home to with a clear conscious. Well, clear of that particular misdeed."

He poured half a glass and handed it to the oldest.

She took a mouthful and passed it on, as her eyes widened and her breathe caught. She eyed him hungrily, blushed and stepped back. "Holy . . . I can talk!"

In minutes there were four of them jabbering away, one of them crying, all of them watching him and variously blushing, licking their lips, reaching and then snatching their hands back.

"It's just an effect of the potion. Just take a deep breath and keep telling youself it's just chemistry. Right?"

They seemed to be getting a grip, so he relaxed.

"Well, let's try this again. Hi, I'm Igor, which isn't actually my name. How about some nicknames for your four?"

The oldest nodded. "Blondie."



"Hallo Du?"

Hey you? Axel grinned, and they all leaned toward him. He got his face under control.

"Well. The magic potion strikes again. If it works like it has so far, you're going to have horrible hangover in the morning. So I suggest a light dinner." He looked dubiously over at the stuff on the sink counter. "Did I mention I wasn't expecting guests for a day or two?"

Over crackers and cheese they told him all about it.

"They thought that the wife chips would have used the least ammount of the zivvy." Blondie frowned at him. "The zivvy comes in small pods. One per chip. Cyborg and Exec plates have two chips, but very good control of where the wires go. Everything else gets one chip. They thought the lower number of wires getting zivvy the second day would mean there was a larger reseve in wife chips than servant chips."

Axel boggled. "Were they going to remove your chips for that left over Zivvy?"

"Yes." A casual wave of her hand. "Carefully, to not spill any."

Zwerg, Dwarf, the short one nodded. "They didn't think we were likely to survive . . . and since we'd be unchipped, they'd be sure of it."

"We're all widows, you see." Hallo Du grimaced. "My husband owned a store. I managed it for him, he was very old, and after he died, it all became the property of the state, as did I. But the details take time and I continued to run the shop without him for some time."

Nods around the table.

"My husband was a doctor. I took over the billing, the supplies, the staff. I kept doing it for the junior partners while they tried to figure out how to buy the clinic back from the state. They could not afford me, as well." Blondie shrugged, looked away.

Shy nodded. "Herni had no relatives within three degrees, so the state took the restaurant and me."

"So we were to be their first experiment." Hallo Du shivered. "They thought perhaps with four used wife chips they could get enough zivvy to wire up a portalmaker."

"So is their Cybernetics Center in that same old building?"

"One of the eighteen, at least one each on every continent, in the megaplexes."

"Ah. Of course." Axel eyed them. "You know, with your business acumen, I'd really like all of you to come with me."

They eyed him thoughtfully . . . or maybe suspiciously.

"I'm an abolitionist. Legally I can't free you. In practice, I can let you go your own way, and with financial backing. I hadn't thought about stores and restaurants, but someone who knows the business side of a medical clinic? Blondie, I will try to presuade you to work for me. And I suspect you others as well."

"But right now, I need to sleep, because I've got to go out again tomorrow night for my last survey." He looked around. "Hmm. Maybe I'll sleep in the car. There are two matresses in one of the front offices . . . a couple of chairs . . . hmm. I'll go shopping pretty soon."

They were looking exhausted, and thankful he'd brought up the subject.

He washed all the glasses, slugged his dose of the wine, then cranked back the front passenger seat of the car and slept like a log. Woke around Noon to the sound of retching.

Right on schedule.

He walked around dispensing anti-nausea, and anti-hangover impressions and made them drink water.

"I'm going to go shopping. Relax, stay inside." He bit his lip then got out his computer and hunted for TV broadcasts . . . yeah, standard here too.

"Channel Five, for the news." Blondie slumped down in one of the reception area chairs. "I hope they aren't looking for your pretty car."

"Umm, good thought. I'll take the truck." He paused as the iconic picture of Siberia Max--the massif silhouetted against the sunset, with the lights of the city around its base--popped up on the screen.

"Negotiations of the terms of annexing Siberia Max are proceeding, and we expect access to their zivvy supplies by next week. In other news, contact with Tier Two Bismark has cut off, with a report of their third Plague victim."

Axel shook his head. "Damn."

I wonder if the Enemy is still spreading the Plague, or if this is something left over, something, a canned drink perhaps, imported from somewhere else. I swear I need to be paranoid about everything.

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 17

and get the last one out before the first one's rest period is over and they raise the alarm.


It's not going to be possible.

The constant rumble of the trucks died away. He pulled his mimcam back out and shifted to see . . . Ah. They're done with out-going and now the in-coming traffic starts.

He slipped back out the big truck door and walked around the building . . . not liking the door placement. Don't they have fire marshals to insist on emergency exits all over the place?

He slid quietly off the grounds and around to where he'd left the car.

Then home to argue with himself.

I'd rather kidnap them . . . but killing them may be the only option.

He headed back to the warehouse., and slept for a few hours until the rattle of the back door being raised alerted him to a problem.

Men in dark clothing ducking under the door as it rose, flashlights . . .

Axel reached and hit the light switch.

The men froze, then clustered defensively, a few pistols coming up as they focused on him.

"Oh good. I was afraid it was the police. Who are you . . . very young men?"

Ah, under eighteen so they aren't chipped. Six of them.

The one in front, one of the three with a pistol, was looking wary. "Gib me alle your cash Karten, and du won't get hurt." Some sort of pidgin German-English mash up.

Axel nodded. "You know, I don't believe in passing up opportunities that just fall into my lap. Let's talk business. You guys don't look terribly healthy, especially the one with the bandage around his hand."

"Was? You denken sei waste medicine on Livestock? It don't matter who our Vater are, not that we know, but we got," He squeezed his hand closed on a glow of power, "das Talent, even so. Und they don't like that."

"I see." Axel kept up a shield, even though the kids didn't look all that dangerous. He walked to the table and grabbed a glass and a bottle of wine. Twisted off the top and poured a half a glass. Pulled his med kit out of the truck and walked back to the table.

"All right bandage boy, let's see your hand."

The boy swallowed and edged out. The others followed. Currious, supportive, wary. They were eyeing the glass of wine suspiciously.

And him even more suspiciously.

He pulled out a pair of scissors. "I'm going to take the bandage off, so you can see what happens."

The boy managed to pale even further. "Der doctor said they might as well konnten it off, I wasn't good for anthing but a Cyborg anyway."

This scrawney little thing?

At least it was a professional wrap, and didn't stick, but the jagged cut in his palm was oozing puss, and the red streaks had almost made it to his wrist.

"Right. Now drink this."

The kid took the glass cautiously and took a sip. Huffed a surprised breath, and took a deep swallow. A couple of breaths. "Gut painkiller." he startled and held out his hand. "Was ist los?" His voice rising in panic, as blood tinged puss gushed out of the cut.

Axel wiped his hand, then led him over to the sink and washed it thoroughly with soap the kids crowded around and watched in fascination as the cut closed up on healthy looking flesh, the red streaks already gone . . .

"What this stuff is, is a couple hundred healing impressions and . . . some other stuff." Axel waited until the kids all looked back at the partly drunk glass of wine.

Bandage boy looked up from his hand. "What stuff?"

"Pain killer, you'll feel pretty lusty for a few days. And . . . It dissolves zivvy wires."

They froze. Staring at him.

"You have to do it right though. This is what you do for a servant chip. Half a cup a day for seven days. Then absolutely no alcohol for three weeks. The seven days dissolves the wires. but it runs on alcohol. You keep feeding it, and it'll attack the chip, and then you're in trouble. Seven days, then stop, and the chip still reads normal. You'll have your talent back, your smarts."

"Now Cyborgs . . . three days, maximum, else they may lose use of the arm. But they'll be harder to control. I don't know about wife chips. I suspect they're the same as the servant chips. They can get back their magic."

The leader took a deep breath. "How much do you have?"

Axel shook his head. "It's a von neumann's potion. Do you know what that is? Good. Take this," he handed over a cash card, "and the rest of this bottle. Dope up a bunch of wine. Give it to those who need it, charge those who can pay. And keep it quiet, because when the authorities find out about it, it will become illegal."

He shooed them out, and locked up. Turned out the lights and slept again.

The second portal was just begging to be raided. And the portalmaker young and in pain.

:: One more week. Help will come. ::

Axel drove back to the warehouse and fiddled with the car ID so he could get into the car park across the street, and for good measures, two other false IDs as well.

He slept fitfully through the nightmares.

The third portal was manned by another elderly portalmaker, hardly worth the risk killing, let alone kidnapping. But the architecture was "interesting."

The steel cube and panel architecture that he was much too familiar with, with the portal facilities at one end . . . and museum at the other? He walked cautiously over to read the sign . .

Drei Mächte Bündniss World Headquarters

Construction started the first year that Stuttgart had been

discovered, built on the ruins of the native buildings flattened

during the first stages of the invasion

The World was named Stuttgart after the beloved home of

the Great Leader

I think I'll barf. This is where it all started, attacking late industrial, early electronic age Worlds and taking . . . instead of colonizing Worlds with no people and building. Creating.

The security system and locks on the side door were no doubt adequate for the local hoodlums, but yielded quickly to Axel. He slipped quietly deep into the "preserved in pristine historical condition" . . . crap he had to deal with at home. He trotted past displays and beyond the offices staffed with appropriately dressed manikins and into the Great Leader's private chambers, where he found the door to the working part of the complex.

So to speak. He had to shift boxes and a metal shelf unit that were blocking the doorway on the other side. One direction, the quiet dark offices of the bureaucrats . . . oh. the payroll department?

Axel supressed a desire to give everyone a giant pay raise and went the other direction . . . to the security offices. Peeking around a corner and hearing people through the first door down the hall . . . He eased up to take a look.

Two bored officers. ". . . call themselves the Black Widows. Makes you wonder what their husbands really died of."

A snort from the man behind the desk. "Hardly matters, they'll be dead as soon as the doctor gets here in the morning."

"Ach! Experimenting! Times have changed--forever." He shrugged and started toward the door. "Not that much will change for us."

Heh. A wise man. Assuming he survives the rest of this year.

Axel backpedaled hastily, and ducked around the corner, the sound of boots on the hard floor, fading.

Axel let the man get well out of sight before he reached out and gently fogged the deskman's mind.

And bingo! The other side of the desk was full of lights and controls, a clear plas door behind him opened to the tap of the Desk Man's ID, and Axel took a quick look down the row of cells. The first big cell was the only one occupied.

The four women were slumped. Tired. Hopeless. One had gray threaded through her hair, and the lines of experience on her face. The other three were younger, late twenties or thirties, perhaps. One of them spotted him, despite the camosuit and nudged the woman next to her.

Axel glanced back at Desk Man and had him open the women's cell.

"Would you ladies like to get out of here?"

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 16

Chapter Fifteen

Baby Sitting

"So, you guys just kick back and take a few days off until the Stutties realize that they aren't going to be allowed to have our gates." Nastasya eyed the twenty-four young men. The portalmakers. I think Axel has kidnapped our portalmakers!

"Ten days." The fellow in charge grinned. "Not that I can tell you why then."

They didn't come close to filling all the bedrooms on third floor west. By using the old furniture shoved into rooms, they'd managed to furnish them, only having to move a few beds from guest rooms in the east wing. And Nastasya had raided Axel's Parents' apartment for the big screen tv and set it up in the only big room they could find over there. And bathroom space was a bit tight, but as the only people living in the whole wing, they didn't even have to worry about being quiet.

There wouldn't be a problem feeding them, Axel'd had the Burser load up on food two weeks ago.

No, the main problem was a house full of servant women and teenagers suddenly confronted with young men they weren't related to. Suddenly they were wearing their best dresses and using makeup and she had lots of volunteers to bring food to the mystery guests they were hiding from the Evil Stuttgartians . . .

I really hope this isn't one of those long drawn out wars!

Chapter Sixteen

Agent in Action

The Stutties were hiring every truck they could.

"Ghost. Belong ta Lord Max Ignatov. Don' care what I do, so long's he get mos' of the money." Axel held out a card. "Pay to this accoun'."

The Stuttie grunted and ran the card through his machine, and handed back the card, and sent him off to get loaded.

Loot. State of the art electronics. You'd think a Tier Two World wouldn't have a problem buying any of this. But they sure are happy to swap for meat and veggies. At their exchange rate.

The loaders finished, slapped a big "5" on his windshield. "After you leave the gate, follow the five signs," and waved him off to wait in the line for the portal. The Stuttgart portal.

I just hope Henrik can open a portal in ten days. And that's cutting it close. Even if what he said about the Stuttgart Portal makers is true. Two very old and wobbly. Two strong.

If I can take at least two of them . . . preferrably the strong ones, they may find us very low priority, and go pick on someone else.

I'd say a world like that must have a bunch of clones ready . . . but if they are already out of zivvy and can't wire up a new one . . . that's going to have major ramification for these would-be Empire builders.

And that's why they wanted us. They assumed we had three portalmakers.

I wish I'd been able to see their faces when they popped the coffins and found them empty.

He had a gym bag on the floor. Clothes and toiletries. Two bottles of wine, professionally recorked and rewrapped after being dosed. In two fancy gift bags.

Two teams of Cyborgs in Stut uniforms working their way down the line of trucks. Checking papers . . . spotting the gift bags and reaching for them.

"Hey! Tryin' ta get laid, y'know!"

"We'll let you know if it works. Get moving."

He growled and put the truck in gear.

Winced through the portal twist and followed the rest of the trucks out of the portal security area, turned to follow the number five signs to where they were unloading electronic goodies and waited his turn to get unloaded. And drove off into the city.

He parked at a casual looking restaurant, pulled his (new) computer out of it's hiding place and ate while he searched for those warehouse type places he'd scouted for the Diplomats . . . yeah. That one was not in a very good area. It would work perfectly.

The Unfamous Artiste Max Ignatov rented and paid for it, got the code for the door, paid the waitress with a big tip and headed for his new home.

All it needed was some furniture for the visible reception area, a couple of matresses for the side office, because even Igor couldn't steal four Portal makers in a single day. Here.

And some work tables.

Groceries. Wine. Funnels. Because opportunities should never be missed.

And studied maps, aerial photographs, and the "So you want to be a Portal Driver" handbook that showed him right where he needed to go in all four facilities. If all he wanted to do was drive through the portal.

"It'll be easy to get in . . . but once I've taken the portal down . . . it's going to be interesting getting out with a handicapped guy over my shoulder."

He frowned over at the truck. So perfect for some things, but . . .

What the hell. He bought a dark grey sporty sedan. With a lot of zip. Held the road well. Excellent getaway vehicle, once he gotten into the electronics and set some switches so he could turn off the location beacon, and the "anti-theft" remote turn off.

And then there's the other thing . . . He drummed his fingers in irritation. This isn't the diplomats fault.

He drove to a busy parking lot and pulled out the big clunky phone the techs had built for his first visit.

No. They're politicians, heart and soul. Maybe later.

He cruised the loop highway that passed all four portal centers. Made note of the times the portals were active. It took multiple passes, all day and all night.

The first portal started at noon and stopped at midnight--the third portal ran opposite it.

The second portal ran from six in the evening straight through to ten the next morning.

The fourth portal ran from two in the afternoon overnight until six in the morning.

To let the portalmakers sleep. And no doubt have nightmares, poor sods. I suspect two and four are the young portalmakers who can handle sixteen hour shifts. And the old ones can only handle ten hours, and get fourteen to recupperate.

Had an early dinner on the way back to the warehouse for his gear.

The active camoflage suit got him in easily enough. And once in, he backtracked workers and grabbed generic overalls, and stuffed them in his backpack for future use. He ghosted along with the camo pretending to be plastered wall, and followed workers up to but not through the security gate.

He slid into the shadows, and climbed the door trim of the tall truck entrance. A hard illusion to swing around inside, above most people's gaze. and reach up for a girder and he was above all the lights, and could prowl at will. A peek through the portal . . . no place recognizable. Not much security on the far side.

Must be one of their conquests.

He prowled to one side . . . no, not the portalmaker room. The other side . . . Yeah, that thin stream of pain and effort. Exhausted, weak. No surface thoughts.

One of the older portalmakers.

No doors out to the portal room and truck entrance.

The room had a solid ceiling, pierced only by wires and airducts. He stretched out on a girder. Cut a little hole in the duct and ran a minicam down to the vent and far enough out to get a good look. Not quite the standard setup, the coffin half built into the control panel. Just a slanted bin lid to access the portalmaker.

Awkward, but not too difficult.

One door, out of the wall away from the portal . . .

Great, I can just see me staggering through hallways, a slimy, naked man over my shoulder, hunting for a door to the outside . . . Guess I'd better get back outside see where the doors are. Unless the others are worse, this will be the last one I raid I'll need to hit them fast, and get the last one out before the first one's rest period is over and they raise the alarm.

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 15

Chapter Fourteen

Among the Enemy

"We have to get the domestic situation under control, so we can open the portals to Regulous soon. You are horribly dependant on imported food. Stuttgart is, of course, helping, but we weren't ready to take the entire load!"

Vlad supposed that if he were a proper intel agent, he'd be delight to be dragged along . . . included in . . . this vert important meeting.

Started right off with a not very subtle threat of starvation if we don't . . . what? Is this still about the zivvy?

And are the portals down because they ordered it, or did we do something?

I'm betting on Axel, because there's a lot of rage being concealed. And not just Colonel Lehr's. I don't think anyone here has a clue what happened to the portals.

Chief of Police Nestor Naoumov was hiding anger behind a facade of mild interest.

Governor Berezin was doing all the talking on their side. Failing to subdue the anger in his voice. ". . . invited you in to help us secure the City from attacks from outside. Not to mess up our portals, which were working fine until last night. Not to investigate crimes, not to make illegal arrests, not to perform warantless searches of citizen's homes.

"And very definitely not kidnap and illegally chip Imperial Agents."

Colonel Lehr eyed him impatiently. "He was a traitor to your World. And a very powerful mentalist. He had to be eliminated, immediately."

"We do not eliminate people, Colonel." Berezin stiffened his shoulders. "As the representative of the Council of Siberia Max, at the order of the Council, I order you to leave this World."

That got a snort. "My troops outnumber yours, and more than equal your pathetic police force. I ordered you to come with these people to let them know that the City Police are now under my command, and those we keep will be intergrated into my police force."

He stepped up to the Chief of Police. "Do you understand that, Chief Naoumov?"


Lehr eyed him, then turned to Vlad. "So, you know the fugitive. Tell me about him."

"I met him three months ago, as a suspect in the alledged murder of his uncle, Lord Vladimir Vinogradov. He . . . was considered a useless Layabout. But he seemed very self-controlled, thinking ahead. Aware of all the legal and financial impacts of Lord Vladimir's death. Cold blooded and calculating.

"Researching him, I found that he had degrees in statistics, accounting, history, and Mentalist studies, with a Doctorate in Power Applications."

The Colonel straightened at that.

"So he was not just naturally highly talented, but also educated, and most likely very well trained."

"When, in the course of searching Vinogradov House, I found what looked like a dimensional beacon, Lord Axel made a single phone call, identified himself with a number and sent a recording of the beacon and the room it was in. A Fast Response Team arrived very quickly, and recognized him."

Vlad shrugged. "So I realized that the 'job' he'd casually dismissed, and allowed me to assume was financial in nature, was that of a Mentalist with the Teams. I was not in a position to know if he was the agent said to have accompanied Inquistor Gorbachev, however he was exhibiting all the symptoms of an unprotected portal crossing. I accompanied him and the servant who'd been showing me around, to the house he owned on Upper Cliff. I was boggled to find out it was next to my father's house, which we had always thought vacant and held as an investment. Inside I got the full lecture about it didn't happen until I had expresss permission for it have happened."

"After that, the Imperials took over the investigation . . . are you interested in the results?"

"Only in as much as Lord Axel being proven guilty."

"Actually Lord Vladimir's Executive Secretary killed him, as the only path he could find to stopping his master, when he discovered the beacon. Inquisitor Gorbachev removed the controls and whatever inhibitions Lord Vladimir implanted, and got the whole confession out of him."

"Where is he now?"

"I have not seen him since. I did, two days later, receive an official decree from the Imperial Inquisitor's Office that the killing was justified defense of the World."

A snort from the Colonel. "A nice cover for murder. So an Inquisitor is in on it!"

Vlad eyed him. "Do you still have communication to Home? You might want to get an Executioner out here to look into the matter."

The colonel blinked, thinking.

Go on. Do it! Dare you!

"I spoke hastily. I would never doubt an Inquisitor. Yesss . . . brave man, that Exec, a crucial moment when the invasion could be stopped while it was small. Now whether Lord Axel was in on the Treason is still not resolved."

He glanced at his computer. "Agent Schweiger is of the opinion that neither Lord Andre nor Lord Nikoli are powerful enough, ambitious enough, or intelligent enough to have been in on the Treason. What do you think?"

"I agree with that assessment, but will add that they are spoiled, arrogant, and dissolute, but only in small ways." Vlad shrugged.

The Governor nodded. "I knew them all, of course. Rather . . . typical third generation down from a great man, those two. Lord Axel was different. I knew he was one of Rasputin's Agents. I would never have thought . . ." He shook his head sadly, and turned to the Chief of Police, looked him straight in the eyes . . . and winked. "Integrate your people into a unified force, I'll make sure that you do all right out out of it."

The Chief scowled, nodded.

Vlad glowered, muttered "damn politicians." Shrugged. "How? There's not much room. We can put up barracks for more Cyborgs pretty quick, but not offices."

"We'll talk about it." The chief herded him out, glancing at the Governor. "And our budget."

"Now look, we've got money problems already . . ."

They argued all the way back to the squad cars.

Then the Chief eyed him. "What do you think, Gargaran, you're being pretty quiet."

"Well . . . I'll look over the Stutt Cyborgs. Separate them from their current controllers and then we'll see what we're dealing with. Long term? My money's on Igor."

The Chief glowered. The Governor sagged. Vlad got right in his face. "Don't write that man off. You know he's not cowering in a hole, so don't you give up either."

The Governor straightened, offended.

The Chief frowned. "Well . . . Gargaran, you are temporarily assigned to Cyborg duty . . . and try to make them into good cops, not occupying soldiers."

"Yes, sir."


So he started with a gang of Cyborgs he knew were good people and good cops. "So, did you all get three days worth of the zivvy dissolver," he grinned at their expressions.

Forty-one shook his finger at him. "Are you supposed to tell anyone about that?"

Two-four swallowed. "You're kidding?"

"No. This is how the conquered worlds are successfully rebelling. Three days of the officers getting dosed with the Plague--which is a poison, not a disease--and three days of the troops getting the zivvy destroyer, and suddenly our army is the rebels' army."

He certainly had their attention. "If you didn't get three days worth . . . any of you? Good. Now you need to go tee total for three weeks to make sure it turns off before it affects your control of the arm. I don't know any more than that about how it affects Cyborgs.

"Servant chips? A week of the wine, three weeks off removes the wires without damaging the chip, so it read as functioning. Twenty day of the wine and even the chip is dissolved."

He bit his lip. "Have any of you been around the Stutt Cyborgs?"

They all nodded, and they all looked angry.

Three-twelve growled. "They're acting like conquering warriors. Not quite to the rape, loot, pillage, burn stage . . . But they look like they really want to get to it."

Vlad nodded. "I'm supposed to integrate them into the police force."

"Oh shit." Forty-one hunched his shoulders.

"So what I need you guys to do is meet them, talk to them when they're off duty and relaxed. Find out if the behavior is an overlay from their controllers, or if they really are bad. Try and find good ones, and get the wine into them. If they're being actively controlled on duty . . . we'll have to figure out how to deal with that. Because I don't think anyone has any of the Plague poison."

"Day yam." Forty-one nodded. "Right, we'll see if we can lure any of them over to the side of law and order."

"Or to the side of Siberia Max." Two-four nodded. "I think they're just in tents on the west side, kind of surrounding their portal, well, their arrival spot with the beacon. They've taken over management and security of our commercial portals. Don't know about the one Up Top."

"I'll look into getting some portable buildings for barracks, bring them over in small batches, so you can look them over. And friendly or not, try and get them to act like police, not as you say, conquerors."

_Hostile Takeover_ Part 10 addition

Right after the House Search, still Vlad's POV (Because tomorrow's post will be pretty late)


Nothing else happened so he checked the weather forecast, then grabbed a rain coat and headed for the office.

Where the Chief of Police was trying to calm down a three sided yelling match in the elevator lobby.

Two sided. The third man, Axel's "Boss" had his arms crossed and was staring daggers at the unknown man in the suit.

". . . give me the zivvy!"

The man in the uniform snarled. "We need it to maintain civilization!"

The Boss's stare was getting colder.

"If you would all please calm down . . .

All three had flunkies hovering, not quite ready to grab their respective superiors and haul them away.

Vlad detoured way around the confrontation, and found some other detectives. "So . . . they're fighting over the last scraps of zivvy?"

Detective Devin nodded. "Or at least the last scraps the Cybernetic Center had. The fat guy's the Director of the Cybernetics Center, Dr. Jenner. The Fast Reaction Teams raided the Center this morning and removed every crumb of zivvy they had. They claim they have the right. That's the Director of Imperial Intelligence, Rasputin, keeping his mouth shut. Colonel Lehr, there, wants all of it that the Research Center has Up Top. Nobody's saying quite what triggered the raid in the first place."

Vlad bit his lip. "According to the Stuttgart Agent I spent much too much time with yesterday, they snatched a top Imperial agent off the street and sent him straight to surgery and got him chipped. He has escaped the Center, killing the Chief Surgeon on the way out."

That got a low whistle from Devine, and uneasy looks from the rest.

"Exactly. No arrangment, no trial. And if that's the way they're going to procede, I'd just as soon there was no zivvy available at all."

"Do you know who they chipped?"

Vlad was opening his mouth when the Doctor threw himself bodily at the Director of Intel. Whose rather thin Exec stepped forward to block a man who was probably triple his weight and was flattened. But did serve to trip the Doc, as Rasputin sidestepped, turned and twisted the Colonel's arm upward.

Lehr had a pistol in his hand and half the cops in the room leapt . . . the gun flew across the room as the Colonel was flattened as the top layer of the cake with a frosting of cops.

Director Rasputin stood back as the cops stood up, then grabbed the Colonel, hauled him up and slammed him into the wall.

"I realize, as a soldier, that you cannot simply pick up and leave against orders. So I suspect that means we're going to have to kill every single one of you. I'm tempted to start right now, but I'm going to leave you one chance to talk to your superiors and presuade them that this is a really bad World to try to take."

He gave the officer a really nasty looking smile. "You personally? You're a dead man walking. Because. You. Chipped. Igor."

Two of the Doctor's following helped him up and Rasputin stooped to help his Exec up. "Thank you, Mr. Mateev. You've got good reflexes. Let's go find a real doctor to take a look at that wrist. And perhaps your ribs."

He turned his back on the room and walked out, shooing the Exec out ahead of him.

A young Stuttgart officer had retrieved the gun and looked like he was contemplating using it.

"Don't." the colonel snarled. "He's got shields up."

The Chief of Police cleared his throat noisily. "Quite apart from it being illegal. All of you go away. Colonel . . . you're getting a warning this time. Do not ever draw a gun in my building again."

He turned to the fat man. "Dr. Jenner. We will be investigating two serious crimes in your Center. Since you are here, why don't we go talk to the Chief Detective?"

"What's to talk about? How can you not find an addled murderer? The first twenty-four hours are past, the wires are getting into his brain now, you should be able to find and him and control him."

"Indeed. If he weren't a trained soldier and agent. Who's trial and conviction totally escaped my notice. In fact, judging by the security recordings at the store where he was ambushed, he must have been taken straight from the store to the Cybernetics Center, stunned. They didn't even bother with a show trial.

"So let's just go have a little chat about this." The Chief's head turned at a movement of the Colonel's. "You, why are you still here?"

The colonel glowered, but turned and stalked out, junior officers at his heels.

Vlad exchanged glances with the other detectives. "Surely there's something we can investigate away from here."

Devin looked after the departing soldiers. "They chipped Igor?"

"Yeah . . . why?"

Vlad chewed that over. "If they want to either keep the status quo, or even start a small empire of their own, we must have been an irresistable temptation, once brought to their attention."

"How'd they know we still have zivvy?"

"Those two Stutties we rescued, they were here long enough to have heard the Governor's address, ordering a stop to chipping, until june, when we'd really find out if shipments were dependable. So they know we have a six month supply on hand. Just for our small population . . . but are they actually out of zivvy? I wonder if Stuttgart has enough zivvy to replace portalmakers as they age and die."

Devin nodded. "And if the old Empire's really gone, there's a chance they can figure out how to manufacture their own.

Zhabin winced. "And to tide them over, here's a world with a supply of zivvy, three portals, and a research center. And no army. Just some fast response teams, cops . . . and Igor."

"And they took him out immediately."