CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Turn and turn and turn again
He showered and changed into fresh clothes, but put his armor back on: ‘This suit goes home with me. To the Salon, I mean.’ He packed his filthy fighting garb into a bag and sent it via Jump to the cargo area in the basement of the Command Complex in Athino. ‘It’s got my tell-tales on it, it’ll end up back in my locker.
‘Blood doesn’t stick much to this ceramic-metal alloy,’ he thought, as he went down the hall to the ‘Most Secure’ room, where he guessed that he’d find their prisoners.
“...not merely propaganda,” Arrenji was saying, as the BWG guard palmed him into the room. She didn’t look back; with her helm on a table beside her, she knew who had entered.
She had not changed clothes. Her gambeson and the clothing under that padded tunic stank of the sweat from a six-mile run. Her dreads lay in disarray about the shoulder plates of her armor. She snarled as she twisted one strand loose from where it had stuck, then shook her head.
“It’s just mostly propaganda.” She stared at the three prisoners, then glared hard at the Captain: “If we can’t find a way to make you harmless, we will kill you.”
The Captain opened his hands wide and asked: “Why not now? Get it done with.”
He sat there, staring defiantly at Arrenji, his eyes on hers. She grinned, and slowly drew her pistol from the holster on her thigh.
The Captain moved to stand between her and the two young soldiers who sat nearby: the younger men trembled, tears on their faces.
“Fortunately,” said Ambros, loudly: “Very fortunately for the three of you, it’s relatively easy to make you harmless. To anyone except each other, at least.”
Arrenji did not look at him, but slowly returned the firearm to its place.
“Spathos,” she said.
The Captain sat back down, staring in a calculating way at Ambros.
Arrenji picked up her helm and cradled it in her left elbow. She then raised her right fist in the air and slammed her gauntleted hand down, smashing the lightweight table into splinters. The Captain flinched, just a little, and then recovered.
“They’re all yours, Spathos,” Arrenji said, appearing to be furious and on the brink of loss of control. She turned to him; only he saw her grin and wink as she stormed out the door, slamming it hard.
The guard caught it and eased it shut again. The palm lock hummed audibly. He thought: ‘That lock will open for anyone who palms it, though it will record the user’s identity. It’s not for security, unless someone resets it...’
Ambros stood there for a long moment, estimating his opponents. The soldier-boys, he decided, were too traumatized to do him any good, save as exemplars. One had a rather severe wound in his upper arm, the other was bruised and abraded of forehead. He activated his radio and spoke Rational French: “What do we have on site in the way of Medical Guild?” He turned the speaker on, so the prisoners could hear the reply.
The Controller followed his lead and spoke French: “Three Iatrae came through with the wounded, along with a full complement of their assistants and Laborers. They’ve been working on the priority patients, on both sides.”
“How’s that going?”
Understanding his intent, Megálos broke in: “There’s a Senior Med Guild student on her way to your location.”
“Thank you, Magistros.”
He left the mike and speakers live and asked, in Hellenic: “Rec room, anyone around?”
Theodore responded: “I’m here, Spathos. You need something?”
“Armor yourself and check out a Glockoid, please. Then bring some food and drink, and some medium sized shirts and trousers to Most Secure. If you will?”
“Akuo sas. Tha symfromei.”
Medical Guild entered at that moment, and her assistants stripped the soldier-boys and stood near while she treated them. The Captain watched carefully as she cleaned and glued their wounds, and salved them, and as an Apprentice gently bandaged them.
The Senior Med needed repeated applications of numbing compound to finish the one fellow’s arm.
She stood in a corner as the bandages went on, speaking into a recorder: “...although subject one is concussed and abraded, he will recover fully. Failing a trip to Commonwealth Prime or one of the higher-tech Allied Lines, subject two will not recover full use of his left arm...”
Theodore arrived as the Meds left. He carried a tray, and brought a Laborer with him, who carried another, each laden with food and drink: pickles, olives, grapes, wine, beer, coffee and tea.
Since the table formerly furnishing the room lay in fragments on the floor, the Hellenes dragged some chairs together and set the food in front of the French.
The soldier-boys appreciated the clean clothes.
Ambros gestured to Theodore: “Settle down, don’t draw that sidearm. I doubt the soldiers will give you any trouble; the Captain and I are going for a walk.”
Ambros spoke then to the prisoners: “Theodore here doesn’t speak Rational French. He’ll break bread with you, but he’s mostly here to watch you. And you, captain, are coming with me.”
He led the fellow around the corners and down halls and into the rec room. Several of Ambros’ students were there, and salutes passed as usual. Ambros sat at his accustomed table, signing that the Captain should sit across from him.
“Ah.” After an uncomfortable silence, the captain said: “I am Captain La Fevere.”
“I saw your name tag. I’m Ambros Rothakis.”
Alyssa came from the commissary, bringing a huge tray with a number of dishes on it. Ambros thanked her, and she went to the bar and took a seat there.
Ambros tasted each dish, letting the Captain see him do so. They began their meal.
“I have a question for you, Captain.” Ambros grinned nastily as he put it to his guest: “Who planned that operation, anyway?”
“I do not know. Orders came from above me.”
“Well, I am glad it wasn’t your operation. What’s the good of trapping Commonwealth operatives if you’re not ready to Passport your prisoners into a secure location before the pursuit begins? You should have known we’d pursue...we always pursue. We both lost friends to no good outcome for either side!”
“I cannot explain it. Put that way, in makes very little sense.”
Ambros shrugged: “It makes a kind of sense, if you and all of your soldiers are cannon fodder.”
La Fevere stared at Ambros, his mouth working.
Ambros let him chew on he possibilities as they finished their meal.
When they had eaten, Ambros got up and fetched a glass of tea for himself and some wine for the Captain. He said: “I’m no expert, but my students seem to think this stuff is pretty good.” He took a sipl: “Safe for you, see?”
The Captain swirled it, sniffed it, then tasted: “It is very good. Where is this made?”
Ambros shrugged: “It’s called Tuulii Valley in the Commonwealth Line. It’s in what you call Alta California, I believe. Napa, in my Home Line.”
“You are not, then, from this Line?”
Ambros grinned: “Well, no one is. You are not in a Commonwealth Line, this we call Alcatraz Quiet. Do you understand ‘Quiet’ when referring to Timelines?”
“I do. There are then, no living natives in this Line?”
“None. There are a few settlements of immigrants, though. As the biosphere recovers and we move refugees and prisoners into habitable areas.”
“But to answer your actual question, I am a citizen of Athino in Commonwealth Prime, but I am not a native.”
Silence ensued. At length the captain spoke.
“Why—if I may inquire—did you bomb us? You killed several of the people you were trying to rescue, did you not?”
“I think you are operating under a false premise.” Ambros smiled, and produced from his belt a grenade-like object: “This is one of the bomblets. It has been defused. Please examine it.” Ambros rolled it across the table to the Captain.
La Fevere picked it up, gingerly, and looked closely at it: “This is...one of ours? The identifying marks are French! It was produced in our Timeline, even!”
“Yes.” Ambros’ expression remained neutral, at the cost of some effort.
“How do I know this came from the skirmish field? Oh, yes...I suppose you have video of its chain of custody...”
“Indeed.” Ambros took the thing back and stowed it. “You can look at that video, if you like.”
“I will, soon. For now...” La Fevere stewed a while: “General Orsisne must have ordered it...they dropped a cluster bomb right on us! Killed almost all of my company!”
Ambros said: “So?”
“Those were good soldiers, many of them very young men! How could they...just kill them?”
“This Orsisne, he is from ATL prime? Your conquerors, I mean?”
“Yes, he is the military proconsul, or some such title...”
Ambros drank a sip of tea. He leaned back, staring sarcastically at La Fevere: “What on earth made you think L’Iriquois or his kids and clones give a rat’s ass about any of your soldiers? They are your ruling class now. If you’re not from the big cheese’s bloodline, you’re nobody. And you!” He snarled: “You aren’t even from L’Iriquois’ own Timeline: you are conquered, you are slaves. You are all expendable, every single one of you. Including all of whoever ran your version of the Empire pre-conquest. You and your former rulers...none of you are less expendable than the most inexperienced of your soldier-boys.” He grimaced: “We lost five people; you lost what? Thirty? Thirty-five? For the Emperor Jean III, that’s a distinct win. A bargain, even.”
“Eh.” La Fevere looked at his wine glass, but obviously he was not seeing it. Ambros gave him time, wondering how it would go.
The Captain’s expression turned bleak. He shook his head, as though to deny the realities he faced. Then he nodded, seeming to face them: “What will you do with us?”
Ambros kept his face blank: “Couple possibilities. This Line...we have settlements in places around the globe. We could re-settle you.” He paused to see how La Fevere would react.
The Captain looked up: “I will ask the men. I will recommend that they take that option.”
“And for yourself?”
“Eh. I joined the army because I disliked farming. What other options do you have for me?”
“We can send you to a French Imperial Line that has not been conquered. You would not be a soldier there, but at least the society and the customs will be familiar.”
“This seems futile. Will L’Iriquois not eventually come to this other Line?”
“He and his relatives do seem intent upon, how to say it? Hostile takeovers of the various Authoritarian Lines.”
“Eh. That has no appeal to me.”
Ambros waited again. “You have reason,” he said. ‘He’s a smart guy. A little slow to comprehend the depravity of his new masters, perhaps, but smart in other ways...’
Finally, La Fevere said: “If you send me home, you will want some compensation, I suppose. In the form of Intelligence, information?”
“If we believe that you are fully turned, then we may send you home. What your exact function will be in such a case is not for me to decide. Postal Guild and the Black Warrior Guild share routine intelligence work. As a Spathos in Sacred Band, my tasks are elsewhere.”
After a few moments, La Fevere smiled: “I think I would be well-suited to the function of mole. How may I convince you of my sincerity?”
Ambros grinned that wry grin: “You’ll remain here for a few weeks—we say dekamerae, tendays— and the staff and the students will evaluate you. If they are satisfied, they will allow you to receive further training.
“Rest assured, though, that you won’t ever be in a position to do the Commonwealth or any of our citizens any harm.
“You will be instructed in how to report to your handlers.” He shrugged. “I have this conversation recorded...”
“...and I will send the record to those whose task it is to train such as you. Now, however, I have my own tasks to attend to.”
He escorted the Captain back to Most Secure, stopped to consult the guards: “What’s the protocol?”
One said: “They’ll probably stay in the room. They’ll assume that they are prisoners...”
“If they want to wander, we’ll follow them. And if that captain is turning, he’ll be free to wander anyway,” said the other.
He went back down to the rec room, where he got some more tea and a snack. He stared morosely into space, occasionally frowning.
Voukli sat across from him and gripped his hand: “Why so down? You did good.”
He shook his head: “I know. It just occurred to me that if he fails, if he gets himself caught...”
She raised an eyebrow and waited.
“If his own people catch on to him, they’ll probably flay him and let it go at that. If the L’Iriquois bunch catch him, they’ll do much worse. And since I turned him, I’ll be responsible. To some degree.”
She shrugged: “To some degree. He has most of the responsibility, though. That is, if Postal Guild decides he’s reliable.”
“Yeah. No sense borrowing trouble, he could wind up in this Line somewhere.”
“I gotta go.”
“I expect so. See you around.” She saluted as he rose.
He returned the salute and left the room, heading for the landing/launching pad at the other end of the building: ‘Gotta get home...too much to do. Gotta get out to the Swamp, see Mark and Arlen, and then...’
Ambros and Mark played a cutthroat game of chess. They both concentrated hard, ignoring the comments made by the people watching. Rain fell lightly on the main living room shelter at Camp Arlen.
Ambros captured a pawn; Mark immediately captured a knight with his queen, which Ambros in turn captured. Mark moved a bishop, said: "Check," and leaned back.
Ambros nodded: "You play a very aggressive game, and you’re good at that."
“Thanks," said Mark, grinning.
Ambros captured the bishop with a knight, revealing a rook attack at Mark's king: "Check," he said.
Mark frowned: "Shit." He captured Ambros' rook with his other bishop; he had no choice, being in check. Ambros slid his queen across the board diagonally:
Sergeant Arlen walked over, sipping on a can of Rolling Rock. He looked over the board, even as Mark did.
"Got me." Mark said: "Another game?"
Arlen said: "Maybe another time. I need a word with Ambros."
Ambros got up and followed Sarge over to the fire. No one paid them any mind, and the usual noisy bustle continued as they spoke.
Arlen spoke first: "I talked to those lawyers you recommended...”
“Vic Michaels and Donald Castle, I guess you mean.”
“Yeah. That woman at the University, from the Labor Action Group: she couldn’t make the meeting. Anyway, we’ve been thinking and talking a lot in this camp about the possibility of a raid."
"By the 'authorities', you mean."
"Yeah. The lawyers say we can get a restraining order, and some sort of “show cause” order, to keep them off of us for a while. They say they got a federal judge that’s sympathetic.”
“You sound doubtful.”
“Yeah. The Mayor is a corrupt son from way back when he was a Councilman. He’s done some back-room deals and skirted the courts and the law in the past, and got away with it. He seems like he really wants us gone. He has a conservative majority on the council, too. They’ll let him do anything he wants to.
“Plus, there was guys in dark blue jackets poking around in the edges of the Swamp last week. Nobody could figure out who they were…somebody over at Borderboro guessed Bureau of Land Management…
“So, suppose we don’t get a show cause, or whatever. Or suppose Nichols just ignores it. Or suppose there’s Feds involved and the courts can’t stop ’em.
“Suppose we fight 'em off once or twice. They'll just keep sending in more cops, maybe even the National Guard. We can't stay outta sight if they really want us gone from here."
Ambros made a face: "I'm afraid you’re right. As much as I think you have a right to be here, and as much as I'd enjoy a confrontation, even a fight, you can't stay if the city fathers really decide to move you out."
"Got any ideas?"
"It's not my place to have ideas about your actions."
Sarge nodded in his turn: "I get that. Joanna has this idea..."
"Go ahead and bounce it off me," said Ambros.
"Once they run us all the way out of here, she thinks we oughta become a public nuisance."
Ambros grinned slowly: "Ah, clever. What's she got in mind?"
"She says, sleep in public, on sidewalks and benches right downtown. Move in families and small groups into the nicer neighborhoods up hill from here. Crash in the parks, but instead of hiding in the shrubbery, lay down in plain sight. If it's raining, pitch tents."
"I like that."
"Yeah. Now families with little kids gotta be more careful; social services might take the kids into care. But affinity groups with no kids? If they get arrested they get a night indoors. County doesn't have jail space to keep 'em, and it's expensive to haul 'em in anyway."
"Borderboro wants to fight..." Sarge seemed worried about that.
Ambros frowned: "You wanna help’em, huh?"
Sarge grimaced: "We got such a good thing goin' here, I hate to just bug out."
"Yeah. But 'Scatter Into Public Spaces' could be the fallback to your fallback positions."
"Yeah. Joanna...she says: 'If they won't let us stay hidden, then they have to face the consequences.’"
"If you aren't allowed to hide, then they have to look at you every day. To see you." Ambros hesitated: "Here's an idea..."
He narrowed his eyes: "It's not just the physical attributes of this camp that make it desirable. The way you and Mark and Joanna and her wife have put this thing together has created a community, what my mentors would call a Polis.”
Ambros said: "A Polis." He spelled it: "A sort of 'village' within the City of Eugene. A community, a commune, even."
"Huh." Arlen grinned: "You think we oughta try to save that part, right?"
"You're starting to understand how I think. Maybe, meet every couple days in different parks around town, and try to keep the decision-making structure intact. Decide collectively when and where to take stands and when to move on. Set the next meeting at the end of each gathering, Maybe even occasionally occupy a park for the night en masse. Then scatter again, but stay in plain sight. That would put more pressure on the authorities to 'do something about the homeless problem'."
Sarge laughed: "Joanna will dig that idea. I'll bounce it off her."
"Cool." He glanced at the MPS, invisible to all but him: "It's nearly noon. I gotta get going."
“Okay, but one more thing: Vic wants you to call him, about their next meeting with the Mayor. He wants you there.”
Ambros frowned: “Not necessarily a good idea.”
“How come, man?”
“I am so not a diplomat. I could mess things up bad, y’know?”
“Call Michaels, okay? He seemed pretty certain.”
Ambros shook his head: "Okay. Right. See you around." He headed for his campsite, touching the Shifter in his pocket.
He paused as he approached his hidden campsite, from which he was accustomed to Shift away from the Swamp. He felt the eyes on him before he saw them: four men standing partway up the berm staring at him.
He stopped dead and thought: ‘Three in dark blue jackets…one in a green and yellow hoodie.’
He regretted attracting their attention, especially since they had that look about them: ‘Bureaucrats…officious, pompous, sure of their own power and importance.’
Since he couldn’t avoid them or slip into his hidey-hole without their knowledge, he took the next-best course of action: he strolled towards them, grinning sarcastically.
When he drew near enough, he noted the pecking order: a middle-aged blond pale-skinned man was the leader of the Jackets; in descending order, a graying black man and a young latino filled out their ranks. Green-and-Yellow Hoodie seemed not to fit.
“What’s up gentlemen?” Ambros asked as he approached. His Wellington boots and wool cloak marked him out as prepared for the Swamp.
“Sir, are you camping here in this wetland?” This from Blond Man, whom Ambros immediately tagged as not very bright. The fellow’s dress shoes were singularly inappropriate for the spot he stood on, and entirely useless any deeper into the Swamp.
“Yes and no,” Ambros replied, truthfully.
“I’d like a straight answer, please: yes, or no?”
“I gave you a straight answer, mister,” said Ambros: ‘I wonder what makes you think you can compel an answer from me anyway?”
“I’m from the Bureau of Land Management,” Blond Man said: “We’ll be clearing this part of the wetlands of the unauthorized occupants within the month.”
“That’s unfortunate,” said Ambros, mildly.
Green-and-Yellow said: “I’m glad they’re gonna do it. I’m sick of these bums screaming and shouting and fighting with each other all the time.”
“Yeah.” Green-and-Yellow looked at Ambros in a distinctly unfriendly way: “Always going after each other, fighting about booze and women. The other day one of them stabbed his buddy and we had cops all over the place for hours making noise and disturbing our sleep.”
“You must live up on the hill at the dead end of Eighth Avenue, then.”
“Yeah, how’d you know?”
“Well,” Ambros said: “That’s the closest street with residences on it to the camp in the southwest corner, where the craziest of the Swampers camp.” He grinned: “See, there’s a hierarchy among the homeless: drunken crazies are second from the bottom. Climb up here and I’ll show you.”
From a bit higher on the berm he pointed out Camp Arlen and Borderboro, explaining the ruling principles of each camp, then waved at the far end of the Swamp: “The southwest corner is drunks and the mentally ill; northwest is a smaller camp of mostly guys with violent felonies on their records, who can’t get any other housing. And about midway between is a camp full of miscellaneous tramps and hobos. The population there turns over constantly, as men come and go from jobs in migratory labor.”
He gestured placatingly: “Sergeant Arlen has been working on swapping the hobos for the crazies…He’s about got both groups convinced to move. That would make your life quieter.”
Green-and-Yellow shrugged: “I guess. Better to just move them all out, I think.”
Ambros shook his head: “What will that accomplish, really? They won’t die, or disappear. They’ll be knifing each other on the streets of downtown, or over by the Mall. You’ll just move the problem to a bunch of new places. Here you’ve got it almost out of sight.”
Green-and-Yellow frowned. Young Latino started to speak, but his boss overrode him: “There are plenty of reasons to clear this wetland of trespassers. We’re going to do it, too. Here’s your personal eviction notice.”
He handed a legal-sized piece of paper to Ambros, who accepted it with a wry grin. Blond Man began to leave, losing his shoe in the muck twice before he achieved the top of the berm.
Ambros shook his head sadly, looking at the document: “Better get this into Sarge’s hands right now.”
He turned and slogged back towards Camp Arlen.
The ninth of December dawned rainy and cold in Eugene. In Athino the weather held gray and dry, with colder weather predicted to come soon. Ambros chose to spend the day in Athino.
“I been wanting to visit the Akropolis on a day when there aren’t too many folks about...today looks good.”
He stood looking out over the low wall that edged the flattish part of the hilltop. He scuffled his right foot on the marble rock that made up most of the surface. He grimaced: 'Something in my boot...'
He sat upon the wall and removed the boot, finding a small marble pebble: 'There's the offender,' he thought, and made as if to throw it away. Then he stopped, pondering.
Aloud he said: "People have been coming up here for various reasons ever since humans first arrived in this valley. In my Line, they found 'Venus of Willendorf' sculptures on the hilltop.
"And for as long as we have been wearing shoes, we've been carrying little rocks up and down the hill, and tossing them aside, mostly carelessly." He addressed the rock: "I wonder how many times you've made the trip..."
Then he set the little stone carefully onto the top of the wall next to him.
As he pulled his boot back on, he regarded the temple in front of him: 'International orange, lime green, and hot pink: the True Colors of the Parthenon. And flowers everywhere, plus that giant statue of an owl that the 'wealthers put up in the Second Century of the Hellenic Commonwealth. There are half a dozen places up here where I could take a snapshot, and no one in my Line would ever know it was taken on the Akropolis.’
Turning again, he looked back out over the City. His MPS warned him of a person coming up behind: "Luisa Dhekefthenini."
She stood beside him, puffing a bit from the climb: "Hey there," she said, as she embraced him. "I & DG said you were up here."
"What's up?" She looked over the City as he had been doing.
"Seeing this City in a new way, kinda."
"Oh? How so?"
“I realized the other day that my New Pismo is a solar cell.”
“Oh...um...” She began to nod: “Leave it in the sun and...”
“Yeah,” he said, into the silence. “The power module would last a long time without that. But the case has flat surfaces, so it charges the battery anytime the sun hits it. Artificial light, if it’s strong enough, will also charge it.
“Now look at this City. Every surface we can see, metal, stone, wood, ceramic, whatever...if it faces the sun at any time of day, on any day of the year, it's a photovoltaic panel, right?"
She frowned: "I guess that's probably so."
"So, most of these buildings are, electrically speaking, self sufficient. A lot of them, if they have a big sunward surface, produce excess power for the grid. Buildings with flat roofs mostly have gardens on top, but every tilted roof is a solar panel, I bet."
He pointed across the hilltop at a squat, rounded cone on the wall directly across from them: "That's an Omphalos, a representation of the Navel Of The World at Delphi. Let's go take a closer look..."
"Okay...there are not many people around."
"It’s Tenthday, there aren't a lot of worshippers up here; there are only a very few clerics. Now tomorrow..." They strolled at ease across the courtyards of the various Temples.
They reached the Omphalos, which loomed larger than it had seemed from a distance. Ambros gestured at the base: "See the little openings?"
She said: "They look like cracks in the stone, but they are spread evenly around..."
"They spiral up the cone, see? This is a windmill, it generates electricity."
"But how? It's silent; there's no room for a turbine of any size."
"The spiraling air cools significantly. The Navel uses the temperature differential to produce energy. The only purpose is to make this thing light up after sundown." He tapped a little glass bulb on the top of it: "There are hundreds of these things, maybe thousands, all over the City. I'd reached the point where I didn't even see them, y'know? But in the event of a general power failure, there are enough of these to light everyone's way home, or to battle stations."
"Oh," she said: "But how could there be a power failure? There are so many sources of electricity I don't see how they could all fail."
"It would be an unusual series of events, I admit. My point is, Commonwealthers layer every aspect of their collective lives with fail-safes like this. If someone says: 'What if blah, blah,' they very likely will build a system or design a machine to passively back up that particular potential problem. Because..."
"Because money is no object, and no one makes a profit or takes a loss by acting." She looked around: "It's a fundamentally different way of seeing the world and organizing their lives."
"That it is. 'Whoever does more is better; whoever does the most is best.' Someone who foresaw a potential problem, however unlikely, would not be treated as a crackpot or dismissed; she'd be heard, and be able to act, and would gain Status for thinking and doing."
"And if one's thinking and doing led to a poem, or a song, or a painting..."
"Or a new recipe, or a better way to prune hedges..." He grinned, waiting for her to continue.
"...or a new source of food, or a new way to look at wisdom, or anything else."
He could see tears in her eyes, and one trickled down. She said: "How did we go so wrong, how did they get this stuff so right?"
He took her in his arms and comforted her: "Fortune, fate, the fog of war. We aren't that bad, on the Multiversal scale."
"We're better off than a lot of places. There's still some small hope for our Line."
"Yes," he said: "With an exclamation point. We may be approaching the bottom, but there's still a hill to climb. There are places in the Multiverse where the people have hit bottom, but there’s no hill in sight."
“I guess. I feel so hopeless, sometimes. You know?”
“Yes, I do. And we could still screw up. We’re ever so close, to ‘chaos or community’ as MLK said.”
She nodded: “It’s obvious how close we are to chaos...”
He sighed: “I know. We’re closer than it sometimes seems to a better outcome, though. Whether there are enough people ready to dig in and ‘flip’ our Earth to a more rational form of organization...” He shrugged: “We’ll see.”
She embraced him: “Anyway, I need to get home, soon.”
“But tell me something that will give me hope.” She smiled wanly.
“Okay,” he said, frowning: “Try this. If you could drop in to Paris in 1765, and look around...”
“Paris in our Line, you mean,” she put in.
“Yes. In 1765 you would see no sign whatsoever that the French Revolution was imminent.” He stopped her objection with a fist by his ear: “I know that went real bad, that’s not the point I’m making. So, if we remain in Paris until 1865, and look around again, we’d see equally no sign that the Commune was looming. Now the Commune failed, in our Line. But the people tried, they really did, and they came close. Jump to 1957, and a bunch of semi-alcoholic artists arguing about Marx and Kropotkin in cafés in Belgium and Paris...you’d never be able to predict how close the Situationists came to bringing De Gaulle’s government down. More importantly, you’d never be able to predict just how damn close the events of ’68 came to bringing down the whole System of advanced capitalism, globally.”
He grinned: “Somebody somewhere in our Line may very well be talking about starting to get ready to make that kind of trouble. It might even be us, our family. We won’t know. Unless it happens. You just can’t tell...”
“Okay,” she said: “Like always, I walk away with a lot to think about...”
Just then, a man in Laborer’s colors approached: “Are you Spathos Ambros, Phalango Iera?”
“I am,” he said, saluting.
The fellow returned the salute, Laborer’s style: “I have a favor to ask of you...”
“Speak to me,” said Ambros.
“I...that is, some of us read on the Kyklo that you are a Gardener, in your Home Line.”
“That is true.” There was no way in RH to say ‘I ran a business’ or ‘I supported myself’ or ‘I had a job’, so he said: “Among other vocations, I practiced gardening.”
“We have a laurel hedge outside of the Laborer’s hall that we’ve been hacking away at. Magistros Megálos suggested that we approach you...we’d like it to look better than it does.”
He nodded: “I’m on it. But surely Gardener’s Guild could help you?”
The man seemed embarrassed: “They’ve been recalcitrant.”
Ambros mentally constructed several scenarios that might have led to such recalcitrance, and dismissed them: ‘Why doesn’t matter.’
He grinned: “I’ll be along in a few minutes. Do I need to fetch my tools?”
The fellow shook his head: “We have tools and ladders.”
Ambros saluted again, and the guy returned it and jogged off.
“You gonna prune a hedge for this Guild?” Luisa raised an eyebrow.
“He asked politely. And this could be a test of sorts...”
“What kind of test?”
He looked over the City again, then gestured: “This society works, in part, because of a peculiar kind of egalitarianism. Every citizen—every single one of us— is expected to pitch in whenever a need arises. The person with the highest Status, or the one with the lowest, if you have the ability to help, you oughta help. That’s how it works: ‘Whoever does more is better; whoever does the most is best.’”
She leaned on the wall and pondered: “You have a lot of Status here...”
“I do. And I got it honestly, but I got it awfully quickly, for a new citizen. Soooo...I’m off to prune a hedge.”
“Okay. I’m off to the War Guild Hall, to Jump home.”
“If you Saltate to the Salon, you’ll find your truck in the lot.”
“Oh, good, I was going to ask you about that.”
They headed for the stairs to street level.
He stood looking at the hedge, a monstrously overgrown behemoth that arched over the courtyard and whose roots had lifted and cracked the stone paving.
“That’s...impressively neglected,” he said, rather sarcastically.
The fellow who’d summoned him nodded: “We know, that’s why we decided to call for expert help.”
“Okay,” said Ambros: “What have you got in the way of tools?”
They showed him a dozen things, including a ‘chainsaw’ which was really a lightweight APS with a short broad blade, and a smaller one that would act as a hand pruner.
He rejected the other tools, saying: “This is all I really need. I won’t bother with a ladder, either, I hate ladders.” He attached the sheaths to his belt and put the two cutters into their places.
“How are you getting up there, then?”
“I’ll climb,” Ambros said, grinning: “If I fall and break something, Combat Med will put me back together, right?”
“If you say so,” said one of the women.
“I do,” he said: “And I’m determined to get this job done today. Anybody willing to climb with me, and learn a new skill?”
“I will,” the same woman said.
“Let’s go. The rest of you, stay here, and when debris hits, slice it up and stack it neatly. When I call out ‘kató apó!’ you get out of the way.”
“We hear you,” several of them said, at once.
“Let’s start by getting inside and checking out the trunks at ground level...”
Three hours later and twenty feet above the ground, sweaty and dirty, with faces smeared with dust, and twigs and leaves in their hair, Ambros thought to ask: “Your name?”
She laughed: “Kitsumi.”
“Yeah, I thought you looked Ja...that is, like you are from...” He sought for information from RNA geography lessons: “...from Nihono.”
“My mom was.”
He sliced through a medium sized branch, bundled it with some similar debris and shouted: “Kató!” before tossing them over the side of the very diminished hedge. He pulled himself up a little higher, and looked over the expanse of leaves and open areas: from that height he could see over the back corner of the Guild Hall into the complex behind. Several buildings surrounded a larger courtyard, where rows of wheelbarrows and handcarts alternated with racks of shovels and spades and scoops and rakes. The buildings had signs on them: ‘Some code that must mean something to the initiates,’ he mused. One building had what were obviously garage doors and the label ‘Fi Ro Taf Gamma.’ He figured it out: ‘The Hellenic word for motor truck, minus the vowels...’
He said: “Get up here with me, Kitsumi.”
She climbed to meet him; he gestured at the top of the hedge, a rolling plain of cut branches and sun-deprived leaves.
“See, it’s still a little ragged. But you’ll want to lower it another ten ells after the spring growth anyway. You should find it pretty easy to narrow the whole thing by cutting the faces back to new growth. Right?”
She frowned: “You won’t show up to help?”
“I doubt it. You watched me work for three hours plus, and followed instructions pretty well. You know how to do this now. I’d say the task is yours, until you train some assistants.”
She nodded: “I’d say it is, too. Thank you for your instruction, Magistros.”
“Spathos,” he said, a little reprovingly.
“I meant Master Gardener,” she said, and gave him a look that made him give way.
“Fine, but don’t get me in bad with the Gardener’s Guild.”
She gestured at the hedge, from where they sat, in their perch at the top of it: “Let them examine this, and then let them say me nay.”
“Okay, fine. I need to get a shower and some clean clothes.”
“Shower’s inside, and we’ll lend you something.”
He’d just bid farewell to his new friends and begun to walk back to the War Guild Hall when he got a ping on his MPS: “Ambros, we need you at Command...”
“I hear you Magistri Arrenji. On my way right now.”
He strode into the War Room, determined to carry off the change of clothes with aplomb. It didn’t work. The tan and brown of his tunic and trousers contrasted with the red leather Warrior’s belt looked just too odd, in the War Room context.
Megalos chortled: “When did you become a Laborer?”
He checked the time on his MPS: “About four hours ago. I got drafted...”
The rest of the controllers laughed, and Arrenji said: “We know, Kistumi posted some holo-video to the Kyklo.”
Ambros made a face: “Of course she did.”
“If you ever get tired of the War Guilds, you can go into Laborer’s,” said one of the other staff.
He refused to be baited: “Or Gardener’s. I could get a Mastery there in less than a year, I’ll wager.”
He raised an eyebrow; no one seemed to want to take the bet.
“Why am I here, now?” he asked.
“We need to go to an ATL outpost and kidnap a mad scientist,” said Voukli.
“For sure. We really need thirty people to do it, and we’ve had a bunch of sick-calls and injuries to operatives...”
“I guess I’d better go get armored.”
He went slowly through the halls, pondering. As he armored himself—’Clearly, I need the Commando armor, and nothing less…’—he thought hard about what he was doing: ‘Okay, I trust these people, right? But I don’t have enough information about this mission...I don’t feel good about this.’
He returned to the War Room, muttering. Before he could say anything, Voukli spoke: “I know this is short notice, and you haven’t been briefed…”
“My thoughts exactly. I get ‘It’s an Emergency.’ But…how much time do we have?”
“At least give me a reason for the mission.”
She nodded: “We need to get this guy out of the loop, his research is going to be too valuable to our enemies, if he ever finishes it. He’s trying to re-create our ‘Halo’ device, which can be used for really nefarious purposes.”
Ambros nodded: “We use it to track the movements of potential enemy agents, and to ‘erase and release’ people we interrogate or fail to recruit.”
“Yes,” said Arrenji: “But the same tech could be used to plant false memories, to the point of turning somebody into a human weapon, an assassin, a…”
“A ‘Manchurian Candidate’,” he said, handsigning the scare quotes. “Never mind, let’s take it as read that I get it. Is there anything I need to know…?”
“Our target is in an old castle in a Quiet Line. Postal Guild thinks there are primitive force-field defenses on the castle walls. In addition, he is protected by a small group of ordinary footsoldiers; they are in control of a large number of ‘assassin drones’.”
RNA training invaded his mind. He said, slowly, as the information integrated: “Drones designed to home in on our armor...each with a powerful explosive...oh shit, that’s a diabolical coding job in the programming…”
“Yeah. The drone ‘lives to explode’, but it can’t until it’s in proximity to one of us.”
“How do we defeat these defenses?”
“We beat the drones with more drones.” Voukli took something out of her pocket and tossed it to him.
“It looks like one of our flying spy-cams.”
“Its faster, and the outer shell is made of the same material as our scale armor.”
“So it...okay, I get it. What else?”
“You’ll drop in exactly where I want you to stay. Take cover, watch the castle, do what needs doing.”
“I hear you.”
The Main Controller sang out a sentence that consisted mostly of acronyms.
Aristogatos said: “Ideal launch in forty.”
Ambros did as the others did: ‘Face shield down, safeties off, shake the armor into place, seat the pistol solidly in its holster…and onto the launch pad.’
The launch area expanded to hold the thirty operatives gathered for the mission. The warning bell began to chime.
He hit the ground as soon as he felt it under him. Black Warrior soldiers exploded into action around him, and a gigantic swarm of Commonwealth drones dropped in, rose, and swept upslope towards the castle. He rolled over into the slight cover provided by the nearest boulder; he got only a glimpse at the terrain: rocks and sand, scrubby little shrubberies, a massive castle looming over the area.
Drones shaped like X-wings burst from the gates of the castle and atop its walls. They descended upon the Commonwealth troops, squealing like bats. Commonwealth drones intercepted them, all of them, though several got a little too close for comfort. One exploded only twenty ells from Ambros, and shrapnel peppered his armor, failing to penetrate.
He heard a voice in Rational Hellenic say: “I’m hit…”
Aristogatos voice said: “Pulling you out.”
He heard Arrenji’s voice in his ear: “Hold your position, Spathos, cover the approach.”
“I hear you,” he said, pulling his attention away from the telltales projected on the inside of his face shield: “More drones launching…”
Another swarm of Commonwealth drones burst into the Timeline and attacked the enemy machines. Ambros decided not to think about that aspect of the battle, and looked at the castle above him just as a dozen ATL regular-army types charged out of the gate. He had time to squeeze off three rounds, all of which hit the force fields and disintegrated in bursts of actinic light and invisible particles.
The entire force field lit up and then collapsed, and Black Warrior Guild soldiers charged at the hapless enemy. All of the ATL men fell in seconds, and Ambros concentrated his attention on the gate, not sure what else to look for.
Arrenji and Voukli came out of the gate carrying a man, whose body flopped around in their grasp like a dead man’s. ATL aircraft roared by overhead, and immediately engaged with their Commonwealth counterparts, screaming jet fighters dogfighting with silent and impossibly maneuverable Hellenic air-and-space craft. The jet fighters carried missiles and machine guns, but never managed to lock on to the Hellenic craft.
A man in Legion uniform and armor came around the corner of the castle wall, and Ambros fired at him without thinking. The fellow fell: ‘Must have hit a soft spot,’ Ambros thought.
He heard Voukli muttering, but couldn’t catch her words. Arrenji said: “They have a thousand regular army and two hundred Legionnaires dropped in half a kilo-ell away.”
Voukli spoke, more clearly: “We got our boogie-man, let’s leave the place to the Grays.”
Arrenji dropped her side of their burden and turned around; she handsigned at her MPS.
“Leave it, Arrenji!”
A matte-black basketball sized object appeared at Arrenji’s feet; she squatted, lifted, hefted it and heaved it into the still-open gate of the castle. Ambros saw it roll into the hall and turn left, on its own.
“Shit.” said Voukli. She tossed the body over her shoulder and sprinted in Ambros’ direction. Arrenji followed, running hard.
The entire castle imploded, taking a fair portion of the walls and surrounding landscape with it. Lightly rooted shrubs flew in the direction of the gaping nothingness that hovered where the castle had been. Arrenji and Voukli, with their prisoner over Voukli’s shoulder, vanished, the noise of their disappearance buried in the roar of jet planes and the sound of the building’s destruction.
“Pulling you out,” said Aristogatos’ voice in his ear.
His dizziness passed. He could hear his mentors arguing bitterly and looked around to find them.
Voukli slapped Arrenji’s shoulder pauldron with her gauntleted hand. She ripped her helmet off and tossed it onto the couch in the seating area. She began shouting at Arrenji, using a dialect of Hellenic that Ambros did not immediately recognize.
Arrenji took off her own helm and replied in that same tongue, calm but furious.
Ambros’ RNA memories identified the style of Greek that the Magistriae used: ‘The “Oldest Language”...’ His eyes opened wider: ‘Used only on the most formal occasions, as in religious ceremonies, or blood feuds...They gonna fight?’
As though reading his mind, Arrenji changed her tone and the language, saying in RH: “No. I wasn’t going to entrust the destruction of that lab to the Grays.”
“Why not?” Voukli was no longer shouting, but she was angrier than ever.
Arrenji poked the nerdy-looking man with her boot. She spoke calmly, returning to her calm and centered public persona: “There’d be a chance that some of this guy’s notes or schematics would survive, even if they used Fire.”
Voukli frowned: “I suppose that’s true. But…”
“No buts,” said Arrenji.
Voukli drew a deep breath: “You used a Shifter Hole on that castle…”
“I did. I thought it through during the planning for this action, and I had Averos activate one, and he held it ready. I thought it was better, on the whole, than the nuclear option.”
Voukli’s face went pale, something Ambros had never seen before.
“You considered that? Both sides have held back from nukes for as long as we’ve had them...”
“Yes, I know.” Arrenji did not seem at all apologetic: “But I had my suspicions...this guy was too well hidden for an ordinary slave tech. And once I saw that lab...with a Halo actually operating, and a dead man in the grip of it…”
“Yeah, that was sick.”
“Sick, and wrong on so many levels, and what if this moke has found a way to read a dead man’s mind?” She kicked the supine scientist a little harder, and he stirred and rolled over, assuming a fetal position. That revealed the tiny device attached to the back of his neck, which sedated him and read a hundred secret things about him. Arrenji made a handsign at the thing, and it generated a holographic image of its findings.
Arrenji shook her head, half disbelieving her own words: “Look at those telltales: he’s a short-life clone of their Line’s version of the Teslavitch bloodline. Fourth generation, practically speaking he has no telomeres, and maybe he was good for ten years of intellectual activity. Somewhere there’s a lab where the L’Iriquois family’s slave techs burned through a quarter of a million deformed fetuses to get this one guy. They raised him, and educated him, and then...
”They didn’t set him to work on weapons tech, or bio-warfare, or propaganda. They set him to investigating Shifter and Halo technology...”
After a pause, Voukli said: “All right. All right, I see your point. I’ll back you at the Council, even on the Shifter Hole. And I’ll point out that nukes were the only other option. You could have told me about the Shifter Hole, though, so I didn’t get surprised when the damned thing dropped in!”
Arrenji stood there, frowning.
“Okay,” she said, at last: “I apologize. I should have told you...you’re not my assistant now, you’re a Magistri in your own right. You have a right to expect more transparency from me, especially when we are cooperating on a mission.”
“Yes. Good. I accept the apology. May no one who has heard this speak of it again.” Voukli picked up her helm and left the War Room.
Ambros moved over to the couch and sat for a long time, thinking on what he had just seen and heard.
A long time.
Ambros heaved an angry sigh. He led Marie and Luisa down a short hallway and into Donald Castle’s office. Vic Michaels sat in one of the comfy chairs in the corner of the room.
“Good afternoon, Ms Milonacci, Ms Hart.” Castle had a smile on his face. It disappeared as they sat down.
“We are missing Ms Mallory?” Castle said.
“Unavoidably detained on business.” Ambros said. “This is about that mortgage scam that Dan Samuelson tipped me about, isn’t it?” He was utterly disgusted.
“Yes,” said Michaels: “And Donald has asked me to take over the case for him. He’s a criminal defense attorney, mostly. I can deal more effectively with a loan scam.”
“Fine,” said Ambros, handing Michaels an envelope: “You’re on retainer...”
Michaels looked into the envelope, and raised an eyebrow.
“Let’s get down to it,” said Marie, her lips pressed together.
“Right,” said Castle: “So, first the mortgage company—or someone associated with it— first they sent a fake eviction notice to your house. Whoever did it also reached into the Sheriff’s computer system and almost had a group of deputies at your door to do a physical eviction...Judge Hogue was not happy about that. I quashed that operation, showing the judge that the documents were fake, and she enjoined the Department from proceeding.”
Ambros said: “Fine, as far as it goes. But now we’re here again...”
Michaels said: “The mortgage company showed up in court two days ago, filing a case against you, individually and as a group.” He passed out copies of a document, all in fine print and lawyer-ese: “The complaint involves a couple of minor ‘irregularities’—the quit-claim deeds you all executed when creating your corporation, and Mack Changerai’s QCD on your salon, Mr Rothakis—plus the check Ms Mallory’s father wrote for her stake in the whole enterprise...
“There’s nothing illegal about what you folks did, but the company is intimating that there is. I know the lawyer they hired for this job, and he’s a completely mercenary SOB. Even he seemed doubtful about whether the company had a case.”
Marie lowered her eyebrows and got Michaels’ attention: “I don’t like it that they tried to do the repossession with a forged document and a hack. That’s beyond even the sort of thing that Wells or Valley have been doing, as I understand it.”
“Far beyond,” said Castle: “They tried to get the judge to recuse herself, too. She slapped that down hard, said they had no business even trying to get her off the case. Anyway, you’ll get served with the papers today or tomorrow. Vic should be able to...”
Ambros interrupted: “Could this be solved by buying them off? I mean, the deal on the Salon is a private sale, just me and Mack involved. The swap for my share of Rose House, and Kim’s buy-in there, that’s all they have any business even looking at, right?”
“...Ri-ight,” said Michaels: “They seem to want to horn in on your whole operation, though.”
“I understand,” said Ambros: “I suspect they are doing a favor for the FBI or some other law enforcement agency.”
Michaels glanced at Castle; Castle said: “That would explain some weird aspects of this whole affair...”
“It would,” said Michaels, nodding. “It’s an elegant solution and Occam’s Razor favors elegance.”
Ambros grinned: “If I can buy off the mortgage company, maybe the Bureau will show their hand more plainly. If so, you guys will have to sue the DOJ. You up to that?”
Castle gazed off into the distance, a calculating look on his face: “I’ll talk to some of my colleagues...” he said, nodding.
Michaels also nodded: “I’ll set up a meeting with the company...” he began.
“I will want the CEO, the CFO, and the company’s heads of IT and Legal in the room.”
“May take a while.”
“As long as I don’t have to move us out of Rose House, it can take as along as necessary,” said Ambros.
“Bring a cashier’s check...I’ll...”
“I’ll bring cash,” Ambros demurred: “And we’ll make a video of me handing it over. And then...”
“Then we’ll see what happens,” said Luisa, speculatively.
“We will,” said Marie, firmly.
They rose to take their leave.
Michaels put a hand on Ambros arm: “I want to talk about the meeting we set up with the Mayor and his staff and the Council...”
Ambros started shaking his head while Vic continued speaking.
“...on behalf of your friends out in the swamp.”
“You don’t want me there, you really don’t. I will, guaranteed, make a bad impression on the public.”
“The meeting is in private, because it involves legal issues and, supposedly ‘Personnel’. And I do want you there. Somebody needs to ride herd on Sgt Arlen, and make sure...”
“That ain’t me, Mr Michaels...”
“Call me Vic,” said the lawyer.
“Fine, but I am poor choice for that ‘riding herd’.”
“Arlen has enormous respect for you...”
“Irrelevant. If I’m there to stifle Sarge, who will be there to stifle me?”
He turned and left before the argument could proceed further.
The three of them stood on the corner outside of Castle’s office. Marie radiated her frustration; Luisa was on the verge of tears. The outside chance that they could be evicted weighed heavily on them all, but especially on those two.
Kim approached, her hair disarrayed by the wind, and joined them. They filled her in on the meeting they’d just had.
Ambros sighed, looking at the sky, guessing at the odds of more rain that afternoon. He sighed again.
“I’m sorry for my part in this,” he said.
“Is it your fault?” Marie stroked his arm. They began to walk.
“Somewhat,” he answered: “My influence on you and our collective actions since we met are what has drawn the authorities’ attention. The FBI is most to blame, and then the mortgage company: both organizations know or should know that their actions are unethical. But if you’d never met me...” He shrugged.
“If we’d never met you, we’d be much the poorer for it,” said Luisa: “And we agreed to do all of the things we’ve done...because they are right, and ethical, and necessary!”
“I get that. Message received...and thank you.”
Kim put her hand on Ambros’ arm: “Don’t you think you should go to that meeting?”
“The one with the Mayor and his lapdog City Council and his hand-picked City Manager and that mercenary wretch who substitutes for a City Attorney?” Bitterness filled his heart and revealed itself in his voice.
“Substitutes?” Marie inquired.
Ambros nodded: “Yeah, it’s amazing to me how much corruption this city has going on, right in plain sight. The city Government doesn’t actually employ a paid attorney. They contract their legal business with a private firm, one that Mayor Nichols does a lot of business with. A private partnership, prosecuting citizens in Municipal Court, on an inflated contract...Never saw such a blatant case of bribery in my life, not even in Cleveland.
“Let’s find a place out of the wind,” he suggested.
When they were indoors, with hot drinks and warm hands, Kim broached the subject again: “That meeting...”
He smiled a little: “I am not a diplomat, love. I am a distinct danger in such a meeting, where ‘speaking truth to power’ is a liability.”
“You could restrain yourself, surely,” said Luisa: “For the sake of your friends?”
“If I am not telling the Mayor and his cronies the truth, which they are desperate not to hear, what’s the point of me being there? Just to dope-slap Sarge, so he doesn’t say anything inconvenient? Michaels can do that...and better him than me!”
“I think you should go,” said Marie.
“Maybe. Perhaps I’ll reconsider. But it’s a bad idea.”
Ambros pondered: “The idea behind this meeting—it’s been transformed into a semi-public hearing, by the way—is to convince the powers that be to let the Swamp be. The truths they need to hear, about how the homeless will flood the downtown streets if the city evicts them from their current digs, and the extra load on law enforcement and the local charities that would result...in my mind those are wrapped up with other truths, about how cruel and heartless they are to even consider rousting those folks.
“Previous experience tells me how bad I am at separating those threads. I am So. Not. A diplomat.”
“Vic wants you at that meeting,” said Marie.
“I got that, he wants me there bad. I don’t know why.”
He looked at each of them in turn. He said: “Suppose you each tell me why you think I should attend. Anyone?”
After a pause, Kim said: “Those people in the swamp are your friends, a lot of them anyway. They will be heartened to hear that you went to the meeting and defended them, since they can’t all go themselves.”
“It’s the kind and responsible thing to do,” said Luisa: “Sgt Arlen is a fine man, but he’s gruff and angry and powerless. You can speak from a position of comparative power and privilege. You’re white, you’re a man, and housed, and they now realize that you have money at your disposal. Some of them will listen even if they wish they didn’t have to! You can talk to the Council; even if the Mayor and his cronies are not convinced by your testimony, you might change one vote, or two...what happens then?”
Marie said: “And so what if you lose it? If you go off, and tell them off, right to their faces, what then? It’s clear from what you’ve told us—and what The Sentinel published recently—that the City, along with the State and the Army Corps of Engineers…”
“…And the Bureau of Land Management, most of all…” Luisa interjected.
Marie continued: “Yes! Exactly! They are set on this plan. The idea of driving those people from such homes as they have in the middle of winter is flat out evil. At least one person, one time, should tell them that, to their faces.”
He looked at them then, his head rising, a little smile on his face: “All right. You’ve all made good points, ones that Michaels couldn’t. I seem to be out-voted.
“I’ll reconsider...I doubt that it’s wise, but I’ll think about it.”