CHAPTER FIFTEEN: When in Danger or in Doubt
Ambros woke up, and almost immediately wished he hadn't. His head was hurting: aching, pounding, splitting. No cliché described it. He rolled over, grunting.
He could smell damp soil. He opened his eyes and saw nothing.
"Dark," he said: "Where is it this dark?"
He bit his lip hard enough to draw a little blood, by that means distracting himself from the headache: "Six. USIT Six," he whispered. "I was visiting the New York settlement..." His suspicions immediately went to Ed the bully: "Hit from behind, maybe." He began to feel like he wouldn't die right away, and his wits slowly returned. He explored the back of his head, tentatively. He felt a lump the size of a walnut: ‘Hit me right on the button.’
He had no armor, and that was wrong. He touched his crotch; his cup clung to the skin there: "I wonder how they got the rest of it off me," he said, grumpily. "Shouldn't come off without a touch from my hand...” No armor meant he didn’t have his weapons belt, with all of the other tools that Commonwealth Commandos carried: “Well, they can’t use any of that stuff, but...I oughta try to get all of that tech back before they hurt themselves trying to pry the cases open.’
”Let's see what we can find out, shall we?"
He tapped the MPS on his left wrist and it appeared, dimly lighting his surroundings: "Root cellar. At least I won't starve." He picked up a potato and tossed it up and failed to catch it. He started to shake his head and then groaned, as the pain and dizziness overwhelmed him for a solid ten seconds. He found the door---a hatch, really---and oriented himself so he could see it. He commanded the MPS to shut down. He leaned back and tried to relax, another potato in his hand. “Gotta think, gotta...”
He woke again, cursing himself. The hatch was open, as wide open as it could get, and someone stumbled through, bent over, pushed. The opening disappeared before he could find his missile.
He heard curses and groans. He lit up the MPS again, to see Eric crouching just inside the hatch, cradling his left arm and moaning in pain.
Eric looked up, his pale face twisted in anger: "Huh. You too?"
"Yeah. Is it Ed?"
"Yeah. I think the bastard broke my arm."
"Ratshit," said Ambros. "You know where they stashed my armor and weapons? And the Shifter?"
"Yeah, the thing that looks like a hockey puck."
"Oh. Yeah, Ed and his minions have all that stuff in the armory. The weapons didn’t work. Nobody could get the armor to stay on, or the...the hockey puck thing to do anything at all."
"Of course not," Ambros said dismissively: "The armory is the room just inside the front gate, where we had tea that first time you all let me in?"
"That's right," said Eric.
Ambros nodded slowly: "Okay, I am pretty concussed. I need to ask questions and get firm answers: is anybody who isn't one of Ed's minions still armed?"
Eric stared at him for a minute: "Unlikely but...yeah, Martin and a couple others are outside. They are likely to be back any time."
"Right. See, I have a way to get us out of here, and get us medical attention, but our rescuers would be folks who are sorta 'programmed' to kill anyone who has a weapon and isn't me."
"That could be a problem."
"It could be innocent people dead, is what it could be. I have another option, but it's more dangerous for us. You and me, I mean."
"How much more dangerous?" asked Eric.
"Significantly." Ambros looked down, then up again, into Eric’s eyes: "Are you right handed?
Ambros handed Eric a potato: "Watch the door. I need to concentrate, and it's gonna hurt, and you need to throw that at anybody..."
"Got it. Get us out of here, if you can."
Ambros twisted the MPS---the holo turned as though it were solid---and then stared at it, as the light dimmed in response to the load he was putting on its not-very-large power module. He swallowed audibly, refusing to let the screaming headache distract him. He managed to find the Shifter, on the table in the armory.
He muttered: “I only have this technique via RNA, but I can supposedly fetch the Shifter to me, since it’s attuned...”
“Blah, blah, Shifter, blah, blah,” said Eric.
“Talking to myself,” said Ambros: “Don’t interrupt.”
“Aaahnggggah, that hurts,” he said, then: “Got it!”
“Gimme a minute. Dizzy.”
After the requisite minute, he grinned: “Shifter,” he said, holding it up. “Come over here close to me, Eric. We’re gonna go make some trouble.”
Eric grimaced as he scooted along, then grinned in his turn: “Ready when you are.”
Ambros Shifted them into the armory.
He removed his hand from Eric’s shoulder and slumped beside the table. Eric leaned over, worried: “You okay, man?”
“No, I’m not. But I will be good enough to get this done, before I go for treatment. Check the door, see if they have a guard nearby.” He pulled himself into a chair and began sorting through the pile of stuff on the table in front of him.
“Nobody out here,” said Eric, easing the door shut again: “Why aren’t they guarding the weapons?”
“They must be certain that Martha’s lot can’t possibly get in here,” Ambros replied: “My wallet,” he said, holding it up: “Now you tell me, sir, why they would steal the paper money out of my wallet?”
“I don’t know,” said Eric: “There’s nowhere to spend it. Maybe...a trophy?”
“I’ll trophy them in a few minutes.”
He found his key ring, and a couple other things that belonged in his pockets. When he had it all stowed away, he said: “Before the dipshits get back I need to be armored and armed. Help me out?”
“At your service,” said Eric.
“That pile, my armor. I need the greaves first.”
“Lower leg guards, with attached knee copts.”
He slowly armored himself, as Eric fetched: “...tunic...scale. Arms. Gorget (that’s the neck thing). Helm. Gauntlets.
“Do you see the weapons?”
“No—wait, there, under Ed’s hoodie.”
With the APS and the pistol back in their proper places on his fighting belt, he felt a lot better. He figured that was an illusion: ‘Let’s see if I can actually navigate, much less fight.’
He put the helm on and raised the face shield: “Okay, that’s interesting.”
“The helm pressing on the lump behind my ear hurts a bit, but it’s relieving the rest of the head pain.”
Eric looked worried.
“Yeah, I agree. But it means I can move around and get this situation under control before I bug out for medical help.”
He got up, feeling a little dizzy, but he found walking and turning to be possible. He sat back down: “Who’s on first?”
Eric got the joke, and also the serious question: “Darla and Fred are certainly in on Ed’s coup. Darla’s been shagging Ed on the side, and neither of their spouses is aware of that affair. I’m betting Martha is locked up somewhere, unless she made it out of the compound.” Eric paused, then looked around: “My pistol,” he said, retrieving a Walther from the cluttered tabletop. He checked the load, then put it into his shoulder holster. Eric started putting on a set of riot gear, clumsily, because of his arm.
“Martha’s son Martin should be on an all day scavenging trip. Ed may have picked his time for the coup based partly on that: Martin was a Navy Seal, and Ed’s kinda scared of him.” Eric wrapped duct tape around the broken arm right over the armor.
“What about Jake?” Ambros inquired.
“Jake spends every waking hour in the watchtower,” said Eric. “And he’s completely apolitical. He’d follow anyone who was in charge, but he’ll change sides as soon as not. He’s been shagging Andrea, though. Andrea is not gonna be happy with Ed in the lead.”
“I got that.”
“That new bunch who came in since you were last here: I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that they are in on this. Six adults, all Scots-Irish from Tennessee. Ed was really gung-ho to let them in. He got his six-of-seven votes from the council, in spite of my objections.
“Most of the rest are followers, they’d obey Ed until he put them in a moral pickle. Thing is, he will put them there, sooner than later.”
“So, we need to take out Ed, Darla, Fred, and maybe a couple of the Tennessee’s if they backed the coup?”
Ambros picked up a collapsible baton from the racks of weapons, and deployed it with a snap: “My Commando weapons are very destructive to anyone or anything I use them on. I want to try to not use them.” He picked up an ordinary pistol, checked its load and jacked a bullet into the chamber: “I would prefer to knock the bad guys out cold, but if I fail, we’d best be prepared for fatalities. Can you handle that?”
Eric sighed: “Yeah, I think so. Ed I wouldn’t mourn, at any rate.”
“Let’s go, then. I wish I had more info about who is where, but...”
“Yeah. Let’s do it.”
"Here's what I want you to do..." Ambros began.
"Incoming," Eric said. Someone began banging on the main gate of the compound. They could hear others tramping down the hall towards the armory.
"Best laid plans," said Ambros. He made a snap decision: "Ed does not get to re-take this armory. Go see who is at the front gate; if it's Martin let him in. Then take up a position at the door behind me."
"Got it." Eric went out that door, leaving it ajar, and Ambros heard him challenging the Gate Bangers.
He picked up a small roll of inch-wide duct tape from the clutter on the table top and put it into a pouch on his fighting belt.
The door in front of Ambros led deeper into the compound. It flew open and Fred and Darla tramped in. They spotted him and stopped cold.
Darla took off shrieking.
Fred aimed an assault rifle at Ambros and squeezed off a few rounds. The bullets all hit Ambros’ scale breastplate, hard enough to make him flinch; they ricocheted around the room, most of them harmlessly impacting the turf walls. Bullets flying around where he didn’t send them panicked Fred, and he lowered the rifle and stepped back
Ambros stepped forward and smacked Fred on the wrist with his baton, disarming him. He swatted Fred's arms aside and threw him to the ground. He used the duct tape to lash the man's wrists together behind his back.
Fred squirmed and shouted, and Ambros said: “Shut up, asshole. Where are you keeping Martha and the others?”
“Shut yourself the fuck up,” said Fred.
Ambros shook his head, slowly: “Tell me where Martha and Andrea are, or it’ll hurt.”
Fred stayed silent. Fortunately for him, Ambros heard people running along the hall towards the armory. He stood up and faced the door.
Ed, Darla, and two guys he didn’t know came through the door in pairs, firing assault rifles at everything but hitting nothing important.
Ambros used the pistol he’d acquired from their stores and fired at them, aiming between ankle and knee level. Two of them went down, screaming, and two more strangers appeared. They knelt at the sides of the door and shot at him, ducking behind the turf after every few shots.
The rest of the party ran or crawled to shelter by the door. Fred began trying to crawl away. He wasn’t in shape for such a task.
Ambros flipped the table over and knelt behind it, aiming his pistol at the doorway. He heard Martin’s voice from the opening behind him:
“Give it up, Ed! This bullshit is not gonna stand, not now.”
“Up yours, you navy shit!” Ed tried to sound confident, but he was in dire straits, and he knew it.
Eric called out: “C’mon, Ed, Jake’s in the tower and he’s with us.”
“You’re toasted, Ed,” said Ambros: “Leave your weapons behind and come out with your hands in sight.”
They heard a short exchange, seemingly between Ed and his dwindling band of supporters: “Ok,” Ed called: “We’re comin’ out...”
Ed, Darla and two bearded Borderer-types came out, hands in view. Two more borderers, one female, limped out, bleeding from lower leg wounds.
Ambros rose. He had the baton in his left hand and the pistol in his right. He said: “Okay, one at a time, kneel down, keep your hands where...”
Then it all fell apart. Laura came through the door behind Ambros; or so he surmised.
Eric yelled: “Don’t do it, Laura!”
A bullet zipped past Ambros’ helm and shattered Darla’s head into flying bits. Ambros spun around to see that Fred had gotten loose of his improvised handcuffs, and had a pistol in hand. He shot Laura through the heart, and she fell, dead before she hit the floor. Ed pulled a Glock from the back of his belt and shot Fred three times, then shifted his aim to Martin.
Ambros began to turn and aim his pistol, but Eric fired first, hitting Ed in the chest, arm, and head. The hit to the body bounced, but the other two had the effect that Eric desired.
Ed slumped to the ground, dropping the Glock, a shocked look on his face, his scalp leaking blood and brains into his eyes.
After a long, tense moment. Eric and Martin opened fire again, killing all four Borderers. Their bodies jerked and twisted from the impact.
The rest of them stood there silent; the air smelled of gunsmoke and blood.
“I’m just guessing here, but I think Laura did know about Ed and Darla,” Ambros said, thoughtfully.
Eric nodded: “Yeah...I think you are correct...”
Half an hour later, some of them sat at one side of the table. The armory still smelled of blood and burnt gunpowder. Two women stood in front of them, hands cuffed, looking terrified and desperate.
“Why should we believe you?” Eric asked: “We murdered your husbands in cold blood.”
One woman hung her head; the other shook hers, getting the hair out of her eyes. She said:
“Ah don’t care. Wasn’t ma husband, anyway, jes the third replacement since th’ shit hit. Tol’ him not to go with that Ed fella. No smarter’n a snake, anyway.”
The remaining members of the Council looked from one to the other of the women, and then at one another: “Let them stay,” said Andrea, steely-eyed. “If they show any signs of treachery, shoot them dead. Any. Signs.”
Jake nodded: “I can go with that.”
Eric and Martha each nodded, Martha first.
Martin pursed his lips: “Four out of five. I won’t veto.”
Martha got up and unlocked the cuffs. Andrea and Jake took the two women away, to re-settle them in new quarters.
The rest of them looked at Ambros.
He said: “Well done. Now...” he shrugged: “I gotta go. Head is killing me. See ya.” He pulled out the Shifter and said, aloud: “Keenafthono.” He touched the red light.
He staggered off the landing pad, reeling across the room. With no more need to conceal his condition, he fell to the ground near the sofas at one end of the War Room.
Megálos spoke calmly: "Get me Combat Medical, we have a Sacred Band operative down."
Ambros pulled his helm off, groaning, dizzy from the concussion and the trip. He dragged himself into one of the larger chairs and held his face in his hands, as the headache he'd been suffering before donning the helmet came back: "Ah, that's worse. Shit!" The last word he spoke in American.
A Combat Medical team came into the room, and at a gesture from Megalos they descended upon him.
"Touch this, please," said the leader, a woman of indeterminate age.
He obeyed and his armor fell away. They slapped patches and indicators on his skin, on his forehead and on the lump on the back of his head. They spoke to one another in brief, incomprehensible bits of jargon.
A Laborer, a large young woman in a tan jumpsuit, gathered up all of his armor and put it in a box. The Meds came to some conclusion: he felt himself lifted up, parallel to the ground, floating; they began to tow him along.
'Huh," he thought: 'I've seen this done. That's a weird feeling..."
He woke in the usual sterile white room at Combat Medical in the Command Complex. He wondered if he could move, then put off trying: it was much easier to just stare at the ceiling and rest.
"Who smacked you this time?"
He turned his head, slowly; it didn't hurt to do that, so let his sight focus in on the speaker.
"Yes. Megalos says that you came through from USIT Six. What have you been up to?"
He moved his arms, experimentally, then tried to sit up. The bed adjusted itself to his movement and he looked around: "Marie, Luisa, Kim..."
"We informed them that you came in injured. They'll be here in a while."
"At the risk of repeating myself: who hit you?"
"Ed," he said, remembering. "I think he wanted my armor and weapons."
"That's a fail."
"Yeah, they wouldn't work for him. Anyhow..." He confessed his whole project, the deliveries and how he'd been making friends, the tensions within the settlement and Ed's apparent attempt at a coup: "...and I guess the whole love triangle thing was what blew it all up at the end. Anyway, everyone involved on the other side killed each other, or Martin and Eric executed them." He looked at her, seeing her calculations: "There's no need for retribution, this time."
She nodded: "I see that. How's the head?"
"Doesn't hurt." He turned it side to side, then shook it gently. "No problems."
"Thanks to Combat Med."
"Yeah. How bad ...?"
"Dead pretty soon. Bleeding in the brain stem, cracked skull, damage to the meninges."
“Okay, that’s a fail for me, too. Too trusting too soon, and I won’t make that mistake again.” He leaned back, breathing in deeply, feeling the bruises from his various training regimens and the sore shoulders from tension and sword work. He reveled in every twinge and ache.
He stretched his arms up and backwards, felt the 'pops' as his spine realigned, and the pain in the midst of his back faded. He laughed: "I love Commonwealth Medical tech!"
She laughed too: "We all do, sooner or later. I want you to write a report on this: what you've been up to, why you decided to do it, how it came to pass that you got injured. Send it to the Sacred Band Master’s Council priority mailbox, if you will."
He thought about it for a moment: "I'll do it," he agreed.
"Thank you." She tipped her head to one side: "I have to go now. Your strimeniae are in the lobby. Meds say you can get up, but take it easy for a few days."
He smiled wryly: "I can afford two days’ limited work."
She laughed and said: "That'll have to do, then." She rose, pecked his cheek lightly and strode out the door, talking to her MPS about plans for a mission in some obscure Line he'd never heard of: "...Spartacist Two, and then around the second..."
"Spartacist?" he wondered, thinking of Ambassador Vree: "Got something to do with...?" He shook his head, and found his laptop on the table next to the bed.
He wrote the requested report, quickly, letting the program edit for spelling and punctuation, and glossing over his actual injuries: ‘The Council will have that info already.’
He filed the report, and was somewhat stunned to see that a full score of SB Magistrae accessed it within seconds. “Oh, boy,” he said aloud: “The cat’s out now.”
Then the women burst into the room and distracted his attention severely.
After a while, Kim drew back: “Okay,” she said in American: “Now that we’ve loved you up and all, just what did you think you were doing?”
“I thought I was doing my job, the job I volunteered for. And I was, too. I misjudged the danger level in that Line, at that settlement...”
“Obviously!” Luisa exclaimed.
“Don’t do it again, okay?” asked Marie.
“I’ll do my best,” he said: “it will be harder to make friends and influence people if I keep my helm on all the time, but as of today that’s standard operating procedure, for me, in most Lines. Not in all. But in most.”
Marie and Lisa glanced at each other, then Luisa spoke for them: “That’ll have to do.”
Ambros nodded. He figured that if Luisa had known about Sacred Band and its demands on its members, she’d have hesitated before hooking up with him: ‘Much less forming a family...but then, I hadn’t much of an idea what I was getting into when I started.’
He lay back and stared at the ceiling: ‘Would I have consented to my current job if I’d known all the parameters in advance? But I did consent to it all, one thing at a time, and I can back out of any part that I want to...’
He caught Luisa’s eye: “I get it. Maybe we should talk about it some more, but I think I get it.”
As though reading his mind, she said: “I hoped you would. Please don’t get killed. Please be more careful. Please...” She left the room, crying.
His MPS pinged him: “Master’s Council wants to talk to me. They are going into session in an hour.” He started to get up; he felt weak and feeble, but he could stand and move.
“I’ll go with,” said Kim.
“I’m going to catch Luisa,” said Marie. She walked out, head high, looking around for her lover.
The din in the SB Master's Council chamber faded slowly. When silence fell, Megalos spoke: "Let's get going, shall we? First item: Spathos Three Ambros Rothakis and his personal charity missions to USIT Six. Everybody read the reports?"
After a muttering of general assent, Megalos continued:
"How do we dispose of this?"
"What's the problem?" asked Kim.
Voukli grinned: "Initiative. It's not a problem, it's a plus for your strimenos. The argument is what to do about it."
The representative of the Black Warrior Guild stood up and gestured at Ambros: "Just give him the black and white belts, why don’t you? That's what I'd do."
"Politics," said Arrenji. "Within our Guild, and outside of yours."
Black Warrior made a dismissive gesture and sat down, her topknot bouncing; she muttered something about high standards in the Sacred Band.
Ambros kept his expression under control: wry and sardonic, as the custom was in Sacred Band. Inside, he roiled: 'Black Warrior just said what? I should be made Master? Absurd!'
Nobody else seemed to think it was absurd.
Skavo spoke, from ser seat upon the dais: "I withdraw myself from this discussion; this is also not my Guild." Se stepped down from the stage. Se touched Ambros' shoulder gently as se passed him; it felt oddly comforting, Se took a seat a few rows behind Ambros.
Arrenji spoke: "This initiative is admirable, Spathos. It's the sort of thing we'd expect of a Master, that's why it's confounding."
"Also, it's taking up your time, distracting from the key task we desire of you," said Voukli.
Ambros narrowed his eyes, gazing speculatively at her: "It is work I thought needed doing. Nobody else was doing it." He paused: "I see your point, though. I think I have a solution."
He dug around in the patch pocket of his trousers and pulled out the gold Token from Black Warrior Guild: "I'll redeem this now."
Black Warrior stood up: "At your service," she said.
He stood as well, the RNA learning sweeping his forebrain and giving him the words he needed: "I ask your aid in an act of mercy."
"Speaking for myself and my students, I grant you that aid."
He approached her and handed her the Token: "Thank you."
She handed it back: "This remains yours, and we'll help you however we can, in the future as well as with this task."
"Thank you again."
Throughout the brief ceremony the Magistrae handsigned and texted among themselves. When the two of them had returned to their seats, Arrenji spoke: "Excellent. We have come to agreement. Ambros, approach me, please."
He walked forward, and as soon as he was in range, she grabbed the end of his belt: "This is not a reward, it's a recognition of your progress. That progress existed before we knew of it; you'd be Spathos Four even if we didn't yet know or recognize it."
He said: “Hold it. I was doing good work, oaky? I get that. But I made a serious mistake…”
Arrenji put her fist by her ear, enjoining silence: “Everyone makes mistakes. We’ve all made our own. We trust that you won’t make this one again.”
She didn’t wait for him to respond. She placed the decal and it activated, burning the fourth chevron into the tip of his belt. The smell of scorched leather filled the room.
Kim greeted him with an embrace and kiss, more enthusiastic than he was: "Congratulations, love!"
"Thank you," he said, subdued. He turned and saluted, withdrawing from the discussion and heading back to the Main Hall.
"You should be happy!" Kim said, reprovingly.
He nodded, reluctant: "I am, in my way."
"Can't you show it?"
They sat down at a table in a nook formed by bookshelves in the great stone chamber.
He chuckled: "Grace and gratitude."
"What?" She shook her head, puzzled.
"One of the really important people in the first century of the Commonwealth was named Eleni Leontari."
"Yes, I've heard of her. There's a statue..."
He laughed: "There are a lot of them. All over the planet. She used to say that one should accept compliments with 'Grace and Gratitude, not with Dismay.' I'm working on that one."
"Oh. You seem so confident all of the time, I wouldn't think you'd be dismayed by compliments."
He shook his head, wry and self-critical: "What's it all about, Kim? Where am I, and where am I going?"
"I don't know."
He raised the end of his belt: "I demonstrated that I could stay cool under fire, and showed my skill with a reedsword: Spathos One. I showed initiative in combat and captured the equipment my mentor sent me after: Spathos Two. I Commanded a complex operation in three Timelines and (fortunately) achieved our objective with few casualties." He grinned: "Spathos Three. And now I'm at Spathos Four because..."
"Because you are kind and merciful, and you figured out a way to help some people who needed help!" Kim kissed his cheek: "Those are good things. I'm glad that Sacred Band recognizes that those are important attributes for their operatives.”
“I get that. And, as I just pointed out, I understand how I got here. It just feels strange, it’s happening really fast. I don’t know my way around this City; I have to wait at all the City Gates until someone else is going my way, so I can follow them across.”
“I had that problem, too. Here’s a program...” She tapped her MPS, then touched hers to his. “That automatically explains the rights-of-way at any City Gate you approach, and it cues you when to cross.”
She grabbed his shoulder and shook him: “But that has nothing at all to do with your rather peculiar qualifications for Sacred Band.” She kissed him hard, and shook him again: “Right?”
“Right. I know; it also has nothing to do with your odd ability to stare at seven and eleven dimensional architecture without getting sick.”
She grinned: “Averos says that’s just genetic. He also says that...”
The Black Warrior Guild representative appeared: "There you are. The meeting isn't over, you know."
He waved the end of his red belt at her: "I'm only at Master's Council when they invite me for some reason."
"Yes, of course," she said. "Oh, I'm Magistri Gennasi."
He nodded. She didn't salute, so neither did he: "This is Archari Kimani, en strimeni mu."
Kim grinned: "Ki essi, Magistri.”
"Oh sure, sit, sit."
"When do you want us to take over those deliveries?"
Ambros grinned: "Right now, if you like." He reached out with his left hand; she met his with her right. He commanded the MPS to send her the videos and docs that he'd prepared; he said:
"No one will be expecting me for half a tenday. Go in armored, in pairs. I, at any rate, am not taking off my helm in that Line again."
"Yeah, we got that." She shifted her weight, seeming to him a little uncomfortable: "So, I realize that I'm overstepping here..."
He grinned again: "Overstep away. I'll never tell." Kim leaned back, suddenly absorbed in something on her laptop.
Gennasi said: "I've been following your exploits on the Kyklo since that interview you had with Rhiani."
She came to a decision: "Black Warrior Guild, Athino Prime chapter, agree: if you switch Guilds, we'll give you a black belt immediately."
He gazed at her impassively: "I'm happy where I am."
"Sure, okay, Arrenji and..."
He interrupted: “...and Voukli. They are my mentors in this Line. I take that relationship seriously. And I'm pretty sure you are not supposed to try to lure me..."
She interrupted: "...of course not. I said I was overstepping. I apologize."
She stood and saluted, and he returned the salute, still sitting. She wandered off, occasionally saluting lower-ranking Black Warriors.
Kim put her laptop down: "Did she just try to head-hunt you for her Guild?"
"That would be the tactful way to put it." He stared at Gennasi’s back until she was out of sight: "Maybe I made another damned enemy there."
Kim grinned mischievously: "That's okay. I have the evidence, right here." She patted her machine.
"You recorded that?"
"Yeah. People aren't supposed to do sneaky secret stuff, right? It's all public record. Supposed to be, anyhow."
He nodded, a sly smile on his face: "Save it, okay? I'll want it if she starts making trouble for me."
"You don't think we should just post it right now?"
"I think not. Better to have a card up my sleeve, I think."
She shrugged: "Your call."
He and Kim walked slowly through Athino, following the Street of Winds towards the Akropolis. It rained lightly, and the breeze felt chill; Kim wore a coat and cloak and Ambros the long vest with its hood that he’d made years before. He’d embroidered his Warrior ‘Pi’ sign in the usual spot on the left side, and attached the pins and symbols of his various missions and accomplishments on the left and right, in the places where a soldier in his own Line would wear ribbons and medals.
They arrived at the Old Roman Wall, and passed through a gate into the Temple District.
They sat at a table in the Plataeo Socratosena.
A woman walked by, her baby in a sling on her chest. The infant nursed, sucking fiercely at the nipple. The mother had a string in hand, and was manipulating it with both hands, while murmuring into a microphone suspended in front of her by a clever harness that went over her right ear.
When the murmuring mom got to the edge of the Plaza, she turned and came slowly back their way, seemingly wanting to stay in the area sheltered by force fields from the worst of the weather. She spoke on, even as she approached them again.
They could hear the words, some of them anyway. “Sounds like poetry,” said Kim.
The woman abruptly smiled: “Yes. And my hand work is called slezidho thelia.” She strolled on, muttering as she went.
Kim looked puzzled, and Ambos pondered the words: “I think it’s called ‘finger-loop braiding’ in our Line.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of that.”
Marie and Luisa approached, following in their wake. Luisa had recovered her reserve, and Marie her habitual cheerfulness. The woman with the baby passed them again and Marie got into a conversation with her: Marie, it turned out, had learned a similar craft, years before. She watched the woman—Határi, she said her name was—until she had figured out the similarities to and differences from her own form of braiding.
Határi moved on; Ambros sat shaking his head. He stopped suddenly: he felt as if there were marbles rolling back and forth across his frontal lobes. He closed his eyes.
“”What?” Kim demanded.
“Aftereffects of my concussion, I imagine. Surprisingly, I feel no special desire to test my limits. Two days of light duty, that’s the ticket.”
He shrugged: “But Határi, I recognized that name. She’s among the most famed of her generation in poetry.” He gestured to a table nearby, where there lay a number of towels and washcloths, evidently constructed by Határi. “She speaks her poetry while nursing her baby and making useful objects by craft...talk about ‘whoever does the most’.”
“Yes, I suppose she’s an exemplar,” said Luisa.
Marie said: “But only one among so very many. I love that about this City: there is so much art, so many practitioners of so many crafts...”
Kim nodded: “I see it all the time in my Skolo. And more...I see scientists who are also artists, artisans who invent machinery, poets who teach calculus as well as literature. It’s inspiring.”
“It is that,” said Ambros.
“I love our house in Eugene,” said Marie. She looked uncharacteristically sad: “But it’s really tempting to just abandon ship on our Home Line, and live here in Athino.”
Luisa frowned: “I see your point. I’d hate to give up our house, and all of our possessions...”
Ambros knew he could influence the debate by his technological knowledge, but forebore to do so: ‘I want to see which way this goes, first.
Kim nodded at him, just the slightest bit: ‘She knows what I’m holding back, and why...’
After a fraught silence, Luisa said: “If we just abandon Line Seventeen then whatever weight our actions could have there will be blunted, won’t it?”
Marie agreed: “I know, staying home and working to save our Line is the right thing...the ethical thing to do. I just get so tired, sometimes...” She grinned: “But not as much as I would if it weren’t for Commonwealth Medical Guild!”
Ambros stirred in his seat, and said: “I at any rate have to keep a residence in our Line, and keep working to save the people of Earth—that Earth—from the heating and poisoning of the planet and the Fascists and the Emerging Global Ruling Class and so on.” He shrugged: “I’d appreciate it if you three continued to help me with that project.
“On the other hand, we could move the house and all of our possessions over to this Timeline...”
Luisa and Marie stared at him, astounded.
He shrugged: “Shifter tech makes that possible, if expensive in terms of energy outlay. If things get really bad in Seventeen, our combined Status here would probably justify the expense...”
“What, just ‘poof’ and our house is here?”
“It would be more of a ‘Boom!’. We’d leave a hole in the ground and a weird mystery for the authorities in Eugene,” said Kim: “I think we ought to save that option for, I don’t know...impending nuclear war, or something worse.”
“We couldn’t put Rose House down anywhere inside the City Walls,” Ambros pointed out: “It’s pretty crowded inside already. But there’s a suitable plot out on the road towards Parnassus. Across the road from Arrenji’s family’s country house.”
“You’ve been checking into this stuff?” Marie’s cheerfulness had returned.
“On occasion,” said Ambros: “When I’m feeling unhopeful about Line Seventeen. But Arrenji pointed out the site, unsolicited. And Averos and Iyelisi each offered to install the sensors at Rose House. Also unsolicited. See...they feel an Obligation to us, right? We’re doing something for the Whole, in this Line as well as our own.”
“I tend to forget that,” said Luisa.
“Yeah.” Kim laughed: “But I’ll feel a lot better knowing that the equipment to transport our home is installed, and that we have a...a...”
“A bug-out route,” said Ambros.
Luisa smiled and relaxed a little.
“We should take a vacation,” said Ambros: “Sometime after the New Year. Arrenji offered to let us use her flat at the country house.”
“Good idea,” said Kim.
“I’m in” said Luisa.
“Third week of January,” said Marie: “I already checked our calendars...there’s nothing on anyone’s schedule that can’t be postponed.”
“Let’s all write that in ink.” Kim tapped her wrist and called up her MPS.
“Settled,” said Luisa. “Now I have to go.”
“Me too,” said Marie.
“Class in half an hour,” Kim said.
Ambros smiled: “I’m supposed to meet Vic Michaels at Samuel B’s this evening, Zazu called and wants to see me, I scheduled him for after Vic. Meanwhile, I’ll just sit here. I’m on restricted duty, right?”
After kisses and embraces, the women left.
He carried his whiskey carefully across the pub; it was more crowded than usual: ‘Noisier, and people aren’t watching where they’re going.” He got to his accustomed seat near the exit. Having sat he waited for his dizziness to abate.
Vic Michaels, Attorney at Law, came through the door. Ambros could see him by tipping his head to one side; Michaels could not see Ambros.
The line at the bar over by the door was pretty long, so Ambros stepped over to the ‘refills’ end, near his seat. He caught Vic’s eye and handsigned ‘What drink’ at him; then he mouthed the words and Michaels got it: “Gin and tonic, please.” Ambros could pick the words of his reply out of the racket fairly easily.
‘I love Commonwealth Medical Guild,’ he thought: not for the first time, and certainly not for the last.
He frowned, then nodded.
He ordered Vic’s drink and paid in cash: ’The last of Truck Man’s wad.’ He calculated: ‘I gave most of that money away to bums or folks in Borderboro.’
He handed Vic his drink and they sat down.
The lawyer opened his mouth to speak, but Ambros cut him off: “Is this about that faux public hearing on the fate of the Swampers?”
Michaels nodded a little bit sheepishly: “I should apologize for leaning on you, I guess. Your—wife?—Marie gave me quite a dressing down last night on MyFace...”
“Did she really?” Ambros showed his amusement.
“Yeah...she pointed out that coercion, even in the form of nagging, is exactly the wrong tack to take with you, being so anarchistic in your thinking. She also said...”
“I imagine that she told you I was already reconsidering my decision.”
“That’s it!” Vic shrugged: “I only hope you will come around on this and be there to...”
“To do what? What exactly do you think I’m going to do?”
“You are probably going to start by trying to be tactful; but after listening to the proceedings till near the end, I expect you’ll détourne the meeting.”
Ambros raised an eyebrow: “I’m surprised to hear that word come out of the mouth of an attorney.”
“You don’t know me very well, yet. I wasn’t always an officer of the court.”
“I guess not.”
Vic grinned: “I confess that I hadn’t thought of Debord or Vaneighem in decades. I read a couple of your critiques of the news media at your blog, and that piqued my curiosity. Those fake political ads you linked to reminded me of the Situationists.”
“As they should. They are culture-jam knock-offs of Situationist tactics.” He paused, thoughtful: “So you’ve read Debord and Vaneighem?”
“I have. Long ago.” Vic grinned crookedly and rubbed the scars that interfered with his right eyebrow: “Been on the wrong end of a nightstick more than once. So.”
“So what?” Ambros had become intensely curious.
“So I went online and hunted down the remains of the group. I had no idea...Have you read Michelle Bernstein? Or heard the band Angry Mechanism?”
Ambros laughed: “Careful, Vic. You’ll blow your cover.”
Michaels laughed: “I already agree with a lot of the Situ’s ideas. That’s why I quit my corporate gig and started doing indigent defense.”
Ambros caught his eye, and nodded slowly: “All right. The answer is still no, but not as vehemently. After that article that The Sentinel published yesterday, I gotta figure some new angles.”
“Yeah,” said Vic: “I’m not surprised to find three federal agencies leaning on the Mayor about bums in the wetlands. I am surprised that The Sentinel dug up the dirt, and more surprised that the Bass family allowed the editor to print it.”
Ambros made a wry face: “Having the feds involved complicates things. It also pisses me off that the newsies found out something I didn’t know. That’s a fail for me, Vic.” He gestured at the New Pismo: “I suspected that was going on, and I could have found out all about it. Now that I know, I did find out a lot more about it than the paper printed.”
“You can’t know everything, man.” Vic seemed amused.
“No, Vic, I can. Well…Maybe not everything, but damn close. And see, I heard about BLM guys maybe poking around in the Swamp, just a couple days ago. I even ran into some…I put off looking into that, because I was busy. I need to do a better job of knowing everything, especially that kind of thing, or my…my mission here is gonna fail big-time.” He watched closely to see how Michaels would react to the word ‘Mission”.
Vic chuckled: “I’m going to ignore the part about a ‘mission’ and just point out that The Sentinel got the scoop on you because people from the Bureau of Land Management tipped them. Otherwise, everyone would be in the dark until after the eviction. Maybe even then.”
Ambrose nodded: “I suppose.” He didn’t sound convinced. He pondered for a moment: “You know, there’s a truism that nobody believes in her own heart that she is the villain. Everyone thinks he’s the hero of his own movie, right?”
“So I’m told,” Michaels agreed: “Hard to wrap your head around it, but even Genghis Kahn and Stalin thought they were the good guys.”
“Right,” said Ambros: “And it’s not really in anyone’s best interests to convince a powerful person that she or he is evil, huh? That just means they’ll shed the last inhibitions they may have and go full villain on you. On the other hand, Nichols is not so powerful that he’s much of a threat.”
Vic shrugged: “The lawyer in me has to ask: what’s this have to do with the matter under discussion?”
“Just this,” said Ambros: “The mayor is under a lot of pressure from the Feds, sure. But he folded right away. He wants to clear that swamp and evict Sarge and the others, even the little kids. He’s pleased to lend the EPD to this nasty little project…he’s so gung ho he hasn’t even thought about the unintended consequences, like bums in plain sight all over town. Am I right?”
Vic shook his head: “Looks that way to me…”
“So if I speak my truth to him, I have to be careful. I have to show him up for what he is, but leave him with his illusions about his own rectitude intact.
“Or…maybe not. Maybe I can force a sleepless night or two on the man, make him look in a mirror and ask himself questions…I don’t know for sure. I mean, if Nichols had put up a big fight, stood between the people in the Swamp and the Feds, if he’d seen the Swampers as citizens of Eugene and done his best to ‘serve and protect’ them…He’d still be responsible for folding in the end, but he’d look a little better to me.
“That’s not what he did, though. He did the opposite, in fact. Rolled right over. If I really tear him a new one personally, if I go ad hominem based on his past misdeeds and current projects, I have to make the charges stick.
“I realize,” he said, eyeing Michaels: “Ad hominem is the last resort of a person who has lost the argument. But...”
Vic frowned: “We have lost the argument, for all practical purposes. Right?”
“Sure looks that way to me.”
“You have doubts, though?”
Ambros rubbed his neck: “Sure. Who doesn’t?”
Vic shrugged: “You usually seem pretty sure of yourself.”
“Well…I’m sure of what I’m sure of…but I check in on those things regularly. I worry at the edges, where I’m not so sure. I sometimes doubt the utility of my more radical positions and actions. Specially when I’m a little down, like now.”
“A little down, huh?”
Ambros shrugged: “I misjudged a situation, underestimated a guy. Got a hard smack to the head…I’m probably somewhat concussed, still, in spite of beyond state-of-the-art medical treatment. I’m dizzy and disturbed, at least.
“Probably I’m rambling a bit. This kinda thing brings one’s the doubts to the fore. But everybody has doubts, occasionally at least. Right?”
“Yeah. Mr Mayor probably just slam dunks his doubts into the wastebasket and sends for a flunky to haul them away. Another drink?”
“Thanks, but I have to get going. Due in court tomorrow with a tough case.”
Ambros smiled: “Good luck.”
Vic went out the door as ‘Hector Miller’ came in. He had a couple of the young anarchists from Zazu Johnson’s group in tow; they seemed to be charmed by his demeanor, and sat with him across the room from Ambros.
Ambros pressed his fingers against the nearly impalpable lump on the rear of his skull. He glared at Miller and anticipated a confrontation of some sort with the man: ‘A conversation, for sure.’
He dug in his pocket and pulled out his ever-present bottle of Commonwealth “panacea”. ‘Mostly caffeine and aspirin, with just a touch of cocaine…’ He snapped one caplet in two and took the larger piece, chewing it up a bit to speed it into his system and sipping whiskey to chase it.
Moments later, Zazu Johnson entered through the back door. He studiously avoided looking directly at Miller, and sat with his back to that group, facing Ambros.
Ambros drew a deep breath, shaking off his dubious mood: ‘I thought this one over already. I made the decision before I got smacked. I’m good to go on Miller and Zaz.’ He felt a very slight “zing” as the microdose of coke hit his brain.
He pointed his chin in Miller’s general direction, a subtle motion undetectable to anyone but Johnson.
“I know,” said the old anarchist: “I’m keeping him in my sights.”
“Good.” Ambros pulled his Pismo out of his bag and deployed it: “I’ve been conversing with that pissant on his Dark Webz blog. He’s a convincing liar, if you don’t know his true story. He’s a real pro at letting you fill in the details while preserving his cover.” He turned the machine around and let Zazu scroll through his exchanges with Miller.
“Wow.” Zazu appeared stunned.
“He hopes to get me to commit to an act of extreme sabotage; he pretends to be an admirer of certain previous acts of that sort, which he somehow knows that I looked into; and there, at the end, you can see that he offers me an EMP bomb..”
Zazu had been nodding: “Like the ones that went off in Russia, China, and Colorado a few months back.”
“The ones the FBI were grilling you about. I expected them to haul me in and grill me, too. Instead...” Ambros gestured.
“They sent Miller in to see if he could get you to incriminate yourself. They were willing to use a high-ranking agent on a fairly long-term deep cover operation, infiltrating our group in an attempt to make him look good to you...”
“Yes. Very subtle.” Ambros stared at Zazu, estimating the man’s will: ‘There’s no doubt in my mind as to his intelligence, or his commitment to the “cause”...’
“What are you gonna do about it?” Zazu asked.
Ambros took a deep breath: “Nothing.”
He expelled that breath: “I have no time nor any energy for this spook. Instead, I’m gonna give him to you.” He held out a thumb drive: “Here he is.”
Johnson took it. He turned it over and smiled, slowly and with apparent relish: “This is excellent!”
Ambros’ headache and general lassitude faded, partly under the influence of the drugs he’d taken, partly the spiritual lift he got from thinking about “Hector’s” future fall from grace.
He said: “It’s better than you realize. There’s a tapeworm-virus on that drive that will allow you to post the information to all of the major news sites. Nobody will be able to delete it. If they decide to censor you, they’ll have to take their sites down and re-boot to backups. Even if they do, the story will reload every time someone who looked at it before the takedown logs on to the site.”
“It is.” Ambros grinned: “He’s yours now.”
“I’ll hold on to this information until I can do the most good for our community and the most damage to the enemy...”
Ambros could see Zazu relishing the power he had received. He grinned his wry grin.
Zazu saw it: “I know. Best not to get a swelled head about it.”
“Best not to. But put that spook in his place.”
“I most certainly will.”
Johnson slipped the drive into a secure pocket on his shoulder bag and snapped said pocket shut. After finishing his beer, he took leave of Ambros and crossed the room to chat a while with Hector and the others. He laughed at Miller’s jokes and responded with repartee of his own.
Ambros’ augmented hearing let him keep track of the conversation; when Johnson left, the youngsters went with him.
“Here it comes,” Ambros muttered. He re-deployed his Pismo and ordered it to record.
Miller strolled over and joined him: “You have any time yet to consider the offer we made?”
“Some. I kinda wonder…”
“If you have the item we were discussing, why not just use it yourself?”
“We do have the item, several of them. We’ve used them before…”
“Oh, so now you’re taking credit for the incident at Colorado and the others?”
Miller shrugged. Ambros noticed that he didn’t answer, but left him to assume. He was fairly certain that those bombs had been Arrenji’s doing, not Miller’s.
After a long pause, Miller said: “We want you to place the item, and set it off. If you succeed, you’ll have passed a test. Then we will share more of our secrets with you.”
Ambros nodded: “I’m to believe that there is more to your organization than the ten or so people I’ve been talking to at that Dark site?”
Again, Miller didn’t answer: “We really want you to succeed. If you pass this test, the revelations that follow will be more explosive than the item we’re discussing.”
“Fascinating. Say on.”
“I’m not sure how much more I dare say. Until you do something to make us certain of your discretion and reliability…” Miller shrugged again, seeming to be amused.
Ambros leaned back in his chair. He put his hands in his lap and interlaced his fingers. He gave the undercover agent his most sardonic grin and said: “I am sure of my discretion and reliability. I am utterly uncertain of yours. Convince me.”
Miller nodded, hiding his impatience pretty well: “I’m not certain how to do that.”
“Why don’t you think about it for a bit?”
Ambros got up and ordered a pair of whiskeys and some chips. He sat back down and offered the snacks to Miller.
Miller ate some and so did Ambros. They sipped the booze.
Miller said: “I confess. I have no idea what would convince you.”
Ambros said: “How about this: I set a target and a date. You set off one of your…devices…and take out that target. By doing so, you will fully convince me of your bona fides. You will show me that you actually have the ordnance and the balls to use it. Then I’ll blow something up for you, using your item as you desire me to do. Then we can start talking for real.”
Miller made a face: “I can’t agree to that without consulting the group.”
“Fine. I don’t mind. I don’t much care how your little conspiracy does things. And I’m not in a hurry. So…”
“I don’t think we have anything more to talk about, right now.” Ambros smiled: “As I said to you once before: ‘Away with you.’ Come back when you have an agreement to my terms. Or don’t come back at all.”
“Suppose you tell me the target and date? If I get an agreement from my side, it’ll save time.”
Ambros pondered: ‘I want a target that no actual saboteur would hesitate to hit, but that no DIA asshole could even consider…’
He said: “There’s a very big building, mostly underground, in small town called Langley, near Washington DC.”
Miller’s eyes got big: “CIA Headquarters?”
Ambros smiled, but didn’t answer.
“How ’bout a date?” Miller was calling his bluff.
Ambros laughed: “January second, upcoming. If you can’t get it together by then, then do it on the first of May.” Johnson would never hold back that long, Ambros knew. Miller’s doom would strike him well before the earlier date.
Miller shook his head: “No promises.”
“I never asked for one. This whole operation is on you, your idea, your plans, your alleged equipment. You’ve hinted that you belong to a very large, well-organized, and ideologically sophisticated revolutionary Luddite group. You seem to think that I would be interested in cooperating with such a group. I have no evidence yet that you are anything other than a blowhard.
“So demonstrate to me that you are what you claim to be. Because everything up to now has been smoke and mirrors. Eh?”
Miller reluctantly agreed: “I suppose it seems that way to you.”
“It does. Leave now. If we cross paths again before you hit the target, don’t bring this project up. I don’t want to hear about it.”
“Very well,” said Miller, hiding his disappointment well. “See you around…”
Ambros said nothing more. Miller paid his tab and left, looking back over his shoulder at Ambros.
Ambros sat there, laughing out loud for several minutes. The dizziness from his concussion seemed to be fading fast, and his ever-so-neat disposal of “Miller” pleased him greatly.
Alex the bartender stepped over: “Business going well?”
“Oh yeah, for sure.”
‘”Anything you can tell me about?”
Ambros shook his head: “Not really. But I can say I put that bastard in a bind, and it’s a win-win for me now, whichever way he goes…”
“Cool.” Alex took off then to answer a call from the back.
Ambros drew in a deep breath and said: “I get to take the rest of the night off, and get some much-needed sleep!”