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Techlands Unlikely Future

At the Gathering I

The village chosen by the UN Mediators was not seriously claimed by any of the half-dozen local strongmen who would be attending the meeting. It had been hit a by few too many waves of ethnic cleansing and at least one earthquake, and had been empty for the better part of a decade. The location, in a narrow mountain valley away from the main roads to anywhere important, was not convenient for any of the attendees, which made it slightly less likely that any particular private army would make a sudden appearance. The Mediators had announced that in addition to their own employees they would provide shelter, infrastructure, and supplies for 100 representatives of each faction: supplies for any additional staff would need to be hauled in by the various parties under the watchful gaze of their opponents.

The Independent Security and Engineering Company, under contract to the Mediators, were the first to arrive. They set up their own compound around some abandoned farm buildings on the slope above the town and turned loose a swarm of mine-sweeper bots through the whole area, then turned their attention to providing the promised infrastructure. Water and basic sanitation. Secure warehousing for the supplies. Electricity for the central buildings that would be used by the Mediators and serve as headquarters for the different factions. Communications and data up-links, and firewalls, and anti-snooping measures. A small emergency medical facility. A few tough barricades between sections of the village assigned to different factions that were not safe neighbors.

The chopper pad and petrol depot, constructed between the village and the ISEC compound, were only finished the day before the Mediators flew in and the factions began to arrive. There had been no time or resources to do anything about the truly appalling state of the roads leading to the village, even if the spring rains had been more cooperative, but some merchants and vendors showed up to take advantage of the concentration of potential customers even before the faction representatives arrived. The men and women of ISEC set down their tools, put on blue armbands and helmet covers and turned most of their attention to directing traffic and trying to maintain some kind of order.

The morning before the conference was due to start Dimiter Mandarev, who handled ISEC's bookkeeping and purchasing, got word that some replacement parts they had been waiting for had arrived at the main supply depot in the village. He drove one of the ISEC trucks down the hill, but as he approached the main road his way was blocked by a crowd of men around a van. He set the brake, turned off the motor, pocketed the keys, and got out to see what was going on.

The crowd turned out to be smaller than it had looked at first. The van was mired in a break in the pavement just slightly larger than its own wheelbase, and the men observing the situation — and jeering at the driver — were staying well back to avoid the soupy mud that sprayed whenever the wheels spun. By the time the driver finally cut his engine after his latest try and got out to examine his situation, the wheels were nearly hub deep.

"Excuse me, Sir", said a quiet voice, and both the driver and Mandarev turned to look. The speaker was a short, thin young man in weatherworn clothes. He was beardless, but his dark hair was badly in need of a haircut. Seeing he had the driver's attention, he continued "Sir? If I can get your van out of that hole, will you pay me enough for a good meal?" Mandarev could not quite place his accent.

"Sure, kid. If you can really get that van out of there, I'll pay you a hundred euros: that should feed you for a day or two," the driver answered wearily.

The boy whistled, and called "Rakkas!", and the spectators moved around enough to get out of the way of a very odd looking... mule? Mandarev was not very used to horses: ISEC had three that they sometimes used to haul up-link dishes and other equipment to places where wheels couldn't reach, but his own work seldom brought him near them. The animal coming toward him was smaller than most horses he had seen, and oddly shaped, but it did not quite look like a donkey either. It was almost front-heavy, with a long blocky head and a thick neck. What could be seen of the beast under its saddle and large packs and the miscellaneous extra straps of its harness seemed to be a sandy off-white, except for narrow chocolate stripes down its tail and down the center of its upstanding mane, and chocolate spots at the tips of its very long ears. It was also extremely fuzzy, so it almost looked like some odd stuffed toy that had grown large and come to life.

The mule's owner began unstrapping packs from behind the saddle while he asked the van's driver, "Excuse me, sir, does the power in your van go to the front axle or the rear?"

"The front."

"Excellent. That makes things easier." He pulled a couple of ropes out of one of the packs, then patted the mule on the nose and said, "Come on, bunny-ears, let's have some fun."

Mandarev moved to stand by the pile of packs. No sense in letting the kid's property disappear, when his blue helmet and armband might give troublemakers second thoughts.

The kid led his mule to pavement in front of the van, then scrambled down into the mud to attach the ropes to the left and right sides of the van's front. The mule stayed where it had been placed, but bounced excitedly, picking up one foot after another and setting them down again. When the kid came back onto the pavement, he attached the other ends of the ropes to the two sides of the saddle where the harness breastband attached. The little mule leaned hard against the harness at an angle to the left, then to the right. Then it returned to the center position and stood waiting.

The mule's owner got into the van, turned on the motor and put it in second gear, keeping the clutch in. "Now, Rakkas," he called, "Pull! Çekmek!". The mule waggled an ear, leaned against the harness and took two steps forward, so that the front tires of the van were pressed firmly against the broken edge of the pavement. The kid let out the clutch very slowly, and, with the mule making sure the tires were gripping the pavement and would not slide back, drove the front wheels up out of the hole. The mule walked forward as the van moved, keeping the tow-ropes taut until the rear tires also rolled up and onto the pavement.

The kid called, "Rakkas, stand! Durmak!" and the mule let the ropes go a little slack.

The driver walked over to his van as the kid turned off the engine, and set the brake. He held out a handful of coins. "Here, kid. The hundred I promised. And a little extra for your pony. That was a very neat job. What's your name?"

"Thank you very much, Sir." The boy bowed slightly as he accepted the money. "I'm Tosun, and he's Rakkas." Tosun knelt to unfasten the tow ropes from the front of the truck, while Rakkas repeated his standing-in-place jig. Then the pair went to gather up their packs — Tosun pulled a handful of something from one of the packs and fed it to the mule before he strapped that pack to the saddle. Rakkas stood still and leaned the top of his head against Tosun's chest while Tosun petted the mule's long ears.

Mandarev cleared his throat. "Tosun, is it? A couple of the representatives' parties that came overland brought horses, so there's a fenced area for horses near the center of town with hay and water available. Have you been there yet? There should be equipment lockers where you can store your gear, too. And if you meet me at the main supply depot in an hour, I may have some work for you."

Tosun looked up and smiled: large dark eyes and white teeth in a face that showed its fine bones a little too clearly. "Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir. I'll see you there." He bowed slightly, then stepped up into the saddle and rode off toward the center of the village.

The crowd of gawkers was dispersing now that the show was over, so Mandarev was able to restart his truck and continue toward the supply depot. He kept a sharp eye out for potholes: his truck was too big and heavy for Rakkas to tow if it got stuck like that van.

Tosun turned up at the depot five minutes early and wearing clothes that were, if not exactly spotless, at least not freshly soaked in mud. He looked even thinner without bulk of the heavy winter coat he had been wearing earlier, and the shorter jacket revealed that he had a half-meter long bush knife of some sort sheathed at his waist, but showed no signs of other weapons.

There had been a scabbarded rifle attached to Rakkas' saddle, but apparently the mule's owner had left the weapon in the equipment locker as the rules of the conference requested. Most of the representatives were not technically carrying firearms openly, but made no real attempt to hide their shoulder holsters. And some of their followers were so loaded with weapons and cartridge belts that their jacket colors and insignia were nearly invisible.

"Good day, Mr. Mandarev. You said you might have some work for me?"

"I have some crates that need to be loaded onto the truck. Do you think you can help?"

"Oh yes, Sir. I've been trained to load any kind of vehicle properly, and any kind of pack animal from dogs and goats up to elephants.

"Oh, really?" Mandarev raised a skeptical eyebrow, but the kid met his gaze.

"Well, I've never actually loaded an elephant or one-humped camel myself, Sir, but I've seen it done. And I've seen pictures of loading those llamas they use in the Americas."

"Heh. Come see what we have to deal with here." Mandarev unlocked the door of the old garage they had hardened for use as the supply depot and walked over to some pallets of crates with a forklift standing beside them. "This would be easier if we had a proper loading dock."

Tosun looked over the crates carefully, then walked out to take another look at the truck, squatting to look at the axles and suspension. "How bad is the road up beyond the helicopter pad, Sir?"

"We graded and gravelled it pretty thoroughly, and it hasn't had time to get chewed up too badly yet. And there's a switchback curve that loops around the petrol dump, so the slope isn't quite as bad as it looks."

Tosun tapped two medium-sized crates that were full of generator parts and very heavy. "These need to go on the truck first, Sir, or we will never get the balance right."

"All right. I'll run the forklift and you can organize the crates on the truck. Don't hurt yourself trying to lift or move crates that are too heavy. Tell me if you need help."

Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir." Tosun let down the tailgate and hopped up into the truck bed.

They soon fell into a rhythm. Mandarev on the forklift would lift a pallet and rest one edge on the tailgate, then the two of them would wrestle the crates into the truck and Tosun would arrange — and re-arrange — them.

Mandarev got a vacuum flask from the cab of the truck and sipped some coffee while the kid pulled two already-placed crates out of the load, tucked in a new one, then re-positioned the other two crates. Tosun was building the load like a three dimensional puzzle: one of those wooden ones that look like a solid cube or sphere until the proper piece is removed. He was leaving no unused space at all in the truck, and no chance that any of the crates would shift.

"Hey, kid, do you drink coffee?"

"Of course, Sir. Thank you." The kid jumped down out of the truck while Mandarev poured some more coffee into a spare cup. Tosun took a careful sip, looked into the cup, snorted, and took a larger swallow.

"Do you know any double-entry bookkeeping, Tosun?

"I would not want to try to set up a chart of accounts myself, Sir, but I can do the data entry, and make sure things balance."

"And you can manage a warehouse and inventory?"

"Yes, Sir. Of course."

"Would you be interested in a permanent job with the ISEC?"

Tosun took a long swallow of the coffee. "You are mercenaries, aren't you, Sir? I am not trained as a soldier, and I am not sure that I want to be one..." he took another swallow. "Although I must admit that soldiering is less disgusting work than some of the available alternatives."

"Well. It's true that we work to contract, and we're armed. Sometimes heavily armed. But our preferred stock-in-trade is expertise, not violence. We occasionally get hired as a training cadre, so I'm sure we can teach you any skills you may be missing." The kid looked uncertain, so Mandarev added. "It's not like you'd be signing your life away: the standard initial contract for a tech specialist is for one year. And there are clauses to cover use of personal vehicles and equipment, so you'll be paid extra for anything Rakkas does that's useful."

Tosun sipped slowly at his coffee until it was finished. "Very well. Thank you, Sir. I will accept your offer of employment.

Mandarev got a spare armband out of the glove compartment. "You'd better put this on. It's safer moving around the village if its clear who you're with. The conference hasn't begun yet, but we've already had a few nasty incidents."

They went back to work, and by a little after noon the last of the crates were being added to the truck's load. Mandarev found this doubly surprising: first because they had finished so quickly, and secondly because he had expected that he would need two trips to move all of the crates up to the compound. Tosun's careful packing had fitted all of the crates onto the truck, with a little room to spare near the tailgate and the rear view mirror almost usable.

They draped a cargo net over the load and snugged it down, and Mandarev looked around for the nearest blue helmet and armband. "Hey! Farkas!" The man directing traffic at the nearest intersection waved. "Keep an eye on this stuff while we get some lunch?" Farkas waved again, sketching a salute, then yelled at a jeep that was trying to ignore his instructions.

They washed the dust off with some water from a 20 liter can strapped to the truck. Tosun took a few minutes to hastily say his post-noon prayers before Mandarev locked the doors of the depot.

"Ready, kid?"

"Coming, Sir. Umm... could we check on Rakkas, too?"

"Of course."

Mandarev and Tosun walked past Farkas into the village square. A few trucks and vans had opened up and were serving fruit and sandwiches and hot food, and there was a wrecked restaurant that had been resurrected by entrepreneurs: the original ovens were working but it was draped with tarps instead of a roof. The van that Rakkas and Tosun had rescued was selling felafel and souvlaki, and offered them a discount. They bought some pita-bread sandwiches and walked across the square toward the corral, occasionally dodging vehicles that did whatever the drivers wanted as soon as they were a few car-lengths beyond Farkas' post.

They leaned against the corral fence to eat their lunches. Rakkas was on the far side of the corral, beyond the gate, pulling at at some hay suspended in a waist-high net. He looked up and waggled his ears when Tosun called, "Hello, Rakkas," but returned to his meal.

As they were finishing their meal, five riders on horses rode out of a side street and up to the corral gate. The leader was an older man wearing khaki, with a black and gold armband — mark of the faction led by Anton Kovaly — riding on a dapple gray with a saddle and bridle of light-colored leather. Three of his companions rode bays with ordinary saddles and also wore khakis, with matching armbands.

The fifth man was a very tall, broad-shouldered man riding a tall black stallion that had been curried within an inch of its life. Both horse and man were dressed for a parade. The man wore black clothes with medals, and silver buttons and trim and ornaments, and even a sword with a fancy silver scabbard and hilt and some nasty-looking spurs. The saddle and bridle were probably black but had so much silver trim that it was a good thing the day was overcast: on a sunny day the horse would have looked like a disco-ball on four legs.

There was a 'rrapp' sound as Mandarev unfastened the velcroed flap over his sidearm and rolled it out of the way.

"Trouble, Sir?"

"I hope not." Mandarev spoke very softly. "Old man Kovaly is a decent guy, but the guy in black — he runs a hardline wing within Kovaly's faction — has a nasty reputation and has been living down to it the past couple of days."

Tosun unsnapped a small strap that held his bush-knife in its sheath.

The old man man stayed on his horse. The others dismounted, but the three men riding the bays held their horses back out of the way while the black stallion did its best to kill or maim the grooms who came to unsaddle and unbridle it: biting and kicking at them.

Once the grooms were done — and out of reach — the stallion lunged in through the corral gate and stopped for a moment, looking around. Then he laid back his ears, screamed a challenge and charged toward Rakkas. The old man, still mounted, shouted, "Kralovic! Call off your horse!"

Tosun screamed "Rakkas!" and ran toward the gate. His voice broke on the second syllable. Mandarev revised his estimate of the kid's age downward by a couple of years.

Compared to the big, sleek, black stallion, the little mule looked even more like a fuzzy white toy. Rakkas moved away from the wall, laid back his long ears and turned to face his attacker. When the stallion reared to attack, the mule dodged forward, whirled, and landed a solid kick with both hind hooves. (Mandarev winced. That black monster was not going to be useful at stud any time soon.) The force of the kick acted like a judo throw, accelerating the taller beast's motion and boosting him over the mule's lowered head to land in a tangled heap of neck, body and legs.

Rakkas dodged away across the corral, then turned to face the stallion again. The mule stood waiting quietly, watchful, with his head up and his ears pricked.

The black horse needed three tries before he got himself untangled and back on his feet. He was limping — favoring his left hind leg — and shaking his head. But his ears were still back, and his teeth were still bared. His eyes were showing the whites all the way around.

Though only a couple of minutes had passed, a crowd was already gathering and bets were being laid. Several people had cheered when Rakkas kicked the stallion, including two of the three grooms the the black horse had tried to savage. The old man shouted again, "Kralovic! Control your horse!"

The big, black-clad man looked around at the onlookers and muttered, "To Hell with that!", then he shouted "Chort! Kill that damned white sheep!" The black stud screamed again began to trot unevenly toward the mule.

Tosun shouted frantically, "Wolf, Rakkas! Wolf! Kurt! Kurt!" The mule lowered his head and laid his ears back, and began circling toward the stallion's lame side.

The black stallion lunged, head lowered, snapping, and Rakkas dodged to the side, whirled and kicked again, twice. The first kick broke the horse's left foreleg with a crack audible across the corral. The second kick landed at the top of the black's throat, just at the hinge of the jaw. The stallion staggered and collapsed. The mule walked closer, warily, then reared up and brought both front hooves down on the stallion's head, putting all of his strength and weight into the blow. He trotted away a dozen meters or so, and turned and faced the stallion. He bent his head to sniff warily at the blood on his hooves, then raised his head and held it slightly tilted, with his long ears pricked, calmly watching the stallion's limp form.

The stallion's rider, Kralovic, made a choking sound that might have been a strangled curse. He strode toward Tosun, who was standing still with his hands held carefully away from his belt and bush knife. The big man started to put his hand inside his jacket but there were sounds of rifles being readied from several points in the watching crowd and the ominous hum of an ISEC crowd-control zapper charging came from somewhere behind Mandarev. The big man dropped his hand, muttering "Damn you!" and then louder, "You damned brat!" as he took another step toward Tosun, slipping in the mud in his shiny leather boots, and shook his fist.

Kralovic suddenly dropped his fist to his belt, drew the ornate sword at his side and waved it, lurching the last couple of steps toward Tosun. There was a metallic clack as the sword was knocked upward, and immediately blood was spraying around the end of Tosun's bush knife which was buried deep in the big man's throat. Kralovic finished his last stride, which pushed the blade even deeper, then pulled back, twisting slightly, and turned the spray of blood into a stream as the blade was pulled out. His head sagged to one side before he toppled backward.

Tosun stood motionless for a long moment: the line from the tip of the blade down his arm and to the heel of his trailing foot was perfect. He let his arm fall to his side but did not drop the knife. Because of the height difference, his parry had taken him in close under Kralovic's raised arm, and the boy's clothes and face were drenched with blood by the time the man fell, except for streaks where tears cleaned his face.

Two of Kralovic's companions started toward Tosun. The crowd of onlookers made a sort of grumble that contained faint shapes of the phrases "fair fight" and "asked for it".

Rakkas hopped the fence, stood next to Tosun and growled — a weird noise to come from a horse, or anything related to one. His eyes were wide and glaring, his ears were back, his head was low, his teeth were bared, and he was jigging in place, picking his feet up and putting them down as if the ground was too hot. He had not seemed nearly as upset during his fight with the stallion.

"Semyon! Vladimir! Stand down, damn you!" the old man shouted. The two men stopped moving and Rakkas stopped growling and settled down a bit: his left front hoof kept lifting up and setting down, but the other three hooves stopped moving. The crowd also quieted a bit.

Farkas came forward and squatted beside Kralovic's body. The zapper was still cradled in his arms, humming a bit and with its LEDs glowing green.

The old man pulled an ornate cane from a sheath on his saddle and dismounted heavily. He walked very slowly to Kralovic's body. Farkas stood up and backed away a step. The old man glared down at the corpse. "Pah. It seems my granddaughter will have to find a different husband... perhaps her next suitor will be less foolish." He looked at Tosun. "Nice form, boy. Are you all right?"

"I th-think so, Sir. I d-don't think any of the b-blood is mine.

"Is that shaggy monster of yours usually vicious?"

"No, Sir. He isn't fond of bossy s-studs, but he has never killed one before." Tosun put an arm around the mule's neck.

"Has he killed anything before?" Mandarev asked, startled. He gently took the bush-knife out of Tosun's hand.

"Um... Rakkas was trained to herd sheep when he was little, so he has killed a f-few wolves and more than a few feral dogs. And he has bluffed a camel and at least two bears that I know of. But he d-doesn't usually start fights, Sir."

A voice somewhere among the onlookers called, "Yeah. He just finishes the fights." There was scattered laughter among the spectators, and the old man's lips twitched.

"Huh. So. Two arrogant fools that made the mistake of attacking competent opponents." The old man turned to Mandarev. "Officer, please accept my apologies for this breach of your hospitality. I will send the same apologies to the Mediators, in writing." Kovaly bowed, carefully, bracing himself with the cane, then turned and walked slowly toward the building that would be used for the meetings. "Semyon! Vladimir! Andrei! Come!"

More blue helmets were arriving in the square.

Tosun was clinging to Rakkas with both arms now, but he let go with one hand long enough to fumble his locker key out of his pocket and hand it to Mandarev, and wipe his face with Farkas' handkerchief. Farkas helped empty Tosun's locker and carry the packs and equipment across the square and over to the truck. A woman in a blue helmet and armband got out of the truck cab, waved and went to direct traffic in the square in Farkas' place. They added Tosun's packs and saddle to the back of the truck.

Mandarev said, "Tosun, I don't want you to ride Rakkas up the hill, but we don't have a ramp, or any way to get him into the truck.

"That is not a problem, Sir." Tosun let go of the mule and waved toward the truck. "Let's take a ride, Rakkas. Binmek!" The little mule hopped up onto the tailgate, stepped into the empty space at the back of the truck and carefully lay down with his legs folded under him, then nudged one of the packs with his nose. Tosun took out a silk scarf with inset acrylic hemispheres and tied it carefully around Rakkas' head.

"Damn! That's one smart beast!" Farkas said.

The kid still looked pale and shaky, but he managed a faint smile. "I don't think he understands why he needs to wear goggles, sir. He just knows that it's proper to wear goggles when you ride in an open truck."

"Huh. I can think of some humans who haven't figured that out."

Tosun took a pair of human goggles out of the pack and put them on. "I should probably keep him company. You don't need this blood all over the seats."

Mandarev waved a hand at the tailgate. Tosun scrambled in and settled against Rakkas, holding the cargo net with one hand. Then the two men closed and latched the tailgate. Farkas joined Mandarev in the cab.

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