Ambros sat in his office at the Salon, ciphering his life.
The Commonwealth-augmented Mac G5 that he worked at pinged him. The office door stood wide, and by leaning back he could see the main entrance on the west side of the building. He leaned back.
He frowned: “That’s...oh, that’s Bradley, the guy who owns the Tae Kwon Do dojo just south of here...” He pondered: ‘I wonder what he wants. Let’s go all formal on him.’
He tapped the G5 to sleep and headed for the door.
“Come on in, sensei. What can I do for you?”
“I was just wondering how you were doing...”
Ambros said: “Let’s go back to my office. I’ll make some tea.”
Ambros put the kettle on and got out the nice Japanese-looking tea set; he chose a jar of good green tea. He opened a folding table and set it between his desk chair and the guest’s seat.
They sat in companionable silence; Ambros contemplated the lines of the teapot, Bradley gazed around at the office.
“I like your posters.”
Ambros smiled. He didn’t have to look; the “Parallel Lines” poster clung to the wall above the desktop: the office door bore the inevitable “Bruce Lee in Repulse Monkey” poster that any salon or dojo required. He’d taken a photo of himself in his SCA armor, with a steel sword, in mid strike against an intimidated opponent, and blown it up into a poster for the wayback room door.
He said: “My office is suitably decorated.”
The kettle boiled and Ambros poured. They did not speak.
After about three minutes, Ambros stood and bowed. He poured the tea, saying: “I have only Sencha here...not very good perhaps.”
Bradley also rose and bowed, looking at him gravely: “I am honored by your hospitality. You did not know I was visiting.”
“I hope you enjoy this.” Ambros sat down as did Bradley, and they lifted their cups.
“Pardon me for drinking first,” said Bradley. He sipped.
“No pardon needed.” Ambros sipped.
“I was wondering...” Bradley raised an eyebrow.
Ambros smiled: “Ask what you will. I will take no offense.”
Bradley shrugged a trifle: “I...we, that is the Oriental Masters in this town, we are curious about your operation.”
Ambros grinned: “Looks a little sketchy, doesn’t it?”
“I meant no offense...”
“I said I would take none,” Ambros interrupted.
Bradley frowned for a moment, then grinned back: “Okay, it looks a little sketchy.”
“Because it is.” Ambros sipped.
Bradley sipped: “Say on, if you don’t mind.”
Ambros shrugged: “I have six regular students, who work out here twice a week. Occasionally a seventh visits ...rarely an eighth. By the look of it, I can’t possibly be making enough money to stay open. That the question?”
After an awkward silence, Bradley said: “In short, yes.”
Ambros nodded: “This is not a money-making enterprise. I don’t make people pay for lessons.”
“I don’t mean that as a criticism of anyone else. Be sure you put that across, when they quiz you.”
Bradley nodded: “Right.”
“I understand the curiosity...if you judge success in the world of martial arts by number of students, or income...I’m a clear failure.”
Bradley mused for a moment. He asked: “How do you judge success?”
Ambros shrugged: “I don’t.”
“Really. My primary goal is to teach such students as come my way some modicum of common-sense self-defense skills, leaning heavily on stick-and-sword-play. What they get out of that is more up to them than up to me. If they grow, as artists or as people, I am satisfied.”
Bradley nodded: “Do you have a secondary goal?”
“Yes. I would like some of my personal philosophy and knowledge of History to rub off on the people I teach. And also...I want them to have fun.”
Ambros laughed: “I don’t have to moderate my desires in the teaching of these things, because I don’t have to rely upon monetary contributions from my students or their parents to keep the joint open.”
“I...see. I envy you.”
They drank tea in silence for a while. Ambros poured again. He said: “In case your group is curious about my bona fides...”
“Well,” said Bradley: “After watching you dismantle Sensei Jackson and hearing about your bouts with Sifu Li, no one doubts your skill. Some people are wondering about the source of it, but...”
“I was one of a minority of swordplayers in the SCA who always treated the fighting we did as a real martial art.”
“That’s that medieval re-creation group, right?”
“Yes. Some of them were at my Grand Opening.”
Bradley narrowed his eyes: “I talked to some of them...”
Ambros laughed: “We had good cross-section of the local group here. Baron Darien is a real martial artist, I saw you talking to him.” Ambros sighed: “I have since studied with some very skilled fighters...Voukli and Arrenji, my mentors. You met them at the Opening as well, yes?”
“Yes. Some among the group were wondering about your title, and where you earned your Mastery.” Bradley seemed nervous, perhaps wondering if Ambros would at last take offense.
Ambros laughed and said: “I would say that I have not yet earned my Mastery. Voukli and Arrenji are Magistrae. I am Spathos.”
“Basically, ‘Swordsman’ in Greek. The next rank up is ‘Magistros’. It’ll be a while before I get there.” Ambros grinned: “In this context, Spathos is good enough.”
“I suppose so.”
Ambros poured a third cup for each of them. Silent sipping ensued.
At length Bradley rose and bowed: “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Ambros bowed as well: “I am honored by your visit. Please come again.”
“I may do so, as my schedule allows. Feel free to visit us at my dojo, as well.”
“As my schedule permits...”
They paced across the Salon and bowed again at the door.
He watched Bradley walk away; the sensei did not look back. Ambros returned to his work.
He sat back down, and woke the G5 up. He set to calculating the approximate property tax on each of his family’s buildings.
The machine pinged him again; he spoke: “What?”
“Deputy Dan says: ‘Turn on the news or get downtown.’”
“Find Dan and the nearest unwatched co-ordinates.”
He rose and put on a sweatshirt and raincoat. When he got back to the office, the machine had his info. He put on his hat, a woolen watch cap with a port for his topknot.
He tapped the MPS and said: “Download.” Then: “All lights bearing on the main hall of this building off. Lock down.”
“Dhulyena. Tha káno.”
He drew out his Shifter and walked through the door into the darkened hall, from which he Saltated.
He found himself in an alley. It took a couple seconds for his ‘absolute direction’ talent to orient him, and then he strode out of the far end of the alley and into the dingy square in front of the police station in the basement of City Hall.
Dan stood by a bus stop. As Ambros approached, Dan tipped his head to one side, indicating a paddy wagon that sat at the small door in the lower end of the building.
Ambros stood by Dan and turned to look. A somewhat disheveled-looking woman stepped out of the van, and an officer immediately took her arm. She tried vainly to cover her face, but Ambros saw enough to recognize her: “Hannah D’Angelo.” Photographer’s flashes lit the scene sporadically and four TV crews worked handheld cameras.
“Yep,” said Dan. “Thought you might want to know about this.”
“A bunch, but chiefly: Conspiracy to Commit Murder, and Murder One.”
Ambros nodded: “Next time just tell me. I hate the perp walk, it’s degrading.”
“Even for Nazis?”
Ambros paused a moment, not looking directly at Dan: “Yeah. Even for them.”
He spent most of the next day writing: ‘I’m on a bit of a roll, here,’ he thought: ‘I got a lot done, but I better check that list Marie left me.’
“Oh, well,” he said aloud to no one: “There’s always something...”
He shut down the laptop, leaving the end of the chapter for later. “At least I’ll be starting downhill.”
He stretched and rolled his shoulders. He limbered himself up a little bit and looked at the list of errands: “Shoulda got the cat food earlier,” he muttered: “Now it’s dark and drizzling and I gotta go out in that. Oh, well.”
He put on a black cashmere overcoat that Al Hart had gifted him, and a wool stocking cap. He locked up, using his palm-print to lock the Commonwealth-reinforced front door of the house. He jogged through the rain to the house pickup truck and hopped in.
As he navigated, he considered the many things he still needed to do that week, in order to be ready to do a bunch of other stuff during the next tenday. He smiled crookedly at himself as he arranged things in order of priority: ‘A year ago, would you have believed this life you’re living now was even possible? No, you would not…’
Busy as he was with such woolgathering, he did not notice the car pull out in front of him until it was nearly too late. He stood on the brake, his wheels screeching, and then his whole body jerked as something hit the rear end of his truck, hard. The airbag deployed and part of it wrapped around his arm as it deflated.
He cut his way out of the airbag with a knife from his boot, then looked over his shoulder. A skinny young man hopped out of the two-ton truck that had just rear-ended him, and he had a rifle in his hand.
Ambros rolled out of the cab, drawing his Commonwealth sidearm in a practiced motion and turning to face the danger.
“We got ’im, Ma!” the fellow hollered; Ambros recognized Benjy Dillon. The hairs on the back of his head stood up, and he turned halfway, to see Bradley Dillon’s wife Alice climbing out of the passenger side of her little green car with a shotgun in hand.
With his peripheral vision, he saw Benjy Dillon’s movement. He shot Alice Dillon in the left shoulder, spinning her around and knocking her to the ground face down. He turned, aimed, and fired the pistol, hitting Benjy between the eyes and blowing the back of the boy’s skull out. For perhaps a quarter of a second he stared, mesmerized by the geometry of blood and brains flying in all directions from the dead man’s head, arcs of crimson rising and then falling to the ground.
He spun back and saw Alice on her feet again, trying to level the shotgun. She squeezed off a round before he could react.
“Shit!” he cried, feeling buckshot hit his left forearm. He shot her again, dropping her for good with a pellet in the torso. Blood gouted from her guts, her coat and dress nearly destroyed by the speed and power of the invisible particle.
He glanced down and saw blood coming from a dozen holes in his coat. One bit of shot had hit his shoulder; the rest were in his forearm. He stowed his sidearm and looked up and down the street. Steam rose from Benjy’s radiator, as coolant spilled across the street and puddled in the gutter. Blood from his shattered skull ran in rivulets and mixed with the sickly yellow of anti-freeze. He stood stunned as the rain diluted it all into invisibility.
“A rainy night, a dark stretch of River Road, and not another car in sight. There’s sure to be traffic soon, though…” He carefully aimed and shot out the three nearest streetlights, leaving only dim and obscured lights from porches and doorways to illuminate the street.
‘Good thing most people are asleep this time of night. But I gotta get out of here fast!’
His left arm throbbed; he could barely use it. He opened and closed his fist, raising the arm above his head in hopes of slowing the bleeding: ‘I gotta get outta here!’ He could see no way to dispose of the bodies quickly enough to escape detection, but he thought: “If I just disappear, I may be clean…’
He got back into his truck, arm still raised as well as he could, and touched the dashboard in a certain spot. He palmed the correct place, overrode the alarm, and Shifted the truck out of USIT Seventeen.
The truck dropped in on the street a few yards away from where it left. The eerie silence and darkness of USIT Six surrounded him.
He got out of the truck and shed the coat, muttering a continuous stream of curses in several languages: “Bleeping birdbrain ruined a really nice overcoat. Damn it all...” He stripped his shirt away and grunted at the damage: “Eight hits...I better get to the Commonwealth...first I have to check the truck…”
To his satisfaction, the truck had sustained almost no damage: “Commonwealth materials science is the bomb,” he said, grinning. “Crushed the passenger side door on Alice’s car, and smashed the bumper and hood and blew out the radiator on Benjy’s truck, and not a scratch on the old Nissan…little dent there...” Another wave of pain brought him to a stand, grimacing. He drew out his Shifter and said: “Keenafthono.” He touched the red dot and Shifted.
Vic Michaels led Ambros along the hall at the mortgage company's Portland offices. Michaels stood about five-six and had only a stripe of stubble front to back for hair: like a five-days mohawk. 'I don't know how he keeps it that short but no shorter,' Ambros mused.
It didn't matter. What did matter was Michaels' reputation as a cut-throat defense lawyer who took no prisoners and never failed to sue after he got an innocent defendant off the hook. 'Donald Castle has a slightly better acquittal rate, but Vic is the attorney that the ruling class hereabouts really fears.'
Michaels looked like a thug, too. He went in for double-breasted suits with wide lapels, and often sported a fedora: one that fit him. He had some minor irregularities to the right side of his brow, where bones had obviously once broken; the scars in that area made his right eyebrow into three separate pieces, and gave him a permanent roguish expression.
Ambros spotted his own reflection in a darkened office window. He wore a black short-sleeved crochet tunic and red leather belt. The bandage on his left arm combined with his expression and usual (somewhat) intimidating demeanor made him seem even angrier than he actually was: ‘And that’s pretty damned angry,’ he thought. His cloak, crocheted hat and unbraided topknot made him look like an exotic nomad from the Caucasus. The Free Walker boots made no sound as he strode along the paisley carpet. He patted the Commonwealth firearm in his patch pocket, feeling grim.
Between them they looked like some kind of Eurasian Mafia hit team.
"Thanks Vic," said Ambros as the lawyer ushered him into the meeting room. Vic sat down and grinned at the three Suits and the Lady.
‘She’s definitely a capital-L Lady,’ Ambros realized: ‘That’s some Old Damned Money in that pantsuit.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out two Commonwealth video cameras, the flying kind. He tossed them into the air and they automatically took up positions that would allow them to make a holo-video of the proceedings.
“The hell...?” asked The Most Expensive Suit.
Ambros ignored him and sat down to Michaels’ right.
"Good morning, gentlemen, ma'am," said Michaels, as he opened the smaller of his briefcases: "Here's the paperwork. Sign the two pages at the bottom, each of you."
The lady took the documents in hand and slowly read them through: "Not good enough," she said, smugly.
Ambros whispered something in his mouthpiece's ear, and Michaels said: "What's the problem?"
"There's a penalty for paying off the mortgage earlier than its term," she said.
Vic growled: "You tried to foreclose on my clients when the mortgage was paid up. That’s fraud. The contract is void."
She began arguing with Vic. Ambros listened for a while, then said: "Ask them the question, Mr Michaels."
Vic took a deep breath and asked it: "How much?"
"What?" the man in the paisley tie seemed flummoxed.
Vic said: "How much does my client have to pay you, right now, today, to settle this?"
"I'm not sure you..."
"I understand very well what's going on," said Ambros: "One of you is an FBI operative working as a deep mole in the company. On orders from his superiors...his FBI superiors, that is...he initiated a seizure-based harassment campaign against me, trying to foreclose---illegally---on my home. My family’s home. We are not amused."
He said the last line in the tone he’d used as Prince of the Big Rivers in the SCA: lofty, smug, arrogant, and confident. The Lady did a double-take, looking at him in a whole new manner.
The Lady and two of the Suits looked at each other uncomfortably, unsure if the accusation was true, and if it was, who might be the mole. The man in The Most Expensive Suit smiled.
He said: "Very amusing. So you want to know..."
Ambros interrupted him: "How much to make this whole thing go away? To pay off the house, and never to see you or your greedy, sanctimonious faces again. Ever."
The group slid their chairs back and went to the corner of the room, where they conferred in whispers. Ambros could hear a part of it: "...a mole? that's absurd...illegal operation...I don't know how this got started, but...we're in the wrong, dammit! How can we defend the suit, if it comes?...can't. We just can't...His lawyer is Michaels..."
They came back to their chairs. Expensive Suit said: "The balance owing on the house is sixty-two thousand, two hundred and fifty-two dollars and seventy-two cents."
Ambros noted that on a piece of scratch paper. He pulled out his wallet and counted out fifty-two dollars and seventy-two cents.
He opened the larger of the briefcases that Vic had carried and pulled out an enormous wad of bills. Lawyer Lady's eyes widened, and stayed that way, as Ambros began to count out hundred dollar bills:
"...nine, one thousand. One, two...nine, two thousand..."
At length he said: "...eight, nine, sixty-two thousand. And two more hundreds."
The Suits sat there, impassive. Vic Michaels said: "We want a paper receipt, and all of your signatures on this quit-claim, and..."
Lady Lawyer said: "There's the ten percent early-payoff charge."
Michaels started to argue, but a hand on his arm stopped him; Ambros pulled another fistful of currency from the valise and counted out the necessary amount.
"And?" he asked, sarcastically.
"Legal fees..." Expensive Suit said, diffidently.
Ambros nodded slowly. He gazed at Lady Lawyer in a way that caused her to flinch away a little. He said: "How much?"
She pulled out a tablet and stylus and did some addition: "Eighteen thousand, two forty."
He stood up and walked over to her side of the table. She flinched again, as he drew forth more cash and counted out twenty thousand.
"Keep the change," he said, blandly. “What about court costs?”
“The...The change should cover that.”
“Okay.” He returned to his seat. He glowered, amused at their disarray, but angry and letting it show: “Those little floaters are recording devices. We have all of this on video. If you fuck with me or mine again, I will break you all. Do you understand?”
He stared at them, one by one. The representatives of Big Money nodded, one by one. They put their signatures on the papers that Vic handed them. Ambros demanded and got a receipt from the Lawyer. Then he and Vic rose and left the room. The spycams followed them out.
They rode the elevator down into the parking garage below street level.
Vic spoke to him as they walked up a slight incline towards the parking area. Ambros had stopped listening.
Vic’s voice faded from his consciousness as he stared forward, eyes unfocused. He heard and saw and smelled and tasted and felt the danger, but what it was he could not at first discern.
He slowed, putting his arm out and delaying Vic’s progress. Vic said: “What’s wrong? Hey, buddy...” Michaels’ words barely registered to him.
Vic’s rental car opened to his remote control and the starter whirred.
Ambros grabbed Vic by the shoulders and tossed him like a rag doll in between two cars. He dove in on top of the lawyer, generating a ‘whoof’ as he knocked the wind out of Vic.
The bomb went off, or attempted to. The explosion was small, just enough to pop the hood on the car. The blast wave washed across them, rocking the cars that they lay between.
“It’s fizzling,” Ambros said. The rental caught fire with a roar. Foul smoke filled the garage and leaked out through louvers high up in the walls. Several passersby had run to the scene when they heard the explosion. They’d seen the fire start; they began calling 911 on their phones, exclaiming in shock.
Vic grabbed Ambros by the beard and said: “How the hell did you know?”
“Y’know, Vic, I’m not sure. I’ve been getting medical treatments and training that are beyond state-of-the-art, and something must have tipped me off...let go of my beard, okay?”
“Umm. Okay. Oh, and thanks. If that had exploded...”
“Yeah.” They sat there for a minute. Ambros got up. He spotted a fire extinguisher and deployed it. Soon the fire was out...mostly. The cars to either side of the rental were scorched, but no worse.
Vic stared at the disaster, disgusted. “Now I got six hours of BS to deal with. Can you get back to Eugene on your own hook? I gotta talk to the cops, and the fire department, and the rental agency...” Sirens wailed in the distance, coming closer as they spoke.
“Yeah, I can get home. But maybe I need to stay...people saw me, the cops may want to know who I am.”
“You’re my client. I rented the car. They don’t have to talk to you.”
“If you say so...” He tapped his MPS and took a ‘photo’ of the car, and a close up of a half-melted object in the engine compartment that just had to be the bomb. “I’ll be in Portland for another two hours, if you can’t talk the cops out of questioning me. Keep that sack of money, you might need it...”
Michaels shook his head: “Yeah, I might. Okay, I’ll want to talk to you later tonight when I get back to Eugene.”
“Samuel B’s,” said Ambros: “Eight PM. I’ll buy.”
After his Sword Class that afternoon, a not-too-well attended workout due to the looming holidays, Ambros put on his mended greatcoat and headed for Samuel B’s to meet Michaels.
Ambros strolled along Benham Avenue at around seven-forty-five that night. He wanted to get to the pub early so that he could look into the design of the fizzled bomb.
He entered, looking around more carefully than usual: ‘I am not being too paranoid. It was a fucking bomb.’
He got his usual Irish, sat in his usual place, then stopped cold. He moved over to the opposite side of the door that led to his bug-out route.
He pulled the Pismo out of his shoulder bag and fed the photo from his MPS into its version of an AutoCAD program.
He spun the bomb around several times and peered inside it. He traced the wiring, noticing that it conformed to American and not Commonwealth design.
‘It’s nothing like any ATL stuff I’ve seen, either.’
Someone entered the bar and he glanced up. He looked down again at the screen and then did a double-take.
The woman walked across the bar to where he sat, and took a seat opposite him. By then he’d recalled her name.
“Magistri Gennasi. Fancy meeting you here,” he said, or rather, the equivalent in Helleniká.
She shrugged: “You left a message that you wanted to see me. I looked to see where you were and now I’m here.” She indicated the bandage on his left arm: “An injury?”
“Enemy action. That threat has been eliminated.” He raised an eyebrow: “Did you take the precaution of getting a passable Identification card before you Saltated here?”
“I thought not. Talk to your own Intelligence unit before you drop into any US Timelines in the future. Anyway, I have a request...”
“We’ll help any way we can. The whole Guild is with you.”
“Good. I have a problem, and your Intel unit can solve it. There are three Objectivist Operatives in this Line, and they are starting to get some traction in government and business circles in Washington and London. Your Intel guys will know what I’m talking about. These operatives, they write editorials in various media, and...I don’t have a word for this in Helleiká...they ‘lobby’ for policies in line with their ideology. I want someone to answer every letter and editorial and opinion piece they publish, and to destroy their arguments with Logic and History. Comment on everything they say, give them no peace, and do it from the Commonwealth so they can’t delete the critiques.
“I could do that myself, but I just don’t have the time.”
He touched his MPS to hers, sending her the data she needed to give to Black Warrior Intelligence. Then he said: “Now I have another request.”
“Go into one of those toilets back there,” he indicated the doorway with a tip of his head: “When you’re in there—don’t lock the door, mind—Shift the hell back to Commonwealth Prime. As quickly as ever you can. ” He lifted an eyebrow again: “Before you blow my cover.”
Both her eyebrows went up: “Oh. Sorry.”
“Dipota. But get going.”
She went. He heard the ‘pop’ sound of her disappearance, muffled by the door.
He sighed. He checked the time: ‘Eight-oh-one.’ He went over to the bar and got Vic a gin-and-tonic.
He no sooner sat down than Vic was there, pulling out the chair: “I got your money in the car...”
“That’s fine. Where do we stand on your retainer?”
Michaels waved the subject away: “We’re fine. You did most of the work on the mortgage thing yourself.”
Ambros nodded: “Fine. You know any good Private Investigators?”
“A couple. Nobody fit to look into that bomb...”
Ambros interrupted: “Any decent detective should be able to do this job. The bomb was a piece of crap, strictly Amateur Hour.”
Vic looked over the two-d image Ambros showed him: “Huh.”
“It was meant to be incredibly destructive: see how much C4 is in there? We might have survived , since I threw us both into cover, but it probably would have got us anyway.
“But only the primer went off. There’s a connection missing, here,” He pointed: “Standard to leave that unconnected until you set the device, so it doesn’t go off by accident and eliminate you. But they failed to connect it when they set the bomb.”
“Yeah, whoa indeed. I’m guessing somebody local, to Oregon if not to Eugene. Not a professional.”
“You got any suspects?”
“I do. I won’t say anymore. I don’t want to prejudice your gumshoe.”
“Okay. I’ll call Barton tomorrow.”
“Keep the sack of cash. Use it to pay his expenses.”
“Her expenses.” Vic laughed at his expression.
Ambros grinned: “Thanks. I wish American had a polite neuter.”
Vic nodded: “About that meeting.”
“Oh, That Meeting,” said Ambros.
“Can I possibly...”
“Yes, reluctantly. You will be sorry.”
“I truly doubt that.” Michaels raised his glass and Ambros clinked it with his shot.
They finished their drinks in silence. Vic bumped fists with Ambros and headed for home.
A sheriff’s patrol car eased up to the curb and the driver left it in a yellow no-parking zone. Ambros recognized a few scratches on the front end of the vehicle, so he knew that the driver was Dan Samuelson.
Dan entered the pub and gazed around. He saw Ambros and nodded. Ambros signaled to Alex and the barman put Dan’s beer on Ambros’ tab. He signaled for another whiskey for himself.
Dan sat down and they conversed for a while about nothing in particular. Finally Dan said: “You wanted to see me...”
“Yeah. Do you know anything about a DIA man, operating on behalf of the FBI, here in the Benham neighborhood?”
Dan frowned, then shook his head: “No. Do you?”
“I do. He tried to get me involved in a scheme to sabotage AI research. A classic entrapment operation. You know what I mean?”
“He’s calling himself ‘Hector Miller’ and he’s working hard over at the Collective. Zazu Johnson’s house.”
“I know that name. Came up in joint briefings with the EPD last week. They think he’s an anarchist.”
“Yeah? I knew he was a cop of some kind as soon as I saw him. You would think the EPD would.”
“You would think that.” Dan looked Ambros in the eye: “Wouldn’t be the first time EPD kept an operation out of County eyesight.”
“It wouldn’t, huh?”
“Well, I’m cluing you in on this because his cover is about to be blown sky-high. Sometime in the next two days, I expect. When that balloon goes up, you’ll want to be in touch with your boss. Your department will have plausible deniability, and you will be glad to have it.”
Dan narrowed his eyes: “Rumor has it that you and Chief Black made a deal of some kind.”
“I never pay attention to rumors,” Ambros joked.
“In a pig’s eye,” said Dan: “Be serious.”
“Whatever the Chief and I agreed on—if anything—has nothing to do with this case. And in the end it doesn’t matter whether Chief Black was in on Miller’s operation or not. Miller’s going down, that’s all.”
At that, Hector Miller walked into the pub.
Ambros’ Pismo pinged him.
He touched the machine and glanced at the screen. He grinned sarcastically at Miller.
Miller walked over, and looked at Dan askance.
“Nice acting job,” said Ambros.
“Beg pardon?” Miller affected innocence.
Ambros gestured at Dan: “Dan Samuelson; Hector Miller. Dan: that balloon I was talking about? It just went up...”
The deputy’s walkie-talkie burst out in static, and then a voice began yakking away. Dan’s earpiece let him hear what was said; even Ambros’ augmented hearing could get nothing certain from among the static. They could all hear Dan’s side of the conversation: “Yes...no, sir. Happens that he’s standing right beside me...”
People in various parts of the room began to sit up and take notice of their cell phones. Gossip flowed from end to end of the pub, as EugeneWeek and The Sentinel’s Webz-sites (involuntarily) posted the story. Ambros glanced at his screen as ‘Miller’s’ identity went public at sites as various as Rolling Stone and The Economist.
People started staring at Miller. Ambros touched his Pismo and saw the mug shots he’d incorporated into the revelation of Miller’s identity leading both local sites’ posts.
“What the hell’s going on?” Miller looked nervous. Someone passing behind him gave him a hard shove, and he caught himself on the back of a chair.
Ambros smiled a somewhat vengeful smile: “Your cover is blown, Mister Jack William Piccolo. Irrevocably and permanently. ” He turned his machine around and displayed the headline to the DIA man.
‘Miller’ flinched at the sound of his real name. He shuddered when he saw his photo on the screen.
Deputy Dan arose, one hand on his sidearm and another on the DIA man’s arm: “Come with me, sir. I expect that not everyone in this place is a pacifist.”
Miller hung his head; his free hand was over his eyes. Dan escorted him to the door and out into the rain, saying: “We’d best get you on a plane to Washington before something regrettable happens.”
Ambros accessed his mail program and sent a note to Zazu Johnson: ‘Good job.’
He sat for a while, sipping the whiskey. He ordered his remaining tasks for the evening, putting off all thoughts of the morrow: ‘Tomorrow is not here. Tonight is the world.’
He mused on the bomb that had nearly gotten him: ‘...and Vic. Whoever did that almost hit my lawyer. That means it’s not the Mob.’
‘It’s worth considering that it may not have been about me. Vic rented the car, and he has a lot of enemies in the local ruling class.’ He shook his head, slowly: ‘I can’t parse them. Who wants to kill me?’
He made a list of people who had a grudge or motive: ‘Masters is out of mischief for now. Chief Black? Maybe. Mayor Nichols? Unlikely, until tomorrow night. Matthew? The bomb was amateurish enough. Ditto on Eddie Roth. Regulos? But he can’t reach into this Timeline, and besides, he’s in the hospital. Posse Comitatus? The only people left from that group are prospects. And Officer Miller, no relation to Hector, who is missing and presumed fled. What if he’s not, or has come back?’
He considered Truck Man, who’d assaulted him the day after Thanksgiving: ‘Okay, one: he knows who I am, it seems, and two: he has means and opportunity. Gotta be the Prime Suspect, and Miller the missing cop has to be almost equally weighted.’ He paused: ‘Then there’s Officer Thompson...but I have plans to deal with him tomorrow.’
He did a few things to hunt down Truck Man and track his movements. He set the machine to alert him to any sign of Officer Miller.
‘That’s all I can do for now.’
He opened the document “Deep Flanking” and studied his Table of Contents:
I. Origins of the Blitzkrieg in the Mongol Conquests
II. Epamanondas and the Boeotian Invasion of Sparta: Deep Flanking as Tactic.
III. Sherman and Patton: Deep Flanking as Strategy
IV. Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg: A Failure of Command
V. Deep Flanking in the Multiverse: Strategy and Tactics
a. Direct attacks on enemy capitals
b. Capture the flag: decapitate the state
c. Eliminate the enemy’s mobility: the destruction of
d. Mopping up: creating democratic institutions in
formerly Authoritarian Lines
VII. Tables and Diagrams
He took the time then to really read through the document. He made sure to doubly credit the Kopeli from the Maori Commonwealth for her contributions to his thought processes. He found no other changes he wanted to make: ‘It’s an audacious plan, almost insanely so, but it’s the only way I see that might work. To win the Timeline Wars, rather than to fight them forever, I mean.’
He opened a line to the Commonwealth Kyklo, scrolled across to the War Guilds’ site, and posted his essay.
The Kyklo acknowledged receipt. He shut down the link.
“Okay. That will stir up the Guilds.”
He got another drink and sipped it. He accessed “The Commonwealth Times” and read the latest comments on each article. Where people had (serious) questions, he did his best to link them to his works or works by others that addressed the various queries.
He smiled a satisfied smile as he read a thread of comments on the Commonwealth essays they’d published. The Wobblies he’d contacted made a lot of excellent points, and they were clearly hatching plans to expand their local and nationwide organizing campaigns.
‘In addition...Hmm. I see at least three woken-up young people, in three separate countries, who are asking good questions and hunting for the answers. Not bad for a first issue. It gives me a flicker of hope...’ He urged each of them to continue their inquiries, to contact the IWW and their local pro-Situationists, and to start organizing their friends: ‘That’s all I can do, for now.’
He grinned a hopeful, if wry, little grin.
He closed his eyes and pondered: ‘That’s it for today. I’m done.’
He finished the whiskey and rose, stretching. He considered his level of exhaustion and decided to walk home anyway: ‘Rose House home, I mean...’
He left the pub and walked northwest on Benham. He gagged, tried to pause: ‘Something weird is happening...’
He felt his whole body suddenly slow to a crawl, as if he were a live version of some athlete filmed in super-slow-motion. Everyone else on the street—maybe three or four people in eyeshot—drew to a complete halt, one of them in mid-step. His momentum carried him forward and he stepped right through the pulsing greenish-black Timeline Gate that appeared in front of him.
His step completed itself, despite his panicked attempt to hold back.
He fell on his side, unable to cushion his fall or move after he hit the ground. The surface beneath him seemed to be crushed crystal bits. He tried to cry out, and then stifled himself, not wanting to attract any attention while in such a helpless state.
Large talons grappled him from behind. They raised him to his feet; his ability to move came back slowly while he looked around.
All about him stood tall branching crystal spears, in a thousand shades of pink and green and other pastels. Tiny bright orange insect-like creatures crawled about upon the branches; a high-pitched growl rose and fell in waves as they variously met or avoided one another on the junctures of the crystal’s faces.
The sky glowed black; he couldn’t look at it. A smell pervaded the air, making him gag: indescribable, barely breathable.
A glance over his shoulder showed him a Giant Ant Alien holding him. The pincers that held him did him no harm. That salved his fears a little, since he figured that the monster could easily cut him to pieces with those things, and with its mandibles.
His voice returned: “Hey, how’s it goin’?”
“Remain zzssssilent for a moment, please.”
Another of the things appeared; somehow he recognized it: “You...” he began. He coughed.
“You are the unit that assigned itself to help my collective-unit.”
“That isss true.”
“What are you doing now?”
“Aiding your collective-unit. Hold zsstill.” It placed a Commonwealth-style gas mask on his face: tissue thin, transparent, covering his eyes, nose, and mouth. It clung, as it was meant to. His breath came easier.
“Aiding you,” the thing said.
The creature touched its mouth with one of its pincers and then touched that claw to Ambros’ arm.
Ambros’ mouth opened in a silent shriek, as pain raked his body head to foot. He shuddered and his legs gave way; the only thing supporting him was the monster behind.
The pain faded and he felt a familiar sensation: ‘I am under the influence of memory RNA.’ A second wave swept over him: disorienting dizziness. ‘That’s some kind of hypnotic taking effect.’
The being in front of him touched his arm again, then said: “You are in the proper receptive sssstate for your ssspecies. Regard thizsss...”
A holograph appeared before him; his eyes went to it against his will. Thousands of data points impinged upon his consciousness, all at once and sequentially: ‘Somehow at the same time...’ his eyes crossed. The liaison-alien touched him again and his vision cleared. He couldn’t not see, he couldn’t not take in the information. It flooded his mind: a tsunami of knowledge. Whenever his overloaded senses or his body attempted to shut down, the liason touched him, and he came back to himself, groaning in horror.
Suddenly the torture ended. He fell to ground when the creature behind him let go. Several more of them came into view; one of them touched him all over, destroying his clothing with quick flicks of its talons.
One of the things placed a Commonwealth Medical Guild patch on the back of his hand and he passed out, subdued and helpless.
When he awoke—how much later he had no idea— he found himself sitting in a human-style chair.
The crystal trees, the weird insects, the ground of crushed glass, the irritating growl: all were gone: blessed silence and a true black chamber surrounded him.
One of the Ant-aliens stood before him, in the posture that indicated ‘no hostile intent’. That creature spoke: “We are sssorry.”
He drew breath, pushing the new data down into his subconscious, as well as he could: “I should hope so. Where am I? Where was I?”
“Sss. You are now in...guessst quarters. Before? A...library...or laboratory.
“We ask pardon. We intended not to caussse you ssuch ssuffering. You need what we gave you...”
“What have you given me?”
“We...read? Is that the word?—your...esssay.”
He shook all over in reaction to the events of the night: “Which...”
“The mosst reccent.”
“It is excellent, it is...shiny and it hass hard edgess and a sssmooth shape.”
After a time, he ventured: “If you say so.”
He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. He pondered the edges of the data dump they’d forced on him. He said: “I see what you did.”
“Do you? That isss good. We wish to amend our mistake...” The thing seemed diffident.
“Too late we noted the limits of your-unit’sss...mind and memory. We see now that we should have consulted you-unit before...”
He stared. He said: “...before raping my brain stem, right?”
“Sssss. We are ssorry.”
He sat silent for a time. Then he said: “You are not accustomed to dealing with a unit which is an individual intelligence. You fed me data the way you would one of your own units, without asking leave.”
“That was...we humans would say that you violated my agency.”
“We realizzze that now. Our sorrow is profound. Will you believe usss?””
“Can you remove the downloaded memories?”
“We can...that would be one form of amends. Not optimal...”
“You need thisss data...it will help you when you execute the plan...”
He sat silent, trying to make his mind work at its usual level of speed and acuity: ‘They read my essay...’Deep Flanking’...hadn’t even been up for a half hour...’
He spoke aloud: “You mean my plan to outflank the ATLs through all of time and space.” He smiled a twisted smile, at odds with his sense of personal violation.
“Couldn’t you give me this data on a crystal drive?”
The creature remained silent.
“All right,” he said: “What other form of amends do you propose?”
“We will...alter your abilities.”
He felt great trepidation: “In what way?”
“Mmm. Sss. We will make it possible for you to hold this information in complete abeyance. Until the next time that you...Trance? That is the word, yesss.?”
“Until the first time I Trance. Yes, that is the word.”
“Ssss. First. Again, we are ssorry.”
The mechanical voice could carry no emotion. The squid on the creature’s back rose higher: “Sssssorrrry.” Its tone seemed laden with regret.
Oddly, he believed it then. “I think you are sincere.”
“Sss. We are.”
“Well,” he said, and paused: “I accept your apology, and your offer of amends.” He made a fist; the monster drew back.
“Don’t ever do anything even slightly like that to anyone else of my species, ever again.”
“Katalavenume,” it said, in Koine.
He leaned back and closed his eyes: “Do it.”
He came to himself, suddenly and completely, in mid-step. He realized that no time had passed in his own Line, that the Squids had manipulated time to get him back to when he’d been taken. He felt profoundly relieved.
That feeling dissipated abruptly as he became conscious of the new information they had given him: ‘It’s like a lump of rock in my head; I can indeed hold it in abeyance, but I can’t ever forget that it’s there.’
He kept walking; he had no clear idea where he was. He stumbled.
He found that he was leaning against a street sign.
He tapped his MPS live and called Rose House: “...Eighth and Monroe,” he told Kim: “...help.”
He stared at the sky, dark with cloud, blessedly not the black of the other world. Someone pushed and turned him, roughly, exploring the pockets of his shredded clothing: “C’mon, old man, where’s yer cash? I don’t wanna have to hurt ya...”
Ambros felt his left arm twisted, viciously. He cried out as the tendons in his shoulder slipped out of place. His enemy yanked and grunted, still searching.
A car pulled up beside them. The assailant fell to the ground, suddenly silent.
He shook his head, cleared his sight a little. Kim stood there with a baseball bat in her hands. The robber lay at her feet, his head bloody, distorted. Luisa gunned the engine on the house truck, spun around the corner into a legal parking place. She ran back; Kim drew her close, then put Ambros’ Shifter into his hand.
He didn’t know what to do. He looked from one to the other of them, helpless. Finally he heard part of a word: “...afthon...”
“Keenafthono,” he said. Kim moved his hand to touch the red light.
He awoke, sitting up in a chair in an entirely white room. Luisa slept in another chair across the room. He could see no one else.
He frowned. ‘I know where I am. It’s Combat Med...but I don’t remember...’
Memory flooded back, then: ‘Ants—Squids, whatever—and a mugging...’
He remembered, vaguely, arriving at Combat Medical. He had heard the techs talking to his Trines, parts of it anyway:
“...never saw a brain reading like this...blood work says....medical coma...”
He recalled Arrenji’s voice: “No. We have to force a Trancing.”
“...not sure...his choice...can’t...ethics...”
Arrenji again: “Trust me. I have seen this before. He didn’t overdose on RNA, he OD’d on pure data. Somebody did it to him. His agency isn’t in play here, this is the result of enemy action...or allied action, friendly fire...who knows?”
“...Magistri...it’s her word...Arrenji...what should...?”
“Feed him RNA on a steady drip, keep the hypnotics at just sub-clinical...let his subconscious make sense of this dump...”
“He’s the only one who can do it.” Arrenji said it firmly: “He has to re-integrate his personality...”
The memories faded. He groaned: “I wonder if I did?”
Luisa stirred. Voukli entered the room, looking muzzy: “You wonder if you did what?”
“Re-integrate my personality.”
She shrugged, smiling very crookedly: “You must have. You’re talking.”
He rolled his shoulders back and down, and laid his head back against the cushion: “I’m at Combat Medical again, huh?”
“Room 202.” Voukli stroked his hair: “Like before.”
Luisa got up and joined her, putting her hand on his cheek.
He grimaced: “This is becoming habitual.”
“Yes,” said Luisa: “Please stop. Okay?”
“Not like I’m doing it on purpose.”
“What actually happened?” Voukli inquired. “We had a Halo in here, but something seemed to be jamming it.”
“Yeah...it would. Too much information, too little biological matrix to hold it.”
“What?” Voukli looked more closely at him: “You are not all right, sir.”
He stared at the wall, beginning to tremble: “No shit.”
He put his fist by his ear.
After a moment’s silence, he said: “I need a Strat-tac machine, amphetamines, food I can eat with one hand...Magistri Vertisi’s soup, in a mug with a handle...”
Voukli nodded: “I’m on it.” She stepped across the room and began making calls on her MPS, which looked like a locket around her neck.
A Med Guild apprentice came in; she swiftly and efficiently re-bandaged his left arm. He grimaced a bit as she smoothed the dressing into place.
Luisa held his shoulders from behind, rubbing them hard. She said: “Tell me.”
“I’ll try...the Squids poured a huge chunk of memory-RNA enabled information into me. They realized that they’d given me too much. They could have erased it, but I could see a sorta hazy vision of what it was, and I let them leave it in. They said we needed it, to win the war. I think they’re right. They said they’d make it possible for me to suppress it and carry it around until I could Trance.” He shook his head.
She sighed: “It didn’t work. They probably don’t understand our biology very well.”
“I think that’s correct. The forced Trance that Arrenji insisted on was the right course of treatment, but the total load is still too much. I gotta get it outta my head...into hard copy!” He pounded the arms of the chair and tears began to leak out of his eyes.
Voukli trundled a Strat-tac tank into the room, levitated it until he could see it from his leaned back position in the chair, and put the controls into his lap. He attacked the board with his hands, like a demon or an insane person. ‘I probably am insane...temporarily?’
He began immediately drawing diagrams: “I can see every hideout the ATL ruling classes use, I can see the Quiet Lines they use as Jump-throughs to hide their movements. I can see their bugout routes...like a huge seven-dimensional spider web, and when I concentrate I can see the crossing points in Commonwealth co-ordinates. I gotta...”
His voice faded away and he went into semi-Trance; his hands moved like automatons, signing and pushing buttons and waving lines and three-d versions of seven-dimensional objects into position in the holo-tank.
He muttered to himself as he worked: “...fucking double blind drops for people...there’s the bastard...look at that! Two Quiet Lines and a flip trap into a...”
Arrenji came in, bringing a huge pot.
“Here Ambros, food, and drugs.” Voukli put a tablet into his mouth and held out a mug of steaming soup.
He waved his left hand absently and made contact with the handle. He drank the soup, the mug in one hand, while his other hand kept working: “That’s a right superhighway there...Jean IV goes here, then there...that’s clever...”
Luisa made sickened noises as the structure became more elaborate. At length she left, intercepting a sleepy-looking Marie at the door to the room. Kim breezed in and stood behind Ambros making little approving sounds as the monstrosity grew.
He growled as he made some corrections, occasionally closing his eyes and visualizing the matrix. It did not seem to be in any way symmetrical; the image had no discernable patterns.
“Get him more soup!” Kim said, peremptorily. Arrenji obeyed.
He drank slowly, but without stopping, continuing to tap at keys and wave handsigns at the tank.
“More,” he said. He continued to drink and work.
He dropped the mug on the floor and went back to work with both hands: “...bugout routes all over the place...but there always has to be a last stand...
“Over the rainbow,” he sang: “...now I gotcha...”
The entire day passed. Night fell, the early night of the days just pre-Solstice.
He slowed. His eyes drooped. He said: “Good enough.”
He saved the hologram to his cache at the Library, and to the SB Kyklo, with a renewable “delay ten days to publish” icon on it.
Voukli moved the machine out of his way. He tried to rise, but fell to his knees. He shook like an aspen tree, muscles moving independent of one another. He fell over on his side. He lost control of his bladder and bowels without seeming to notice, and began to weep.
Voukli and Marie lifted him and he grunted: “Toilet. Quick!”
They got him there in time, and he vomited, over and over, until he dry heaved.
He slowly got control of his physical symptoms. His movements became firm and controlled.
“Shower,” he said. He tried to pull his jerkin and shirt over his head but got stuck. He began to cry again.
Voukli took charge, getting his clothes off and getting him into the shower.
“Leave.” He leaned against the wall as the water poured down on him, hot and comforting. They left him alone.
Eventually he found his calm, meditating on that goal. He washed himself, cleaning the vomit and shit off, soaping and rinsing repeatedly. He sighed.
Kim stuck her head in: “Hey.”
She slipped in to the shower with him. Her soft skin and gentle hands moved him to tears again, but not tears of rage or despair: tears of relief.
She felt it, when he tipped over to relaxation. She smiled and he returned the smile, weakly.
They turned off the water and dried under blasts of warm air. They wrapped themselves in towels. He went to the sink and drank several glasses of water. He looked up.
“I look like shit.” He was drawn, the wrinkles on his face were deeper and his skin appeared saggier than he’d seen for some months: “I look older than I am...” He drew another deep breath and said, as though to himself: “I’ll recover, though. I will.”
“You need a rest.” Kim stroked his arms, leading him out of the bath and sitting him in a chair.
Luisa and Marie concurred.
“Not possible,” he said.
“Really,” Marie began: “You stubborn old...”
He interrupted, shaking his head: “Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve here in the Commonwealth, and I have things I must do.”
Voukli nodded: “Yeah. He’s right. Look at his calendar.”
They did, calling on various machines for access.
“Huh.” “Ugh.” “Well...”
He pointed at the hospital bed across the room: “I am going to sleep. I can barely stand right now. I’m half asleep already...”
He dragged himself across the room. The towel fell from around his waist; he fell to the floor beside the bed, then found Kim and Marie helping him in between the sheets. He closed his eyes.
He half-woke in the middle of the night and sat up. He groaned and punched at invisible foes, hyperventilating. “No! Stop it! No!” He slowed, and stopped punching. He realized what had happened; fully awake, he sought for control of his breath.
Kim sat up beside him.
He focused: “Luisa? Marie?”
“Back to Rose House. They’ll be in Athino tomorrow, for that thing you arranged...”
“It’s an apology. I have to do a bunch of those tomorrow.”
He laid back again: “Go back to sleep. Early day tomorrow...”
She rested her head on his chest, sighing. “Stupid Squids.”
“So stupid they’re smart. So smart they’re stupid.” He grinned wanly: “But I really think they gave us a huge shortcut to victory, if the ATLs attack like I think they will.”
“Hmm. Can you explain?”
“Some.” He turned to face her and they snuggled. “The essay on Deep Flanking...”
He shrugged: “You oughta read it.”
“Well, the Squids really liked it. They snatched me off the street minutes after I posted it. They figured out what the hardest thing for us to do was going to be: actually finding all the various hideouts that the really bad guys would flee to if we counter-attacked after the fashion that I proposed. So...”
“So they just gave you those hideouts?”
“Yup. It was all up here,” he pointed at his temple. “It’s more or less drained out now, like pulling the plug on a tub of water. Scalding hot water, that hurt like the dickens to carry.”
“I didn’t think RNA assisted learning worked that way.”
“I don’t think it ever did before yesterday.”
“The thing is, we could have found all of that. I don’t know if we could have done it in time, without giving away what we were doing. That was my biggest concern.”
“Oh. But...so now the plan will work? For sure?”
He shrugged again: “Sacred Band and The Black Warrior Guild will have to execute the plan, perfectly. Red Warriors and Grays will have parts to play. But...”
She nodded slowly: “You guys practice that kinda thing all the time.”
“Yes. We might be able to pull it off.” He sighed: “I guess that is—or will be—a good thing...eventually.”
He laughed bitterly: “Right now, I have a very busy two weeks ahead of me, here and in Seventeen, and no time to deal with a case of PTSD. I expect that when I do deal with it, it’s gonna be a nasty time. No way to avoid it, long term...I will have to up my meditation time, and hope for small bits of progress that will allow me to put off the big emotional bloodletting.”
She kissed him, shedding a tear: “Yes. Whatever you need.”
“I want to go with you, first thing tomorrow. For the...” She trailed off.
“Sure. Better get back to sleep then, if you can.”
She kissed him again, and rolled over. He began his usual meditation, “Calm, Relax” until his own consciousness slipped sideways into a less helpless dream.