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The Dark Monastery

The next morning found us preparing torches out of dry branches, rags, and barrels of pitch. Sharra (and the overseer) had told us to expect to take several hours to get through to the other side, so each wagon needed ten or more. Oil lanterns were also prepared and fastened to the backs of the wagons so that one wagon could easily follow another in the gloom. At about 10 in the morning we had everything ready and set out down the dark road.

Talk about a little piece of hell. For the first mile or so we walked almost continually beneath the largest bat colony I've ever seen or heard of. The smoke from our torches disturbed the bats from their day's rest and the air above our heads was a constant wheeling and turning of half-seen forms, some small and in great numbers when we passed a colony of insect eaters, some as large as a crow and still in great numbers when we passed colonies of fruit bats.

It was quite surreal. Bat guano formed a layer of some unknown depth on the floor and fresh guano rained down from the tumbling masses overhead as the women screamed and bent over and the men cursed. Whips cracked, not out of any particular desire to hurt the chained slaves but to keep them moving; the guards didn't want to remain in the nightmare one minute longer than necessary. Every now and then a bat would be overcome by the smoke and come tumbling down, stunned, to land on some person or some wagon - one hit my cloak and clung for a minute, eying me resentfully through its little glowing devil eyes before recovering and flying off again.

Fortunately, I'm not terribly afraid of bats. I once knew a woman who worked with them in research and got to meet some of the bats in their laboratory. Some bats have nasty tempers, and bats can carry rabies and other diseases (to which I was now immune, presumably) but fruit bats are often amazingly gentle and intelligent. Leaf-nose bats can actually be ``cute''. So I made no effort to avoid the bats avoiding me, and didn't try to swing my torch or swords around to try to keep them away as did many of the other guards (with near disastrous results as one wagon was briefly set on fire and one guard's ear was split open by the swinging blade of another). Left alone in this way, the bats did a decent job of avoiding me and with that one exception I was not actually touched by any other bats during the time we were still walking beneath their colonies.

Eventually we got far enough in that the colonies themselves disappeared - I guess bats don't like flying for kilometers before even getting to where they can start to feed, much as they do like the quiet and obscurity of a dark crack deep in a cave to do their sleeping and screwing and having lots of little bat-babies.

The journey got no less surreal, but it did get quieter. Aside from the smoky, dimmed light of the torches and lanterns visible just ahead and behind, the darkness was absolute, the silence pressed in from every side. Soon hardly a word was uttered and the only sounds heard were those made by the animals, by the creaking cart wheels, by countless feet, and those were somehow muted and hushed.

Several times we passed giant causeways that struck off to one side or the other. I expected that taking the wrong path would lead one off to an abyss or underground river or some other disaster, or perhaps they would trigger a defensive action and lead to an active end smothered in a poisonous gas. Our leaders thought the same way; they collected Targon from his position in the chain line and put him (still chained) at the head of the column.

They did this after showing him a cast iron implement - a handle with a sort of a hooked blade that performs a common function in animal husbandry and the manufacture of eunuchs - as well as a long wooden stake about two inches thick whose purpose I didn't want to think about - and holding a very earnest discussion with him while he was being bent over a handy boulder by several husky guards and being tapped in the general vicinity of his buttocks with one or the other. I don't know the gist of that conversation, but I do know that I had a great deal of confidence in the correctness of our road after that, with Targon leading the way with almost childlike eagerness to please.

Eventually we returned to bat-hell, which I took as a sign that we were nearly out on the far side, and sure enough we emerged into the early afternoon inside an enormous crater - maybe five kilometers across at the top, two or three across down in the caldera, with a large deep blue lake at one end. No visible path or pass led down from the sheer cliffs on the inside save at the point we now were. All in all, even ignoring the high-tech defenses, the army awaiting us below, the orbital and air defenses above, it was a natural fortress that one could throw whole land armies against to break like waves against an unyielding shore.

Of course here we were, inside its defensive perimeter and armed for bear. Or rather, armed for termites, for that's the way I chose to view Brin and Brin's kind - humanoid termites, tunneled into the walls of humanity and gradually breaking them down into food. Like termites, not easy to destroy unless you were able to poison their home colony. From what I understood, that was what was before me right now, the big kahuna, the home colony of home colonies for this particular race of immortal demons.

Beyond a nasty little smile, none of this appeared on my face, of course, as we wound our way down the openly exposed switchbacks cut into the cliff face, each turn overlooked by a boulder that looked fake to me, a cover for a turret that could scour the road clean as a whistle in a matter of seconds if any threat were to emerge. I tried not to think about the caches of high explosive underfoot that could also doubtless be triggered at will to transform the road (and anything on the road) right back into a cliff with a pile of mixed broken rock and flesh at the bottom.

In the middle of a truly lovely open sward of neatly tended grass out on the plain stood the dark monastery. By dark I mean black - it appeared to have been built out of slabs of obsidian that gleamed in the sun like wet tar. It had battlements. The outer walls surrounded an immense dome that was a dark grey with a matte finish, as if it were constructed with poured concrete made out of the obsidian sand.

I tried to imagine the reality of what I was seeing. From what Sharra had told me, I knew that the visible dome was several meters thick and was only the uppermost part of a structure that was an easy kilometer across and which went down into the earth that far or farther - a billion cubic meters of enclosed space - with tunnels to other underground chambers scarcely less grand in scale that were protected by a full kilometer of volcanic basalt overhead and further reinforced by ten or more meters of layers of alternating pre-stressed concrete, glass, and super-hard alloy metals. These chambers led to still deeper and harder chambers. Far beneath the entire mountain floor of the crater was a honeycomb of stores, weapons systems, and - most important - resurrection chambers, extending several kilometers down into the crust.

Destroying it was a daunting prospect, but not impossible. Strong as it was against conventional assault, it had weaknesses as well, and we had a plan.

We followed the roadway as it twisted across the perfectly smooth grass. As we got closer Targon got more and more nervous until at the end he gave a crazed cackle and leaped off the road and headed straight across the grass towards the monastery. He hadn't taken three paces before his body vanished in a puff of smoke and loud explosion. The two guards who had been attending him both fell down, bleeding from several small wounds that fortunately weren't too serious, but a wagon mule had its head half blown apart by a chunk of the shrapnel. Of Targon there was nothing left larger than a finger or chunk of this or that and a puff of greasy smoke that still hung over the scene.

We managed to get the mule out of its traces and to get a replacement up from the rear and into them without quite stepping off the roadway, and carefully went the rest of the way in.

At the doorway we were met by a delegation of small grey men, wearing cowls that nearly obscured their faces. After a perfunctory greeting they began an obviously ritualized process of negotiation for the wares we brought. So many slaves, fine, lead them to that outbuilding please (pointing to a warehouse sized outbuilding off to one side). So many wagons of food and farming tools - send them over to those barns and storehouses. Wine, excellent! And a new distilled liquor from Sind-a-Lay? Very interesting, doubtless worth trying, take it with the wine over there. Suddenly I found myself grabbed by ungentle hands and propelled forward and was transformed from a person of status to a commodity as Hassan's agent calmly negotiated my sale/employment as a mercenary. Apparently this was not terribly easy, as the grey men only rarely employed humans in this category, but my fighting capabilities and strong back were extolled and after something of a sigh on the part of the grey leader I found myself being equipped with a circular necklet that locked into place fairly snugly.

``Attend me, fellow,'' began the one of the grey men who performed this action. He held up a similar necklet so I could look through the loop that it formed. ``If you do as you are told, you will be well fed and given access to women, drink, and status. If you serve us well, we will reward you with gold and jewels. If you disobey in minor ways or go where you are not supposed to go, your collar will correct you as follows:''

Suddenly my whole body went rigid as high voltage arced across my neck. Spots appeared in front of my eyes. My neck muscles twitched involuntarily for a full minute after the taser-like blast. Great, my dog-training collar. Damn, I hate electricity, at least when it is flowing through me.

``Finally, if you ever betray us, act against a master, or prove to be disobedient...'' He did nothing but look at the collar in his hand. Suddenly there was a snap and a spinning silver chain popped out of a groove on the inner face. With a whine it retracted, inexorably, until it disappeared into the slot on the far side of the loop. ``This will remove your head. There will be no warning, no appeal. The spinning blade will cut through solid bronze, should you be foolish enough to think you can stop it by sticking metal rods in to defeat it. It can be set to work quickly,'' again he gestured and again the blade sprang across the hole, this time almost too fast to see. ``Or slowly.'' This time it gradually shrank without spinning, but only reducing its overall diameter by about an inch, to demonstrate its potential as a slow and presumably painful garrote.

He was now bored. He looked back to the more interesting negotiation process that continued off to the side. ``Now follow that wagon over to those outbuildings and help unload them into the stores. Do not leave the path. Afterwards wait with the others there for further instructions.''

He turned away from me, and that was that. They didn't take away my swords. They didn't question me, search me, do a DNA test on me - once the collar was on my none of that was necessary. If I were to even try anything, I would die quickly or slowly at the clearly expressed will of the least of them. Even if I were known to be Sam Foster, they might have done no more. Unquestioning obedience and reward, the slightest rebellion and anything from just pain to a slow and horrible death according to the whim of the dealer.

So I went where I was told and did as I was bid. I did look around as I left, taking note that Sharra, wearing her own collar, was being led off to a structure not far from the building I was moving towards. I did a little bit of experimentation and strayed just a bit from the most direct path. A deviation of as much as thirty degrees was tolerated, but when I tried cutting sideways by more my collar began to shock me, at first with small bursts that were more of an annoyance and then with outright pain when I tried to move at right angles. I quickly got back on a straight line to the building.

Once there I joined a group of humans overseen by a bored-looking grey man - at least I assume it was a male; I never saw any sort of sexual differentiation among the grey ones while I was there and Sharra had attested to the aggressive maleness of at least some of them during her first visit. I was directed to help unload the carts with the others, loosely sorting the goods and stacking them by type. I went straight to the particular cart that held the stuff that I was most interested in and began unloading it even though this put me off by myself and working on a cart that wasn't in line with the ones that were being unloaded already. I was joined in a friendly way by two of Hassan's guards, who up to that point had been standing around looking equally bored.

The guards were somewhat friendly with me at this point but made a bit deal of making fun of me and my new collar. Still, under the cover of this ribbing they helped me get the components of the EMP bomb off in a corner by itself (the boxes with the lead plates in them were a wee bit heavier than the supplies that were supposed to be in them according to the labels). They were joined by a stack of kegs of ``flour'' that we handled very gently. We then proceeded to stack all sorts of boxes and crates and bags of dry goods around the corner in such a way as to make it very unlikely that anybody would take the trouble to work their way back to the corner to get anything before the stuff on the outside was all used up. We did this in such a way that there was a subtle but passable alley back to the corner, but you'd have to be on top of the pile to see it.

In the meantime the guards had ``gotten bored'' and with a few last jocular remarks about how pretty my ass was in the general direction of the grey man (who ignored them studiously) they made their way back to the main group, leaving me to my labors alone. Gradually I worked my way over to where I was working with some of the workers who'd been there for a while. Wiping sweat from my forehead with the back of my arm, I asked one, ``How does one go about getting a moment to piss? I tried to get off the path to piss on the way in but -,'' I gestured to my neck and grimaced, ``at this point my back teeth are floating.''

He grinned and motioned to a bucket over in a corner. ``Don't make a mess. As new man here, it is your solemn duty to carry the bucket out afterwards and empty it in the right place. JoJo over there will show you where, as he is joyfully giving up the duty today with your arrival.'' JoJo waved and grinned himself, exposing gaps where half of his teeth should have been. Delightful.

I sauntered over and relieved myself. No shock. So there were tiny freedoms. I took it on myself to find out how far they went. I took my own sweet time about getting back to work, and when I got there I visibly dogged it, moving only one box for two or three of my companions. After about five minutes of this my former mentor asked me in a gentle voice, ``Feeling tired?''

``Not really,'' I replied. ``I just don't see what the hurry is. Also I'm pretty pissed off. I was a guard sergeant as of this morning, and now here I am shovelling shit. Figuratively speaking.''

``Literally too,'' he said. ``Just not today. However, you really do need to speed up and help out. You see, we don't get to eat until we're done. Also, if we don't finish within a reasonable amount of time, where `reasonable' means pretty soon now, we all get a jolt. And believe me, you don't want that to happen with all of us thinking that it is your fault. You might find your leg broken. Then you wouldn't be able to work.''

``So what?'' I replied truculently. ``The jolts suck, sure, but if you care, then move this stuff yourself. You would have had to do it yourselves anyway if I weren't here. Maybe I'll just help guard you and make sure you do a good job.'' I motioned generally towards my swords.

``Yeah, yeah. Nice swords. I'm sure you're good at using them. But did you know that if your leg is broken and you can't work, they don't send you off to get well. They just rip the cord. Zip! Your head falls to the ground. Quick-like, mind you - they aren't usually deliberately cruel if you haven't pissed them off. And then the rest of us as stuck cleaning up the mess.''

``But you know, it's just a pleasure to clean up the mortal remains of a lazy bum who thinks that they're special and won't pull their own weight. And even the greatest of swordsmen have to sleep sooner or later.'' Here he gestured to his companions, who had paused work and were all nodding and looking at me with great intensity.

About then the overseer noticed our generally idle state. He looked us over and then, without any discernible motion on his part, my neck got blasted. I held myself rigidly up instead of dropping to my knees the way my knees wanted me to, waiting for the spasming of my throat to subside to where I could breathe properly again. The rest of them were all back at work - only I had been singled out for punishment.

A few seconds later, uttering curses under my breath, I was hauling boxes with a will. A few hours later we were done and left, with me, yes, carrying the now full slop bucket.

It isn't worth detailing the next few days. They sucked. I wasn't exactly a slave - we did get to carry weapons, and one of our jobs was to oversee the even more inferior household slaves at their work. On the other hand, we were available to do absolutely any work at absolutely any time. If you were given a task you did it, instantly and as well as you could, or else. If you did this, you ate decently. If you got along with your fellow workers so they wouldn't break your leg in the middle of the night (a behavior that was obviously tolerated or even encouraged by the dark masters) you survived. If you survived, you could (if you wanted to) get laid by either the not-exactly slave women in more or less the same collared status as we not-exactly slave men were - women who were unfortunately both fairly homely and not necessarily cooperative - or pretty much any of the many, many kitchen drudges, scullery maids, and various female slaves kept for work other than sex. The sex girls we occasionally saw - their life really sucked as their punishments were much worse than our collars and sometimes were part of the amusement they presumably provided a race that was never visibly amused except when causing pain or doling out humiliation.

I got to clean out a latrine with porcelain fixtures smeared with filth, stand a bored watch over the kitchen while a horde of women including Sharra (still skillfully made up as a most unattractive drudge) prepared an enormous amount of food, go with carts to the warehouses to retrieve food and drink for the meals thus prepared, stand a bored watch over these same food warehouses, and yes, help clean up the mess made when a particularly unpopular guard in another group had his leg broken in the middle of the night.

He made it out to the courtyard, gritting his teeth as his bone edges ground together, having bound up his leg with a splint as best he could since midnight when they set upon it with a mallet and many hands to hold him down. The courtyard was where we were all given the morning's assignments - not to show up was good for a jolt or worse.

Obviously, our masters had been watching and looking forward to the game. For the obvious reason he was called out first. He hobbled forward, almost managing to hide his limp, as if there were any way to hide from the bastards. The overseer actually grinned as he looked down on him with an expression that was a mockery of solicitous benevolence - showing some unfeigned emotion for the first time since I'd been there. He laughed out loud and then asked the man to run over to the water fountain and bring him a sip of water in the palm of his hand, at which point he'd be permitted to sleep the rest of the day.

The broken-legged fool turned and took off for the fountain, taking three hobbled running steps, with his teeth gritted and a swallowed scream of pain before the makeshift splint and his leg both gave way altogether and the jagged bone skittered off sideways, poking out of the side of his calf. Halfway to the ground there was a sound like ``thwuck'' from his collar and his head separated from his body and rolled, with the grimace of pain now permanently etched on its features, over to bounce off of the fountain base. The eyelids blinked twice, horribly, and then fell almost still. The body fell twitching to the ground, fountaining blood everywhere as usual.

The overseer looked straight at me and said ``Ewanos, begin your day by cleaning up this mess. Dispose of the body in the furnace below, put the head on a spike out front, and then scrub down the courtyard. I want it spotless by tonight.''

I started following instructions instantly, stopping only to learn from the overseer how to get down to the furnace.

Although I'm sure that the idea was to intimidate me and educate me to obedience, it turned out to be a total blessing. The furnace, you see, turned out to be reached by a freight elevator ride down deep into the infrastructure of the monastery, just above the main dome. It heated air that was vented off in various directions for reasons unknown. It appeared to use natural gas, although there were also electrical coils visible inside the furnace proper. There were various ports on the side which appeared to have many purposes - maybe the support of glass manufactory and possibly metal work, and of course, through a specially marked door, cremation.

This was apparently the utility level, and an invaluable find, something I'd bee looking for but didn't dare ask about without a clear purpose since it was an open secret that everyplace was bugged and on video and our collars themselves could obviously detect sound. The latter wasn't exactly understood, mind you, but my compatriots had a great deal of lore that had been passed down from servant to servant for tens, maybe even hundreds of years. They didn't understand how they were watched, but they knew that they were watched almost constantly.

Right across an airplane-hanger-sized open space from the furnace access was truly huge structure that I recognized instantly from the pumps, the ductwork, the icy hoarfrost on various pipes. The air conditioner/heat exchanger.

It was obvious to me that the place Sharra described in considerable detail had to produce huge amounts of surplus heat, and one way or another that heat had to be dissipated. In fact, I was wondering how in the world satellites could have missed a hot industrial-scale release of energy on that cold, primitive world where a single IR scan should have sufficed to make it stand out like a sore thumb.

Producing such heat in a supposedly active volcanic crater was a work of genius - the lake was already steaming and bubbling from volcanic gasses, there were various vents and geysers. Whether any of these at all were real, or just external heat exchange units for the complex remained to be seen, but a minor mystery was solved.

I was particularly interested in their main computer room, the one that purportedly contained a DEMigod node. Such a computer had to produce immense amounts of heat (far more than the warm bodies of the masters themselves, possibly more than all the rest of the energy consuming equipment put together. It therefore needed to be aggressively cooled. Consequently it had to have chilled water lines or ductwork or (most likely) both that ran straight to where I was right now.

I, on the other hand, had something I needed to deliver fairly precisely to the main computer room and (if possible) to the main power system. With luck I was standing in the place where I would one day arrange such a delivery. All I needed was patience - Hassan had counseled taking tiny steps, tiny steps to our goal as they had to escape the scrutiny not only of fallible and emotional humans but of tireless but rather stupid automated checks performed by the computers.

The next two minaans passed fairly uneventfully. I had a number of additional chores that took me down to the maintenance level where the heat exchange unit was, and I improved each one of them by wandering around and snooping as much as my neck collar would permit. I did it while generally looking stupid and lost. Eventually I would stray too far and get the minor jolts I'd learned to interpret (correctly I hoped) as automated warnings - the stronger ones seemed to require an active agency to initiate. I always responded immediately, as the last thing I wanted to do was escalate my violations to where I attracted the attentions of one of those active agents.

One day I found what looked like a local control room of some sort not far from the air conditioner. It was manned by a single, bored-looking grey master. When he saw me he made a motion that might have been come in or might have been go away, so I did nothing. In a moment he fiddled with his screen, and I was a bit surprised when my collar spoke in their even uninflected way, directing me to enter.

I did so and was immediately directed to find implements and clean up an odd mess near the master's chair - it looked like he'd been eating, or drinking, on the job and had spilled or thrown up, some unbelievably nasty pasty fluid. I pointed out that I was already on an errand, but would be happy to comply if I wouldn't be punished for delaying or abandoning the first task. The master again fiddled with his board for a moment and started to talk to another master on an intercom connection.

The really, really interesting thing was that they spoke in a completely different language, one I'd never heard before, but I understood it. Well, really I didn't. What happened was that their voices, but only their voices, were damped down to a whisper, but in their place the same voices where holding a conversation in colloquial English. I had a sudden flash - this explained that morning where I awoke with a hangover after having had almost nothing to drink. Hassan had mentioned a ``gift'' and the problem of understanding the grey beings' language; the implant he and Sharra had grafted into me was obviously it.

The conversation itself was unenlightening. The master who wanted me to clean up his mess was apparently a ranking official of some importance because of his job (boring or not, it was critically important). So he simply informed the master upstairs who first sent me down there that I was going to do a job for him and somebody else would take over whatever task I had previously been assigned.

I could see an opportunity when the gods dangled one in my face. I almost sprinted off for cleaning supplies, and was back down and working oh so quietly and efficiently, hoping to get noticed for my efforts. No such luck. The master didn't even know I was there, and kept endlessly watching his screens and occasionally tweaking a knob or flipping a switch. I looked the whole place over while working, trying to figure out what to memorize first. I opted for a big board that showed what looked like a layout map of the entire complex, with red and yellow and green lines that apparently represented the flow of heat and cold through vents and ductwork.

Unfortunately, although I could understand spoken speech, I could not read a word of their language. Doubtless the map told me just where the computer room and the arsenal were, but I couldn't read it. I'd have to ask Sharra, then come back.

When I was done I came back and stood at respectful attention. I waited there until I was noticed, then said, ``All finished sir. Is there anything else I can do for you sir? Bring you food or drink? Clean up anything else?'' This was moderately daring. It was a bit out of character for Ewanos to be asking for more work, but it was cool down there (on the surface it could be sweaty hot during the middle part of the day) and working for just one bored master down in what was probably the coolest room on the planet was enough of a plum job that it might be believable.

Amazingly enough, the grey master bit. I was co-opted again and sent off to retrieve food and wine from the kitchen. To get it I went to one of the scabbiest scullery maids, one who was wearing a coarse robe like a sack and sitting off to the side, momentarily idle, and told her in peremptory tones to stand up and help me.

Sharra (for it was she) didn't say a word but only rose and followed me.

I didn't dare even whisper an update to her - clearly our collars could monitor our conversation as easily as they could transmit orders or cut off our heads, and I suspected that there were pickup microphones in all places we might be able to access besides.

So in a bemused way I gave her the instructions to make a bit of a mini-feast for the grey master below and collect for me a jug of wine as well, with a mug, and to put it all in a basket for easy carrying. And step on it. I wandered over to the fireplace and retrieved a charred stick. I sat down in a room corner right below a camera, at an angle where it couldn't see me but the other room cameras could.

There I sketched onto a flat piece of firewood from the stack. When Sharra came back I made her come over and look at my artistic effort at an angle where at least three cameras could easily take it in. She blushed and whacked me on the head with her balled fist, but not too hard. The picture was, of course, a crude outline drawing of a woman clearly intended to be her, naked - an invitation of sorts.

While she made more trips away and back I industriously worked on a second picture; this one I just flipped up as she walked by and whistled to draw her - and the camera's - eye. I'd added a crude drawing of a man to the drawing of the woman, doing something that any third grader would have giggled over when they scrawled something similar in their notebooks to show their friends.

Sharra looked skyward and sighed, then bustled on by.

I kept working. Finally the tray was done, but as she put it down and walked past me to return to work, I grabbed her hand and pulled her down into my lap and when she would have protested showed her my picture, with an expectant look on my face. She stared at it a minute and then smiled. She took the charcoal stick from my hand and carefully added a few things of her own, holding it at such an angle that neither I - nor the cameras - could make it out. I amused myself by slipping my hand under her camisole and running it over her breasts, while running my other hand a bit further south.

Before I could get there she stopped me and held the piece of wood before my eyes for a long minute. I sat there looking stunned while actually my eyes were drinking up every word that she'd written in response to the message I'd drawn onto the board. I grinned and reached for the board but she was too quick for me and jumped up and threw it into the fire, well to the back. She flounced away with a coy backwards glance but her nose in the air. I got up, a rueful expression on my face and an obvious hard-on beneath my kilt, and with a curse collected the tray and went about my business. As I walked by the fireplace I noted that however artlessly the wood had been thrown into the fire, it had fallen drawing side down onto the flames. Ashes to ashes, the message was already gone beyond any hope of being retrieved.

I now knew the symbols for the words for "computer" "arsenal", "armory", "weapons" and a few others she thought might be handy in the script of the grey masters. Two minutes after I returned to the control room, I knew precisely where my two primary targets where and how to get to them.

That night I was lying in bed asleep when a hand reached in and feather light started to lift the one crude sheet. My hand had trapped the wrist and my dagger was on its way to where I assumed that a throat might be when my nose informed me of who it was. Instead of cutting that throat I dropped my hand and resheathed my dagger (I slept with it more or less in hand every night as I intended to keep my legs unbroken at all costs).

A warm body slid in beside me, and a few seconds later was a warm naked body. A husky voice whispered in the dark, ``So. Now how did that picture you drew of me look?'' I answered with a grunt (in character) and a caress (which was real) and drew her down to me.

At first light she arose with the rest of us, put on her clothes, and left with the other women. My overhead bunk mate looked a bit irritated as I'm sure we kept him awake for part of the night, but he regularly kept me awake in just the same manner and I suspect that most of his irritation was simple jealousy. So I had a girl - nearly all the men there had a girl, and half of them had fairly steady girls who would visit them nearly every night.

I also had a very thin sheaf of rice paper leaves rolled around a piece of charcoal stuffed into a hollowed out carrot. One sheet of the paper containing small, neat print, which I read in one of the few places I was that day where I was both alone and not being watched by any camera as far as I could tell. I then ate the note itself and crafted out a note of my own in reply.

For twenty more days Sharra came to my bedroom nearly night, arriving with a thin sheet of paper compressed to a mere pellet of rice that I could pop into my mouth to dissolve almost instantly. More flavor, less filling. She also brought me a small clay bowl of ``snacks'' that always included packets made of a piece of rice paper about the same size but containing one savory filling or another for our post-coital snack (which significantly enhanced my status with the other free guards, whose mates rarely brought them anything but their booties). She was rapidly advancing in the kitchen hierarchy as it turned out that she was really an excellent cook. In the best detective story tradition, I generally put my note right in among the other goodies in plain sight like a crumbled up piece of food-trash so I could read it or destroy it at any moment.

Sharra had made great progress toward our mutual goal. She had already advanced to being one of the assistant cooks who prepared meals for several hundred grey masters every day - as far as we could tell, the entire active roster of the dark monastery. This isn't as surprising as it sounds - if you had the moral equivalent of twenty years of programming from the Food Channel built right into your head as just one casual dollop of the immense database in her gut, you'd be a fabulous chef too. Since she had a carefully researched ``knack'' for wine, she had also been placed in charge of procuring, decanting, and dispensing the thirty or so gallons of wine the grey masters collectively consumed every day.

I had done almost as well. The grey one in the cooling room knew my name where he knew no one else's, so nearly every day I was called away from what I was doing to attend him and do whatever chores he assigned. These were simple enough - get food and drink to him, clean up the messes that he made on the floor from drinking too much, and so on.

Eventually the primary overseer above got the message and semi-permanently assigned me to work on the furnace floor, primarily for the one who ran the ventilation and cooling system but he also gave me a long list of regular chores to do to ensure that I didn't get to sit on my ass in the meantime. Once it became apparent that I was a bit smarter and less terrified of techno-magic than the others, I found myself operating simple remote-control machines to clean out the upper layers in the tangle of ventilation ducts, crawling into said ducts to untangle wires or wipe dust off the blades of the fans by hand, getting burned cleaning human ash out of the perpetually operating furnace, bringing loads of machinery and parts down from the topside storage warehouses on what amounted to an electrical golf-cart truck. I was in perfect position.

I made a point of visiting Sharra in the kitchen a few times a day. This was made easy by my running catering assignment, and not unreasonably I combined that with my supply trips in the truck. Sharra made a point of ``discovering'' that they were running low on wine and certain foods while I was there, and when she indicated her concern to the kitchen's supervisory grey man (they kept a human on the premises at all times, utilizing a variety of testing tools to ensure that every meal was served unpoisoned). As we had hoped, I and my truck were pressed into service on the spot, and the next day I was given a slightly bigger truck and told to perform transport/supply duties for the kitchen on a daily basis in the early morning, using one or two of the drudges there as strong backs for loading and unloading supplies.

The final remaining difficulty would be synchronizing our day of attack - D-day for the little grey brothers. Well, that and figuring out how to make any sort of attack at all that wouldn't immediately fail with heads rolling and blood spurting and all that, because we still had the collars on and it would take nothing but a thought to stop us cold. We had to strike down enough of the entire colony to be literally unopposed at least long enough to neutralize their electronics.

Several big moons passed. There was no particular hurry, and a lot of data to gather and things to prepare. For example, I carefully tested the limits on just how much incorrect stuff I could take down to the maintenance level mixed in with the load I was sent to retrieve. Their monitoring system was remarkably sloppy here, as I had hoped. Bringing down an extra unnecessary box or two, even large ones, was never caught at the time and rarely punished a week or two later when their running inventories of the spaces revealed them. Not bringing down the boxes you were supposed to bring down, on the other hand, was punished immediately with what I and my poor neck learned to recognize as a ``standard correction'' sized jolt, one that was doled out almost casually for small screw-ups.

Sharra, in the meantime, helped me assemble and decipher a crude map of the facility based on my work in the ducts (which ranged beyond the limits they set for it, which was similarly tolerated as long as I did at least what was requested of me - overzealousness was apparently a ``virtue'', while sloth was punished immediately as a ``vice''). Among other things we discovered at least one computer room (we hoped it was the master server room for the entire complex, the part of the DEMigod mind that ran things in a self-willed way here). We discovered several ``control rooms'' from their higher cooling requirements, although we could not determine the actual systems controlled by each.

Finally, while working a cleaner up and down one of the master vertical shafts that carried cold air down into the darkness of unknown depths I discovered the precise side ducts that led to the transformer room and backup generation facility that served the underground complex. These were on the same level as the computer room - solidly within the armored walls of the primary facility but close to the surface and living quarters, I suppose to make it easy to service and operate them.

Fortunately, the dark masters were themselves more than a bit on the lazy side - unsurprising given their ready supply of involuntary labor and strong supporting technology. This in turn, led them to arrange things to minimize their own inconvenience and personal effort. This was coupled with a strong tendency to centralize and then strongly defend their critical systems - symptomatic of their top-down control structure and general philosophy of life, I suppose, but not terribly robust if that defense was ever penetrated by cockroaches in the walls like us. As I had hoped, they were blind and smug enough to be vulnerable.

However, at some point little would be served by delaying, and there was a small but constant risk of discovery or exposure or just plain bad luck. One day I decided; enough was enough and it was time to move. We had to jump before we were discovered or something else happened by chance that would ruin any hope we might have of actually doing a flea's worth of damage.

Sharra just looked at me and nodded when I delivered a note with a final timetable to her in broad daylight under pretense of stealing kisses and squeezes in the kitchen. We both went away to make our preparations.

Over a small moon I added certain things to the loads I delivered to the kitchen and the maintenance level - carefully selected kegs of wine we had brought from Sind-a-Lay, a keg of ``flour'', another of ``herbal extract'' of the sort used to flavor wines and foods. The carefully hoarded and concealed (in plain sight) crates from the main trade-goods warehouse became an equally carefully hoarded and concealed (in plain sight) pile of crates in a much smaller supply room downstairs, a room in which I made it a daily practice to go rest and eat my lunch in an alcove made out of stacked crates just out of sight of the room's ever watchful ``eye''. If any eye were ever directed into that space there would be nothing remarkable to see but a few blankets spread out on top of some long crates used as a bed, a couple of jugs of wine, and my ``lunch box'' snarfed in the kitchen every day so I didn't have to go back up to the main hall to eat and take the afternoon siesta that was permitted the ``free'' staff.

My siesta, of course, was generally occupied in other ways. Inside the crate I slept on (which was conveniently kept on a rolling palette), I reassembled the various components of the EMP bomb, connecting up the very modest electronics of the detonator to the very sophisticated electronics of the electrical switching and the very, very large capacitor and high energy/high technology battery and precisely timed detonation circuitry Hassan had thoughtfully supplied me.

Perhaps I should explain. An EMP bomb is a remarkably simple device to build. It consists of a big solenoid surrounding a conducting tube filled with explosives. To start, a capacitor bank is charged up to the highest voltage you can manage (around 1500 volts with Hassan's battery) as fast as you can manage it without overheating the battery or supply cabling. In practice, this would take a few minutes and would store a considerable fraction of the total energy in said battery in the capacitor. At $t = 0$, a high speed/high voltage switch would be closed, shunting all that voltage across the solenoidal coil. The energy store is then rapidly transferred to the magnetic field inside the coil as the coil current builds up. If the coil itself is of very low resistance, the peak current is very high indeed - high enough to vaporize the coil itself.

However, before this occurs - on a good day, at least - a second switch would close, detonating the explosive in the tube starting at one end. The tube expands, and starts to short out the solenoidal coil at one end. This shorting out by a good conductor compresses the magnetic flux which contains energy and cannot simply disappear (according to good old Faraday's law). As the explosion propagates down the tube, the running short propagates down the tube as well, squeezing the flux down to an ever smaller volume, until it reaches a really remarkably large value that is trying to vary extremely rapidly in time - the timescale of the actual explosion.

Suddenly, no more tube, and a torus of intense magnetic field is ejected into free space to collapse, generating in turn a huge pulse of electromagnetic energy. This - we hoped - would do more or less what my high voltage generator had managed on a much more personal scale with Brin - cause any non-hardened electronics to arc over, short out, blow traces like little fuses, and die die die. A good electromagnetic pulse bomb could blow every single significant electronic device within as much as a kilometer - I had hopes for even farther, as the metal ductwork in which I planned to detonate it would serve as a great big waveguide and literally funnel the pulse right into the spaces that needed it the most.

The device I had originally designed used C4, which would have produced a very powerful compression of the flux and a decent sized pulse. However, C4 would have been instantly detected, according to both Hassan and Sharra, by invisible sniffers that monitored everything that came into the primary complex containment. For that reason, the explosive in the tube was highly compressed plain old gunpowder with some explosion-enhancing (but presumably undetectable) additives supplied by Hassan and Sharra. Far less powerful, but powerful enough to drive the running short and compress the flux.

Finally, Hassan had filled the space between the coil and the tube with a ferromagnetic foam that was easily compressible (being mostly air) and non-conducting until strongly compressed - a really cute idea. Ferromagnets doing what they do, this increased the peak flux being confined and compressed by several orders of magnitude and turned my original little toy into a monster weapon that might even be able to do what it was supposed to do. Sharra's little biocomputational implant had doubtless factored this into its calculation that we had an actual chance to win, here.

Detection was my greatest fear, as the little grey guys were paranoid and merciless (bad combination) even as they were just a tad sloppy in their paranoia. Carrying in the capacitors and battery and other hardware was a risk, but it was possible (and turned out to be the case) that they did not x-ray every single entering container, and some of what I brought down was electronics and machinery anyway. Only a precise knowledge of what was being requested versus what was being delivered would have revealed any problem, and I'd already demonstrated that they did not perform any checking at this degree of precision.

On the other hand, the addition of Hassan's super-capacitor, high voltage battery, and foam to my homemade arrangement converted my metaphorical kid's crystal radio kit into a modern radar system. It would produce a pulse that was actually comparable to one produced by a small nuclear device being detonated inside the confining and shielding walls of the complex itself.

In the meantime, Sharra made her own, far more important arrangements. We were both ready a couple of days before D-day, which was a damn good thing.

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29