˛ Chapter One˛

In which, 27 days before the Shiva’s arrival,

The Dealer stepped under the fabric canopy stretching above the alley. The delicate patter of misty raindrops rustled above him; his sneakers squished with every step. The Dealer smiled in the darkness; the rain protected him far better than even the night sky now gathering around him.

A soft hum came around the corner of the factory to his right. Lights glared, and a truck, an old white groundhugger with more than its fair share of dents and scratches, lurched into view. The Dealer tensed as it approached—the alley was too narrow, he had no where to dodge. It was just hard to hide when you were six foot two in a country where the average height was still around five foot seven.

The vehicle jerked to a stop. The Dealer relaxed and ran slender fingers through his long black hair. Lights died, the door squeaked open, and the driver jumped to the pavement, splashing in a puddle.

The Dealer peered through the fading twilight into his new customer’s face. Too young to be that smart. A kid, really. An ugly one at that. The crook in the kid’s nose bespoke some fighting, yet the twisted nose did not explain the twisted harshness of the kid’s appearance. It was the cold anger in the eyes and around the mouth that made you want to look away from him. Such warped anger . . . the Dealer wondered momentarily if he himself looked the same. He couldn’t see it in the mirror, but … oh, well. He was what he had made himself—a successful entrepreneur. Chan Kam Yin, the child he’d once been, had grown up to be the Dealer. In the process he had grown out of his anger, or at least into the belief that living well was the best revenge. Perhaps the kid would grow up too. The Dealer shrugged. If the kid didn’t grow out of it, he’d probably get himself killed. Either way it would work out for the best.

The kid had a truckload of high-end motherboards, the kind you’d use in the central server for a comfortable flat in Hong Kong. "Okay," the Dealer said, continuing the negotiation where they’d left off a few minutes earlier, talking on their palmtops. "I’ll buy the truck too, but it better be clean."

"It’s clean, all right. You have my reputation on it."

The Dealer grunted. The kid couldn’t be more than fifteen years old, and new to the business. Yes, the kid had sent him email from an unforgeable identity that, when cross-referenced on the Web, turned up as the seller in half a dozen transactions. He showed all the indications of an honest burglar. Vague clauses permeated his contracts in the eMarkets, typical of the deals for illegal goods. The buyers all commended the kid on his excellent merchandise.

But half a dozen transactions, no matter how properly tricked out, didn’t make for much of a reputation. The cops could have set the identity up, a ploy they tried from time to time with a modest level of success.

The Dealer would have stayed away—should have stayed away– but even in email he could tell the kid was young and earnest. The kid reminded him of himself at that age, a long time ago—a whole four years or so earlier.

The Dealer’s electronic identity—the one he used for fencing operations—had almost two hundred references on the Web, most linked with glowing reports from both buyers and sellers. His reputation was worth more than gold, he’d come to realize. You just couldn’t conduct business, legal or illegal, without it. His high-quality reputation—his brand—had been the means by which this kid had found him on the Web.

The Dealer continued, "Remember, you agreed to link a comment to our contract." The Dealer pointed his palmtop at the kid’s system, initiating a delicate digital dance that took upwards of half a second. The kid probably didn’t understand the mechanics of what was happening, but the Dealer, who’d spent more than a little time studying electronic security systems, did. The bottom line was that digital cash flowed from the Dealer through a highly reputable electronic escrow agent to his new, happy customer, while the control codes for the truck’s engines flowed back to the Dealer through the same agent. At the end of the sequence, the Dealer’s palmtop held new control codes. The kid’s old codes, now revoked, could no longer start the truck.

Thereafter, the kid worked his palmtop, speaking softly to it from time to time. In seconds the Dealer could see the comment appear on the contract in the Wan Fen Emarket. Chalk up another notch in his brand’s reputation.

"You too," the kid said.

The Dealer nodded, and a few taps made another comment appear, noting that the kid had shown up on time and delivered as promised.

The Dealer tensed—this was the moment in these transactions when risk ran high. He’d given the kid both the cash and the electronic endorsement. If the kid killed him right now, and if the kid had somehow jimmied the control code authentication system in the truck (no mean feat, but still possible), he could take his truckload of parts and sell it to another fence.

But the kid was already backing down the street. In a few seconds, he turned and started to trot.

The Dealer stood quietly for a time, trying to think of anything he might have missed that would lead someone to believe stolen goods had changed hands here. He’d bought exclusive rights to the vidcam recordings of this alley from the owner of the body repair shop next door, so no one could use that footage against him. But you never knew when some satellite would pick you out for a close look for one arcane reason or another. The canopy under which he’d completed the exchange wouldn’t protect him from infrared.

He decided that he’d really done nothing suspicious or even interesting to a roving eye. A gentle tingle of anxiety in his shoulders that he hadn’t even noticed till now eased off.

The Dealer wondered idly if the motherboards were all as good as the sample he’d examined. If they weren’t, the kid would soon learn a bitter lesson. The Dealer’s endorsement of the kid’s delivery was indelibly etched on the Web—it was virtually impossible to get a comment retracted from a reputable electronic marketplace, and when working with criminals, you just had to use the most trustworthy marketplaces—but he could always add a second comment about how the goods had turned out, upon detailed inspection, to be defective. One such comment would effectively burn such a young reputation to the ground. No sensible fence would work with him again. The Dealer hoped the kid understood the consequences.

Satisfied, Chan Kam Yin climbed into his new truck and fired the engine. He would have to hurry if he wanted to get home before all the Angels died. He wanted to be watching the action on his own touchscreen when his ‘castpoint position paid off.

˛ ˛ ˛

Only a handful of people ever received invitations to visit him in this room. Those invited always accepted. They rarely stayed long. Guests uniformly found the room too cold and dark for comfort. Morgan MacBride thought it was perfect.

Outside, a thick blanket of night lay softly upon the piņon pines, cedars and scrub oaks that enveloped his isolated dwelling. Outside, the darkness finally brought cool relief from the throbbing daylight. But this room remained dusky even at sun’s zenith. Morgan kept his workroom in perpetual twilight. Such darkness seemed appropriate to a place that saw so much death. The darkness had a practical purpose as well—it eliminated eyestrain while he watched his wallscreen.

The image of a sandstone corridor filled the wall. The image had traveled over a million miles to get here, yet arrived perfect, crisp, clear and life-size. The underlying screen disappeared from view for the untrained eye, building the illusion that the miles-long hallway led directly from the room.

Then the image jerked, breaking the seamless sense of continuity. The simple purity of the corridor scene jump-focused to a complex, grisly scene of dead men in spreading pools of blood.

Morgan sat transfixed by the sight. He did not move, though the heels of his large hands dug into the worn leather arms of his chrome and steel wheelchair. Eyes wide open, he nevertheless listened sightlessly to the sounds he had heard so many times before.

The crunch of disintegrating ceramic armor assailed Morgan’s ears. Then the screaming began. The dying man did not scream in fear—he had volunteered, and had known that he would die even if he succeeded. He did not scream in pain—a stew of pain-control chemicals coursed through the Angel’s bloodstream. No, these screams filled the air with distilled rage, with frustration . . . and with apology.

Morgan spoke, his tongue thick with the effort. "Trudy, shut the wall off."

The computer responded instantly, and the image of the faraway corridor winked out. Overhead lights turned up a notch, just enough to make visible the plush maroon carpet and the navy blue velvet hangings on two walls.

Morgan bellowed in helpless fury.

Solomon, his African Grey parrot, was perched on Morgan’s left shoulder. She ruffled her feathers, then whistled the first few chords of Exodus. "No win," she observed in her trilling voice. Morgan reached across with his right hand to scratch under his companion’s feathers.

"No win," Morgan agreed. For a moment it appeared Morgan would regain his composure. Then the vision of those final, fatal moments filled his mind’s eye. He heaved himself out of his chair with a practiced motion and seized one of the iron rings above his head. Solomon growled and took flight as Morgan grabbed another ring, let go of the first, and hurtled across the room.

The most graceful treefolk of the world are the lemurs. With long, long arms and stubby legs, these distant relatives of humanity can swing through a forest canopy faster than a man can run. Watching Morgan MacBride swing through the room in a dizzying series of figure-eights, any lemur would have grudgingly conceded that the big primate demonstrated a certain skill. Like the lemur, the man had short stubs for legs; the truncated lower body allowed the man to achieve a rhythm of motion known only to the forest dwellers.

Solomon flew around the room at the same altitude as Morgan, crisscrossing the swinging ropes and rings in a cloverleaf pattern of her own. As man and bird swooped through the airspace, a terrible collision seemed inevitable time and again. Somehow, though, the crash never came. The two continued flying and swinging, a flowing tapestry no one else had ever seen.

The reason Morgan kept the temperature down became clear as a slick sheen of sweat covered his face. The perspiration soaked into his heavy white T-shirt, gluing the cloth to his chest, outlining the ropes of muscle that danced across his ribs and shoulders in time with his flight.

At last he dropped exhausted into his chair. The chronic dull ache in the left side of his lower back now peaked in a sharp dagger of pain, throbbing with such intensity that a sadistic masseur might contemplate it with glee. The pain and exhaustion drove the corridor images from his mind.

Silence enfolded the room, a silence that seemed to absorb every hint of sound, even Morgan’s breathing. Solomon backwinged gently to land once again upon his shoulder.

A silky woman’s voice with just a trace of the South penetrated the hush. Trudy, his computer, spoke. "The General's calling. Would you like to talk to him?"

Morgan’s fingers dug deep into the chair arms. Of all the people Morgan didn’t want to talk to, the General topped the list. "Put him through, Trudy," he growled.

A small portion of the wall came back to life, featuring a white-haired man with blue-gray eyes now hooded in sorrow. The rigid line of the General’s jaw told a different story, however, a story of endurance that would yet prevail. He pursed his lips, knowing Morgan would now add to his grief. "They got pretty close this time," he offered. "They reached the previous Gate location." The voice reached for an upbeat tone, but the General hadn’t fooled Morgan in over a decade.

Morgan growled. "They got nowhere close. The entrance wasn’t in the same place, and they should have known it."

"Wait a minute, Morgan—the forecast was giving them sixty percent odds that they’d find the entrance."

Morgan slammed a fist into the chair. "And for Shiva IV and Shiva III , the odds were never lower than eighty-five percent. You can’t just look at the numbers from a ‘castpoint, Samuels … you’ve got to understand them. There were a bunch of tailriders on that one, and they were the only ones who were really certain. But tailriders aren’t certain because they’re smart, they’re certain because they’re stupid."

Samuels eyes turned cold. "Well, it doesn’t make any difference any more." His tone softened. "You start tomorrow, Morgan."

"Yeah. Thanks for sharing." Morgan's voice dripped sarcasm as he waved his hand at one of his computer’s vidcams. The General’s window closed, leaving the wallscreen dark as before. Morgan sat in the crepuscular quiet for a long time. His eyelids sagged, then closed. After a while his breathing turned deep, slow, and steady.

Solomon clacked her beak twice, then in a rough, whistling voice ordered, "Trudy, lights off. Boss asleep."

The silky Southern voice replied, "Sure enough, Sol."

Solomon squawked, "Brights for seven," to set the alarm.

Trudy softly answered, "Sweet dreams."

Solomon proceeded to sing. She sang an aria that would be easily understood by other African Grey parrots, though it was wasted on her present somnolent company … even if he did think almost as well as a parrot. At the end of her performance she fluffed her feathers once more, tucked her head under her left wing, and went to sleep.

˛ ˛ ˛

Chan Kam Yin sat motionless in his closet-sized apartment, thinking about facts and forecasts. The session had started so well and gone so badly.

He had come home after the evening's successful business and sat down at his one extravagance—a black lacquered desk inlaid with mother-of-pearl in delicate garden scenes. With Singapore rice sticks in hand, he was comfortably prepared to watch the end of the Shiva assault. He had turned on his touchscreen, and his Factoid of the Moment had popped up with important news:

To escape the grip of a crocodile's jaws, push your thumbs into its eyeballs—it will let you go instantly.

It had seemed like a good omen indeed, a clear-cut solution to a deadly situation. So much for good omens.

Now he just stared at the mocking results on his touchscreen. He felt a moment’s ironic happiness that he had decided not to purchase the bigger screen of which he dreamed. A bigger screen would have shamed him more effectively than the tiny machine he now faced.

The hideous deaths of the Angels did not upset the Dealer. He, like everyone else, had expected that result. And he had watched the videos of other assaults from the Web archives, so none of what transpired surprised him. No, his personal horror had come as the Angels broke into the hallway where the control room entrance, the Hallelujah Gate, should have been.

He still couldn’t believe what had happened. This Shiva had suckered him as surely as it had suckered everybody else. Well, not quite everybody else. Half an hour before the Angels reached the not-entrance, while they were fighting their way past a squad of minitanks, someone had bought heavily against the forecast that the entrance lay at the end of this hall. Maybe the buyer was the mythical Predictor that gullible people around the Web speculated about. Probably not, though. Personally, Kam Yin thought the gossip ridiculous—how could anyone be that much better at guessing what lay around the next corner?–but whoever had made the massive purchase had single-handedly dropped the odds on the ‘cast from eighty to sixty-five percent. Kam Yin could only draw one conclusion. Predictor or not, the guy who had bought that position had known that the entrance wasn’t in the same place it had been on all four of the earlier Shivas. Whoever he was, he was either a real expert or a real fool. Kam Yin bet on the former.

The Dealer wasn’t an expert, but he'd proven time and again he was a smart guy. He’d figured to pick up some easy money on the sure things. So he’d bought into the safe forecasts, like, "Would the Earth Defense Fleet destroy Shiva V before it got inside the asteroid belt?" Of course not; the Fleet had failed four times before. The newest weapons were remarkably advanced compared to the weapons pitted against Shiva IV , and they were utterly fantastic compared to the childish toys Earth had sent against Shiva I . But Shivas were unthinkably powerful and deadly compared to anything ever built by humankind … and each new Shiva was more powerful and more deadly than the last. Earth Defense still had a long way to go before it could beat a Shiva planet destroyer with brute force.

"Would the Angel One team reach Shiva V's docking bay?" Of course they would; they’d done it four times before. The Angel's Argo ferry craft was the stealthiest ceramic vessel in the solar system … even Shiva couldn’t spot it till it was inside the dock.

"Would the Angel One team defeat the portal locks?" Once again, every Angel team had succeeded, except for Angel Three against Shiva II. Of course, everything about the battles with Shiva II had been a fiasco.

So the Dealer had bought the easy forecasts. There wasn’t a lot of money in it—the ninety-eight percent odds favoring Shiva V against the Fleet had meant that the hundred yen he’d put down only repaid one hundred two—but he’d won reliably nevertheless.

Until now.

Kam Yin sighed. He’d have to figure out a different approach before he tried again.

He rose from the desk carefully, but to no avail––he still banged painfully into his chest of drawers, wedged against the desk at an odd angle. Rubbing his arm, he knelt on his narrow built-in bed to look out his one clean but tiny window. Bright moonlight tempted him to believe he could glimpse reflections from the ocean waves to the east. But what he could see straight ahead, very clearly, were the lights of Shenzhen, and beyond that, high in the sky, the pale glow of cloudlight reflected from Hong Kong’s ebullient radiance.

If only he could fly into the night sky and join that reflected glory, he would see Hong Kong glittering below like a million diamonds as if in affirmation of the boundless wealth created there—wealth that had flowed and spilled from the city ever since Shiva I had blown Beijing to smithereens. Between the Web’s history pages and the stories told on the street, he’d come to believe the destruction of that old capital had been a fabulous personal stroke of luck. He didn’t really know for sure, of course. After all, it had happened before he was born.

The Dealer tapped his fingers unconsciously on the window ledge as his mind drifted back to the present, pondering Shiva that had just snookered him. Looking back, he was able to admit to himself that he was a tailrider: a mindless dummy who just picked the favorite forecast as if it were a sure winner. His father had educated him better than that. His father had been a bookie for cockfights, among other things. He had taught his son the tricks of his trade in between beatings. The old man had scorned the holiday customers who bet the favorites just because everyone else did. And he’d been right, because those customers were the ones who, in the long run, lost reliably.

The Dealer’s father hadn’t bet very often himself, but when he did he won more often than not, and often with the odds against him so he could collect big-time. His father had explained the fundamental rules of gaming to him: never bet against the house, because the house must and will win; when betting against amateurs, understand the odds; and most important, don’t bet against the top experts, because—at least in Cantonese cockfighting—the top experts usually bet only when the fight was fixed. In that situation, the expert was the one who knew which way the fix was in. Watch out when those experts played!

Buying forecasts on a Web ‘castpoint wasn’t exactly the same as cockfighting. No one on Earth could get in a fix on the outcome of an encounter with a Shiva; the "experts" couldn’t rig a surprising upset of the odds. But important similarities existed. He’d have to ponder those similarities. He’d have to ponder them hard. There was just too much money on the Earth Defense prizeboards and ‘castpoints for him to look away.

In the meantime, he’d have to go back to work, doing something at which he was an expert. He had a shipment of car parts on the docket for the following evening. Well, at least he’d get a good day’s sleep before going back to work.

˛ ˛ ˛

Jessica stood in the mall and stared at the screen along with the hundreds of others who’d come here to watch. For just a moment she dragged her eyes away from the screen to study the people around her. Another observer would have seen little to distinguish the people here from the average. But people were Jessica’s life. Jessica saw no one as "average."

Few in this crowd were dressed as crisply as she, rather unusual for this part of Cupertino. Many of them were older, too. And most were far more quiet than you’d expect in a bar, even in a high-class bar.

Their demographics explained their presence. The bar had collected a crowd of lonely people without families, people who weren't making Earthbound contributions to the assault, people who nonetheless needed to drown their fear in a communion with fellow human beings.

The crowd overflowed the main room of Andiamo, and the proprietor, either through sympathy or greed, had set up a temporary wallscreen outside in the wide mall corridor. Waitresses hustled through the crowd, less efficient than usual because they, too, cared desperately about the relentless action on the display and had trouble keeping their eyes from it. When the final dash for the control room entrance began, the waitresses simply stopped serving and joined the spectating crowd, becoming individual cells in a larger organism. Everyone watched helplessly as Buzz Hikmet, leader and last Angel of the assault, died. The eyes of the crowd bulged as a Destroyer, a hulking ceramic robot of surreal strength, ripped Hikmet’s arm from its socket. A collective gasp broke the silence as the Angel’s lifeblood splattered the camera lens, distorting the world through a dark red filter. The crowd started to breathe again when the Destroyer smashed the last of the Angels’ cameras and the screen went momentarily blank. It cut swiftly, automatically, to a news site for the usual post-assault dissection of events. The jump-cut lent an eerie commonality to the event. All the realtime news came through the same way, be it a car accident, a heroic rescue, or the first step toward the end of the world.

Jessica knew that there would be several hundred links on the page, each running to different analysts and news teams, but Andiamo filtered out all but three. The barkeep picked one at random and a bland newscaster appeared, determinedly and desperately calm.

The crowd stirred as it too worked to appear calm. The newscaster more or less succeeded; the crowd failed. Slightly hysterical shouts for drinks filled the air. The bulk of the assembly, shrunken with horror, hurried away toward the mall exit and the parking lot.

Jessica stepped back a few paces to distance herself from the crowd, knowing that if she stayed she would share the panic. Worse, she would reflect it back and make it worse for everyone. She felt as helpless as they did, but she had developed a personal form of escapism. She walked deeper into the mall, away from the parking lot, toward the GameZone.

The place was empty save for an emaciated pasty-skinned attendant. The kid hardly saw her—he was glued to his private touchscreen, hung beneath the registration desk, out of sight of the customers. No doubt he was watching the same thing as most of the other ten billion people on the planet. Not even pausing to smile at the guy, Jessica hurried as quickly as she could in her dress shoes—which was faster than most people could have walked in their sneakers. She came to her game’s cocoon, heard the soft beep as it requested two dollars from her palmtop’s cash reservoir, and Okay’d the request. She entered and adjusted her controls. The game began.

In general, Jessica thought video games were boring. She’d played socially a few times with friends who insisted that she try the newest and greatest. But then the Boyfriend from Hell changed all that four years earlier.

Dmitri had introduced her to Angels’ Gambit. She’d played it off and on ever since, her play fiercely intense in the last few months since Earth Defense had detected Shiva V two light-days from Earth. In the last week she’d played Gambit every night after work. And now she understood why. Here in the cocoon she could look Shiva in the eye and make a difference. Tonight, she thought, she might even win.

Angels’ Gambit did not lure the shoot-‘em-up crowd of teenage males as much as you’d expect for a game that required so much combat. First you picked your team from an ever-changing cast of recruits, then you met the Angel Controller. That character looked remarkably like Morgan MacBride, the Angel Controller who had beaten all four of the previous Shivas. Seeing MacBride's avatar always gave her a chill. He was a mythical figure, and Jessica didn’t believe in myths. All of the Shivas he’d destroyed had gotten past incredible panoplies of weapons, everything Earth Defense could throw from every spaceship and orbital platform under its command.

After reading the heroes’ biographies, you interviewed them, and picked the brain of the Controller. In your interviews you looked for more than the obvious features of brains and brawn—you also looked for moral qualities…both the bravery that permitted you to sacrifice yourself if that was the best solution, and the wisdom beyond bravery that permitted you to avoid sacrificing yourself if your teammates were dying, but you had to stay alive to go ahead.

Even that was not enough—you had to look for combinations of people who complemented each other. One person had to be big and strong to carry the supplies, another quick to outmaneuver the roboguards, still another acrobatic to get behind the minitanks.

And above all, team members had to reinforce each other psychologically. Personalities were important in this game. Pessimists simply couldn’t make the journey. One acidic sense of humor might work, or five might work, but three would only resonate and drive the others to murder.

In this sense the game reminded Jessica of her real work as a management consultant. Management consultants were team builders, leaders, agents of change. An Angel Controller had to be all of those things. She’d gotten into consulting accidentally, though it followed naturally from her instinctive comprehension of and fascination with people. Even in high school she had had an eerie ability to analyze and predict human behavior. She called it "playing human pinball" when joking with her closest friends. Push their buttons and people would light up, just like the bumpers in the old arcade games.

Just two weeks earlier, she and her friend Quinn had been talking about their mutual crony Christina, an ex-roommate of Jessica's who remained a close friend. Jessica had poured out what she thought would happen with Christina and her boyfriend. Christina had asked Jessica what she thought of David, and though Jessica was not about to tell her—after all, girlfriends were there to pick up the pieces afterwards, not to poison the arrangement beforehand—she had thought about Christina and David a lot, and she had to get it off her chest.

Jessica had said, "Quinn, she and that idiot are going to split up. He's been looking at other chicks lately, and Christina has been hanging on to him as if her life depended on it … which she probably thinks it does. I know I would, if I were in her situation. I give them a week at the outside." She sighed. "Somebody ought to warn her."

Quinn had replied, eagerly raising her hand, "I'll do it! She's so co-dependent it hurts me to look at her," but Jessica had quickly scotched that. "You know how stubborn she is—that'd send her right off the deep end. Don't worry—you know Christina." Jessica had rolled her eyes.

Quinn replied, "If they break up, and I'm not sure that they will, since Christina will fight tooth and nail to keep that from happening, it'll take her a long time to recover. She's really gone on this guy."

Jessica smiled. "Nope, I'll put five dollars on it being less than a week before she finds someone new and wonderful—at least she'll think he is."

After Christina and Jeff broke up—less than the predicted week later—Christina had spent two very depressed days agonizing over what he said and she said ad the nauseum to Jessica. Then on the morning of the third day Christina waltzed into work reborn, touting the virtues of Steve, the paragon of all that was good in the male of the species. Jessica had just blithely agreed with every ridiculous claim. It all followed formula, after all.

When Jessica had seen Quinn the next day, Quinn had just handed her a five dollar bill and shook her head. Quinn had asked, "Why are you right so often? Don't tell me anything about my life—I want it to be a surprise!"

Recalling it, Jessica sighed. She often felt like Cassandra when she played human pinball: the projections were uncomfortably accurate . People actually had little freedom to maneuver, given their personalities. Being able to predict future actions had almost never allowed Jessica to change them.

Perhaps that explained why she enjoyed this peculiar game so much. In Angels’ Gambit, her ability to understand the dynamics of human relationships made a difference.

For most people, the game terminated before selecting all five members of an Angel team, because they made such a hash of matching the personalities. The teams typically blew apart during training exercises. Jessica’s teams always made it through training and onto Shiva.

It took Jessica almost an hour of immersive play to get to the point where she loaded her team onto the Argo and launched them toward the bright white sphere of Shiva. Usually she didn’t mind the foreplay, but tonight she was impatient to get to the alien ship. Tonight, even if she lost as she always had in the past, she knew she’d feel better.

When she had entered the cocoon her mind had been full of images of human beings being torn apart. Now, facing the simulated Shiva with her simulated Angel team, those images were being replaced by images of virtual Angels receiving the same ghastly fate. The simulated deaths were still horrible, but not as bad as the real deaths. Even if she lost, perhaps she’d still be able to sleep tonight.

But tonight she thought she just might win. Her mind was racing. She could feel her body shaking as well. The adrenaline rush should have been a disadvantage while playing the position of Angel Controller—but in its grip her mental state blended the characteristics of a bulldozer and a lightning bolt. She sent one Angel down a corridor to hold off three roboguards, while another stayed back to stop a team of repair mechs. A Mark II minitank thought it was hiding around a corner, but with her heightened senses she somehow knew it was there and her remaining three Angels took it down with no more loss than a broken arm. They reached the entrance to the control room, and in the bloodbath that ensued one of her team members survived to crawl through that entrance. Dying but not dead, the Angel set the bomb he carried and a white light sprang out, filling the immersion tank, blinding Jessica momentarily.

She did it she did it she did it! She’d beaten the damned thing. An electric tingle arched up her legs. She grabbed the controls to keep from falling, she was so weak with…joy, relief, release! Beating Shiva was better than sex, she realized, uncertain whether that meant the victory felt so good, or that her recent experiences with men had been so uninteresting.

Her mind leaped and whirled. Just let me control the next team, she thought in a moment of heady, foolish joy. I'll kick the living shit out of that Shiva!

She blinked several times until the balls of light in her eyes faded. At last she strode triumphantly from the cocoon. She smiled at the attendant. He looked over, saw her radiant expression, and tried to smile back.

Once, Jessica’s friends had sent snaps of her to Playboy as a prospective webfold girl. It had been an utterly silly notion—Jessica had always known she was a little plain in the appearance department. But a charming lady photographer and her even-more-charming assistant had persuaded her to go ahead with a test shoot. By the time they were done prepping her, Jessica could barely recognize herself in the woman with the billowing flame-red hair, tilted aquamarine eyes, and inviting lips. The photographer assured her that she would stand out even in those pages of beautiful women. Jessica had turned them down. She still wondered if she’d made the right decision. But she’d never doubted the wisdom of learning to use makeup the way the photographer’s assistant showed her.

Now, when Jessica smiled at them, men—and most women—smiled back. She had naturally expected to win the attendant over for just this one moment. But the attendant was still living with the real deaths of the real Angels. He still faced the undeterred approach of the real Shiva. Jessica could not touch his mood. Rather, he dampened hers. She still held her head high when she reached her skycar, but inside she sagged just like the other people from Andiamo.

In twenty-six days humanity would make its last ditch stand against Shiva V.

Coming up in Chapter 2,