Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6

Earthweb

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

by Marc Stiegler

Chapter Four

T minus Nineteen

Her back was turned to her father as she neatly folded and tucked a soft green sweatshirt into her suitcase. "Is my room properly cleaned up?" Mercedes shot the question archly at him over her shoulder.

She could feel her father’s eyes sweeping the room automatically. "It is beautiful, Princessa. You are far better at cleaning up than I. Rather remarkable, really, considering how you kept your room at the age of seven."

Mercedes was irritated to feel her muscles relax. After all these years, she still dreaded her father’s disapproval. Dad said you never get over that—that his father could still do the same thing to him even today—but it was still irritating.

"I don’t suppose you could stay just one more day," Paolo wheedled. "We could go climb Chichen Itza and get a better feel for how to preserve our ancient and revered driveway."

Mercedes bit back a laugh. She straightened, snapped the suitcase closed, and turn to her father. "I’m sorry, Daddy, but I really do have to get back to work. Body contact and all that."

Paolo glowered. "Not too much body contact," he warned.

Mercedes glared back. "You know what I mean."

Paolo laughed. "Of course I do. I’m the one who taught you the phrase, if I recall correctly."

"Probably." Mercedes jerked the tan leather suitcase from the bed, but Paolo was right there and he plucked it smoothly from her hand. "Let me get that."

Mercedes let go, and Paolo let the bag fall a short distance with a strangled gasp. "Princessa, you inherited your packing skills from your mother, not me! Do you have a Montana-class battlecruiser in here as well as your clothes?"

Mercedes found herself choking on her laughter, unable to retort, as her father grappled with the suitcase. He mimicked a wrestler struggling against a heavier opponent. "Daddy!"

Paolo chuckled and stopped swinging the case. They walked down the hall toward the stairs together, but as Mercedes turned to the first step Paolo took her arm. "Before you go, I have something for you." He led her farther down the hall, to his office.

Mercedes felt a soothing warmth as she entered her father’s inner sanctum. Daddy’s office was a very private place—anyone except Daddy himself entered on an invitation-only basis. But when Mercedes had been a small child and her mother was away, Daddy would often let her come in even when he had work to do. She would sit at the worktable and play with her Barbies while he concentrated at his desk, telling her periodically to keep quiet. For an energetic, talkative child it had been too restrained an atmosphere, but she knew how special it was even then. There was no place on Earth as secure and comforting as Daddy’s office.

They had lived farther north in those days. This was a different office from the one she remembered so fondly, but it had the same feeling. The carpet was thick and soft, beige with ropes of woven gold forming a gentle paisley pattern. The two walls with neither screens nor windows held a careful selection of pre-Crash artwork. As a child, her favorite painting had been a picture of a flying battleship, dashing fiercely across a field of fire where every color of the rainbow danced in a frenzy of light. The painting was the original cover art for an early SF book about the coming age of global networking. She had read the book once, as a child, and had received a small shock that prepared her well for a future of Web literature. The book had not contained a single word about flying battleships. She liked the painting nonetheless.

She ran her fingers idly across the worn surface of the old worktable where she had once played. The table would have looked out of place to a stranger, but for Mercedes it was just one more element in the composition that spelled cozy familiarity.

Her father broke the spell. "I just thought you might like to see the video I’ve emailed to you at home," he said, and waved at the wallscreen by the door. "Luis, start the video please. Mute the sound."

The screen came to life. Mercedes watched herself on the screen, standing in the breakfast nook the day before. Onscreen, Reggie entered the room.

Mercedes clapped. "Daddy, you recorded the entire thing."

"Luis automatically records most of this house. Except your bedroom, of course. Though I might change that if you try to bring a boyfriend down here."

Mercedes growled.

Paolo chuckled. "Anyway, I thought this might be useful to you. The contract you made with Reggie specifies the Stossel Rule Book, right?" As Mercedes nodded, Paolo continued, "I thought so. And under Stossel rules, everyone assumes that everyone else is recording, so these tapes are valid evidence in an arbitration."

Mercedes smiled so widely it hurt. "I didn’t know you knew so much about arbitrage, Daddy."

Paolo folded his hands modestly. "Hey, I get around."

"Hey, yourself! Don’t be so . . ." Mercedes watched the tape of Reggie and thought back on his visit. "You know, I think you really vortexed his mindspace yesterday."

Paolo raised an eyebrow. "Actually, I think you vortexed his, uh, mindspace more than I did. Few arbiters are as lovely as you, Princessa."

Mercedes blushed. "Well, I have to confess you vortexed my mindspace. He at least knew who you were."

A hurt look spread over her father’s face. "You can’t mean it. Is my true identity really the ‘Predictor’? Can’t I keep on as Paolo Ossa y Santiago, father of the world-famous Mercedes?"

Mercedes pouted. "Well, now that I know your secret, will you let me be on your team?"

Paolo took a deep breath. "Ah, Princessa, I wish you could join me. But I think it is not such a good idea." He shook his finger at her. "You tell me why you can’t be on my team."

Mercedes wrinkled her nose, and after a moment uttered a small, "Oh."

"Oh, indeed, darling daughter. Or should I say, ‘Your Majesty, Queen of Contract Specification for Earth Defense’?" Her father swept into a deep and noble bow.

"Rise, gracious lord," Mercedes offered with a wave of her hand. "I guess it would be a bit of a conflict of interest, at that."

"Mercedes," her father began, and she knew he was serious now, "just being the Predictor’s daughter would force Earth Defense and your insurers both to review your qualifications." Her father looked grim, knowing that his own career might one day end hers.

She huffed, "Hey, don’t go serious on me, Daddy. I’m not the queen, you know. There are five of us—Blake Gosling is really the king."

"Okay," Paolo continued softly, "You’re just a princess, then. A remarkable fairy princess. Have I mentioned lately that I’m very proud of you?"

Mercedes turned to the door, embarrassed, and prepared to get on with her departure. "Cut the mush, Daddy. I’ll be back after we nail this Shiva, maybe even before." She looked back at him. "And we both have a lot of work to do in the meantime."

Her father made no response to the truth she spoke.

She frowned. "You surprised me another way with Reggie Oxenford. Why did you tell him so much about your team? And your techniques? I’d have thought that stuff would be an important trade secret for your business."

"Hey, if I hadn’t talked to him we wouldn’t have gotten him to sign a contract, right? So he would have been free to write anything he damned well pleased about us, spreading a rumor that I was the ‘Predictor.’ With his reputation half the world would have believed him, and we’d have people flying in here just to look at our house. We’d have to sell tickets—if we didn’t someone else would." He looked grim again and walked to the window. He tapped on it. "Remember when we retrofitted these windows?"

Mercedes chuckled. "That poor bulletproof glass salesman! I thought he was going to throw himself in front of the window!" Paolo had insisted on a full-power test of the first window they’d replaced, using his father’s antique ArmaLite AR-10 assault rifle. He’d splashed a full twenty-round clip against the pristine clarity of the glass before stopping. The glass hadn’t been pristine afterwards, but it had held. Paolo had happily paid for a replacement pane for the window, but not before the company rep had come close to a heart attack.

Her father pointed out the window into the majestic distance. "There are still angry people beyond those trees—the children of the Zapatist rebels, nursing grievances once not unfounded. How do you think they’d feel knowing there’s a billionaire living here?"

Mercedes pursed her lips. She came to her father and took his hand. "You know, Daddy, somebody else is going to find out. Now that everyone knows there really is a Predictor, people are going to look harder."

"I know." Paolo shrugged. "Well, it was bound to come out sooner or later." A twinkle came into his eye. "Eventually, your mother would have figured it out and told just a couple of her best friends."

Mercedes giggled. "At that point, it would have been better to publish directly to the Web—it would take people longer to find out."

Laughing, Paolo picked the suitcase back up and led Mercedes out the door.

 

The preliminaries were all behind them—simulations of the older Shiva battleships made good targets and gave Morgan the opportunity to work the new Angels into a team. But, much as they may have sweated, uncomfortable as they may have found it trying to run with an arm or a leg locked by the suit, all those sims had been simple preliminaries. Now they moved on to SimHell. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

This time the pain was considerably more real. An agonizing electric shock accompanied the simulated loss of a limb. And the sweat was more real too—even CJ was dripping this time, without having lost a leg. In SimHell the corridors hooked together in an almost random fashion. Without the accelerometers on their suits they couldn’t even tell where they were, and there was no way of telling where they should be going. Mark II minitanks lurked around every corner, and as often as not they were accompanied by hastily snapped-together replicas of the new Destroyers—the two-legged robots that Angel One had encountered on Shiva V. The Destroyers were quite unlike any other robot they’d ever seen—as much of a surprise as the minitank Mark I had been on Shiva III. Whereas the repair mechs and roboguards had two legs and four arms, the Destroyers had only one pair of arms—where the lower arms could have been attached, the Destroyer carried a dart launcher more powerful than the Angels’ pellet rifle, and a broadsword every bit as tough and sharp as the Angels’ spike. Angel One had encountered six of the things, and hadn’t killed any of them. Instead, the Destroyers had accounted for three Angel deaths, including the death of Angel Leader Buzz Hikmet, last surviving member of the team, in the intersection where the Gate should have been.

Roni, the first member of Morgan’s new team to encounter a simulated Destroyer and the first one to be killed by it, waved his hand at the replay. "What are we supposed to do with those things?"

Morgan shook his head. "There’s a strongly favored forecast on the Web now, that if you can jam a cubic centimeter of duodec underneath each shoulder and light them off simultaneously, you can cook one."

Axel rubbed the spot on his chest where he’d taken a punji stick during an EarthDay festival three years earlier. He smiled in a vain attempt to hide his disbelief. "Are we just supposed to ask nicely before we tickle his armpits? Any proposals for that little problem?"

Morgan shrugged. "There’s a ten-million-dollar prize on the board for a reliable Destroyer-killing strategy. As you may remember, a similar prize led to development of the strategy for killing Mark II minitanks. Hopefully someone will come up with a solution in the next two weeks."

Akira waved the matter aside. "We shall approach with stealth and deception. The Destroyers will not be a problem."

CJ smiled. "Check, Akira. You take the left side, I’ll take the right."

Lars spoke lightly, "And I’ll hold its arms up to give you easy access."

Axel grunted. "I guess that leaves me with the job of disarming the thing. Think I can shoot its gun and broadsword off their bases?"

Morgan interrupted. "More likely, Axel, after these three get killed playing with the Destroyer, you’ll be the one to deliver the football."

Axel smiled. "I’ll take that assignment."

"We all will," CJ said. "We’ll all deliver that football."

Morgan choked back a sharp retort. "Okay, break time, folks. You’ve been real good, so maybe we’ll practice Destroyer eradication when we get back." He rolled out of the room.

CJ loped up to Morgan in the corridor, but turned her attention directly on his gray-feathered companion. "So, Sol, ready for a snack?"

Solomon fluffed her wings and agreed. "Lunch time."

Morgan looked at each of them in turn. "Don’t I get a vote?"

CJ and Sol answered in unison, "No." Sol simultaneously sang the words and whistled the first verse of the Fred Astaire classic, "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off." What really scared Morgan was that CJ joined in, right on cue. Sol was actually pretty good with a tune, though he’d never tell her so. Might give her a swelled beak.

They went toward the buffet room. Most of the people on the base ate there. With silent assent, they passed it by; too much noise emanated from the double doors. They continued on to the dining room and its relative quiet. The dining room was considerably more expensive, but that didn’t matter at all for the next two weeks.

CJ made that peculiar shake-roll motion universal to women with long hair as they sat down.

Morgan chuckled. "Your hair used to be longer."

CJ smiled in surprise. "How’d you know?"

"My wife used to flip her head just like that in the winter when she wore her hair long. Then when spring would come she’d cut it off, but it still took her a few weeks to break the habit." He flipped his head in a gentle caricature of his wife, or C, or both; he wasn’t sure which.

CJ’s eyes laughed as she said, "Very observant. A rare quality in the male of the species."

Morgan just looked at her for a long moment. Finally, for no reason he understood, his mouth spoke the word at the front of his mind. "Refulgent."

CJ blinked at him. "Excuse me?"

Sol answered for him. "Beautiful bright."

CJ turned to Sol. "Could you tell me exactly what you mean by that?"

Sol whistled mournfully.

Morgan explained. "CJ, just an hour ago you were trapped in an armored frame with one arm and one leg locked out, with periodic shocks hitting you. I know what those shocks feel like, too."

The waitress arrived with their orange juice. CJ sipped as Morgan continued, "You’d just run six kilometers, killed fourteen murderous robots, and dragged yourself the last hundred meters to the control room." He held up his hands in wonder. "Now you’re as bright and cheerful as if you’d spent the whole time napping. You’re refulgent."

CJ tapped her chin with her forefinger. "Hmm . . . you make me sound sort of like one of those old watches. CJ takes a licking and keeps on ticking."

Morgan spluttered in his orange juice. "Exactly what I meant," he said in mock reproach. They started to laugh. Morgan stopped abruptly, as an alarm bell went off in his head—nineteen days.

CJ picked out the thought as if she had originated it. She reached across the table and put her hand on his. "You can’t think about it like that, Morgan. You’ve got to learn, somehow, to live today even though tomorrow you may die."

Sol chirruped, "CJ smart, boss."

The waitress arrived again, with CJ’s shrimp salad and Morgan’s onion soup. Morgan idly poked at the cheese on top of the soup, wishing he had something to say in reply.

CJ broke the silence. "Well, I think it’s time for you to live a little."

Morgan looked at her with the beginnings of alarm.

She continued. "Go ahead and be a sourpuss for the rest of today. But tomorrow, at sixteen-hundred, be ready for a change."

Morgan asked, "What exactly is going to happen at sixteen-hundred?"

"Well, for one thing, that’s when our last sim ends, right?"

Morgan nodded. "It may take longer if you’re still alive, of course."

CJ laughed. "Yeah, but it’ll take less if we beat tomorrow’s SimHell the same way we beat this one."

Morgan grumbled. "True enough."

CJ recognized the irritation in his voice, and somehow brightened even more. "So, I’m still surprising you, aren’t I? Go ahead, confess." She leaned forward and spoke in low tones. "Nobody else has to hear it. Go ahead, just whisper it in my ear."

Morgan closed his eyes for a moment, and then leaned forward. "You are a wicked, wicked woman. And if you aren’t careful, tomorrow I’ll help the robots."

CJ sat back up. "I knew I was still surprising you," she said cheerfully. "I’m going to surprise you at sixteen-hundred tomorrow, too." She looked at his bird. "I’m sorry, Sol, but this is a trip just for two. You’ll have to stay here."

Sol grackled, "No problem. Boss go." She whistled a few bars of "Moon River."

Morgan retorted, "There is no way I am going anywhere with you alone."

Sol answered, "Gotta go, gotta go." She nipped Morgan on the ear, then said, "Ouch!"

Morgan snapped his head over. "Ouch!" he grunted, just a second late. Sol always beat him to that punchline.

Morgan glared at the bird. "Bite me again and you’re cat food," he promised.

Sol whistled a few notes of "Don’t Worry, Be Happy." She then defended herself. "Sol good girl. Boss go."

CJ held her hand over her mouth to muffle a belly laugh. "Listen to your bird, Morgan MacBride."

"CJ good girl too," Sol said. "Boss go."

Morgan growled. Sol was so insistent that he undertake this venture with CJ, he wondered if Sol already knew what CJ had planned. But how could Sol know if Morgan didn’t? He opened his mouth to ask, but then thought better of it. If Sol had learned how to read minds, or CJ had learned mastered telepathy, he didn’t want to know. He felt outnumbered badly enough as it was.

 

Paolo shook his head as he jammed the suitcase into the front trunk of his daughter’s vehicle. "Honestly, Princessa, I think they’re paying you too much money."

Mercedes looked at him with suspicion, knowing she was being set up. "What do you mean by that, exactly?"

He pointed at the sleek white racing stripes streaming down the sides of her cherry-red sports car. "For one thing, this vehicle is far too fancy for a kid of your immature and inexperienced years." He swept his accusing finger back to the rear engine cluster. "Second, this box is just too hot for a speed glutton like you."

Paolo could see his daughter’s grin appear as she walked to the rear of the car and caressed the top engine nacelle that distinguished the speedster from a run-of-the-mill family car. Paolo cleared his throat. "I think you should leave this machine with me and take the family boat instead. I’ll take the risks and work out the bugs. What do you say?" He continued to point at the offending car with his finger.

"You know what I say to that, Daddy." She swaggered over to him, grabbed the offending finger, and twisted it till it pointed back at him. "I have to have this car for your own sake," she said with wide-eyed innocence.

Now Paolo knew he was being set up. "Oh, this should be good. Go ahead, strike me down with the brilliance of your rationalization."

"I bought this sports car because it’s faster, so that I can get here more quickly and easily, so that I can come down and visit more often, and stay longer when I arrive." Her eyes twinkled with effervescent fire. "You know how I love to come down and visit."

Paolo laughed. "Well done, Princessa. A brilliant defense."

Paolo heard quick footsteps coming down the steps. He turned to watch Sofia hurry over.

Sofia waved. "You can’t leave without a hug, darling." She came up and caught Mercedes in her traditional bear hug. Paolo watched Mercedes gasp for air with his usual amazement; Sofia looked too thin and small for the wiry strength she put into her abrazos.

Tears filled Sofia’s eyes. "We’ll miss you so much."

Mercedes looked away. "Don’t cry, Mom." Now there were tears in Mercedes’ eyes as well. "If you cry every time I come down here, I might not come back."

Sofia laughed and wiped her face. "I know. Maybe you’d better get out of here quick, so you don’t see it."

Mercedes smiled as she hugged her mother again. "Okay, Mom." Mercedes turned to hug Paolo one last time.

Paolo murmured. "Go get ’em, kiddo."

Mercedes frowned. "I’m not a ‘kiddo.’ "

Paolo smiled as he completed the ritual. "You’re absolutely right, kiddo."

Mercedes sighed and climbed into her skycar. Paolo took his wife’s hand and they stepped off the landing pad. The air filled with the soft whine of the turbofans as Mercedes lifted off and accelerated north.

As the car disappeared, Sofia wrapped her arms around him and nuzzled his neck. "Darling, there’s something I have to ask you."

Paolo recognized the tone of her voice, and tried not to let her feel his muscles tense up as he prepared to encounter whatever terrible, sneaky question she had. "Uh, oh, what is it?"

Sofia laughed gently, and her soft warm breath tickled Paolo’s ear. "Are you really the ‘Predictor’?" she asked.

Paolo squirmed in her arms and held her more tightly. "Well, not exactly. After all, sweet Sofia, the ‘Predictor’ is a mythological creature of superhuman powers."

She lifted her head and looked into his eyes with her most dangerous form of sincerity. "But, corazon, you are a mythological creature of superhuman powers." She put her head back on his shoulder, snuggling even closer somehow. Paolo started to rock sideways, holding her in his arms. Sofia continued dreamily, "I suspected you were the Predictor." She sighed. "I guess I can’t tell anybody, can I?"

Paolo suppressed a shudder of terror. "I think that would be unfortunate for all of us, mi alma."

A soft mewling of passing sorrow escaped her lips. "I didn’t think I could. Oh, well."

They walked back to the house awkwardly, wrapped around each other in a hold they had perfected long ago.

 

Selpha ate breakfast while carefully keeping her eyes off her touchscreen. She had mustered the courage to go to Reggie Oxenford’s site and buy the article about herself, but now that his text filled her screen she found it quite impossible to bring herself to read it. For the first time in over a decade she was afraid.

The Shivas had never frightened her, really. They had never struck anyone or anything close to her, and although she would soon be able to see it as a bright spot among the stars, even then it would just be a dot, it would not look dangerous. And the scenes she watched of the Angels, fighting and dying in the sandstone corridors of the beast, seemed no more real to her than some of the serialized movies on the Web.

But she could still remember her sense of fearful uncertainty when the airplanes flew over her village and scattered huge loads of palmtops across the landscape. Thousands of bright red little parachutes filled the sky, dangling little gray boxes beneath them. She had known that something momentous was happening, something that would change her life, something that she did not yet not understand.

Selpha almost laughed, looking back on her fear then. Working at the tea plantation, taking care of her sister Dorothie and her autistic son Peter, how could her life had gotten worse? Well, she considered, it could have gotten worse if her husband had come back from Uganda, or if her father had returned from the dead, but the Top Drop had hardly seemed likely to produce such ill consequences.

And Reggie’s article was even less likely to hurt her. Indeed, what possible damage could it do? She turned to the touchscreen and began to read. A tentative smile slowly grew across her features, unfolding into a grin. Goodness, Reggie wasn’t joking when he called this a series about unsung heroes. Had she not intimately known the person he described, she would have thought that this woman in Kenya was a hero too. Of course, she had not told Reggie her real motivation for her assiduous work on the ’castpoints for Shiva assaults. She didn’t know whether Reggie would really understand. As she read further, though, she concluded that he probably would have understood, and would not have changed the article. He would have made her sound heroic anyway.

Selpha heard Dorothie’s bare feet half-skip into the room. Dorothie’s eyes went wide as she saw Selpha in a rare moment of good cheer. "Goodness," Dorothie exclaimed, "Did someone pump laughing gas into this room?" She sniffed the air cautiously.

Selpha looked away in confusion. "I was just reading Mr. Oxenford’s article," she said.

"Ah, did he make you out as a true and wonderful Hero?" Dorothie asked, scurrying around the table to peer over Selpha’s shoulder at the touchscreen.

Selpha flicked the screen off.

Dorothie exclaimed, "Hey!"

"If you want to read it, buy your own copy." Selpha said. "It isn’t very interesting. I was just being impressed because Reggie knew things about our lives that we didn’t even know."

Dorothie put her hands on her hips. "Indeed? Like what?"

"Well, did you know that here in the Nyanza region was the first place they ever dropped palmtops?"

Dorothie nodded. "Of course."

Selpha clapped her hands together. "Ah, but did you know why?"

Dorothie watched her through narrowed eyes. "Nooo . . ."

"As you’ll recall, General Samuels had just taken over Earth Defense. He made the first palmtop drop here because, even then, he was thinking that they’d eventually want to put a heavy lift drop port here, and they’d need a skilled labor force to make it work."

Dorothie looked out the window as she pondered that, and nodded. "Makes sense, in a way, but . . ."

Selpha completed the unfinished thought. "But it would require a lot of planning ahead. He had to know that he couldn’t build a useful drop port here until after the next Shiva had come and gone. On the first day he took over, he must have already been planning multiple Shiva-attacks ahead."

"Smart guy," Dorothie agreed. She point out the window. "What’s going on out there?"

Selpha got up to look where Dorothie was pointing. She saw a huge stream of trucks fly by.

Dorothie asked, "You think they’re going to the port?"

Selpha shook her head. "No. The heavy lift cargoes can’t be trucked in. They come by boat, or they come on the railroad." She clucked her tongue. "They must be on the way to the General Dynamics missile plant." Selpha couldn’t see the plant from here, but there wasn’t another place such a continuous stream of trucks might be going.

Selpha herself had worked at the General Dynamics plant for a while after moving to Kisumu. They had needed network-admin-level software expertise, and she had been a natural fit. So she’d let them employ her while she was getting the people and material organized to start her MindTools Elementary school franchise. Her stint with General Dynamics had been short but informative. They had taught her a great deal about the HellBender series of missiles. Even then, those missiles had seemed too fast and powerful to be stopped by anything, but Shiva III had stopped them cold. She knew from her friends at the plant that the newer HellBenders were even more remarkable, but Shivas IV and V had stopped them just as easily. Well, almost as easily—she’d read that one HellBender had gotten a good hit during the Angel One assault.

Selpha continued, half to herself. "I can’t imagine what they’re doing. You only send truck fleets like that to ship new kinds of hard-to-manufacture parts."

"Like specialized electronics?" Dorothie asked.

Selpha nodded. "Right. But you’d only go to new parts like that if you were making a serious model upgrade."

"So? What’s wrong with a model upgrade?"

Selpha shrugged. "It just seems incredible to me that they’d change models right now, in the middle of the Month of Shiva. Right now they have to be cranking out missiles as fast as they can—as you should know, because your no-good boyfriend Joseph is working the midnight-to-eight shift, right?"

"Joseph’s a very good boyfriend, Sis. Stop digging at him."

Selpha continued, ignoring Dorothie’s reply. "That plant is running twenty-four hours a day." Selpha shook her head again. "They wouldn’t risk such a disruption unless they thought the new improvements could make a big difference. A really big difference."

Dorothie approved. "Good. I hope they’ve found something that can knock that cursed Shiva back where it came from."

"I suppose." Selpha turned. "It’s time for you to go to work, young lady," she said. "And time for me to work with Peter."

Dorothie gave Selpha a quick peck on the cheek and headed for the door. Selpha went into Peter’s room.

Peter sat in his chair, shaking his head, tapping his feet together. She walked to the computer and turned on the recording of an Angel’s armor frame tapping on the wall of the Alabaster Hall of Shiva V.

Peter stopped wiggling in his chair, then said, "I don’t know what it is."

"Please try, Peter." Selpha played the sound again.

Peter curled up into a fetal position and fell sideways in his chair. Selpha turned from the computer and knelt beside him. Her every instinct screamed for her to wrap him in her arms, to hold him till he felt better. But she knew that he didn’t like to be touched, particularly when he was in this state.

Taking a deep breath, Selpha rose and walked quietly back to the computer. This time she turned on the music. The sound of "Tugatigithanio" by Joseph Kamaru, the King of Kikuyu music, filled the room.

Peter started to relax, and Selpha relaxed as well. For whatever reason, classic Bengan music from before the Crash soothed Peter better than anything else she had ever found.

Someday, she would be able to hold her son to comfort him, she swore. And they would laugh together, and talk like other families.

The thing Selpha hadn’t told Reggie was her real dream of the future. If she and Peter did well enough helping the Angels with this assault, she would have enough money to explore the hints she’d found on the Web—hints of cures for Peter’s autism.

She could already have cured his blindness, she knew. It would have been expensive, but the technique was straightforward.

But what was the point of repairing his eyesight if the mind behind the eyes could not see? And if she gave him sight, would he still be able to interpret the things he heard when an Angel tapped on the wall of a Shiva?

She sometimes felt sharp stabs of guilt, denying him the ability to see, but his blindness was, ironically, the only thing that gave her a chance of helping him. He had to help her earn enough money to bring him all the way home.

Peter was calm now. She allowed the music to fade away, and began again.

 

It had been a good interview after all—even a remarkable interview.

Reggie stood by the window looking out into the dark gray drizzle. Past experience told him that if he were foolish enough to go outside he would have trouble discerning which was thicker, the fog-drowned air or the rain-drenched mud.

The Predictor was a remarkable fellow. Indeed, his whole family was quite astonishing. Reggie laughed again, remembering Mercedes’ reaction upon learning that her father was the Predictor. Her surprise would not wear off any time soon. And that was just fine. She deserved a spot of surprise in her life, as nearly as the Reggie could tell. Quite a fireball! If he put her outside in the wet of Dover, he was not sure who would win—whether her fire would be quenched by the penetrating cold, or whether her personality alone could burn off the fog and bring forth sunshine.

Reggie was quite sure that she could at least saturate his penthouse with incomparable warmth. Too bad she wasn’t here right now—he could feel a cold draft off the window glass, and though he kept his apartment rather warmer than most people, he felt a chill.

The reason he felt so cold, he rationalized, was that he’d just spent the last week haring off to some of the hottest places on Earth, from Kenya to Mexico. His blood was thinned out by the travel, and the jet lag was catching up with him. This diagnosis led him irrefutably to a sovereign prescription. Turning from the window, he went to the bar and poured himself an armangnac.

He thought back on the interview with the Predictor again. Paolo Ossa’s forecasts were directly responsible for over a dozen planet-saving decisions. He deserved every accolade the people of Earth could provide. For a moment Reggie regretted that he couldn’t reveal the Predictor’s identity, so that people could thank him directly. But the contract had bound him, and any arbiter in the world would screw him to the wall if he reneged and published that very important detail. Besides, Paolo was probably right that, however justified the accolades, the difficulties of being a public figure would hinder him intolerably.

At least Reggie could now tell the world that the Predictor really did exist. And more, he could tell the world that the Predictor was for the most part a normal human being—someone just like everyone else, at least in a lot of ways.

Of course, the Predictor was also a genius. But though Reggie wrote about that genius in his article, the real thrust of his report was to describe the Predictor’s ordinariness. That fit in with Reggie’s personal contribution to the defense of Earth, and his own private crusade. He smiled, and wandered over to the table where his touchscreen lay. He read once more the summation of his article:

 

The Predictor’s ascent to greatness highlights this important truth: since Earth Defense started the military ’castpoints, you can help stop Shiva if you can read this article. The method is simple: watch the prizeboards and the ’castpoints for questions and forecasts about matters in which you are an expert. You don’t have to be a computer programmer or an explosives engineer to answer these questions. Frequently, a mechanic or a plumber can be the fellow with the right knowledge to find the right solution or make the right forecast. If you buy positions on forecasts based on your expertise, you can do two things at once: you can improve the quality of the military decisions vital to our survival, and you can earn a profit. What could be more noble, more honorable, more just, than doing well by doing good?

Reggie read the words again, editing out a few commas, crisping up sentences, adding another increment of punch. He wanted this message to be so perfectly stated, so clear and correct, that no one could miss the dazzling truth. After a few more changes, some of which probably hurt rather than helped, he shrugged and stopped. Persuading all of humanity to participate in the defense of Earth was not something to achieve in a single article, or even a series of articles. And actually, humanity had pretty much gotten the point—over two-thirds of Earth’s population actively watched the real-time ’castpoints during Shiva assaults, and about twenty percent of those actually put their money where their mouths were, making it the largest single commercial transaction system in history with over a billion financially-active participants.

And based on what the Predictor said about his system for making forecasts, the number of real participants in Earth’s defense could be higher than the estimates. The Predictor wasn’t a one-man band—he had a fifty-person team. His team included an architect from Lithuania, a software engineer from India, and an expert systems guru from Seattle.

Anyway, they all worked together on a set of wildly tortured genetic algorithms that studied the patterns of layouts from all the Shivas. They compared and contrasted this as they watched the assault in real-time, as information about the layout of the current Shiva came in. Then every individual in the team—including the genetic algorithm programs as individuals—participated in an ingeniously customized private ’castpoint using a token economy. The predictions that came from the combined analysis of the Predictor’s team were surreal in their reliability—often obvious after the fact, but generally a surprise before.

Reggie noted in his Predictor article that other people could form teams like this too. Perhaps, Reggie thought, one such team, inspired by his article, might make the difference in saving humanity’s skin this time . . . or the next time . . . or the next.

Keeping that hope in mind, he tapped a button on the touchscreen and published his newest article to the Web.

 

When Morgan and CJ broke for lunch, Jessica instantly stabbed the button that opened the door of her cocoon. Fresh air and light seeped through. She appreciated the air, but the light was unwelcome. Jessica closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Her head throbbed, and if she could have popped her eyes out of their sockets, she would have done so—she was sure it would have felt better. It would have relieved the cranial pressure . . . or would her brain have oozed out? Well, that might feel better anyway. Cripes, she had a lot to learn.

Even when she’d been in school she’d never had to learn so much so fast, and she’d quit school when she was sixteen and a half. Of course, she’d quit school as much because it was boring as for any other reason. Jessica’s grandmother still fumed that her parents were at fault. They’d sent Jessica to one of the last government-style schools in America. Unbelievable. The school didn’t even teach its high school kids basic communication skills, like dissective analysis of advertising hype.

Still, Jessica doubted that the school’s incompetence fully explained her failure. Jessica’s grandmother wore her certainties like a coat of armor, and some of her certainties were clearly just the habitual opinions of someone scarred by the Crash.

Of course, the truth about the school and her parents didn’t make any difference any more, anyway—both school and parents had been wiped out by Shiva II.

Jessica rubbed her temples, then dimly sensed a presence stopping just outside her cocoon. She didn’t have to see, however, to know who it was. "Hi, General," she said with more cheer than she felt.

The General stepped across the threshold of the cocoon and smiled at her. "I’ve always hated trying to do more than one thing at a time. Your job would drive me nuts."

Jessica followed his eyes as he glanced around at the battery of viewscreens and speakers through which she reviewed Morgan’s every action. Studying Morgan required that she watch not only Morgan himself, but also the seven viewscreens that he maintained to track the Angels, the prizeboards, and the ’castpoints. Morgan had also mastered the incredible technique of listening to two conversations at the same time, one in each ear. That was the proximate cause of Jessica’s headache. "I’ve done easier things," Jessica confessed. Her voice fell off, "And I’ve done less futile things as well."

"Futile?" The General’s eyebrows crunched up.

"Futile." Jessica pulled the ’plugs from her ears and motioned to the General to get out of her way. The General retreated from the cocoon. Jessica stepped out into her office. "I have no real way of knowing if I’m succeeding. How can I tell how well I understand the man?" She shook her head. "Worse, how can I tell if I understand him well enough to duplicate his thoughts years from now? What if my interpretations of him drift?" She squeezed her eyes. "Worse. What if I can’t do it after he’s gone? What if I panic under the pressure?" Head still hurting, Jessica went around to the front of her desk and opened the bottom drawer, where she kept the orange juice.

"At least dealing with the pressure will be easy."

Jessica blinked in surprise.

"If you break under the pressure, we’ll just give you hypnotherapy and drugs till you’re calm. Understand, Jessica, that there is nothing I would not do, no extreme I would not go to, no amount of money I would not spend, no law I would not break, no moral or ethical principle I would not corrupt, to ensure that we have a successful replacement for Morgan MacBride."

Jessica took a gulp of orange juice to clear her head. As the throbbing eased off, she replayed General Samuels’ last words with a growing sense of fear. His intensity, his emphasis—both were clues. In that moment, Jessica knew the General was telling her something she needed to understand but couldn’t decipher. And she knew that if she asked straight out, he wouldn’t tell her. She took another gulp of juice and followed the General out the door.

"Lunch?" he asked her. She shrugged; she didn’t feel hungry, but knew she wouldn’t have many chances to pump the General. They strolled toward the cafeteria.

The General continued where he’d left off. "I can’t tell you how to avoid ‘drift’ in your extrapolations of Morgan’s decisions, but you’ll get plenty of chances to test your skills. After we’ve nailed Shiva V, your next training phase begins. You’ll learn by doing."

"Learn by doing?"

The General smiled. "Jessica, two months from now, unless disaster strikes, you’ll be running Angel teams. Or rather, you’ll be running candidate Angel teams that are in training the same way you are."

Jessica looked doubtful. "Maybe, but training’s not the same as live action."

"Oh, but there will be live action. Too much live action."

Now Jessica was really puzzled. "But, without a Shiva . . . ?"

The General waved his hand. "Combat teams are not without duties here on Earth, Jessica. Consider the annual EarthDay Festival. Who do you think we send in to the winning country for the cleanup?"

"Are you telling me the Festival cleanup teams are really Angel teams in training?" Jessica suppressed a laugh; there was nothing funny about the EarthDay Festival. The meaning of EarthDay had evolved quite a bit since its first questionable incarnation as a day to educate children about the environment. It had become a matter of serious action. In theory it was straightforward—send a small team into the country with the most corrupt, vicious government, grab the fifty most powerful people in that government, and cart them away to the World Court at Den Hague. On principle, it was a chilling aspect of the global effort of self-defense—it was hard to put aside the sense of big countries ganging up on little ones, despite the safeguards. In practice, of course, the governments who received the Festival were composed of torturers, murderers, and madmen, and no one regretted their loss. But also in practice, the Festival was always brutal: the worst government bosses knew they were targets, and built up their armies just to protect themselves. "I should have realized that Angels worked the Festivals. After reading Axel’s background, it should have been obvious."

General Samuels shrugged. "Anyway, my people tell me they’ve heard you muttering, trying to forecast Morgan’s next orders. They tell me you’re making a lot of good predictions."

Jessica shrugged. "I guess I’m getting it about half right."

Samuels stopped and studied her in amazement. "That’s fantastic, Jessica! You’ve only had five days on the job, and you’re halfway there!"

Jessica laughed. "Well, the first half is pretty easy. It’s the clever little surprises that are hard to predict. And it’s the clever little surprises that make the difference. It’s kind of like character recognition on the old paper scanners, when they were switching over to digital—ninety-nine percent accuracy sounded good in the advertising, but the result still wasn’t very useful."

"I see your point. Still, whether you admit it or not, you’re doing extremely well for such a short period of study."

Jessica wrinkled her nose and looked up into the General’s eyes mischievously. It was one of her best looks. She enjoyed having the opportunity to use it. "I’ll make one shocking forecast right now, General. I know you won’t like it, but it’s going to happen. This one I’m sure about."

Samuels raised an eyebrow. "Aha. Well, don’t keep me in suspense."

Jessica shook her head wisely. "CJ is going to get Morgan into bed. He can’t hold out much longer."

The General burst out with a laugh of disbelief. "It can’t be. Morgan is too . . . too . . ."

Jessica watched his struggle for words with amusement.

". . . too disciplined to be seduced, Jessica."

"You wait and see. I’ll bet you dinner at Spago’s in L.A."

The General clasped his head in horror. "You’re playing for high stakes on that ’cast, lady. Very well. Done." They shook on it.

"You’re going to be sorry, General."

Samuels shook his head. "I hope not. Morgan is the lynchpin. If he somehow loses his focus . . ." He didn’t have to finish the thought.

Though Samuels had to care first about the impact of a crazy romance on the defense of Earth, Jessica found herself visualizing the impact of such madness on Morgan the human being. If CJ got killed on Shiva V . . . her head ached as she played pinball with the results. The vision left her cold and sick. Her forecast of MacBride and CJ’s entanglement didn’t seem funny at all any more.

The two of them turned into the dining room and took a table. Samuels continued to speak. "Still, in a professional sense I hope you’re right. If you predict this correctly, you’ll show remarkable mastery of your subject."

A loud laugh broke the hush of the room for just a moment. A brief parrot chuckle followed the laughter. Jessica didn’t have to look to know the laughter came from CJ and MacBride’s table at the far end of the room. Jessica looked into the General’s eyes with a triumphant stare—I told you so, she said with her eyes.

As she expected, the General looked back into her eyes and sadly nodded his head. "Perhaps I should make the reservations at Spago’s now," he muttered.

They ordered lunch, and the General put his hands on the table. "Meanwhile, there are other things you must learn to become a Controller, Ms. Travis."

"Really. Such as?"

"Such as how to read the ’castpoints properly. How much do you know about Web forecasting—or ‘idea futures,’ as they are called by economists?"

Jessica shrugged. "I know the story of how they started. Earth Defense invented the ’castpoints after Shiva II." She closed her eyes tight in thought. "Didn’t somebody make a ten-thousand-dollar bet on something?"

"The dogs," Samuels prompted.

"Right. Somebody posted a wager for ten thousand dollars that you could get better recon data on the next Shiva if the first Argo didn’t carry any people at all, but instead carried a team of trained dogs with vidcams on their harnesses." She paused. "Then there was a millionaire, right?"

The General nodded reluctantly. "You’re remembering the popularization of what happened, which has the right facts but not the right causality. Go on."

"Anyway, the bet would have been just one more random chunk of Web junk, but a millionaire saw the bet and plunked a million dollars on the proposal. Then one of his friends dropped two million on the prediction that the Earth Defense Agency was already too bureaucratic to use such a novel idea. Earth Defense was brand-new, and was kind of getting kicked around by the UN and NATO and everybody, so I guess it was acting like a pre-Crash government."

Their hamburgers arrived, and Jessica added ketchup as she continued. "Well, that prediction made a pretty big ruckus, and somebody else saw an opportunity. They created a website to manage the bets heaping up—the bets couldn’t be paid off for five years, and if nobody managed ’em, the contracts would get lost, the money wouldn’t be escrowed, etc."

"You really do know something about this," the General said with pleasure. "That bet-management website was, in effect, the first full-service financial ’castpoint."

"Yeah, I guess you’re right. Didn’t they make it possible to add new forecasts? And buy and sell positions on all of them?"

"They certainly did, Jessica."

Jessica looked hard at the General; there was something funny in his voice again, but she couldn’t tell what it was. "Anyway, in the end Earth Defense surprised everybody. Not only did they embrace the idea of using dogs for recon, they encouraged people to use ’castpoints to stimulate the general development of new ideas. EDA even funded a couple of the first ’castpoint startups, right?"

The General grunted. "Like I said, you’re telling the pop version of the story, though you’ve got it down pat. Actually, idea futures are much older than Earth Defense. There are some fragments in the pre-Crash Web archives pointing to an idea futures market formed before the millennium, back in 1989."

Jessica laughed in disbelief. "But there wasn’t even a Web then."

Samuels shrugged. "It was a local market. The buyers and sellers and the ’castpoint manager all lived around Palo Alto." The General smiled. "They weren’t dummies back then, you know. After all, they had to invent the Web for us."

Jessica bit into her hamburger. They continued to talk about various things, but she was distracted. Twice in this conversation General Samuels had said things that rang warning bells in her head. There were things he wasn’t telling her, things she should know. She knew what she was going to do about it, too. Right now, she had no mental energy to spare. But after they killed this Shiva, she was going to turn her attention to the General. She would empathically learn his behavior as she had once learned Christina’s, as she was now learning MacBride’s. Once she had his mind inside hers, she would study him. And there in his mind she would discover the truth.

 

Chan Kam Yin shut off his welding torch, looking up at the undercarriage of the antique ’67 Mustang with satisfaction. He loved the old groundhuggers. They were so mechanical, so visually understandable. It made them entirely different from computers and integrated circuits—you could look at an integrated circuit through a blasted microscope and still not see anything you could understand. Even with a modern skycar the real action was in the methane fuel cell, where molecules quietly changed their arrangements and brought forth electricity with stealthy efficiency. A piston engine like the one in this baby was, however, a beast of another kind. What could be easier to understand than driving a piston with periodic detonations? He could wrap his head around it.

He ducked out from under the car and released the hydraulic lift. The Mustang settled gracefully to the ground. He looked at the polished chrome and sighed. Someday he’d have a car like this, just for show, the way the owner of this one did. And he’d have a ten-fan skycar for serious travel, the way the owner of this one did.

The Dealer washed up and flipped on his palmtop. "Honorable Lao, your Mustang is all fixed up. Wanna come down and check it out?"

Kee Sun Lao replied, "Thanks, but I’ve gotta jump out of here in about five. Can you come back next month for the maintenance check?"

The Dealer tapped his palmtop. "Already scheduled. Catch you later." The Dealer strolled out of the garage, looked up at the mansion towering over it. Well, even if he didn’t own the old car, he had to confess he enjoyed working on it. Indeed, in some ways it was better; after all, with the current arrangement he was the one who got paid, while the owner wound up doing the paying. It was almost as good as a scam. He turned and fired up his own groundcar, a clunky old (as opposed to antique) hunk of lime-green junk (could you believe that color was ever popular?). It took him only twenty minutes to get back to his apartment. Traffic, he noticed, was lighter than it had been a year ago, just as it had been lighter a year ago than the year before. Skycars and telecommuting were at last taking over in Guangdong Province. It was about time.

He grabbed some left over chow fun from the fridge and heated it in the microwave, then threaded his way around the table and the bed back to his desk. He tapped on the touchscreen, being careful not to spill lunch on it. His Webcrawler brought forth his daily dose of news and information, his logon Factoid followed by serious subject lines only. He stuffed a chopstick’s worth of chow fun into his mouth and began reading.

His Factoid of the Moment told him:

 

When a frog vomits, it first expels its stomach and then scrapes the contents out with its hands. It then swallows its stomach again.

The image quite overpowered him. He swallowed quickly, then carefully put the rest of the chow fun at the far corner of his desk.

He scanned the subject lines. One article’s topic made him blink in amazement, and he popped over Reggie Oxenford’s website. He had a subscription to Oxenford’s news stories, so there wasn’t any payment hassle.

The report "Interview with the Predictor" knocked him flat. He’d known there was good money in the Earth Defense ’castpoints, but this guy was a billionaire! Dragon’s teeth!

There just had to be a way to get in on the gravy. His work as a fence paid the bills well enough. He was even putting the occasional chunk of change into the mutuals. But he’d still never own Kee Sun Lao’s Mustang the way he was going.

Then he remembered the one time his father had bet on a cockfight when the experts were playing. His father had found out where they were putting their money and had very quietly bet the same way. Needless to say, the loser of the fight had been the "favorite," the one the amateurs had backed, and the experts—and the Dealer’s father—had made a handsome killing.

Now it was obvious to the Dealer how to scam the ’castpoints. All he had to do was figure out who the Predictor was, and then he could ride the expert forecast the same way his dear old dad had done.

Of course, figuring out how the Predictor took positions in the ’casts wouldn’t be easy. Reggie Oxenford had actually taken the simpler path when he merely found the Predictor’s true name and home. The Dealer didn’t care what the Predictor’s name was, or where he lived. He just cared about the Predictor’s anonymous identities, the ones he used to buy and sell positions on forecasts. If the Dealer could map the Predictor’s brand, or even just his behavior, to a set of identities on the ’castpoint, he could ride the forecast.

The Dealer looked out his window toward the glow of light above Hong Kong. He wasn’t exactly sure how he’d do it—after all, anonymous identities were anonymous because they had no traceable link to a brand—but he’d pull it off.

"Thanks, Dad," he murmured. This time he was partly sincere.

Coming up in Chapter 5,
  • The Dealer finds a glorious new opportunity as a horrible new incentive finds him,
  • A motorcycle gang cools down in the hot desert,
  • Jessica meets an alien intelligence,
  • Reggie gets taken by a hustler, and
  • Mercedes learns the truth about crop circles

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

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Baen Books 02/02/03