Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6

Earthweb

Copyright 1999
ISBN: 0671-57809-X
Publication May 1999
ORDER

by Marc Stiegler

Chapter 2

T minus Twenty-six: The Month of Shiva

Years of orbital hopping had not lessened his dread of weightlessness. As the ship coasted into space and his stomach floated gently toward his throat, deep inside he just knew he was falling to certain death. He fought it by focusing on something else, anything else. Right now, he was focusing on the stars. Not a good choice. It didn’t help.

Reggie Oxenford turned from the tiny porthole filled with black space and bright stars. His gaze swept the circular room, studying the other people making today’s trip. Less than a quarter of the people had that "Oh-my-God-I'm-going-to-die" look that pronounced them useless for the duration of the Month of Shiva. It raised Reggie’s spirits to see the majority of the people coping so well—after all, if the upcoming Angel Two assault failed, if this Shiva proceeded on the stately course of destruction set by the first one, no one on this vessel—or anyone on the ground below, for that matter— would survive the year.

Could he work up a good news story on this topic? Reggie dimly remembered a shuttle ride similar to this one during the Battle of Shiva II . That time, the shuttle had been almost completely full of people who had already given up. Gross World Production had fallen by eighty percent during the thirty-six days between the Angel One and Angel Six assaults. Of course, the battle with Shiva II had been a ghastly screw-up from the get-go. The military bureaucrats had sent a stream of Angel teams with traditional combat training, instead of a handful of squads prepped specifically for tackling Shiva. Over two million men in five thousand ships had died creating the covering fire for those doomed assaults. Only after Shiva had fried Montreal and almost nailed San Francisco did the bureaucrats concede failure and let MacBride take control. Reggie shuddered as he thought about how close a call that battle had been.

The battles with Shiva III and IV had gone well in comparison. Scary and terrible though they’d been, no more cities had been turned into charnel houses. And with the defeat of every Shiva, the percentage of lost souls fell. People were, in a billion different and private ways, getting used to the idea that the world faced sudden and total annihilation once every five years. No one knew why the Shivas kept coming, though there were whole ‘castpoints devoted to the analysis. People didn’t let the uncertainty get to them, they just kept on keeping on, in a remarkable testament to the adaptability of the human mind and the resilience of the human spirit.

Gravity returned as the black sky quietly turned a deep clear blue. Reggie looked down with relief. He picked out their destination easily. Kisumu had until recently been tiny, almost primitive by Western standards. Now a vast sprawl of buildings consumed the edge of Lake Victoria, marking its location. And of all the new building complexes in Kisumu, nothing drew one’s eye faster than the drop port.

The Dover Drop Port from which he had just departed could have fit invisibly into a corner of the Kisumu field. Monster rotons sat on their concrete pads. Machines and human workers alike raced to load military equipment aboard—the rotons would lift the weapons into high orbits in preparation for the deadly alien ship.

Over a million people had relocated to Kisumu in the last ten years. Kisumu lay on the equator, and at an altitude of over three thousand feet it was the perfect place from which to launch large payloads into high orbits. Earth Defense had spotted its potential early on and had eventually transformed the place into the heavy-lift center for both Africa and Europe. Only the huge drop port at Machu Pichu competed with Kisumu in scale.

The port grew rapidly in his window. Reggie stared fixedly at the ground as it came up to meet him. His view was scarcely altered by the commercial roton’s huge copter blades as they gained speed, whirling up to a velocity that made them invisible.

In college, Reggie had spent a semester fascinated by Twentieth Century history. He’d studied the old-fashioned rockets, the V-2 and the Saturn V. In comparison to those graceful brutes, the roton spacecraft was almost disappointing in its simplicity. People back then had wanted glamour and mystery in space travel, not something that looked like it should be on your breakfast table. Undoubtedly, people had read too many science fiction novels where the space craft was gleaming silver or deadly jet-black.

But rotons were simple. To make a roton, stand an egg on its end. Attach four huge blades to the fattest part of the egg, and attach a rocket motor to the tip of each blade. During take off, the rockets didn’t lift the ship—they just rotated the blades, and up you went, just like an old-fashioned helicopter. As you rose into ever thinner atmosphere, the blades tilted till the rocket motors were pointing down; only then did the ship actually travel like an old-fashioned rocket.

During these takeoffs, the roton looked like a Rube Goldberg device compared to the ships invented in science fiction. Coming down, though, the roton was stranger still. He watched and listened to the descent of his own vehicle.

As always, the landing was dead-quiet. The rocket motors on the tips of the blades were shut down and silent during re-entry, since the frenetically whirling blades soaked up kinetic energy during the first stages of re-entry and didn't need more boost. By inverting the angle of the blades at the right moment, the ship used that energy to push back against the atmosphere and become an autogyro. The spinning blades contained all the power needed to make the descent smooth, gradual, and even comfortable.

A last spike of pressure accompanied the tipping of the blades to a stronger angle, and the ship settled on the ground, its journey complete. Reggie Oxenford heaved an unconscious sigh of relief.

He glanced at the sketchy map of the drop port on his palmtop, tapped for the directions to his rented skycar, and headed off.

 

* * *

 

Jessica tossed in her sleep. Work dreams hounded her tonight, as she wrestled with strategies to lure the CEO of Bigelow’s Recycling into sensible action—sensible action being the course she had laid out, naturally. No strategy in the dream gave any promise. The problem gnawed at her, a virtual piranha nibbling the lobes of her mind.

Relief came only when the sound of her name interrupted her anguished slumber. She forced one eye to focus on the clock. It confirmed her worst fears. The autoperk didn’t even have her caffeinated lifeblood ready this early.

"Jessica," whispered the sardonic, sensual voice of the Boyfriend from Hell. Jessica groaned with fresh horror. Once she had thought herself clever for programming her home control unit to mimic him—his very voice raised the hair on the back of her neck, making her uncomfortable enough to ensure she got up and out. Big mistake. Somehow, her human pinball always failed where she herself was concerned.

"Ugghhhh," she replied, then went back to sleep.

But the Boyfriend insisted. "Jessica! Someone is at the door. He says it’s urgent."

Jessica groaned. "Shut up," she told her computer. She shook her head, and once again stuck a post-it note on her parietal lobe. She'd reprogram that computer’s voice today!

Through half-open eyes she saw the pinkish glow of sunrise. That made her groan again. She wrapped her favorite tattered sky-blue robe around her and headed toward the door. Even her teddy bears weren't awake, she noted as she stumbled past them. She checked the monochrome display that showed the intruder; the straight-backed man in the crisp uniform did not look like a thug. Not that a thug had been likely in the first place—central computers were invariably wired to call security agencies at the first sign of trouble, and thugs knew it.

With a half-hearted jerk, she opened the door. She had planned to glare at the stranger who had awakened her at this ridiculous hour, to force him into stammering apology at the very least. Her plan suffered an abrupt change, however, after one look at her visitor.

Standing five foot eleven inches, even Jessica’s friends couldn't describe her as petite. Yet she had to lean her head back to see the man’s face. His snow-white hair accentuated his quiet dignity.

The cleft chin matched the chiseled lines of his face so perfectly that a biosculptor could not have done better. A biosculptor, however, would have eased out the ingrained worry lines from the forehead and temples. No, Jessica concluded, this man had always looked like a Canadian Mountie. She suspected he’d make a good dance partner—Jessica had trouble finding men tall enough who could lead properly, and he just looked like the type.

Her eyes fell to the six stars on the shoulder of his Earth Defense uniform. She wondered how long it took to acquire that many.

"Jessica Travis? I’m General Samuels. Kurt Samuels." He held out his hand.

She shook his hand automatically, feeling foolish in her faded old robe as she studied this GQ poster boy for the mature male. General Samuels. She’d heard that name somewhere before. If only she could remember where. She switched off her glare and gave him a small smile instead. "How can I help you?" she asked.

The General pursed his lips. "Well, that’s a long story. The short version is, I need your help to destroy Shiva VI."

Finally his name clicked. Her eyes widened, and she came fully awake. "General Samuels! Please come in!" The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Earth Defense Agency entered her two-bedroom townhouse.

"Thank you," he said as he followed her into the living room. He laughed. "I’m sorry, but you should have seen your first expression."

Jessica pointed to a chair for her guest, then sat herself on the sofa. She wrinkled her nose and replied dryly, "Perhaps it’s available on the vidcam instant replay." Had another man laughed at her like that, she’d have stored the offense for later retribution. The General . . . well, he deserved a little slack. After all, he’d guarded humanity for something like fifteen years, or ten anyway—she knew he’d been Chairman during the Shiva III action, though she was not sure who’d been in charge against Shiva II. And of course, Shiva I hadn’t been defeated by the military at all.

"You won at Angels’ Gambit last night," he said, with laughter still in his blue eyes, the twinkling so bright she could have used it to light up her Christmas tree. Then the meaning of his words hit her.

How did he even know she played Angels’ Gambit? How did he know she played last night? She stared at him.

"Did you ever wonder how Angels’ Gambit could be so inexpensive even though it’s a total-immersion game? Have you ever heard of anything like it, with a top-of-the-line cocoon, that you could play for two dollars?"

Jessica nodded thoughtfully. "I confess, I wondered how they made a profit. It was too cheap to be that real."

"Earth Defense owns Angels’ Gambit, Jessica. We used it to find you."

Jessica tipped her head back and threw the General’s laughter back at him. Her laughter was just a touch too loud and too wild, however, to reflect his properly. "Okay, I'll bite. Why?" she asked, knowing that he wanted her to ask.

The General’s eyes searched the living room, from the Southwestern knotty-pine daybed-cum-sofa by the brick fireplace to the Oriental prints and undersea photos that adorned the walls. "You have a weblink in here somewhere?" He stood up and lifted her blue teddy bear off the sofa to peer under it in mock inquiry.

She laughed in spite of her tension. "Not in the living room." She waved her hand. "My office." Jessica led the General down the hall to her office, awkwardly unable to think of anything to say. Fortunately the hall was short.She flipped on the wallscreen as she entered the room, then realized with horror what a shambles her office was. Her central server stood agape in the corner, its wires streaming in wild disarray across the floor. Plug-ins stood naked on the motherboard–its case lay halfway across the room. She’d been working on a CPU upgrade the other night and hadn’t gotten around to cleaning up yet. Not the image she wanted to present to this man. Granma would chew her down to her toes if she found out that Jessica had brought General Samuels into this wreck of a place.

Jessica rolled her spare chair over next to her desk, letting the General sit down. She grabbed the trackball and set up an anonymous connection to the Web—she wasn’t going to log in with her permanent identity if she was going to turn control over to the General. She offered him the trackball.

The General cleared his throat apologetically. "Actually, Ms. Travis, it would be easier if you could slave the screen to my palmtop. I have all the information here," he explained. "Is that possible?"

"No problem. Call me ‘Jessica’, by the way." She popped a window on the screen, set its capabilities so it could access the Web but not her server, and turned authority for the window over to the infrared port on the General’s palmtop. A picture of another tall, handsome man appeared there, with pale skin and dark curly hair. She recognized him immediately, both from the onscreen photo and as the avatar in Angels’ Gambit. "Morgan MacBride?"

"That’s right, Jessica.’ The General tapped his chin with his finger. Jessica just bet women went for that cleft. "He's the best-known person on Earth today. Ten billion people recognize him at a glance. Morgan MacBride, savior of Earth, honored by more people than Jesus Christ, Buddha or Mohammed. He’s the private citizen who, after all the fleets of Earth had been destroyed, took four ex-Marine buddies, snuck a partially stealthed roton into Shiva's docking bay during the fireballing of London, and blew the damn thing to kingdom come. He couldn’t quite save Washington, but he saved everybody else." The General’s eyes glittered suspiciously as he summarized the well-known tale. Then he blinked; the fleeting window into his soul snapped shut. He shook his head as if to clear it. "But, Jessica, there’s a problem with this picture." The window split; in the second half of the window another man appeared.

Every feature of this man’s appearance seemed out of sync, a complete integration of contradictions. The tan skin of his face, neck, and hands had the texture of creased and battered old shoe leather. Yet his huge–even grotesque–chest and shoulder muscles marked a physical strength seemingly impossible in a man who appeared that old. Liver spots formed an irregular pattern across his smooth bald head, another sign of age and fatigue. Yet the man’s eyes burned with youthful though dark intensity. Those eyes looked familiar. She looked just at the eyes for a long moment. Then she looked back at the other picture. The eyes were the same. Her breathing stopped for a second as she stared at Kurt Samuels. "Morgan MacBride," she whispered.

The General nodded.

She looked back at the new picture. Curiously, for all his physical deficiencies, he was not unattractive. Despite the blemishes and the wrinkles he was a legend, and she could see why. He reminded her of the Beast from childhood tales, who did not even look human, but whose sheer strength and passion gave him character that the smooth-skinned twenty-something Ken—or even GI Joe—dolls she knew could never achieve. Still, he looked older than she’d expected. "I’d heard the rumors that he was dead," Jessica muttered, "But I never took them seriously. I didn’t realize. . ." She thought back to her childhood memories of Shiva I and the aftermath. She looked again at the photo of MacBride taken just after his return to Earth. "He can’t be more than fifty years old!" she exclaimed.

The General agreed. "You're a bit high … he just turned 48. But we still have a problem." His stylus danced across the surface of his palmtop, and new information filled the window of her wallscreen.

It was a medical report. The General spoke as she read. "Morgan has a couple of strikes against him. First of all, he is genetically predisposed to rapid aging. Secondly, he took a whopping dose of radiation when Shiva self-destructed during his escape." He pointed at the report. "You can read the consequences for yourself."

Jessica scanned the list of medical jargon. It set forth a veritable feast of physically fatal indicators. Three different forms of cancer had metastasized in MacBride’s body before being pummeled into remission. A brain tumor the size of a pea underwent regular inspection for signs of growth. His left kidney operated at fifty-three percent efficiency, and his right kidney was on its fourth replacement—Morgan’s immune system had rejected each of the first three within weeks, despite advanced cloning techniques. The problems with his heart had names she had never heard of before, but they looked bad. Half a dozen doctors swore that a heart transplant for a person with such a history of systemic rejection was going to be fatal.

The feeling of panic from last night, as she watched the disastrous assault on Shiva V, came back to her. "Oh, God! He’s been the Controller against every last one of them!"

The General’s voice became a whisper. "That’s right, Jessica. For every Shiva since that first one, we’ve sent out at least two Angel teams. Angel One has always been run by the brightest, fastest combat controller we could train. No Angel One team has ever succeeded. Starting with Shiva III , we’ve always had Morgan run Angel Two. As you just said, no Shiva has ever gotten past him."

Jessica felt lightheaded. "He’s the only one who can stop them. What are we going to do?"

The General’s eyes commanded hers. "You’re leaving with me, Jessica Travis." He looked around the room, at the clutter and the comfortable chaos. She could see that he knew this was not merely her house, but her anchor. "I don't think you'll be coming back." Jessica knew what he meant. The house might remain her possession, but it would never again be her home. She rose in response to the General’s order.

And still the question reverberated in her mind. What were they going to do?

 

* * *

 

Reggie’s trip from Laker’s Inn to the Ng’eno residence was uneventful. Skycars crowded the air; periodically you could see one or another of them turn sharply as their proximity radars warned of a close approach. Cars were the first thing people bought with their newfound wealth, so Kisumu’s skies were almost as busy as Colorado Springs where the EDA had its headquarters.

From the air Reggie could also see trains coming in from both directions on the Ugandan Railway. A fleet of ships steamed across the lake. Reggie wondered if Kisumu would still be here in a month. Could the enemy ship recognize this place as a potent military staging area? Would it blast Kisumu as one of its first actions?

Of course, Reggie knew something Shiva did not know: that one single individual here in Kisumu personally threatened the giant warship more than all the equipment lifted from the drop port. And that person lived in a modest, red-brick, two-story house outside the bustle of the city. Reggie could see it as his skycar slowed to a hover near its roof.

A plain-looking family car sat next to the landing pad. Everything about this dwelling seemed completely unremarkable, considering the abilities of the forecast trader who lived therein.

Touchdown complete, Reggie headed for the front porch. The tall, ebony woman with short, kinky hair who opened the door looked substantially older than he himself. This surprised him. He had dug out a little information on her on the Web, and Selpha’s bio showed she had no more than two years on him. He recognized the suspicion in her eyes, though she gave him a tired smile. "Ms. Selpha Ng’eno?" he inquired.

"Yes, Mr. Oxenford," she replied, clasping his hand in a firm grip. Her speech surprised him. Not only did her voice have a strong, even commanding tone, but it rose clear and beautiful … rather like his own, in fact. It was free of the twangy American accent so common in the world these days. He should have expected that … after all, she had learned English here in her native Kenya.

Reggie smiled broadly. "I’m Reggie Oxenford. And I must say, it is delightful to find someone who speaks proper English, not that intolerable American slang."

That drew a cough from Selpha he could interpret as a suppressed laugh. "English is the official language of Kenya," she said, "though it is a bit hard to keep up the tradition, with American so popular on the Web." She led him into the living room, where a younger woman stood smiling brightly. "Mr. Oxenford, this is my sister Dorothie."

Reggie nodded to the girl. She was a beauty, with shoulder-length hair that curled rather than kinked, and smooth clear skin the same rich color as Selpha’s. Only three years separated the sisters, yet they appeared to be from different generations.

Dorothie cocked her head and inquired, "Would you like something to drink, Mr. Oxenford? It's a long trip from England." Dorothie spoke perfect American. Clearly a child of the new order.

"That would be delightful. Some tea, perhaps?"

A coldness permeated the room as Selpha and Dorothie exchanged glances. Reggie knew that somehow he had lost what little goodwill he had earned in the earlier exchange. Dorothie said apologetically, "We don’t have tea here, Mr. Oxenford. Coffee, perhaps? Or a Coke?"

"Coffee would be good. Thank you."

Dorothie departed and Selpha stepped back into the role of hostess. "Please sit down," she said, pointing at a high-backed cream-colored chair.

For the first time Reggie took a measure of the room. The chair appeared quite new, with hardly a hint of wear on the soft cloth. Indeed, everything in the room was new-ish. Suddenly Reggie understood the significance. "Did you buy this place about four years ago? After Shiva IV?"

Selpha nodded. "Most astute, Mr. Oxenford. I bought it with our earnings, helping the Angels in the last go."

"How did you do in the Angel One assault yesterday?" Blast, Reggie thought even as he said it. He was coming a bit too fast.

Selpha looked away. "We certainly did better than the Angels themselves."

Reggie took a deep breath. Somehow, he needed to get Selpha’s trust if he was to achieve his goal. "It was quite terrible," he said softly, "I’m sorry I brought it up."

Dorothie returned with coffee, some cookies, and a Coke for Selpha. She hurried from the room.

Selpha spoke next. "I, uh, suppose I should apologize to you as well, Mr. Oxenford. About the tea."

Reggie looked at her in surprise. "Not a spot of bother, Ms. Ng’eno. The coffee is delicious."

"Yes, well. . ." Selpha sat up straight, as if making a confession. "I should explain. You know we’re from Kericho."

Reggie nodded. "That was why I thought tea would be an easy choice, actually." Kericho’s main claim to fame was still its tea, despite all the changes in Kisumu just a few miles away.

"Well, I worked on the tea plantations for six years. It is not a pleasant memory. Tea is simply not allowed in my house."

Reggie realized then that Selpha had probably grown up in a thatched hut, quite possibly married off at the age of twelve for a few cows. No wonder she looked older than her age. "Congratulations on your escape."

"Thank the Earth Defense Agency."

Reggie waited for her to elaborate. As the silence became awkward and Reggie decided to fill the void, Selpha continued. "After the Top Drop, Dorothie tricked me into learning how to use her palmtop, and I became the satlink admin for our village."

Reggie nodded. "I see." That explained many things. Top Drop had been a part of the WebEveryWhere initiative. In parts of the world where the governments stole more than the bandits, and used even food as a tool of control, Earth Defense had bypassed them and dropped millions of palmtops from the air. Solar powered and capable of vocal as well as written communication, the palmtops did best with children, playing games with them till they learned to read, write… and eventually to do calculus. If Dorothie had had to trick Selpha into learning about computation and communication, Selpha had been right at the cusp of the change. The three years that separated the sisters was indeed the transition across generations. Reggie realized there was an award-winning story here, two women so close in age yet so far apart in the civilizations that controlled their formative years. By accepting the precious but difficult satlink admin job, Selpha had been able to shield Dorothie from the harshest truths of poverty as they climbed, together, into a brighter future. Dorothie’s youthful nature stood as another testament to Selpha’s formidable strength.

Now he needed to somehow make Selpha understand him as he understood her. Perhaps telling her his goals would make the difference. "Please let me explain why this interview is so important to me."

Selpha snorted. "You explained yourself in email reasonably well." She pointed a finger at him. "You’re doing a series of Web pages on, what do you call them? Ah, yes– ‘Unsung Heroes—Behind the Scenes in Earth Defense.’"

Reggie winced at the sarcastic tone in her voice.

"Maybe, Mr. Oxenford, the ‘Unsung Heroes’ are unsung because they want to be left alone."

Reggie closed his eyes and prepared to try again. "It’s true that I make my living as a journalist. But my series on ‘Unsung Heroes' is more than just a commercial piece, Ms. Ng’eno. In my own way, I am trying to help defeat these bloody machines." He looked into her eyes. "The world needs more people like you. Out of the billions of people who have never submitted a solution to the prizeboards or offered a new prediction on the ‘castpoints, there might be another person somewhere who can do what you do."

Selpha smiled bitterly. "But if someone else could make the forecasts I make, I would be out of business, would I not?"

"You wouldn’t make as much money," he admitted. "But answer me this. Ms. Ng’eno, if you died, what would happen to Dorothie when Shiva VI came? If you hadn’t warned Whitaker about the three minitanks of a new enhanced model, lurking in the materials storage room on Shiva IV , the whole team would have died right there."

He paused; Selpha looked stricken. He continued, "Ms. Ng’eno, if you insist, I will write a contract with you, right now, stating that I will not reveal your technique of forecasting until and unless you die or are mentally incapacitated. But please … tell me about your methods, or at least make sure someone else reliable knows it so that all of Earth will not lose it even if we lose you."

Selpha slumped as she thought about the larger issues.

Reggie pressed the attack. "You will not find a more reputable person in whom to trust your story. Let me show you." He pulled out his palmtop, and popped up a list of his recent publications. He moved, low and quick, to kneel beside her so she could see the display. "Please pick any of these articles at random, and examine the comment links. Most of these articles have actually been endorsed by the people described in them." He picked one from the middle of the screen, and showed her the endorsement and comment made by the interviewee.

Selpha raised an eyebrow. "Does everyone endorse your pages, Mr. Oxenford?"

He laughed. "Not everyone." He opened another page, and showed the ragingly hostile attack on him the subject of another article had made.

Selpha stared at the comment. "Goodness," she muttered, "that is rather vehement."

"Yes, but look at the comments the fellow has made about other biographers, and about other people in general." Reggie ran a search of the Web for other critiques with the same brand to show her a sampling. A blistering attack on a corner florist for a box of a dozen roses that had contained only eleven flowers nicely captured the fellow’s temperament.

"He rather seems permanently angry," she confessed.

Reggie held up a hand. "Let me be very honest. I didn’t go out of my way to mollify this poor chap either. I try to write the truth, and that includes not sugar-coating the troubles a fellow has."

Selpha smiled. "Do you ever make mistakes?"

He snorted. "Of course. But," he played with the palmtop, "I correct them." On the screen she could see a correction link attached to one of the biographies, in which Reggie apologized for an error.

"I know it’s hard to trust reporters, but believe me, I’m the one for you." Reggie flashed a big smile up at her from his kneeling position. "Really. I’m the best!"

At last Selpha laughed. "And modest, into the bargain. Very well. But I’m afraid my technique won’t do you much good. Or anyone else, for that matter."

Reggie’s knees were starting to ache and so, having won the critical battle, he retreated to his chair. "Really? Your forecasting has something to do with sound analysis, right?"

Selpha nodded. "Very astute again, Mr. Oxenford. We . . . analyze . . . sounds, and extract the nature of the objects involved from them."

"I thought so. There were several interesting forecasts, like the one about the minitanks, and another about going clockwise to the nearest slidechute, that appeared on the ‘castpoint shortly after sharp sounds echoed down the halls. And of course there were postings on the prizeboards requesting occasional sharp raps on the wall, which were new and rather unusual requests during the assaults on Shiva IV."

"Those requests were ours," she admitted. "You missed a career as a forecast trader yourself, Mr. Oxenford."

"Call me Reggie." He chuckled. "I had hoped that you had developed some new type of digital signal processor that did this analysis for you. But if no one else can duplicate your success, what is your secret? Do you just listen carefully?"

"Not exactly. It’s. . ." Selpha’s shoulders slumped again. Somehow the answer caused her pain.

"Do you want that contract from me now?" he offered.

"No, it’s just that. . ." She stopped again.

The sound of a loud crash came from a back room. Selpha leaped to her feet, and Reggie followed her without invitation, hoping he wasn’t intruding but determined not to let her escape now that he had her convinced.

A left turn into the hallway and a right through double-wide arches led into a glassed-in rec room. The scene before him elicited puzzled anguish. A teenage boy lay huddled on the floor, shivering as if from an unknown ailment. Dorothie knelt beside him, her arms extended, her hands not quite touching the boy. A plastic globe of the Earth still rolled in a slow drunkard’s walk across the hard floor. Selpha spoke to Dorothie rapidly in a language incomprehensible to Reggie.

The boy spoke. "Plastic sphere. Hollow. Shell four millimeters thick. Bumps on the surface. Hit vinyl tile, two millimeters thick, on five-millimeter mahogany plywood backing, three centimeters from a steel cross-strut."

It took Reggie a moment to realize that the boy had just told him Selpha’s great secret.

Selpha knelt by the boy and looked up at Reggie, once again filled with bitterness. "Reggie, meet my son, Peter."

Not quite knowing what to do, Reggie knelt down as well and held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Peter."

Peter did not respond.

Selpha explained. "Peter is blind." Her hands clenched and unclenched. "He is also autistic." She looked at Reggie as if she had explained everything. Reggie’s blank expression clearly told her she had not. "You may know that some autistic children can solve remarkable mathematical problems in their heads. They are known as ‘idiot savants.’" Tears welled in her eyes. "My child is also an idiot savant, Mr. Oxenford. But he doesn’t do math. He just listens."

At last, Reggie understood.

 

* * *

 

Fort Powell, southwest of Las Vegas, could be described as beautiful only by someone with the esthetics of a Franciscan monk. But for such a person the windswept, scrub-blanketed lands presented a study in sublime beauty.

The austere simplicity of the land reached into the buildings of the base as well. Now barely at mid-morning, the fierce desert sun already beat through the tinted windows, reflecting off the polished floor tiles, flooding the classroom with harsh light. The room's fluorescent ceiling tiles might as well have been blackened, for all the value they added.

Morgan MacBride knew what his new people were seeing in that stark light: a bald and decrepit wreck of a man with a parrot perched on his left shoulder. And he knew what they were thinking—is that really him? Jeeze, I had no idea he was so . . . old! It made no difference.

Whatever their thoughts, they looked at him with that absolutely sober earnestness shared by young people who believed in themselves and in their mission. He would hate himself for it, but he would use that dedication, exploit it for his own mission. Of course, his mission was only a little different from theirs.

He began. "Welcome, Angels."

That created a stir; now they knew that they had been selected.

"Yes, that’s right. You’re the Team now. Earth’s last hope. If you succeed, your names will be remembered for as long as humankind lives. If you fail, you will still be remembered for as long as humankind lives. But it will be a much shorter memory." He smiled grimly and shifted in his chair. "However, you don’t know who I am. You may think you do, but you don’t. Let us be very clear about this. I am the man who will cause your deaths. Each and every last one of you will die at my command."

He let the silence hang in the air for a long minute. When he thought they had recovered, he flexed his huge shoulder muscles, lifted himself out of the chair, and swung onto the desk. The parrot had known what was coming, and took the sudden shift smoothly. "I have led twenty people into Shiva ships. Only one man has ever gotten out of a Shiva alive, and as you can see, he didn’t do so well."

The five people in the room stared at the stumps where Morgan MacBride’s legs had been; he let them protrude from his shorts in defiance of the unspoken convention that such disfiguration should be hidden. Everyone knew, of course, that the final explosion of Shiva I had cost Morgan MacBride his legs, but they’d never seen it—no pictures had ever been posted on the Web that showed the price of his victory. Morgan actually had a pair of prosthetic legs, but they were uncomfortable, and besides, he needed his legs like they were for this one day that came every five years.

"I know that you have gone through the most intensive training process in the history of Earth. Some of you have been training for this mission all your lives. I have news for you: your training has just begun. The next twenty-four days will be the real training. It will also be your last."

He looked down at his palmtop. "Locks and Blocks Specialist . . . Axel Sturmlicht," he called out. A sturdy young man leaped to his feet. "Heavy Weapons and Logistics . . . Lars Moreau," and a hulking Swede stood at attention. "Recon . . . Roni Shatzski." A tall, gangly fellow with a jagged smile stood up. "Medic and Alternate Lead . . . Akira Tanaka," and a small Japanese man joined the others.

"And the Angel Leader . . . C.J. Kinsman," he bellowed. The thin one that looked too young stood up and saluted. "Yes, sir!" he shouted in a voice that struck MacBride strangely. The voice was too high-pitched, too melodious, too . . .

Morgan stared at the Angel Leader. "You’re a woman!" he accused her.

"Yes, sir!" she repeated, with the barest hint of challenge in her voice.

Morgan continued to stare for a long moment. "Dismissed. See you at Mission Training Alpha at 0930." He lifted himself up, swung into his wheelchair, and barreled out of the room so swiftly that the members of his new team were still staring as he disappeared into the hall.

Morgan knew exactly who to strangle for this and he wasted no time. His target was only a short distance away. He rolled through the outer office, where the military aide barely had time to look up before Morgan crashed into the inner door, slamming it open in his rage. He rolled forward and crashed into the desk. General Samuels sat quietly with a raised eyebrow, watching his visitor, his fingers steepled in front of him. He had clearly expected Morgan’s arrival. "What can I do for you, MacBride?" he asked, too casually.

"She’s a woman!" Morgan sputtered.

"That’s a tautology," the General replied.

"We cannot send a woman on a suicide mission!" Morgan practically screamed.

"You are indeed a Neanderthal, Morgan. You knew that, didn’t you?" The General clicked his tongue. "Well, I won’t tell anyone if you won’t."

Morgan slammed the desk with his fist. This time the parrot was taken by surprise, and had to flap for balance. "You can’t do this!"

"Ah. I can’t. Indeed." He cleared his throat. "Perhaps, before you go on, you should read CJ Kinsman’s bio. If you had done so before bursting in here, you would have found that, despite your old-fashioned though honorable opinion, I must send her." Samuels rose from the desk, towering above the still raging Angel Controller. "But don’t bother, Morgan. I know you don’t like to read, so let me just tell you about her. She’s the best person we’ve ever fielded against a Shiva." He held up his fingers and started ticking them off. "First of all, you should have heard of her before. She won the gold medal in the triathlon two years ago." He ticked another finger. "She has five percent more endurance than Whitaker did." Whitaker had been the Angel Two Leader against Shiva IV and they’d thought they’d never get anyone that remarkable again.

Morgan interrupted. "What about her strength, Samuels? How big a load can she carry?"

The General continued unperturbed. "Whitaker was twenty percent stronger than CJ," he admitted, "but she’s got an IQ of one-eighty. She’s smarter than you are, Morgan, and some of her highest marks are in spatial and mechanical analysis." He ticked one last time, closing his hand into a fist. "And here’s the kicker … she has the fastest reflexes in history. Period. She can devise and execute a new combat strike faster than a mongoose can snatch a cobra." The General smiled wryly. "We have a separate research effort going on just to try to figure out what’s different in her neural transmitters. She is so good, in fact, that she’d be a freak in any age except our own."

Morgan was listening now, past the rage, and into a pensive contemplation of the possibilities. The General knew it was time to deliver the coup de grace. "In short, Morgan, there’s never been anybody with a chance like this. Together, the two of you can do it. Morgan, this time you can bring somebody home."

Morgan sat motionless in the wheelchair. A part of him felt the rage bubble back up, knowing that Samuels was manipulating him, using his weakness against him. But he knew the General was right.

Morgan’s mission differed from the Angel mission in one small detail. He’d never revealed the difference to any Angel. He never would.

The earnest young people of the Angel team went forth merely to destroy Shiva. In that goal, Morgan’s mission mirrored theirs. But beyond that, Morgan needed to bring those earnest young people home again. He had never yet succeeded. CJ might be his only hope. "You win, Samuels," he growled.

"Thank you," the General replied, as the sorrow slid across his eyes like a nictitating membrane. Morgan recognized the look, and immediately understood.

In all probability, they had just imposed a death sentence on a remarkable young woman.

 

* * *

 

Jessica watched impatiently as Morgan and the General went at it. Her monitor displayed the confrontation in living color, courtesy of a vidcam set up in General Samuel’s office. Eavesdropping, even at the General's order, made her twitchy, especially when she was listening to arguably the two most important men on Earth in the middle of a private row. But the General had insisted that she study every aspect of Morgan MacBride’s life, and the General himself had granted her the viewing rights in his private office. Of course, her viewing rights ended automatically when MacBride left the room.

But for now she’d forgotten her discomfort with the vidcam arrangement. She was steaming with disbelief.

How could Morgan MacBride question a person’s qualifications just because she was a woman? What was MacBride’s problem, anyway? Hadn’t he ever met a woman soldier before?

It didn’t make any difference. She’d been watching the world’s most revered hero for less than an hour, and she already disliked him. She couldn’t do the job.

She watched as Morgan spun his wheelchair out of the room. Her view cut to the hallway, following him. The next important episode in Morgan’s life would start in about half an hour. This would give her the time she needed.

She walked briskly down the hall, passing Morgan with a curt glance. The parrot gave her a wolf whistle, but Morgan was distracted and hardly noticed that there was another human being in the hall. She reached the General’s office and entered almost as forcefully as Morgan had. She could see that the General’s aide had a very difficult job.

With a disarming smile, Jessica slid passed the aide, a young man in uniform. The aide tried to intercept her, but her smile penetrated his defenses easily, throwing his attack into disarray. In the end he threw up his hands and let her go past. She wondered if she had just gotten the kid into trouble, though he did smile back at Jessica, briefly, as Jessica forced the door to the inner office.

The General had not yet returned to his seat. He looked at her in mock dismay. "Et tu, Brute?" he said, with a hint of humor.

"I can’t do it, General," she said in flat tones. "I cannot think like him."

The General pursed his lips. "Sit down, Jessica." He pointed to a chair.

She didn’t like being ordered around, but the guy was so charming she found she couldn’t refuse, any more than she could have said no when he demanded that she fly out here this morning. She wondered if this would be a recurring theme in their relationship. She was not going to stand for that kind of treatment. Who did he think he was anyway?

She sat in the chair as she was told.

The General owned a quiet office, with plush beige carpet and walls lined with old bound-paper books. She’d read paper books before, but not often, and not recently. It was quaint, really. But as the decor of office of the most powerful man in history, the room’s elements suggested strength and ancient wisdom. She felt safe in this room.

The General returned to his chair as well. He picked up his coffee cup, wrapping his hands around it like it was his last hope of salvation, then made himself set it down again. She saw a curious design embossed on one side of the cup: a red dartboard with a small but glaringly bright bull’s eye. Five blue dots of varying sized marked hits, scattered randomly across the target. None of the hits had struck near the center. Despite the shortcomings of the markers, however, the caption read, "High Accuracy." Strange—how could you have high accuracy without hitting the center of the target?

Jessica brought her attention back to the General, who was now speaking in abrupt, military tones. "Ever had a real enemy? Someone determined to block your every move, thwart every plan and goal?"

"No, not … uh, Charley!" Jessica thought back. Charley Wenig. Charley had been a division chief for FabChip Consulting. Polished, not unlike the General. Very, very smart, again like the General. But with the delicate moral rectitude of a copperhead.

Jessica had been brought in to FabChip to stop the interdivisional slugfests, the internecine cross-group stealing of hot employees by promising salary increases just for switching teams, and worse, the stealing of customers by spreading rumors about the other divisions. FabChip was its own worst enemy, and its competitors were starting to figure that out.

Charley had loved it at FabChip. The company had a great customer list, and Charley had figured, why go through the agonizing, usually unsuccessful effort of attracting new customers when plenty of in-house customers made easy pickings? Charley had loved the internal corporate disputes—he thrived on them. From the first day he had known that his vision of FabChip and hers could not coexist.

For her part, it had taken Jessica a while to glean the same understanding. She learned about a series of not-quite-lies Charley was telling people about her, just about the same time she deduced when and how the corporate fighting had begun. Trouble had started brewing shortly after Charley had joined the company. Charley had created the environment he so enjoyed working in.

Never in her life had Jessica spent so much mental energy gaming out a single person. By the time she forced his departure from FabChip, she could quote the words he would say in meetings she did not attend, much to the amazement of the people who actually heard them. One devout follower of Charley’s who later switched sides had told her that, toward the end, Charley had hired a team of sweepers to check for bugs.

The General watched as she reminisced. "You never played pinball better, did you, than with a person you detested utterly."

Jessica sat forward in her chair. "It was different."

"It is always different. But don’t tell me you can’t game out Morgan just because you don’t like him. Study him till he can’t twitch an eye without your knowing it before it happens. Figure out how to beat him at his own game. How would you defeat Morgan MacBride if you were Shiva V, Jessica? And how would you defeat a Shiva that could defeat MacBride? Tell me that, Jessica, and our children’s children will sing songs about you for a thousand years."

She sat quietly in her chair, trying to look unconvinced. She just wanted to live through the next month.

The General stood up, and the full power of his personality pressed upon her. "Jessica, when we picked you out of millions of candidates because of your success at Angel’s Gambit, I had my doubts that you were the right one for this job. But when you told me about human pinball. . . You have all the right characteristics—the speed of thought, the innate tactical and strategic ability, and most of all, the empathic people-reading skills. This is your destiny, Jessica Travis. Accept it. Grasp it with both hands. Make history." He picked up his coffee cup and took a sip. "And go do it in your own office, so I can get some work done."

Her mind turned back to the night before, the moment when Shiva blew up and she knew she had won. She remembered her feeling that if she had the chance, she could destroy that bastard machine. She felt calm. She rose, and stood with straight-backed precision of Samuels himself. "Very well, General." Her skirt swished gently as she departed.

 

* * *

 

Missile Commander Anatoly Vinogrado concluded that being in the lifepod itself was scarier than dying. He huddled there in the recommended fetal position. He cursed the people who wrote the instruction manual and the people who designed the pod, even though they might have saved his life.

He did not yet know whether they’d saved his life, because he had no way of knowing whether anyone was in a position to rescue him. The pod was pitch-black, blacker than space itself. It had no windows. It was a simple shell of a styroflow that now totally encased him, and, incidentally, locked him in the fetal position that he had taken as he popped the thing around his skinsuit. The styroflow—liquid at that point—billowed around him, forming an egg-shaped container that protected him from the cold of space.

He had no idea how long he’d been here. He couldn’t even tell how much oxygen he had left in his skinsuit’s minuscule tank, much less how far away a rescue vehicle was—if indeed any rescue vehicles had themselves survived. At least they had a better chance of surviving than Vinogrado’s cruiser had had. The Earth Defense Ship Canberra had been part of Task Force Eight, with the mission to attack Shiva V with a huge volley of missiles. The mission had not, however, included a requirement to destroy Shiva V. They knew they couldn’t do that, not after the pounding Second Fleet had taken trying to ambush the damn thing as it passed the asteroid belt. No, Task Force Eight’s goal was merely to distract it from the real attack—an attack that took the shape of a small dead-black cylinder with five men on board, the Argo, sneaking up on Shiva's docking bay.

Despite his discomfort, despite the screaming of his muscles to find any slight movement he could make to ease the cramps, Vinogrado smiled wolfishly at the darkness. He personally had done better than all of Second Fleet—one of his missiles had penetrated all of Shiva’s defenses. He had hooked in with a two-megaton warhead and gotten a direct hit on one of the plasma-beam tubes. The tubes were necessarily weak points in the hull, openings that ran hundreds of kilometers deep into the guts of the ship. A two-megaton burst on Shiva’s bare armor, ten klicks thick, would have merely scratched the surface. But hitting the tube as he had just had to cause some real internal damage. Really. He clung to the belief that he had hurt Shiva V as the long wait in the black silence of the lifepod robbed him of hope. That one hit was his only real testament to having fought with all his might.

So many of his friends had no testament at all. Every assault on a Shiva was a suicide mission. Less than a quarter of the ships in Second Fleet had survived their all-out attempt to destroy Shiva V. He didn’t know the casualty rate for Task Force Eight, but judging from the explosions that dotted his combat screen while he was coaxing his missiles into detonation range, he had the cold, sick feeling that their losses had been even higher. Only the Angels themselves had a lower survival rate than the men who covered the Angel approach. A typical feint at a Shiva to camouflage the Argo’s arrival cost as many lives as the Battle of Stalingrad.

Gloom descended further on him as he reflected upon friends he had lost.

Suddenly the lifepod jerked, half-spun, stopped, and bounced. It could only mean one thing—they’d found him!

He could hear the high-pitched squeal of ripping styro as they tore the lifepod apart. The instruction manual said that he should close his eyes; the brightness of the light would be painful after his prolonged sojourn in perfect blackness. He disregarded the manual, and watched for the light.

The manual writers had been right. The light was excruciatingly painful. It was the most wonderful experience of his life.

Coming up in Chapter 3,
  • Solomon conspires against her human,
  • Paolo learns his daughter's secret, and
  • Reggie unmasks the truth of a  mythical Web figure

Copyright 1999 by Marc Stiegler
Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6

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Baen Books 02/02/03