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Techlands Unlikely Future

At the Gathering II

The heavily laden truck grumbled slowly up the hill past the chopper pad, followed the curve around the petrol dump, and slowed even more as it climbed the final slope to the ISEC compound, passing a large earthmover that was on the way down the hill. It rolled through the outer row of tents to what had once been the farmyard and toward the gate of a fenced area that might have been a large corral or — since the grass had not been completely trampled into the mud — a rather small pasture.

When the truck stopped at the pasture gate and its wheels were no longer splattering mud about, five people walked up to meet it. There were two men and a tall, dark-blonde woman all wearing non-adaptive mountain camo with no particular insignia, a dark man in camo with a medic's red-cross on his armband, and an older man with graying hair wearing what might have been a business suit or a formal officer's uniform without insignia except a blue armband.

The two men in plain camo opened the tailgate of the truck before Mandarev had time to walk back from the cab. Farkas had his arms full: he was carrying Tosun's knife and scabbarded rifle in addition to the zapper and Kralovic's sword, and he had another rifle slung over his shoulder by a strap as well.

Tosun let go of the cargo net and took off his goggles, then he untied the scarf that held the mule's goggles and tucked both sets away in the proper pack. He stood up, stepped over Rakkas carefully, and jumped down to the ground. He caught a toe on the edge of the tailgate and would have landed sprawling, but Mandarev and the medic each caught one of his arms to keep him upright. They let go as soon as he had his feet under him properly.

The boy straightened and looked at the formally-dressed man. "Am I under arrest, Sir?"

"Young man, I have 6 security cameras and 150 human witnesses who agree that Kralovic attacked an ISEC man and was killed in self-defense. A hearing seems a bit ... redundant, unless Kodaly or the Mediators request one. In any case, I'm sure some of the dead man's friends and allies will use the excuse to make trouble —"

"Assuming he had any," one of the men at the tailgate commented.

The older man shrugged. "Someone collected the body quickly enough. I just wish they had taken that black monster, too. We weren't expecting to need to dispose of large, dead horses." He turned back to Tosun and held out a hand. "Welcome to the company. I'm Alexei Grigorevitch Antonov, Commander of this Crew."

Tosun started to reach to shake the offered hand, but stopped, looking at the bloodstains still on his own hands and clothing, and bowed from the waist instead. "I'm honored, Commander, Sir. My name is Tosun Bekdeli." He took a booklet with two chip-pockets on its cover out of an inner pocket of his jacket, handing it to Antonov.

The ISEC Commander flipped open the summary booklet and paged through it quickly, then popped each chip out of its pocket and examined it. He returned one to the booklet and handed the other to the medic. "Here, Arpad. Dimiter, Farkas, you're with me."

The boy had turned to the truck and called, "Rakkas, come down. Inmek!"

The mule stood up and carefully stretched, forward and backward like a big dog, before he hopped down to the ground. He looked around, then walked to the pasture gate and stood waiting.

Mandarev said, "Willi. Illya. Unload the truck into the supply tent, would you?" One of the men got into the cab of the truck, while the other sat on the tailgate with his legs dangling. They drove across the farmyard, and stopped in front of a large tent whose sides were reinforced by the partial walls of a ruined outbuilding. They carefully unloaded Tosun's belongings and set them by the entrance. One untied the net while the other got a small forklift from inside the tent. Then they began unloading the crates.

Tosun walked to Rakkas. He wavered a little, and rested a hand on the mule's shoulder to steady himself. "Excuse me, Gentleman and Lady, but could we have some rags and a bucket of water?"

"Can't this wait?" Arpad the medic asked, frowning.

No, Sir. I'm sorry, Sir. If the horses smell blood on Rakkas, it will cause more trouble."

The woman ducked into the ruined barn and brought out a bucket and some tattered cloth sacks that probably dated from before the farm was abandoned. "Will he let me rub him down if you hold him?"

"Oh, yes. But I should probably clean his feet myself today: he's still upset after the fights. Thank you very much, Miss...?"

"Call me Elena." She worked quickly and thoroughly, wiping away the drying blood from Rakkas' legs and the places where Tosun had leaned against him, careful not to let the cloths flap where it might startle Rakkas.

After she finished, Tosun soaked a rag in the bucket and said "OK, Rakkas, show me your feet. Ayak!" The mule lifted one foot at a time to let the boy clean them. When all four feet were done, Tosun straightened shakily, then fed the mule a handful of something he pulled from a pocket. "Miss Elena... If you ever need to handle his feet, you should give him a treat afterward. Even if it is just grass that you picked and hold in your hand for him."

"I'll remember that. Thanks." She opened the pasture gate, and Rakkas walked through. Tosun leaned against the fence to watch.

There were three horses in the pasture, clustered by a water tub and hay pile that had been set out on the far side, near an entrance to the ruins of the barn. One was a tall, thin chestnut with a full, dark, flowing mane and tail and no white markings at all. Another, only slightly shorter, was a more heavily-built bay with three white socks and a blaze. The third horse was a dapple gray a little taller than either of the others, and much more powerfully built, with very large hooves. The two smaller horses raised their heads and turned to look as the gate opened, but the heavy gray, who was dozing with lowered head and one hind foot cocked, just swiveled an ear.

The little off-white mule lifted up his head and pricked his ears and walked across the pasture toward the three horses. When he had walked about halfway, the chestnut laid its ears back and snorted. Rakkas stopped, then took one careful step forward. The bay laid its ears back, too, and the chestnut stamped. Both horses were showing the whites of their eyes and baring their teeth.

The little mule turned and walked slowly back to where Tosun was leaning against the gate. He kept one long ear swiveled toward the horses, who became calmer once Rakkas began to move away from them. He bumped the gate with his nose twice near the latch.

"No, Rakkas," Tosun said, "You need to stay in the pasture."

Rakkas let his head and long ears droop and blew out his breath in a long sigh. Tosun reached through the gate and scratched the mule between the ears, right where his bristly mane began. "Yes, Rakkas. I know. You're a poor, lonely donkey and all of the big horses are being mean to you. But you need to stay in the corral. Stay! Durmak!"

The mule heaved another deep sigh and let his head and ears droop even more, but he stepped away from the gate, moving along the fence to stay as far from the horses as possible. Elena set out a bucket of clean water and a small pile of hay for him. "How much grain should he have?"

"Oh. None, thank you, Miss Elena. I've fed him far too much dried fruit these past few weeks, so he needs to eat grass and hay awhile to settle his stomach... if you have some hay that's full of weeds, he'd like that better than the kind that's all the same and boring."

"Heh. I'll see what I can do. And I'll keep the others off him." She leaned against the fence, watching Rakkas eat.

"Thank you, Miss." Tosun stepped away from the gate and paused, swaying dizzily. Arpad scooped him up, with one arm around the boy's shoulders and the other under his knees, and strode toward the tent marked with the red cross.

"I can walk, Sir," Tosun protested.

"I'll be the judge of that. Who's the Doctor here, anyway?"

Farkas snickered, then he and Mandarev turned to follow Commander Antonov into the headquarters tent.

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