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"Deal," Daneh sighed, terminating the call.

The job was not her favorite; a person wanted an "original" Transfer into something very much like a manta ray. But it was for a worthy cause—the form was a deep-diver and the person wanted to do deep sea research "on site"—and there weren't any serious problems like Herzer's to work on.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Azure lift up and shake himself, heading for Rachel's room, which probably meant that she was back. Thinking about it, Daneh didn't think she'd seen her daughter in a couple of days.

"Rachel?" Daneh called, and her voice was automatically transferred to the girl's room.

"Yes, Mother?"

"Where have you been?"

There was a pause that caused Daneh to sit up and override whatever answer she was going to get. "Come in here for a moment, will you?"

"Yes, Mother," Rachel replied with a sigh that was faithfully replicated by the transmission system.

As soon as the girl walked into the room, Daneh's stomach sank. She'd already been feeling depressed about not having any projects to test her mettle. And now this.

"Rachel, I thought we had agreed no body sculpting?"

There wasn't much, but to her expert eye it stood out like a lightbulb. Rachel's eyebrows had been curved, her cheekbones sharpened and her nose slightly thinned. Furthermore, she had had her breasts reduced and her butt tucked even more than for Marguerite's party.

"I didn't agree, you agreed," Rachel answered hotly.

"I'm your parent, it's my decision," Daneh replied coldly. "Where did you have it done?"

"I don't have to tell you that," the girl said, crossing her arms. "I . . . I don't have to say."

"You could have gotten it off the Net," Daneh said, tilting her head to the side. "It's the sort of generic junk you can find there," she added with professional disdain. "But the Net has my specific prohibition against it. So how did you get it done?"

"I Don't Have To Say," Rachel repeated. "And it's not generic junk!"

"Well, it's very poorly constructed," Daneh said, coldly. "Give me the benefit of my expertise here, daughter. The eyebrows are badly balanced, the cheekbones detract from the nose and the combination makes you look like a short-beaked bird. I mean, it's not well done."

"Well, you wouldn't let me get a well-done job, Mother," she spat, furiously. Then she slumped shaking her head. "But . . . you're right. It does look awful, doesn't it?"

"Not awful," Daneh said, tightly. "But it's neither fashionable, not that I like the current fashions, they're very unhealthy, nor is it particularly good looking on you. Face it, dear, unless or until you get a complete body and face sculpt, and end up looking like your friend Marguerite and all the other kids who were stamped out of the exact same genetic modeling kit, there's not much you can do to look like current fashions. You're too . . ." Daneh paused, searching for the right words.

"Fat," Rachel said.

"Not fat, womanly," Daneh replied. "Nobody these days is fat. Fat is when you have flabby bits hanging . . ." She looked at her stomach and arms and shrugged. "You've seen pictures. You're beautiful dear. You know very well that at times you would have been considered beyond beautiful," she added with a sigh.

"Sure, Mom, but these days guys don't think in terms of women who are built to survive minor famines."

"You're not exactly a Reubens model," Daneh replied. "Do you want it undone? Or do you want to keep it until you can get a proper bod-sculpt? I know some people who do very good work."

"When?" Rachel asked, surprised.

"When you turn eighteen," Daneh replied. "In the meantime, you're grounded indefinitely. If you can't keep a promise like this one, I'm not sure what promises you will keep."


"Don't 'mother' me," Daneh said. "The proof that you aren't old enough to make the decision is that you went behind my back to do it and then got it done badly."

"Oooo . . . I . . . I . . ." Rachel worked her jaw furiously and then spun on her heel and stalked out of the room.

"Genie, I'm serious about the grounding. Remind me of it in a week."

"Yes, ma'am," the program responded.

Daneh sighed and rubbed her temples. "What a day."

* * *

Dionys' surprise turned out to be . . . a girl. Or, Herzer thought much more likely, a homunculus. She, and about a half dozen of McCanoc's usual hangers on, were in a wooded glen. She was small and fragile looking with a short black hair and an elfin face. And she looked frightened.

"Is that a homunculus?" he asked, just to be sure. Normally the homunculus would have been wearing a rather simple smile. This one looked downright terrified. Just to be sure, he sent a mental query to the Net and was assured that it was, in fact, a homunculus. Not a terrified preteen girl.

"Oh yes," Dionys replied with a sardonic grin. "But a very special one. She has been programmed to fear sex. So much more . . . interesting."

"I thought they were illegal?" Herzer said, breathlessly. His face and hands felt hot.

"Not . . . illegal so much as restricted," Dionys said with another grin. "It helps to have friends in high places."

Herzer was not a virgin, at least with homunculi. There was some debate about whether that counted but with the onset of the worst of his symptoms, making friends, especially girlfriends, had been tough. So homunculi were the only route open to his developing teenage libido short of using his hand. And he always cast himself in the role of the hero, the pure paladin on the white charger. But . . .

He knew the allure. The desire not just to be in a woman, be one with one, but to control her and dominate. To take instead of negotiate or, in the case of normal homunculi, be given freely. It was a secret he normally kept deep inside and one that he didn't discuss. Ever. There was no one to talk to about it. No one who would . . . understand. He'd heard rumors about homunculi being abused, some of them even having to be recycled and replaced. Now he understood why.

Hero? Or rapist? Sometimes . . . the line seemed so strange. The joy of battle was so close to how he felt when he fantasized . . . bad things. Even in his own mind he had a hard time saying "rape." To take the life of an orc, to slaughter his enemies and see them running before his charger, to throw a frightened girl to the ground and take what had been withheld. To get back at all the girls who sniggered at him when the convulsions would hit. All the girls who rejected him when he needed them most. To take and take again. To punish.

Was he a paladin or a villain? He just couldn't decide.

Especially now looking at this vulnerable, frightened . . . toy. She wasn't a real woman, a real girl. She was just an artificial construct. Somehow that both relieved him and made the . . . thing less illicit. Almost less interesting. But not much.

"Please," the homunculus whispered, tears running down her cheek. "Please . . ."

He felt the heat rising in his body no matter how he tried to check it. This was just . . .

"There's nothing wrong," Dionys said. "Men have . . . needs. This is one way to let them out. Women have . . . very similar needs you'll eventually find. But even that is so sterile. So many rules, so many precautions. This is the real." He tapped Herzer on the back. Lightly. "Go ahead. Take her. Enjoy."

Herzer took an involuntary step forward and reached out one hand to the girl's blouse. It was white silk with old-fashioned buttons to match the short skirt of the same material. He imagined himself ripping the blouse open, running his hand up her thighs . . . taking her.

"Please don't," the girl whimpered. "Please . . . ?"

He worked his jaw for just a moment and shook his head.

"No, Dionys," he said, harshly. "This isn't right."

"How can it not be?" The man sounded more surprised than anything else, as if the thought had never occurred to him. "She's only a homunculus."

"And her fear isn't real," Herzer agreed, although it was an intellectual agreement only. "But . . . it's still not right. I'm not . . . this isn't right." He looked at the two holding her arms but they just grinned. "It's not right."

"So you've said," Dionys replied, disapprovingly. "Very well, if you don't want to stay and enjoy yourself, you can go. Go to your meek little playthings and all the so-called friends who betrayed you."

Herzer started to open his mouth to reply but at the look on McCanoc's face he shook his head instead. "Home, genie."

* * *

Sheida glanced around at the Council as she entered the vast chamber, but if there was mischief on anyone's mind, it wasn't showing. Celine had apparently decided to copy Ishtar's hairstyle, and her hair, suitably lengthened, was gathered in a giant confection shot through with crystal wasps made of gold and ebony.

Paul and the rest of "his" faction had gathered at one end of the table, so as Sheida, who had carefully arrived last, settled into her seat he stood up to call the Council to order.

"The first thing is to change the agenda," Paul said. "Mother, refer to the first item on Agenda B, please." He looked towards the entrance and smiled. "And here is our seventh voter."

Sheida glanced over her shoulder quickly, thinking as she did so that it might be a trick but then blanched.

"You've called in the DEMON?" she shouted. At the shout her lizard unwound from her neck and took off upwards towards the top of the chamber. It found a perch where it could look down and watch the rest of the proceedings through baleful eyes.

"Indeed he did," the apparition growled. "And I vote aye." The Demon's true form was impossible to know since he went everywhere in a suit of black armor. The helmet of the armor had been worked into a bestial face, all staring eyes and tusks, and the gloves were tipped with long talons. He was one of the two normally absent holders of the Keys, older than any of the rest of the Council. He had extended his life by means that were highly illegal, using the power of his position to twist the laws to his own purpose. His purpose had always been chaos, so his appearance at this meeting made terrible sense.

There was a series of rapid "ayes" from Paul's faction and he smiled broadly.

"The personal protection fields are now turned off," he said with a moue. "Item two, aye." After the same series of seven agreements he shrugged. "And the Council is now officially in a dispute situation with rump rules applying." He looked at Sheida sadly. "I do this for all mankind. You cannot stand in the way of the survival of the human race. Celine?"

"Welcome to the new order," Celine said, rising to her feet. "My friends wish to make your acquaintance," she continued as her hair seemed to explode outward.

Sheida cursed as the cloud of insects came flying across the room. Poisons and poisonous life-forms were not allowed in the Council chamber, but there were two types of wasps in the group, black and yellow.

"Binary toxins!" she shouted, springing to her feet and overturning her chair in her haste. As she did the Demon sprang through the air.

Cantor was already on his feet and didn't even bother to Change as one arm swept into Tetzacola Duenas. The impact snapped the man's neck and he was flung through the air in the direction of Sheida just as the Demon landed on the werebear's back.

Ungphakorn wasn't inactive either. He had grasped the top of the table and uncoiled from his oversized seat, his long serpentine body flipping down the table and enwrapping Said. In a flash the council member was dragged from his chair and wrapped in coil after coil of feathery body. He let out one cry, more of a squeaking scream, then his tongue and eyes protruded as the serpent applied full power in a constrictive hug of death. The quetzacoatal ripped the Key from his neck and half flew, half slithered across the chamber towards the entrance, the tip of his tail flicking back and forth snapping at the wasps closing in on him.

Sheida's flying lizard stooped from its perch, its wings folded onto its back, and snapped one of the wasps out of the air, crunching down on it and spitting it out at the taste. It hissed as it flew past Celine, grabbing at more of the insects as it darted hither and yon.

Sheida raised her arm and a bracelet extended into a broad shield. She flipped it through the air and swatted aside two of the wasps as she bent to the dead council member and ripped the Key from Tetzacola's neck.

"Out!" she shouted, backing towards the entrance.

Cantor was still wrestling with the Demon as two of the wasps landed on him and began probing for an open spot in his fur. She looked towards him but he just shook his head at her.

"Get out!" he yelled, ripping his Key off and throwing it towards her. He pulled his hands loose from the Demon's grip and took two of the beast's tusks, turning its head up and back. "Go!" he cried as the first sting hit.

Ishtar had touched a control on her hover seat and fled the room at the first sign of trouble, some of the wasps following her out. Sheida was relatively sure that she was going to survive but she found herself and Aikawa the only ones left in a room full of enemies.

"Time to leave," she said, backing rapidly towards the door and flicking another of the wasps away with her shield as her flyer guardian snapped another out of the air and landed on her head, tongue flickering in and out.

"Hmmm," Aikawa said snatching one of the wasps out of the air and crushing it in a move that looked like some sort of magic. "I suppose," he murmured, catching up another and considering the insect as it struggled before crushing it between his fingers. He was careful to keep away from the business end at the rear. He dropped both of the crushed bodies into a pouch and then waved at his former colleagues. "I'm going to kill you all for this." With that he flipped out of the room in a series of seemingly impossible back-flips.

Sheida was now surrounded by a cloud and felt the first sting as she kept backing towards the door. "Goodbye, Paul. And I'll see you in hell." With that she took one more swat and fled. The last thing she saw on the way out the door was Cantor's body beginning to spasm. But he still had a death grip on the Demon.

* * *

The four surviving Council members had fled by prearrangement to a home that Sheida maintained in the Teron mountains. From its main room there was a spectacular view down to a tarn similar to that at the Council Center. But it was across the world from that embattled chamber.

"Paul will follow us," Aikawa said, looking around.

"Not easily," Sheida said, striding across the room and yanking open a cupboard. She tossed an archaic can to Ishtar and a long, curved sword to Aikawa. "The house has its own power supply, divorced from the Net. And a teleport block. And weapons. Let him come."

"There is a dip in power in the Net," Ishtar said, looking at something that was invisible to the rest. "He is preparing something. . . ."

As she spoke, a bolt flew out of the clear sky and crashed into an invisible barrier over the house, sending a tremor through the floor as something in the basement began to screech.

"Oh, and a protection field," Sheida said as her lizard took off in fright from the impact. "That was from the Council Chambers themselves. We can't reply directly but . . ." She opened her mind to the Net and delved in, looking for weaknesses. "They're drawing power directly from the Net, but they're not hooked into a particular plant." She considered the protocols and twisted. "I need a vote, all in favor of disconnecting all power distribution say 'aye.' "

"But if we do that . . ." Ishtar temporized just as another bolt crashed into the screen.

"That barrier won't hold forever," Sheida said. "And if they get smart they'll just burn the rocks out from under us."

"People will die," Aikawa said.

"We're about to have a war," Sheida replied. "And we don't have enough time to debate. We can't take all the power plants to our own control, they already tried that and the protocols are against it. But if we send people to take physical control we can control the power distribution." Her forehead creased and then she nodded. "I just dropped a half a dozen satellites on them. That should make things interesting. And I'm diverting as much power out of the Net as I can to melt the ground under them. Of course, we're more vulnerable to that than they are."

"I just increased the power over this place," Ishtar said as the next bolt stopped well in the sky. "And I sent a similar bolt against them. There is an upper limit to power available from our personal queue. I'd never realized that. It's . . . rather high, though," she added as another blast caused the mountain to shudder. "I suggest that we reinforce the foundations of this place. Soon."

"Mother won't give any of us unlimited power, that's a holdover protocol from the AI wars," Aikawa said. He thought for a moment. "Okay, we disconnect all generators from the Net. What does that do?"

"We'll have to draw from them individually," Sheida said. There were fourteen terawatt generators that supplied power for the Net along with some relatively small secondary sources such as geothermal areas where the nannites bled off power to prevent eruptions and other disturbances. There had been a time in history, shortly after the AI wars, when the power had peaked at over thirty terawatts. But use of that much power on the surface of the planet had led to severe secondary problems and as the population had peaked the power allotment had stayed the same but usage dropped. There had been occasional calls for increases in generation, but when output got over twenty terawatts, much of it had to be diverted to climate control.

"That means that whoever has the generators, has the power," Ishtar said. "I'm tracing the flows that they're using right now and they're drawing on spare power from two of the reactors in Ropasa. If we can prevent them from gathering power from the others . . ."

"Then we start calling in people that we know we can trust to go and take physical possession of the generators," Sheida said with a nod. "At that point we will control their output and Paul can't have it." Her face creased and she smiled. "Okay, I've joined Ishtar in hammering the Council Chamber. I also put a teleport block over them."

"That takes power, too," Ishtar said with a frown. "And two can play at that game; one just went on here."

"Yes, but I have a decent road out," Sheida laughed. "Let them try walking out of the Council Center."

"Then we end up having fights for the generators," Ungphakorn said, ruffling his feathers furiously. "We'll have to shield each of them."

"But I'd bet money I have better friends at that sort of thing than they do," Sheida replied, nodding. "Okay, avatars on the way."

"We're taking power from general usage already," Ishtar noted in wonder. She looked up at the hills around the house. Where once had been trees towering into the sky was now a blackened heath; the secondary effects of an irresistible force hitting an inanimate object. "There's enough to sustain the Net currently, but if we keep this up . . ."

"If we don't keep it up, Paul and his 'five year plan' wins," Sheida replied. "We can't let that happen."

"And we have two additional Keys," Aikawa noted, holding one up. "That puts us at near parity with them."

"But we don't have anyone to vote or use them," Ishtar said. "We need two. Two that we can trust."

"I know one," Sheida said.

"The power grid . . ." Ishtar gasped, her eyes staring into the infinity of the Net. "The power grid is . . . going down."

* * *

The two fighters circled each other warily each searching for an opening. They were armed and armored alike, mail, helmet, a cuirass and shield, wielding long swords easily in their right hands.

After a moment's fruitless circling, the larger sprang forward with a yell and jammed his shield against the smaller man's shield, searching over it for a strike.

Harry Chambers laughed and fell back at the shield charge, swinging his sword to the side to skitter over the larger fighter's shield edge.

"You're getting slow in your old age, Edmund," he chuckled, dancing out of range.

"So are you," Edmund replied, but he had to admit to the reality of the statement; he and Harry had been sparring for years and never had the lighter fighter taken the shield rush that easily. "That just means I have to be craftier."

"Fat chance," Harry replied, leaping forward with a series of blows. He rang blow after blow off of Edmund's shield, careful not to snap the blade on the boss or the metal-rimmed edge. But the series of blows had their intended effect, driving Edmund back for the first time that he could recall. "Weak, Edmund. All this soft living is making you weak."

"I'm afraid you're right," Edmund gasped, trying to retaliate. But his blows rang softly against the lighter fighter's shield and he could not check the rush. Finally, he stumbled, a misplaced piece of kindling rolling out from under his foot, and he dropped to one knee, holding the shield above him now to wield off the blows.

"Weak, Edmund," Harry cried in delight; it was the first time he could recall succeeding this easily. He considered for a moment if maybe he should back off, but he still hadn't landed a strong blow, just a series of chops on the shield that was slowly battering the reinforced plywood.

"Yes," Edmund gasped, drawing his sword back. "I guess I'm too old," he continued as the sword flew forward, well under his opponent's, and crashed into his thigh. There was a spurt of blood and Harry let out a shriek. Suddenly, things weren't what they seemed.

"Lord God, Edmund!" Harry shouted, crumpling to the ground, his hand clapped over the spurting wound. "What did you do to your sword!"

The sword's own blunting field should have stopped it from doing any cutting damage, although Harry would have had a Charlie Horse to remember. For that matter, Harry's own defensive field, reduced as it was, should have prevented the contact. Neither had activated.

"I didn't do anything," Edmund said, dropping to both knees and grasping his friend's hand. "Let me see."

"It bloody hurts!" Harry shouted. "Bloody hell does it hurt!"

Edmund pried the younger man's hand away and looked at the wound. It was a deep cut, on the outer thigh. The sword had cloven through the ring-mail and underpadding, then into the flesh of the quadriceps. It was bloody, but it wasn't life threatening; there was no bright red spurting of arterial damage or even the slow, solid flow of a cut vein.

"It's only a flesh wound," Edmund said, frowning.

"It's a bloody painful flesh wound," Harry replied, sitting up on one elbow since the shock of surprise had worn off. "Edmund, why isn't there a repair cloud on it? Why does it hurt?"

"Why did the damned sword go home?" Edmund asked, rhetorically. "Butler." He paused for a moment then frowned. "Butler!"

"Genie?" Harry said. "Oh, shit, Edmund. Genie!" There was no reply. No voices answered out of the air and no projections appeared.

Edmund looked around. They were in the training area behind the forge, one of three on his property. He finally shrugged and got his arm under Harry. "Keep your hand on that and I'll get you into the forge."

"Okay," Harry said faintly. "I'm not feeling particularly well."

"It's shock," Talbot explained, leading his limping friend into the building. "I need to get you laid out again." He first sat the fighter down on a bench then laid out some leather mats before lowering him to the floor. "Carborundum!"

"Not a good situation, is it, O meat bag?" the AI said, sticking its head out of the blast furnace.

"What in the hell is going on?" Edmund asked, as he searched frantically for something that was reasonably clean to place on the wound. Finally he settled for a fresh batch of cosilk waste and pressed it into the mess on Harry's leg. "Why are you responding and the genies aren't?"

"The Net is down," the AI replied. "The Council is fighting amongst itself. They're diverting all power, and all processing power, to that. I am an independent entity."

"Oh . . . hell," Harry groaned. "No bloody nannites?"

"Nope," the AI said. "Not unless something falls out quick. You're not the only ones who are in a bad way; nobody has any power anywhere. That means no food, no water, no light. Things are starting to get bad already."

"Paul's coup," Edmund muttered, looking around the forge.

"What?" Harry asked.

"Sheida told me that Paul might be planning a coup. We discussed means of defense. Carb, where do the AI's stand?"

"Most of them are sitting it out," the AI replied frankly. "The only thing that can destroy us is the Council, acting in concert. Whichever faction wins will come down hard on the loser's supporters."

"Where do you stand?" Edmund asked, wrapping a leather strap around his friend's thigh to keep the cosilk in place.

"I've read Bowman's manifesto," the AI said, acidly. "I don't think so."

"Can I read it?" Edmund asked, standing up.

"I could read it to you," Carb said. "But I can't produce it. I'm . . . somewhat lacking in power myself."

"How bad is it?"

"Well . . . how much charcoal do you have?" the AI asked.

"Not all that much," Edmund admitted. "We're towards the end of the cycle. But if I parcel it out . . ."

"If I drop below eight hundred degrees C, I'm toast," Carb said, bluntly. "Or, rather, I'm not toast, so I'm dead."

"Dead, dead, or quiescent?" Harry asked.

"I might be able to back up a few functions, but I'm not sure I'll recover," the AI admitted. "Call it mostly dead and maybe unrecoverable without a miracle. Which doesn't look likely right now. By the way, Sheida is calling in all her markers; you're going to get a call soon."

"I've got to see to Harry," Edmund responded. "Then to the village. I'll talk to her when I have to." He turned to Harry and waggled a finger at him. "Don't you die while I'm gone!"

"I'll try not to," Harry said weakly.

Edmund trotted across the courtyard, the weight of his armor virtually unnoticed, and entered a side door of the house. Down a corridor in a long-unopened storeroom he pulled open a locker and rummaged to the bottom. There he found a pack and dragged it out. A quick check of the contents sufficed and he ran back to where the injured fighter was lying.

"I didn't know you knew any AI's," Harry said when he entered. The injured fighter's color was, if anything, a tad better.

"It wasn't supposed to be general knowledge," Carb said. "But, all things considered . . ."

Edmund unbuckled Harry's armor and started stripping off the pants.

"Edmund, I never knew you cared," Harry joked, helping with the heavy steel. "It would be easier if I stood up."

"It would be harder if you passed out," Edmund replied, pulling the armor away from the wound. The cosilk padding was quickly cut with a belt-knife, then he opened up the green backpack and started rummaging through packages.

"What's all that?" Harry asked with a tone of deep interest.

"Very old fashioned medical gear," Edmund replied, withdrawing a bottle of antiseptic and some small, clear packages.

"This is gonna hurt," he said in an offhand manner as he poured much of the contents of the bottle of brown liquid into the wound and onto his hands.

"JESUS ON A CRUTCH!" Harry yelled, practically sitting up. But he didn't bat the bottle away. "What was that?"

"Something called 'betadyne' that they used to use back in the ooold days," Edmund replied. "It's okay, next we're talking really medieval medicine," he continued, pulling a curved needle out of one package and a long piece of string out of the other.

"Is that what I think it is?" Harry asked.

"Would you prefer some boiling pitch?" Edmund asked. He pulled some clamps out of the bag and shut the wound, then began applying the suturing needle. "I mean, that would be really period. Nothing like a nice cauterization to start the day."

"No," Harry replied, gasping as Edmund tied off the first suture. "Stitching is just fine. Antique, but fine."

"Hell of a lot of damage to the quad, here, buddy," Edmund said, putting in another stitch. "Sorry about that."

"No way you could have known," Harry said with another gasp.

"Tying them off is the hardest part," Edmund commented. "We're going to be calling you Gimpy for a while."

"Edmund, can I ask a question?" Harry said, as the third suture went in.


"Why do you have an old-fashioned medical kit?"

Edmund hesitated for a moment then tightened the last suture. "In case I'm someplace the nannites don't do all the repairs."

"But the only place like that is . . ."

"Edmund Talbot?"

Edmund spun in place on the floor and pointed the sword he hadn't even realized he'd carried in at the apparition, which turned out to be an avatar of Sheida Ghorbani.

"Edmund, Paul attempted his coup," the avatar said. "I need every person who has any training in . . . well in war, here with me. He has already attacked power plants and I need them secured. I can port you now."

"No," Edmund replied, lifting Harry to a sitting position.

"Edmund, I know you would not side with Paul. He represents . . ."

"I know what he represents," Edmund replied. "I'm not siding with Paul. But I'm also not leaving here. Make sure that you tell Sheida that and that she's thinking tactically instead of strategically. Tell her that."

"She wishes you to become a Council member," the avatar said.

"What does that mean?" Edmund asked.

"They seized two Keys in the fight in the Council Chamber. She wishes you to vote one."

"Holy shit," Harry whistled. "Council member."

"No," Edmund said after a moment's thought. "Tell her that this is my place. We have to rebuild before we can do anything. She needs me here. Tell her, strategic not tactical."

"I shall," the avatar said, winking out.

"What in the hell did that mean?" Harry asked, leaning into the older fighter. "Bloody hell that hurts."

"Well, let's go get you some anesthetic," Edmund said. "Fortunately, I just put up some corn liquor; it should be about mellowed out."

"Sounds good to me."

They limped into the house and into the kitchen, where Edmund dumped Harry in one of the chairs and began opening cabinets.

"The first thing you need is a fluid replenisher," Edmund said, sliding a bottle across the table. "Then, the moonshine."

"This is just great," Harry said, taking a deep chug of the blue liquid. "Everything's gone?"

"It sounds like it," Edmund said.

"I can't go home," Harry said, taking another drink.

"Not unless you can walk to London. Robert has been building period ships, not Middle Ages period but sloops and barkentines, that sort of thing. He might be able to get you home."

"Daneh? Rachel?"

"No communications," Edmund replied, taking a sip of the moonshine. "No way to know. I suppose if I'd taken Sheida up on her offer . . ."

"That's . . ."

"It's happening all over the world, everywhere," Edmund said, coldly. "Not just my family. Everyone's family. Think about how bad it must be out there. We're in a room that is designed to survive without power. Think about Fukyama in his damned floating castle!"

"Ouch, good point. And you're staying here?"

"First of all, can you imagine anywhere better to be?" Edmund asked, waving around at the fixtures. The hams hanging from the rafters, the garlands of onions. "Where should I go?"

"The south road to find Daneh and Rachel?" Harry suggested.

"Perhaps," he sighed. "But . . . people know where this place is. Do you know how rare that is; that someone can find a location on a map? People will come here. The term's so old it's like 'slave' and 'villeigne' but we'll get 'refugees' coming here, on the roads that remain."

" 'All roads lead to Faire,' " Harry said.

"Damned near all that are left. So, do you want to leave Myron in charge? Or Tarmac?"

"No," Harry said.

"That's what I meant by Sheida thinking tactically. Unless one side wins right away, this . . . this war, speaking of another old term, is going to drag on. And if it does, somebody has to be down on the ground, picking up the pieces. I think my place is there, not standing guard over some damned fusion plant."

"And if Paul wins?"

"In that case, my place is vengeance."

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