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CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Run in Circles, Scream and Shout

 

Kim said: “I’m ready, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Yeah, I love seeing Sarah and Aspen and the Aunties but Eddie makes me crazy.”

Ambros grinned: “Well, thanks for getting me off the hook. I don’t need crazy in my life right now, thanks.”

“You’re welcome. But with the Jeep in the shop, I still need a ride.”

“Happy to oblige.”

He took the main streets until he got to Greenbrier Road where he turned south and began to negotiate the first winding stretch of pavement.

Kim was chattering happily. He smiled and made listening sounds as he flicked on the headlights and wipers.

A large truck shot past them, engine growling. From the corner of his eye he got the slightest impression of green and white; he gritted his teeth, thinking: ‘Uh-oh.’

Another truck, perhaps a bit smaller, roared up behind them, then slowed down and tailgated.

Ambros had become fairly familiar with Greenbrier Road in the past few months, and he knew there was a fork up ahead. He spoke quietly but firmly, interrupting Kim: “Check your seat belt, bend forward at the waist and duck your head down as far as possible. Hands over the back of your head...”

She stared at him eyes wide and he said simply: “Do it.”

 

 

 

 

  

 

She complied. He slowed down, letting the following truck creep up. He gazed in the rearview, counting. Then he sped up suddenly, shooting away from the pursuit.

He passed through the next three curves, left, right, left, letting the rear end of Luisa’s truck drift. He was pushing the edge of his control, wanting to get to the fork before his enemy, fearing what he might find there.

He got a glimpse of the truck behind him as it passed under a streetlight: it was bigger than Luisa’s, and had a larger engine, but that engine pulled a much heavier load.

“He’s having a hard time keeping up with me,” he said: “I’m gonna push it even more...”

Kim made an “eep” noise and Ambros floored the accelerator. Between his better maneuverability and the following vehicle having six passengers, all somewhat obese, he was able to put a quarter mile between them.

“Here comes the fork to Eddie’s house,” he said grimly: “Hang on, there’s a truck blocking the way.” The green and white truck sat to one side, engine revving.

Kim eep’ed again, but he couldn’t spare an eye to check on her. It was raining harder and the wipers were flailing at the windshield. He saw the lights on the trucks at the fork flick on, blinding him. He flipped his brights on, too, hoping that his foes would be as dazzled as he was.

He threw the truck into a hard left skid, sliding broadside into the front end of the truck that blocked the road to Eddie’s. That truck bounced and skidded back about six feet, as he’d hoped; he cranked his steering wheel all the way to the right; he popped the clutch and floored the gas pedal. Luisa’s truck jumped forward and right, tearing off the enemy’s front bumper and its own back one. Then he was screaming down the asphalt at nearly seventy, his bright lights illuminating the road.

“Stay down!” he said, using his Command voice; Kim wept, staying in the position he’d advised. “Shit, here it comes.”

The huge green and white truck was overtaking them; when it caught up, its driver began bumping at their bumperless rear end, trying to push them off the road.

“What’s he doing?” Kim wailed.

“Trying to make us crash. I’m gonna take us off the road under control. Brace!”

He hammered the brake, which caused the pursuing driver to smack their rear again, harder than before. He used the momentum from that smack to carry the truck to the left, across the opposite lane, and into and through the ditch beyond. They both rocked violently from side to side, and Kim’s head hit the window on one of the bigger shakes. She cried out and ducked down again.

The truck stopped, bogged in mud up to the hubcaps. He looked over his left shoulder and saw the overloaded truck screeching to a halt on the road right behind them. Green-and-White was coming back from a probable turnaround in Eddie’s driveway.

Six men exited the first truck, all with rifles or shotguns at port arms. Green-and-White truck stopped and four men got out of that.

He shook Kim and said: “You conscious?”

“Yes. What should I do?”

“As soon as I’m out of the truck, trigger your panic button.”

“Okay.” She put the little finger of her right hand under the edge of the invisible band on her left wrist.

The last two men came running up the hill from the damaged vehicle at the fork. ‘Twelve in all...’

He grinned in a frightening, manic way and pushed his door open (against resistance; it was badly dented) and then rolled out of the truck and ran for the shelter of a boulder that sat by the ditch, near a large tree. He heard two shotgun blasts and one sharper report from a rifle.

He heard two more trucks growling up the road: “Shit,” he muttered. ‘Well, at least I’m not dizzy. I got most of two days light duty.’

As soon as he was behind the rock, he triggered his own panic button. He got his pistol out of his right thigh patch pocket. He thought: “Let’s get down to business, now.’

He popped to his feet, saw a fat man’s silhouette outlined against headlights, and squeezed the button. The silhouette disappeared. He found some more targets, dropped two more men, then ducked back down. He rolled across the sopping wet grass till he was behind the tree, and saw a man about to poke his head into the front of Luisa’s truck. He shot that guy in the back of his head, splattering blood all over the roof. He saw another face, across the roof of the truck, eyes wide, shocked.

He fired again, and the man vanished: ‘Dead or ducked?’ he wondered. He prepared to go see; he didn’t want one of them getting his hands on Kim.

Suddenly the whole area lit up as if someone had set off a military style flare. Twenty armored figures appeared, scattered around the area. Plasma swords lit up, firearms deployed; the Posse Comitatus bunch began to drop like bowling pins, crashing into each other and falling to Commonwealth weapons as they sought vainly to escape. They screamed in total panic and ran in random directions, until they fell, cut down one by one. Two got as far as the trucks before they died.

The fight was over in just a few more seconds. The light from the Commonwealth drones faded out as a Black Warrior Guild Spathos approached him.

“This way,” said Ambros, slipping effortlessly into Rational Hellenic: “Gotta check on my passenger.”

Kim was out of the truck, sitting on a fence rail, weeping and cradling her head. One of the commandos had doffed his helm and sat with his arm around Kim’s shoulders, murmuring comforting words to her. Ambros went over and embraced her, saying: “It’s over now. This bunch will not threaten any of us again. The local chapter of Posse Comitatus is nearly done.” He got a ragged wool blanket from behind the seat of the truck and wrapped it around her, pulling a corner over her head.

He turned back to the truck; the Spathos stayed with him. They found three commandos standing around a man who was cowering on the ground. Ambros laughed, grimly amused: “Masters. You shit. You were not on any of the membership lists I hacked into.”

Masters looked up: his face was speckled with mud and blood; he was baffled and terrified. “What th’ hell just happened?” he asked, shaking his head like a metronome.

“You wouldn’t believe it if I explained it to you, and you’ll probably try to rationalize it all away even after I drop you in purgatory.” He stirred Masters with his foot: “Get up, Johnny. What are you doing here, tonight?”

“I...I, shit, I thought...I thought...Dillon told me he and his friends were gonna rough you up a bit. They invited me...” Masters struggled to his feet, soaked and shivering.

Ambros was wet and cold, too, but he didn’t let his discomfort show: “Yeah? I seem to remember you being all pissy about some homeless woman sleeping under a table, on the grounds that it was illegal. Well, assault and rape are also against the law. You didn’t fool me, or Jonie, which is why your sister-in law has been shunning you. Also: in case it escaped your notice, it’s also illegal to ‘rough people up’. Or run folks off the road. And with a young woman in my truck, too.”

A commando approached and handed Ambros a small pile of plastic cards: “Sir, these are the ID cards of the dead. Two men fled on foot, we have a detail pursuing them.”

Ambros glanced through the pile of drivers’ licenses, noting names and counting to fifteen. “Thompson and Miller’s IDs are not here,” he said: “Nor Dillon’s seventeen year old son...nor that blond fellow.”

He continued, addressing the commando: “Where’d they run to?”

The commando answered: “They ran along the road and ducked into an outbuilding of some sort, and then out the back and into the woods. But they can’t escape us, unless they abandon their arms.”

“All right, carry on please.” The woman called up her MPS and began conversing, apparently with the pursuit detail.

The Black Warrior Spathos spoke, in Hellenic: “This is your Home Line, Spathos?”

“Yeah,” Ambros replied in the same language: “I could use some help with clean up here...”

“Whatever you want. We’re at your service.”

“Right. Fortunately, none of the inhabitants of the mansions on this road has come out to investigate our little gunfight. They will certainly have called 9-1-1, though. We have maybe fifteen leptae. So, first...the next driveway on the left up that way is Skolari Kimani’s destination for tonight. Bout a quarter league away. Get a couple of your people to escort her there and up the driveway to the porch. She has a key. Don’t let yourselves be seen by the residents.”

The Spathos stepped away and made it happen. Kim staggered over and embraced Ambros, then joined the escort.

Ambros said, as they hugged one another hard: “It’ll take me a day or two to get this mess sorted out. Get your sister to take you home. I gotta replace this truck.”

“Obviously,” she said, still shaking. She left with the Spathae.

“What next?” asked the Spathos.

“Okay...pile the corpses in the bed of this truck,” he patted his hood: “and we’ll Shift the whole mess sideways to the Alcatraz Quiet Line. We’ll leave all the other trucks where they are. Rain is gonna wash away any blood that’s on the ground, and any blood in the cabs of the other trucks will just be an unsolvable puzzle for the forensics crew.” He paused, thinking for a moment, then said: “Send somebody down the hill to the fork in the road, to pick up the bumper from this truck, and toss it into the load for Alcatraz Quiet.“

By that time the first six bodies were already on Luisa’s truck. The Black Warrior Spathos raised his face shield and grinned: “I get it. Here’s four wrecked and dented vehicles, some blood and tissue, tracks into the ditch where another vehicle obviously crashed...but no such vehicle is evident.”

“Exactly,” said Ambros. He stopped a pair of commandos as they were about to toss Brad Dillon’s remains onto the load. He pulled a pair of handcuffs off the dead man’s belt and said: “Somebody cuff John Masters and set him aside. I have a place in mind for him.”

“I’m on it,” said the Spathos.

Four people stood at the corners of Luisa’s truck and one called out: “Ready to transport...Clear!”

They all stepped back a little; the truck vanished with a bang, as air collapsed into the space where it had been. Masters shrieked in terror. The Commandos laughed at him.

Ambros trudged through the muck to where Masters was sitting. He took the cuffed man by the arm and pulled him to his feet.

“C’mon, Masters,” he said: “We’re going someplace quiet, just the two of us.”

“Are you gonna shoot me?”

“Probably not,” said Ambros, sarcastically. He pulled his Shifter out and Saltated.

 

 

 

 

He shoved Masters forward, so that he fell face down across a divan. He put the Shifter away and went over to the bar.

“I’m gonna get a little light going here, John.” He found a pack of matches and lit an old kerosene lantern. It illuminated the room with a golden glow that made everything seem haunted and historic. He used the flame of the lantern to light a longer stick of matchwood, and lit the kindling in the fireplace. The flames leaped up and began to lick at the very dry wood that he’d set there previously. The room began to warm. He stood waiting.

After a while, John Masters rolled over. He looked around, confused. “Where the hell are we?”

“A separate reality. High up in a building you’d recognize if you saw it from the ground.”

“Can’t you just answer a question straight?”

Ambros just stared. Masters squirmed beneath his regard.

He shook his cuffed wrists at Ambros and said: “How about unfastening these?”

“Not yet.”

Masters shivered, clearly chilled to the core: “You said you probably wouldn’t shoot me.”

“I probably won’t. You weren’t carrying a weapon or driving one of those trucks, were you?”

“Umm...no, I wasn’t. Either one.”

“Well, then.” Ambros shrugged: “Dodged a bullet, too, when I shot at you. It’s your lucky day.”

John shivered, again, and continued for some time to shudder and shake. “I feel so fortunate.”

Ambros sat down on a chair across the room from Masters. “Y’know, John, I gotta say this. You need to be more respectful of me. I am in a position to use rhetorical tools like irony and sarcasm. In case you hadn’t noticed, you are not.” He drew his pistol out of his right thigh pocket and displayed it to Masters.

Masters saw the pink clear plastic and the tiny opening in the barrel, and laughed: “What’s that, a squirt gun?” He laughed again.

Ambros shook his head, his expression sad: “Some people never do learn,” he said. He pointed the gun at Masters and then flicked it sideways, triggering the firearm as its business end crossed the space between the bar and the elevator door. The pellet hit the door to the ladies’ room with a bang and blew it inward, scattering splinters and bits of semi-disintegrated hardware through the stalls.

“SHIT!” Masters shrieked, throwing himself sideways to the floor and cowering there. Ambros chuckled.

After a bit, Masters rolled over and got up. He sat down again, this time nearer to the fireplace. He shook from fear now, instead of from cold.

Ambros let him calm down. It took a few minutes, but he waited for John to have some semblance of his own sort of calm. At length he said: “And yes, you were extremely fortunate tonight. If you had been carrying any deadly weapon at all, even something as insignificant as a pocketknife, you would now be dead. Got that? My buddies, the ones who dropped in to rescue me—and Kim, by the way, don’t forget that you attacked a totally noncombatant woman tonight—those folks in the armor with the silent firearms and glowing blacklight swords would have blown you into whatever Valhalla you may believe in. You do remember that part of the evening, right?”

He watched John carefully at that point: ‘I figure the shock will be wearing off, and the unbelievable aspects of his evening’s experience will start to sink in just about ...now.’

John’s expression went from fear to disbelief to wonder to terror and back again, in seconds, as he consciously processed the things that had happened to him.

“Okay, you’re starting to get it.” Ambros said. He let Masters stew for a while, then he said: “How much do you know about Dillon?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you know about his politics? His associates? The organization he runs...ran?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ambros snarled: “Let’s try this: when and where did you meet him?”

“Huh? We met at a tavern out by the freeway. Two weeks ago. I was drinking with some co-workers, and bitching about you and how you embarrassed me to my boss, and he said he knew you, and did I want to teach you a lesson...”

“So you didn’t know that he was a Nazi?”

“What?”

“Yeah. Ever heard of Posse Comitatus?”

Masters paled: “Posse Com...yeah, vaguely. You mean...?”

“Uh-huh. Posse Comitatus. Murderous paranoid neo-Nazis with a secrecy fetish. And you...you fell right in with them.” Ambros’ tone showed his disgust.

“Shit.”

“Well, that says a little for you. I don’t think you’re acting, so maybe you are appalled at your own duplicity and ignorance. Maybe there’s a little hope for you. I’ll leave you some reading material now and then, and maybe you can become a somewhat acceptable specimen of humanity. If you work at it.  Meanwhile, good luck figuring out where you are and how you got here.” Ambrose rose and pulled an item from his pocket: “Here’s a handcuff key. Have fun. I gotta go. See ya!” He paused: “One more thing, John: if you folks had seriously injured Kim, you would already be dead. And unlike the deaths of the Posse, it wouldn’t have been easy or quick.”

He let John see him vanish, imagining the shock of it, and the startling pop when he left the Line for another.

 

 

 

 

He dropped in to a pre-selected spot in the Z-War Prime Timeline. He stayed alert, even as he contemplated his mission: “I need to get some more money, and pick up one of my backup trucks. Being cops, Thompson and Miller were not among the bunch that attacked us tonight, but they surely knew what Dillon and company had in mind. But being cops, and bent halfway into hairpins, they are surely going to be poking around. Best if they find me and my truck intact, and never figure out what happened to their buddies.”

He approached the chosen storefront carefully, scouting it from several directions before actually trying the door. He gave it a push; it crashed to the floor: 'Fell right over,' he thought, stepping back and drawing his pistol: 'No particular reason to think there's anyone alive near here...'

He kept the pink looks-like-a-squirt-gun Commonwealth firearm in ready position as he entered the place. He saw skeletonized remains on either side of the broken door, and another body near the register. He looked up, all around the juncture of ceiling and wall, and across the partly collapsed roof. A broken door heading down a flight of stairs loomed on his left, ragged mummies piled across the entry.

He shook his head, confounded: 'If everyone on earth got sick and began to die, would you try to loot a numismatist's shop? And if you owned one, would you die defending it?'

He kicked the skeletons and mummies aside, and after shining his light down the stairs, descended: 'Here we are.'

He had to move one more body: "Guy was actually trying to break into the vault while he was dying..." He trailed off, dismayed at the insanity of people who were dazzled by gold.

He deployed his APS and cut through the bars. Once inside the vault, he went along the shelves, choosing only the most valuable coins and old paper bills.

He picked up one coin, turned it a couple of times, frowned: “If this is real...it has to be. Damn.” He revised his plans.

He set a separate pile of paper and coins aside, ready for his next trip, and packaged up one hundred and twenty thousand dollars worth of antique artifacts of the money economy, putting them into his rucksack.

He Jumped several times, to Quiet Lines, to throw off anyone who might seek to follow him. He masked each Path; at the end of the sequence, he spent half the charge on his Shifter to completely erase the link to his Home Line. Then he went to a cafe, a little further up Willamette Street, where he used his Commonwealth laptop to do a little research.  Satisfied, he sent some emails to certain people in his own Timeline.

He left the place: ‘Let’s just Jump a couple more times...’

In the end, he dropped in to a public restroom on the ground floor of a parking garage in downtown Eugene, USIT Ten. There were coin lockers in the vestibule; he retrieved a dress suit from one of them, and changed clothes quickly, adjusting the tie in a mirror. He gazed critically at the reflection: "You'll do." He donned the snazzy overcoat and fedora, and winked at his reflection.

He opened the rucksack and extracted that coin, an ancient, lopsided gold coin. That one went into a hidden pocket in his suitcoat.

He transferred the rest of the contents of the rucksack into a briefcase and stuffed the rucksack with his ordinary clothes into the locker. He dropped in a quarter and pulled out the key.

A police officer entered the jakes, frowning suspiciously at him.

Ambros smiled and entered a stall, latching the door. He grinned.

He Shifted again, this time to New York City in his own LIne.

He strolled along the streets of the Bowery, checking his reflection in shop windows, making sudden turns and then waiting for pursuit to manifest.

None did.

He moved uptown, adopting the "Big City Neutral" expression that he saw all around him.

Eventually he saw his destination ahead. He crossed the street and sat on a bench at a bus stop, waiting, eyes slightly unfocused, consulting Shifter and MPS. When he felt satisfied that there was really, truly, no one on his tail, he rose and crossed the street. He dodged traffic with an agility that belied his apparent age.

He entered the staid precincts of a high-end numismatist. The gentleman behind the counter looked up and smiled: "Mr Anderson. Very pleased to see you again, sir."

Ambros nodded slightly, acknowledging the greeting: "Nice to see you as well, Mr Baker."

He placed the briefcase on the glass countertop: "I have some interesting artifacts for you."

"I certainly hope they match the quality of your last delivery."

"I believe you'll find that this shipment exceeds the last."

"I am all a-quiver," said Baker.

Ambros laid out the coins and bills one at a time, and they negotiated a price for each. Ambros settled for eighty percent of what he thought the eventual retail value of each piece would be; Baker seemed to be aware of his strategy and co-operated. Ambros knew that Baker would auction some of the stuff, by that means realizing a hefty profit; he accepted that as the price of doing business.

'Baker's a Libertarian, and as such he'll only cheat me to the degree that I allow it.' He smiled to himself: 'Saves me a lot of time dealing with auction houses.'

Baker said: "The total is just over eighty thousand dollars. If that is acceptable?"

"Quite."

"Would you prefer a cashier's check or cash?"

"The check, please. I have a number of other errands to do before my bank run."

"Certainly." Baker summoned a flunky, who ran out the door with a chit from her boss in hand.

After a moment's silence, Baker said: "I wonder, sir, if you would mind salving my conscience a bit?"

"You are wondering where I get this stuff, and whether it's stolen."

"You are correct."

Ambros looked the fellow in the eye: "While it is possible—indeed, likely—that a police officer or federal agent will eventually approach you about my business with you, I guarantee that they will never legitimately charge either of us with any crime. I further guarantee that I have robbed no one, nor harmed any living person in my acquisition of these artifacts.

"Good enough for me," said Baker, smiling slightly. “I don’t think you are a thief or any other sort of criminal, though I do wonder who and what you actually are.”

The teenage girl returned, carrying a bank envelope. Baker took it from her and handed it to Ambros.

He thanked her, and took leave of Baker. He exited the shop, turning to the left and heading for the American Numismatic Society. ‘It’s a significant walk,’ he thought: ’Good thing I’m fit...’

He felt perturbed: “My damned disguises don’t seem to be very good. Most people fall for them, but the people I really need to fool...”

He arrived at the corner of 155th and Broadway, feeling more than a trifle tuckered out.

‘Aftereffects of a bad—let’s face it, fatal—concussion and an ambush by Nazis. Reasonable, I guess.’

He sat on a bench outside the Society’s headquarters, where he could be seen from the executive offices in the corner of the place.

He waited.

It took a while, but he stayed patient.

At length, as the sun was sinking behind the buildings on the west side of the street, a man in a natty grey overcoat came out of the side door. He walked slowly over to Ambros and sat down on the bench beside him.

The fellow looked at Ambros speculatively, with a bit of doubt visible.

“You intimated that you had something interesting and valuable to show me. In that email, I mean.”

Ambros said nothing, but removed the coin he’d hidden in the suitcoat. He handed it over and waited.

The fellow in grey turned the thing over, frowned, then gasped: “Where did you get this, sir?”

“I told you. No questions. I didn’t steal it from anyone.”

“Good God, man, this is...I mean...”

“I know exactly what it is. You will understand that I know precisely how difficult it was to find. I am aware of the auction in Rotterdam two years ago, and I know how much better the condition of this one is. So...either you have the money, or you don’t.” He kept his hat tipped down and to one side, partly obscuring his facial features. He held out his hand.

The gentleman slowly placed the coin back in Ambros’ hand, as though he disliked the idea of letting go of it.

“I don’t have the cash now. Tomorrow, this time, I will.”

“Make it noon,” said Ambros. “I got a schedule.”

“Noon. I’ll do it.”

Ambros rose and walked slowly along Broadway, until he could see his destination: a small but luxurious hotel. He sighed. “Sleep. I feel so tired. I wonder why?”

 

 

 

 

Just after one the next afternoon, Ambros Shifted into USIT Line Six, but not at any of his usual drop-in spots. He was back in his everyday clothes, with a receipt from his bank in his pocket. “For an appallingly large sum, now on deposit,” he muttered. ‘And the briefcase in the Wayback room has a hundred grand cash in it, too.’ He put that out of his mind.

He looked around, getting his bearings. He then headed toward the familiar address on Rosefield Avenue. ‘Mid December, and there’s a lot of snow on the ground...nuclear winter is not for sissies. Glad I wasn’t here...’ He slogged through waist-high drifts toward the driveway.

He paused.

He grimaced: ‘Will I find my own body, I mean...the body of my cognate in this Line, in or near the truck? Or...Marie’s? Luisa’s?’

He paused again. He stood outside the hedge at the street side of the property, considering. ‘I don’t want to go in there,’ he thought. He used his MPS to check for life signs. “Nobody human alive within a square league.” He stood there shaking, fearful.

He mentally doped slapped himself: “I need the twin of Luisa’s truck. Wherever I go to get it, bodies—my cognate’s body or my loved ones’ cognates’ bodies—may be about. Let’s just get it done.”

He shrugged, and walked around the corner and up the short, graveled drive. The hedges and the bamboo had sheltered the driveway, so there was little snow on the ground there.

“There’s the truck,” he muttered: “This could be too damned easy. About two inches snow on the hood and roof of the truck itself...” he worked for a few minutes, brushing most of it off. The doors stood slightly ajar; he shut them. He pulled out the Commonwealth equivalent of a Geiger counter and checked the readout: “Not much. Just about background.”

He looked around. The back half of the house had burned to the ground. The garage was gaping open, looted. The truck was identical to Luisa’s down to the license plates and VIN. He checked the gas gauge: empty, probably siphoned in the days right after the Disaster. ‘That won’t matter; I’m not gonna use this engine anyway.’

He set up the cones at the corners of the truck, ready to Saltate it across Lines to the driveway at Rose House.

Then he sighed and pulled out his little notebook. He checked off the errand and pulled out his Shifter.

 

 

 

 

Ambros strolled along the Avenue, approaching Rose House in anticipation of a happy reunion. When he reached the driveway he shed his pack and started deploying equipment, meanwhile announcing his presence to the house via his MPS.

The women came out of the house, Kim in the lead. She embraced him, murmuring endearments.

He stroked her face: “How’s your head? You smacked it pretty hard.”

She shrugged: “I had a headache. It’s all good now.”

Marie and Luisa joined the embrace, and kisses all around took up some time. Kim seemed a little put out. Her eyes were blackened as if she’d been in a fight; she showed no other side effects of their adventure.

“Where were you yesterday and last night?”

Hunting for artifacts in parallel universes. I warned you it would take a couple days.”

“I wish you’d checked in. You have all this tech…”

“I know,” he said: “The last thirty-six hours or so I’ve been hypothermic, intensely busy, or exhausted. I’ll try to do better, okay?”

Kim closed her eyes: “Okay.” Luisa and Marie nodded, reluctantly.

"What were you hunting for?" Luisa asked.

"A replacement for your truck, among other things."

She looked around: "Not here yet?"

He extracted himself from the women's arms and said: "Just getting set to bring her in."

He laid out a super thin tarp apparently made of some plastic-like substance; the women came to his aid. When it was flat on the ground and smoothed somewhat, he pulled a controller out of his pack and said: "Stand back..."

The filmy plastic rose from the gravel driveway, forming a quonset-shaped tent, with doors at either end. He slipped inside and set up cones where he wanted the truck to drop in, then stepped back out and triggered the controller again. The film of the shelter puffed out slightly as the truck displaced air on arrival. He led them into the shelter.

"It looks just like mine..." Luisa trailed off.

"It's in slightly better shape. But the VIN and the plates are the same. I got it from another Line."

"A Line where we are all dead," said Marie, bleakly.

"Our cognates are dead," Ambros acknowledged. He sighed: "I scouted out a couple more fairly identical trucks, just in case."

"Oh," said Kim and Luisa, in unison.

Rain began to patter on the shelter.

 "Anyway, with Luisa's permission, I'm gonna call Averos, and he's gonna do some upgrades on this machine."

"Commonwealth-type upgrades? Go to it," said Luisa.

Ambros triggered his MPS and got Averos' chief assistant, a guy named Archaros Rafinatos, (Raffos for short) who appeared as a small hologram head above his left wrist.

"You ready?" asked Raffos.

"All set," Ambros replied.

Averos, Iyelisi, and Raffos dropped in, causing a smaller ripple in the plastic. A moment later, a pallet appeared.

Ambros opened the hood, and Iyelisi placed some sensors on the engine block and transmission. Raffos was placing similar devices on the fuel lines and tank, while Averos untarped the pallet.

Iyelisi said: "Done here. You?"

"Clear," said Raffos.

All of the parts they'd tagged vanished with a bang. Luisa and Kim started, although they'd heard such things before; Marie smiled serenely.

"What the hell?" asked Luisa.

"Oh, they are gonna replace the engine with a Commonwealth electric motor." Ambros grinned: "Say good bye to buying gasoline."

Luisa's eyes widened: "Good bye and good riddance!"

Raffos spoke: "We decided to use the existing drive train, even though that will burn more battery than a modern one." He leaned in with a part in his hand: "This adapter will allow the motor to hook up to the...drive shaft. So inefficient." He then added some specially prepared engine mounts, grumbling about the bolts and nuts used by Nissan.

Raffos was a large and beefy fellow, with huge meaty hands. He handled the smaller parts with amazing dexterity, considering that. He soon had the truck prepared for the installation.

"This first," said Averos, pointing. Raffos and Iyelisi lifted the new motor and set it on the mounts, and Raffos secured it in place with Commonwealth fasteners. Then Averos installed the power module: it resembled a D cell battery on growth hormones, and was slightly bigger than the actual motor. "We used a gigabang power mod because of the load that drive train is going to put on the electric motor. Watch this." Averos hooked up the power module, one connection at a time: "In that order," he said.

Ambros nodded: "We'll keep a spare power mod in a lockbox in the bed of the truck, but it's not likely that we'll need it." He closed the hood, and Iyelisi began spraying some kind of film over the hood and roof and windshield of the truck. The stuff didn't dry; rather it seemed to sink in to the metal and glass, like oil into dry wood. 

Iyelisi said: "This stuff forms a solar cell grid in the material, and it will charge your power mod very efficiently." She grinned: "Park in the sun whenever possible, and you may never suffer a power loss at all."

Raffos began a similar spraying job, lecturing as he worked: "This alters the metal into a plastic-ceramic-metal hybrid. It's the same stuff that Commonwealth scale armor is made of. This truck will be bullet-proof, resistant to ATL energy weapons, and won't show up on...what's the stuff? Radar. Very primitive."

"Will it fly?" Luisa seemed a little stunned.

"No," said Ambros: "It will Saltate, though. Let me show you."

He got in the driver's seat and left the door open: "Luisa, Kim, pay attention. We decided that the controls should all work the same as before; they are all way more responsive now, though, so we have to be careful while we get used to driving it. Top speed is now approximately double its previous level, so be very gentle with the gas pedal...accelerator. The clutch is now superfluous, except to get in reverse...Pull straight back like this to go backwards. If the truck gets stuck in mud or something you can shift down like this." He demonstrated the process.

"Here, this fingerprint lock will turn the stereo into a control panel for sideways Saltation. If you are in real danger, you touch this..." He didn't actually touch it, but showed them: "It'll jump the whole vehicle into the Quiet Line that I got it from. The Jump is pre-set, and it will take a big chunk out of the power, but in an emergency...when you Saltate it, it will also trigger a beacon, and I or someone else will come to the rescue."

He got out, and let each of the women familiarize herself with the controls. "We'll go for some test drives, later," he said.

As soon as they finished, Marie said: "Let's go inside, I was just making some lunch."

Averos and Iyelisi glanced at one another: "Don't mind if we do," said Averos, the first time that day that any of them had spoken American.

Ambros contemplated that as they went indoors. The techs had naturally spoken their own language; the Seventeeners had all fallen in with that: 'We are all fluent enough now...'

Marie bustled about in the kitchen for a few minutes while the rest of them disposed themselves around the big table in the dining room. Luisa set the household’s desktop computer aside, on an end table reserved for that purpose. Once the table setup satisfied them, Luisa and Ambros went to the kitchen.

They returned bearing plates and platters of food; Marie followed with china and silverware.

Soon they set to: pickles and cheese, bits of bread and crackers, a bottle of some juice.

After a bit, everyone sated, they sat silent for a time: a little awkward, as is usual when acquaintances dine together for the first time.

Ambros said: “It just occurred to me: will me swiping that truck from Line Six cause a new Line to form? If so, I should be more careful about doing that sort of thing.”

Averos said: “Skolari Kimani? Answer his question, if you can...”

“You got a promotion...five promotions? Sorry I didn’t notice.”

“You’ve been busy,” she said, dismissing his apology: “And since Tech Guild doesn’t use colors or rank tokens, you wouldn’t know.”

“True, I guess.”

Kim dug in her backpack and pulled out a Commonwealth laptop, a pink plastic-looking object about ten by twenty inches and rolled up like a scroll. She spoke a password and it unrolled.

When she had it booted up, she spoke quietly for a while, setting up the parameters of her search. She said: “Endhaka Dhiastasae.”

‘Eleven dimensional,’ Ambros thought, turning away. He heard Kim muttering; he glanced at the machine out of the corner of his eye, and gagged a bit.

After a while, Kim said: “Clear.”

They all turned back to the table; the machine had frozen in a three-D ‘screenshot’ of numbers, letters, and symbols.

Kim began to explain, gesturing as she spoke: “It’s mostly okay to extract stuff from Quiet Lines. The thing is, except for our passage via Shifter tech, the Lines mostly interact at the quantum level...what this Line’s physicists would call quantum, that is. So snatching that truck created many millions of potential Lines on the quantum scale, but something much more consequential would have to happen directly related to the truck itself before any of those potentials could manifest.”

They sat there, Ambros, Marie, and Luisa, all a little stunned.

“What?” asked Kim: “It’s what I’m studying, after all.” She glanced at Averos.

Averos said: “Yes. And that was a good translation of a more complex situation into ordinary language. To really explain what’s going on, you’d have to use eleven-D math, and integrate the three, four and seven dimensional matrices...”

Luisa waved her hands in surrender: “Good enough. Ambros can steal trucks from Quiet Lines, and so on.”

They sat quietly again, each contemplating the complexities of the Multiverse in her own way.

Marie broke the silence, back to Rational Hellenic: “Did I catch your title right, Raffos? Archaros?”

“Yes.” Raffos said.

“Not a very high rank for a man your age,” said Luisa. Raffos appeared to be about forty; by Hellenic standards he’d probably be approaching eighty.

Raffos shrugged: “It suits me.”

Kim laughed: “Raffos is a very important person in Athino Prime’s Tech Guild. Aren’t you?” She looked at him speculatively.

"Not really. I don't build anything. I just do maintenance..."

Iyelisi and Averos laughed, and Iyelisi said: “If there were a sub-Guild for maintenance and repairs, Raffos would be Magistros Rafinatos.”

“No doubt,” said Averos.

Kim stood up and took Raffos’ hand: “How would you like to see my room? I have a job for you...”

Raffos allowed her to lead him away towards the stairs to the basement.

They sat there for a few minutes; Averos’ MPS pinged, and a second later Iyelisi’s did, too. They took their leave.

“Do me a favor, Saltate from these coordinates,” said Ambros, sending the information to their Shifters. “It’s a bit of a walk, but...”

“Oh,” Averos said: “Right. Security. I’ll see to erasing that Path we made coming in.”

“Thanks.”

Ambros began clearing the table, while Marie and Luisa put away the uneaten food. He kept his hearing focused on the sounds he could hear from the basement: groans and muffled grunts and other sounds of passion.

He tuned his augmented hearing carefully, until he heard Kim’s voice, hardly above a whisper: “Oh, yes. Yes. Yes.”

Then he politely tuned out.

Still: they could all hear the noises, artificially boosted hearing or not. When they finished their chores, they stood about the kitchen, contemplating.

After a few seconds, Luisa and Marie checked each other, a mere glance; then they each grabbed one of his hands and dragged him off to their bedroom.

 

 

 

 

Ambros came out of the shower an hour later, leaving Marie and Luisa still rinsing. Raffos waved as he exited the house, grinning. Kim appeared to be exhausted, but happy.

Since it was a Saturday and still relatively early when they finished—“...At least we are all temporarily sated,” as Ambros put it—they decided to make a run over to Samuel B’s for drinks and conversation.

The place wasn’t as crowded as it often was on Saturdays; that usually meant there was something else going on around town. Ambros smiled at some of the Fair Family who occupied a big table running down the center of the main room. He and the women took a smaller round table nearby.

Kim offered to buy drinks, so they sat and chatted until she returned. He took a small sip of the whiskey and tuned in to the conversation at the long table. People seemed to be in a bit of a huff; he gathered there’d been some sort of sex scandal among the local politicos. He recalled a story in the local paper...

He tuned back out, not really interested: ‘That sort of thing is endemic to power relationships.’

They talked for a while about plans for the yard at Rose House: “...I have some fruit trees in my nursery that haven’t sold yet...permaculture, like what so-and-so wrote about for the magazine...asparagus, artichokes...we could retrain and trellis that grapevine...space in back for veggies....we oughta get the walnuts dried in time next year...”

The three women loitered for a while after finishing their drinks. None of them had quite his taste for saloon life, though, and soon they decided to leave him to it.

“Good night, sweetie,” Kim said: “If you are sober enough, check to see if I’m still awake when you get home...”

“Sure thing,” he replied.

Bill and his wife Johanna beckoned to him; he approached cautiously, not wanting to get drawn into the discussion on the sexual escapades of a political parasite. He waved at Allie and Gustav, who were sitting across from their parents near the far end of the table. ‘I can go talk to them if I need an escape clause,’ he thought.

Fortunately, he didn’t need it, right away at least.

“We wanted to ask you about yard work,” said Johanna.

“I don’t do yard work, not in the typical sense. I mean, I don’t mow lawns or rake leaves.” He described his set-up, pointing out: “If you need some plants removed, or you want to get some shrubberies or the like, I can help you out...”

They glanced at one another and laughed: “No, I think we have enough shrubberies,” said Bill.

“Can you recommend a lawn mowing service?” asked Johanna.

“Well,” he said, wracking his brain a bit: “let me think...”

He managed to come up with a couple names, from his limited exposure to the local landscaping community: “But I don’t have any idea whether those people are reliable or what they charge. Check them out before you hire.”

That seemed to please Johanna, and she turned to speak with someone else. Bill sat silent, sipping at his beer.

The woman seated on Ambros’ left tapped his shoulder: “What do you think about the Billy and Bobbie affair?”

He boggled for a moment, then realized that she was referring to the conversation at the other end of the table. He replied: “Not too interested, really.”

“But don’t you think it’s awful? The boy is only sixteen!”

He sighed: “I doubt you want my opinion on this subject. It’s likely to be outside your comfort zone.” He nudged Bill with his elbow, gently: “Right, Bill?”

“I’ll testify to that; to Ambros’ ability to see something differently, that is. Very differently.”

“Huh. Oh, I’m Bethany,” the woman said.

He shook her proffered hand: “Ambros.”

“Well, I guess I’m curious now. How can you justify Bobbie Mi...”

He interrupted: “I’m not interested in justifying another person’s actions, whether they are considered right or wrong by the dominant culture. However: my cursory reading of the case indicates that the young man went to great lengths to avoid testifying against the defendant. In which effort his mother abetted him. So...obviously neither of them bore a grudge.”

She stared at him, obviously confused.

He grinned: “You asked.”

“But like I said, the boy was only sixteen.”

He shrugged: “This happened up in Portland, right? So, ten miles away in the State of Washington, the relationship would have been legal, right?”

It was her turn to boggle: “Really?”

“By my reading of the newspapers over the last four months, yes.”

“Well, but, it happened in Portland, so it’s illegal, right?”

“My point exactly!” Ambros was feeling quite bored.

“Well...shouldn’t all states have the age of consent set at eighteen?”

“Why?”

“Hmm. Because teenagers don’t have fully matured brains.”

Ambros nodded: “As the law says, incapable of consent.”

“See, you agree!”

He laughed: “Not at all!”

Bill sat there showing his amusement. He got up and went over to the bar.

Bethany said, after a moment’s thought: “I read somewhere that scientists had proven that kid’s brains are not mature at sixteen. Shouldn’t that research count for something?”

Bill reappeared, setting another shot of whiskey down in front of Ambros. He grinned and nodded his thanks.

He turned back to Bethany: “As it happens, I read the head notes on that study. I am not convinced that their evidence warrants that conclusion...” He said nothing about the Commonwealth research on the subject, which pretty much entirely refuted the concept.

Someone else said: “But the newspaper reported that they proved the idea by looking at MRIs!”

Bethany seemed impressed by that comment.

Ambros was just as happy to talk about generalities rather than the specifics of a current scandal: “Yeah, see, not convincing. Reading MRIs is still an art, not yet science if it ever will be. And fMRIs? I have my doubts, that’s all.” He grinned at the folks and said: “And besides, the head notes said they’d shown the same effect up to age 24, in more than one instance. ‘Significant defects in reasoning around questions of self preservation and risk-benefit calculations’ if I recall correctly.”

“Well...” “But...” “Hold on...Those are important aspects of maturity!”

“Sure they are,” he said, gentling his tone: “But our schools do their best to NOT teach such things to students of any age. What if we did? Would ‘kids’ do better after such tutelage?”

The folks at the far end of the table started a conversation about some big, important sporting event that was coming up. The rest of them stared at him like he was an alien of some sort. He knew he was losing them, and didn’t much care.

He laughed again: “Come on, folks! They asked a bunch of ‘kids’ a series of loaded questions while they were looking at their brains in an fMRI machine. Ever seen one of those? It’d be kinda stressful...

“And then, if the ‘science’ there says that human brains are not mature until twenty-four, where does that leave us? In less than two years the kid could hop in the sack with anyone he wanted to, political and economic power aside. At eighteen he could vote. Decide to smoke tobacco. Join the Army. Maybe the age to do all of those things should be twenty-four.”

“Maybe so,” said a guy at the far end of the table.

Allie and Gustav looked at one another in horror. Ambros tried not to allow his disdain to show.

He said: “Or maybe not. Maybe wait until somebody replicates the experiment, and cleans up some of the questionable metrics in the original, and...”

“Metrics, now? In what way?” asked an Asian-American man who was sitting across from Bethany. He at least seemed friendly and amused, so Ambros answered him.

“Yeah. They had seventy-five test subjects and no control group.” He shrugged: “They’d need to put 30-year-olds through the same battery of tests to see if the ‘kids’ were really worse at those life skills than their elders. That hasn’t been my experience.”

He leaned back and stretched: “Now, me? I try to treat anybody over the age of twelve as I would any adult. The ‘kids’ are not usually able to articulate why they like that, but they seem to appreciate the respect.”

That could lead to problems...” someone said.

Ambros replied: “I suppose it could, if I took it to extremes. On the other hand, I’ve known twelvers that I would trust with my life, and thirty-somethings I wouldn’t trust with my second-best bicycle.”

The fellow across from Bethany said: “Well, you know how to raise a reasonable doubt, that’s for sure.”

At that, most of the folks at the table turned away: “Seems like I finally offended them all,” Ambros sighed.

“I can’t think why,” Bill smiled.

“Well, they kept on, and I kept on. I didn’t insult anybody, I avoided both irony and sarcasm. I expect I just began to bore them...I was beginning to bore myself, but it was more interesting than the original subject.”

He looked at the remains of his second drink and began his goodbyes: “Gonna be a bit of a walk home, and it’s raining. I don’t want to be too late...”

Ambros paused, and said: "Just a second, Bill..." He hadn't sewed a portal into the pants he wore that night, so he had to pull his Shifter out of the pocket. He placed it on the table and touched it with two fingers, like a nurse taking a patient's pulse.

"What's that thing? Looks like a hockey puck."

"It's my phone," said Ambros, trying to concentrate.

“Doesn’t look like any phone I ever saw,” said Bill.

“Yeah, I know,” Ambros said. He tapped the back of his wrist to activate his MPS and stared at the scrolling hologram for a couple seconds. "Ugh," he said: "This is serious stuff. I gotta go deal."

He wasn't yet so drunk that he didn't realize how odd he appeared: staring at his wrist, a hockey puck in front of him. He slipped into his coat and said: "I believe that I will be back in a few. But you can drink the rest of the booze if you want it."

He stumped down the stairs and stood next to the bike rack, beneath the eaves of the pub. Rain rattled in the downspouts and bounced off the toes of his boots. He gazed at the holo above his wrist. The sound buzzed in his left ear: "...the younger. Rumors have it that two generations are involved. At least eleven out of the thirteen known clones of Jean III are confirmed dead...clones of the eldest son, presumably to be called Jean IV, have occupied the command centers in those Lines...the King of Wyoming and the Northwest territories in ATL Prime has sworn fealty to the new Emperor...This news just arriving...Jean III is confirmed dead, apparently by the hand of his granddaughter Natalia..." The holovids looked appalling: blood and entrails and heads cut off; broken doors and buildings burning in DC and Montreal; the head of Jean III on a spike in front of the palace in Paris.

He shook his head: "As far as Jean III goes, this couldn't have happened to a more deserving despot. But I don't think I'm gonna like the next gen of that family any better than the old man."

He wondered if there would be a power struggle between Jean IV and his clones: 'That could work to our advantage...well, no sense worrying about it. Their ideology makes it difficult for a cloned consul to initiate stuff or wield un-delegated powers. I guess I...'

Another message derailed his train of thought: "...sir?"

"What is it, machine?"

His laptop spoke over the Shifter line, automatically muting the sound of the I & DG report from the MPS:

"One of your 'watch at all times' persons is in the news..." The machine spoke in a flat, unemotional voice: "Jaime de Cordova..."

He pursed his lips and said: "Continue."

A more-than-slighlty tipsy hipster staggered down the stairs and stood alongside him: "Hey, buddy, what's up?

"Taking a call," said Ambros: "Scuse me a second."

"Oh, no problem." The guy put an earbud in and began grooving to whatever sounds he had on his O-pod.

Ambros returned his attention to the MPS: "...arrested in Guatemala City. He has been taken to Granja Penal Canada in Ciudad Esquintla  and is being interrogated by the police and federal authorities."

Ambros cursed a blue streak, then shut down the tech and contemplated the news.

Tipsy Hipster lit up a doobie, which by its smell proved to be a rank mix of cheap pot and bad clove tobacco. Ambros grimaced and waved at the cloud of smoke.

"Sorry, man," said Tipsy Hipster.

Ambros sneezed: "Shit," he said. He strode away, again trying to concentrate. He walked around the block, muttering to himself: "I can't leave Jaime in their hands for any longer than necessary, but I'm too drunk to operate at the moment. I need to talk to Voukli and probably to Arrenji about the news from ATL Prime, but ditto on the drunk part. So...

"Maybe drunker is the way to go. Loosen up my imagination and let me see the way ahead. Gotta break Jaime out—Voukli and Arrenji will help, I’ll call in favors…I gotta fight Regulos, make sense of Jean IV and his coup, I gotta...teach sword class at three…I'm gonna have another shot, and in the morning I'm going to be hip-deep in shit before sunrise."

His feet took him back into the pub, and he got his Jameson's. The table that the gang had been occupying sat empty except for Jonie, who stared off into the distance, seemingly deep in thought.

He sat down one seat away, not wanting to disturb her. He stared blankly in the same direction she did, at a painting by a local artist: part of a continually rotating display of works by such that graced the walls of the pub.

This particular work had a smeary sort of faux-Kandinsky look to it, and a spiral design that reminded him of works by the fascist Vorticists of the twenties.

After perhaps half the shot had entered his system, Jonie said: "Hey. How are you?"

"Slightly altered. Got a lot of stuff going on. You?"

"Tired. We did a lot of brickwork the last two days. Patrick took the kids to find a movie for tonight."

"Nice."

"How 'bout you? What you got going on?"

He was just drunk enough to answer semi-truthfully: "There's been a coup in a country where I have interests. And a friend of mine got his sorry ass arrested in Guatemala. Probably they are torturing him right now."

"Ooh, that's bad. Is there anything we can do?"

He looked at her sardonically: "Nothing you can do. Unless you have connections in the military or the Mafia?”

“Sorry, no.”

“Well, I’ll contact my mentors, and we'll do something about both things."

"What can you do?" she asked.

He shrugged: "As far as the coup goes, we just watch. For now. They—my mentors—will want to ask me stuff." He finished the shot: "As for Jaime, the SOB is not supposed to be in Guatemala at all. I'll probably have to go spring him, and people are gonna die. He's supposed to be in Portugal under another name, and...that doesn't matter. He can't tell the bastards what they want to know, because he doesn't have the knowledge, so if I don't get him outta there, it'll just go on and on...until they slip up and kill him." He shook his head:  “Sword class tomorrow at three instead of noon. No history lesson. Gonna be a tough class, too.

“I gotta go. 'Tomorrow I shall be sober,' as someone said once. And then, like I said: hip-deep in shit."

He saluted her with his empty glass and stood up. "Once more into the breech!"

She waved: "Buh-bye."

'She obviously thinks I'm insane. And I don't care.' He stumbled a little as he left the joint, then turned and entered a nearby alley. When he was sure no one could see him, he took out the Shifter and Jumped to corner of Highway 95 and Rosefield. 'Walk it home,' he thought. 'Call Voukli in the morning. I better take a look in on Kim, too, before...' He laughed: "I'll sleep when I'm dead," he said aloud, echoing his old SCA friend Sir Grimbjorn.

Halfway up the drive his bladder overtook his good sense, and he stopped to piss in the shrubbery by the door. A little fumbling and he had the key, and turned the lock and palmed the pad and entered the house, as quietly as he could.

He checked the clock on the stove as he passed through the kitchen, seeing that it was just past two. He kicked off his boots and soft-footed it down the stairs to the basement: ‘I don’t want to wake Kim if she’s asleep.’

As it turned out, she was not sleeping.

She’d tied the curtain at her bedroom door open, and he could see her sitting up in bed. She wore a very brief nightgown of the ‘barely there’ variety, with nothing under. She seemed somewhat bemused.

He coughed a little and she looked up. She raised her arms and said: “Come to me, love.”

He smiled, a bit sleepy, but he obeyed. She kissed him passionately. She whispered in his ear: “I want you.”

“Good to know. Raffos not satisfactory?”

She drew his sweater, shirt, and undershirt over his head and tossed them to the foot of the bed. “He was okay, I guess. I’m spoiled now, I suppose.” She began unfastening his pants.

He accepted the implied compliment: “Slow down. No hurry.”

“You have a class at ten tomorrow.”

He shook his head: “Postponed till three, remember? I have to fight a duel at noon. But bad news is sending me on a mission tomorrow at dawn, so I’ll have to be up even earlier.”

She wiggled disarmingly: “I don’t want to keep you up all night...”

He seized on the pun: “That’s a possibilty. I wouldn’t refuse.”

“You’ll be the sleepy soldier,” she said, pulling him down onto her: “Do me gently, then hard...”

 
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