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Techlands Unlikely Future

At the Gathering III

The ISEC headquarters tent was large, but very crowded with folding tables and chairs. It was safe to walk through the tent only because the power cables and data fibers were suspended overhead. The official ISEC layout involved fewer tables and more open space, but the headquarters tent had the most reliable power and lighting, and the best network up-links — secured and otherwise — and was also the best source of news and gossip, so technical activities migrated into it at the least excuse.

The consolidation of functions had some advantages. The four by nine array of widescreen security monitors along the left wall should officially have been located in their own tent. Having them relocated to the headquarters tent freed a few more personnel for the attempt to maintain order in the village and made it more convenient for Commander Antonov to keep an eye on things. The table that served as the commander's desk was in the far right corner of the tent, so he had a good view of the security displays.

When Antonov, Mandarev and Farkas entered, the man seated at the main comm panel at the back wall waved a pair of fingers in a half salute. The other three people in the tent were all working at the security wall and had their attention on their laptops and some of the screens.

Antonov hung his jacket on a rack by the door and walked the length of the tent along one of the narrow paths between the tables. He held out Tosun's papers to the man at the comm panel. "Here, Mischa. Papers for our newest recruit, hired by Dimiter Mandarev this morning before the excitement. Get on the secure link to Prague, and tell the lawyers it would be helpful if the employment records had the time accurate." He stepped away, then turned back. "It may need to be called an internship or apprenticeship. Tell them to do what they can."

Mischa took the booklet, popped the chip — which was the important part of the package — out of its holder and slid it into a reader slot on the secure rig. "I'm on it."

The Commander continued across the room to the security wall. "How are we doing, Sarge? Any more problems?"

"That black monster horse is as much trouble dead as he was alive. I think Boris and Leo are going to try tying the body to the earthmover's scoop, next." The gray-haired man in the center seat waved at one of his screens. "Things seem stable otherwise."

The woman in the left hand seat commented, "Except more traffic jams, of course. Sometimes I wonder if some of these guys have ever seen a road with more than three cars on it before."

"We may be getting some activity out beyond the northwest perimeter", the man in the right seat added, "but it might just be more 'guests' coming in."

"Well, keep an eye on it and make sure Sarge takes a look at anything that looks suspicious or strange."

"Yessir."

Antonov walked back to his own desk in the far right corner and woke up his laptop. Thirty-three standard forms and notices to acknowledge and return to various senders. Seventeen other messages marked urgent, but most were from the UN Mediators, whose email settings had never yet generated anything marked less than urgent. Nine messages marked critical: four from the Mediators, one from Anton Kovaly, three from heads of the other factions, and one, dated that morning before the excitement, from the legal office in Prague. And a few dozen links to bloggers and video aggregators already discussing the fights in the village and the political implications of Kralovic's death. He sighed, checked quickly to make sure none of the video feeds had been hooked from ISEC security cameras, and turned his attention back to the more official areas of his in-box.

There were two groups of tables along the right wall of the tent between the commander's desk and the door. The tables nearest the door held filtered-water dispensers and a wide variety of tea and coffee making equipment — including a household-size espresso machine, an electric samovar, and three different coffee grinders — in addition to a cooler full of soft drinks and tonics. Mandarev stopped by the espresso machine. "Anyone want refills, while I'm here?" As usual, with seven people in the tent no two orders were the same. That suited Mandarev. He did not want caffeine, so much as the routine of preparation: he was still too edgy after the violence to settle down to updating inventory records.

Farkas carried his load of weapons to the second group of tables. He set Kralovic's sword and Tosun's blade on the center table in the group, which was a work bench with an impervious surface, and set the zapper and rifles on a shelf underneath. He put on some gloves and goggles and turned on a certified video camera to record his activities. Then he took still pictures of both blade weapons from all possible angles and in a variety of magnifications and frequency ranges. Setting aside Kralovic's sword, he took out some cloth patches and solvents and legal evidence containers and began carefully cleaning off the blood on Tosun's blade — and everything else he could find — starting at the hilt. He ran some of the patches through test equipment on the adjoining tables.

By the time Mandarev brought him his coffee, Farkas' cleaning and sampling was more than halfway up the blade. One of the analytic machines gave a raucous buzz, and he set down the blade and turned to frown at the monitor where the results were scrolling. Farkas paged back through the results to see what had triggered the alarm. He made a hissing, spitting sound and muttered something in Hungarian, then picked up Kralovic's sword and sighted along both sides of the blade under a strong full-spectrum light, which showed that most of the blood spatters on it were turning purplish black instead of brown. He took a couple of magnified photos of the one small patch of the blade where the spatters were browner, then swabbed a bare bit of the blade near the hilt and stuck the patch into one of the analyzers. It responded with the same raucous buzz.

"Something interesting?" Mandarev asked. The Commander looked up from his paperwork.

"Mmm. Kralovic's blade is just a crappy reproduction, but it looks like the son of a whore was reeeally worried about getting it rusty..."

"God! Blood-Rot? If Tosun was cut —"

At Mandarev's exclamation, Antonov stood up and walked toward them.

"The kid said he wasn't cut." Farkas said calmly. "And it looks like all the blood on the sword was spray. The parry put some of the wax onto the kid's yataghan, but far enough up the blade that he was probably safe."

"Anything else on the yataghan?" Commander Antonov asked.

"I found some traces of rabbit blood on the hilt and pine-sap on the blade. Seems the kid's been camping out." Farkas picked up the yataghan and finished moving the blood, wax, and other materials from it into various evidence packets. He sighted along the blade to make sure it was clean.

Antonov went back to his desk and returned to editing the answers to his messages.

"Is Tosun's bush-knife a crappy blade, too?" Mandarev asked. "What did you call it?"

"A yataghan. It's a solid tool, hand-worked from tech steel with a handle carved from ram's horn. The blade-blank was probably cut from an old leaf-spring." Farkas pulled Tosun's rifle out of its scabbard and looked at it closely. "This is solid work, too: seems to be a Condensed SKS."

"It looks full-sized to me."

"Not what I meant. The kid's grandpa or great-grandpa got hold of some late 20th-century SKS knockoffs, and this is what's left of some of them. The serial numbers on the parts are all over the place, the bayonet's long gone, and it looks like the stock is a hand-carved replacement. But it uses standard ammo and it's probably a usefull hunting rifle." Farkas put the rifle away and returned to his forensic work on Kralovic's sword.

Mischa at the comm desk called, "Hey, Dimiter. Herr Schmidt wants to know if you asked Tosun Bekdeli how old he was before you hired him."

"No, I hired him as a day laborer because he was hungry and polite. And I offered him the permanent job because he turned out to have skills we need. I still don't know his exact age. Is there a problem with that?"

The comm tech spoke into the secure link for a moment, then looked back at Mandarev. "Not a problem. He says that's the perfect answer."

"Huh. I wonder what the old fox is up to?"

Mandarev had run out of ways to procrastinate, so he walked over to his desk, woke up his laptop and opened the supplies inventory sheets. He took the invoice chips for the crates of supplies out of his jacket pocket and fed them one at a time into the chip reader.

The door of the tent opened, letting in cold wind and daylight, and Doctor Arpad Szabo, who was carrying a pair of large, filled plastic bags. He walked down the tent to hand a chip to Commander Antonov, then turned back to dump the bags by Farkas' workbench, saying, "Bekdeli's clothes and property," and continued on to the drinks table.

"Arpad! where's Tosun?" Mandarev asked urgently.

"I sent him to the showers and mess tent. He'll bring his food here. Something I should know?"

"Farkas found Blood-Rot on Kralovic's sword."

"Damn. I wish that stuff was harder to manufacture: there might be a chance of making a ban stick." Doctor Szabo mixed some very strong tea from the samovar and added some cubed sugar, then continued. "Physically, there's nothing wrong with Bekdeli that won't be fixed by sleeping warm and eating regular meals for a while. I think he was running on fumes even before that fight wiped him out. He's lost weight he can't afford just recently." He took a sip and shook his head. "Exhaustion and shock seem to be balancing each other at the moment. I'm not sure what his mental state will be when things wear off."

Farkas took a quick inventory and photographs of the contents of the bags. He repacked one of the bags and held it out to the doctor. "Here. These can go to the laundry." The two Hungarians stared into each other's eyes for a long moment, then Szabo sighed, took the bag, and set it near the tent's door. The doctor sat in a chair near the drinks table and propped his feet on another chair, blocking the narrow aisle.

The security man set a large, clear zip-top bag beside Mandarev's laptop. "Personal effects." He placed Tosun's boots on the floor under the table. He returned to the workbench to continue cleaning the blood-spattered belt and scabbard.

When the door opened again, the doctor took his feet off the chair, clearing the aisle.

Tosun Bekdeli stood in the doorway for a moment, blinking in the comparative dimness of the tent. He had a bowl in one hand with a filled plate balanced on it precariously. The plate started to slide as he turned to close the door. He grabbed it hastily with his free hand and finished shoving the door closed with an elbow.

"Over here, Tosun," Mandarev called.

"Coming, Sir." Tosun threaded his way carefully between the tables, set the plates beside the plastic bag containing his property and sat in the nearest chair. He was wearing boots and winter camo from the ICES supplies: the clean fatigues hung on his thin frame as if on a coat-hanger and the sleeve cuffs hung too low on his wrists because his shoulders were so narrow.

"How are you feeling, Tosun?"

"Better, Sir. Thank you. Hot water and clean clothes are wonderful things ... and this food is very good."

Mandarev gestured to the plastic bag. "The Forensics department is done with most of your things." Tosun opened the bag and moved the contents to various pockets: wallet and card case, multitool, mobile comm and its fuel cell placed in separate pockets, keys. (Keys to what? Mandarev wondered. Mules don't need keys and none of Tosun's packs had locks.)

The doctor pulled three bottles of sports tonics from the cooler at the drinks table and brought them over to where Mandarev and Tosun were sitting. "Which flavor do you prefer?" Tosun selected one and turned his attention to his meal: small portions of stew and bread, and baklava. He ate neatly and efficiently.

"Don't try to eat more than is comfortable," the doctor warned. "I've ordered the cooks to feed you whenever you feel like eating for the next few weeks, until there is some meat on your bones again. There's no need to stuff yourself at any one time."

Tosun looked up and smiled quickly. "Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir." He bowed very slightly, then turned to Mandarev. "Will I really be here permanently, Sir?"

"We certainly hope so," Commander Antonov called from his desk. He gathered a sheaf of papers and chips, including some that Mischa brought him from the comm desk, and walked over toward them. He stopped to pulled back a chair from the next row of tables and turned it so that he could sit facing Tosun, then sorted through the papers and chips and held out a booklet/chip carrier. "Here are your original papers, Mr. Bekdeli."

"Thank you, Sir." Tosun smile trembled a little, as he put the papers away, and did not quite reach his eyes.

The Commander held out a couple of cards and another booklet/chip carrier. "And these are your ISEC IDs and a set of ageless papers."

"Ageless papers, Sir?" Tosun blinked. "Aren't those for old people?" His eyes widened. "Oh, of course! Excellent, Sir! Thank you, Sir." This time his smile did reach his eyes. He moved the old papers to a different pocket and put the new papers where the old ones had been.

Antonov shuffled through the papers he was still holding, and handed three of them to Tosun with a pen, saying, "I need your signature: here, here, and twice on this one: at the bottom and here in the middle." He waited while Tosun signed all four places and handed the papers back, then looked at the final paper in his hand and asked quietly. "Mr. Bekdeli, do you know where your uncle is?"

Tosun turned very pale under his dark, tanned complexion. He stared into some distance beyond the Commander and swallowed hard. "Dead, Sir. My Uncle was killed — weeks ago now."

Farkas turned to face the conversation, leaning against the workbench. The doctor took his feet back off the chair and set them on the ground. He clasped his hands and leaned forward slightly. Sarge tapped the man beside him on the arm and turned his chair to face the center of the room.

Mandarev rested a hand on Tosun's shoulder. The younger man flinched slightly, but then relaxed.

Antonov leaned back in his chair. "Well, the Turkish police aren't looking for you. They don't seem to think you were involved," he said. "You saw him killed?"

"No, S-sir. Not exactly, Sir." Tosun's fork rattled against the plate as he set it down. "We had delivered a couple of purebred Akhal-Tekke mares to a place called Kayali, near Kirklareli, northwest of Istanbul. There was a sort of festival and market day at a village a couple of miles away, and my uncle gave me some money and told me to take Rakkas and spend the day. He gave me a list of goods to be on the lookout for — handicrafts and local farm specialties — and money to spend for myself, too. It was a nice festival, but the weather started to turn nasty about mid-afternoon and I wanted to get Rakkas under cover, so we left." His voice faded.

"And when you got back to where you were staying?" the commander prompted.

"There were two ways into the yard: the main drive that opened onto a main road that was very busy with cars and trucks, and an alley in back that was too narrow for most cars and trucks. My uncle had parked the horse van across the alley, so we could cross through by the side doors but people without the keys couldn't get through. I brought Rakkas around by the back way because I thought drivers might not be watching for a rider in the bad weather. We were walking through the alley when he went on the alert." He shook his head slightly. "I'm not sure what he heard or smelled: the wind was coming in gusts and making the sounds strange in the alley. But Rakkas is a very well-trained guard mule and he has very good hearing. I got down and we walked forward as quietly as we could." He tried to take a sip of his sports drink, but his hand was shaking too badly. He set the bottle back down.

"When I got near the end of the alley, I heard what might have been three single shots, spaced out. I opened the alley-side door of the horse van and got in. I was careful to keep low when I looked through the window on the other side. By then it was getting dark, and sleeting, so it was hard to see. The courtyard seemed full of trucks, and men with rifles were moving around. Our own trucks — the ones I could see — were dark. The strange trucks were starting their engines and had their headlights on so there were streaks of light pointing in different directions. But they mostly just showed the sleet, except —" He stopped again, swallowing, staring into nowhere. Nowhere pleasant. "I saw my uncle's dead body in one of the beams of light clearly enough to recognize him and see that he was dead. There was a shape on the ground beyond him that might have been one of the others."

Tosun blinked and focused on Commander Antonov. "I only heard the three shots, but I think all four of them must be dead. I have left a few very short voicemails and text messages in the company mail drops, but there have been no answers, or other signs that any of the others are still able to communicate."

Sarge said thoughtfully, "Maybe a smuggling deal that went bad?"

Tosun flushed. He pressed his lips together and looked down at his hands. Then he looked directly at Sarge and said, very precisely, "I beg your pardon, Sir, but can you tell me — if you give a package to one of the big shipping companies with all of the paperwork filled out. And the paperwork is a lie. Does that make the shipping company smugglers, Sir? My uncle was a reputable merchant, Sir." He stopped abruptly, then finished in a whisper. "I wish we had never come west."

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Bekdeli," Sarge said quietly. "It appears I was letting my conclusions run ahead of my data.

"You were sure your uncle was dead," Farkas said. "Had you seen dead bodies before?"

"A rifle bullet to the skull doesn't leave much doubt, Sir, I ... recognized his beard and clothing. And I have seen dead people before. In our village during the epidemic before I joined my uncle's crew." He took a breath and let it out slowly. "And last October, on the trail east of Tashkent. We were hit by bandits at night, Sir, and it was — it was horrible: knife work in the dark along the camel lines and mule string. In the morning... " He stopped and looked down at his shaking hands, turning them palms upward. "That man today might not have been the first one I ever killed. At least we found Ismail's body at the far end of the camel line, so if I killed anyone, it was one of the bandits."

Mischa made a clicking sound with his tongue and typed rapidly on the secure comm rig. The doctor choked on a swallow of tea. Antonov looked startled. Farkas and Sarge exchanged glances.

Mandarev winced. "How did you end up here? It's a long way from Kirklareli, and across at least a few borders."

Tosun took a couple of deep breaths. "Some of our trail gear was stored in the horse van. I got it out as quietly as I could, and left most of what I bought at the market in the alley and loaded Rakkas with the trail gear instead. By the time we got to the end of the alley, some of the trucks had left the courtyard and were running a search sweep around the area. I lost them in the storm — I think they were expecting someone with a motor vehicle. And then I lost us in the storm. And when I found us again, we were across the border in Bulgaria. It didn't seem safe to try to cross back into Turkey: I didn't know who to trust or avoid, or where it was safe to stop. So I kept moving, looking for work for Rakkas and me, and places where he could graze." He took out his comm unit and its fuel cell, holding one in each hand. "I've kept this disabled most of the time so the signal couldn't be tracked, and only checked the mailboxes quickly at random times. I kept hoping there would be a message..."

Farkas walked over to the comm desk and spoke quietly to Mischa. He brought a paper to Tosun. "Leave detailed messages for your relatives at every address you can think of, referring them to these numbers and addresses. They're monitored, with tracebacks. If your relatives answer or the Turkish police come asking questions, we'll find out more about what happened. If someone else comes looking... ISEC aren't merchants with antique weapons." He showed his teeth, but his expression was not a smile.

Commander Antonov nodded. "You should be as safe here as any of us. And while ISEC insignia didn't stop that fool in the village, we are not often targets these days."

"Thank you, Sir." Tosun took the paper, and a degree of tightness went out of the way he was holding his shoulders. "I — I'll try not to make any more trouble for you, Sir."

"Mr. Bekdeli, you have clean papers and I have no reason to think that you have done anything wrong. And if I refused to employ people with dangerous histories I would be very short of employees."

The doctor coughed, and the man sitting next to Sarge snickered loudly. Farkas put the yataghan into its sheath and set the cleaned belt and sheathed blade on the table in front of Tosun with a slight, definite, clack, then turned back to the workbench. Sarge turned back to the bank of video screens, tapping his associate again. The commander stood up to return to his desk.

Tosun relaxed even more and picked up his fork to finish his baklava. Mandarev drank his coffee while the boy finished his meal. After the plates were empty, stacked neatly, and set aside, he said, "Tosun, I'm planning to put you in charge of the supplies tent. Do you think you can handle that?"

Tosun's eyes widened. "Oh! Oh, yes, Sir. Thank you Sir.

"Would you mind sleeping there alone? Or would you prefer to share a tent with other people?"

"No, Sir." Tosun's smile was a little shaky. "I think being alone might be better than being with strangers, Sir."

"That will help. We're spread a bit thin at the moment. Hmm. Can you read these spreadsheets?" He turned his laptop to an angle where he and Tosun could both see the screen clearly.

"Yes, Sir. My primary languages are Turkmen, Russian, Istanbuli Turkish, and what might be called On-line English: I've never spoken it much, but I can read and write it, and I've heard it on recordings and videos. May I?" He reached for the pointer, and at Mandarev's wave he began to scroll through the spreadsheet.

"What other languages do you have, Kid?" Farkas asked.

Tosun glanced up. "I can read street signs most places between here and China, and bargain in most markets from here to Xi'an. My uncle has — had — high standards: it isn't proper bargaining unless someone is called a son of a diseased camel or there are complaints about bankrupting grandchildren. Oh, and I've spoken German and Japanese a little, with passengers."

"Passengers?"

Tosun waved a hand and made his voice deep and important. "'You too can travel the ancient overland trade routes with authentic Silk Road Merchants! And authentic Silk Road camels!'" He switched back to his normal tone. "The passengers always like camels, but they don't need to tend them. Is it true there are no working camels in Europe?"

Antonov looked up and called, "There aren't. And even if there were, we wouldn't use them: they're too big to transport conveniently."

"Good —" Tosun looked back at the laptop, frowned, and scrolled up a few screens and then back down. "Mr. Mandarev, Sir, do you know you have some bad entries here? From about 3 months ago?"

"What makes you think they're bad?"

"The ID codes are wrong, Sir. We usually had to enter shipping codes by hand instead of using chip or barcode scanners, and my cousin Dilaver can't — couldn't — copy five digits in a row correctly, much less fifteen or twenty, so I always check them. But these aren't even valid codes with transposed or substituted digits, Sir, they're just nonsense without the correct ... um ... structure?" He shook his head. "The credit transfer values look odd too, once I knew to look at them. If this was done deliberately, Sir, it was very sloppy work."

"That's why we had an opening for you to fill. Though I'll admit we spotted credit discrepancies rather than the bad IDs."

Commander Antonov had walked over to stand over them while they were talking. "Mr. Bekdeli, this is a commercial enterprise, not a government agency or non-profit. If you notice an opportunity for the Company to make money and let us know, we'll cut you in for part of any resulting profits. And you're welcome to trade using your own money and property, of course. Just don't trade in ours without telling us."

"Of course not, Sir. Thank you, Sir." Tosun's expression was wide-eyed, almost innocent.

"Ready to see the supplies tent, Tosun?" Mandarev asked. He was surprised when the young man shook his head uncertainly.

"I should really check on Rakkas first, Sir, and make sure he knows where the perimeter of the camp is."

"Should we build the pasture fence higher, Mr. Bekdeli?"

Tosun looked up at the Commander. "I think that might cause worse problems, Sir. Rakkas is a trained guard mule. He won't run away or get lost, but he might decide to patrol if he gets worried, Sir... Or bored... Or if the horses are mean to him. If he can jump the fence, the horses won't follow him, but if he has to open the gate or break the fence, they might get out."

"And if he can't get away from the horses quickly, there might be more blood shed?" Farkas suggested.

"Rakkas is not a vicious mule, Sir. He truly isn't." Tosun protested urgently.

"Of course he's not, Kid. Not if he'd jump the fence rather than fight, given the chance." Farkas took his rifle from the shelf below the workbench and hung the sling from his shoulder, then picked up Tosun's rifle. "Come on, Kid. I'll show the pair of you around the camp."

Tosun looked at Mandarev, who waved him away. He put on his belt with the sheathed yataghan, and gathered up his riding boots and dinner plates.

Farkas held the door open for Tosun. He snagged the bag of laundry on his way out the door and took it with him.

After the door closed, Antonov said. "Well, it appears we now have a trained smuggler on staff."

Sarge turned around and grinned. "I believe that is properly pronounced: Silk. Road. Merchant... 'Sir'. Nice kid."

"Hired by my department," Mandarev pointed out firmly. "I'll thank you not to try poaching."

"Not interested, myself: Security section would probably bore someone who made it across Bulgaria and a few national borders solo," Sarge assured him cheerfully. "But I can't speak for Farkas and Special section."

Mandarev turned to the commander. "You realize, if he decides to get creative with the accounts he won't be 'sloppy' about it."

"Heh. Why do you think I offered him profit sharing, beginning immediately?" The Commander grinned. "I suspect he's like his mule: he knows his work and letting him do it is less likely to cause problems than trying to block him."

"At least once the shock wears off and he gets some strength back." The doctor shook his head. "He's stretched pretty thin. I'll want him on light duty for at least a week or two."

"I'll be carefull. And I'll warn Farkas off." Mandarev nodded.

"Good. Not that warning that one is likely to do any good."

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