CHAPTER TWENTY: When the Fecal Matter Hits the Air Conditioning Unit
Ambros and Kim approached the Downtown Athletic Club. A man in a pseudo-military uniform swept the front door open. They strolled through. He glanced at his MPS, which showed him the time in several places. ‘Nine PM on the dot, here in Eugene,’ he thought. He looked at Kim, who was holding his arm in the time-honored fashion. She grinned. Her gown was an off-the-left-shoulder stunner, slightly off-white silk with gold threads woven in. She had pearls and gold wire (provided by Aunt Clem) braided into her hair.
He looked around quickly, noting the men’s clothes: posh, even sumptuous, but pretty much all the same: white shirts with just so much ruffle to their stiff fronts, white bowties, white tailcoats, trousers with knife-sharp pleats, and every cummerbund the same shade of red and perfectly pressed and tied.
His outfit stood out in every way possible, though it was sharp. He was not, however, ruffled in any way, cummerbunded. He wore his newest kilt; its pleating was, if anything, sharper than that on the other men’s trousers. The red and black check looked good with his coloring. He wore a black jacket of Commonwealth cut, more like a vest than a tailcoat in its rectangular construction. His red Spathos’ and white Knight’s belts gleamed and the bronze buckle of the white one practically glowed from polishing. He’d chosen the linen ‘river boatman’s shirt’, and donned a shiny white silk ascot over the button placket rather than under. ‘This way I can flash this fancy stickpin, which is also a camera,’ he thought. His Free Walkers he’d polished to a high gloss; his longsword he’d strapped and cross-strapped so it sat perfectly upright and immobile, the hilts belt high, the pommel right in front of and a little below his left armpit. The brooch that secured the end of the great kilt over his right shoulder glowed like the belt buckle. He’d put his hair in the usual topknot, but it was fresh out of a tight braid and fly-away fluffy.
One very young man started to pass in front of them; he wore a USMC full-dress uniform, with the usual ceremonial cutlass at his side. The poor fellow blanched when he saw Ambros, stopped at attention and barely kept himself from saluting. “Ex-ex-cuse me,” he stammered. “Ma’am. Sir. I mean...”
Ambros gripped the fellow’s shoulder, hard: “Its okay. I’m not in your chain of command.”
The fellow looked him over: “You are in somebody’s, though.”
“True, in one sense,” said Ambros: ”Anapahvoteh, Grios. As you were.”
The kid did salute then, and Ambros returned it, Hellenic style, grinning. He and Kim went on their way, approaching the reception area, where a coat check and check-in desk awaited them.
“Good evening sir,” said the uniformed man at the main desk: “May I see your invitation, please?”
He handed it over, amused. The gentleman was too well-trained to comment on a guest’s attire, but it was clear that he was dubious.
“You, um, are carrying a sword...sir?”
“Of course. I am in full-dress uniform for the branch and nation of my...ancestry.” He patted the hilts of his steel longsword. “All military dress uniforms include a sword...or am I wrong...?”
“Ah, no, sir, quite correct. Usually a saber or a cutlass…” He looked the invite over, very carefully. At length he glanced up, seeming to notice Kim for the first time. He smiled a real smile, then:
“Ah. Miss Mallory, Mr. Rothakis. Welcome to the Leadership League of Eugene’s New Year’s Fete. Is there any particular part of the celebration that I may direct you to?”
“I know my way around, Sean.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“It happens that I do as well, but thanks anyway.” Ambros raised an eyebrow at Sean, who raised his in reply.
They walked slowly around the ground floor. “The whole ground floor is a restaurant on ordinary days,” said Kim.
“Yes,” he said. “There are several rooms on the fourth floor that are more like a bar or pub, as well. The third floor is given over to locker rooms and several exercise areas, and the pool. And the floor above this one is a kind of Ballroom.” Orchestral music filtered down the stairs: a waltz, he realized.
She seemed a little chagrined: “I still sometimes forget what that military MPS can do. You know more about this building than I do, maybe, in spite of me coming here every month or so since my dad got a free membership.”
He smiled: “It’s cool. The tech stuff still surprises me, too, sometimes.”
They found a bar in the corner of the rearmost room of the restaurant, and Ambros bought drinks. They strolled around for a while, until they found a table to sit at. They chatted and people-watched, until Miss Clementine and Miss Eleanor approached.
“Hello, aunties,” said Kim, making room for them at the table. Behind them came Sarah Mallory Roth, Kim’s sister. Sarah was clutching a man’s arm: a conventionally handsome fellow, in not quite perfectly up-to-date evening dress.
“Edgar Roth,” that fellow said, holding out his hand: “Most folks call me Eddie.”
Ambros rose and shook hands: “Ambros Rothakis.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Roth said, looking him over, somewhat sarcastically. He squeezed Ambros’ hand a little harder; Ambros declined to compete that way.
Once the women had seated themselves, Roth sat across from Ambros: “I guess you’re sort of my brother-in-law, now,” he said, dubiously.
“Maybe. Brother-out-law might be more accurate, in more ways than one.”
Aunt Clem laughed out loud at that, drawing an irate glance from Eddie. He smoothed his face over before she turned to him.
“Mr. Rothakis can be very witty at times, isn’t that right dear?”
Kim said: “Oh. Yes.” She quirked an eyebrow at her sister, who snickered.
Ambros finished his first drink, then glanced at the clock. He judged it too soon for another, so he poured himself a glass of water from the pitcher on the table.
Small talk swirled around him as he sat there listening and watching. He heard the party at the table next to them vehemently disagreeing about the repeated tie votes in the City Council, which had prevented the EPD from cooperating in the proposed eviction of the Swampers.
He grinned rather nastily at the thought of the Mayor’s dilemma: ‘Four times in the past nine days the issue has come up, and Bass has held to his “No” vote. The Mayor has so far declined to break the tie in public…probably worried about how that will play in the Primary Election come May…’
He chatted with Sarah, and then with Miss Eleanor. The latter occasionally made little quips in Rational Hellenic. This made him think that the aunties had been visiting Athino Prima, at least occasionally.
About then, the women agreed that a trip to the lady’s room was in order. They got up and trooped off, laughing among themselves.
“Quite an outfit you have there, Rothakis. Unclear on the concept of ‘white tie’?” Eddie Roth spoke sarcastically.
“My tie is white,” said Ambros, blandly.
Ambros raised an eyebrow, again: “Scots’ garb is considered acceptable as white tie at even the most formal affairs. Maybe you hadn’t realized that.”
“Well, that’s technically true. Is that tartan a McVey?”
“No.” Ambros did not elaborate, but grinned sardonically at Eddie: “Why exactly does it matter to you? The Maitre d’ Hotel passed me in; this outfit is also a full-dress uniform.” He knew that Eddie had never served in any military, so he was confident that the fellow could not challenge that: “But I don’t feel any need to defend my fashion choices to you. I could do so...”
Eddie shook his head, feigning dismay: “You know, evening dress, and formal clothes in general: they are supposed to be a test of your fashion knowledge and discernment. You are supposed to know exactly how far you can drift from the current form while staying within the bounds. You seem to be flaunting all such norms. It’s embarrassing.”
Ambros laughed: “Really, Mr. Roth? It seems to me that what you’ve just described is more like a test of obedience than of fashion knowledge. Perhaps that is to be expected from a lawyer?
“I mean, formal wear in America follows slavishly in the footsteps of England, and English formal wear became what it is In about 1843, I believe. Some fatheaded upperclass British twit decided what every gentleman should wear, each month of the year and each hour of the day, and other than subtle changes in cut and style, the ruling class of both countries has followed those strictures like lemmings.” Ambros laughed again: “Now you know that I have studied the rules.”
He indicated Roth’s outfit: “By the way...I couldn’t help but notice that those lapels of yours are a good quarter inch too narrow for the current style, at least as I saw it in New York recently. Furthermore, all the most well-thought-of fashion plates have begun to eschew such garish stick-pins as that monstrosity you are sporting. Simple diamond or ruby, under a carat, appears to be the current trend. Now, it’s true that mine is mere glass; but I’m not pretending to any level of obedience to the current mode. Unlike, perhaps, you are.”
Eddie was getting a little bit uncomfortable. Ambros grinned inside, but continued, in a friendly way: “So, as far as Obedience, you pass. A minus, I’d say. But as a Dedicated Follower of Fashion? About D plus.”
“And you?” Eddie was controlling himself, but barely. “How would you grade that...outfit...that you are wearing?”
“Were I to grade it, I’d be defending it, in a sense. Oh, very well...
“It’s about a B minus for obedience; maybe even lower, since I couldn’t find the kind of brogans I wanted, nor the correct stockings. I do have the proper garters on, under the top flap of my boots, and the correct matching tartan flash showing at the outer side of each. This coat bears only a passing resemblance to an Argyll jacket; it’s too short, but my great kilt requires that; and there are no notches in the lapels, because it hasn’t any lapels. Argyll is perhaps too informal for white tie, anyway...However,” he grinned in a slightly challenging way: “No one in my particular service would ever have lapels on her dress jacket. As for the ascot, that is a bit of a stretch, I freely admit. It is white though. And since I hate bow ties...” He shrugged.
“As far as fashion goes, well, I don’t give a shit. I think I look great, and so does Kim. Marie is a fibers expert; she assembled the outfit. Luisa approved the final cut.
“Furthermore: the tartan is correct for my ancestry, (the Irish side, actually) and by a happy coincidence, for my current vocation. If it embarrasses you to be seen sitting with me, well, move along.” He made a dismissive gesture with his left hand.
Eddie glared at him.
Ambros laughed quietly. He nodded in the direction of the jakes: “The ladies are on their way back here. Better stop snarling, or you might...still be that way when Miss Clementine arrives.”
He’d been about to say “...or you might get stuck that way” but he’d changed course: ‘I always hated that phrase when my mother used it...no sense being such an ass...why would I even start to say that?’
He realized of a sudden that Eddie’s evident immaturity (in the sense of his instinctive obedience to authority) made him seem childish: ‘To me, he seems childish; like a person who has never “differentiated”, as Jung would put it.’ He pondered that; then he thought: ‘He has a law degree, and hence an undergraduate degree of some kind. But it seems to me that he’s never learned to think for himself. Huh.’
He forced himself back to pondering his own deficits: ‘I don’t need to treat him like a child, even if he seems that way to me. The Afthonae have never treated me as less than an equal, even at the beginning when I was not nearly one.’
He then pulled himself back to the present, determined to be more polite.
He had another drink, and settled in do some serious people-watching. ‘...and there are three businessmen that I want to shake hands with, before the night is over...And a union man, too. Ah, there’s Luisa and Marie.’
“Hello, ladies,” he said. They pulled two tables together and the augmented company began an extended chat session.
Ambros saw the owner of a local grocery chain gazing around, at a loss for someone to speak to. He made an inviting gesture and the fellow strolled over: “Hans Macavay, sir. I don’t believe we’ve met...?”
“Ambros Rothakis,” he replied: “Have a seat, if you like...”
Mr Macavay sat down, and Ambros resumed his seat: ‘One down, three to go...’
Ambros slowly woke from a deep sleep. He groaned: ‘A little hungover...oh hell, it’s four thirty in the morning...’
The invisible wristband that put the Multiverse at his fingertips was buzzing like a rattlesnake, making his whole left hand and forearm shake.
‘Oh boy,’ he thought: ‘That’s gotta be something big.’
He rolled away from Marie; Luisa slept on the other side of the bed. Kim stretched across the foot of the bed, snoring quietly, a separate blanket cocooning her. Sly the Cat lay curled behind her knees, snoring cat-wise.
He stepped through the door into his office, then tapped the wristband. The MPS activated. The shaking ebbed.
Instead of the usual hologram-Shifter, with a projected menu of options, he got a holo of Magistros Megálos’ head. It started speaking immediately, without any salute or greeting:
‘That’s a recording,’ he thought, as the tiny disembodied head ran through a series of codes words that told Ambros several things: “Not a drill, code doubtful, full gear,” he muttered, stepping toward his wayback room. He began donning his Commando armor as the voice continued:
“This Mayday is going to all Sacred Band operatives with full Shifters and fluency in any contemporary American dialect. Shift to your usual War Room and report via MPS when you are on site and armored. Repeating...” He gave the MPS a mental acknowledgement; the recording stopped, and the holo disappeared.
He stood silent for a moment, his breath bated, and thought about the gear he’d just put on. ‘Nothing missing, nothing broken. Almost ready...’ He breathed out with a sigh.
He drew the sidearm from its holster and checked its power level. He put that away, then ran the APS through a test sequence. That passed, and he repeated the procedure on his ‘rifle’: ‘I still think of it as a rifle,’ he thought: ‘It’s not one. The technology is so totally different...’ He hesitated for a very short time, and then drew out one of the drawers, one that would open only to his touch: ‘I’ll take a couple of these...just in case.’ He put them into a pouch on his belt, designed to hold them safe: two squat battery-like terabang power modules that had been altered to act as grenades: ‘Very powerful grenades…’
“Never mind,” he said aloud, shaking his head: “I really don’t want to Shift directly from the wayback room,” he said, quietly: “Or the office...or the bedroom. I’ll have to take a chance...”
He stepped through the office and out into the main floor of the Salon. He pulled the Shifter out of its pocket and thought: ‘Keenafthono.’
As he was reaching for the red light to Shift to the Commonwealth, he noticed Randy: standing in the doorway of the men’s room, eyes wide and white and mouth open.
Ambros shrugged mentally as he continued the motion: ‘He was gonna see something, sooner or later.”
He dropped in on the landing pad in his usual War Room. The room bustled with all kinds of people: the purple and green outfits of Thinkers Guild dominated.
‘Okay, that’s disturbing.’ He noted that a lot of those Thinkers were Magistrae, and they wore the distinguishing gold stars of the Diplomacy Deme. “Oh wow,” he said out loud. He made a beeline for the seating at one end of the room, activating his MPS as he walked.
“Spathos Five Ambros Rothakis here, armed and ready, in War Room Six.”
“I hear you,” came Voukli’s voice, buzzing directly in his ear via the helm he was carrying. “Briefing in sixteen lepta, sub basement four, launch room nine,” she finished.
“I hear you.” The sound cut off, but he could ‘feel’ that the line was still live.
Two more people dropped in, dressed in ordinary clothes for their Lines. They ran for the door, grim expressions on their faces. ‘Heading for their armor, I bet,’ he thought. ‘I better not waste any time, myself.’
He trotted around corners and down halls until he reached the nearest elevator. “Anichte!” he commanded, and after a moment it opened. He stepped in. He handsigned at the control panel.
Down, sideways, down again, into the deeps of the Command Complex. He stepped out and walked as fast as he could without running, so as to arrive with his breath calm and his mind ready.
He entered the vast space of the launch room and saw a gathering of armored Warriors at the other end. Red Warrior Guild soldiers, mustered as phalanxes, armed similarly to him, stood at ease near one of the launch pads, one so large that it usually transported only cargo.
Black Warrior Guild had a presence, as well: Three Magistrae. From their placement on the dais, he guessed their troops were staged elsewhere, as reserves.
A large contingent of Sacred Band Magistrae, plus various Spathae and assistants had gathered front and center before a low stage. A dozen more came dashing in through the door to his right.
Arrenji approached the podium: “We recording? Good.” She unfolded a Commonwealth laptop and waved it into harmony with the holodisplay behind her.
“Here’s the story,” she said: “Someone opened a Gate into the Commonwealth Timeline.” Visuals appeared: a map and some blocks of numbers.
Groans greeted this announcement. Then everyone got really concentrated, as Arrenji continued:
“It opened for about an hour, two days ago, just before dawn our time; three and a half Commonwealth hours ago, it opened again, for a short time. Several objects penetrated the event horizon: First, a wooden stick, probably a tree branch. Then during the second opening: one person, with a recording device of some kind; a location transceiver; and some kind of video photography device.”
“Analysis of the wavelengths and languages used, computer and spoken, indicates a previously un-contacted United States Line; the equipment is advanced compared to US Imperial Lines.”
She waved off any questions: “Of course, they are more advanced. They opened an Ares-bedamned Gate. But they show no sign that they match our tech. The computer languages are simple binary; there’s no memory-RNA involved.”
“Here’s the plan: Indigenous African peoples in the tribal areas nearby have agreed to create an outer perimeter. If anyone gets through, they won’t pass by that perimeter.” She grinned; other Warriors chortled and snorted. Arrenji continued: “Red Warrior Guild takes an inner perimeter, at ten kilo-ells. Black Warrior Guild is staged and ready, in Athino, as reinforcements. Grays are already flying recon in the area.
“We need several volunteers for a first-Contact party, and the rest of you will be at a thousand ells, concealed. Questions?”
Ambros raised his hand: “It doesn’t seem like there’s any Incursion intended, then?”
Arrenji agreed: “This is evidently their First Opening. It’s also the first time anyone from outside has reached the Commonwealth Line.”
“We’re going with the standard procedure, then,” said a man in the front row. “Like we’ve been practicing for centuries...”
“That’s right,” said Arrenji: “The status is Code Doubtful; no heavy weapons in view, assume peaceable intent, but be ready for anything they might do.” She pointed directly at Ambros: “I want you for the contact party. All that science fiction you wrote in your own Line should give you a leg up in comprehending theirs.”
“I’m in,” he nodded: “At your service, Magistri.”
After a little more kerfuffle, the Red Warrior troops launched: “FIRST PHALANX,“ came the amplified voice: “Prepare...”
The bell counted down from seven, then the Phalanx launched with a bang.
‘Ten phalanxes in all, four thousand men and women...they won’t deploy as phalanxes, of course. Unless...’ It occurred to him that RWG might have been acting on his essays on the Kyklo. ‘They’ve quizzed me enough about them...’
He had no more time to think about that.
Arrenji, Voukli, two Thinkers in light armor, and himself. Then Magistros Averos arrived, looking intensely uncomfortable in heavy armor and bearing a chin-to-toe shield of Commonwealth ceramic-oid and a big bag of technical gear.
“Welcome, Magistros,” said Voukli: “I’m glad to have you.”
“Whatever,” said Averos: “This gear is heavy. How do you all run around like athletes while wearing it?”
“Training,” said Arrenji, tersely. “Also, your armor is heavier than ours. Let’s go, we will leave via Controlled Saltation from launch pad four.” She led in that direction.
Soon Ambros found himself standing in the jungle. Animals screamed and muttered. He cradled his ‘rifle’; with the weapon in his hand he briefly flashed back to the bad times in Guatemala. He shook that off: ‘This is Africa. It’s a different jungle; it even smells different.’
He peered around: ‘It’s a wetter place than Guatemala, and even hotter.’ The Commonwealth Kevloid of his gambeson did a pretty good job of wicking the perspiration away, but he was still uncomfortable. He heard Voukli’s voice in his ear: “Forward, slow. Averos, you ready to open that Gate from our end?”
“Almost. I’ll ping you.”
“I hear you.”
Ambros began his forward movement, over swampy ground. He could hear a flowing river nearby. A spider the size of his fist dropped down out of a tree a few feet to his left, which startled him. ‘I never liked spiders...’
They all converged on the spot. His face shield showed him where the Gate stood, in a ghostly green that indicated its current inactive state.
He could see Voukli to his right, Arrenji to his left. Averos was ahead of them, squatting on the mucky ground, shielded by the ceramic scutum.
“Got it,” the tech said.
The purple armored Ambassadors huddled behind a second scutum; Arrenji stood in front of them. “Open it up, then,” she said, sounding a little bit amused.
Ambros’ heart pounded. His hands were sweaty, and he had nothing on which he dared to wipe them.
The Gate opened. Everyone stood frozen for a few seconds, regarding it.
“One of the smaller ones,” said Ambros: “That wasn’t in the briefing.
“My bad,” said Arrenji.
Averos said: “Ready to launch scout cameras.”
“At your discretion.”
Averos tossed a half dozen flying security cameras into the air. They paused, hovering, until he activated them; they shot through the Gate and vanished.
Soon Averos had a real-time holographic map of the region on the other side of the Gate. He deployed it as a waist high disc, which they gathered around.
Arrenji waved and muttered; the disc spun and she pointed: “Some kind of military presence, all around the site.”
Ambros waved in his turn: “Most of them are oriented away from the Gate.”
“They are not preparing to cross over, then,” said Voukli.
Arrenji agreed: “They appear to be guarding the Gate from intruders in their own Line.”
Ambros zoomed the image and said: “Those look like civilians, fleeing the site. The Gate opens into a box canyon in the other Line. That’s not Africa; that looks like the desert southwest of the United States.”
Averos rattled off some co-ordinates, then translated: “You’d call it southern Nevada.”
Ambros nodded: “Just about the same time displacement and precession as Eugene in my Line. So it’s the same hour of the day there as in Athino in the Commonwealth.”
“What’s that other bunch, there?” Voukli pointed.
Ambros focused on them: “U.S. Marines, by their gear and badges. They are approaching the Gate.”
“What should we know about them?” asked Voukli.
Arrenji said: “Their body armor won’t stop our slug throwers; their weapons can’t penetrate our armor.”
“Don’t underestimate them, though,” Ambros interjected: “If they are anything like the Marines in other US Lines, they’ll fight like werewolves, they have exceedingly high morale, and they won’t quit.”
“I hear you,” said Voukli.
“The Marines have deployed around the Gate, weapons active,” Ambros noted.
“Okay,” said Arrenji: “We three through the Gate, on guard but not aggressive. Don’t fire even if they do. Radios on, listen for my cues.
“Thinkers, wait here, and Averos as well. We’ll hope for peaceful First Contact. Stay behind those shields, though...Got that?”
They all acknowledged it.
Arrenji stepped through the Gate first, a pistol visible but not aimed. Ambros and Voukli followed.
Voukli activated her APS as soon as she was through; Ambros covered the right side of the canyon with his rifle.
A long, tense silence ensued. At length, Averos’ voice came through on their radios. He said: “One of those Marines is on a communication device with somebody on the east coast of the continent.”
Ambros looked at the upper left quadrant of his face shield: “Washington DC,” he muttered, on mic: “Gotta be his commander.”
Arrenji said: “Second guy from the left is tensing up.”
Ambros swiveled his attention (and his weapon) in that direction. He actually saw the guy break: the Marine raised his carbine and fired three rounds.
Most of the rest opened fire; Ambros felt the hits on his breast plate and saw bullets spanging off his face guard. He flinched: ‘That always freaks me out,’ he thought.
Ambros could hear Arrenji yelling over her radio to the folks on the other side of the Gate, shouting in Hellenic: “Take cover, get down, incoming fire!”
‘Shit,’ he thought: ‘Bullets go right through to the other side...’
One slug hit his gambeson, just below the shoulder on his left arm. The impact jerked his shoulder back, and he winced at the yank on his damaged tendon. He cursed quietly. ‘Another nasty bruise,’ he thought. He rolled his shoulder, popping the tendon back into place. He kept his longarm leveled, but did not squeeze the button.
Voukli tossed a scout cam into the air and set it off as a light source.
“Hold your fire, idiots, hold!” came the voice of the Marines’ officer.
Arrenji had activated her APS, but kept her pistol pointed at the ground. Voukli had her APS in a low front guard; Ambros guessed that none of the Marines had any idea how quickly they could all have died. ‘This longarm woulda cut them to bits. The APS, too.’
A brief kerfuffle followed, as the officer disciplined the poor fellow who’d lost control.
While that went down, Arrenji deactivated her sword and stowed the handle, then holstered her pistol. She showed the palms of her hands, shoulder high.
The Marine officer walked slowly toward them, his hands outstretched: “Are any of you hurt? We have first aid available...do you understand American?” The light was starting to fade a little.
“We do,” Arrenji said. “One of us is a native speaker. None of us is injured.”
The Marine looked puzzled: “You mean you got somebody from here with you?”
“Not exactly. He’s from a United States Imperial Timeline, though, so he’ll get everything except slang and jargon.”
“Okay, that makes no sense at all. I’m kicking this upstairs.” The man snapped his fingers and another Marine carried a laptop or tablet of some sort over to the officer. It had an odd shape, but it was clearly a communication device. The officer pointed it at the Hellenes.
Ambros could see a shadowy figure of a man on the screen of the thing.
“Mr. Secretary. You heard all that, Sir?”
“I did, Lt. Miller. Orders.”
“You and one other stay right there. However many other Marines you have with you, they are to go back out to the perimeter. Re-enforce that perimeter! Under no circumstances is anyone to enter or leave the Quarantine zone, until I arrive. If necessary, pull back until you have eye contact all around the site. That’s at your discretion. Got that?”
“Yes, Sir! What do I do about these people, sir?”
“Stay alert, but treat our guests with all due honor and respect.”
“Got that sir, and wilco.”
“It’ll be at least three hours, maybe five, before I can be on site. I’m signing off at my end. You stay on line, and record it.”
“Sir!” Miller pointed at one Marine, then sent the rest off, using hand signals.
Voukli re-ignited the flare, and the officer—a first lieutenant by his bars, obviously named Miller—spoke to Arrenji: “Sorry about Jackson, Ma’am. Everybody here is a little tense, what with this,” he waved at the Gate: “...this thing and all.”
“No harm done, Lt. Miller,” said Ambros, enlightening the others as to Miller’s rank. “Maybe we could all sit down somewhere and have a little chat.”
“That’d be fine, Sir.”
“This is my Commander, Magistri Arrenji Athenini. That’s Magistri Voukli Comanchaeneni.
“My rank is Spathos: Spathos Ambros Dhekefthaninos. You needn’t bother with the last name. Call me Ambros.”
“We should use your titles, sir. I am ordered to treat you as if you were visiting heads of state, or representatives thereof.” He gestured at the other Marine who stood nearby: “This is Private Whickitow.” The lieutenant tipped his head in the direction of the cliff face: “There are some improvised benches and a small fire pit right over there.”
Arrenji spoke: “That’s good. Let’s all settle down and get as comfortable as we can, okay?”
Lt. Miller nodded: “Magistri,” he said, confident then that he had it right.
They walked over to the fire pit, where wood and kindling lay ready for a spark. Voukli used her APS to set the kindling alight. Miller’s eyes widened.
“What is that thing?” he asked.
Voukli looked at Ambros: “In American, an Adjustable-Range Plasma Sword. For all practical purposes, it’s a light saber.”
Ambros grinned: “Never mind. Our Timelines, my native Line and this one, may well be too dissonant for pop culture references to cross over.”
The fire crackled and spat, the sage and scrub oak sending sparks flying in every direction. Arrenji lifted her face shield; Ambros and Voukli followed suit.
He began to relax.
His MPS buzzed.
“Oh, shit,” he said, mildly.
“What?” Arrenji queried him.
He made a handsign, then sync’ed his MPS to hers and Voukli’s.
“Good timing,” Arrenji said, ironically.
“Go on,” Voukli said: “Pass through, and let the Controller Saltate you through to your Home Line. I’ll contact Megálos, right now.”
“I hear you, Magistri.” The Marines looked at each other, puzzled.
He put on his helm and gauntlets as Arrenji said: “We’re losing the services of Spathos Ambros, for the time being. The press of other duties is taking him to another Line, perhaps into danger.”
Ambros stalked towards the Gate; he stopped and turned when he heard Miller speak up:
“Hey, uh, Spathos...battle fortune, man.”
“Thanks,” said Ambros. Then he stepped through the Gate, into Africa.
As soon as he was through, he heard Megálos’ voice in his ear: “Spathos, prepare for Saltation. Double big dizzy, you are bouncing three times.”
“Thanks for the heads-up.”
His guts twisted and his head spun, then he was standing in the predawn rain in the swamps on the west side of Eugene. He looked around at his hidden camp: “Nothing disturbed this time.”
He slipped through the blackberry cane maze that he had created to hide his little tent site. The subtle tell-tales he had set up to detect intruders were all intact. He slogged through the mud towards Camp Arlen.
“What the..” People came in sight around the bend in the muddy old road. Mark led the way, flashlight in hand. All of the non-combatant women and kids from Camp Arlen followed. They wore backpacks and carried tents and sleeping bags and other possessions in their arms. Flashlights and headlamps glittered and strobed in the mist, sending visible beams along the edges of the road and into the trees and bracken and brambles all around. The littler kids cried and fussed, babies screamed, and the women and the few men who were too old or sick to defend the main camp tried to soothe the youngsters. Mark stopped and they all clustered up behind him.
Mark pulled a pistol and pointed it at the ground at Ambros’ feet: “Back off, officer. I’m in no mood for a tussle.”
Ambros slowly raised his free hand, keeping his rifle aimed at the sky. He lifted his face guard and said: “It’s me, Ambros, not a cop.”
“Oh. Man, that’s quite a get-up you got on. What’s up?”
“I was gonna ask you that. I got a Mayday from Arlen.”
“Yeah cops and all are staging on Seventh. Looks like they’ve decided to clear us all outta here.”
“On a cold, rainy New Year’s Day? Before dawn? Where do they think you are going to go?”
“Ya got me, man. The Bureau and the Corps and the Forest Service are callin’ the shots, though. Cops just following orders.”
“I think I’ve heard that excuse before. It doesn’t clean up any better this time.”
“Yeah. Anyway, we better get going. I gotta get all these people to the fall-back position, and scout the bug-out route from there. And then get back to th’ front.”
Ambros nodded: “You do that.”
As they passed by, Mark paused, looking closely at him: “What are you gonna do, man?”
Ambros grinned in a wry and nasty way: “I’ll talk to Sarge first. But I think I’m gonna see how much chaos I can create from behind and among the police.”
“Huh. Well, good luck, man.”
“The same to you, Mark.”
Ambros watched the parade of refugees pass: “Refugees yet again,” he muttered: “driven from their homes by poverty and the greed of their landlords and employers, now they’re being driven into deeper hiding by the forces supposedly dedicated to ‘serve and protect’ the citizenry.”
He felt his anger rising. He tamped it down, and worked to channel the rage into rational thought: ‘I have to find out what the BLM has in mind, and I have to be exact about whatever sabotage I execute. And I have to stay safe myself...I don’t want to have to broadcast a Mayday and bring the Commonwealth down on Eugene’s Finest. Or any other…”public servants” who may be assembled for this cluster-fuck. Well, armor helps. They are not gonna wound me, at any rate.’
He struggled through the mud in the drizzle and fog. ‘Got Commonwealth harness boots on, not my wellies. Oh, well, I’ll be out of this muck in a minute.’ At least the scaly greaves helped keep the boots in place as the muck sucked at them.
He approached the rear of Camp Arlen cautiously: ‘They should have a sentry at the edge of the high ground...’
“Who’s out there?” came the challenge.
“It’s me, Red. Ambros Rothakis. Let me pass, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, Sarge was saying he hoped you could get here.”
Ambros climbed onto the embankment and stomped most of the mud off of his boots and greaves. He walked between the few remaining tents to the living room shelter. The kitchen tent looked plundered: most of the food stocks had been divided up among the refugees and carried off. Joanna’s wife, with Timmy helping, packed the remainder: Timmy looked terrified, the woman serene and calm.
Ambros approached the forward barricade. He squatted down next to Arlen, removing his helm: “Hey Sarge it’s me. What’s the situation?”
Arlen looked at his gear in disbelief: “Wow. You’re loaded for bear.”
“Yes.” Ambros shrugged and peered around the end of the log wall.
Arlen sighed: “They musta held the secret vote we were afraid of, and got a majority. They got at least a hundred cops from all over the state out there. I know there’s feds out there, too, like forest service and BLM and whatever. I sent Mikey out with a white flag, to see if we can parley.”
“That looks like him coming back,” nodded Ambros, gesturing at the street a hundred feet away.
They could see Mikey, with a flashlight and the flag, now furled. Four people walked along with him; three wore uniforms of different types, visible in the light of their own torches. The third guy wore a suit, fedora, and topcoat: Ambros recognized the pear shape and the rolling limp of Mayor Nichols.
“I don’t wanna let those fellows see me,” said Ambros: “See if you can get them close enough for me to hear what you are saying, okay?”
Arlen climbed over the barricade and went about five paces down the slope. He stood there, arms folded across his chest, ignoring the rain that sluiced down from his long grey hair and over the outside of his army green jacket.
Ambros used a little chink between the logs and mud to spy on the proceedings. One of the uniforms was Chief Black. The other man Ambros didn’t recognize, but he seemed to be State Police. He recognized Tall Blond Man from his brief encounter with the Bureau guys a while back.
“Sergeant Arlen,” said the Chief: “I regret to inform you that your last chance to vacate this park is right now. Later this morning the Parks Department is coming here to clean out the area and you’d best be gone by then.”
Ambros could not see Arlen’s face, but he could pretty near feel the tension in his neck as Sarge replied: “It ain’t a park, it’s a swamp. And I already told you, we don’t wanna move again. We put a lotta work into this village. And we don’t have anywhere to go.”
“This is not a negotiation,” said the Mayor. “You have until seven AM to pack and haul away whatever you want to salvage. Then we are coming in here. No more delays.”
“Castle said we had a restraining order. You can’t push us outta here.”
Tall Blond Man held out a piece of paper: “The Oregon Supreme Court vacated Judge Harper’s order: we have jurisdiction and a legal right to remove you.”
‘That dude is grim,’ thought Ambros.
Arlen stared at the warrant for a while: “Wait, how is this even legal? Harper is a federal judge, the Oregon court can’t overturn—“
“They did,” said the Chief. “We’re sticking to that. Get packing, Sergeant, or we’ll come in and arrest the lot of you.” Chief Black looked unhappy but resigned, like a man constrained to do some odious task.
“That ain’t gonna be fun for you.”
“If you resist arrest...” said State Cop.
“That’ll be the least of your worries, Officer. I got veterans from five stupid wars back in there, and we are not unarmed. We cause no one any trouble, and most of us have jobs and kids and all that. We pay taxes, we grow food, kids go to school, we belong here. And we are tired of bein’ pushed around. Don’t push. Not this time.”
Arlen started to turn.
State Cop reached out and grabbed his arm, saying: “You are under arrest...”
All the men and women at the barricade stood up and levelled their rifles and shotguns, or drew their bows.
The sky had grown just light enough for the officials to see what they faced. State Cop dropped Sarge’s arm and reached for his sidearm. The sound of twenty cartridges being jacked into the chambers of twenty different firearms echoed dully over the drizzly scene. Arlen grinned and climbed back up and over the barricade, Mikey following.
“You think they’ll back off?” Ambros inquired.
“Nah. It’s on, man. You gonna go guerilla on them?”
“I believe I will, sergeant. Let’s see what’s up.” He tapped his MPS into action and tossed a brace of spycams into the air. He sent them zipping off into the foggy night, and then watched as the MPS used the data they sent back to create a real-time map.
Ambros ignored the stunned expressions of the men and women who crowded around. He began pointing out the strategic and tactical situation: “Here’s their Incident Command truck. It’s jacked into the power grid there; I’ll cut that electrical line right at the start, but their batteries will keep them going for a while. These are earthmoving machines, three of ’em. They probably are counting on those to take down the barricades and force you all back into the swamp. I’ll make sure that fails.”
He manipulated one of the spycams to get a closer look at a tarp-covered pallet near the bottom of the slope up to the main camp: “That’s a shitload of tear gas and pepper spray bombs they got there. I’ll see to it those don’t get used inside the camp, but there’s bound to be some drift.”
“We got our gear ready,” said Sarge.
Ambos continued: “By the look of it, there are indeed over two hundred of them.” A counter rolled up on his holographic map: “Two hundred twelve, not counting the Mayor and his staff.”
“We got eighty effectives here,” Sarge said: “But we have good defensive positions and the Borderers are backing us up, at the edge of their territory. ’Bout a hundred and ten of them.”
“Those boys are itchin’ for a fight,” said Mikey.
“I bet.” Ambros pointed to the road away from the village: “Your first fallback is to here, right?”
“That’s correct,” Arlen said: “And there’s a lotta pit traps all along here, where we dug out clay and rock for our walls and gardens...They are pretty well hidden.”
“Excellent. Okay, I...”
Joanna called out: “Here they come, Sarge!”
They could all hear the growl of Diesel engines as the bulldozers approached.
“I better get going,” said Ambros, putting his helmet on and closing the face guard.
“You need some covering fire?” asked Arlen.
“Nah, I’m good.”
“How you gonna get to the back of their party without help?”
Ambros grinned: “I got a hole in my pocket. Just like Felix the Cat...”
He pulled the Shifter out of the patch pocket of his pants and used the MPS to indicate his destination.
“See ya,” he said, and geoShifted to a spot behind the Incident Command van.
He deployed his APS and cut through the 1660 volt cable that the cops had spliced into the power main. The live end of that cable began flopping around emitting sparks and leaving little charred and smoky patches on the wet grass. He punched a hole through the engine compartment of the command van, and the idling engine came to a sudden grinding halt. “Now you’re on battery power, guys,’ he thought. All the floodlights in the rear area powered down to wan, barely visible levels. He then cut the left rear tire on the van in two; it went ‘bang’ as the air escaped. He sliced through the dead end of the cable, near the van’s rear end.
He put the sword away and unshipped his rifle. He shot out the streetlamps, plunging the whole three-block staging area into gloom.
His face shield automatically adjusted for night vision.
He raced through the dark, easily avoiding squads of confused and blinded cops, until he could draw a bead on the rear ends of the three bulldozers. Those were growling, their blades raised, as they began to climb towards the barricade.
He raised his firearm and sent pellet after pellet into the engines of the machines, until all three had ground to a halt. Then he ducked into some tall grass at the south side of Seventh Avenue West, so he could ponder his next step.
He slipped a little deeper into the grass and activated the Map again. “Let’s just see what’s happening here...’
‘They seem to be broken up into twenty squads of ten ordinary cops, each led by a State cop or Federal agent.’ He noted that the bulldozer drivers were Parks and Rec guys, and that they had gathered in the shelter of their disabled machines.
“Good,” he said quietly: “They are out of danger from Arlen and all. I really don’t want anybody to get killed here, I really don’t.”
He could see that a couple squads had gathered around the pallet of chemical weapons. They seemed to be handing out gas masks and preparing to deploy the gas.
“Ratshit.” He knew the Swampers had limited protection from chemical attack: just a couple masks for Arlen and Mark. Every one else would be relying on the bandana-soaked-in-lemon-juice option. ‘I know for a fact just how useless that can be...so.’
He crept along the edge of the ditch. When he reached a point parallel to the pallet, he set the rifle down and pulled out his APS. ‘I don’t want to injure anyone, but I can’t let that gas into Camp Arlen...the rifle is too likely to kill one or more of them...so I guess I gotta just blow some stuff up...heh heh.’
He pushed the sword to full power and extended it straight into the pile of boxes of gas and pepper grenades. At a range of twenty yards and at full power the plasma sword ignited the entire load. The grenades went off, one after another or in bunches. Cops fell backwards to the ground; others fled coughing and sneezing, while still others crawled away, blinded. A mushroom cloud of semi-lethal gas rose above the splintered pallet and then drifted down towards the ground.
Unfortunately, the sword’s blacklight-colored plasma blade also revealed his location to the few cops who were already masked and standing on his side of the gigantic cloud of mixed tear gas and falling pepper.
They turned and began running towards him. One stopped and fired at him; he felt the bullet hit his chest protection, and it kicked him hard. He stood up and used the APS to draw a line in the asphalt: smoke from burning tar rose along the line, and when the first cop stepped on it, the undermined street collapsed and the officer’s boots caught fire. In the ensuing panic, Ambros touched the Shifter and Jumped back behind the barricade.
Chaos ruled: cops and Swampers struggled hand-to-hand, as Arlen’s Army tried to push the police back across the wall. Apparently no one had as yet fired a shot, both sides relying on batons and grappling. Arlen himself had retreated to the second barricade, and Ambros could see him, holding a scoped rifle at port arms and barking orders to the men and women fighting at the wall. Joanna had pulled her bow-women off to one side, at the cops’ right flank. Their arrows were nocked, but their bows undrawn, and they all had at least a little cover in the form of trees and boulders along the berm of the Amazon.
He felt rather than heard his MPS buzzing at him. He ordered the map to project on the inside of his face shield, and frowned. He ran through the fight, pushing aside grappling Swampers and cops, up and over the second barricade. He shouted at Arlen over the din: “There’s a building catty-corner across the North Fork from here...Fifth Avenue and Seneca...what the hell is that?”
“I dunno!” Arlen hollered: “Empty, I think...”
Mark came up behind them: “Used to be a hardware store and lumber yard. I think the City is using for equipment storage now...”
“Okay, something is going on over there,” Ambros said: “I’ll go check it out!”
He Jumped from where he stood, directly into the old lumberyard behind the mystery building.
“Shit!” he cried aloud, and Jumped again immediately, into the ditch behind. He stood there in freezing water up to his knees and surveyed the scene with his already-deployed drones: “Army? Marines? I can’t tell, but there have to be a thousand men there, and one real-live Abrams tank. Bastards.”
He Jumped back to Arlen’s position: “There are a thousand soldiers hiding over there, plus an Abrams. Looks like active-duty military, or maybe Marine Reserve.”
Mark yelled: “Sarge, we can’t fight that many, we only got about eighty effectives.”
Sarge looked at Ambros: “Well?”
“I can’t hold ’em off. Not without killing a whole bunch of ’em, and I’m not ready for that yet...”
Arlen shrugged: “Figured as much. Can you take out the tank?”
“I can and will.”
More cops arrived, carrying big plastic shields. They crossed the wall into the area behind the first line of cops, swinging clubs.
The greater weight of the cops’ reinforced line began to push the Campers back. Arlen raised his arm to order a volley of blunt arrows from Joanna and company. Mark led a contingent to flank the police line, and Arlen hollered out the order to begin the retreat.
Ambros saw Red packing the remains of their hard-won food stores into wagons and sending them into swamp, pulled by raggedly dressed teenaged boys and girls.
A thousand contradictory thoughts flew across the surface of Ambros’ mind as he drew and deployed his APS: “Here goes!” he shouted, then Jumped, this time to a spot right beside the tank. It had just that moment begun to roll forward.
He used the sword to turn the tracks on that side of the machine into smoking, broken rubbish. He got his first good look at the soldiers: ‘Army National Guard, I think,’ he thought, as everything seemed to slow down: “I’d better...’
The men stared at him in disbelief, raising their rifles to aim at him, but an officer shouted: “Hold your fire!” Even as he did, a single soldier triggered his weapon.
The bullet hit the scales on his forearm, and bounced into his grill. He Jumped out of harm’s way.
...And directly into a maelstrom. The cops had pushed the Campers back to the second barricade, and he dropped right into the middle of the fighting. The gunshot echoed from a quarter mile away.
Cops closed in around him; one swung a baton at his head.
He took it away, dislocating the man’s elbow to get it, then smacked the guy in the back of his head, cracking the plastic riot helmet and knocking him out. He began to fight his way toward friendly lines.
Some of the Swampers fled at the sound of the gunshot, but most of them charged to his aid. Several Swampers fell; unconscious or worse, he could not tell.
Even so, some small rational part of his mind remained alert: he did not use any of his Commonwealth weapons. He stuck to the cop’s baton, and let his inner berserker out. He escaped, eventually, but only because the police failed to jump on him en masse.
The cops were on their heels from his berserk and the Swampers’ counter attack. And that’s when the Borderers, led by Andy O’Malley in improvised steel armor, temporarily turned the tide. Sixty men and a dozen women, armored in motley gear and swinging everything from baseball bats and machetes to wall hanger swords and hunks of rebar, crashed into the fight, screaming and ululating and rebel-yelling like a gang of bedlam rats.
That did it. The cops fled, over and around the barricades, occasionally fighting as they ran, but beaten. Three of them stopped just short of the barricade and fired shotguns back at the Swampers; one cop fired several times, uncanny in his accuracy. Mark and Arlen both dropped, and Ambros felt a hit on his leg armor.
Andy shouted in pain, but got back up and turned to follow the cops.
“Stand your ground!” Ambros shouted, realizing that Sarge had been wounded...at least. “Stay in camp, hold the barricade! They may come back!”
“Fuck that, hippie!” O’Malley called out as he charged across the wall: “Those fuckers shot at me! They’re goin’ down!”
“Andy! There’s a regiment of US Army out there! Get back here!”
O’Malley made an obscene gesture and returned to pursuit.
The Borderers, along with two or three of the hottest heads in Arlen’s Army, ran off after the cops, shrieking and hollering fit to raise the dead.
Ambros sprinted over to Mark, grabbed him by the arm and said: "You hurt?"
"No!" Mark coughed, hard: "Beanbag round hit my vest, that’s all. Get to Sarge!"
"I'm on it!" They were all shouting, their ears still recovering from the din. Ambros ran over to the second barricade, and found Arlen sitting up. He had a bloody crease across his temple and he was cradling his left arm against his chest.
"Hit me three times," he said: "Bastards."
"Yeah. No sense of decorum. What is the plan now?"
"We won. But those soldier boys are gonna crush O’Malley and his hotheads, and then they’ll chase us out. We’re ready, everyone has their meet-up points and we’re scheduled to gather in Washington Park tomorrow for Polis Commune.” He shook his head: “The press is gonna crucify us, though."
"I expect so. However: I have some video of the fight. It won't make the authorities look good."
"Okay. But how are we gonna make sure the general public sees that?" Sarge looked at him, with narrowed eyes and pursed lips.
"I'll take care of that...at the exact right moment, that is." Ambros said, grinning. He raised the face shield on his helm: "I may even be able to salvage my secret identity out of this, if y'all will not tell on me."
Arlen laughed and then cringed. He rubbed his ribcage; evidently he’d also taken a baton to the chest. He said: "Only a couple-three people here could ID you. I doubt anyone is gonna be talking to the cops, not voluntarily. Not after this..."
"I bet not." Ambros glanced at his MPS: “Soldiers coming. ETA six minutes.”
“Won’t be anything left here except a derelict tent or two. Help me up, man, I gotta get moving. Gotta get word to Vic Michaels, so he can set up his press briefing.”
Sergeant Arlen limped off down the path towards the bug-out point. Ambros stood there, face shield back down, careless of cameras or witnesses, and watched as soldiers approached from two directions. He shook his head in disgust, thinking: ‘This is partly my fault. I really hoped I could delay this till spring, when at least the weather would be better. A clear failure on my part, though I’m not sure what more I coulda done. Must have been something, though…And it sucks for the Swampers.
“But I guess I’d better go get my tent...’
Then he got down behind the barricade and Saltated away to his hidden campsite.